Blogs > Cliopatria > Chronology, Coincidence and Analysis

May 7, 2004 10:10 pm

Chronology, Coincidence and Analysis

In a NYTimes article which continues the politicization of personal history, particularly in the Vietnam era, they point out:

On Oct. 6, 1965, the Selective Service lifted its ban against drafting married men who had no children. Nine months and two days later, Mr. Cheney's first daughter, Elizabeth, was born. On Jan. 19, 1966, when his wife was about 10 weeks pregnant, Mr. Cheney applied for 3-A status, the"hardship" exemption, which excluded men with children or dependent parents. It was granted. [emphasis added]
Now, I'm the first to admit that the highlighted chronology is probably unfair, and I can't imagine the family discussions that would result if more children from that era (I'm 1.5 years younger than Cheney's eldest) followed up on those questions. At the same time, it's too neat to pass unnoted: coincidences like this often appear as important links in historical arguments. Too many post hoc, ergo propter hoc gets you in trouble, but if you can show a strong probability of causation, you can get away with it. I tell my students, though, that logic is only good guesses, not proof, and coincidences are only coincidences until you can prove otherwise.

So, as historians, should we be applauding the asking of the question, or deploring the politicization of personal history (not that it's a new phenomenon, particularly) without regard to consequences, or something in between? (Probably both, and something in between is my thought, but I have too much grading ahead of me this weekend to think it through right now.)

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/11/2004

Living off the capital of his Dad's friends. I thought I was giving equal time by slapping Kerry around a little bit -- something the major media hasn't yet chosen to do.

Bush obviously (like Quayle) got help getting into the NG (in all probability to avoid Vietnam service), and he was "assigned" to a unit in Alabama as a fiction to cover his campaigning there. That said, the aircraft he was qualified in was being mothballed, pilots from Vietnam with more flying hours were transitioning into NG instruction slots, and the NG had a liberal policy for making up missed drills -- if you made it up the next quarter you were still in good standing. Bush was a fifth wheel at the end of his enlistment, and there is little to glory in during his service.

Derek Charles Catsam - 5/11/2004

Interesting how Kerry's articulate, smart, (and by the way, post combat), record of the 1970s is of more interest to many of us than what George W. Bush was doing at the same exact time. All I ask for is a side by side chronology -- while Kerry was leading a major anti- war organization, after having served nobly and been injured in a war for which he volunteered and did not have to serve, what exactly, was GWB doing?

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/10/2004


I should add as an example of Kerry's naivete (or should I say dishonesty?), is Kerry's testimony before Congress, where he seemed to claim (and referred to Binh's proposals in doing so -- proposals which Kerry and the VVAW endorsed) that by the US merely setting a date for withdrawal, American POWs would be returned. But Binh's proposals said no such thing. Rather, they said that by the US setting a date for withdrawal, the Vietnamese would "enter into discussions to secure the release of all American prisoners."

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/9/2004

Good points all, but I'm not a professor. I would say that the NLF certainly (rather than maybe) did not represent a majority of the South (and it was the fiction of representing the majority that animated Kerry's stance, and that of many others). My point was more directed to the composition of the leadership which was almost a wholly-owned subsidiary of N. Vietnam. Interestingly, the South did not fall to the NLF with minority support from the North, but to conventional armored forces from the North (a bit of a contrast to our own revolutionary experience?)

And yes, there was more than one cause to the decline of anti-war activism, and no, my point was not a criticism of historians in general, or of you in particular. Rather, it was a criticism of the flattering self-portrait drawn by much of the anti-war movement, and the popular understanding it informed.

Just yesterday I biked down to my local library and had, by chance, the opportunity to glance at a copy of National Review. In it there was an article on Kerry with quotes from his visit to Nicaragua during the Ortega era. There was Kerry predicting that Nicaragua would become the graveyard of American youth, another Vietnam, when in fact the Sandinistas lost the only vote they ever gave the people of Nicaragua. I'm hardly surprised that Kerry would have a poor grip on facts in Nicaragua, given his poor command of facts on Vietnam. The ony thing he got right in Vietnam is that it was a quagmire -- a quagmire almost made inevitable by LBJ's naive belief in a negotiated peace, and his disregard for the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs (who had wanted ten divisions from the start, and even then said it would take ten years).

Christopher Riggs - 5/9/2004

I thank Prof. Morgan for his reply. I'm a bit overwhelmed with grading right now, but let me please make a couple of comments.

North Vietnam had long been aiding the VC/NLF (Nat'l Liberation Front), which was created in the South in 1960 as a communist-led anti-Diem group. Yes, Northern fighters increasingly dominated the VC after the losses suffered during the Tet Offensive. Yes, the VC used violence and intimidation to secure support among Southern peasants--as did the US and South Vietnamese gov't forces. But were there not at least some Southerners who supported the VC because they favored reunification with the North, because they wanted the Americans to leave, etc.? In that sense, isn’t it reasonable to say that the NLF was not simply a vehicle through which the North sought to impose its will on the South, but rather that the NLF did represent the desires of at least some South Vietnamese? Certainly the VC did not represent all of the South Vietnamese and maybe not even a majority. But then again, the American revolutionaries of the 18th century didn’t represent all Americans either…

There is no denying that the draft, particularly given its inequities, helped fuel antiwar sentiment. But, with all due respect, I think that understanding the decline of activist street protest against the war in the early 1970s requires us to look at more than the introduction of the lottery system. Kent State and other instances of activists being injured or killed in 1970, reduced draft calls, accelerated withdrawals of US troops from Vietnam, détente with the Soviet Union, and the fact that both presidential candidates in 1972 ran on platforms calling for an end to the war all served to erode the incentive for antiwar activism.

As for the suggestion that the connection between antiwar activism and the lottery system has not been given enough attention: All I can say is that I became aware of this information in college, and when I teach my course on “The Vietnam Wars” students are exposed to it in lecture and in the reading. I suppose one could argue that I should spend more time on the issue. But given that my course (and others like it that I know of) goes from pre-Chinese colonization in Vietnam to the normalization of US-Vietnamese relations in the 1990s, giving more time to one point invariably means less time is given to something else. I’m not trying to be obtuse or rude, but what should I and other professors cut to devote more time to the lottery system and its impact?

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/9/2004

I too don't understand anybody who claims that Kerry did not have the right to criticize the war -- he certainly earned it in my book. My objections are to the manner of the criticism. To make blanket statements of atrocity guilt covering all soldiers, based on his own short and thin slice of experience, or augmented by the faux "testimony" of Winter Soldier Investigation "witnesses", seems beyond the pale.

So too his meeting with a Viet Cong official in Paris, as US soldiers were still fighting the Cong in the field. Kerry was possessed of that popular form of willed naivete that proclaimed the Cong an independent voice of Vietnam. The US said it was an extension of the North, and it turns out the US was right. When S. Vietnam fell, the leadership of the Cong revealed itself to be 2/3 composed of N. Vietnamese agents, and the Cong had no voice in post-war matters. Those who had bought into the fiction, and were honest (like Jean Lacouture), admitted they had been taken in.

The least appreciated part of the history of the anti-war movement (or least admitted or commented upon) is the fact that it died on the vine once Nixon introduced the lottery system. So much for the idea that the great majority of draft-age opponents were motivated by that much more than self-interest.

Christopher Riggs - 5/8/2004

I don’t know whether Richard Cheney and his wife had a child in order to win a draft deferment. If they did, we should not be surprised; they did exactly what the Selective Service system encouraged them to do. But I am not yet prepared to let Cheney (and his boss) off the hook just yet.

The draft system of the 1960s, we should remember, was based on the principle of “channeling.” That is, military planners realized that they would not need all or even most of the available military-age men to fight in Vietnam. Hence, young men would be allowed to avoid the draft by engaging in “desirable” behavior—including having children. (I know of at least one member of my own family who was conceived of under circumstances similar to those mentioned by Wendy Wagner; the child was conceived too late, however, and my relative was sent to Vietnam.) In other words, the vast majority of young men who avoided the draft did so through legal means, and that was the intent of the architects of the Selective Service system at that time.

However, many of those mechanisms to escape military service, such as college attendance or a diagnosis of a personal physician, were more readily available to members of the middle and upper class than to the poor and members of the working class. My father was one of the latter. (He was drafted and describes his time in Vietnam as “an all expense paid trip to Southeast Asia courtesy of the Nixon Administration.”)

Both Bush and Kerry had the option, by virtue of their inherited class status, to serve or not to serve in Vietnam. Bush believed the United States should be in Vietnam but chose not to serve, and I can sympathize with his decision. Kerry chose to volunteer for the military, to give up some of his class privileges, even though he didn’t have to. I believe that his decision, as well as his subsequent opposition the war, are honorable and deserve respect.

What I find objectionable, however, is the assertion that Bush, because he believed in the U.S. policy in Vietnam, is somehow more patriotic and morally superior to those veterans like Kerry (and my father) who served in Southeast Asia but disagreed (or came to disagree) with the war. Kerry and others who fought in Vietnam had more than earned the right to criticize the war. After all, was not freedom of speech one of the democratic values the U.S. was supposedly fighting for in Vietnam? And what exactly is so morally superior about a member of the elite like Bush expressing support for a war but believing that only other people’s children and spouses and siblings should be the ones who have to do all of the fighting and dying? Again, I sympathize with Bush’s decision regarding military service during the Vietnam War (I wish my father had had such a option), but I certainly don’t think it gives Bush or his fellow conservatives much of a basis upon which to make moral judgments about those like Kerry who made different choices regarding Vietnam.

Wendy Wagner - 5/8/2004

OK, thanks. I happen to be a "draft-dodging baby." My parents foresaw the change in the draft laws and set about trying to get pregnant (and succeeded). I was born in February 1966, and my parents had to go to the draft office so my mother could get a pregnancy test so my father could get his 3-A deferral.

Are there a lot of people like me out there? I've never met anyone else born under the same circumstances. Doesn't mean they're not out there, of course.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/8/2004

You may not understand the meaning of the Cheney correlation (its historical meaning is not exactly manifest), but I think we both know what was intended by the Times by their mere juxtaposition of events.

The idea that Cheney procreated on demand, in order to avoid service is, well, underdetermined by the evidence -- as you point out. It would be much more intriguing if there was both a macro study showing a jump in fertility at the time, and a micro longitudinal study showing that Cheney had managed to procreate on several occasions with fortuitous timing. But the little ad hominem slaps like these, that partisan journalists have become so good at (some are just catty, and slap without regard to party), rarely rely on anything more than a skin-deep coincidence.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/8/2004

Yeah, it's one of my more prominently unrealistic ideas.

Though if you can frame an issue in a concrete, personal fashion, often you can get people's attention. I mean, look at the number of people who donate to environmental groups, from Sierra Club to Earth First!; look at the immensely negative reaction Hilary Clinton's health care plan got; look at the interest in Social Security; look at how successful energy conservation was in the late 70s-early 80s; how popular recycling programs are now.

The problem is connecting issues together and making their relevance manifest. OK, there's a slightly unhealthy dose of self-interest, but if you can make a good case for enlightened self-interest, you can go a long way. Slowly, probably, but a long way.....

Ralph E. Luker - 5/8/2004

Jonathan, You seem to be a lot more optimistic than I am about the public's capacity to focus on policy issues -- unless it's tied to some sort of scandal. Big issues, like employment or war, seem to get some attention, but particular approaches to education or, even, tax policy just don't seem to me to get much traction. Surely, the media is partly to blame for it, but I suspect that the media is only pandering to what it thinks the public is interested in hearing.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/8/2004


I think the word "scandal" troubles me, particularly in conjunction with "private", which is why I was talking about "malfeasance". Not all scandals are equally troubling (and not everything that should be troubling rises to attention enough to qualify as a scandal); what is seen as scandalous certainly changes.

But you probably weren't speaking of scandal in the sense of social uproar as much as you were of scandal in the sense of one-private, now-public questionable behavior. And there's a huge gray area within which we could well argue about relevance, but I think two principles have to apply. First is the question of whether the behavior raises substantial questions about competence/ethical character. Second is whether the behavior is viewed in context, as part of a whole life and in contrast to the other people running for the same position, or if it's being used as a cudgel, a shortcut to an ad hominem attack.

And in any case, policy, not biography, should be the primary issue in any political contest.

Ralph E. Luker - 5/8/2004

Jonathan, I think that you really do pose a very interesting question in this post. Surely, it is one which we could move toward answering if there were an increase in the birthrate as there was surely an increase in out-migration from the United States in the period.
I'm not sure that I agree with you about the biography as politics argument, though its logic is coherent enough. At what point does a politician's or a potential politician's record become relevant for judgments about fitness for office? Is only the public record relevant? _All_ private scandal is irrelevant?

Jonathan Dresner - 5/8/2004

But he's a war hero, you can't ask those kinds of questions!!!

Seriously, you can, but I don't know what it tells you, any more than I really understand the meaning of the Cheney correlation. I really think we all should get out of the business of biography as politics, unless there's real malfeasance involved. Feel free to quote this back to me if I seem to be drifting that way, by the way.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/8/2004

I wouldn't be surprised if there was a draft-related baby boom -- there certainly was a draft-related theology school boom (witness David Stockman and Gary Hart as examples). In fact, one of the great jokes is that the goyim of DOD gave exemptions to any who enrolled in Yeshiva University, thinking it was a school of theology.

Jonathan Dresner - 5/8/2004

Though many who know my political biases may not believe it, I'm pretty much disinterested in the fact that it was Cheney, except as a corrollary to my belief that the tendency to make every past decision a politically answerable one will eventually drive any reasonably normal and competent people out of politics entirely. It bothers me, even if it benefits candidates I like for other reasons, because of the long-term implications for political rhetoric and recruiting.

I'm more interested, though, in whether we can differentiate, as historians, between the innuendo of coincidence and the logic of causation. Is there evidence of a draft-related baby-boom? I've never heard one mentioned, but I am part of the "mini-boom" generation, children of the original baby boom who, coincidentally, were of draft age in the Vietnam war. Was the demographic cycle enhanced by political events? How could we prove it, even if a correlation existed? That's what makes this historically interesting.

Richard Henry Morgan - 5/8/2004

I'll applaud the NY Times' article on the coincidental timing of Cheney when the Times runs a similar article on the coincidental timing of Kerry's request for an annulment (after 20 years and two kids) -- seems it followed on the heels of his ex's request for an increase in child support payments.

Wendy Wagner - 5/8/2004

I'm not following you. Are you saying that it may be possible that couples deliberately tried to get pregnant in order to evade being drafted during the Vietnam War? Are you more interested that it was Cheney who apparently did this, or are you interested in the phenomenon in general? Or are you saying that this is only interesting as a historical phenomenon because of the political implications we can draw from it (Cheney evaded the draft)?

History News Network