Clinton Cheered, Jeered at Vietnam Memorial : Veterans: He asks nation to set aside unhealed wounds of the war. He pledges release of MIA data.


Amid angry taunts and applause, President Clinton Monday called on Americans in a visit to Washington’s brooding Vietnam Veterans Memorial to set aside the unhealed wounds of a war he bitterly opposed.

“Let us continue to disagree, if we must,” Clinton told a crowd of about 4,000 gathered at the black granite monument for a Memorial Day observance. “But let us not let it divide us as a people any longer.”

Clinton, who later knelt at the wall to trace the name of a fallen classmate, pledged that he would accelerate the declassification of all records relating to soldiers missing in the war. The records, except for the “tiny fraction” that would compromise national security or invade some families’ privacy, will be made available by Veteran’s Day, Nov. 11, he said.


Clinton’s tangled draft history almost wrecked his presidential campaign, and plans for this visit had provoked outrage among some veterans. His words mingled with chants of “Where was Bill?” and taunts of “Coward!”

As he began to speak, more than 100 uniformed veterans on a rise several hundred yards away swiveled in unison to turn their back on him.

But other veterans and family members applauded--some politely, some passionately. And the occasion--bringing together some vets with ponytails and leather motorcycling garb, others in crisp uniforms--offered another vivid reminder of how the country’s most controversial war still divides Americans 18 years after the last U.S. soldier withdrew from Southeast Asia.

Clinton at times looked uneasy, but he also appeared well-prepared for his detractors. “To all of you who are shouting, I have heard you,” he said at the opening of his remarks. “I ask you now to hear me.”

Speaking from a dais at the center of the wedge-shaped memorial, Clinton referred to the opposition of some veterans in a way that avoided reference to the controversy over his draft record.

Some veterans, he said, have “suggested it is wrong for me to be here with you today because I did not agree a quarter of a century ago with the decision made to send the young men and women to battle in Vietnam.”

But, “can any commander in chief be in any other place but here on this day?” he asked. “I think not.”

Jan Scruggs, the president of the foundation that built and maintains the memorial, congratulated Clinton after his remarks for his “courageous” decision to appear. Clinton was the first President to appear on Memorial Day at the monument, which is Washington’s most popular memorial.

Clinton’s appearance came as part of a broader effort to improve relations with the military, which have become increasingly strained since he took office. Clinton took part in a series of Memorial Day events and on Friday was well-received in a commencement speech to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Clinton stressed what he shared with Vietnam veterans, pointing out that four of his high school classmates had their names engraved on the wall among the 58,000 deceased from Vietnam.

“No one has come here today to disagree about the heroism of those who we honor,” he said.

And Clinton touched other themes likely to appeal to his audience. Speaking at a time of deep defense cuts, he cited a resolve “to keep the finest military in the world.”

And, to applause, he said: “If the day should come when our servicemen and women must again go into combat, let us all resolve they will go with the training, the equipment, the support necessary to win, and, most important of all, with a clear mission to win.”

Since demonstrators with signs were barred around the monument, many clustered on a hillside to the east. Many of their signs were bitter: “Hypocrite,” “For Shame” and, referring to Clinton’s recent poll ratings, “36% and Falling: Never Trust a Draft Dodger.”

Becky Chidester, an eight-year veteran from Alexandria, Va., carried a sign that read: “Dodge the Draft, Smoke Dope, Cheat on Your Wife, Become President--the American Dream.”

“He’s got a lot of gall to get up in front of these veterans and speak about giving one’s life to your country,” she said.

But other veterans, even some who disapprove of his youthful actions, were more indulgent. Many welcomed his appearance as a sign of his commitment to their solving their problems.

“Hell, all that happened 30 years ago,” said Jerry Crowe, of Hartford, Ky., one of hundreds of motorcycling veterans who converged on Washington for the event. “Anybody who didn’t do something they deeply regret at that time, well, I’ll bet they’ve got nail holes in their hands and are carrying crosses.”

Munch Delaney, 44, from Wooster, Ohio, carries a tattoo of Vietnam across his rib cage that extends into his armpit.

“I didn’t much like Vietnam,” he said. “I wish I could listen to a President who was a hero. But I’m willing to listen to what the man has to say.”

There were some indications that the speech would go over well with the majority of veterans. A CBS poll released Sunday found 69% of veterans and 75% of all Americans were in favor of the appearance.

And even the protests might work to Clinton’s advantage by demonstrating he is willing to stand up for his convictions in the face of opposition--a point Clinton’s advisers have been eager to make.

On Monday morning, Clinton placed a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

Clinton, the first President in nearly a half-century who did not serve in the military, was ordered to report for induction while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford University.

He promised to join a University of Arkansas ROTC program to win a deferment. Although he later gave up the deferment, saying he felt it was not right, it did reduce his chances of being drafted.

Clinton’s pledge on unsealing the military records will affect between 1.6 million and 1.8 million documents generated by the Pentagon, State Department and CIA. Families of unaccounted-for soldiers have long urged release of these documents.

* A TIME TO REMEMBER: Memorial Day included services, parades and picnics. B1