Muhammad Ali’s Real Legacy: True Patriotism

Although it is customary to say nice things about a person who has died, Muhammad
Ali has been rightly commended for not only his superb boxing career but also
his principled opposition to the then-popular Vietnam War. Unlike later chairborne
hawks, such as Bill Clinton and Dick Cheney, Ali did not try to evade the draft
or get numerous college deferments to avoid service. He declared that because
of his religion, he would not fight against people who had done nothing to him
and bluntly said, “just take me to jail.”

Therefore, it is difficult to argue that Ali avoided the war for selfish reasons,
because the costs of noncompliance with the draft were substantial. If the Supreme
Court had not nullified his conviction 8-0, he would have served five years
in prison. Although he ultimately avoided losing his liberty, he had to give
up his heavy weight boxing title and experienced financial hardship as a result.

At the time, Ali’s was not a popular stand, but he turned out to be right about
many things, just as the then unpopular civil rights heroes Rosa Parks and Martin
Luther King were. The war – in a faraway, insignificant country – turned out
to be a non-strategic quagmire in the competition with the Soviet Union during
the Cold War. Of course, then-President Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) privately predicted
that at the time, but escalated the conflict anyway, so as not to be seen as
a wimp politically with an eye toward winning the 1968 election. The war killed
58,000 Americans, a few million Vietnamese, and drained equipment and resources
from the U.S. military, which it hollowed out for more important missions.

Like George W. Bush during the Iraq War and many other American presidents
when conflict has been afoot, LBJ essentially lied the United States into war
by saying that the North Vietnamese patrol boats had twice attacked a U.S. warship
off the coast of Vietnam. Even if the North Vietnamese did attack once, it was
in retaliation for the U.S. ship supporting secret raids on North Vietnam’s coast,
which LBJ just forgot to mention. He also forgot to tell the American people
that the Americans fired first in the dust up with the patrol boats. And when
LBJ ordered U.S. bombing in retaliation for these attacks, he was in such a hurry
to get on prime time TV that he announced that the U.S. air attacks on North Vietnam
had occurred before they had even started. The North Vietnamese, realizing this
amazing reality, had their air defenses ready when U.S. aircraft came overhead
and inflicted unneeded casualties on U.S. air forces. Subsequently, Congress passed
the open ended Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which essentially let LBJ do whatever
he wanted in Southeast Asia. He, and his successor Richard Nixon, did.

Yet the Vietnam War was popular for a long time in America before the North

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