A History of Our Time: Readings on Postwar America

By William H. Chafe; Harvard Sitkoff et al. | Go to book overview

Letter to the Draftboard (1969)

William Jefferson Clinton

In many respects, the 1992 presidential campaign represented a referendum on how Americans felt about the 1960s, and even more important, on which perception of the 1960s would prevail—the one that saw it as an era of reform and optimism, or one which perceived it as a time of polarization and bitterness. Nothing better highlighted the relevance of the 1960s to the 1992 presidential race than the disclosure that Bill Clinton had consciously sought to evade the draft, and the possibility of serving in Vietnam.

On February 12, 1992—in the midst of the New Hampshire primary campaign—Clinton released a letter he had sent in December 1969 to the head of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Arkansas. In that letter (reprinted here in its entirety) Clinton described the anguish, ambivalence, and outrage he felt about the possibility of serving in Vietnam. Already a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England, he had returned to the United States in the summer of 1969; while at home, he struck a bargain, agreeing to join the ROTC unit at the University of Arkansas after his return from England. This action won him a deferment from the draft and reduced the likelihood that he might have to go to Vietnam. Once back in England, however, Clinton decided upon reflection that this course of action was not consistent with his moral revulsion against the war; hence, he chose to renege on the commitment—although only after his deferment had gone through.

The Clinton letter can be read in either of two ways—as the clever footwork of a schemer willing to do anything in order to escape fighting; or as the principled and tortured confession of someone so deeply troubled by the issue of how to serve his conscience and country that he fell into a state of moral and intellectual paralysis. There is also a third option: that Clinton’s letter reflects both motivations simultaneously.

Whatever the case, the key to Clinton’s behavior seems contained in his overriding objective, stated in the letter, “to maintain my political viability within the system.” While others either served in the military or engaged in outright resistance, Clinton chose a middle course. Readers of the letter today, thirty years

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