Three soldiers stand in the foreground of a green, grassy field. A helicopter looms in the background, two soldiers beside it, pink aerosol spray emanating just beyond.

Tamara K. Nopper

On August 23, 1966, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara delivered a speech at the annual convention of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) that made national headlines and “apparently caught the Pentagon by surprise.”

The address unveiled Project 100,000, a military manpower initiative targeting men who did not qualify for the armed services. Named after its goal of annually conscripting 100,000, the program sought to tap into the pool of the hundreds of thousands of men who, each year, failed the military entrance exam and expose them to “intensive instruction in military skills and practical on-the-job training.” Noting that many ineligible to serve in the military “are part of America’s subterranean poor,” McNamara presented Project 100,000 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty. “Poverty in America affects our national security by its appalling waste of talent,” he warned. As McNamara declared to the VFW, Project 100,000 would “salvage tens of thousands of these men, each year, first for productive military careers and later for productive roles in society.” 

In operation for five years, Project 100,000 is today widely considered a failure in terms of delivering on its estimation of social mobility for the almost 400,000 men conscripted, 40 percent of whom were African American. While important to raise, the focus on unfulfilled promises is only part of the story as Project 100,000 gained traction by posing military enlistment as a form of crime control via social uplift and as a disciplinary tactic against Black rebellions. As our current political moment involves renewed protest and rebellions, as well as calls for defunding the police and abolition, considering how military service is deployed as a liberal form of policing may be instructive for contemplating the totality of state repression against political insurgency. An exploration of Project 100,000 can also help us better understand the carceral dimensions of the social welfare state and how the military may be depicted as a benign institution rather than as part of the apparatus of policing and social control. 

The work of Project 100,000

In an interview, comedian and actor Charlie Murphy recalled his time in the military: 

I remember, when I just about to get out of the navy, I saw a mushroom cloud over Beirut. That was when they killed 247 US marines in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombings. That’s when it all came together for me and I thought, “This is not a high school fraternity.” You’re part of a killing machine, man. You thought I was going to tell you a joke or something, right?

Along with the lack of comic relief, Murphy’s commentary is notable for his description of military service: “You’re part of a killing machine, man.” Rarely in public discourse is the work of the military stripped down to its essence. 

In the case of Project 100,000, the military was depicted as an institution of social uplift rather than as one of policing. McNamara, as Hamilton Gregory emphasizes, “framed the plan as a compassionate rescue mission. Disadvantaged youths—many from urban slums and rural backwaters—would, he said, be lifted out of poverty and ignorance.”

When Project 100,000 officially launched on October 1, 1966, “its leading advocate” had by then departed the White House to run for New York City Council President. Nevertheless, sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan left his imprint.

story in the New York Times, published about a month before McNamara’s speech to the VFW, quotes Moynihan saying, “Service in the military is, for almost everyone who serves, a maturing and enlightening experience…and it is an especially significant experience for the poor, particularly the Negro poor. In fact, for the young Negro boy from the slums, military service is an escape hatch out of the ghetto into the main current of American life…”

A portrait of Daniel Patrick Moynihan depicts him seated comfortably in a large leather chair, in an ornately decorated sitting room replete with portraits and a bust of white men.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1977, about ten years after he authored “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

Moynihan championed military service for Black men in “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” Penned as an internal document by Moynihan when Assistant Secretary of Labor, what came to be known as “The Moynihan Report” reflected the author’s career-long preoccupation with women-headed households and absent husbands/fathers. 

Military service as social uplift

Moynihan’s homophobic and heteronormative fixation on absent patriarchs was not limited to Black families. He acknowledged that his father leaving influenced his sociological focus and was critical of family structures, regardless of race, that he considered disorganized. As he warned, there is a correlation between family structure and crime: “a community that allows large numbers of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any set of rational expectations about the future––that community asks for and gets chaos. Crime, violence, unrest, disorder…are not only to be expected, they are very near to inevitable. And they are richly deserved.” 

Crime is major topic in “The Negro Family.” Although Moynihan acknowledged that Black people are “arraigned much more casually than are whites,” he nevertheless ignored the aggressive forms of policing to which Black people are subjected and instead concluded that a “stable home” is a “crucial factor in countering the effects of racism upon Negro personality.” For Moynihan, other minority groups, such as Chinese, Japanese, and Jewish people, exhibited different sociological patterns than African Americans––despite also experiencing discrimination and segregation––because of a “singularly stable, cohesive and enlightened family life.”

As Patricia Hill Collins critiques, “The Negro Family”claimed that “individual attitudes and values are thought to be the primary determinants of group mobility” and posited “higher rates of criminal activity, divorce, illegitimacy, and low-income, female-headed households to crumbling African-American family values.” About four decades after the release of “The Negro Family,” in response to an interviewer’s comment that it was regarded by some as “anti-black or whatever,” Moynihan responded, “Yeah. Yeah. Mm-hm. Mm-hm” The sociologist was more vocal about how “The Negro Family” related to his concern regarding family structure and unemployment rates and public assistance use. 

Moynihan’s focus on unemployment led to his advocating for military service as an anti-poverty measure. He was influenced by a report, issued in the early 1960s by the President’s Taskforce on Manpower Conservation, of which McNamara was a part. The report found that almost half of the voluntary recruits failed either the health or education exams and correlated rejection from the military with teenage unemployment. 

In chapter IV of “The Negro Family,” Moynihan touted the socioeconomic benefits of military service. While acknowledging, “the personal sacrifice is inestimable,” he declared,

on balance service in the Armed Forces over the past quarter-century has worked greatly to the advantage of those involved. The training and experience of military duty itself is unique, the advantages that have generally followed in the form of the G.I. Bill, mortgage guarantees, Federal life insurance, Civil Service preference, veterans hospitals, and veterans pensions are singular, to say the least.

Along with these economic “advantages,” Moynihan emphasized “another special quality about military service for Negro men,” one that reflected his fixation on patriarchs as socializing figures for reducing so-called deviancy among Black children:

it is an utterly masculine world. Given the strains of the 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 of unquestioned authority, where discipline, if harsh, is nonetheless orderly and predictable, and where rewards, if limited, are granted on the basis of performance.

Such anti-Black rhetoric scaffolded how Moynihan, as well as McNamara and Johnson, posed greater access to the military as a gesture of civil rights while sending overseas more Black people to kill and be killed. “Not only would the program provide soldiers to produce the body counts on which the Vietnam War focused, it would also temporarily eliminate pressure on the administration to show its support for civil rights.” The anti-Blackness of the sociological commentary coming from the White House was compatible enough with the racism of many who opposed changing the military’s entrance requirements, including southerners who didn’t want the military to become “too Black.” As Johnson revealed to McNamara in a confidential meeting, he got Senator Richard Russell on board by suggesting access to the military would decrease the number of Black people in Georgia, including in Russell’s hometown of Winder:

Looks to me like what it would do for Russell is move all these Nigra boys that are now rejects and sent back on his community, to move them [into the army], clean them up, prepare them to do something, and send them into Detroit…“keep him from eating off the old man’s relief check…And he’s not going to want to go back to Winder after he’s had this taste of life.

Military service as liberal policing

Moynihan wrote “The Negro Family” “after reflecting on the riots occurring in the summer of 1964.” Circulated within the White House, the report was shared with journalists in the wake of the 1965 Watts rebellion as a response to how the Johnson administration would deal with what some saw as an unexpected turn of events.

As Elizabeth Hinton documents, “The Negro Family” and the federal government’s response to urban rebellions informed the “merger of antipoverty programs with anticrime programs that laid the groundwork for contemporary mass in­carceration.” Shifting the War on Crime’s origins to the Johnson administration rather than­­––as commonly told––the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, Hinton’s timeline puts into sharper focus how liberal rhetoric of social uplift through military service is within the logic of policing. The War on Crime involved racistly dealing with Black people as “problems” and in turn, identifying what caused poverty among African Americans, with the answer partly provided by Moynihan. Hinton writes, “Johnson and many other liberals recognized poverty as the root cause of crime, but following Daniel Moynihan’s hugely influential 1965 report, ‘The Negro Family,’ they also viewed community behavior and not structural exclusion as the cause of that poverty.” 

Along with informing the War on Crime’s intersection with the War on Poverty, backlash against Black rebellions, as Kimberley L. Phillips Boehm describes, impacted the political debate regarding military conscription:

The coupling of Johnson’s antipoverty policies with the military’s efforts to increase available volunteer combat troops occurred at an ebb in whites’ support for civil rights. White liberals seemed both “preoccupied by Vietnam” and “disturbed by Negro riots.” Many politicians also feared a white “backlash” from conservative voters, and more moderate whites reportedly “cooled” on civil rights. 

In 1970, McNamara responded to a request for more information about Project 100,000 by supplying an extract of a chapter from his book The Essence of Security. According to his account, Project 100,000 was developed to address those suffering in “squalid ghettos of their external environment that debilitated them” who are also afflicted with “an internal and more destructive ghetto of personal disillusionment and despair: a ghetto of the spirit.” McNamara had used this language elsewhere, in some cases fusing his discussion of “a ghetto of the spirit” with Black poverty. While McNamara’s chapter extract rarely mentioned Black people, the specter of Black rebellions was referenced:

Poverty abroad leads to unrest, to internal upheaval, to violence and to the escalation of extremism, and it does the same within our own borders…since the end of World War II the governors of our states have had to call out military forces, combat-equipped National Guard troops, more than a hundred times to put down disorders that could not be controlled by the police…poverty-induced tensions that erupt into irrational violence. 

The depiction of Black rebellions as a national security threat was used to garner more support for Project 100,000, which, as Phillips Boehm shows, was touted by the Johnson administration as “both an antipoverty program and an antiriot policy, one that removed potential rioters from the streets and then sent them to Vietnam.” 

Military service and the carceral state

Decades after Project 100,000 shut down, James Q. Wilson of broken windows notoriety lamented that “efforts to rehabilitate large numbers of delinquents or criminals have met with more failures than successes.” For Wilson, such failed efforts include “two recent occasions in which the military had an opportunity to test whether its intensive training and strict discipline could improve the prospects of difficult boys.” One of these “occasions” is Project 100,000. 

While deeming Project 100,000 a failure, Wilson’s commentary illustrates how military service can be promoted as a form of liberal policing. In the case of Project 100,000, military conscription was offered as a law and order response to Black rebellions as well as a civil rights alternative to criminalization and a “way out” of what sociologists projected would presumably be a life of crime. Despite opposition to the military becoming “too Black” or to actual civil rights, some critics were brought on board by anti-Black discourses among those championing Project 100,000 as part of the War on Poverty. Rhetoric reinforcing racist views of Black pathology helped depict the military as a benign institution committed to social uplift rather than as part of the apparatus of policing and social control.

The military was similarly depicted after a more recent uprising. In the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles Rebellion, the Pentagon proposed expanding the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC); as a program manager for JROTC remarked, “There was a feeling that American youth were generally at risk, and the services had a premier program dealing with youth.” The JROTC budget increased exponentially from around $90 million in 1992 to $150 million in 1995. 

Ultimately, projects that funnel people into the military as a gesture of social uplift sanitize the work of the military (again, as Murphy said, “You’re part of a killing machine, man.”). They also obscure how crime is socially and politically constructed as well as how the military is part of the apparatus of policing and social control, here in the United States and throughout the world. The calling in of the military­­, such as the National Guard, to quell rebellions in the United States is visible and might be publicly condemned by a decent number of people. As the racial history of Project 100,000 shows, there are other, more insidious ways the military operates as part of the structure of policing––supported by liberal discourses depicting the military as an alternative to the carceral state rather than as part of it.


Tamara K. Nopper is a sociologist whose research focuses on the racial and gender wealth gap, financialization, criminalization, punishment, and the social impact of technology, with a particular interest in alternative data and credit scoring. Her scholarship and writing have appeared in numerous academic publications as well as in The New InquiryJacobin, Truthout, and Verso Books Blog