Clinton praises veterans Hundreds jeer as president hails right to disagree

June 01, 1993|By Carl M. Cannon | Carl M. Cannon,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As jets droning overhead reminded former field nurses of the sounds of battle and as hundreds of old soldiers turned their backs on him in silent contempt, President Clinton paid homage yesterday to the fighters who fell in Vietnam in a war in which he refused to serve.

"Many volumes have been written about this war and those complicated times," the president said at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. "But the message of this memorial is quite simple: These men and women fought for freedom, brought honor to their communities, loved their country and died for it."

The crowd of about 700 ticketed guests cheered as Mr. Clinton rose to speak. The audience of several thousand behind a snow fence mostly cheered, though boos could be heard from every section. On the hillside to Mr. Clinton's left, several hundred Vietnam vets, arranged by their branch of service and holding flags that designated their units, did an abrupt about-face as their way of protesting his presence.

The president received a huge ovation when he announced that he was ordering that almost all documents relating to the fate of America's POWs and MIAs be declassified and made public by Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

This has been the general direction of the government's policy. Last year, a select Senate committee was instrumental in declassifying thousands of documents and shipping them to the Library of Congress.

The crowd roared when the president said: "As we allow the American public to have access to what our government knows, we will press harder to find out what other governments know."

But many of the other moments during the president's brief speech were filled with tension, which seemed to hang in the air all around him.

"I ask you at this monument," Mr. Clinton said, "Can any American be out of place here?"

"Yes!" shouted a man in the crowd. "You!"

Mr. Clinton, the only post-World War II president not to wear a uniform, avoided serving during the Vietnam War and wrote a now-famous letter of thanks to an ROTC colonel for "saving me from the draft."

In that letter, the future president said he hated the Vietnam War with a depth of passion he had previously reserved for racism, thought the draft was illegal, spoke proudly of writing, marching and speaking against the war -- and said he was filled with feelings of "loathing" for the military.

"Traitor and draft-dodger," read one sign of protest.

"Go back to Moscow, Slick," read another.

"He made the choice to skip out, so he has no business coming here now," said Glenn Kramer of Sterling, Va., a 42-year-old former Marine sergeant who served in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969.

Mary Reilly Hunt of South Bend, Ind., said her husband, who served in the Pacific during World War II, was buried at Arlington National Cemetery two years ago, and that she came to pay homage to him, not to protest. But she was outraged by Mr. Clinton's appearance there yesterday.

"The idea of this draft-dodger laying a wreath there makes my stomach churn," she said. "I think he has a helluva lot of nerve."

But this was by no means a unanimous opinion across the country yesterday. In fact, it was a minority opinion, according to one poll.

A CBS News poll released yesterday said that 74 percent of all Americans -- and 69 percent of veterans -- thought it appropriate for Mr. Clinton to take part in the Memorial Day ceremonies.

"He has a right to come, he's the commander-in-chief," said one observer at the wall, Fran Capitanio, 49, of Framingham, Mass., a former Marine who served in Vietnam. "In fact, I think this took a lot of guts."

Neither the president, nor those who introduced him to the crowd at the Vietnam Memorial shied away from the fact that Mr. Clinton's presence was controversial.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the senior Vietnam veteran now in uniform, virtually instructed the crowd to welcome the president warmly.

"To all of you who are shouting: I have heard you," a somber and determined-looking Mr. Clinton said. "I ask you now to hear me:

"Some have suggested that it is wrong for me to be here with you today because I did not agree a quarter of a century ago with the decision made to send [troops] . . . to Vietnam. Well, so much the better. Here we are, celebrating America today. Just as war is freedom's cost, disagreement is freedom's privilege -- and we honor it here today."

Earlier, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, Mr. Clinton also laid a wreath -- and also stressed the theme of reconciliation.

"We come together this morning . . . in cities across the land to honor those who died that we might live in freedom, the only way that Americans can ever truly live," he said. "Today, we put aside our differences to better reflect on what unites us."

The two Memorial Day events were part of an emotionally wrenching weekend for Mr. Clinton, who spoke to the West Point graduating class Saturday and then gave an interview with the Washington Times in which he discussed that long-ago letter about the draft. He choked up in that interview while recalling the four young men from his high school who perished in Vietnam.

One of those men was Bert Jeffries, the son of his childhood Sunday school teacher.

After Mr. Clinton finished speaking yesterday, he went to the wall, to that name among the 58,191 listed, touched it with his hand. And just like millions of Americans have done before him, the president then put a piece of paper over it and etched out the inscription of a young man who gave everything for his country: James Herbert Jeffries.

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