Clinton's unprincipled opposition to war

June 06, 1994|By Barry C. Steel

I WAS one of many veterans who returned to college from military service in the late 1960s, and I eventually came to oppose continued American involvement in Vietnam.

Whatever our personal reasons for demanding American disengagement, those of us opposed to the Vietnam effort agreed that too many Americans had been maimed or killed without purpose. As we saw it, further casualties were unacceptable; we felt our efforts might save American lives.

We were appalled when non-veteran college boys, some of whom had been the most vocal critics of the war, disappeared in droves from the anti-war movement when they received high numbers in the draft lottery or later when President Nixon eliminated the draft altogether. Once their hides were saved from the draft, their opposition to the war evaporated.

Bill Clinton was one of those unprincipled, opportunistic and disingenuous opponents of the war. His anti-war activities ceased abruptly when he received a high draft lottery number in early December 1969. As late as the fall of that year, he had participated in several anti-war protests at the U.S. embassy in London. After his luck in the lottery, however, his compassion for Americans, Vietnamese and others dying in that tragic war no longer sparked protests, demonstrations or even public comment.

I suspect Mr. Clinton never really opposed the war, and his concern was never really for others. The prospect of losing several years from the pursuit of his political agenda was the source of his distress.

His false anti-war pose is troubling in another respect. Mr. Clinton had received draft notices in the spring and summer of 1969 and had asked politically connected family members and others to have those draft notices canceled. His longer-term solution was to strike a deal that summer with the Reserve Officers Training Corps commander at the University of Arkansas in which he agreed to enroll in ROTC there at some unspecified time in exchange for an unprecedented and possibly illegal deferment.

But Mr. Clinton no longer needed the deferment or the ROTC alternative when he was effectively excluded from the draft by the December 1969 lottery. One can envision the celebration in his residence at Oxford, probably attended by his roommate, now Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. This was when the president-to-be composed the letter to the Arkansas ROTC commander extricating himself from the ROTC obligation.

In that letter, Mr. Clinton disclosed that his admittedly deceitful behavior regarding the draft had been a product of a desire to preserve his "political viability within the system."

Conveniently, now that he no longer needed the ROTC option, Mr. Clinton felt compelled to reveal not only his moral opposition to the war but also his anti-war activities. He then grossly exaggerated the nature and extent of those activities. Attending lTC protests at the U.S. embassy and standing somewhere on the fringe of the crowd became "organizing" those protests.

No, Bill Clinton should not be disparaged for opposing the Vietnam War on moral grounds, for expressing that opposition by participating in protests, or for refusing military service on principle.

Had his conduct regarding the draft been predicated upon sincerely held beliefs, he should not be criticized -- even by those who believe that such conduct should disqualify him from serving as commander in chief.

Bill Clinton's transgressions with respect to the draft stem from his lack of principles -- other than the principle of political viability.

The deceitful way in which President Clinton avoided military service was compounded by his cynical exploitation of those whose opposition to the war was sincere and principled.

For that Bill Clinton deserves the criticism he is getting on this 50th anniversary of D-Day.

Barry C. Steel is a Towson lawyer.

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