This question comes from an interview I conducted many years ago. The question about drafts reminded me. The subject was a grad student and medical researcher. His research project was canceled and he was assigned to the early stages of the Manhattan Project, which first started at the university level. He worked on the project until the end of the war.

According to the Selective Service, defense contractors were a form of deferment and thus were not drafted. That sounds like someone should be a defense contractor first, but this subject was not. His civilian assignment was non-voluntary.

This Wikipedia page gives a little bit of a clue as to a possible mechanism:

Industry realized that the Army urgently desired production of essential war materials and foodstuffs more than soldiers. (Large numbers of soldiers were not used until the invasion of Europe in summer 1944.) In 1940–43 the Army often transferred soldiers to civilian status in the Enlisted Reserve Corps in order to increase production. Those transferred would return to work in essential industry, although they could be called back to active duty if the Army needed them. Others were discharged if their civilian work was deemed essential.

Does anyone know how a lower level scientist or other support staff were brought on to the Manhattan Project specifically? Was there a way for the government to target specific kinds of skill sets, for instance, similar to the "doctor draft" instituted during Korea. And was it common during WWII to use non-voluntary "deferments" for strategically critical civilian personnel?

Note: The other possible mechanism I can think of is that his grant was cancelled from war-time cut-backs and he was offered the job on another project with the government, even though he didn't know what it was and this prevented his possible drafting. The interview is unclear. Any information is appreciated!

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    Richard Feynman's first memoir, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman, provides a unique perspective on the process of selection of, and deferment for, the scientists chosen to assist with the Manhattan Project. Feynman ended up supervising the Computers at Los Alamos, the (mostly) women who manually performed the calculations for verifying the design for the bombs, as well as acquiring a legendary reputation as Los Alamos' safecracker. Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 10:08

2 Answers 2


If you're referring specifically to deferments related to the Manhattan Project, this document is a fascinating read. It is apparently in response to arguments made in favor of giving technicians deferments based on security grounds, and instead argues that the hazards associated with the project put it in line with military service and forms a separate basis for granting deferrals. This might be a fruitful start for more research.

Also, the oral histories on the Voices of the Manhattan Project site contain several references to the draft.

If you are looking for more general information, this link contains documentation around the deferrals granted to members of the merchant marine as being essential workers, and quite a few farmers were given occupational referrals as well.

  • Yup, the selective service draft boards were actively recruiting scientists for the Manhattan Project and then giving the deferments. But before I accept the answer, do you mind putting in some content from some of these references to your answer? The link can get broken or this comment erased.
    – Razie Mah
    Commented Apr 9, 2014 at 3:09

I have a friend whose father worked on the Manhattan Project.

Scientists (and other workers) for secret projects such as the Manhattan Project were recruited by higher ups, through reputation, or word of mouth. They didn't just "volunteer," because they weren't told what these projects were, or what the needed qualifications were; only the higher ups knew that.

Once on, only a handful of the most connected and knowledgeable people knew what the Manhattan Project was about. While it was mainly voluntary, most people were induced to join by being told, "This project is important enough to the war effort to keep you out of the armed forces." Mathematicians were told which calculations to make; "technicians" were told how to manufacture uranium without being told why, etc. Basically, the different elements of the project were kept as "separate" as possible, with people being told things only on a "need to know" basis.

Most people involved probably knew something about "radioactivity," which had been discovered by Marie Curie as early as 1903. Perhaps some of them thought they were manufacturing an X-ray gun, or maybe the equivalent of World War I's poison gas, shot out of special cannon. Practically no one could conceive of putting all that nuclear power into a handful of bombs capable of destroying a whole city.

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