Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, trying to preempt an escalation of the controversy about his draft status during the Vietnam War, Wednesday released a letter he wrote in 1969 to the head of the ROTC at the University of Arkansas--a lengthy and complex document containing some statements likely to further damage his presidential bid and others that might bolster it.
Clinton released the letter after receiving a copy from ABC News, which obtained it under circumstances that remain controversial.
In the letter, Clinton thanked Col. Eugene Holmes for “saving me from the draft” and apologized for having “deceived you” by not explaining the full depth of his opposition to the war and the draft itself. The letter is dated Dec. 3, 1969.
The previous summer, Holmes had arranged for Clinton to enter the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, thus giving him a draft deferment. At the time, Clinton was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University in Britain.
Clinton explained in the letter that a few weeks after being approved for ROTC, he had decided to reject that option and re-enter the draft pool out of a concern that he had compromised his principles in order to “protect myself from physical harm,” and a desire to “maintain my political viability within the system.” He decided not to become a draft resister, he wrote, but decided to “accept the draft in spite of my beliefs.”
“For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life characterized by both practical political ability and a concern for rapid social progress,” he wrote. “It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead.”
Clinton has previously discussed his moral qualms about avoiding the draft by entering the ROTC, but he has not admitted how political calculations influenced his decision. For voters already concerned that he may be too slick and too much of a professional politician to be trustworthy, his admission could be damaging.
The candidate himself said he hoped voters would read the letter, which he plans to print in full as an advertisement in New Hampshire’s largest newspaper on Friday.
They will see a “conflicted and thoughtful young man” who “loved his country but hated the war,” who “wanted to go home and do what I could to work for progress,” he said.
The letter makes clear Clinton’s fervent opposition to the war, an opposition that he said developed as a college student, when he worked as an aide to Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a leader of the anti-war forces in Congress.
“I have written and spoken and marched against the war,” he wrote to Holmes. He wrote that he had also come to believe that “no government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose” and that “does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation.”
Clinton said that at the time he believed in the concept of “selective conscientious objection"--the notion that people should be able to exempt themselves from the draft on the grounds that they sincerely object to a particular war, even though they might not object to wars in general. On Wednesday night, Clinton said he had changed his views on the draft somewhat in the intervening 22 years and now thinks selective conscientious objection would be wrong at least in cases of wars that Congress had officially declared--something that was not done in the case of the Vietnam War.
The letter does confirm major factual aspects of Clinton’s previous accounts of his dealings with the draft and the ROTC, including a statement confirming that he had intended to return to the University of Arkansas Law School in Fayetteville, where Holmes’ ROTC unit was based. Ultimately, however, Clinton enrolled in Yale Law School.
But Clinton and his top aides conceded that they cannot be confident about how voters will react to the letter or to the evidence of Clinton’s anti-war activities, which in the letter he said included helping to organize anti-war demonstrations in Britain in October and November of 1969.
Campaign aides also said they are worried that Clinton’s presidential bid continues to be dominated by questions about his character. On the other hand, they said, they felt they had no choice but to release the letter after learning ABC News planned to air a story on its contents.
“Of course I’ve had some problems in the polls,” Clinton told ABC-TV’s “Nightline” anchor Ted Koppel during a Wednesday night broadcast. “For the last three weeks, “all I’ve been asked about by the press is a woman I didn’t sleep with and a draft I didn’t dodge.”
The path the letter took to ABC remains an issue. Last November, Clinton said, federal officials told his staff that files relating to his draft status had routinely been destroyed years ago. Clinton said he had no copy of the letter, and he charged that its sudden appearance a week before the New Hampshire primary is “no coincidence.”
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col Douglas Hart, confirmed that any such documents “should have been destroyed” in 1975, when the period for keeping ROTC and Selective Service records would have expired. Such documents are protected by federal privacy laws.
Koppel said on “Nightline” that he had at first given Clinton the impression that the letter had come from a source in the Pentagon but had later found out that he was mistaken. Reporters for ABC had obtained copies of the letter from more than one source, at least one of whom was a retired official of the ROTC command in Arkansas.
After Koppel had told him that he thought the letter had come from the Pentagon, Clinton had charged that the leak from confidential files provided evidence of Republican attempts to undermine him, a charge that GOP officials denied. During the “Nightline” interview, Clinton said that because Koppel’s account had changed, he now has “no idea” whether the Bush Administration was involved in the release.
Koppel said that after Clinton’s press conference, he had double-checked with the source that had provided the letter to “Nightline” and had become “satisfied” that the letter had not come from the Pentagon itself.
But the apparent release of the letter by former ROTC officials, who appear to have kept a file on Clinton long after documents normally would have been destroyed, left Clinton’s campaign aides frustrated and angry. “It’s kind of scary,” said Clinton campaign chairman Bruce Lindsey.
At the press conference in which he released the letter, Clinton conceded that “character is an important issue, and so is patriotism.” But, he added, “the people whose character and patriotism really are at issue” are those who might use selective leaks to influence an election.
President Bush, he noted, had said in a television interview in December that he would do “whatever it takes” to get reelected. “I take the President at his word.”
Clinton and his campaign officials have consistently argued that many of the stories about his character that have surfaced in recent weeks have been spread or fostered by Republican operatives.
Bush campaign spokeswoman Victoria Clark, however, denied any involvement in the release of the letter. “Every time this guy has a problem, he starts whining and crying about the Republicans,” she said as Bush campaigned in New Hampshire. “We didn’t have anything to do with this.”
The impact of the controversy likely will remain unclear for several more days. Initial news reports on local New Hampshire area television stations were largely favorable to Clinton. But by late evening, the TV news shows were describing the incident as a new “crisis” for his campaign.
Top aides said they felt Clinton had no choice but to try to get ahead of the story despite the dangers of fanning the fires.
“The doubts are out there” in voters’ minds, Clinton strategist James Carville said. “We tried to talk about economic policy for three weeks. It didn’t work.
“In my experience,” he added, “if you just lie back and don’t defend yourself, you get stomped.”
In addition to the doubts it raises about Clinton’s character, the draft controversy could damage the Arkansas governor by forcing voters to confront conflicting feelings about the Vietnam War that have never yet been fully vented in the political arena.
In Clinton’s case, the questions involve a series of actions beginning in the summer of 1969, when Clinton reached an agreement with Holmes to join the ROTC. As a result, his draft board reclassified him from 1-A to 1-D, thus allowing him to avoid a large draft call in September. A few weeks later, Clinton changed his mind, and in late October, the draft board once again reclassified him 1-A.
Shortly after that, Congress approved legislation changing the draft system to a lottery. On Dec. 1, the lottery took place, and Clinton’s birthday drew number 311. In the end, no one with a number higher than 195 was drafted.
Clinton wrote his letter to Holmes two days after the lottery. Asked if he knew at the time what number he had drawn, Clinton said “I presume” so but added that he had no way of knowing at the time that his number would not be called before the war ended.
Clinton’s letter is in the form of a long explanation to Holmes of his actions over the previous several months. In addition to providing new information about Clinton’s actions, the letter provides a rare and compelling glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a potential President at a crucial time in his development.
Clinton was barely 23 years old. Five years later, he would come close to being elected to Congress in a race in which his draft record and opposition to the war figured as a major issue. Two years after that, he was elected attorney general of Arkansas.
Clinton’s two major Democratic rivals who served in the military during the Vietnam War did not criticize him directly on his draft position, but they did question his integrity.
“I think it just again raises another question as to his veracity of character,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who ferried jets in and out of Vietnam during the war.
Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam War veteran who lost half his leg in a grenade attack and was awarded the Medal of Honor, said: “I think I do have an obligation to say I’m proud of my military service. I think it’s for me, rather, to say: ‘Gov. Clinton, can I trust your record?’ ”
Times staff writers Thomas B. Rosenstiel and Ronald Brownstein in Manchester and Melissa Healy in Washington contributed to this story.
Excerpts From the Clinton Letter
Here are excerpts from the letter that Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton wrote to Col. Eugene Holmes, director of the ROTC program at the University of Arkansas, on Dec. 3, 1969 .
‘As Low as I Have Ever Been’
”. . . I want to thank you, not just for saving me from the draft, but for being so kind and decent to me last summer, when I was as low as I have ever been. One thing which made the bond we struck in good faith somewhat palatable to me was my high regard for you personally. In retrospect, it seems that the admiration might not have been mutual had you known a little more about me, about my political beliefs and activities. At least you might have thought me more fit for the draft than for ROTC.”
‘Draft System is Illegitimate’
“I have written and spoken and marched against the war. . . .
“From my work I came to believe that the draft system itself is illegitimate. No government really rooted in limited, parliamentary democracy should have the power to make its citizens fight and kill and die in a war they may oppose . . . a war which, in any case, does not involve immediately the peace and freedom of the nation.
“The draft was justified in World War II because the life of the people collectively was at stake. . . . Vietnam is no such case . . . .”
‘To Maintain Political Viability’
“I decided to accept the draft in spite of my beliefs for one reason: to maintain my political viability within the system. For years I have worked to prepare myself for a political life. . . . It is a life I still feel compelled to try to lead. I do not think our system of government is by definition corrupt, however dangerous and inadequate it has been. . . . I was having a hard time facing the prospect of fighting a war I had been fighting against, and that is why I contacted you. ROTC was the one way left in which I could possibly, but not positively, avoid both Vietnam and resistance. . . .”
‘I Had No Interest in the ROTC Program’
”. . . After I signed the ROTC letter of intent I began to wonder whether the compromise I had made with myself was not more objectionable than the draft would have been, because I had no interest in the ROTC program in itself and all I seemed to have done was to protect myself from physical harm. I am writing . . . in the hope that my telling this one story will help you to understand more clearly how so many fine people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military, to which you and other good men have devoted years. . . .”