Bradley in Vietnam era: role in military, not in war

By John Aloysius Farrell, Globe Staff, 11/02/99

ASHINGTON - In the spring of 1967, having decided to return from his Rhodes scholarship years in England and get rich playing pro basketball for the New York Knicks, Bill Bradley confronted the moral issue faced by most young men of his generation: the war in Vietnam.

Bradley's studies at Oxford University, and his undergraduate years at Princeton, had widened his perspective and sown doubts about the wisdom of America's intervention in Southeast Asia. But for the only child of a bank president from small-town Missouri, ''there were powerful psychological forces in me that gave people in authority the benefit of the doubt,'' he recalled in his 1996 autobiography, ''Time Present, Time Past.''

Bradley explored his options with typical thoroughness. Then, with the help of the Air Force ROTC commander at Princeton, he enlisted in the Air Force Reserve at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey on April 14. It was a middle course: a selection of relatively low risk that let him honor his military obligation while still pursuing a career as a professional athlete.

At the time, Bradley's choice was viewed in the New York media as a laudable accommodation of career and duty. He was a golden boy - an All-American Ivy Leaguer whose return to the United States was celebrated by sports fans from the moment he stepped before the cameras at Leone's restaurant on West 48th Street in Manhattan on April 27 to say he had signed one of the richest sports contracts of the era.

Bradley's scholastic and physical talents would be ''wasted'' in the Army at any rank lower than commanding general, wrote a New York Post sportswriter.

Arthur Daley, the well-known New York Times sports columnist, said Bradley was a mix of Sir Galahad, ''Jack Armstrong, the All-American boy,'' and those sublime NBA all-stars: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. ''During their two decades of existence, the New York Knicks have been desperately seeking a super star,'' Daley wrote. ''At last they have one.''

In all the hoopla, one question was not asked. If Bradley did not go to Vietnam, then what Missouri farm boy, playground star from Harlem, or working-class son of South Boston would be drafted for war instead?

Bradley served for 11 years in the Air Force Reserve: five years more than was required by the terms of his enlistment. He fulfilled a five-month stint of active duty with the Air Force in the summer and fall of 1967, most of which was taken up by basic training and officer training school in Texas, and did not report to the Knicks until midseason. By all available evidence, and the accounts of his surviving commanding officers, he diligently met his obligation of one weekend of duty per month and two weeks each summer.

''He was always there,'' said then-Major Donald Rosencranz, the wing personnel officer, who recalled how Bradley would take a red-eye flight home from the West Coast after a Friday night game and show up for duty on Saturday morning. ''He wasn't a water-cooler type guy. He was a professional. I know of no one who cut him any slack whatsoever, and he never asked.''

Bradley declined to discuss his wartime military record with the Globe. In the past, he has insisted that he received no special treatment in getting his slot in the reserve.

After a rocky initiation to the pro game, Bradley became a key component on two world championship teams - in 1970 and 1973 - and went on to a career in politics that culminated in his presidential campaign this year. His Vietnam-era service was not an issue when he was elected to the Senate in 1978, or in two reelection campaigns.

It was only in 1988, when Indiana Senator Dan Quayle was selected as the Republican vice presidential candidate and unmercifully grilled about his own Vietnam-era service in the National Guard, that the query - What did you do in the war? - began to be asked of baby boom politicians, at times by members of that generation who felt guilty about their own evasion of service.

Vietnam emerged as a crucible of character. Because it was not a ''good war'' like World War II - a clear-cut reply to attacks by fascist dictators - the war gave young men moral choices, which they made in varied, sometimes controversial, and often revealing ways.

Bill Clinton opposed the war, helped organize protests, worked on the antiwar presidential campaign of Senator George McGovern in 1972 and was vilified by his critics as a draft dodger. John McCain took up the mandate of his military family, flew bombing missions over North Vietnam, then courageously endured torture and imprisonment after his jet was shot down. Al Gore, a devoted son, failed to help his embattled father, a dovish US senator from the Volunteer State of Tennessee, by enlisting and serving in the Army in Vietnam. George W. Bush, with a good word from family friends, got training as a fighter pilot in the Air Force Reserve.

Quayle believes that the parsing of candidates' military service records is an empty exercise.

''So in other words, you're going to say that if you didn't participate in Vietnam, that you're not qualified to be president? That's just ridiculous,'' Quayle said, in one hot exchange with a TV host in August. ''Are you going to say that because Al Gore went to Vietnam, that he's more qualified than Bill Bradley? Come on. Give me a break. Move on. This is ridiculous.''

But some, recalling what Quayle faced in 1988, think Bradley should be put to the same rough test. ''At best he was a famous All-America basketball player applying for the reserves at an air base just 21 miles from where he won his fame,'' wrote Paul Mulshine, a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger, last spring. ''Perhaps he would have gotten the same treatment if his name had been Joe Blow, but it's unlikely.''

To understand Bradley's response to the war in Vietnam, one must start with his upbringing in Crystal City, Mo. He had a conventional, 1950s childhood as the only son of the town's bank president, a dignified Midwest Republican who was 43 when Bill was born.

Bradley was raised in a community where the paramount values were patriotism, politeness, respect for one's elders, hard work, and humility. In addition to the fanatic discipline he showed in the long hours spent honing his basketball skills, he had an abiding interest in politics. He turned down 75 offers of athletic scholarships to attend Princeton.

Bradley traveled the world with the Princeton team, played in the Olympics in 1964 and served as a college intern for a Republican US senator and in the presidential campaign of GOP Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania that year. He supported the Vietnam War, and Princeton, in his college years of 1961 through 1965, was no hotbed of antiwar activity.

''It was a pretty sleepy campus,'' recalled Princeton teammate Rick Wright. ''You had lots of people interested in public policy: the Berlin wall, space, civil rights.'' There were a few all-night bull sessions that touched upon the draft and Southeast Asia, said Wright, ''but the anti-Vietnam stuff hadn't started at all.''

Even in his early 20s, Bradley had political ambition. And in those Princeton bull sessions it was conventional wisdom ''that if you ever wanted to enter elective politics - as it appeared a third of the senior class contemplated - then you had to be a veteran, preferably a decorated veteran,'' he recalled in his autobiography.

After Bradley took Princeton to the NCAA Final Four in 1965, the Knicks made him the first pick in the NBA draft that year. They did so, said former Knicks coach Dick McGuire, despite the fact that Bradley would spend two years at Oxford and had offered no assurance he would ever play pro basketball.

It was well worth the risk. ''He was the best player in the country,'' McGuire recalled. ''And one of the best attractions in the world: being from Princeton, Oxford and a very good ballplayer. He was a great attraction with the upper-income people.''

His Selective Service records show that Bradley had a ''2-S'' student deferment throughout his years at Princeton and Oxford, a classification he shared with millions of other US college students. While at Oxford, Bradley played some professional basketball with an Italian team and traveled throughout Europe, the Soviet Union and the Middle East. He was not an early foe of the war and would not declare his opposition until 1968. When British critics complained about the war, Bradley defend his country's actions. But with some of his fellow Americans at Oxford, he began to wonder if the war was not a moral and strategic mistake.

After feeling the pressures of fame at Princeton, Bradley at first cherished the anonymity of Oxford and even flirted with the notion of abandoning basketball. His love for the game was rekindled in his final year abroad, and he decided that he wanted to play professionally, and cash in on his talent and celebrity, while he could. Now personal factors began to dominate his thoughts about the war. He had already cut short his career by two years by taking the Rhodes scholarship, while military service carried with it the risk of maiming or death, in training or in combat.

In the early spring of 1967, Bradley called Major Stanley M. Adelson, who ran the Air Force ROTC program at Princeton and was a friend and neighbor of Bradley's college coach. ''I outlined the options and the one I recommended,'' Adelson recalled. ''I suggested that we look into him getting into the Air Force Reserve.''

Adelson was a basketball fan who had attended Princeton road games, knew Bradley well, and served as an informal adviser on the military and the draft to the college's athletes and other students. ''While Bill was still at Oxford I called McGuire Air Force base to see if they had openings,'' said Adelson. ''As it happened, they did.''

Bradley was both fortunate and favored in landing a slot in the Air Force Reserve - but far from alone in escaping the danger of combat.

All told, there were some 27 million draft-aged men in the Vietnam era, of whom 11 million served in some branch of the military, 2 million went to Vietnam, roughly 400,000 were in front-line combat units, about 150,000 were wounded, and some 60,000 died.

Though reservists were activated for the Korean War and the Persian Gulf War, comparatively few reservists and National Guard members - only 15,000 - were sent to Vietnam, thus insulating the middle class from the costs of war.

The Vietnam war was a war fought largely by the working class. Former Navy Secretary James Webb, a Vietnam veteran, found in postwar research that of the 29,071 men who attended Harvard University, MIT, and Princeton from 1962 through 1972, just 20 were killed in action in Vietnam, a total exceeded by South Boston High School alone, with one-10th the students. (Among the 8,108 of the Princeton students in Webb's survey, six died in combat.)

Bradley applied to the Air Force reserve at a sensitive time. The reserves had become a haven for professional athletes, and there was grumbling on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that the pro football, basketball, and football teams were pulling strings or dazzling reserve commanders with the fame of celebrity athletes to get their players to the top of waiting lists. A Pentagon study in the spring of 1967 found 360 pro players in the reserves and National Guard. Red Sox pitcher Jim Lonborg, New York Mets pitchers Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, and Knicks star Cazzie Russell were on the list.

''Here we have a situation where people are complaining about the unfairness of the draft - that it takes more poor boys than rich boys,'' said Representative Lucien Nedzi of Michigan, a Democrat who served on the House Armed Service Committee. Meanwhile, ''you have athletes getting preferred treatment that undermines public confidence in the system.''

In December 1966, Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance wrote to a congressional committee to announce a Pentagon directive to address the situation. Vacancies in the reserves would be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis, Vance said. ''Exceptions may be made when, in the best judgment of those responsible for the procurement of reserve personnel, the individual's prior military service or significant civilian experience in the occupational skill concerned is considered to warrant it,'' said Vance.

The Army, Navy, and Air Force reserves were a popular option for young men as the draft calls peaked in the late 1960s. The reserves were oversubscribed in 1967, and the Army alone had a backlog of 130,000 potential recruits.

Individual units, however, at times had vacancies in their ranks as personnel with special skills like pilots, mechanics, and doctors were transferred around the country or left the service.

Adelson had just completed his own service in a reserve unit, and knew the ins and outs of the system. ''I happened to know something about the administration of the reserves at that time,'' he recalled. ''Bill was fortunate that he had somebody around ... that knew something about it and was able to give him counsel.''

But ''as a major, I can assure you that the amount of influence I had was at best negligible,'' Adelson said. ''I did not know the commander of the reserve unit. I knew no one in that unit.''

When he phoned officers at McGuire Air Force Base in 1967, Adleson said, he did not use Bradley's name but rather asked if they could not find room for a ''very top flight'' Princeton graduate for officer training school. When the reserve officers told Adelson that they might welcome such a candidate, he alerted Bradley, who applied and scored ''well into the 95th percentile'' on the recruitment tests, said Adelson.

The Air Force reserve was then operating under a quota system, Adelson said, and the 514th Air Mobility Wing at McGuire had to get approval from the Air Force Reserve headquarters to fill an opening. ''They had to select a person and then get the quota,'' Adelson recalled. But ''if an organization has got a candidate that did very well at Princeton and is a Rhodes Scholar and a well-known athlete, he is going to do well.'' Bradley was accepted and sworn in on April 14.

Officials at McGuire Air Force base cannot confirm Adelson's recollections. But a preliminary search by Air Force personnel has unearthed unit histories that do show some vacancies in the ranks.

''The 514th was having recruitment problems,'' said Captain David Kurle, a spokesman for the Air Force Reserve Command, and ''was particularly undermanned in the late 1960s.'' Its manpower demands were high enough that the reserve wing at McGuire launched public recruiting campaigns throughout New Jersey in the late 1960s, advertising on dozens of billboards and thousands of milk cartons.

''Can we definitively say there was no waiting list? No. But it puts doubts in my mind that he received preferential treatment,'' said Christie Dragan, the chief of public affairs for the 514th. The commanding officer at the time is dead, but four of Bradley's superior officers from the 514th Wing said Bradley received no special breaks.

Bradley's return to the Knicks was an electrifying jolt for the team, and the league as a whole. The Times put the news of his $500,000, four-year contract on its front page.

''He was an exciting piece of merchandise,'' said Leonard Lewin, a New York sportswriter and Knicks public relations executive, who said Bradley increased attendance at Knicks games.

McGuire, the Knicks coach at the time, said the team's management sometimes helped its prize players find reserve or National Guard openings in the Vietnam era, but that he had no memory of the team helping Bradley. Marty Glickman, who was one of Bradley's agents in 1967, said the ballplayer handled the enlistment by himself.

Bradley's first game, on Dec. 9, was sold out. He played 20 minutes and scored just 8 points, about what he would average in his first year with the team, but was cheered every time he touched the ball. The game took place on a Saturday night, and Bradley took the bus from McGuire to New York, and then returned to the base for Sunday duty.

Bradley's rough start in the league ''was my fault,'' said McGuire. ''I played him as a guard.''

The Knicks changed coaches and Bradley moved to the small forward position. There Bradley blossomed, and the Knicks won their first championship in 1970.

He was a superstar. As the Knicks visited each NBA city, the team called a press conference to handle inquiries from the media.

In Chicago, Bradley's question session with reporters was interrupted by the widow of a Princeton classmate who had been killed in Vietnam.

''His wife, whom I had met twice, had read in the newspaper that I was in town. She wanted to talk with somebody since things were tough for her just then,'' Bradley wrote. ''There was not much to say.''