The date was April 28, 1967. The site, the US Army induction center in Houston, Texas.
A 25-year-old man who was classified as 1-A by the Selective Service System had been ordered to report for induction into the army. The United States, at the time, was engaged in an undeclared war in Southeast Asia. Already by that time, tens of thousands of American soldiers had been killed in there. Tens and even hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese also had been killed. Seven years later, the United States fighting forces would withdraw from the region, and the army whom America had been fighting rapidly swept across South Vietnam, taking it over. That had been the entire raison d’être the Americans fought against them in the first place.
I use the term raison d’être to make a point. It is, of course, a French phrase. The French had fought a bloody campaign in Vietnam, in the years following World War II up to July 20, 1954. France had wanted to maintain control over the country, then known as French Indochina. It was among the last vestiges of European colonialism in Asia.
The Vietnamese, for their part, wanted independence and sovereignty, a couple of qualities we Americans talk about almost religiously. We celebrate our own war for independence and sovereignty every Fourth of July. Everyone, we shout to the world, should be free and independent. Except we sent billions of dollars to the French in their effort to reign over the Vietnamese.
The French couldn’t do it. The Vietnamese were plucky, determined, disciplined, and militarily brilliant. Even though the French soldiers were well-armed and well-fed, they were beaten by a dedicated civilian army that wore sandals rather than combat boots.
French generals sneered at their counterparts in the Viet Minh, the nationalist army of Vietnam. The French considered their foes to be nothing more than a gang of peasants.
France bled, both metaphorically and actually, for years in Vietnam. Then came the denouement: Dien Bien Phu. The French garrison there was thoroughly thrashed by those so-called peasants. The men and women of the Viet Minh dug tunnels, moved through the night, and pulled heavy armor pieces by hand. They they attacked and crushed the French there.
Colonel Charles Piroth, who commanded the French artillery at Dien Bien Phu and who’d crowed before the battle, “I’ve got more guns than I need,” killed himself in his bunker as the battle wound down. The entire country of France was humiliated. In July, 1954 France signed the Geneva Accords, ending hostilities and, essentially saying, you’ve won. That was a mere 13 years before the young American man appeared in the Houston induction center.
For two years, American generals similarly had looked down their noses at the Vietnamese. They told their bosses at the Pentagon and in the White House they were winning when, in reality, they were barely holding on. Already, protesters had taken to the streets to object to America’s undeclared war in Vietnam. Indiana’s Vance Hartke was the first US senator to oppose the war. Seven months after that young American man appeared in the Houston induction center, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite told his viewers:
We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds…. To say we are mired in a stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion.
According to popular lore, President Lyndon B. Johnson was watching his Oval Office TV as Cronkite spoke those words. He remarked, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” Little more than a month later, Johnson dropped out of the 1968 presidential race.
In the Houston induction office, the recruitment officer called out the young American man’s name three times. He intoned:
Muhammad Ali? Muhammad Ali? Muhammad Ali?
Three times Muhammad Ali, then the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, refused to acknowledge the call and step forward. Later, he told reporters:
I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong…. Why should (America) ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles away and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?
Muhammad Ali knew he would pay dearly for his antiwar stance. He was stripped of his championship. He was found guilty in federal court of draft evasion, sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10,000 (the conviction was overturned in 1971). He was denied the right to ply his trade for the next three years, losing the opportunity to earn millions of dollars. He was vilified by much of white America.
Yet Ali did what he thought he had to do regardless of the consequences. As did countless others who protested the Vietnam War, who agitated for civil rights, who decried wealth inequities in America and around the world.
They suffered personal and professional hardships, even prison.
Contrast their moral certitude, their confidence, their faith, with that of the three men convicted this week of conspiring to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer because she’d dared to order the people of her state to wear surgical masks during a global pandemic.
One of them told the judge before sentencing:
Your honor, I had a lapse in judgment. I’ve been a good citizen. I’ve been a family man.
I sincerely regret ever allowing myself to have any affiliation with people who had those kinds of ideas.
The third said he never meant Whitmer any harm. This despite the fact that the men were members of a heavily armed radical Right Wing “militia.”
The one word never used to describe the men during their entire trial was “courageous.”