"An all-volunteer force had the distinct political benefit of protecting the military's Achilles heel from the college campus. With no draft to galvanize the ideological zeal of protest organizers, the Pentagon hoped for, and largely got, a benign neglect on war protest from draft free and, therefore, mostly disinterested students."

Timothy Lomperis, The War Everyone Lost -- and Won, CQ Press, 1993

'60s Generation Shouldn't Be So Smug
By Michael Medved

28 April 1986, The Wall Street Journal (Copyright (c) 1986, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)

As we approached the midnight hour at my 20-year high school reunion, the conversation turned to the inevitable cliches about our "idealistic" generation.

"We were completely different from the kids today," declared a former student-body officer, now a banker and father of two teen-age girls. "Today all they think about is themselves. But we were dreamers and activists. We were out to change the world."

These sentiments -- seconded by some solemnly nodding, slightly inebriated classmates -- are such a familiar element in our national discourse that no one stops to consider their relation to reality. Having spent the past two decades making ourselves look good by trashing our elders, we children of the baby boom now turn supercilious scorn on the next generation in line. Our well-advertised contempt for these "shallow, materialistic kids" prevents any serious examination of our own youth and encourages mass amnesia concerning the anti-war activism of the 1960s.

The notion that this activism stemmed from a unique and noble concern for our fellow man is nothing more than a self-serving myth. Doesn't anyone remember what it felt like to sit in a university lecture hall in 1968 knowing that the moment you graduated, or dared to take a semester off, the U.S. Army would offer you an all-expense-paid trip to Southeast Asia? Under these circumstance, you hardly needed an altruistic view of the world to oppose the war; you needed only a healthy regard for your own safety and well-being. A student of the era who marched in demonstrations to bring the boys home may or may not have been acting in his nation's best interests, but he was most certainly acting in his own.

A quick examination of the history of the anti-war movement demonstrates beyond question the direct connection between draft calls and campus protests. That movement began in earnest only in mid-1966 -- after the Selective Service System began breaching the walls that had previously protected college students from involuntary participation in the armed forces. Suddenly, draft boards across the country began conducting written tests or reviewing the grades of eligible young men to determine which of us deserved to retain our student deferments. I still remember that dark day when Army officials announced that even if we pursued graduate or professional study after college graduation, we could no longer expect immunity from the draft. This decision had a greater impact on us than all the horrible images of napalmed babies.

Strangely enough, the American politician who understood us best may have been Richard Nixon. Cynical manipulator that he was, he sought to calm the campuses by removing the irritant that had provoked our protests in the first place. By committing the country to an all-volunteer army in 1971, he effectively undermined the anti-war movement. It may seem strange at first glance that the most brutal U.S. attack of the entire war -- the notorious Christmas bombing of 1972 -- generated hardly a ripple of protest from America's colleges and universities. Our silence is easily understood, however, when one takes note of the fact that draft calls came to an end at precisely that same moment in history -- December 1972. By removing our own tender bodies from the line of fire, in other words, President Nixon significantly dimmed our heroic concern for the suffering masses of Southeast Asia.

The fact that our opposition to the war so closely reflected our own selfish interests does not invalidate our criticism of U.S. policy, but it does deflate our claims to moral superiority. Moreover, the notion that it took some special sort of courage to protest the Vietnam conflict utterly ignores the campus realities that prevailed at the time. By 1969, the all-but-unanimous anti-war sentiment among students and faculty at our elite universities had become so strong that it took far greater courage to defend our role in the war (or, perish the thought, to enlist in the armed forces to actually fight it) than it did to follow 10,000 others to a protest demonstration. While the media made much of the fact that police officers and construction workers displayed ferocious hostility to the peace movement, how many of these people did we encounter in our daily lives? Secure in our isolated, upper-middle-class university worlds, we never saw cops or hard hats -- unless we sought them out for deliberate confrontations.

For the most part, those of us in the movement not only received unremitting encouragement from our peers, but also consistent sympathy from the most relevant authority figures. Many professors called off classes when they coincided with major demonstrations, and accepted late papers and postponed exams in order to accommodate activist imperatives.

When I took a month off from my junior year at Yale to work in the Eugene McCarthy and then the Robert Kennedy campaigns in the spring of '68, all of my instructors congratulated me on my ideological commitment and allowed me to complete my classwork through the mail. Then in the fall of 1969, as a first-year student at Yale Law School, I demanded another three weeks off to serve as coordinator of the Vietnam Moratorium in New Haven. I knew that most faculty members would cheerfully cooperate, but I worried about the reaction of my professor of constitutional law -- Eugene V. Rostow, recently returned from a tour in Lyndon Johnson's State Department. To my astonishment and delight, even this august architect of the nation's Vietnam policy (who was, by the way, reviled in some of our leaflets as a "war criminal") granted me a special dispensation from classroom responsibilities to facilitate my anti-war organizing.

To be sure, a tiny minority of movement activists paid a practical price for their beliefs, going to jail rather than registering for the draft or finding new homes in Canada or Sweden. But for the overwhelming majority of anti-Vietnam protesters -- including nearly all of us involved in leadership positions in the movement -- our work against the war required little risk. It was, in fact, glamorous, satisfying and fun. Anyone who participated in a major demonstration will fondly recall the electric atmosphere, the intoxicating sense of shared purpose and comradeship.

There was an almost sexual edge to the excitement that prevailed at some of our meetings and marches that also brought notable fringe benefits. I'm embarrassed when I remember the many occasions on which I laughed with my male colleagues in the Moratorium Committee over the fact that the anti-war movement had turned out to be a "great way to meet girls." On the way home from Washington after the huge Vietnam Mobilization of November 1969, we happily compared the promising phone numbers that each of us had collected.

In this context, last year's suggestion by California Assemblyman Tom Hayden, the former 1960s radical, to memorialize the veterans of the anti-war movement alongside the Americans who actually served in combat becomes even more outrageous. With the famous "selflessness" so typical of our generation, Mr. Hayden urges that the courage and sacrifices of Vietnam protesters should be honored with some sort of permanent monument as a heroic example of altruism.

Our sacrifices, Mr. Hayden? Should we console ourselves over the football games and parties we missed? The Bob Dylan albums we might have bought -- but didn't because we invested in bus fare to Washington or Chicago? Could anyone seriously suggest that our suffering be compared with that of the men who gave their lives and their health in the jungles of Southeast Asia? When set against their losses, even Mr. Hayden's stateside experience defending himself as a member of the world-famous "Chicago Seven" seems an enviable alternative.

At another corner of my class reunion, some old friends boastfully exchanged their version of "war stories," recounting the ingenious means they each devised to avoid the draft. One faked a nervous breakdown; one starved himself until he fell below the legal weight; one bribed a doctor to write a letter about a nonexistent bleeding ulcer. We all got out one way or another: The children of the educated and privileged succeeded by and large in foiling the system. Participation in the war seemed such a ghastly alternative that we felt little shame for what we did. A desire for self-preservation can justify many moral compromises, but let us at the very least understand our evasions and machinations in an honest perspective. Today, 11 years after Vietnam fell to the communists, my generation's determined efforts to avoid the draft and end the war can hardly be construed as proof of its unique conscience and heroism.


Mr. Medved, the co-author of "What Really Happened to the Class of '65," is a Los Angeles writer and co-host of the PBS series "Sneak Previews."


"Liberals tell us if we only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he will forget his evil ways and learn to love us. . . All who disagree with the "peace" crowd are indicted as warmongers. . . Let's set the record straight. There is no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can have peace -- and you can have it in the next second -- surrender." --- President Ronald Reagan