Muhammad Ali was admired by many. The boxing legend passed away late Friday evening and the world is mourning. His contribution to sports and American culture is well-known, but of the perhaps lesser known facts is his refusal to enlist in the United States Army when drafted during the Vietnam War. This, like all things he did, remain apart of his legacy.
The draft itself can be a controversial topic. Is it right to stand down when your country calls you? A lot can be deduced from how the question is framed. Did the famous boxer serve his country or his government? There is a difference.
The Vietnam War was apart of the greater policy of containment during the Cold War, which was essentially the United States government engaging in an international chess match and perpetual war of words against the Soviet Union. Due to the high tensions between communists and those opposed, Vietnam became a battleground for other countries to compete.
Escalations in the conflict continued as it became a greater battle for the two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union. Eventually, the Gulf of Tonkin incident would bring a greater push for the United States to surge involvement. A supposed attack by North Vietnam, it fed President Lyndon B. Johnson’s eagerness for war and was used as a pretense for escalations.
The draft would eventually come, forcing Americans to put on the uniform and go to war against their consent. While serving in the military is not wrong or a bad thing, the concept of force against the citizens by the government is at odds with freedom. The draft question in regards to Vietnam becomes amplified by the fact that American interests and safety were not directly threatened by Vietnam.
We just had to beat the Soviets at something.
The draft put people in a position where they had to uproot their entire lives and go fight a war that was not a direct threat to American interests, but rather a mere contest of political hubris. For Muhammed Ali, it put him in a more difficult position as a sports superstar and a public celebrity. Does he risk his career and life by entering a war of questionable nature? Or does he risk his career by refusing an order from the government in a time of war?
The answer for Ali was to stand for freedom and oppose the Vietnam War. As a result, he was shun from society, with his passport revoked and boxing licenses denied. His career was theoretically over and the government was making sure he paid for it. With the threat of jail looming on top of it all, he appealed and it went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-0 in Clay v. United States in his favor.
As time goes on, history becomes clearer as the fog of present day emotions lift. Questions and conflicts in facts placed the Gulf of Tonkin incident’s legitimacy in question. The years went on to show President Johnson was quite ambitious in his push for war, but never took part in an honest, impartial fact finding mission before deciding that more Americans needed to die in a faraway land.
Vietnam shows us the need to stand for freedom and why the government isn’t always on the side of the people. Whether it be slavery, Japanese internment, or the draft, the government has placed American lives in danger under the guise that certain or all individuals are not free. The claim or implication is that some or all human beings do not have a right to their bodies. Slavery saw people forced into slave labor merely because of their heritage and skin color, whereas Japanese internment saw people forced into camps simply over their heritage. The existence of the draft and its usage opposes the notion that we are the keepers of our own destiny.
Muhammad Ali is a legend for his sports legacy and his contribution to culture, absolutely. But let it not be forgotten his courageous opposition to be forced into something against his will. His opposition to a war later shown to be of questionable nature was a stand for the American legacy of freedom.