In 1967, Lyndon Johnson’s Department of Labor issued the “Manpower report of the president”, in keeping with the requirements of the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962 (76 Stat. 23) signed into law by John Kennedy for “making possible the training of the hundreds of thousands of workers who are denied employment because they do not possess the skills required by our constantly changing economy”.

Heading 4 of the introduction to Johnson’s report read, “We Must Make Military Service a Path to Productive Careers”, and underneath that announced,

… the Secretary of Defense has launced ‘Project 100,000’ to accept and train thousands of young men who were previously rejected as unfit for military service. Under this program, 40,000 young men are joining the Armed Forces this year; 100,000 will join next year. All will receive specialized training to help them become good soldiers—and later, productive citizens.1

The men had been “previously rejected as unfit” because they failed the Armed Forces Qualification Test, falling into the fourth of five rating categories. Categories I-III were eligible for military service and Category V was not, but in the considered opinion of the Great Society’s architects, Category IV could be saved—indeed, needed saving. Men falling into Category IV were overwhelmingly poor and from broken homes, half of them with IQs below 85.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then assistant secretary of labor for policy planning, worried that these men suffered “de facto job discrimination” because they could not get into the military, which he saw it as part and parcel of the problems plaguing black America he was also considering.

Given the strains of disorganized and matrifocal family life in which so many Negro youth come of age, the armed forces are a dramatic and desperately needed change; a world away from women, a world run by strong men and unquestioned authority.

Beginning in 1964, the military dipped into Category IV, taking high-school graduates who scored in the top half of the category and then going further, taking high school graduates who scored anywhere in Category IV but could pass a further set of tests. Within two years, the military had dropped its rejection rate from 50% to 34%.

It was, labor secretary Willard Wirtz claimed, “the most important human salvage program in the history of our country”. Defense secretary Robert McNamara touted the advantages to the nation’s “subterranean poor” by bringing them to the “world’s largest educator of skilled men”.

But in 1966, the increased need of men for the army had so grown that even these efforts did not suffice: hence Project 100,000, to rescue as many men from Category IV per year for the military.

It is worth noting here that African Americans seemed largely to believe the administration’s promises. Forty percent of blacks enlisting in 1965 said they were doing it for “self-advancement”, which was more than twice the proportion of whites who made this claim. And Project 100,000’s recruits were 41% black, as against 12% military-wide.

In the event the program did not work well for the advancement of its members. They were supposed to get extra remedial education; only 6% did. But 40% were trained for combat, as against 25% of overall enlisted men. Even if they survived they were three times as likely to go AWOL during basic training as the average soldier, twice as likely to receive an early discharge, and two and a half times as likely to be court-martialed.

In 1970, troop requirements began falling and Project 100,000 numbers with them; the program stopped in 1972.

1Manpower report of the President and a report on manpower requirements, resources, utilization, and training by the United States Department of Labor, transmitted to the Congress April 1967, Serial Set Vol. No. 12789, Session Vol. No.25, 90th Congress, 1st Session, H.Doc. 116, pp. XVII-XVIII.

Other information from Christian Appy, Working-class War and Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss, Chance and Circumstance: The Draft, the War, and the Vietnam Generation (New York: Knopf, 1978).