NEAL CONAN, host:
Earlier this month, a front-page bombshell in The New York Times reported that Richard Blumenthal claimed that he served in the war in Vietnam when, in fact, he obtained five military deferments and then joined the Marine Corps Reserve, which allowed him to spend all his time in uniform stateside. Blumenthal is currently attorney general in Connecticut, and before that news, considered the odds-on favorite to win a seat in the United States Senate.
In an op-ed in The Times, former South Dakota Senator Larry Pressler wrote that he was among many who opposed the war, but when drafted, reported for duty. I don't fault anyone for taking advantage of the law, he wrote. Where I do find fault is among those who say they were avoiding the draft because they were idealistically opposed to the war when, in fact, they mostly didn't want to make the sacrifice.
If you were of military age during the war in Vietnam, how do you explain your decisions? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Former Senator Pressler joins us here in Studio 3A. And, sir, nice to have you with us today.
Mr. LARRY PRESSLER (Former Republican Senator, South Dakota): Thank you very much.
CONAN: And, Senator, younger listeners need to be reminded that there was a draft for most of that time that was supposed to make all of this fair, but you could get a deferment if you were a college student, if you were medically or psychologically unfit. Or if you joined the Reserves, there was an understanding you would not go overseas. You were safe. But if your draft board classified you 1-A, you were very likely headed for Vietnam. And, of course, that system was supposed to be fair, but ultimately, it was decided it wasn't.
Mr. PRESSLER: Well, that is correct. And my point is not to criticize anybody, but rather to point out that some of the divisions in our society today - be it the lack of ethics on Wall Street or in Washington - might have had their origins in some of the cracks that we had at that time.
For example, most of those who did not serve went on to very high careers, because they had three or four years of - extra years in their career. And they are now the editors of papers or members of Congress or members of the Cabinet, and so forth. And this has had two policy results, I think. The first one is that in the meetings that I've attended in the Pentagon when I was in the Senate on the Foreign Relations Committee, frequently, the most - the people who wanted to go to war the most were those who did not serve when they had a chance. And that's sort of a phenomena.
CONAN: Overcompensation, you think?
Mr. PRESSLER: I think maybe so. Then the second result - policy result is maybe an over-praising of the military today, if that's possible. At the time I was in the military, it was very difficult to wear one's uniform on the streets of, let's say, San Francisco. Because at that time, the standard was that anybody who served was part of - was -lacked the conviction to serve.
So the people who resisted - or who didn't serve wrapped themselves in idealism, but they knew that that really was a lie, in a sense, because I knew that during my time at Oxford and Harvard, many students expressed to me that they just didn't want to go because they didn't want to fight in the war. And - but more importantly, they didn't want to give up three or four years of their life. And but they - to the outside world, they proclaimed that they were idealistic, that they didn't - that they disagreed with the war. Now, I don't want to get into a big fight about that, but that has led us down...
CONAN: Oh, I think you're already in a big fight about it.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PRESSLER: Okay. That has led us down to - I call it the technicality generation. If it's technically correct, it is legal - I mean, it is moral. And that is why we have so many problems on Wall Street with -about derivatives and things like that. My generation, we have - we're divided in many camps as a result, in part, of the Vietnam - of the complicated Vietnam and unfair Vietnam draft. And I might say that 25 percent of all those killed in Vietnam in the year 1965 were poor African-Americans. And that's another group that's angry about this, and that's still going on today.
CONAN: Because they were overrepresented because - the - most of the college students that got deferments were not poor and African-American. I assume, sir, you're not questioning, in any sense, those who claim to be conscientious objectors or those who were willing to go to prison for their beliefs.
Mr. PRESSLER: No, no, no. I admire them. I admire Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali. And I'm really not attacking the others. I'm just trying to say: Where do we go from here?
I do think, in the future, we should have a universal service requirement that would be carried out with a lottery. We don't need everybody, but - not just for the military, but for other - so people would have a duty to serve their country.
CONAN: Eventually, the draft was resolved, that all of this system and these classifications were inherently unfair. And there was a draft lottery, and everybody was involved. And there were no deferments except for medical deferments.
Mr. PRESSLER: That's right. From 1969 on, it became much more fair. But from about 1963 to '69 is probably the most unfair draft since - maybe since Lincoln's Civil War draft, which was strongly protested in New York City.
CONAN: Where you could also buy your way out. You can have a...
Mr. PRESSLER: Yes, yes.
CONAN: ...substitute go in for you. In any case, if you'd like to talk with former Senator Pressler about his remarks: 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's start with Mike, and Mike's with us from Le Grande in Oregon.
MIKE (Caller): Yes, good afternoon.
MIKE: I - pardon me. I graduated from high school in June of 1965 in New York, and then I was enrolled at University of California, Berkeley in September of 1965.
Real briefly, when I left high school, I was fairly wishy-washy on the war. I thought perhaps it might be a good war. I got the school at Berkeley and looked around and really got - not only the left, but the right. There were also people on the right with booze there all the time. So I got a pretty fair representation of the feelings about the war.
I came to feel that it was a really wrong and immoral war, that it was not in the defense of our country, and there was no way I was going to go anywhere and kill people for reasons that I did not believe in. And so through various reasons and ways, I didn't serve.
Let me say that I think about this pretty regularly. I'm reading a really book on the Vietnam War, a novel called "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes. He served. And it's very detailed and excruciating story of guys that were there. And I think I feel now, still, that it was a wrong and immoral war, and my bone to pick with Senator Pressler is this: I went to a news conference that Kennedy and Clinton had in Portland in the early '90s, and I had a discussion, an active discussion with guys of my own age. And that division that was there in the '60s is still there.
And I don't believe that division of the country is ever going to heal until people of my age and generation pass on. It's still there. It's still real, and Senator Pressler, I believe, is exacerbating it.
Mr. PRESSLER: Okay, well, I thank you for those comments. Actually, I'm trying to do the same thing you're doing, and probably you and I have more agreement than disagreement. I'm not really condemning anybody. I just wrote a piece in The Times saying that I think exactly what you said, that a lot of the ethical problems - not in the military, but across the board. All of our elites have lost their respect.
Indeed, there's even some who question the scientific community, some of their data, lately, well, that's been accurately portrayed. There's a -we know the problems in business. We know the problems in Washington. It seems that the ethical problems of this generation are severe. It's because we were so divided. But I think we need to talk about it. I think we need to talk it out and - so that's part of my purpose.
CONAN: Mike, thanks very much for the call, and...
MIKE: Am I still on the line?
MIKE: Just a really brief, brief thing. I lived in a rural area in Oregon, and I moved here just before the Kent State affair, where Americans killed Americans over the war.
MIKE: And I think if we look back on that - especially people that are not of our generation. If you look back on what was - actually happened on that huge divide between people of our own age, where people were willing kill other Americans over the war, I think you need to - we, as a country, need to look at that and say: Is this really how want to be? And again, my point is: This will never go away until our generation has passed.
CONAN: Thanks, Mike.
Mr. PRESSLER: Well, I tend to agree with your statement much. My point is on the unfairness of the draft from about 1963 to '69. Out of that unfairness has sprung some of the ethical problems we have throughout society today, I think.
CONAN: And here's an email we have from George in Waltham, Massachusetts: Your tease for the segment on Vietnam read something like: Many did not serve in Vietnam and got away with it. Too many times, I have been confronted by totally misguided and uninformed young people with the challenge: How did you get out of Vietnam? A simple fact is there was a draft lottery, as we mentioned, that started in 1969. I got number 365. I do not have to anything. My number was not called. There was nothing immoral about that, simple fact, and I do not apologize for it. But that was after the draft was...
Mr. PRESSLER: Yes. The lottery really went into effect in February of 1970. And from then on, it was much more fair. But the fellows from '63 to 1970 were really in a - and I'm critical of the draft law more than I am of any individuals.
CONAN: And this has come up with every presidential candidate who was -or any candidate for almost any office, not just the Dick Blumenthal in Connecticut, where there has been an issue, but certainly with Bill Clinton and with George W. Bush, and indeed, most recently with Dick Cheney, who didn't serve at all and said he had better things to do. He was trying to advance his career.
Mr. PRESSLER: Absolutely. In fact, I had Cheney in my draft of my piece for The Times, but it got cut out, because they had to cut down the 600 words. But Republicans and Democrats, this is not that issue, and it's very easy to misunderstood. This is such an emotional issue, and I've received over 200 wonderful emails, almost all of them supportive. I'm really not seeking any support on this. I'm out of politics. I'm 68 years old, so - I wouldn't say I'm irrelevant, but I would like to be a part of trying to settle this thing down, trying to analyze why it happened. But it does carry over. It does create a problem today.
CONAN: We're talking with Former Senator Larry Pressler, Republican from South Dakota. He wrote a piece - an op-ed piece in The New York Times called "The Technicality Generation." There's link to it on our website. You can go there at npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.
And let's go next to Fid(ph), Fid with us from Grand Junction in Colorado.
FID (Caller): Yes. I just was listening to your program. And I got drafted in 1966. I never ended up going to Vietnam, but I served my tour and did my thing. One of my observations back then was that when everybody, you know, a lot of young people, their parents thought their kid might be going to Vietnam, they were a lot more engaged in the program. I noticed after the lottery came out and everybody looked at their number, and if they were, you know, 300-plus or something like that, they figured they weren't going to Vietnam...
CONAN: If memory serves, over 120, you were pretty safe.
FID: Yeah. And - any rate, my observation was that as soon as you figured your young butt wouldn't go in the Vietnam, you went back to college and drank beer and had fun and didn't get as actively involved in the political process.
Mr. PRESSLER: Well, that's exactly right. And today, there is no peace movement in the United States, even though we have an occupation of at least two countries. And, by the way, I was in Republicans for Obama because I disagree with our military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. I mean, I think we had to intervene, but not occupy. That happens to be my belief.
But the point is, I find - I found in the Senate that real Vietnam veterans were frequently against these military excursions, and people who did not serve are for this robust military - I was in a meeting. We were going to invade some place in Africa back in those days, invade Haiti. And these guys are all for invading, who when they had a chance to fight, they didn't. And I thought - I think that this has distorted our foreign policy.
CONAN: Fid, thanks very much for the call.
FID: Very good.
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Doc, Doc with us from Harrisonburg in Virginia. Doc, are you there?
DOC (Caller): Thank you for taking my call. I'm 61 years old. I'm a Vietnam vet. I joined the Navy in 1966 to become, specifically, a Navy corpsman attached to the Marines in Vietnam.
Now, I did not get my wish, per se, but I did go to Vietnam later in my career, from 1969 to 1970. And in the interim, I lived in - I'm sorry if it sounds like I'm out of breath. I just ran up the stairs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
DOC: I lived in San Francisco. I was stationed at Oakland(ph) Mental Hospital. And I went through a phase of being a hippie. And, you know, at the time, I felt, well, maybe going to Vietnam is not a such great idea because I was surrounded by people who thought the war is wrong and we shouldn't go, and they were trying all kinds of things to get out of their service in Vietnam.
And I took my responsibility and I went to Vietnam, and I'm glad I did. I think we should've been there. I personally helped people get better. That was my job. And I worked with people who helped interdict bad guys who were killing Americans. And I'm not ashamed at all that I went, and I think that - however, that people who were against the war had every right to voice their opinion and do what they could according to their conscience.
It's interesting that I've attended conferences where I've met people who didn't go to Vietnam. When they found out I was a Vietnam veteran, they told me how sorry they were. They told me that, for instance, that they wish they had gone, and after the third beer they're really sorry they didn't go. And my comment to them was, I'm glad you didn't get to go. And they would ask me: Why not? I said, because you have nothing to remember. So...
CONAN: All right.
DOC: ...I appreciate Senator Pressler's position, and I think more people ought to be speaking out about this. I don't think the dialogue is over.
CONAN: No, I suspect that's right, Doc.
Mr. PRESSLER: Well, let me say that those who did not go became very critical of those of us who did serve in one capacity or another, during the years from about 1965 to probably '85, and then it all changed. But let's remember that the military and people who served in it were considered lesser idealistic than this group that did not. And this causes part of the division.
CONAN: You put it in your piece: Eventually, they began to believe their idealism was superior to those who did serve.
Mr. PRESSLER: That is correct. And now that there's kind of a reverse psychology, they were so critical of the military then that those in the media and elsewhere now are praising the military. Now, presently, the military is not drafted. Let's take someone who joins the police force or becomes a public school teacher. They're also serving the nation. But this elite who didn't serve are now, today, over-praising the military, you might say.
And this is going to lead to expectations from veterans that may not be able to be met in terms of jobs when they come back, in terms of - well, for example, we have an increased veterans payments for disabilities. They're only about $30,000 a year for 100 percent disability. That's very, very low. So we're not really meeting our commitment to veterans, but we're praising them. We're building monuments. We're going through this - all these gyrations. And this will lead to some policy problems, also.
CONAN: Senator Pressler, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.
Mr. PRESSLER: Good. Thank you.
CONAN: Larry Pressler served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, a former Republican senator from South Dakota. His op-ed, "The Technicality Generation," ran in The New York Times on May 18th. You can find a link to it at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. He was kind enough to join us here in Studio 3A.
Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will talk about options for cleaning up oil in the Gulf. Why, he asks, are we still using decades-old technology? This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
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