Curtis Tarr, 88; led draft lottery during Vietnam War

In 1972, Curtis Tarr spun a drum holding military assignments for men born in 1953.
Charles W. Harrity/Associated Press
In 1972, Curtis Tarr spun a drum holding military assignments for men born in 1953.

MILWAUKEE — Curtis Tarr, the former head of the Selective Service System who oversaw the lottery for the draft during the Vietnam War, has died.

Mr. Tarr died of pneumonia June 21 at his home in Walnut Creek, Calif., his daughter, Pam, said Wednesday. He was 88.

President Nixon appointed him to direct the Selective Service System in 1970. The nation had held its first lottery drawing for the draft in December 1969, and Mr. Tarr was responsible for implementing the changes, said Dick Flahavan, spokesman for the Selective Service. Before the lottery, local draft boards had control over who was called.


‘‘The lottery system took the local personalities out of the system,’’ Flahavan said, adding that it was ‘‘much fairer, much more objective, more efficient.’’

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Each day of the year was assigned a randomly drawn number from 1 to 365. So, for example, May 1 might be assigned No. 100, and men with May 1 birthdays would be called after those with birthdays assigned the numbers one to 99.

‘‘It obviously was a big deal for young men who were of the appropriate age,’’ Flahavan said. ‘‘And lotteries and birthdates meant a lot in those days and were tracked on all the campuses and so on.’’

The lottery was introduced as the war was winding down. In 1970, the draft called men with numbers through 195. The next year, it called up to 125, and by 1972, the military’s needs were being satisfied with volunteers, he said.

Mr. Tarr led the Selective Service until May 1972 and then served a year as undersecretary of state for security assistance, a position that gave him responsibility for military programs with other nations. He left government service in 1973 and went on to work for Deere & Co., Cornell University, and Intermet Corp., in a variety of management roles.


But Pam Tarr said there’s no question that her father will be remembered for the lottery. People still show draft cards with her father’s signature.

‘‘I don’t think he would say it was one of his great achievements, it was one of his greatest responsibilities,’’ she said. ‘‘He was a very principled man, and in every position he had, he wanted to do what was right.’’

Mr. Tarr also had pushed to eliminate college deferments for the draft, believing they unfairly discriminated against the poor and those who were uneducated, she said. But Congress wouldn’t approve that.

Mr. Tarr did reduce the number of conscientious objectors by changing the guidelines for who would qualify. He felt that there were many who weren’t objecting on religious grounds but were simply opposed to the war, Pam Tarr said.

‘‘He felt there were many people who were not legitimately, religious objectors,’’ his daughter said, noting the number of conscientious objectors rose dramatically during the unpopular war.


Born in Stockton, Calif., he served with the Army in Europe during World War II. After leaving the military, he earned his bachelor’s degree at Stanford University, a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard University, and his doctorate at Stanford.

His dissertation focused on the armed services.

Mr. Tarr leaves his wife, Mary Katherine Tarr, and another daughter, Cynthia Tarr, of Sonoma, Calif. His first wife, Elizabeth Tarr, died in September. They divorced in 1977.