WASHINGTON — The ghosts of the Vietnam War are stirring again as GOP presidential candidates fight for position in the primary elections.
Vietnam veteran Ron Paul has called Newt Gingrich a "chicken hawk," asserting in Saturday's GOP candidates debate that Gingrich shirked military service and so shouldn't have the power to send others to war.
A review of government records finds no evidence that Gingrich dodged any legal responsibilities as a draft-aged young man in the 1960s. Paul was drafted, but Gingrich wasn't, apparently the result of changing draft regulations.
Here's the testy exchange the two had when the subject came up Saturday:
PAUL: "I think people who don't serve when they could and they get three or four or even five deferments ... they have no right to send our kids off to war." He added: "I'm trying to stop the wars, but at least, you know, I went when they called me up."
GINGRICH: "The fact is, I never asked for deferment. I was married with a child. It was never a question..."
PAUL: "...When I was drafted, I was married and had two kids, and I went."
THE FACTS: It's true that Paul was a husband and father when he served as an active-duty Air Force doctor from 1963-1965. He turned 18 in 1953, finished medical school in 1961 and was drafted in 1962 under a law that said fathers had to serve unless their induction would cause their dependents extreme hardship.
But the draft was changed the following year, giving all fathers a pass without having to prove hardship. Gingrich registered for the draft when he turned 18 in 1961 and was contacted by his draft board to fill out a general information questionnaire in mid-1963. Upon reviewing the questionnaire, the board gave him a deferment on the basis of having a child, Selective Service System officials said Tuesday after reviewing ledgers from the era.
"I wasn't eligible for the draft," Gingrich said in Saturday's exchange, repeating for emphasis: "I wasn't eligible for the draft."
Strictly speaking, it's true that fathers were not eligible to be drafted at that time – just as students got deferments and were not eligible to be compelled into the armed forces then. That doesn't mean Gingrich couldn't serve – he could have joined the military voluntarily. It only means the government couldn't conscript him.
In a 1985 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Gingrich said: "Given everything I believe in, a large part of me thinks I should have gone over." Then, he added: "Part of the question I had to ask myself was what difference I would have made."
As for Paul's feelings on who should be in a position to send troops to war, it's hardly a new sentiment. But the number of veterans who eventually found their way to Congress or the White House or as other national leaders also has shifted with changing American times.
The reality today is that less than 1 percent of Americans serve in the all-volunteer armed forces built after the draft was ended. That has meant a greatly diminished pool of veterans available to run for political office and far fewer serving in Congress than in the past. Upcoming budget cuts will shrink the force further.
Over the nation's history, about two-thirds of presidents have served in the military in some capacity.
Online: Selective Service System http://www.sss.gov/default.htm