War Stories: Bush and Kerry and Vietnam

Evan Thomas, in Newsweek (Feb. 23, 2004):

John Kerry did not have to think all that hard about joining the military and going to Vietnam . He had doubts about the wisdom of U.S. intervention in Vietnam , which was rapidly escalating during 1965-66, his senior year at Yale. But Yale leaders were expected to serve, as the school song went, "for God, for Country, and for Yale." His closest friends in Skull and Bones, the Yale senior society for the best and the brightest, were signing up. Fred Smith, who would go on to found Federal Express, was joining the Marines. So was Dick Pershing, grandson of World War I Gen. "Black Jack" Pershing. There wasn't a lot of anguished debate, recalls Kerry's fellow Bonesman David Thorne, who, like Kerry, joined the Navy. But, he added, "if it had been '68, we might have made a different decision."

What a difference two years makes: 1968 was the year George W. Bush graduated from Yale. By then, virtually no Yale graduates were going into the military, if they could possibly avoid it. The war and the counterculture it spawned had transformed Yale. Preppy boys in coat and tie were rapidly giving way to long hair and angry protesters. The prom was canceled for lack of interest; marijuana was replacing beer. A throwback, good-time frat brother, young Bush had little use for the antiwar movement. On the other hand, he didn't want to go to Vietnam . Draft deferments for graduate school were ending that spring of 1968. The Texas Air National Guard offered another way. "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada ," Bush explained to The Dallas Morning News back in 1990. "So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."

The two men were still fighting the Vietnam War last week. Kerry was defending himself from conservative radio talk-show hosts who accused him of siding with "Hanoi Jane" Fonda to undermine the war effort when he came home as an angry vet. The White House was showering reporters with documents attempting to show that Bush had not gone AWOL from the National Guard, as some Democrats allege. But flaps were mostly side-shows based on sketchy facts (Kerry barely met Fonda; Bush apparently did his time in the Guard, if a bit sporadically). The Vietnam era was critically important in the lives of both men. But the vastly different outcomes for the two men were the product of a subtle interplay of class and character and of small but critical differences in time and place.

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