Clinton missed a chance to recall his conscience

June 07, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

On December 3, 1969, a young man named Bill Clinton wrote a letter to the director of the Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of Arkansas. In his letter, the 23-year-old law student explained that he opposed the war in Vietnam and therefore could not, in good conscience, participate in the R.O.T.C. program as he had agreed earlier -- even though reneging on that agreement meant he might be drafted.

Wrote young Bill, "Because of my opposition to the draft and the war, I am in great sympathy with those who are not willing to fight, kill, and maybe die for their country (i.e., the particular policy of a particular government) right or wrong."

He said he despised the war in Vietnam "with a depth of feeling I had reserved solely for racism in America."

And he said, "No government, really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose, a war which even possibly may be wrong, a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation."

Yesterday in Normandy, Bill Clinton -- as president of the United States -- helped commemorate the 50th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Hitler's Fortress Europe during World War II.

During the ceremonies, the president spoke of the valor and the sacrifice of the Americans who had fought there. He toured the battlefield and shook hands with aged veterans. He stopped for a while and prayed over the tombstones of fallen American soldiers.

But, I'll tell you what the president didn't do: He didn't speak about his opposition to this country's last war. And thus was lost a great opportunity; the president could have linked the occasion in France and his own experience during Vietnam to make a memorable point about what our soldiers died for on D-Day: Freedom from tyranny, including the right to dissent when government oversteps its bounds; the freedom to be men and women of conscience.

We sometimes forget that following one's conscience in everyday life can require bravery and sacrifice. Such forms of valor can be just as glorious as that practiced on the battlefield. What about a father who struggles to provide for his children, pinching pennies, grinding out his days in a job he might despise?

What about a student who endures the taunts of his or her classmates, the lure of the streets, and the burden of an unhappy home to stay in school?

And what about a young man who finds the courage to say "no" to a war that he believes is wrong?

This is why I pulled out my copy of Mr. Clinton's December 1969 letter yesterday. Though it was first released as a political ploy (I am not sure whose ploy) during the 1992 Democratic primary campaign, the letter moved me. It seemed to be a document of an earnest young man wrestling with the moral dilemmas posed by a controversial war.

"One of my roommates [at Oxford] is a draft resister who is possibly under indictment and may never be able to go home again," wrote Clinton. "He is one of the bravest, best men I know. His country needs men like him more than they know. That he is considered a criminal is an obscenity."

Mr. Clinton explained that he too had considered fleeing the country, but preferred to try to work within the system. "I do not think our system of government is by definition, corrupt, however dangerous and inadequate it has been in recent years," he wrote.

He concluded his letter, "I am writing . . . in the hope that my telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military to which you and other good men have devoted years, lifetimes of the best you could give. To many of us, it is no longer clear what is service and what is disservice . . ."

It seems to me that young Clinton is saying that individuals have a moral responsibility to act according to their conscience. It is a courageous thing to say. Too bad that the older version of the man -- the cynical, middle-aged, image-conscious politician -- did not have the grit to say so again yesterday.

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