When The Vietnam War Came To 'Animal House'

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Writer Denis O’Neill was captain of the Dartmouth College hockey team when the U.S. held a lottery to determine who would fight in Vietnam. (
Writer Denis O’Neill was captain of the Dartmouth College hockey team when the U.S. held a lottery to determine who would fight in Vietnam. (

Draft-age young men were glued to the TV or the radio on December 1, 1969, where a lottery was taking place to determine who would go fight in Vietnam.

Writer Denis O'Neill was at Dartmouth College and on the ice playing hockey against Norwich Military Academy. He was the team captain but he says he couldn't pay attention to the score because the more meaningful numbers were the lottery numbers his fraternity friends were shouting out as they listened to the radio.

O'Neill was belonged of those Dartmouth frats that became a model for the film "Animal House." He remembers the reactions of that day, as he and his friends found out if they would be going to war when they graduated.

In an irony, O'Neill says the experience also made them understand that they had been privileged — for many young Americans, they had enjoyed deferment from the war because they were in college, an option that was not open to many in their generation.

O'Neill's new book is "Whiplash: When the Vietnam War Rolled a Hand Grenade Into the Animal House." He joins Here & Now's Robin Young.

Do you remember watching the draft lottery? Tell us on Facebook or in the comments.

Interview Highlights: Denis R. O'Neill

On the mood on Dartmouth's campus

“A lot of foreboding, needless to say, because Dartmouth had been pretty much a road trip culture, a lot of Animal House shenanigans mixed in with the studies. But at this point, all of a sudden, for seniors, you know, after three years of protective custody in Hanover, New Hampshire, you’re looking at the very real possibility of going to Vietnam — getting called up if you drew a low draft number. So there was a lot of anxiety that year for those of us who would graduate in June — the first class ever to graduate with a diploma and a draft number.”

On how people remember December 1, 1969

“I think everybody my age remembers exactly where they were, and I can only speak from the college experience, and every fraternity at Dartmouth went into a bunker mode. Televisions were dragged up into the living rooms and it was broadcast on television, and it was recorded on radio as well. Dartmouth radio DCR was broadcasting it, and everybody set up basically a mock draft and the names of the seniors were put up on billboards. As the numbers were pulled out, there would be a sigh of relief or a moan or groan ... After December 1st at Dartmouth, and really on any other campus in America, it became a tale of two campuses. If you drew the low number, you were either going to war or you had to figure out how to get out of the war. And if you drew the high number, you were home free, so it really split, really divided the campuses.”

On what men did to get out of the draft

“There was a whole range. Canada came in the radar for the first time. Conscientious objector status, we learned, was hard to get. You had to have a sort of history of religious belief. At Dartmouth, the fraternities became bunkers of draft evasion, and one boy started eating mac and cheese. He would go down to the big box store and get like a 50 pound chunk of cheddar and massive bags of noodles and he just started eating. He put on 50 pounds. He had an idea that if he could eat enough, he would get out for obesity, which he did. The boy who put the super glue on his boots ended up with a pretty good mushroom pass when he opened up those boots at Manchester ... Whether it was through National Guard offerings or whether it was finding a dentist who would put braces on your teeth, kids were figuring out ways to get out.”


This segment aired on November 26, 2013.


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