The belief that being the only child (or the only male child) in a family exempts one from compulsory military service is a widespread but erroneous belief, a misunderstanding of Selective Service rules enacted after World War II:
As an only son, I have heard a few times before that there is an “only son clause” law with the military. Meaning that since I am an only son, I cannot be drafted for war. Is this true?
Popular fact-based World War II films such as The Fighting Sullivans and Saving Private Ryan have dramatized cases where several brothers from the same family were all killed in action. The Fighting Sullivans recounted the true story of the Sullivan brothers, all five of whom died when the ship to which they were assigned, the USS Juneau, was sunk by a Japanese torpedo during the Battle of Guadalcanal on
In 1948, in order to safeguard the only remaining sons of families that had lost other children during World War II, the United States passed a law that exempted sole surviving sons from the draft. This exemption applied only when one or more children (sons or daughters) from the family had already died or been killed during military service, not when a family simply had a sole living male child (because they only ever had one son, or because the others had died from causes unrelated to military service).
In 1964 this law was modified to also extend the exemption to sons who were the only surviving male offspring of fathers who had died as a result of military service, and at the same time the exemption was altered to apply only to peacetime drafts. This law was modified again in 1971 to extend the exemption to any son (not necessarily the only surviving son) whose father or brother or sister had died in military service, and a later provision added mothers to this list.
So, to clear up the misunderstandings, note that:
- You are not exempt from military service simply because you are an only child or an only son. You are exempt only if one of your siblings or parents died as a result of military service.
- You do not have to be a sole remaining son to meet this requirement — the exemption applies to all remaining sons from qualified families.
- This exemption is not in effect during wartime.
Or as the Selective Service now notes on their web site:
Contrary to popular belief “only sons,” “the last son to carry the family name,” and “sole surviving sons” must still register with the Selective Service System and they can be drafted.
IF A DRAFT WERE HELD TODAY
These men may be entitled to a deferment during a military draft if there is a military death in the immediate family.
The Military Selective Service Act does have a provision for surviving sons. This provides that where a family member has died as a result of military service, the remaining family members should be protected insofar as possible. If a draft resumes during a war or national emergency not declared by Congress (Vietnam was such a war), a man (along with any of his living brothers) who had another brother, a sister, a father, or a mother killed or missing in action while serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, will not be drafted. There must be a military service-related death of an immediate family member for a man to receive this deferment. Simply being an “only” son in a family does not suffice.
The surviving son deferment does not apply if the war or national emergency is Congressionally declared.
Note that the Selective Service’s wording refers to “deferments,” which implies not an absolute exemption from military service, but inclusion in a “will be called upon only if necessary” status.
Although all American men are now required to register with the Selective Service upon turning 18, the U.S. does not currently have a peacetime draft, having converted to an all-volunteer military in 1973. Whether a draft held while U.S. forces were engaged in military action but war had not officially been declared would be considered a “peacetime” draft or a “wartime” draft is debatable. Our query to the Selective Service on this point brought only the circular answer that since no draft is in effect at this time, we are considered to be at peace.