In a gentleman's single room at Oxford, amid the fountained gardens where Lewis Carroll set his fictional Wonderland, Bill Bradley sat down at a battered manual typewriter and composed his thoughts on war.
It was Oct. 18, 1966, the start of Bradley's second and final year as a Rhodes scholar. Writing to a mentor, the Princeton historian Arthur Link, the 23-year-old tapped out a letter full of strikeovers and scratches about the large decisions ahead.
"As with most people my age the draft is a constant possibility," Bradley wrote to Link. "My board has told me that another deferment after Oxford would be difficult. I have talked with several people in the military and have found that there is the chance that I could spend my two years teaching history at West Point. The questions I have are: Do you think that this assignment would be valuable enough to warrant two years? Do you think that I am capable of it? If deferment is possible, do you think that I should go on to law school instead of teaching and taking care of the obligation with finality?"
Bradley contemplated elective politics one day, a fact well-known to Link, his undergraduate thesis supervisor, and left unspoken in their written exchange. But at that moment Bradley had more immediate choices, all of which had to take account of Vietnam's growing appetite for conscripts. In the next several months, he would navigate the moral and practical dilemma of his generation.
Every major candidate for president this year came of age in the Vietnam War. Some, including Vice President Gore and Republican contender Sen. John McCain, have called attention to their encounters with the conflict. Others, including Bradley, have not. A close look at Bradley's choices then displays characteristics that recurred often in his public life: foresight, circumspection and skill at finding advantage while adhering strictly to the rules.
By April 1967 Bradley had signed a New York Knickerbocker contract that stood briefly as the richest in professional basketball. And though he did not turn against the war until much later, he enlisted for an Air Force Reserve job that kept him away from the fight.
Bradley learned from knowledgeable insiders how to secure a reserve commission without prior military service. It was a lawful option, available to roughly 1 in 1,000 potential conscripts, according to data drawn from Gerald T. Cantwell's 1994 history of the Air Force Reserve.
There is no sign that Bradley sought or accepted the special influence that enabled other professional athletes of his day to bypass waiting lists for scarce reserve positions. His chief benefactor was the director of Princeton's Air Force ROTC program, Maj. Stanley Adelson, a mid-grade officer with no great status but intimate knowledge of military rules. The edge he gave to Bradley was information.
Bradley found military duty that could be performed--after five months of initial full-time service--in eight-hour weekend shifts, within commuting distance of home games at Madison Square Garden. After joining the Knicks at midseason in December 1967, he never missed a game because of the Air Force. More than once he played a Friday night game in Chicago or St. Louis and flew and drove all night to make his Saturday morning obligation at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey. At least 15 times he rescheduled his reserve duty to accommodate out-of-town games. He made up for every absence and won good to excellent performance reports from superiors.
"I ultimately decided that, yes, I did have an obligation to serve, and the question wasn't whether, the question was how," Bradley said Sunday in the second of two interviews on his military record. " . . . I was trying to organize my life so that I fulfilled my responsibility and was able to make a commitment to play professional basketball."
Bradley provided The Washington Post his unexpurgated Air Force personnel file after portions of it were obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and other details emerged from correspondence of the period. The picture that emerges from the record, and from interviews with teammates and fellow reservists, is of a highly regarded yet unambitious officer, valued for his brains and discipline but advancing just one grade, to first lieutenant, in an 11-year Air Force career.
'Citizen of the World'
By 1965, Bradley's senior year, Vietnam already was roiling Princeton's campus. During the same week in February that year, history professor Arno J. Mayer led a faculty protest against the war and visiting speaker John H. Rousselot of the John Birch Society denounced "known communist sympathizers" who were agitating against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Rival demonstrators clashed, with Ivy League restraint, on Nassau Street.
On Feb. 25, 1965, Bradley and roommate Dan Okimoto walked to McCosh Hall, one of Princeton's grand old Gothic structures, to hear the diplomat and historian George F. Kennan describe the Vietnam War as strategic folly. Okimoto, who became a lifelong friend, now believes Kennan's view became Bradley's in the end.
But Bradley was still years away from expressing any direct view on the war, and he was absorbed more than ever in basketball. That winter, he led Princeton to its historic zenith in intercollegiate basketball--the NCAA semifinals--while setting an all-time individual scoring record of 58 points in a game.
Bradley already had won his Rhodes scholarship by then, which enabled him to leave Princeton without appreciating fully "how much this war would affect me," he wrote in his 1996 memoir, "Time Present, Time Past." But after he passed the halfway mark at Oxford, he began to think more personally about Vietnam, and he says the war "transformed me into a citizen of the world."
Billy Kingston, his Princeton roommate and basketball teammate, toured with him through Italy in summer 1966 and recalls the war as "a definite issue we talked about." Kingston, then serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia, was exempt from conscription. Bradley was leaning toward law. "I don't think he was keen on going to Vietnam," Kingston said.
As he had done at Princeton and would do again after his 1970 championship season with the Knicks, Bradley, in the fall of 1966, prepared applications to law school. He assumed that going to law school would bring him another three years' deferment from the draft. After that he would be 26 and, Kingston said, "out of the woods."
Bradley soon learned otherwise. On Aug. 16, Draft Board 54 of Jefferson County, Mo., renewed his 2-S status, deferring him from conscription as a graduate student. But according to the letter he wrote Link in October, Bradley also heard--exactly how he did not say--that he could not expect another deferment for law school.
The five members of the draft board included Alex Maul, who had built Bradley's first backyard basketball hoop. Maul served as a trusted employee of the Crystal City State Bank, where Bradley's father, Warren, was president. Other board members knew the local hero almost as well, but in the small town where Bradley grew up informal advice from the draft board was commonplace.
Tom Haley, Bradley's best friend in childhood, remembers a telephone call from Thelma Fortney, the board's executive secretary, warning that he "was going to get my orders in February of 1964 and, 'If you want to join the National Guard or anything, you better get your ass in gear.' "
Bradley and Fortney, the draft board's only surviving member, both said categorically in initial interviews that he had no contact with the board except to register for the draft in 1961 at age 18. After the letter to Link came to light, both said they recalled nothing that could explain its reference to what "my board has told me" about an additional deferment.
West Point Declines Teaching Offer
Bradley's October 1966 letter to Link found his undergraduate mentor in the hospital, recovering from acute pancreatitis. Link sat down to reply on his first morning back at work in Princeton's Dickinson Hall.
"I daresay that you do face the possibility of military service at the end of the current academic year," Link wrote Nov. 8. "I have always taken the line with students that it is best to go ahead and get one's military service out of the way. There could be nothing worse than being in law school with the possibility of being drafted hanging constantly over your head. I should think that you would be very fortunate to be able to do your military service by teaching history at West Point."
Bradley had already reached that conclusion. He approached Col. George Lincoln, then head of West Point's social science department, and offered to do his two-year military service as a teacher. "He did not have the requisite Army experience, and Colonel Lincoln explained that to him," said a member of the department who did not wish to be identified.
By Christmas of 1966 Bradley was searching for other options. Between Oxford academic terms, he flew back to New York, Princeton and St. Louis to seek advice.
Whether he went to law school or played basketball, he needed an answer to the draft. Bradley found one with Maj. Adelson, the ROTC officer and Princeton basketball fan who had watched nearly every practice and home game Bradley played.
The Air Force Reserve, then as now, relied primarily on former active duty airmen and officers. But under Air Force regulations, civilians with no prior service could also be accepted.
Cantwell, the Air Force historian, wrote in "Citizen Airmen" that the men throughout the 1960s who managed to join in circumstances like Bradley's numbered in the hundreds. They "took advantage of the legal opportunity to join a reserve unit, gambling that the unit would never be called to active duty, thereby reducing their chances of being exposed to danger in what was becoming an unpopular war," he wrote.
Among the requirements Bradley had to meet was a written statement from a reserve unit commander "that a vacancy exists within the unit and the appointment of the applicant is requested to fill the existing vacancy." From his Princeton office, Adelson telephoned the 514th Troop Carrier Wing at McGuire on Bradley's behalf. Col. Campbell Y. Jackson, then the commander, met Bradley on Jan. 12, 1967, and endorsed his enlistment that day.
"The type of billet we put him in, that was on a competitive basis, and he had to take a test and be evaluated with other people who applied," said retired Col. Clayton Bridges, the personnel officer who processed Bradley's application. "We didn't do any favors for him, that's for sure. By the same token it was to the advantage of the reserve wing at McGuire to have Bill Bradley and we knew that. He was a well known person. But we didn't jump his name on the waiting list."
At the time there was no requirement to accept applicants on a first-come, first-served basis. Commanders were entitled to select those "best qualified for appointment." By any standard then in use, Bradley stood out. Apart from his athletic and academic credentials, he scored in the 95th percentile for "officer quality" in the Air Force Officers Qualifying Test.
A month before Bradley's application, Life magazine had published a story headlined "Evading the Draft" that showed how professional athletes received preferential treatment from National Guard and reserve commanders.
Under pressure from Congress, the Pentagon abolished the "best qualified" rule. By Feb. 1, 1967, Deputy Defense Secretary Cyrus Vance wrote, "it shall be normal practice to accept the earliest applicant for enlistment who meets the minimum qualifications for a vacancy." And preference would be given to enlistees under 18 1/2 years, because they were not yet subject to the draft.
The Air Force told all units about the new rule in February but did not make it effective until May 1. Bradley applied for enlistment on Jan. 12 and enlisted on April 14. By July 6, 1967, he had finished at Oxford and started Officer Training School at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
In interviews, Bradley said that he was unaware of the changing rules and that they had no influence on the timing of his application. He said he knew there were special favors available for athletes in the reserves and he explicitly directed the Knicks not to intercede. "I got into the Air Force Reserve," said Bradley, "on my own merit."
Bradley rejects any suggestion that he sought an out from Vietnam.
"Look, if the reserves are not an important component of the American military, they shouldn't exist," he said. "If the reserves are, then by serving in the reserves you're serving in the military, and that's what I did. That's how I fulfilled my obligation."
Some of the people who knew Bradley best in those days said it was only natural for him to make the choices he did.
"We didn't see this as a war that had any ethical basis at all," said Phil Jackson, Bradley's Knicks teammate and sometime roommate, who successfully appealed his own 1-A draft status. "And to go over just because other people were being drafted--it was not a matter of going over and fighting Nazi Germany or imperialist Japanese like World War II."
Bradley's choices, Jackson said, were calculated. "I think he knew that some day he was going to be in public office, and he wanted to be comfortable with what he'd done in his past, not to have to dodge innuendos."
An 'Outstanding' Reservist
From his arrival at officer training, Bradley performed at his lifelong norm. Of 882 graduates of Lackland's Class 68-B, Bradley was chosen the group commander. Bridges, his first supervisor at McGuire, said that "he's the only Air Force reservist to my knowledge to ever do that" in competition with those training for active duty service.
In a succession of administrative and personnel jobs at McGuire, Bradley won admiration of superiors and subordinates. Occasionally even the superiors showed signs of being star-struck, such as when Jackson, the wing commander, arranged for his sons--then in high school and college--to dine with Bradley at the officers club. "They were thrilled, I can tell you that," said Julia Jackson, the commander's widow.
When his Air Force duty followed closely on an out-of-town game, recalled retired Col. Donald Rosencranz, one of Bradley's commanders, he would fly all night, "pull up in a little rented car, and hanging in the car on clothes hooks were his last night's Knicks uniform. We used to kid him. It smelled like a gymnasium."
At least 15 times from 1970 to 1972--the only period for which records survive--Bradley asked to be excused from required weekend duty for Knicks games or personal travel during the summer. Invariably in his request forms he couched his reasons as a "business meeting" or "business conference" to match the language of the rule allowing substitute dates.
"It is impossible for me to change the date of my commitment and my presence is mandatory in order to retain my present position and proficiency," Bradley wrote on Mar. 7, 1971, when the Knicks completed a sweep of the Celtics in Boston and clinched the NBA division championship. That request, like some others, was made and approved after the fact.
Evolving Views of War
In the earliest debates around Bradley of the Vietnam war, his friends of the time said he was largely silent or focused on questions of fact. In his memoir, Bradley recalls that "there were powerful psychological forces in me that gave people in authority the benefit of the doubt."
Bradley's silence was put to the severest test in January 1967. Allard Lowenstein, the anti-war activist, came to Oxford and urged the Rhodes scholars to use their prestige to strike a blow at the war, and the group met intensively to draft an open letter to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
According to several participants, Bradley sat in on most of the meetings but did not say much. In the end, 50 of the 68 Rhodes scholars in residence signed. Bradley was not one of them.
Soberly worded, the letter acknowledged that there was nothing to be gained by "sudden, unconsidered abandonment of our responsibilities in Vietnam." But "our feelings of conscience and of national obligation counsel skepticism and concern, not active support, of the Government's Vietnam policy."
Bradley, in an interview, said he did "not really" disagree with the letter. "That was at a time when the issue of celebrity was the issue I was dealing with--whether I should sign the letter given the fact that it wouldn't just be me but it would be me using well-knownness, and I decided not to."
A few months later, on May 15, 1967, Bradley appeared on television on Charles Collingwood's "Town Meeting of the World." The subject was Vietnam, with California Gov. Ronald Reagan voicing support for the war and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy representing cautious criticism.
Everyone else in the broadcast was a student, Bradley the lone American among them and the only one not to declare U.S. policy illegal, immoral or racist. "This discussion is now sounding like many I've had at Oxford, and many I've had in Europe," Bradley said. "The United States is not out to achieve a position of power. . . . I think that there are certain considerations here about stability in Asia that haven't been answered."
Reagan, moments later, endorsed the point "that Bill Bradley said, and it's very significant."
Bradley did not speak again publicly on the war for four years. When he did--at a dinner for scholar-athletes in St. Louis--he came out swinging.
"Eighteen-year-old Americans are sent--unconstitutionally--to die in the civil war of an underdeveloped country on the other side of the world, for the espoused purpose of protecting America; political fugitives compose one-half of the FBI's most wanted list," he told his audience. "We learn our myths early and see the world through them--the myth of America's moral superiority, our manifest destiny, the melting pot, and the deceptive belief in progress."
Bradley's active service with the Air Force Reserve was nearing its end. His benefit of the doubt on Vietnam had disappeared.
Staff writer Dale Russakoff, special correspondent Christine B. Whelan in Oxford, England, and staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.
Key Moments in Bradley's Military Career
Aug.21, 1961: Registers for draft with Local Board 54, Crystal City, Jefferson County, Mo.
Feb. 11, 1964: Receives 2-S deferment from conscription as Princeton undergraduate.
June 15, 1965: Graduates from Princeton.
Oct. 22, 1965: 2-S deferment renewed at start of two years as Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, England.
Aug. 16, 1966: 2-S deferment renewed.
Jan. 12, 1967: Meets the commander of 514th Troop Carrier Wing, McGuire AFB, after introduction from Princeton's Air Force ROTC director; applies for a spot in the Air Force reserve as administrative officer; tests in 95th percentile for potential "officer quality."
April 14, 1967: Enlists in Air Force Reserve; assigned to officer training on first available date; commits to six months active duty and four years active-status reserve, including one weekend a month and two full weeks each year.
April 27, 1967: Signs four-year, $500,000 contract with New York Knickerbockers.
May 15, 1967: Reclassified 1-D for the draft, exempt from conscription as a member of Air Force reserve.
July 6, 1967: Enters Officer Training School, Lackland AFB, San Antonio.
Sept. 29, 1967: Commissioned as 2nd lieutenant; assigned administrative training at Amarillo AFB.
Dec. 9, 1967: Joins Knicks in mid-season after being excused one month early from active duty because his administrative skills are not needed immediately.
March 3, 1978: Honorably discharged as 1st lieutenant.
CAPTION: Bill Bradley in his early days in the Air Force Reserve. He attended officer training school in 1967 in San Antonio.
CAPTION: Bill Bradley and his second cousin Steven Trautwein, right, after their graduation from Princeton University in 1965.
CAPTION: In a letter dated Oct. 18, 1966, during his Rhodes scholarship studies, Bill Bradley queried a professor-mentor about his options. Below, an evaluation of Lt. Bradley and a request to defer a scheduled assignment.