The Chronicle Review

Richard Blumenthal, Liberal Guilt, and Vietnam

Spencer Platt, Getty Images

Richard Blumenthal at a news conference last week
May 23, 2010

Once thought to be a lock to take over the seat of retiring Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd, Richard Blumenthal, the liberal attorney general of Connecticut, is now on the defensive as a result of saying that he served in Vietnam when he did not. In Connecticut, where he faces a tough Republican opponent, Linda McMahon, as well as in the pages of The New York Times, Blumenthal is being called to account for telling voters, "We have learned something important since the days that I served in Vietnam."

Blumenthal's case resembles that of the Mount Holyoke College professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Joseph J. Ellis, who in 2001 was revealed to have lied to his students about serving in Vietnam. The Blumenthal and Ellis cases are about more than the personal failings of public figures. Their deceptions, in fact, raise an important question: Why do liberals who opposed the Vietnam War feel the need to claim they fought in Vietnam, while hawkish conservatives, like former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, remain untroubled by the deferments they received in those years?

The backgrounds of Blumenthal and Ellis do not provide much help in answering that question. On the surface, both seem to be ambitious straight arrows. Blumenthal, who took at least five military deferments from 1965 to 1970, used them to finish his studies at Harvard, take a graduate fellowship in England, and work at The Washington Post, before getting a job in the Nixon White House. Then, in 1970, Blumenthal enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve and completed six years of service with Reserve units in Washington and New Haven. This experience allowed Blumenthal to legitimately campaign with a picture of himself in a Marine uniform.

Ellis, who, until his falsehoods were uncovered by The Boston Globe, claimed he was a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne and had served on the staff of Vietnam commander Gen. William Westmoreland, had an equally circumspect military record. As a college student, he joined the ROTC at the College of William & Mary, then went on to graduate school at Yale University from 1965 through 1969, before teaching history at West Point until 1972, when he was discharged from the Army with the rank of captain. There is little more Ellis could have done to prepare himself for a career in academe. His subsequent best-selling biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx (Knopf, 1997), and his Revolutionary-era history, Founding Brothers (Knopf, 2000), did not require him to be a hero in order to draw readers.

However, with the passage of time, it was, as far as Blumenthal and Ellis were concerned, not possible to speak about the Vietnam War with credibility as middle-aged men when as young men they had taken care to avoid getting into harm's way. They seem to have believed that as noncombatants they were not in a position to comment on the tragedies of the war—Ellis made a point of telling students that he participated in operations just before the My Lai massacre, in 1968—without seeming to have been shirkers. In their own eyes, Blumenthal and Ellis did not feel entitled to speak out in a way that a veteran like Ron Kovic did in his 1976 Vietnam memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, or that Bob Kerrey, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska and now president of the New School, did in his memoir, When I Was a Young Man.

When Blumenthal and Ellis thought about Vietnam, they were, it is now clear, troubled—as conservatives like Cheney and Wolfowitz were not—by old-fashioned 1960s egalitarianism. Blumenthal and Ellis would have found it glib to say, as Cheney did when asked about his own draft deferments that got him out of a war he believed was a noble cause, "I had other priorities in the 60s than military service." Blumenthal's and Ellis's worries about fairness were not misplaced in this regard. Of the 27 million men who were draft-eligible between 1965 and 1973, only 11 million ever served in the military, and out of this group only 1.6 million, just 6 percent of the total, went to Vietnam.

For college students, taking advantage of Selective Service System rules was routine, and, in this regard, the best clue to Blumenthal's and Ellis's willingness to lie about Vietnam comes when we look back at two long-forgotten confessional essays on the Vietnam War draft, by writers who would later gain wide acclaim.

The first of the essays, "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?", written by a future national correspondent for The Atlantic, James Fallows, appeared in the October 1975 issue of the Washington Monthly. It recounted how in 1969, during his senior year at Harvard, he went to the Boston Navy Yard to take his physical exam for the military. By getting his weight down to 120 pounds (he was over six feet tall) and claiming to be mentally unstable, he got the doctors to declare him "unqualified" for service, and he returned to Cambridge with a deferment.

Fallows offers no excuse for himself. He observes how the boys from Chelsea, a working-class neighborhood, who showed up at the Navy Yard on the same day he did, were given few deferments, and he concludes that the kind of trickery he and his Harvard classmates practiced prolonged the war by assuring that "our class of people would be spared the real cost of the war," while those with less influence and less education would pay with their lives.

Eight years later, in an essay called "Viet Guilt," Christopher Buckley, son of the National Review founder William F. Buckley and a 1975 graduate of Yale, provided a similar account of his draft experience in the September 1983 issue of Esquire. Buckley, who would move far enough from his family's conservative thinking to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, told how at age 19, armed with a letter from his family physician describing his asthma, he was rejected for military service and returned to the Yale campus to celebrate his achievement. Like Fallows, Buckley came to feel ashamed of himself and did not take comfort in the idea that a nonveteran "ought to feel vindicated by the conduct and results of the Vietnam War." He concludes his essay by noting that if his son asks him what he did during the Vietnam War, "I'll have to tell him that my war experience, unlike that of his grandfather, consisted of a hemorrhoid check."

The kind of remorse that Fallows and Buckley expressed has drawn little sympathy from Gen. Colin Powell, who served in Vietnam and then in the administrations of Republican presidents. "I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well placed and so many professional athletes (who were probably healthier than many of us) managed to wrangle slots in Reserve or National Guard units," the normally restrained Powell wrote in his 1995 memoir, My American Journey (Random House). "Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country."

The irony is that Powell's resentment is particularly applicable to George W. Bush, the president who made him secretary of state, and to the latter's decision, as James Mann notes in Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet, to minimize the influence of the Vietnam veterans in his administration (Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard during the war). When it came to the war in Iraq, Bush and Cheney—whom Powell sardonically describes in My American Journey as a "man who had never spent a day in uniform, who, during the Vietnam War, had gotten a student deferment and later a parent deferment"—felt no qualms about going into battle without the number of troops Gen. Eric Shinseki, the Army chief of staff in 2003, correctly believed were necessary to complete the job.

In that context, the failure of a political liberal like Blumenthal and an academic liberal like Ellis—who has said the Vietnam War was wrong, condemned the Patriot Act, and in an interview with CBS observed that George W. Bush "might very well be the worst president in U.S. history"—to be truthful about their Vietnam records has proven especially damaging.

They have been neutralized as agents of change. We are no closer than we were during the Vietnam era of making sure the risk of military service in the United States is shared across the social spectrum. The commitment that the nation has made to continue the all-volunteer force, which President Nixon and Congress put in place in 1973 in order to weaken the antiwar movement, has perpetuated the inequities of the old Selective Service System that worked to the benefit of the rich and the well educated.

Vietnam ushered in a period in which, unlike World War II, America went to war without requiring broadly shared sacrifice on the battlefield or on the home front—and now we have, for all practical purposes, institutionalized that undemocratic arrangement. Military recruiting has closely followed the ups and down of the U.S. economy since the nation switched to an all-volunteer force, David R. Segal, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, has noted, and the U.S. Army Accessions Command, which heads Army recruiting, agrees. The command has made television ads and enlistment bonuses of up to $40,000 the backbone of its appeal to the millennial generation, and recruiting has thrived, it acknowledges, during economic downturns.

In terms of the military, the result is that today there is no need for an Ivy Leaguer to engage in the kinds of draft deceptions that Fallows and Buckley employed during Vietnam. Worrying about fairness is over. As far as the law goes, we aren't all in this together.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of American studies at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America's Coming of Age as a Superpower (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).