‘I Ain’t Got No Quarrel With Them Vietcong’

Jun 27, 2017 · 156 comments
Carl (Atlanta)
very interesting article and man, minor technical correction - he did not have Parkinson's Disease, he had post-traumatic Parkinsonism, ironically caused by his profession,
Keith (Merced)
The Viet Cong fought for independence from France, and we fought to protect Vietnamese who wanted to remain a French colony after their defeat at Battle of Dien Bien Phu. I often wonder how the history of IndoChina would have changed if Eisenhower's rejected the true enemies of democracy in southern Vietnam who refused to participate in national elections to determine the Vietnam’s destiny. Eisenhower said 85% of the Vietnamese would have voted for the Communists anyway, essentially spitting on my father’s grave who lost his right hand in Germany to protect even the smallest nation’s right to determine their destiny.
Glen (Texas)
Jimmy Stewart was a star celebrity before WWII and a decorated bomber pilot afterwards. Stewart, like Louis, volunteered. Elvis Presley was drafted (during peacetime) and was offered but declined a spot in the Army's entertainer's corps. It is a little glib to say Ali would have been kid gloved had he acquiesced to his draft notice. I think Nixon would, to coin a phrase, have "made an example" of Ali. And not by coddling him.
Victor (Chicago)
Never was there an athlete as charismatic as Ali. Love him forever.
LW (Helena, MT)
Ali was a supreme artist with words as well as with his fists, feet and feints. What he said about the war was succinct, powerful and riveting even today.
J L. S. (Alexandria Virginia)
A Louisville native myself, I was proud of Ali for takin a stand against the Vietnam War.

But we continue to permit the defense industry to pursue war instead of saying we've had enough of these stupid conflicts, enough of these haphazard foreign wars that jeopardize the lives of young Americans.

Ali did the honorable thing, while Donald Trump received four college deferments and a medical deferment from military duty for fake bone spurs in his heels!
Kent (Rural MN)
My grandfather, born in 1908, was a major boxing fan and staunch conservative that was deeply offended by Ali's stance...and refused to refer to him by his chosen name. Six years later his Republicanism was broken by Nixon's behavior, whom my grandfather referred to as "a crook".

Like now, those were interesting times with foundational conflicts...I wonder whom we'll respect half-a-century hence?
foodie4life (<br/>)
Ali will always be my hero. His markers in history are priceless and we are lucky that they find their way into even casual discourse. Thank you for the articles and my own memories and struggle to understand a time before I was born but nonetheless relevant.
Conklin 5 (Indianapolis)
Thank you all for your moving comments and this series of articles that have spurred them. I fear that without these reminders, we'll gloss over the people and the costs incurred. That we'll continue to plow on manically, never examining the wounds our wars inflict - to the bodies, but also to the nation's soul.

I was born in '67. Ali was a hero to me. As was Jerry Holcomb, my high school economics and humanities teacher (yes, there used to be such a thing), who served in Viet Nam and shared his stories.

I'm lucky. Through the lottery of birth, I'll never know war first hand. My dad did. He went in on D-Day. He rarely told a war story and then, only funny ones about people and crazy mix ups. He eventually morphed from FDR democrat to Reagan democrat and in my teens I thought we were a long way apart.

But when Reagan re-instated registration for the draft and began careening around Central America, my dad took me aside one day after a dinner discussion and said, "If it comes to it, there's cash in the safe in the basement. You just get out of the country."

That told me everything I ever needed to know about the actual business of going to war. I'm thankful for those who went when we needed to, sorry for those who went when we didn't need to. I'd be grateful for leaders who could be counted on to know the difference.
Jake Linco (Chicago)
Joe Louis fought Hitler. Ali fought LBJ. Long live Ali!!
bobw (winnipeg)
LBJ did more for African Americans than any other President, bar none.
Just saying.
Southern Boy (The Volunteer State)
Ali was the man; there will never be another like him. RIP champ.
Rick Papin (Watertown, NY)
I respect Ali's decision to go to prison for his beliefs about Vietnam Nam. I do not respect a man who beat people to a pulp for a living claiming the term of "conscientious objector".
Getreal (Colorado)
Yes, Ali didn't hire a Dr. to find a Bone spur in order to get a deferment like the coward in chief, who we didn't vote for, yet was appointed president by republicans in the electoral college.
BTW the bone spur mysteriously disappeared when he was asked about it.
Also, Ali took it as good as he gave. Ever hear of Smokin' Joe Frazier? Ken Norton, Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Trever Berbick.
Big difference between dropping bombs, carrying a gun to kill and maim as many as you can, women and children get killed too. No comparison to the sport of boxing. Unlike conscription, No one is forcing you into the ring.
Ever see football players knocked out on the field ?
You seem to want to feel morally superior to Ali. Good luck fooling yourself.
mikeoshea (New York City)
He was a great fighter and a courageous man. He spent several years in prison rather than participate in a war that he knew instinctively was wrong and was willing to stand and take the punishment - jail - and indignities of those who hated him.

Our current excuse of a president had graduated from a military school and was told to go to his draft board to be inducted into our armed forces (in Vietnam), but was unwilling to serve. He had his father "convince" a doctor to claim (4 or 5 times) that he had a bad heel. He didn't have half the courage and decency of Muhammad Ali, and still doesn't.

"Let Your Motto Be Resistance" (Washington, DC)
“Different times, different wars...;” who are you kidding? Not for Black people or Black soldiers living in and fighting for a racist government. So, please stop the fiction and the whitewashing.

In both of these wars, Black soldiers were fighting abroad for a freedom that they did not have in America. Doing WWII, German POWs were treated better by the US Government than Black soldiers fighting against Hitler. In fact, many Black soldiers returning home to the South after fighting abroad were lynched while wearing the American uniform, and no one was ever convicted. To Black people, there was no distinction between Hitler, Bilbo, Maddox, Strom Thurman, George Wallace, and all of the other segregationist in power who dreamed of a return to the antebellum period.

Finally, if this is an attempt to honor Muhammad Ali, it fails miserably. The bulk of white America and powerful capitalist white institutions hated Ali because he had the courage to challenge and stare the lie of white supremacy and imperialism in the eye and call it for what it was, racist and imperialistic aggression, and say, “dam the money, I am still the Greatest.”
bobw (winnipeg)
Pretty sure your average African American would make a distinction between Hitler and Wallace- Wallace actually recanted his racism and asked for forgiveness prior to his last term, and of course, didn't initiate a genocide.

But to somebody oh so trapped in the Marxist dialectic, that must be a pretty subtle distinction
PS (Vancouver)
To this day, whenever I see clips of Ali in the ring I get goose pimples. The man was godly. Whenever I see clips of him speaking up for civil rights and about Vietnam I am moved almost to tears - such moral clarity, such honour, such courage. What a man. What a hero. What a true American icon?
leftcoastTAM (Salem, Oregon)
I'm a little tired of the Jane Fonda-bashing because of her opposition to the Vietnam War. Why do you assume that she was being less genuine and honorable than Ali? Is it because she went there and expressed it in a more radical way? Give it up, and give her a break, please.
wally (maryland)
It has taken Americans a long time to distinguish the warriors from the wars. Those who served in Vietnam did not benefit from that understanding and deserve Americans' gratitude today, however long deferred.

It's fine and democratic to approve of the decisions of Mohammad Ali and others for standing on principle in opposition to the war, but those who actually served risked and sacrificed far more. While we may clap for Ali let's remember to honor the more anonymous men and women who did serve when others did not.
Getreal (Colorado)
One of the most important fights was between Joe Louis and Germany's Max Schmeling. After Schmeling won the first fight in 12 rounds. Joe Louis came back to win the second match in a first round knockout. Proving the lie to Hitler's Aryan race propaganda. The whole country was amazed. Schmeling knew Hitler was using him and later became good friends with Louis, helping Louis out at his times of need when the IRS took every penny and more from Louis.
Joe Louis fought many charity bouts in which he turned the entire gate over to the armed forces. But then the IRS hounded him to pay taxes on that money which he had turned over to the government..
So,... Joe Louis was forced out of retirement, to lose a bout to a young Rocky Marciano, then Louis did wrestling, then became a casino door greeter, all to pay taxes on money he never had. This is how the US government paid "The Brown Bomber" back for his Army service, his charity work and his lifting the spirits of America during WW11
Solamente Una Voz (Marco Island, Fl)
Why any black man fought for a country that called them "Boy"', wouldn't allow them to vote in many states, offered a second class education, walk a street after dark, buy a house where they wanted or marry whoever they loved if they did match color wise is a mystery to me.
I admire Ali for not being bought. He wasn't for sale.
BC (Renssrlaer, NY)
Only a few men have truly inspired me in my lifetime: Ali, King, Mandela, Glenn, the Apollo 11 astronauts. They all had the "Right Stuff." When I think of them, and then think of the scowling, nasty, belittling fat old man in the White House, I could weep for what the United States has become.
Sean (Ft. Lee. N.J.)
1967 NYT still disrespectfully referred to Ali as Cassious Clay.
R (Kansas)
Vietnam was an illegal and horrible war, much like our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan today. Stupid wars that kill innocent kids. Ali was right on.
Farida Shaikh (Canada)
Ali was and always will be "The Champ." I loved him then and I love him now, even though he has died. There is and was no one like him.
David (Phoenix)
The thought of my child fighting and dying for a country that would deny its own citizens access to regular, affordable health care enrages me. Never.
Dr Dawn (New York)
My thoughts exactly, David. "Enrages me" is the correct phrase. Thank you, especially since I have draftable age children...
Joe (Raleigh, NC)
There was enough to dislike about Mr. Ali. He could be obnoxious, and he treated Joe Frazier horribly. Still, as a celebrity, he could have had a much easier road, but he stood up for principle, to his credit.

But what I always think of in relation to his antiwar stance, has more to do with us than with him: After his release from prison he was a guest of Pres. Ford in the White House. How different our nation was then! This would be unthinkable in today's hyper-polarized America. By comparison, if an immigration activist beat Mr. Trump in court, do you think he/she would get an invite to the White House?
richard (denver)
The Anti-war Movement was quite active in the 60s. Am sure they mentored the many ' fundamental transformation ' activists who will write comments here today .
Greg a (Lynn, ma)
Did you ever consider that the commenters here were the mentorers then?
zDude (anton chico, nm)
Imagine that, Muhammad Ali couldn't score that well on the military's standardized tests but he was clearly more intelligent than those who attended the finest educational and military institutions about fighting the Viet Cong.
Aardvark (Houston)
Let's set a few things straight.
1.South Vietnam was a fiction. It existed only because of American criminality in violating the Geneva Accords. The beginning of the war and the expansion to Laos and Cambodia were war crimes from the start.
2.There never was a self-sustaining government of the fictional "South Vietnam" the US invented. Our chosen Vietnamese puppets were Catholic gentry in a Buddhist country where the vast majority fought for independence from French colonial slavery the Catholic Church supported.
3.No American casualty occurred to make Vietnam free, they all died because of a failed American policy that never recognized the legitimate aspirations of the majority of the people.
4. Over three times the bomb tonnage used by the Allies in all of WW2 were used by Americans to say nothing of napalm, white phosphorous, Agent Orange, and cluster bombs which still cause hundreds of casualties today. This makes those of us who were adults at that time war criminals.
5.Millions of Southeast Asians died because of American policies and war crimes and continue to suffer.
Muhammad Ali was spot on.
Navigator (Brooklyn)
America was war-crazy in those days. The Vietnam war was an atrocity. So many promising young Americans gave up their lives for nothing. It was a totally shameful and humiliating chapter in our history. All of us who lived through it are grateful that we survived.
Joe (Raleigh, NC)
Navigator said: "America was war-crazy in those days...."

Was?? Why the past tense?
Marge Keller (Midwest)

Gosh, I miss Muhammad Ali although I remember a time when he called himself Cassius Clay. He was a class act then and will always be one in my heart and in the history books. He stood his ground, no violence, no mob mentality protest actions, just him, speaking his mind. It is that kind of strength of conviction, character and integrity that seems to be lacking in so many levels these days. I also miss his bantering with Howard Cosell. Mr. Ali was a true champ in every sense of the word. He set an extraordinary example by simply living and being himself. Thank you NYT for the wonderful article and for the sad/sweet memories.
Joseph Morguess (Tamarac, Florida)
Thank you Marge Keller, my sentiments exactly.-- which I have expressed many times here at The NY Times comments section, as opportunities arose. I'm 80 now, and proud of my values and for standing up for justice and equality for all. I'm a white NYorker bred male, a kid from the streets who hung on every Worthy word from that kid from the Louisville streets. I marched for civil rights, against the Vietnam Nam war, and taught kids and others by example- for peace and good will.. Ali , for one, was a major inspiration
Marge Keller (Midwest)

Based on your heartfelt comments Mr. Morguess, I see many similar, admirable and honorable qualities which you and Mr. Ali shared. I believe in my heart that Mr. Ali was an incredible role model, as you continue to be as well. Continued peace and goodwill my dear.
science prof (Canada)
When I am discouraged about the way we as a society never seem to be progressing, I look back at the video clips of Muhammad Ali taking this stand. Talk about moral clarity. His words are still shocking to hear, in a good way,
CMK (Honolulu)
in the same era, a young man got out of military service by claiming he had painful heel spurs (and had a doctor's note to prove it). That young man went on to become the worst President the US had ever seen.

In his later years Muhammad Ali became a World leader.
jammerbirdi (beverly hills)
Ali was my biggest hero as a kid. Incredibly, his greatest historically relevant act has gone, as far as I know, completely unrecognized and certainly under-reported on for over half a century. I'm reminded of it by this article that points out that Ali was the first truly famous (black) American to criticize and resist the war in Vietnam.

What's more significant than that? This: Ali was the first truly famous black American to stand up to and publicly 'sass back' to white America. He used his fame and a pulpit he created for himself to lash back at what he rightly saw as an oppressive white power structure.

It simply hadn't happened in the United States until Ali did it that a black person anywhere near the level of fame of a charismatic and colorful heavyweight champion gave an angry and undiplomatic voice, speaking in the language and tones of the most aggrieved parts of black America, to the many racial grievances and slights his people were enduring.

I don't know how that's been missed or downplayed. To me, it's Ali's most significant contribution to the history of African Americans, to the civil rights struggle, and to our nation's history in general.
Jeff (45th)
Another hero to join the United passenger who refused to deplane. Rise up NYT commenters!
Tuvw Xyz (Evanston, Illinois)
Well, if Cassius Clay a.k.a. Muhammad Ali refused to be drafted, has he been prosecuted like many others? It is not a question of whether one's choice when one is called to arms to fight a war that he believes is just, or not, but a question of citizen's duty.

That the war was definitely unpopular with a large part of the US population, has been amply demonstrated. However, it did not come to attempts to resist the government by force or to overthrow it.
Dr. Glenn King (Fulton, MD)
However, he did have a quarrel with all white people, which his religion called "blue-eyed devils."
Chris (NYC)
He wasn't wrong.
Chris (NYC)
2nd-class citizenship for black people didn't exactly end after enlisting either. The military brass itself wasn't much better than civilian or Corporate America. Even today, just look at the paucity of high-ranked black officers in the armed forces.
Honor Senior (Cumberland, Md.)
Great boxer, steadfast human, not very bright, but for all i know, a very nice person!
Massimo Podrecca (Fort Lee)
A true hero. America's Vietnam War was a murderous bloodbath. Over two million civilians killed by bombs bursting in air and rockets red glare. A glass of Agent Orange or napalm anyone?
John (New York)
The people of Vietnam suffered horribly under the bombs, the poisons (Agent Orange), the village burnings of the Pentagon and the death squad murders of the CIA.

What Ali did was a magnificent contribution to spreading resistance to the war among people in the U.S. That he made sacrifices for it was unfortunate. That he was willing to sacrifice was wonderful. That resistance, including that among hundreds of thousands of U.S. GIs, helped shorten the war.

And Jane Fonda, she contributed too. Tens of thousands of GIs went to concerts and rallies to hear her and other stars excoriate Nixon and Co. and they cheered her on, and they were cheering Ali too.
Miss Ley (New York)
Perhaps some of you remember the end of the honeymoon between the columnist Walter Lippmann and President Lyndon Johnson which ended over Vietnam. This is what the revered columnist wrote before leaving the Capital:

'A mature great power will make measured and limited use of its power. It will eschew the theory of a global and universal duty which not only commits it to unending wars of intervention but intoxicates its thinking with the illusion that it is a crusader for rightheousness, that each war is a war to end all war (Lippman has more to add, but either way, there is reason to believe that he would have despised this presidency and its administration).

'Different times, different wars, different reactions by two magnificent athletes, both champions of principle to the challenges that life threw at them', writes Bob Orkand and it brings to mind times when men were lions, while we remember to honor our troops who are protecting us today.
Chris (NYC)
It's amazing how black activists suddenly become safe to embrace in America once they're dead (MLK) or incapacitated (Ali).
David (NJ)
Cassius Clay should have spent the remainder of the war in jail. It's a travesty that he was released before the POWs came home in 1973.
Sean (Ft. Lee. N.J.)
Black Nationalists had little use for MLK's nonviolence strategies, considering his philosophy a mix of kowtowing Uncle Toming. While King's social justice antenna broadened including in the mix poor whites.
Leonard Brisendine (DC)
he was a real man, not a simple minded internet troll.
Mike (NYC)
He didn't want to fight Vietcong but for copious sums of money he'd get into a ring and beat the daylights out of someone. Hypocrite!
Sean (Ft. Lee. N.J.)
Ridiculous. Ali supporting Vietnam War would have been a major PR bonanza.
Jay (NM)
Muhammad Ali, a GIANT of a man...outside the boxing ring.
Scott Newton (San Francisco , Ca)
Unfortunately very few have followed his example in the current unlawful wars. The law and military code require that unlawful orders not be obeyed. But yet these wars continue. Bombing, drone and missile strikes continue on countries where we are not at war. No one in the ranks (that we can see) is refusing to facilitate these actions. They are illegal in terms of international law, as well as US law. The NYT finally took the step of asking about Trump's missile strike on Syria "Was it Legal" on the front page. Too bad they did not start with President Clinton/Bush/Obama and ask the same of their wars, invasions, missile strikes and drone asassinations.
Lester Arditty (New York City)
Muhammad Ali refused service in the United States Army as a conscientious objector. He didn't try to avoid service without facing the punishment for doing so. He showed courage to stand up & say no! He understood his refusal could land him in jail and end his boxing career. Yet he did not hesitate.
How does that compare to several white Christian men who when onto careers in business & politics.
Dan Quayle ~ former Vice President:
He used his connections to stay out of the draft & leapfrog past a long list of applicants to secure a position in the Indiana National Guard.
George W. Bush ~ former President:
He used his connections through his father George H.W. Bush, then a congressman got special dispensation to join the Texas Air National Guard. He was sworn in on the same day he applied. His application was expedited because of his family's political connections.
donald trump ~ president:
When his student deferments (total 4) was to run out, he receive a letter from a doctor stating he had heal spurs (a totally treatable condition) to get out of military service.
Bill Clinton ~ former President:
In 1969, at the time a Rhodes Scholar & unlikely to get a deferment again, opted to sign up for ROTC. When he then decided not to use ROTC as a way to avoid the draft, he sent a letter to his draft board. He was reclassified 1A. However, with a draft number of 311 in the lottery, he was unlikely to be drafted.
Muhammad Ali risked everything for his principals. He deserves respect.
carterpaige (San Francisco)
The writer doesn't mention that Joe Louis donated several of his purses from fights to the U.S. Government in support of the war effort, only to later be hounded be hounded by the IRS. In addition, after the war Coca Cola gave Max Schmeling (a nazi) distribution rights in Germany, while Mr. Louis had to come out of retirement to earn money to satisfy the IRS. This is how America looked after one of its greatest patriots.
Lawrence Linehan in Buckinghamshire (Buckinghamshire, UK)
I'm surprised Colonel Okand made no mention of Jack Johnson.
Michael (Rochester, NY)
A true American hero. Actually defending American freedom.
Doug Hacker (Seattle)
Muhammad Ali was a Great American Hero. I was drafted in 1967 and went for my physical in Los Angeles. I had struggled with leaving the US for Canada which would have been life changing but went to my physical in the hope that my eyesight would make me 4F. It did. My decision was nothing to be proud of, it was an easy way out. The Great Muhammad Ali passed on a life of ease and comfort and chose the difficult path of resistance. His refusal to be drafted effected the entire country. As it turned out for the better. Even as he lit the Olympic torch in Atlanta his detractors were still there huddled in their anger.

Ali was the most recognized man in the world. Anything he would have done would have impact. America owes a debt of gratitude.
David H. Eisenberg (Smithtown, NY)
It is rarely reported that the S. Ct. made its ruling in Ali's favor based on procedural grounds, in that the Selective Service Appeals Board did not state what grounds it based its decision on and did not find that any law was unconstitutional on its face or as applied. Moreover, Ali, who by the way, was a hero of mine as an athlete (I was in junior high in '71 when the court decided his case and did not learn more about it until an adult), also said that he would engage in certain wars - jihad, that is a holy war against non-believers or those who would not pay the Muslim poll-tax. This does not seem to me to fall into the category of a conscientious objector- that is, he did not object to war in any form, one of the three factors that must be found. A concurrence noted he would fight in a jihad but somehow did not determine it clearly violated the rule.

Despite the fact that Ali was a hero of mine whose death affected me personally, despite the fact that he and other minorities had a strong grievance against many laws later struck down as unconstitutional and oppressive treatment, many others went to war in Vietnam, because they were required to under the law, and were grievously injured or died there. I don't believe he deserved better treatment than they did.
José (Chicago, IL)
The word "jihad" means struggle or strife, it does not mean "holy war." In the interview that you are probably referring to, jihad in the context that he was talking about, meant a holy war, that is a war declared directly by God, as he explained it. I think this differentiation is important, because jihad now has completely different connotations that it did back then. It's also important to note that at that time he was a member of the Nation of Islam (he eventually left and practiced Sunni Islam), so his rhetoric was largely informed by that movement's ideology, which is very different from most Islamic traditions.
citybumpkin (Earth)
There was a lot of history behind Ali's question of "Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam after so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” African-Americans had served in most of America's major wars. From the Civil War to World War II, injustices continued despite their contributions. For a lot of minorities in America, they are members of the "us" tribe only when it benefits the majority.
sapere aude (Maryland)
A great American and role model who didn't hesitate to sacrifice his personal gain at the height of his talents for what he believed. BTW the other heavyweight champion to go to jail was Mike Tyson. For rape.
TritonPSH (LVNV)
It's too funny, isn't it, how Muhammad Ali was absolutely lionized in America in the latter years of his life. What, did people forget that he did one of the most hated things a man can do in this country, tell our endlessly war-crazed government that you want NOTHING to do with America's mass murders and vicious attacks on other countries ? Actually it's too bad people DID forget, or else maybe more would have followed The Greatest's example, and young people gung-ho to fight & kill would think twice and reject the lies of all our mad military campaigns SINCE Vietnam.
Chris (NYC)
Ali was embraced only after he lost his (loud) voice. He became less threatening after Parkinson's got him.
JeffP (Brooklyn)
Muhammad Ali was a brave man, and an eloquent man. His stance literally helped end the war -- at the very least by inspiring others to say "No!"
Mike (Urbana, Illinois)
I grew up in a military family, but was as favorable toward the civil rights movement and the Rev. King and company as a white primary school kid could be.. Saw Ali beat Sonny Liston and thought the better man got beat that night. Then the name change to Ali further alienated me.

But the draft thing was different. It caused me to think more about both the draft and Ali's motivations. In many ways, it could be said this was the start of my rethinking of my life from military brat to support ending the war, resisting the draft, and supporting a number of causes my upbringing really didn't set me up for. I was never a big sports fan and certainly had little interest in boxing. But Ali himself was someone who drew my interest toward something I never would have otherwise paid much attention to.

Like Johnny Cash's eclectic choice of artists for what some believed was a strictly country music show, the Smothers Brothers showdown with CBS, King's own choice to lucidly embrace opposition to the war in his Riverside Statement that year, and many others, few risked more than Ali, whose career briefly became a question mark until it became clear the public wanted more of Ali, emphasizing the growing breadth of anti-war support.

Whatever Ali may have believed about politics before he resisted the draft, he became an ardent champion of human rights, a transformation also grounded in that 1967 decision.
David Henry (Concord)
A great great hero.

Ali was a world leader

The best!
Frank (New York)
I was in high school when Ali aka/Clay refused induction. An interesting element of the discussion amongst the folks I knew was how he wouldn't be subjected to combat. This of course was based on a time honored situation created for past celebrity athletes. But is it that much of a leap to see Muhammad Ali becoming the first "celebrity grunt"? I don't think so. Folks of color in America have always had to be careful about the path they've chosen to walk. Ali was no different. In his twilight years he was seen as a docile shell of the rebellious man child he was. This allowed the general public to decide he was a hero. The fact that he survived the ordeal of being a black person in America should've made him a hero by itself.
bobpay (Titusville, Fl 32780)
Well, I made a different decision from a different place. I was a young (20 years old) Specialist 4 stationed in Wurzburg Germany....and we'd been following the Vietnam situation closely. I decided I could be part of the solution and volunteered. Naive? Yes. Too young to understand fully? Absolutely. Regrets? Not a one. We make our decisions based on what feels right to us at the time, and hopefully learn to live with them.
JeffP (Brooklyn)
I'm glad you made it back alive and sane.
Robert R Payette (Titusville, Fl)
Thank you.....interesting experience for sure. http://www.cantho-rvn.org/
MTDougC (Missoula, Montana)
This made Muhammad Ali a boyhood hero for me, and one of my all-time most admired people. Not for his accomplishments as a boxer, but for his willingness to sacrifice. He gave up the best years of his career for his beliefs. The only other person that I've seen do the same is Nelson Mandela.
Our generation seems to have lost appreciation of this concept. Hedonism and narcissism rule the hour and fundamentally threaten our existence as a free society and democratic republic.
AMM (New York)
It took guts to do what Ali did. He was vilified for it and yet he stood his ground. I admired him for that.
Amy (Brooklyn)
The people of Vietnam suffered incredible hardship under the Communists. It's understandable that Mr Ali wanted to save himself but it's a higher calling to help others to have the same freedoms that we enjoy.
Sen (Seattle Washington)
The Vietnamese chose a communist government over a corrupt democratic one overwhelmingly in a UN referendum. Regardless of the of the flaws inherent in communism, they should have been allowed to make their own mistakes and learn from them instead of being ruled by a puppet government which would have raped the country of whatever it had and given it to the U.S. The belief that we know what is best for other people has and continues to be a great source of misery in the world.
David Henry (Concord)
You have no idea what you're talking about. This was a pointless intervention, killing innocent American lives and tearing the country apart.

Only the Iraq invasion under the Bush family was more pointless.
Miss Ley (New York)
Have you been to a Country named War, Amy? Some of our military men returning from Vietnam are still to be seen forgotten in the streets.
citybumpkin (Earth)
Regarding Joe Lewis: although there is certainly a moral difference between the Vietnam War and World War II, one should not forget the perspective is different for African-Americans. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were brutal regimes. But for African-Americans, their own country was quite brutal towards them and the brutality was immediate and close to home.

The Western Allies' own mistreatment of minorities in their country or colonial subjects made World War II much more complicated for such peoples. In "Nemesis: Battle for Japan 1944-1945" by Max Hastings, there is an account of a Chinese soldier in India who witnessed a British officer beating his Indian servant in the middle of the street in broad daylight, simply because the servant had mishandled some luggage. Many Indians served in the British Army and died for the allied cause nevertheless, but one can understand why some chose to join the Japanese-aligned Indian National Army.
Jason Shapiro (Santa Fe , NM)
"We didn’t like his antiwar speeches, but we weren’t sure he was wrong, either." Well sir, MANY of us AGREED with his anti war speeches and KNEW that he was CORRECT. I'm glad that you survived your time in Vietnam but more than 50,000 did not - and for what?
sylvia (tanaka)
ALI WAS MY HERO. He made a little asian girl realize that she could also stand up for her rights and speak out against injustice and the prejudice I felt every day as someone not white enough to truly join in white society. I still try to speak out about injustice to this day and it was because of this great man. He had a tremendous influence on my young mind and I will be grateful forever.
Mandeep (U.S.A.)
This is the coolest thing that Muhammad Ali ever did. It brings to mind the bumper sticker "WHAT IF THEY GAVE A WAR AND NOBODY CAME." If citizens everywhere became involved in non-cooperation movements such as the one Gandhi led in India, I think we could wield a fair amount of power.
William Case (Texas)
At the time Ali refused induction he was a member of the Nation of Islam, which the Southern Poverty Law Center classifies as a hate group. The Nation of Islam theology has nothing in common with Islamic theology. It taught that white people were devils created by a mad scientist who ordered then to kill all dark-skinned babies at birth. The Nation of Islam doesn’t oppose war, but it taught blacks should not serve in the U.S. military because it was run by whites and unbelievers. Ali said, “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." During World War II, Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad was charged and convicted along with many of his adherents of violating the Selective Service Act and jailed. Had Ali been draft age in 1941, he probably said "I ain't got no quarrel with them Nazis."
José (Chicago, IL)
He left that movement, just like Malcolm X did before him for the very reasons you described. In fact, Malcom publicly denounced the group and Elijah Muhammad in a famous interview with Mike Wallace on CBS shortly before he was murdered.
Jim Steinberg (Fresno, California)
Muhammad Ali, one of my favorite Americans ever. Courage and integrity in and out of the ring.
John Ernest (Irvine, California)
Ali refused induction April 27, 1967. The draft call for that month was about 11000. They didn't say "General, you'll just have to make do with 10999". No they went back to the reservoir and pulled out another number so they still had 11000.

Who was Ali's replacement? We'll never know but we can project his likely service timeline. If he followed the norm he would have most likely completed his training around September - October, been assigned an Army or Marine infantry MOS and sent to Vietnam around the end of 1967 just in time for the TET offensive and the siege at Khe Sahn.

And if he was an infantryman he was likely killed or wounded in 1968, the bloodiest year of the War. So before we celebrate the "hero" Ali let's be reminded that, in addition to tens of thousands of disabled veterans, there are on the Wall the names of some 14000 young Americans who were killed in 1968, one of them very possibly the patriotic soul who was inducted when Ali decided he was too special to serve.
Steve (Tennessee)
Around the same year a certain high-ranking government official elected last November managed to secure a deferment for himself. Who served in that person's place?
Marcus Aurelius (Terra Incognita)
@John Ernest

Beautifully put....
bill (Wisconsin)
Yeah, someone else gave themself up to serve the war machine. We all make our choices.
Sean (Greenwich)
This is the essay The Times felt was appropriate to discuss Mohammad Ali's refusal to be inducted into the military? An essay by a White career military officer? Did The Times not understand how important Ali's principled stand against the draft, and for civil rights was in the history of the Civil Rights Movement?

This essay is a slap in the face to African-Americans and to all who opposed that terrible war.

Once again, we see that the editor of this series just doesn't get it.
William Case (Texas)
The Supreme Court actually deadlocked 4-4 on the merits of Ali’s conscientious objector request, a tie that would have upheld the appellate court’s ruling and Ali’s conviction on draft evasion charges. But rather than sending Ali to jail, the Supreme Court opted for a compromise based on a technicality. The Kentucky Selective Service appeals board had ruled that Ali did not meet any of the three basic tests for conscientious objector status. However, the Justice Department written argument asserted that Ali’s failed only one of the three tests without specifying which test. The court seized on the failure to specify which test to reverse Ali’s conviction. Ali got off because of his celebrity status.
Greg a (Lynn, ma)
So you say. My take always was the Supreme Court was striking a blow against the arbitrary standards of Selective Service. Always remember that there were hundreds of thousands of selective service boards across the country, manned by local politicians and their supplicants. Very few of these local boards did anything in the way of an analytical review as to who would and who would not be eligible for the draft. My local draft board was a joke. A working class town with hundreds of kids that had neither the money nor the wherewithal to attend college. They either enlisted, the vast majority, or waited to get drafted. Any kid who manufactured an excuse - college, injury, illness, fatherhood - was spared. Ali was just the most visible example of the inequity of those who served.
Jean Cleary (NH)
This is a great reminder of the cruelties of war and more importantly the cruelties of discrimination. Nothing has changed over the centuries. So long as the leaders of all nations believe it is their right to impose their form of government on others and also keep the spoils of war, it is going to continue.
The only Continent that seems to be without war. What do they know that we do not?
Mikeyz (Boston)
Hey, he was known as 'The Greatest' for a reason..many reasons.
Timothy Shaw (Madison, Wisconsin)
My brother 1Lt. Thomas F. Shaw was killed in the An Khe Pass piloting his UH-1 (Iroquois) "Huey" on April 27th, 1972. He was in the 129th Assault Helicopter Co. Two thousand young American Huey pilots lost their lives. Seven thousand Huey's were deployed in Vietnam, and 2,500 were lost. His "hoochmate" Warrant Officer Jim Crigler brought his body back as burial escort officer and comforted our family. We are forever grateful to Jim for his service to his country and to our family. I asked him once if Tom and he ever spoke about the deeper meaning of the Vietnam War and what was Tom's feelings on this matter as he never made it back alive. Jim say, "your brother was a great wonderful person, and if he would have survived Vietnam like I was lucky to do, he would have been the President of the Vietnam Veteran's Against the War." Jim's and Tom's story in part was recently on an ABC news clip.
Sean (Ft. Lee. N.J.)
Ali shilling for the U.S. Government, entertaining troops through staged fights, "Tomming" his way into a lucrative post war living instead took a noble stand. A true Profile in Courage.
TDurk (Rochester NY)
Ali obeyed his conscience. More power to him.

He was not a hero in any definition. He did not sacrifice himself for any cause other than himself.

But he did act according to his conscience. He accepted the penalty for what he did. His actions further dramatized the marginalization of African Americans in our country. By doing so, his refusal to be inducted certainly affected the racial consciousness of our country. Both for the better and for the worse. Those who wanted a better integrated country applauded; those who were indifferent shrugged their shoulders; those who were racists at heart simply added to their own venality.

Ali will be a footnote in history. A great boxer. A controversial celebrity. A convert to Farrakhan's racist sect. But in the end, not anyone who made a difference outside of a few devoted followers.
John F. McBride (Seattle)
When I volunteered to be drafted in late summer, 1968, the Cassius Clay chapter in American history was clouded over in the cultural air by the pall of smoke from fires in race-riot torn cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King.

Quite frankly, my decision to volunteer was exactly that, my decision. I wasn't judgmental of others' decisions. To that point, I admired decisions with consequences that others sometimes made. I have a friend who refused to be drafted and, living openly in Seattle, avoided being detained, by relying on friends and family as shelter and look outs while he went on with life as he could. We will always be friends.

When I was in Vietnam our battalion commander, Lt. Col. Bernard Loeffke (Major General, retired, 1992) was profoundly affected by a conversation with a young sergeant serving despite being opposed to the war. Sgt Morford was killed in February 1970. One consequence of the conversation was Bernard turning to healing to promote the nation. When he retired, in 1992, he dedicated his retirement to work intended to establish peace, not war.

Considering the treatment of Blacks, civil rights turmoil, King's assassination, the Black salute during the Olympic Games in Mexico City, and the riots, I understood Muhammad Ali. That Black brothers I served with in Vietnam were there at all is a miracle of American history that confounds me to this day. I don't know how they did it, but am forever moved to have served with them.
Twainiac (Hartford)
I suspect Ali never knew about any of this below.

"But then there is killing that does not easily fit into any of these categories. There is, for example, murder by quota carried out by the Soviets, Chinese communists, and North Vietnamese. Government (or party) agencies would order subordinate units to kill a certain number of "enemies of the people," "rightists," or "tyrants," and the precise application of the order was left to the units involved. Moreover, millions of people died in labor or concentration camps not because of their social identity or political beliefs, but simply because they got in the way, violated some Draconian rule, did not express sufficient exuberance over the regime, innocently sat on a newspaper with the picture of Stalin showing, or simply was a body that was needed for labor (as the Nazis would grab women innocently walking along a road in Ukraine and deport them to Germany for forced labor). And there are the hundreds of thousands of peasants that slowly died of disease, malnutrition, overwork, and hunger in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge forced them under penalty of death to labor in the collectivized fields, expropriating virtually their whole harvest and refusing them adequate medical care. "

David Henry (Concord)
You ASSume Ali didn't know.
Michael Kubara (Cochrane Alberta)
"...despite the social and political progress in the 1960s, civil rights in America still had a ways to go."

As though it was then an A- needing a few tweaks.

This is the Great American Denial--which is what made America "great' in the first place--to which Trumpies seek to return--including the "Great" Depression, "Great" Recession (2007/08) and the "Great" War.

In a century, blacks went from slavery to servility--miseducated, menial jobs--or no jobs, undermined families and motivation--relegated to the back of the bus--literally and otherwise.

That was so much their Great American "place" that Ali was "grandstanding" for refusing to be cannon fodder in a stupid war, killing millions to prevent Vietnam independence--just like the US 1776. Instead South Vietnam was to be a "client state"--US colony--its politicians corrupt puppets--more servility.

And US politicians were shown up to stupid or corrupt as well--JFK, LBJ, Nixon, McNamara. As was Reagan's of Iran-Contra corruption--all waved aside--forgotten--only Ali's "grandstanding" stands out.

Reagan glorified Joe Lewis not for fighting Hitler but for servility to the US 1%--and its "industrial-military complex"--making the world safe for US 1%.

"Full military honors" should be renamed the "Stepinfetchit Award".

The colonel thinks he reveals his wisdom by revealing some doubts.
More denial. Doubts are not enough for a clear conscience.
Carl Hultberg (New Hampshire)
The Vietnam Was like a huge fraternity hazing incident. World War Two veterans got to demand that their kids go through the same initiation, baptism of fire that they did. Daddy fought at Bataan so Junior has to prove himself in Bien Hoa. It was sick and America is still suffering from the stupidity of it all.
Blind Boy Grunt (NY)
Well said. I've been saying much the same for decades.
Joe (Raleigh, NC)
Carl Hultberg said: "The Vietnam Was like a huge fraternity hazing incident. World War Two veterans got to demand that their kids go through the same initiation, baptism of fire that they did. Daddy fought at Bataan so Junior has to prove himself in Bien Hoa. It was sick and America is still suffering from the stupidity of it all."

GREAT post. Thank you.
David Gottfried (New York City)
I always thought that American involvement in Vietnam was wrong, but I abhorred Ali.

Ali's petition to be relieved of the obligation to serve was based on his contention that he was a pacifist, or was dedicated to non violence or that war was wholly alien to his "peace-loving" nature.

He should have been sanctioned by the Court for proferring such a wholly incredulous excuse

Ali was not a peace lover. He idolized war.

1) He became a Muslim. People of that persuasion believe dying for one's faith in a "holy war" is the finest sacrifice available to man.

2) He was a boxer. The aggressiveness in boxing seems incongruous with being a pacifist.

3) His incindiery language, rhetoric and stance made it clear that the prospect of violence put a glint in his eye.

Yes, black people have sufferred immensely. But that doesn't mean that I as a white person should let them pummel me, or my country or our standards.
The Youth (NY)
Unfortunately your standards, your country, and, yes, even you, were built on a foundation of black suffering that you casually sweep aside.
james a. jacobs (san rafael, ca)
Ali, an illiterate, opposed the war because he was ordered to by Elijah Muhammed, another slacker. He was a man who lacked principles in many facets of his life. As Ishmael Reed wrote in "Uneasy about 'the Greatest,'" June 4, 2016 SF Chronicle, Ali dismissed Malcolm X, mocked Joe Louis' speech impediment and called him an Uncle Tom, disparaged and mocked the great Joe Frazier and George Foreman, and at one time preached racial separation. Some American idol.
citybumpkin (Earth)
"Yes, black people have sufferred immensely. But that doesn't mean that I as a white person should let them pummel me, or my country or our standards."

Wow! NYT. You're posting straight-up racist comments now?

Tell me, sir, when was the last time a black person pummeled you? And please explain how black people are pummeling your country and your standards. As you do so, please address how black Americans who served from the Civil War to the Iraq War have "pummeled" your country and its standards.
Disinterested Party (At Large)
At the time, roughly an eighth of our time as a nation was being spent there, in a country the size of Connecticut, on the supposition that if the North Vietnamese army was successful in taking over the country, then the rest of Southeast Asia would fall to communist domination. It was as though all of Southeast Asia was ours to dominate, regardless of whether the people there felt differently about it.
Judged as a thing in itself, U.S.policy did not seem very rational then, and in retrospect it now seems even less so. The fact that the people who devised the policy were heavily influenced by the British, who were still longing for the halcyon days of empire should have been enough to dissuade our so-called leaders; the item of human rights abuses, which abounded due to the dropping of napalm bombs on unsuspecting civilians, and other travesties which war often includes, much to the outrage of people in Geneva, Switzerland, seemed to be ignored in high places, but not on the streets where demonstrations were common. Ali was a hero. Period. The war was a colonialism-inspired absurdity and a complete waste of time.
Rich D (Tucson, AZ)
As a veteran, I admire those who served their country in uniform during the Vietnam War and those who conscientiously objected to the war and refused to participate in it. My Father was a battalion commander in Vietnam during the height of the war. As a distinguished career army officer, although he has spoken very little about this war, he has intimated that he was strongly against what we were doing there. Those who I find offensive are the ones who, through their inherited privilege of wealth or stature in society, just were too scared to either serve their country in uniform or stand up and take a principled position against it. In this category, two persons come readily to mind - Donald J. Trump and George W. Bush. And when our citizenry elects such cowards to office to lead our armed forces, the results are apparent. They use the military in the most irresponsible of ways to compensate for the courage they never had.
Cathyc7 (Denver)
I knew one of every kind of reaction to the war in Vietnam. My first boyfriend was killed, several men went to Canada, my cousin was MIA for many years, several men lied about their health to avoid the draft. I saw no difference between them. It was an unjust war. Ali helped make that clear. I was thrilled he stood up for what was right.
Jamie Nichols (Santa Barbara)
Lt. Col. (Ret.) Oakland gives short shrift to the enormous military, political and moral differences between WWII and the Vietnam War. The former war can be easily justified on any of those three grounds; the latter war cannot.

While it is completely understandable why those who fought in Vietnam for the U.S., including my own brother (who was wounded) and one of my best high school friends (who was killed), their military service has no relevance and carries no weight in judging the decisions of those like Ali who refused, or were not called upon, to fight there.

Nor do those of us who refused to serve militarily during the Vietnam War on moral grounds have the right to judge those who did serve. Only those who fought in Vietnam, whether out of a sense of patriotism, anticommunism and/or simple boredom or lack of purposefulness, can judge themselves and whether their killing and maiming of the Vietnamese people, destruction of their property, and defoliation of their lands with Agent Orange were morally acceptable. Naturally most Vietnam veterans, my brother included, believe, or say they believe, it was.

I've been to Vietnam twice since Saigon fell in 1975: in 1989 and 2003. The Vietnamese people I met were similarly conflicted about the "American War" as they called it. They were understandably proud to have united and rid their nation of foreign occupiers, even if communism had failed them. For them nationalism clearly trumped communism and capitalism.
Sam (Los Angeles)
I respectfully disagree. The author contrasts Ali's decision with that of Joe Louis' decision during WW2. Louis' statement captures the enormous differences between those two wars from the perspective of African Americans living under segregation: “Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain’t going to fix them.”
Steve (Philadelphia)
Jane Fonda didn't lend support to the enemy because North Vietnam was not an enemy of ours. True, we were told so by our government in a sort of grand Stanley Milgram experiment, and many obeyed, leading us to kill 2,000,000 civilians and 1,100,000 North Vietnamese fighters. Now Trump has just finished meeting with Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and announced the signing of deals worth billions of dollars, including major contracts with G.E. and Caterpillar. Government can be fickle and immoral and when it asks us to be immoral, we have an obligation to disobey.
FoxyVil (NY)
You do historical memory-impaired UStatesians a great disservice by juxtaposing Louis's moment and Ali's moment along with each war. Certainly, your last sentence gives you a hedge, but it isn't enough.
Almighty Dollar (Michigan)
I loved throwing Jane Fonda under the bus. Very original. She aided the enemy. What about the secret bombing of Cambodia by Nixon and Kissinger, or the recently reported treason by Nixon to undermine the Paris Peace talks prior to the election?

One person used poor judgment under her 1st amendment rights. The other 2 killed up to a million in secret bombing raids and committed treasonous acts.
Sajwert (NH)
Some people stand taller than others at special times. Ali was one of those people who acted on principle and had the integrity it takes to do so in spite of consequences.
I admired him as a boxer. I had respect for him as a man of honor. America needs far more like him than we appear to have.
Marc (New York)
Thank you, Mr. Orkand, for the thoughtful essay. When I teach this complicated era of American history to high school students here in New York, I use Ali's famous quote to help students unpack the many concurrent and conflicting forces at work in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. Your comparison of Ali's case to Joe Louis' service provides useful historical context to widen the scope of study by looking back to the country during World War II, and I plan to include your op-ed in the curriculum next year.

Louis' quote, "Lots of things wrong with America, but Hitler ain't going to fix them," provides a great opportunity for students to examine the changes to that took place in American politics, culture, and society and social context between 1942 and Ali's biting critique in 1967. And, just as importantly, as you point out, the persistent prominence of "champions of principle" throughout our history.
Hugh Centerville (Wappingers Falls, NY)
Two takeaways here - I wasn't aware of Louis's quote, it's a good one, and Ali refusing to step forward, knowing his service would be cake, only enhances his sacrifice.
Why did we kill 1.1 million Vietnamese in that war? What was the point of getting 58,000 of our soldiers killed? I always admired Ali for refusing to kill people who had never done anything to him. RIP sir.
Liam Harvey (Kansas City)
After the Japanese lost WW 2, the French announced they were going to take back their "colony"... Vietnam!
Many of the Vietnamese said "NO".
That's when it started.
Why do you think you have the right to occupy someone else's country?
Afghanistan anyone?
Paul (White Plains)
People seem to think Ali was a hero for refusing military service. They ignore t his demeaning of each opponent, and especially his demonizing of his black opponents. They forget his serial philandering and adultery. And they ignore the fact that he took advantage of America and its wealth when given the chance to fight again. Ali was not a hero. He was just a good boxer who gamed the system to his benefit.
Almighty Dollar (Michigan)
Serial philandering and adultery? You mean like the Trump cabinet, and advisors who have been married multiple times?

The Treasure Secretary just married his 3rd wife, 25 years younger than him, just like his boss. Oh, that's right, they're white and Republican. My bad.
Rocko World (Earth)
Paul - You are so right. Those qualities are apparently only valued by you if they are in the white house...
hfdru (Tucson, AZ)
Muhammad Ali, Jane Fonda, and John Kerry should be treated as heroes. They helped bring an end to this horrific and unjust war. Ali and Fonda are still hated by some and Kerry got swift boated by a group that all had deferments during the war. maybe if Michael Jordan, LeBron James, and Tom Brady would step up we could get out of this 15 year insanity we are in now. Instead we have the NFL blackballing Colin Kaepernick for exercising his 1st amendment rights.
Jack McGuire (Salem, Illinois)
It is difficult for a white person like myself to understand how ugly racism is and has been. Blacks were not allowed to vote or enter restaurants and hotels reserved for whites, relegated to poor schools, and subjected to lynchings and beatings if they stepped out of their place, Military service was a continuation of servant status, digging or waiting tables. The US Military was segregated until 1950; Korea was the first war in which Americans of both races fought together.

There is a famous true story of African-American soldiers getting off the train in the South during World War II and being sent to the back door to be served in the station kitchen. From the kitchen they saw German prisoners of war being served in the restaurant. The Germans were the enemy the country was united to fight, but they were white and therefore entitled to be treated better than our own black soldiers.

An African-American must have complex and conflicting feelings about fighting for a nation run by and for those who oppress his kind.

Obviously, a nation cannot have each individual forming his own foreign policy and deciding whether to fight. Citizens must be required to participate, subject to severe sanctions. It is traditional in armies throughout History that running away in combat is punished by death.

Ultimately, we the people are responsible for our government that is racist and fights unjust wars. Our government reflects who we are and can be no better than we are.
D (Columbus)
I would consider the refusal to join this war Ali's greatest achievement. It shows a remarkable clarity of thought. In hindsight this clarity might be obvious , but considering that pretty much the entire political class at the time did not come to that same (in hindsight obvious) conclusion, shows how exceptional his reasoning was. And he stuck to it without being cowed by popular opinion or fear of punishment, unlike most others.
The Greatest is an apt title for this American hero.
Malone (Tucson, AZ)
Muhammad Ali was a hero to me, a twelve year old boy growing up in the backwaters of India in the sixties when he defeated Sonny Liston, twice. I knew how tall he was, and what his reach was. We never understood why his title was taken away from him, but I sure agreed with him when he said that more people in the world recognized his face than Henry Kissinger's.
Ali will always be remembered in the entire world for standing up to unjust power.
J. Sutton (San Francisco)
Ali - a real hero and victim of a barbaric sport that should be banned. Achilles in the Iliad said something very similar about the Trojans.
Eric Caine (<br/>)
Vast differences between WW II and Viet Nam. The remarkable thing about Ali's stand was his ability to boil the draft down to the clear moral choices it involved. He dominated the world stage during a time when we could still applaud leaders for moral virtue. Who today represents anything even remotely as courageous? Who today could possibly ever become a public icon for moral virtue?
michael (oregon)
Both Ali and Martin Luther King took clear unambiguous stands against the war in Viet Nam, linking America's military adventurism with our domestic failures. They will both stand the test of time far better than LBJ, R Nixon, and the congress that voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.
Plennie Wingo (Weinfelden, Switzerland)
A true hero. In 1967 there was a domestic war that needed far more attention than a civil war in Southeast Asia that the US had no business meddling in.

Of course the profits were in the bombs and other ordnance so we all know which way that one went.
Doug Terry (Maryland, USA)
The draft enabled Lyndon Johnson to get his war on the cheap. He did not have to ask Congress for a formal declaration of war and instead slipped through the Gulf of Tonkin resolution which, we know now, was based in large part on false claims about the actions of North Vietnam.

Now, there seems to be very little discussion, and even less consideration, of whether the American government was acting properly in ordering young men to war in Vietnam. Everyone these days wants to put the onus on those who were 19, 20, 21 or close to those ages who faced a crucial decision.

When David Harris' commentary about his decision to go to prison he was immediately attacked in the comments section by people who have never had to make such a choice and for many of whom Vietnam is merely a name they first heard in a high school history class. Do these same people make judgements about Johnson, McNamara, and the legions of others who led the nation to that war along with Nixon, who continued it for the entire length of his 6 yr. presidency when it was well known that no favorable outcome was possible?

Ali survived in part because he had good lawyers and his world wide celebrity made him a very poor target for an American prison. Many white men, like future presidential candidate Mitt Romney, had also claimed exemptions from the draft as "ministers" and not allowing Muhammad Ali the same status would have been grossly discriminatory. No one called Romney a coward for not going to Vietnam.
FredFrog2 (Toronto)
Jane Fonda's supposed "support for the enemy" was encouraging a bunch of anti-aircraft gunners.

Anti-aircraft guns are defensive weapons.
Bill B (NYC)
The phrase "aid and comfort to the enemy" doesn't distinguish between aircraft and anti-aircraft guns. Further, anti-aircraft guns were designed to prevent U.S. aircraft from attacking North Vietnam's ability to provide personnel and material to its war effort in the South so they enable offensive capabilities.
FredFrog2 (Toronto)

"Offensive capabilities" would have meant attacking the United States.

They were fighting in Vietnam.
DAB (encinitas, california)
Her support was not limited to encouraging AA gunners. You seem to have forgotten, if you ever knew, that when she was shown several POW's by the North Vietnamese to support their propaganda that prisoners were being well-treated, one of whom passed a note to her telling of their true situation. Torture, beatings, etc. She chose to pass the note on to the Vietnamese on the spot, resulting in still more mistreatment after she returned to the U.S.
David desJardins (Burlingame CA)
I don't think Ali's actions were in "stark contrast" to Louis'. As the article admits, the situations were very different. The Japanese *did* bomb Pearl Harbor, while the Vietcong *did not* attack the United States. Ali's statements give every reason to believe he would have fully supported a just war.
James Keeley (Brooklyn, NY)
Yes, Louis and Ali responded differently to their draft calls, but to compare their experiences is to mix apples and oranges. America's mission in each couldn't differ more. In Word War II we were rolling back a psychopathic dictator with whom no could live (literally). In Viet Nam we were propping up an old colonial system that supported Western imperialism in all its shameful dimensions. Re World War II, Ali might have said the same thing Louis did. Re Viet Nam, Louis might have said the same thing Ali did.
MIMA (heartsny)
Wondering how the families of the 58,000 names on the Vietnam Wall might feel about this.

The draft was fiery during the Vietnam War. Do you think everyone that got drafted wanted to go?

For most fighting it or going to Canada were not a choice. And sad to say, there were some like Donald Trump who unfairly got deferments. It was tough, very tough living through those days....and still is thinking about it.

As a woman you might think we would not be so concerned. But when my fellow female nurses who served in Vietnam then are now feeling and symptomatic of the effects of Agent Orange, too, one more reminder. They were not drafted, but they served their country.....freely.
Almighty Dollar (Michigan)
The majority went to 'Nam freely, not drafted, according to many things I have read on this topic.
Byron Edgington (Columbus Ohio)
I was drafted in 1968, and went to Vietnam after helicopter flight school, arriving there in March 1970 for a one-year tour. With the benefit of hindsight, I can understand much of Ali's opposition to the war, especially since he and his community were (and are) besieged right here in America. Joe Louis understood that the country itself was in peril. Ali understood that the peril was not to our shores, but to our very soul. Perhaps if this nation can better explain the rationale for its military adventures, there'll far fewer potential draftees opting out of service. It would not be inappropriate to laud Muhammud Ali as a hero for forcing the discussion of both America's role in the war in South Asia, and her troubling history of discrimination & prejudice here at home.
East/West (Los Angeles)
Excellent comment, Sir.

And thank you for your service, even though it was a misguided venture set up by our ignorant and callous politicians.
LW (Helena, MT)
"Perhaps if this nation can better explain the rationale for its military adventures, there'll far fewer potential draftees opting out of service."

If this nation could more honestly explain the reasons for its military adventures, there would be far fewer of them. If war is the answer, we need a better question.

And I'm sure you know there's currently no draft.
Pablo (California)
I was in grade school when Muhammad Ali refused to go and serve in Vietnam. Later, as a white Hispanic teen, I was passionately opposed to the war, finding it obscene and immoral. I still hold that position. And here is where I take issue with Mr. Orkand.

His discomfort with Ali and admiration for Joe Louis is apparent, but comparing the situation each of these great boxers faced is flawed. In World War II, we were fighting a madman in Germany bent on the murder and subjugation of non-Aryans. Vietnam, on the other hand, did not pose a threat to us. This Southeast Asian nation has been repeatedly colonized by other powers, and the U.S. was one more power that it needed to push out. Vietnamese were not bent on the annihilation of the U.S. Instead, the U.S. as it’s prone to do, marched in trying to ‘save’ them.

My trips to Vietnam over the years have only further confirmed my beliefs about our madcap adventure into this corner of the world. In truth, many Vietnamese admire the U.S. seeing it as a generally positive counterweight to their northern neighbor – China. Indeed, like others from my generation who did not want to see our country dragged into a quagmire, I saw our resistance to the war as an act of patriotism.
José (Chicago, IL)
I'm Mexican-American, and I have an uncle who did three tours in Vietnam and a got a Purple Heart. Yet, upon his return to the US, he could not get served in a restaurant in Jacksonville, North Carolina despite being dressed in his USMC dress uniform with all his medals. But the medals didn't change his skin color. Years later, when I was considering enlisting out of high school, he convinced me not to do. I'll always thank him for that.
Hasan Z Rahim (San Jose)
In May of 1989, Muhammad Ali made a surprise appearance at a community dinner of the South Bay Islamic Association of San Jose, California. It took us about three seconds to change the program and make him the keynote speaker for the evening. I can still recall the essence of his message: Take it easy. Enjoy life. Don’t take yourself too seriously but don’t forget you have a purpose in life as well.

When Ali beat Sonny Liston against all odds in February of 1964 to become the heavyweight champion of the world, white America was stunned but a wide-eyed world embraced the genius of a fast-talking, fleet-footed heavyweight with lightning-fast hands.

Ali spoke truth to power long before politicians turned the phrase into a platitude. From “I have seen the light and I am crowing” to “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” Ali opened raw wounds in the psyche of America, provoking hate and anger that in the end proved cathartic for our nation.

Ali transcended boxing by standing up for his belief even though it cost him the best years of his career. Racism scarred his soul, traumatized as he was at 14 by the fate of another fourteen-year-old named Emmett Till. But his intolerance was for the sin, not the sinner. Meeting with both triumph and disaster, he came as close as anyone to treat the two impostors just the same.
Sera Stephen (The Village)
Along with the essay by David Harris a few days ago we seem to be redefining 60's heroism.

I well remember the shameful treatment of Ali at the time, in nearly every media outlet there was. How many of us remember the shameful treatment of Martin Luther King by the FBI and the press? Now we celebrate his birthday as a national holiday.

How many remember the slow torture of Paul Robeson, and thousands of others who sought freedom and justice, and died before finding either? Now we celebrate these heroes too.

I wonder how long it will take to reset our brains and realize the great gift that people like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowdon are have given us. Will our kids one day say: “No school today, It’s Whistleblower Day”?
scott z (midland, mi)
It is yet to be decided if Manning and Snowden are patriots or traitors.

At least Manning served his/her time - Snowden is enjoying caviar, last I heard...

I wouldn't put them in the some category - Manning put her life on the line when she enlisted in this woman's Army. Snowden is free and has never been tried for anything.
Arif (Albany, NY)
Muhammad Ali was certainly one of the 20th century's central figures. Were he simply an athlete then he would have been celebrated and forgotten. Had he simply been an activist, he would have been castigated and forgotten. He, however, transformed what it meant to be both at a time ripe for such a man. In his heyday, he was the single most famous person in the world.

When we ponder those athletes who loom large for other contributions, we can think of Ted Williams (one of the greatest fighter pilots who gave up the best years of his career in service to the country), Roberto Clemente (a great humanitarian who died in service to others), Billie Jean King (who changed how we think of who can be a sports hero), Jackie Robinson/Larry Doby (need I say more) and, as mentioned in this article, Joe Louis.

Ali was different in this way... he took a stand about something that he truly believed in that others vehemently disagreed with. He stood by principles despite the consequences including potentially giving up his career. In retrospect, most of us believed that he was right about the Vietnam War as well as about race relations in this country, but he also spoke to a more profound truth.

As children, we are taught right from wrong and that doing the right thing might sometimes be the harder choice. As we get older, most of us settle for expediency in all sorts of ways. Practicality and cynicism rules the day. Ali showed us that there is another way, that principles do matter.
Jay (Mercer Island)
Worth mentioning the Ted Williams fought in two wars as a pilot. I still find it baffling that it is John Wayne and not Ted who has his name on an airport.
Arif (Albany, NY)
At least Ted Williams got a tunnel named after him that brings passengers from Boston to Logan International Airport.

See also