Muhammad Ali’s Fight Against the Pentagon

Like many home-bounders during this coronavirus crisis, I’m watching movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime. I just finished watching a biography of Muhammad Ali, who was one of the greatest boxers of all time, if not the greatest.

Perhaps the biggest demarcation point in Ali’s life occurred when he refused to comply with a draft notice ordering him to be inducted into the U.S. military. This occurred on April 28, 1967, when President Lyndon Johnson and the Pentagon were ramping up their violent military intervention into the civil war that was taking place in Vietnam. At the time, Ali was the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

Ali’s position against being forced to serve Johnson and the Pentagon was short and succinct and could actually represent the argument against all U.S. foreign interventionism.

Ali stated, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”

And why should he? The Vietcong never attacked the United States. They didn’t get into transport ships, cross the 8,000 miles of the Pacific, and invade the west coast. They also didn’t initiate any terrorist attacks in the United States.

U.S. aggression in Vietnam

No, it was the other way around. It was Johnson and his national security establishment that were sending U.S. soldiers to a country 8,000 miles away and ordering them to kill people who had never done anything to the American people.

Ali was right. He had no quarrel with them Vietcong. Neither did any other American. It was Johnson and his national-security establishment that had quarrels with them Vietcong because they had convinced themselves, in what can only be described as a case of severe paranoia, that them Vietcong were coming to get us here in the United States after they won their civil war in Vietnam.

The fact is that Vietnam’s civil war was no business of Lyndon Johnson, the Pentagon, and the CIA. It was they who were the aggressors who were intent on wreaking death and destruction in a faraway foreign country. And they wanted Muhammad Ali to give up his boxing career to go kill people on their behalf, people with whom Ali and  the American people had no quarrel.

Why should Johnson and his military cohorts have the authority to force an American citizen to go thousands of miles away to kill people who have never done anything to the American people?

An illegal war

Moreover, what Ali failed to point out was that Johnson and the Pentagon (as well as the CIA) were waging an illegal war under our form of government. Our government — the federal government  — is governed by the U.S. Constitution, the document that called it into existence. That document prohibits the president and the Pentagon from waging war without a declaration of war issued by Congress. It is undisputed that Congress never issued a declaration of war with respect to the Vietnam War.

Once Ali refused to comply with the military’s orders to step forward and be inducted into the military, the Justice Department took control, secured a federal criminal indictment against him, and prosecuted him. On June 22, 1967, an all-white jury in Houston convicted him.

Upon being convicted, the 25-year-old Ali said to U.S. District Judge Joe E. Ingraham, “I’d appreciate it if the court will do it now, give me my sentence now, instead of waiting and stallingfor time.” Ingraham accommodated Ali’s request by meting out a 5-year jail sentence and a $10,000 fine, which Ali appealed.

Thus, note the irony. Here is Ali convicted of breaking a law forcing him to serve in a military that was waging an illegal war under our form of government.

Meanwhile, deferring to the federal government in what they considered was an act of “patriotism,” state boxing authorities revoked Ali’s license to box. (Side note: Why should anyone have to get a state license to box?)

Rank hypocrisy

Ali actually went further. He pointed out the rank hypocrisy of forcing him to go kill people who had never denigrated and mistreated blacks. He bluntly stated,

My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America. And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father.… Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people? Just take me to jail.

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of Lyndon Johnson, the man who was directly responsible for drafting American men to fight his illegal war. According to an article on, “Lyndon Johnson said the word ‘nigger’ a lot”:

In Senate cloakrooms and staff meetings, Johnson was practically a connoisseur of the word. According to Johnson biographer Robert Caro, Johnson would calibrate his pronunciations by region, using “nigra” with some southern legislators and “negra” with others. Discussing civil rights legislation with men like Mississippi Democrat James Eastland, who committed most of his life to defending white supremacy, he’d simply call it “the nigger bill.”

Equally unfortunate was the fact that Southern bigots, including state officials, were notorious for lynching blacks, siccing dogs on them, and raping and killing them.

Ali was right: The Vietcong had never done those things to Ali or any other black man in America or anywhere else.

Johnson, the Pentagon, and the CIA maintained that the men they were forcing to go to Vietnam to kill or be killed were protecting our “freedom.” For American blacks, that meant going 8,000 miles away to kill people to supposedly protect what can only be termed a weird type of “freedom” that was based on a system of racial segregation, lynchings, dog attacks, and Jim Crow laws.

Ironically, as far as I know, Ali never raised another fundamental argument against the draft — that it violates the involuntary servitude provision of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Why should the federal government wield the authority to force anyone to serve it for whatever purpose? Isn’t that the very essence of slavery and involuntary servitude?

Martin Luther King

It is worthing noting that when Martin Luther King was asked about Ali’s refusal to comply with the draft order, he expressed agreement with Ali’s refusal, stating, “My views on the draft are very clear. I’m against it. And I think the sooner our country does away with the draft, the better it will be for everybody.”

Of course, it’s also worth nothing that both the FBI and the Pentagon were convinced that King was the spearhead of the supposed worldwide communist conspiracy to take over the United States and the rest of the world that was supposedly based in Moscow, Russia, a supposed conspiracy that they used to justify their illegal and immoral intervention into Vietnam’s civil war.

The shame of Ali’s critics

Needless to say, Ali was vilified by those Americans who view the federal government, and especially the Pentagon and the CIA, as their god. For them, Ali was a “traitor” and a “coward” who hated his country. That’s because in their minds the federal government and the country were one and the same. As far as they were concerned, if the president, the Pentagon, and the CIA had a quarrel with them Vietcong, then that made them Vietcong the enemy of all Americans.

For example, a television host named David Susskind, stated,

I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He is a simplistic fool and a pawn.

But it was actually Suskind’s attack on Ali that was shameful. It also demonstrated the success that public (i.e., government) schools had had in inculcating a deference to authority mindset in American schoolchildren, a mindset that unfortunately stays with many of them until the day they die.

Suskind’s prediction turned out to be wrong. Three years after his conviction, Ali’s conviction was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. By that time, however, Johnson, the Pentagon, the CIA, and their loyal acolytes at the local level who enforced their immoral draft, had ensured that Ali had been prevented from boxing during the prime of his career.

Today, in what can only be described as pure dark irony, the Pentagon now openly befriends the communist regime in Vietnam, the regime that killed 58,000 American men that the Pentagon sent there to wage its illegal and immoral war. Unfortunately, the Pentagon’s post-World War II antipathy toward Russia continues.