For Bill Clinton the turbulent years that shook the nation from Kennedy's assassination to Watergate—1963 to 1974—were likewise an era of turmoil and transition. He began it as an establishment-oriented student politician at Georgetown University and ended it as a boy wonder law professor and congressional candidate in northwest Arkansas. In between, he ventured to England as a Rhodes scholar to be trained as one of the "best men in the world's fight" and faced the toughest moral dilemma of his life to that point: how to deal with the military draft and the war in Vietnam. It was near the end of that era, while at Yale Law School, that he met his future wife, Hillary Rodham, who would replace his grandmother and mother as the strong woman in his life and play a central role in his political rise.
Clinton's career as a student politician at Georgetown was a curtain-raiser with foretastes of the future. Though an outsider in the predominantly Catholic, upper-middle-class, East Coast school in 1964, he quickly adapted to the system and won over his classmates. He was elected president of his freshman class, then of his sophomore class. But in his junior year, running for president of the student council, he was rejected in favor of a more "populist" candidate.
In his dealings with Vietnam and the draft Clinton behaved like thousands of college students of that era, who adopted different strategies to avoid service in an unpopular war. But as a young man with national political aspirations, he felt pressure to explain in detail every maneuver he made during those anxious days. It turned out that he was better at escaping the military than in leaving an unambiguous account of his actions.
Only 2.2 million of the approximately 8 million young men who served in the armed forces during the 1960s entered the ranks through the Selective Service System. It is hard to pinpoint what percentage of those who volunteered were motivated by patriotism or by more mundane motives like restlessness, or what percentage of those who found ways to avoid conscription were simply seeking to save their skins rather than voicing principled opposition to the Vietnam War. What is certain is that thanks to student deferments, the draft operated unfairly and unequally, with most of the conscripted ranks drawn from lower-income young men from inner cities and farms who did not go to college.
Clinton's own perspective on Vietnam was shaped during his final two years at Georgetown (1966–1968), when he worked as a junior clerk at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then chaired by Senator William J. Fulbright of Arkansas. By then, Fulbright, once close to President Lyndon B. Johnson, had broken from LBJ after concluding that the president had deceived him into supporting the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin resolution expanding the U.S. role in what was essentially a civil war pitting anti-Communist South Vietnam against Communist Viet Cong rebels and Ho Chi Minh's North Vietnamese armies. By the time Clinton arrived on Capitol Hill, Fulbright had become one of the war's most pointed critics, claiming that the United States had no moral or practical reason to be in Vietnam save for the "arrogance of power." The senator was an imposing figure and young Clinton became his disciple and his apostle in resisting the steady escalation of the war. He read hundreds of articles and reports on the American role in Southeast Asia, wrote term papers at Georgetown criticizing Johnson's manipulation of Congress and defending conscientious objection to the draft. By February 1968 his convictions were to be put to the test. The Johnson administration changed its draft policy and eliminated virtually all deferments for graduate students when Clinton was only months away from commencement at Georgetown and had just won a prized Rhodes scholarship to attend Oxford University in England for two years of graduate work.
Meantime the war itself was reaching a critical point. The growing casualty lists were fueling a rising antiwar sentiment that was as much practical as moral. Voters were beginning to doubt that the enterprise was worth its human and economic costs, and their skepticism peaked during the Tet Offensive, an uprising of the Viet Cong inside of key cities throughout South Vietnam thought to be secure. Though the U.S. military "defeated" the offensive, the images of fighting on the grounds of the U.S. embassy in Saigon went far to convince a swelling tide of demands for an end to the failed adventure.
Although Clinton was vulnerable to the draft as soon as he graduated from Georgetown, his draft board in Arkansas delayed calling him and allowed him to sail off to England. This was not unlike the treatment accorded to most of the thirty-two Rhodes scholars in 1968, who were granted temporary deferments despite the new, tighter policy. Others failed induction physicals because of minor ailments that nevertheless left them fit enough to go abroad and begin their studies. Clinton spent most of his two years (1968–1970) enjoying Oxford and holiday trips to Europe, but preoccupation with his draft status and its impact on his future dogged him throughout the experience.
It was a difficult time in his life. He did not receive a degree at Oxford (until the university awarded him an honorary doctorate in civil law in 1994) but did manage to remain a civilian and a two-year student. He first received a draft notice in the spring of 1969 while in England, returned to Arkansas that summer and, with the help of Fulbright aides and others, persuaded the admissions staff of the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at the University of Arkansas Law School to accept him that fall, which entitled him to a reserve deferment that overrode his induction call. Like many contemporaries he was conflicted between opposition to the war and guilt about not serving in Vietnam, where other young Americans were dying. In his case there was the added factor of a strong desire to return to Oxford, and he allowed that to prevail. By the time his name went into the pool again, a three-month freeze on calling up new recruits was in effect, giving him breathing space. He took part in London antiwar demonstrations in the autumn of 1969 and lucked out in December when, in the next draft lottery, his low number (311) guaranteed that he would probably never be called.
Clinton immediately—and unwisely, as it turned out—wrote a letter to Colonel Eugene J. Holmes, director of the ROTC program at Arkansas, thanking the officer for "saving" him from the draft and detailing his inner struggle. He opposed the war on principle, but open resistance to the draft or a plea for conscientious objector status would harm his "political viability" and undercut his life's ambition. His letter, he said, would explain "how so many fine young people have come to find themselves still loving their country but loathing the military." The letter, written when he was only twenty-three, resurfaced in 1992 when Clinton was a presidential candidate. It was pounced upon by opponents, who gave it a politically damaging twist that would haunt his campaigns and administrations, calling it evidence of an ambitious, manipulative young man who had disdain for the military.