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The candidates and Vietnam


WASHINGTON - They were both scions of privilege, finishing their Ivy League studies in New England, when a dismal jungle war in Southeast Asia rudely pushed its way into their lives.

George W. Bush was a senior at Yale in 1968, a year of assassination and domestic turmoil over the U.S. commitment in Vietnam. Albert Gore Jr. finished his degree at Harvard the following spring. Both faced the prospect of military service.

Vietnam became a gantlet for that generation of young men, who had to decide how they would respond to the military draft and try to measure how their response would affect their lives.

Gore, who opposed the war, eventually joined the Army and served as a journalist in Vietnam. Bush, who supported it, joined the Texas Air National Guard and served stateside as a jet pilot.

For the two young men, the liberal Gore and the conservative Bush, there were parallels in the decisions that resulted in military service.

Both Gore and Bush reached their decisions on whether and how to serve with an eye toward how it would affect the political fortunes of their fathers.

Later, both faced allegations that political influence was used to find them the particular service jobs they held. As the Vietnam War debate grew more strident at Yale, Bush defended his congressman father's support for America's assistance to South Vietnam. But Bush and some of his friends viewed the war with detachment. Vietnam for most students was a "personal decision," said classmate Robert Dieter. "Everyone would have to fulfill the commitment or get a deferment."

Just to the north in Cambridge, Gore strongly opposed U.S. policy while a Harvard student. Like Bush, he took a dim view of the more virulent anti-war elements. "[Gore] sees politics as a way of solving problems, not venting ideological rage," says Mike Kapetan, a close friend and classmate of the vice president, looking back to that time.

Despite their differing views on the war, it was perhaps inevitable that Gore and Bush would don military uniforms, being the sons of ambitious politicians from the South. A deferment beyond college or a move to Canada were unrealistic options. It came down to which service and what kind of job.

Bush joined the National Guard. But he chose to fly rather than take a less hazardous billet. That decision, said his friends, was partly out of his own interest and partly because of his father, a decorated World War II Navy aviator. Why the younger Bush decided not to go through one of the services' officer schools and instead chose to join the Texas Air National Guard is unclear.

Bill Minutaglio in "First Son," a biography of the Texas governor, quoted Bush friend Doug Hannah as saying that, after graduation, he and Bush discussed their choices. "George and I used to talk all the time that there had to be a better alternative than being a second lieutenant in the Army," Hannah said.

Bush realized he had to join the military in part so he would not "derail his father's political career," Roland Betts, a Yale friend, told Minutaglio. Later, as Americans grew increasingly disenchanted with the war, Bush also had qualms. "He questioned it," says Doug Ensenat, a Yale classmate, recalling Bush's predicament, "but his dad was still holding elective office."

Gore, too, considered his father's political fortunes in weighing his choices about the military, say the vice president's Harvard friends. Gore's father, Albert Sr., was facing a tough Senate re-election challenge in 1970 because of his anti-war stance and other liberal views.

The younger Gore told Richard E. Neustadt, one of his government professors, that he had to enlist rather than take the route of officer training. "Everyone else I knew, including my son, was getting commissioned as an officer," Neustadt recalled. "Al said he couldn't do that. He said, 'That's not what my father's constituents are going to do.'" Gore was among an estimated one dozen graduates in the 1,115-member Harvard class of 1969 who went to Vietnam.

Gore reflected on his decision during his convention speech in August. "I enlisted in the Army because I knew if I didn't go, someone else in the small town of Carthage, Tenn., would have to go in my place," he told the delegates.

There have been allegations - strongly denied by the candidates - that influence was used to wangle military posts.

In the late 1960s, it was well-known that service in the National Guard was a way to avoid service in Vietnam, since it was highly unlikely that those stateside units would be called up. And there were long waiting lists for Guard slots.

Last fall, former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes told the New York Times that he had contacted the commander of the Texas Air National Guard to help Bush gain an increasingly rare pilot's slot. Barnes said he was approached by a Houston oilman, Sidney A. Adger, who was a friend of the Bush family. No one in the Bush family contacted him, said Barnes. Both Adger and the general who Barnes said he contacted are dead.

Bush brushed aside Barnes' comments. "My unit was actively looking for pilots. I became an F-102 pilot. If you're referring to ... Ben Barnes, if he interceded on my behalf, he wasn't asked to by anybody named George Bush. He quoted a dead person, and it's hard to refute that." Moreover, Lt. Col. Walter Staudt, the unit's commander, denied there was any influence on him to select Bush.

Ensenat, Bush's Yale classmate who later worked for the elder Bush, disputes any suggestion of political leverage: "It didn't happen. It wasn't [Bush's] style. It wasn't his father's style," he said.

Meanwhile, Bill Turque in his book "Inventing Al Gore," quoted an unidentified distant relative Gore's who claimed to have interceded with Gen. William Westmoreland, the U.S. Army chief of staff, in an effort to get Gore posted as an Army journalist. Gore consented to the meeting, "although he never asked who his adviser planned to consult," Turque wrote.

Westmoreland, in two meetings with the relative, was told that Gore was interested in becoming an Army journalist, according to Turque: "Westmoreland made no promises ... but he left Gore's [relative] with one vague assurance: 'I believe he will be watched,' he said. 'He will be cared for.'" Turque said Westmoreland recalled the meeting and offering advice but insisted he was "not a party" to Gore's selection as an Army journalist.

The Gore campaign did not return a reporter's call for comment.

Army historians said 25 percent of Army soldiers served in Vietnam in 1969, with more than half in the United States and the rest scattered elsewhere around the world. About 40 percent of the estimated 360,000 Army troops serving in Vietnam at the beginning of Gore's enlistment held comparable noncombat jobs.

Kapetan, the Harvard classmate of the vice president, recalled Gore telling him that he became an Army journalist as a result of an aptitude test and a preference questionnaire. While in Vietnam, Gore at times choppered over hostile terrain to report stories. "Journalist-schmernalist," said Kapetan. "You go into a war where there's no front line. He put himself in harm's way."

Meanwhile, Bush's role piloting an F-102 Interceptor for the Guard "was by no means a risk-free route," said Ensenat, the governor's Yale classmate. Flying combat aircraft even in a noncombat environment is perilous, his friends said.

One night Bush came back to their apartment, Ensenat remembered, and told him about a near crash. "I almost put it in the deck tonight," Bush said.

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