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by William H. Benson

May 1, 2008

     Muhammad Ali, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion, appeared at his induction service into the U.S. Armed Forces in Houston, Texas on April 28, 1967. Three times his name was called, and each time he refused to step forward. A military official warned Ali that he was committing a felony, punishable by five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. The official called his name a fourth time, and still Ali would not respond.

     He based his refusal upon his claim that he was a minister of the Black Muslim religion. Ali said, “War is against the teachings of the Holy Q’ran. I’m not trying to dodge the draft. We are not supposed to take part in no wars unless declared by Allah or the Messenger. We don’t take part in Christian wars or wars of any unbelievers.”

     “I have searched my conscience, and I cannot be true to my belief in my religion by accepting such a call. . . . I have no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”

     Two days later, April 30th, the New York State Athletic Commission suspended his boxing license, and stripped him of his heavyweight boxing title.

     Two months later a jury found him guilty of violating the Selective Service Act, and the judge imposed the maximum. An appeals court upheld his conviction, and eventually his case went before the U.S. Supreme Court.

     Young American men, ages 18 to 26, such as Muhammad Ali faced a difficult decision during the 1960’s: either enlist and very well end up in a heated battle in a Vietnam jungle, obtain a legitimate deferment, dodge the draft, or enlist and then desert. There were no exemptions, only deferments.

     An estimated 106,000 of them chose to burn their draft cards and flee to a foreign country: Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, or Mexico, but most—between 50,000 and 90,000— ended up in Canada.

     Others sought sanctuary through deferments. Some claimed they were members of a peace church, such as the Mennonites, Amish, or Quakers, groups who disapproved of war. Some cited health reasons. Others, such as Dick Cheney, claimed family responsibilities and pointed at their wives and children. Many, such as Bill Clinton, stayed in school, and received a student deferment.

     Others, such as Dan Quayle and George W. Bush, found appointments in the National Guard and were less likely to be deployed into conflict, but then they were accused of using family influence to secure plum assignments that were unavailable to ordinary citizens. Rudy Giuliani received a deferment because he held a job in an essential civilian occupation, as a law clerk.

     Missionaries of the Latter Day Saints church, such as Mitt Romney, claimed deferment, also citing religious reasons. The lottery was instituted in the spring of 1972, and those with high numbers need not enlist; those with low numbers did so.

     No one expected the Vietnam War to play out as it did. Thousands of young men were fighting overseas while another group of American sons fled their homeland or marched in the streets. The battles raged on, and the anti-war movement divided the U.S. as the draft dodgers and deserters struggled to forge new lives for themselves elsewhere. The U.S. discontinued the draft in 1973, and instituted an all-volunteer force that has served very well since. To revive the draft today would prove immensely unpopular.

     A month after assuming the presidency, on September 8, 1974, Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon, and eight days later Ford announced an amnesty program: those who had fled the country would be allowed to return, if they agreed to work in a public service job for up to two years. Only about 22,000 of those eligible applied for Ford’s program, and it was not until Carter’s presidency that unconditional amnesty was offered to the remaining draft dodgers and deserts.

     In 1971, Muhammad Ali won his legal battle when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that he was not guilty of draft evasion, in that he should not have been drafted at all. He returned to boxing and reclaimed his heavyweight boxing title.