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The dominant image of Muhammad Ali in his final years was that of the beloved warrior, slowed by age and Parkinson’s, but triumphantly welcomed everywhere — his presence regal, his reception almost idolatrous.
But nearly a half-century ago, he was the object of vituperation and something close to hatred. At the height of his powers as a float-like-a-butterfly-sting-like-a-bee boxer for the ages, a man gifted with physical beauty, immense athleticism and poetic wit, he became an outcast.
His crime was his April 1967 refusal to be drafted, to fight in the Vietnam conflict. The lesser included offense was his decision to leave behind his lyrical “slave name,” Cassius Marcellus Clay, to embrace the Nation of Islam and to become Muhammad Ali — a conversion that too many found difficult to accept, including sports pages that kept calling him Clay.
Ali was not a university–educated student of history, not a heavily credentialed geopolitical theorist. But he saw with great clarity what so many of us missed: This was a war America had no business fighting.
Ali did not buy the “domino” theory: the idea that a communist victory in Vietnam would lead to the spread of communism in that whole region. It was, in fact, a civil war — one that the United States could never win. History has revealed that even President Lyndon Baines Johnson, who escalated the war drastically in 1964 and 1965 — the year I accepted my own induction without a peep of protest — had serious doubts. He simply did not want to be seen as the president who lost Vietnam.
Johnson made his case in a half-hour propaganda film that we recruits had to endure: “Why Vietnam?” It began with Johnson asking that question, then quickly rolled out the image of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain being hoodwinked by Adolf Hitler, a specious “appeasement” precedent now universally cited by those pushing for the war.
In contrast, Ali made his own case in personal, vivid language. “I will not go 10,000 miles from here to help murder and kill another poor people simply to continue the domination of white slave masters over the darker people of the earth,” he said. No Vietnamese person had ever called him the N-word, he said, or enslaved him or tried to lynch him. So he declared himself a conscientious objector and refused to be drafted.
In the hyper-nationalist atmosphere of the conflict early years, the reviled villain was not Johnson, not Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara. It wasn’t even Richard Nixon. No, the villain was Ali.
“I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man,” influential producer David Susskind said on television. “He’s a disgrace to his country, his race and what he laughingly describes his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States . . . He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should.”
Actually, Ali did not go to prison — unlike his religious leader, Elijah Muhammad, who rejected the draft during World War II and served four years in federal prison for urging his followers to do the same. The Supreme Court of the United States overturned Ali’s conviction while he was free on appeal. But he did endure three years of being barred from boxing, at the peak of his earning power. And he felt the string of broad criticism — even from Jackie Robinson, whose courage in the face of racism in baseball inspired Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his civil rights campaign, just as Ali’s courage in refusing to fight helped to inspire King’s opposition to war.
Not long after Ali’s ordeal, David Halberstam wrote a great book called “The Best and the Brightest,” examining the hubris and erroneous certainties that got America into Vietnam. The title referred to President John F. Kennedy’s advisers. But we now realize this: The best and the brightest of the Vietnam era was the man who refused to fight, Muhammad Ali.
Bob Keeler is a former Newsday columnist and Op-Ed writer.