National Service: The Enduring Panacea

March 22, 1990 • Policy Analysis No. 130

National service may be but a gleam in the eyes of a handful of philosophers and politicians in America, but it is a widely used tool in many other nations, and it is to those countries that many advocates of national service look for inspiration:

International comparisons also fire some American imaginations. Millions of young people serve social needs in China as a routine part of growing up, many [are] commanded to leave the crowded cities and to assist in the countryside. Castro fought illiteracy and mosquitoes in Cuba with units of youth. Interesting combinations of education, work, and service to society are a part of the experience of youth in Israel, Jamaica, Nigeria, Tanzania, and other nations. The civic spirit being imbued in youth elsewhere in the world leaves some Americans wondering and worrying about Saturday‐​night‐​fever, unemployment, the new narcissism, and other afflictions of American youth.(1)

Indeed, the People’s Republic of China has traditionally been the model of choice. A decade ago two members of a Potomac Institute study committee traveled to China and returned, according to the institute’s final report, “impressed and challenged by the extraordinary mobilization of the talent of young people possible under authoritarian, postrevolutionary conditions.”(2) Ironically, shortly thereafter the Chinese government dismantled its system of national service as part of its move away from the chaos of Mao Zedong’s bloody cultural revolution. The consequent lack of a system of indoctrination probably contributed to the spread of “bourgeois liberal” ideas and the pro‐​democracy demonstrations last year. The new hard‐​line leadership recently announced the return of national service: students will have to spend up to a year in military camps before entering the university, and once they graduate they will have to work one to two years in factories or villages before furthering their studies. The city of Beijing has separately decided to require high school and college students to work part‐​time in factories in order to bring them in contact with the thinking of the “masses.”(3)

Though circumstances in the United States are obviously different from those in China, a number of American philosophers and policymakers have articulated goals similar to those advanced by China’s leaders. A century ago Edward Bellamy, in his novel Looking Backward, advocated creating an “industrial army” based on the conscription of young men and women. Hoover Institution senior fellow Martin Anderson calls Bellamy’s work, which essentially advocated the creation of a totalitarian military‐​industrial dictatorship, “arguably the most evil book ever written by an American.”(4) Yet Bellamy continues to influence the debate, for, according to sociologist Charles Moskos, Looking Backward “not only first introduced the concept of civilian service by youth, but … presented a military analogy to describe the organization of civilian service, a trademark of much subsequent national‐​service thought.”(5)

In 1910 William James picked up Bellamy’s theme, arguing that “the martial virtues, although originally gained by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods.” His means of instilling those values in peacetime was the “blood tax” of national service: “To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clothes‐​washing, and window‐​washing, to road‐​building and tunnel‐​making, to foundries and stoke‐​holes, and to frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas.” After serving, James argued, participants “would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.” Such was James’s “moral equivalent of war.”(6)

A few years later Randolph Bourne, a radical who opposed American involvement in World War I, called for creation of an “army of youth” in the New Republic. He proposed that men and women between the ages of 16 and 20 be required to spend two years in some form of public service.(7) There was a ground swell of support for universal military training after World War II, and the Vietnam War gave rise to several national service schemes. In 1967, for instance, anthropologist Margaret Mead argued that universal service “would make it possible to assay the defects and the potentialities of every young American on the threshold of adulthood.” The experience would have some unique impacts on women, she observed, since it “would replace for girls, even more than for boys, marriage as the route away from the parental home.”(8)

The desire of Bellamy, James, Bourne, Mead, and many others to make the young “serve” has taken various forms in America. The New Deal spawned massive public works programs such as the Civilian Conservation Corps. In 1940 Congress instituted the first peacetime draft, which lasted, with one brief interruption, until 1973. Proposals for universal military training abounded in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Starting in the 1960s Congress created a variety of small, volunteer programs, such as the Peace Corps and ACTION. During the Vietnam era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Donald Eberly, executive director of the National Service Secretariat, and others proposed appending civilian service to military conscription. In the late 1970s Rep. Pete McCloskey (R‐​Calif.) devoted much time and energy to pushing a national service program. In 1979 the Potomac Institute published Youth and the Needs of the Nation, which offered a service plan intended to end “the present depression of the national spirit.”(9) Voices from disparate parts of the political spectrum sounded a similar call in the 1980s. The Wall Street Journal carried an editorial in favor of mandatory service in 1981 that cited such service as “a means for acculturation, acquainting young people with their fellow Americans of all different races, creeds and economic backgrounds.”(10) Four years later the left‐​wing magazine Mother Jones ran an article calling national service “a social and racial equalizer.”(11)

Legislators of both parties have also been pushing for national service. In 1985 Sen. Gary Hart (D‐​Colo.) and Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) introduced legislation to create a commission to study the idea. Plans to promote civic service received scattered attention during the 1988 campaign. The Democratic Leadership Council, made up of generally hawkish liberal legislators in the Scoop Jackson mold, proposed an elaborate voluntary plan with great fanfare. Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis backed the concept of national service–and the DLC’s specific proposal after the election–while candidate George Bush advocated his own Youth Engaged in Service (YES) initiative. National service might have become a serious issue in the campaign had not the candidacy of Hart, a private advocate of forced service who publicly pushed a voluntary program, collapsed so ignominiously.

One of the first bills introduced when the new Congress convened in January 1989 was the DLC scheme, and there are now three general approaches–though in these “kinder, gentler” times they are all voluntary–reflected in a dozen different pieces of legislation circulating in the nation’s capital. The first and least ambitious approach is represented most prominently by the Bush YES plan, which would create a foundation to pass out $25 million in federal funds annually to local service groups. The second approach, which follows the National Guard model and is being advanced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D‐​Md.), would give $3,000 (to be used to pay tuition or to purchase a home) to those, old and young alike, who spent two weekends a month and two weeks in the summer doing good deeds.

The third and most serious national service initiative comes from DLC members such as Senators Charles S. Robb (D‐​Va.) and Sam Nunn (D‐​Ga.) and Rep. David McCurdy (D‐​Okla.). They would create what they call the Citizens Corps and condition federal educational benefits on one or two years of participation in civilian projects or the military. With the president and a host of influential Democratic legislators pushing for some kind of national service–Majority Leader George Mitchell has made passage of such legislation one of his priorities, predicting in late January that “we will this year eract national service legislation”(12) there is a good chance that Congress will enact something.

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