In late 2015 and early 2016, multiple news articles and social media posts claimed presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had “dodged the draft” during the Vietnam War era:
— Dr. Tom Martin (Ph.D.) (@DrTomMartinPhD) February 8, 2016
It’s true that Sanders was a consistently vocal opponent of the Vietnam war during his college years and into his early political career, applying for “conscientious objector” status as a student. However, the term “draft dodger” has a very specific definition and connotation (that compulsory military service was evaded by illegal or unethical means, such as falsifying documents or leaving the country) which doesn’t apply to conscientious objectors.
Memes saying that Sanders evaded the draft seem to have originated from an editorial published by the Des Moines Register in August 2015:
I enlisted in the military while I was still in high school. Around that time Bernie Sanders’ draft board was deciding on his claim that he refused to do military service because he was a conscientious objector. He did so to avoid having to serve his country in the Vietnam War. Soon after he turned 26, too old to be drafted, and no longer needed ways to avoid the draft. Sanders was just settling down in his new home in Vermont in 1970-1971 while I served my country as a military policeman in jeep patrols in Vietnam.
His decision to refuse to fulfill his wartime civic and patriotic duties claiming conscientious objection follows him his entire life … My question as a Vietnam veteran is: How on earth could a person claiming to be a conscientious objector become the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world?
In a followup column, the writer noted that Sanders addressed the original piece at length during discussion with the paper’s editorial board, incorrectly referring to his behavior as “draft dodging,” and quoting Sanders’ partial reply:
Within a lengthy explanation Sanders specifically said, “I applied for conscientious objector status because I very strongly disagreed with the war in Vietnam and I would not have fought in that war.”
An ABC News article about Sanders and the draft reported that Sanders’ campaign confirmed his application for status as a conscientious objector, noting that his anti-war stance in the 1960s was a well-known matter of record:
Bernie Sanders applied for conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, his campaign confirmed to ABC News.
“As a college student in the 1960s he was a pacifist,” Michael Briggs, campaign spokesman added in an email. “[He] isn’t now.”
Sanders’s political and anti-war activism in the 1960s and ’70s has been well-documented. While at the University of Chicago, he was a member of several progressive peace organizations, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Student Peace Union … Sanders has rarely voted to authorize the use of force … After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Sanders did vote in favor of a military response in Afghanistan. But Sanders said the use of force, in his opinion, is not only permissible in response to an attack.
“I believe that the United States should have the strongest military in the world. We should be working with other countries in coalition. And when people threaten the United States or threaten our allies, or commit genocide, the United States, with other countries, should be prepared to act militarily,” he continued.
The topic of Sanders and Vietnam came up again during the 13 October 2015 Democratic debate. Moderator Anderson Cooper asked Sanders:
COOPER: Senator Sanders, tell an American soldier who is watching right now tonight in Afghanistan why you can be commander-in- chief given that you applied for conscientious objector status.
SANDERS: When I was a young man — I’m not a young man today. When I was a young man, I strongly opposed the war in Vietnam. Not the brave men like Jim who fought in that war, but the policy which got us involved in that war. That was my view then … I am not a pacifist, Anderson. I supported the war in Afghanistan. I supported President Clinton’s effort to deal with ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. I support air strikes in Syria and what the president is trying to do.
Yes, I happen to believe from the bottom of my heart that war should be the last resort that we have got to exercise diplomacy. But yes, I am prepared to take this country into war if that is necessary.
Predictably, the bulk of reporting on Sanders’ so-called “draft dodging” was published after the senator announced his plans to run for president. However, an archived Army Times article provided a detail missing from nearly all the coverage:
On paper, Sanders doesn’t have a lot in common with veterans.
He never served in the military because he was too old to be drafted when his draft number came up. He protested the Vietnam War as a University of Chicago student in the 1960s and stressed his opposition to the war during his failed Senate bid in 1971.
So while it was true that Sanders sought conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War draft, that cannot in any way be conflated with the specific meaning of the term “draft-dodging.” Further, Sanders was eligible for student deferments until at least 1964, when he graduated from the University of Chicago. By the time his number came up, Sanders was too old to be drafted.