• U.S.

The Campaign: The Long Shadow Of Vietnam

12 minute read
Lance Morrow

Bill Clinton in those days slept on a mattress on the floor of his bedroom at 46 Leckford Road in North Oxford, England. He ate bad Indian and Chinese food — curry, dim sum — from restaurants on the corner.

It was a cold, gloomy late November in 1969. Clinton, a Rhodes scholar from Hot Springs, Ark., fed sixpence and shillings into the meter of the electric fire in order to warm himself. He sat at a rickety table lighted by a gooseneck lamp and worked on a letter about Vietnam, moral principles and the draft.

Sometimes, to clear his head, Clinton put on an old Georgetown University sweatsuit and went for a run on the Port Meadow about half a mile away. His hair was shaggy. He wore a full beard. He was an American male, 23 years old, and like millions of other young American males, he was trying to figure out what to do about going to the war.

His housemate Frank Aller, another Rhodes scholar, from Spokane, Wash., had come to a decision. He would resist the draft. He would become a fugitive from his own country. Clinton and Aller talked endlessly about the choices that were closing in on them. The conversations were urgent and anguished — and by no means theoretical. Toward the end of 1969, the number of Americans killed in Vietnam climbed past 40,000.

The letter that Clinton composed in a chilly room at the end of 1969 was addressed to Colonel Eugene Holmes, the director of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas. In three typewritten pages, Clinton explained why he did not enroll in the university’s ROTC program as he had previously agreed to do. Getting into ROTC at the university’s law school would have given Clinton a four-year draft deferment, but he told Colonel Holmes that he had decided to take his chances with the draft.

The letter was a search of conscience and also a surprising exercise of precocious political calculation. Clinton said that he opposed the draft and the war and that he was “in great sympathy with those who are not willing to fight, kill and maybe die for their country . . . right or wrong.” But he would not resist the draft. He would “accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system.”

It seemed startling that Clinton at the age of 23, in the midst of the turmoil of Vietnam, would think so clearly about his long-term trajectory. In relation to other college graduates of the time, the letter placed Clinton about where he stands now in the political spectrum — in the role of an anguished moderate.

Clinton was never called for the draft. His stated intention to enter an ROTC program had already given him two months of exemption. The Nixon Administration cut back on the draft. When the new draft lottery system began on Dec. 1, Clinton drew a very high number (311), and so was never summoned.

Frank Aller, the housemate who resisted the draft, would become a casualty nonetheless. After living for a time as a fugitive in England, he returned home to try to sort out his life. Not long afterward, he shot himself.

Vietnam, Michael Herr wrote in Dispatches, “was what we had instead of , happy childhoods.” The war, a generation’s defining event, still operates with a surprising power upon the American psyche. The war has a way of making Back to the Future loops, crashing into the American consciousness after long absence or quiescence, chafing the conscience, reviving bad memories, starting the old arguments again. Last week Clinton’s 23-year-old letter came firing out of the past and landed in the middle of the New Hampshire primary campaign.

The document, given to ABC News by Colonel Clinton Jones, a retired ROTC recruiter, and then released to the press by the candidate, raised questions:

— Did Bill Clinton manipulate the ROTC program and his draft exemptions in order to dance out of harm’s way? And if he did, would American voters blame him for behaving as millions of other young men of the Vietnam era had done, keeping themselves out of the war if they could honorably do so?

— Did Clinton’s real problem in the evaluation of voters lie elsewhere — not in any questions about his behavior in 1969 but in the answers he gave in 1992? Was he evasive, less than candid, about the exemptions and his motives? Did he leave the impression of being an opportunist who trimmed the truth?

— Or was a prosecutorial press stirring up artificial controversy about something relatively unimportant that happened years ago when Clinton was young? Were the political media roaring along heedlessly aboard a sort of Heisenberg Express, distorting the process even as they observed it? Says Berkeley sociologist Todd Gitlin: “This is largely a creation of the press. There’s not any evidence that people are walking around demanding to know whether somebody did his service.”

— And most deeply: Has the statute of emotional limitations run out on Vietnam? Does the war still reawaken the old blood feud in the Vietnam generation — between those who protested and those who served? Or have the wounds of that bitter civil war in America now healed?

Vietnam has a vivid place in the history of American politics, culture and metaphysics. And of mass American psychiatry, perhaps. Vietnam was the Big Bang that set loose, it seemed, mysterious new American energies of overstimulation and creativity and excess. To those who lived through the era, Clinton’s letter, dated Dec. 3, 1969, might bring back an entire world. History in that narrow slice of time was densely, fiercely compacted. Humanity made especially wild swoops, veering between brilliance and atrocity, pushing limits.

The Apollo 12 astronauts returned from the moon. Joan Baez had a baby. Jack Nicholson appeared as a charmingly drunken lawyer in Easy Rider and said, “This used to be a hell of a good country. I can’t understand what’s gone wrong with it.” Old Joseph P. Kennedy died. The Chicago police raided Black Panther headquarters and killed Fred Hampton. At the end of November, Lieut. William Calley was arrested and charged with responsibility for the My Lai massacre of 567 Vietnamese peasants, which had occurred 20 months earlier. A lot of Americans refused to believe that it had happened, and even suspected that reporting the killings was a kind of antiwar trick. The Los Angeles police arrested Charles Manson and three of his followers and charged them with the Sharon Tate murders.

On Nov. 15, 250,000 protesters marched from the Capitol up Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument, demanding that President Nixon end the war. They carried coffins printed with the names of the war dead. Hundreds of paratroopers with loaded rifles stood on alert inside the Justice Department and the Pentagon. The White House was surrounded by Washington city buses parked bumper to bumper as a barricade.

Among the protesters were Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow Coretta King, and Arlo Guthrie and Leonard Bernstein and Peter, Paul and Mary, and Democratic Senator George McGovern, who would run against Nixon in 1972, and Eugene McCarthy, who got into the New Hampshire primary in 1968 against Lyndon Johnson and helped force him to withdraw from the presidential race. McCarthy, now 75, has entered the race this year as well: he has come back like another echo.

The Administration turned loose Vice President Spiro Agnew to lead the charge of Middle Americans, the Silent Majority, and speak against the war protesters. The truculent young speechwriter putting the words in Agnew’s mouth was Pat Buchanan. He had Agnew delivering a sort of W.C. Fields line about “an effete corps of impudent snobs.” Now candidate Buchanan prepares the rhetoric for himself.

So the Clinton letter had a certain amount of turbulent historical context. If the letter had any importance, it needed to be judged in terms of the agitated time in which Clinton wrote it.

There was some evidence in New Hampshire that the press was considerably more fascinated by Clinton’s behavior in 1969 than the voters were. The morning after Clinton appeared on ABC’s Nightline to talk about his Vietnam draft status, a morning when the letter was front-page news across New Hampshire, Clinton took five questions from an audience in Concord. The topics were college scholarships, day care, public education, Japan bashing and the likelihood of a tax increase.

Many of the young men who served in Vietnam did so with honor and bravery. And some with distinction. Some went to the war unreeling John Wayne movies in their head and then changed their mind. They found that the reality was viciously different from their fantasies. But human nature is not rescinded, and most young American men of draft age did not want to go to Southeast Asia to be shot at, so they did what they could — honorably or less than honorably — to avoid it.

“Virtually every young man faced the war dilemma,” says Berkeley’s Gitlin, who wrote a superb history, The Sixties. “It was not self-evident what was the right thing to do. For some it was to leave the country; for others, to be a conscientious objector, or seek an exemption by having children or working in some protected occupation, or by staying in school.” For some, of course, the right thing to do was to go to Vietnam and serve.

But a normal 23-year-old does not wish to die. And every draft-age American in 1969 knew that the U.S. had given up any intention or hope of winning the war in Vietnam. To go there to fight at that late stage meant joining a demoralized army that was sometimes fragging its officers, smoking dope and avoiding enemy contact where possible. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger had configured the war to end, they hoped, in “peace with honor,” or anyway to have the battle “Vietnamized,” the allied cause assumed by South Vietnamese forces. For American boys in 1969, the war did not look like an inspiring cause.

Americans may have adopted a sort of mellow realism about Vietnam. Among those men who remember the era and once were vulnerable to the draft, Clinton’s answers have occasionally sounded like trimming — although that impression could also be made by someone having trouble remembering exact details of something that happened many years ago. The letter that he wrote in 1969 had hard clarity: a ring of truth and pain of conscience. In this campaign, the authenticity has sometimes been smudged by political calculation.

That may be understandable. The press has kept probing at the Clinton campaign on the tabloid controversies, on the matter of his relationship with Gennifer Flowers and on the long-ago playlet involving the draft.

The memory of Vietnam retains a curious emotional power. Yet oddly, distinguished service as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam and a Congressional Medal of Honor do not seem to have endowed Bob Kerrey with much magic. Sometimes audiences have become almost uncomfortable as he discussed his war and the wound that cost him part of his right leg.

In his Inaugural Address, George Bush asked Americans to bury the divisions of Vietnam forever. Many Americans thought that the brief, decisive brilliance of Desert Storm dispelled at last the country’s queasy reluctance to take military action abroad if it is necessary. Desert Storm did prove that the American military at least had learned the lessons of Vietnam and acted upon them. The American military that faced Saddam Hussein had been rehabilitated.

But much of the deeper Vietnam syndrome persists in the American psyche and in American politics. The war in Vietnam was a profound wound to the nation. Among other things, it severed the wires of trust that transmitted authority from the older generation to the younger. For years, the two sides of the Vietnam generation have been at war with each other. That conflict within the generation has been demoralizing, corrupting. And perhaps unnecessary.

The true cause of the Vietnam trauma to America was that the fathers failed. The grownups poured their children into a devouring misconception — a bad war that was a vast elaboration on the theme of lying, almost of hallucination. Lyndon Johnson won election in 1964 by promising that American boys would never go to do the job that Asian boys should do. As late as 1968, Hubert Humphrey told munitions salesmen at the White House, “Vietnam is our great adventure . . . and a wonderful one it is.” After deciding in 1969 to withdraw from a hopeless cause, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger allowed 18,000 more Americans to be killed so that, bizarrely, the snarling and bleeding Americans could exit from Vietnam with sufficient style, an illusion of credibility.

The young, like Bill Clinton, should never have been faced with the dilemma of either fighting that war or being traitors. It was as if American power, like an Aztec sun god, required terrible infusions of blood. Either sacrifice yourselves upon the altar of Vietnam, the drama demanded, or slay the fathers, tear down their house.

Somewhere within the generation now taking power, Vietnam may have installed % the suspicion that leadership and authority are a fraud. That view may have subtle stunting effects upon moral growth. If sons don’t learn to become fathers, a nation may breed politicians who behave less like full-grown leaders than like inadequate siblings, stepbrothers with problems of their own. Vietnam was a fairly thorough exploration of American folly. The war still reverberates through American politics today.

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