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May 1966. Mitt Romney is just finishing his first—and only—year at Stanford. I’m a 32-year-old ex-Strategic Air Command navigator and intelligence officer, now an associate professor in Stanford’s English Department and something of an anti-Vietnam War activist.
About a quarter of a million young American men are already being abducted each year to fight the rapidly-escalating Vietnam War. Many college students, however, are protected by their 2S student deferments, which blatantly discriminate against all those millions of other young men unable to afford college. As if this privileging of the relatively privileged were not sufficient, an outcry about “inequity” arises from administrations of some elite universities. Since the 2S deferment is contingent on relatively high class rank (meaning, of course, academic class rank), they argue that this unfairly discriminates against some of the “best” students, i. e., all those attending schools like Stanford. A man in the bottom quarter at an elite university might end up being drafted, even though he might be more “intelligent” than a man in the top quarter of some state college.
To address such claims of injustice, the Selective Service was rolling out that month the College Qualification Test, a.k.a. the Selective Service Examination, an “objective” assessment of each test taker’s verbal and mathematical skills, to be used by local draft boards, together with college grades and class rank, to determine who was entitled to that precious 2S deferment and who should be shipped off to Vietnam. But this deferment test actually spotlighted the true inequities of the draft. It also offered an opportunity for direct action against the war itself, right on the college campus.
One of the many myths that have buried the true history of the Vietnam War is that the anti-war movement was motivated by selfish desire, especially among college students, to avoid the draft (a view that conveniently ignores the movement’s throngs of female participants, whose gender automatically exempted them from the draft). Quite to the contrary, students demonstrating against the draft deferment tests were specifically undermining and targeting their own privileges and exemptions, which, as they passionately argued, came at the expense of poor and working class people. At Stanford, a number of people actually disrupted the test. The young men involved thus proved that their goal was not to avoid the draft but to end it, since they had been explicitly warned that their actions would jeopardize their own deferments. When students filed in to take the Selective Service test, other demonstrators handed them the SDS “alternative test” on the history of U.S.-Vietnam relations. About ninety students organized a sit-in in the President’s office. In a manifesto issued from the sit-in they denounced their own privileged status: “We oppose the administration of the Selective Service Examination . . . because it discriminates against those who by virtue of economic deprivation are at a severe disadvantage in taking such a test. . . . [The] less privileged, Negroes, Spanish-Americans, and poor whites, must fight a war in the name of principles such as freedom and equality of opportunity which their own nation has denied them.” “Conscription,” they declared, has throughout American history “invariably been biased in favor of the wealthy and privileged.”
Enter young Mitt Romney, right on cue, waving a sign denouncing the anti-war students. He, like his fellow almost all-male participants in this pro-war demonstration, fervently argued in support of the war and the draft. But not, of course, for himself.
When Mitt enrolled at Stanford back in the spring of 1965, the official and overt U.S. war (as distinct from the previous forms of proxy, clandestine, and “adviser” warfare waged in Vietnam for more than a decade) had just begun. Operation Rolling Thunder, the sustained U.S. bombing of the north, had started on March 2. The first officially acknowledged U.S. combat units were the Marines who went ashore at Da Nang on March 8 (joining the 24,000 U.S. military personnel already fighting in Vietnam). Draftees were not yet being used in combat. So Mitt and his dad clearly intended the fall of 1965 to be the beginning of a fine four-year career at Stanford for the young man. But Mitt’s last month as a Stanford student was May 1966. Why?
Although the Selective Service Exam radically reduced the chances of college men, especially those with the test-taking skills of most Stanford students, to be conscripted into the Vietnam War, it was no guarantee of long-lasting deferment. There were other, surer, escapes from the Vietnam nightmare. One of the very best was the ministry. In 1966, young men flooded into divinity schools, embarking on careers to be ministers, priests, and rabbis. The Mormons had an even better deal than most religions, because The Church of Latter-Day Saints required each and every one of its young men to become, for at least two years, a “minister of religion.” Thus all Mormon young men could claim deferments as ministers. When the inequity of this arrangement became too blatant, the Selective Service entered into an agreement with the LDS that required the church to specify just one “minister” for each geographical district. Since there were relatively few Mormons in Michigan, and Governor George Romney had considerable influence in the church, Mitt quickly received an official appointment as a Mormon “minister of religion,” consecrated by a draft deferment from the Selective Service. So instead of returning to Stanford, Mitt went off to become a Mormon missionary in France, where he would spend the next two and a half years—while Vietnam became a slaughterhouse for the Vietnamese and many Americans drafted to slaughter them.
So who says that Mitt Romney is inconsistent? After all, what may have been his first recorded public political act was supporting the draft for ordinary Americans, forcing them to participate in a war waged in the interest of his own class.
H. Bruce Franklin is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University. His most recent book is The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America.
This essay originally appeared in the print issue of CounterPunch.