Dick Cheney’s hyper-hyped autobiography is short on revelations (it turns out that the “secret undisclosed location” was his house) but long, very long, on excuse making when it comes to the wars of whim into which he steered the United States. The former vice president is still sure there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, dismissing any talk of apologizing for his own weapons of mass deception pontificating in the run-up to the Iraq War. In fact, Cheney remains enthusiastic about every aspect of the wars of whim he steered the country into as Ronald Reagan’s chief congressional ally during the Iran-Contra scandal, George H.W. Bush’s hapless secretary of defense and George W. Bush’s neoconman prince regent, But where’s the chapter on Cheney’s heroic service in Vietnam? Of, that’s right, he had “other priorities” than responding to draft notices.
Try as readers may to find the tale of Cheney’s Vietnam service or, to be more precise, his meticulous avoidance of service, they just won’t find that In My Times offers much in the way of revelation about Cheney’s times.
Cheney has always positioned himself as an arch militarist. But when he had a chance to get on the frontlines, he instead deferments. A lot of them
Richard Bruce Cheney was “of age” for service durng the Vietnam conflict. Faced with the chance to engage on the battlefield or the home front, however, he dodged out—not for moral reasons but selfish ones. Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Maraniss, who interviewed Cheney for his book They Marched Into Sunlight, says the vice president just couldn’t be bothered. “I think he’s emblematic of a certain type. He wasn’t against the war, just didn’t want anything to do with it,” explains Maraniss. “He wanted to get on with his life and not let the world get in the way.”
Unfortunately, the world had a tendency to get in the way of young men who, like Cheney, were of draft age when the US troop presence in Vietnam began to rise in the mid-1960s. As a result, there was one sense in which Cheney mirrored the actions, if not the politics, of his fellow students. Dick Cheney was definitely opposed to the draft, at least as far as it affected him. Indeed, unlike George W. Bush, who performed some sort of service—ill-defined and unrecorded as it may have been—in the Texas Air National Guard, Cheney reacted to the prospect of wearing his country’s uniform like a man with a deadly allergy to olive drab. Between 1963 and 1965, Cheney used his student status at Casper College and the University of Wyoming to apply for and receive four 2-S draft deferments. As the war in Vietnam heated up, Cheney fought to defend and expand his deferments. Twenty-two days after Congress approved the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in August 1964, raising the prospect of a rapid expansion of the draft, he “coincidentally”—in the words of a Washington Post profile—married longtime girflriend Lynne Vincent. The advantage was that even if his student deferment was lifted, his married status might carry some weight with his draft board.
But the Vietnamese were not cooperating with Cheney’s schemes. The war kept demanding more and more young American men, and the range of those who were eligible for the draft expanded rapidly. On May 19, 1965, Cheney was reclassified with the most dangerous draft status: 1-A, “available for military service.” Soon afterward, Lyndon Johnson announced that draft call-ups would double, and on October 26, Selective Service constraints on the drafting of childless married men were lifted. Danang was calling. And it didn’t look like Dick had any excuses left.
But there was one way for ambitious young men to avoid serving their country while maintaining their political viability. If Cheney had a child, he’d be reclassified 3-A, removing him from the pool of those likely to be drafted. Cheney needed a kid—quick. And he got one. Precisely nine months and two days after the Selective Service eliminated special protections for childless married men, Cheney was no longer childless. His daughter Elizabeth was born on July 28, 1966. Convenient? Coincidence? That’s not Cheney’s style. Writer Timothy Noah did the math and suggested that the timing of Elizabeth’s arrival “would seem to indicate that the Cheneys, though doubtless planning to have children sometime, were seized with an untamable passion the moment Dick Cheney became vulnerable to the Vietnam draft. And acted on it. Carpe diem! Who says government policy can’t affect human behavior?”
Cheney applied for 3-A status immediately, receiving it on January l9, 1966, when Lynne was still in the first trimester of her pregnancy.
Twenty-three years later, when Cheney appeared before the Senate to plead the case for his confirmation as George Herbert Walker Bush’s defense secretary, he was questioned about his failure to serve. Cheney responded that he “would have obviously been happy to serve had I been called.” In a more truthful moment that same year, Cheney admitted to a reporter, “I had other priorities in the ’60s than military service.” Cheney’s lie to the Senate has never caused much concern, but that “other priorities” line has dogged him. After he selected himself to serve on the 2000 Republican ticket, former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown, a Vietnam veteran disabled by a gunshot wound to his right arm, said, “As a former Marine who was wounded and nearly lost his life, I personally resent that comment. I resent that he had ‘other priorities,’ when 58,000 people died and over 300,000 returned wounded and disabled. In my mind there is no doubt that because he had ‘other priorities’ someone died or was injured in his place.”
That may sound like a harsh assessment, but the fact is that at least a dozen men aged 19 to 47 from Cheney’s adopted hometown of Casper, Wyoming, died in Vietnam during the period when Cheney might have served. Because local draft boards had to fill quotas when a man who was eligible got a deferment, someone else had to fill the slot. The vagaries of draft quotas, military service and the war itself make it impossible to say whether Leroy Robert Cardenas or Walter Elmer Handy or Douglas Tyrone Patrick or any of the other sons of Casper who perished in Southeast Asia might have survived the war years and gone on to explore their “other priorities” if Cheney had responded to his country’s call. But that doesn’t stop some of those who served from asking, “Who died in your place, Dick Cheney?”
When Cheney served as vice president, Vietnam veteran Dennis Mansker raised that question on a website, where he maintained a list of the dead from Casper. Maybe Cheney did have other priorities, Mansker argues, but “so did these guys.”
(John Nichols is the author of a critically acclaimed biography of the former vice president Dick: The Man Who Is President [The New Press]. It appeared in Europe and in an updated paperback version as The Rise and Rise of Richard B. Cheney [The New Press].)