During the American Civil War, billionaire Andrew Carnegie dodged the military draft by paying an Irish immigrant $850 to take his place in the ranks. (That amount would be $17,300 in today’s dollars.) He was not doing anything illegal or unusual. Many wealthy men took advantage of a law that permitted them to pay someone else to fight in their place.
In the Vietnam War, Donald J. Trump and thousands of other privileged young men avoided military service – not by hiring immigrant substitutes, but by taking advantage of a variety of exemptions. Trump used one of the most popular exemptions: showing up at an Armed Forces Induction Center with a letter from a family doctor attesting to a medical problem, in his case bone spurs on one of his feet.
In 2016 the New York Times said that “back in 1968, at the age of 22, Donald J. Trump seemed the picture of health. He stood 6 feet 2 inches with an athletic build; had played football, tennis and squash; and was taking up golf. His medical history was unblemished, aside from a routine appendectomy when he was 10.”
In 2015, while campaigning in Iowa, Trump told a Washington Post reporter that in 1968 his doctor had found a bone spur on one of his feet, but he couldn’t recall which one. “Pressed for details,” the Post reported, “he told reporters to research his draft records. ‘You’ll have to look it up,’ he said. Later that day, his campaign issued a statement saying he had bone spurs in both of his heels.”
Bone spurs are calcium deposits that develop along the edges of bones. While they can be painful, they often cause no problems and are not even discovered unless a patient has an X-ray. In 2016, Trump told the New York Times that “the bone spurs had been ‘temporary’ — a ‘minor’ malady that had not had a meaningful impact on him.”
During the Vietnam War, submitting a letter from a doctor was a favorite strategem of affluent youths, who scrutinized themselves for possible flaws or disorders that could be reported. For example, while he was a student at Harvard, writer James Fallows recalls, “sympathetic medical students helped us search for disqualifying conditions that we, in our many years of good health, might have overlooked.” In some cases, parents intervened to plead with their doctor to find some anomaly or defect that would save their son from an untimely death in Vietnam. (In fairness I should note that not all of the men who gained medical deferments were draft-dodgers ― some had legitimate disabilities.)
Letters from doctors were potent because most induction centers lacked the manpower and the time to contest the findings of a family physician. While the tactic was used by thousands of men from well-to-do families, it was largely unknown to low-income youths, who knew nothing about how they could manage their draft status. In some cases, they had legitimate problems that should have kept them from serving—such as being blind in one eye or having only one kidney—but they possessed no awareness or skills to argue their case.
Many low-income men were also unaware of how to use other methods that wealthier men were using to beat the draft, such as fleeing to Canada or Sweden, jabbing an arm with needles to pass themselves off as a heroin addict, or paying an orthodontist to put unnecessary braces on their teeth.
Most of the men who went to Vietnam were on the bottom rungs of society’s economic ladder. Combat operations were carried out primarily by men in two groups ― those who had grown up in poverty and those who were raised in working-class families. The latter group was described by historian Christian G. Appy as “the nineteen-year-old children of waitresses, factory workers, truck drivers, secretaries, firefighters, carpenters, custodians, police officers, salespeople, clerks, mechanics, miners, and farmworkers.” Men from lower economic levels comprised 80 percent of combat forces, while the remaining 20 percent came from the middle class, half of them serving as officers.
Some draft avoiders felt remorse over their actions. When he was 66 years old, film and TV actor John Lithgow revealed that while he was in his 20s, he won a disqualification by wearing urine-soaked clothes and pretending to be insane during a pre-induction interview. “A sense of shame,” he said, “stayed with me for years and has never entirely disappeared. Some of that shame had to do with the appalling suffering caused by the Vietnam War, suffering that I so conveniently avoided.” Novelist Mark Helprin, in an address at West Point in 1992, told the cadets that during the Vietnam War, “I dodged the draft, and I was wrong. This is a regret that I will carry to my grave.”
Men who believed that the Vietnam War was a mistake could be expected to have no regrets, but it was surprising to see no regrets coming from draft avoiders who had been strong supporters of the war. One of my friends—who believed passionately that American forces should have continued the war until North Vietnam was crushed even if it meant that thousands more American soldiers would die—had no misgivings about sitting out the war. “My family spent thousands of dollars to put me through college and law school,” he told me. “If I had joined the military and been killed in Vietnam, it would have been a waste of time and money.” Former Vice President Dick Cheney, who spent the war in college and graduate school, sought and received five deferments from his draft board (four student deferments and one hardship deferment), even though he was pro-war. Years later, when he was one of the prime architects of the war in Iraq and was accused of being a hypocrite for sending thousands of men into combat, he justified his Vietnam-era behavior in this way: “I had other priorities in the ‘60s than military service. I don’t regret the decisions I made.”
Reacting to comments by Cheney and other successful politicians, Paul Marx, a draftee in the Korean War, wrote in The Baltimore Sun, “For every draft avoider, someone else was made to serve in order to meet the military’s quotas. That ‘someone else’ might very well have been killed in Vietnam. Many of America’s most accomplished young men were ready to pass the buck and let someone else—someone less sophisticated and knowledgeable—make the sacrifices while they pursued their personal ambitions.”
James Fallows wrote a famous article in 1975 (“What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?”) about a bus trip that he and other Harvard students took from Cambridge to the Boston Navy Yard in 1970 for physical examinations to determine if they were fit for military service. Most of the Harvard boys, especially those who clutched X-rays and letters from their family doctors, won medical deferments. As they were being examined, another bus arrived, bearing “the boys from Chelsea, thick, dark-haired young men, the white proles of Boston. Most of them were younger than us, since they had just left high school, and it had clearly never occurred to them that there might be a way around the draft. They walked through the examination lines like so many cattle off to slaughter. I tried to avoid noticing, but the results were inescapable. While perhaps four out of five of my friends from Harvard were being deferred, just the opposite was happening to the Chelsea boys.”
The Harvard boys returned to Cambridge that afternoon as “free individuals, liberated and victorious. The talk was high-spirited, but there was something close to the surface that none of us wanted to mention. We knew now who would be killed.”
I wonder if Donald Trump knew who was killed in his place while he proceeded with his charmed life. I wonder if he ever gave the matter a moment’s thought.
Hamilton Gregory, a Vietnam veteran, is author of McNamara’s Folly: The Use of Low-IQ Men in the Vietnam War, and he appears in a YouTube video entitled “McNamara’s Folly.”