It was December 1968, and the United States was in turmoil. The number of U.S. troops in Vietnam had reached a peak of half a million. Antiwar protests were paralyzing American campuses after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.
In Vietnam, a gangly U.S. Navy lieutenant named John F. Kerry steered his Swift boat up a river in the Mekong Delta, deep into enemy territory, witnessing firsthand a war he would soon conclude was no longer winnable. More than 8,000 miles away, in Valdosta, Ga., another son of privilege, George W. Bush, took off in a Cessna T-41 trainer, choosing to fulfill his wartime obligations stateside in the Texas Air National Guard.
Choices the two men made more than 3 1/2 decades ago have cast a long shadow over the current presidential campaign, helping to define the candidates to voters but also exposing them to harsh personal attacks. Bush has faced charges that he used family connections to dodge combat duty in Vietnam, while Kerry has been accused of betrayal for leading antiwar demonstrations after returning to the United States.
For both, the turbulent year of 1968 was the starting point for personal journeys that have been shrouded in myth and controversy. An examination of the way they grappled with the central foreign policy issue confronting their generation, based on their memories and interviews with people who knew them, provides insights into their political philosophies and preparation for the role of commander in chief.
The turmoil of Vietnam also affected the two vice presidential candidates. Richard B. Cheney began his ascent up the ladder of Republican Party politics in the fall of 1968, moving to Washington from Wisconsin to join the staff of a moderate Republican congressman after becoming ineligible for the draft. John Edwards's political epiphany came a few years later, in 1972, when he turned his back on his parents' Republican politics in part because of his disillusionment with President Richard M. Nixon's handling of the war.
Of the four men, only Kerry saw combat in Vietnam. George Q. Flynn, a retired professor who has studied Vietnam War-era conscription trends, said the majority of students avoided going to Vietnam, either by joining the National Guard or by getting draft deferments. Less than 10 percent of college students volunteered for active duty.
"There was nothing atypical about Bush joining the National Guard, which was considered a nice, safe haven from Vietnam," said Flynn, author of "The Draft, 1940-1973."
"It was Kerry who was the exception."
War and Peace at Yale
When President Lyndon B. Johnson escalated the Vietnam War in the fall of 1964, after accusing North Vietnam of firing on two U.S. destroyers in the Gulf of Tonkin, Kerry and Bush were attending Yale University. Kerry was a junior, Bush a freshman. Both would benefit from multiple student draft deferments.
Cheney had dropped out of Yale four years earlier because he could not keep up with the academic pace. Returning to Wyoming to attend community college, he received four student deferments, plus a fifth for "family hardship." Critical biographers have noted that Richard and Lynne Cheney had their first child in July 1966, nine months and two days after the Johnson administration expanded the draft to include married men without children.
The deferments kept Cheney out of the military until 1967, when he turned 26 and became ineligible for the draft. He would later insist that he complied with the conscription laws and would have been "happy to serve" had he been drafted. But as he told The Washington Post in 1989, "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service."
Kerry, by contrast, decided to volunteer for the Navy, inspired in part by the example of his political hero, John F. Kennedy, even though he had growing misgivings about the U.S. role in Vietnam. In a commencement day address to the Class of 1966, Kerry complained that the Johnson administration had moved from "an excess of isolationism" to "an excess of interventionism."
"We have not really lost the desire to serve," Kerry told classmates. "We question the very roots of what we are serving."
"Remember, we were the generation that heard John F. Kennedy say, 'Ask not what your country can do for you,' '' said Kerry's roommate, Dan Barbiero, who enlisted in the Marine Corps at the same time. "The doubts were not strong enough to fail to obey a call to arms."