Vietnam

Muhammad Ali Was America's Most Effective Anti-War Advocate (And Still Is)

The Greatest put his life and career on the line and helped turn public sentiment against the Vietnam War.

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Muhammad Ali, The Greatest
The Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Press/Newscom

On March 6, 1966, Muhammad Ali was the 24-year-old undisputed heavyweight champion of the world and the number one song in the country was SSgt. Barry Sadler's "Ballad of the Green Berets," which includes lyrics about "brave men, who jump and die" and describes the fate of one of "America's best" who "died for those oppressed." 

Over 180,000 U.S. troops were fighting in Vietnam, nearly 2,000 had already been killed, and over 380,000 more men would be drafted into the military later that year.

And yet, there was Ali, an outspoken famous black man — a member of the Nation of Islam, no less — telling his country that he would not die for its cause, because that cause was wrong and that he would prefer to be taken to jail than to shoot "poor people."

It is hard to overstate how unpopular it was to be anti-war at this time. Though there were protests and the occassional ceremonial draft card burning, according to Gallup, 59 percent of Americans still believed in the war, while 16 percent held no opinion about whether or not it was a mistake.

After being arrested and convicted of felony draft evasion, stripped of his titles, and forced to miss four prime years of his career because the paragons of virtue known as state boxing commissions denied him the right to punch people for money, Ali served as a warning to others who might defy the state.

While Ali was in exile in 1968, CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite delivered an on-air commentary that the U.S. was trapped in a "stalemate." This famous broadcast is frequently, mistakenly cited as the moment most responsible for turning the country against the war. One of the many problems with that narrative is that "the most trusted man in America" was late to the anti-war party, which Ali contributed mightily to starting. Americans had been growing increasingly cynical about the possibility of "victory" in Vietnam for years, but in just the first few months following Ali's refusal to be conscripted, the percentage of Americans willing to tell pollsters that the war was a mistake jumped by 11 percentage points, and they would never support the war in as high numbers as they did prior to Ali's famous anti-war statement. 

Though there has been no military draft since Vietnam, there have been wars, and there have been celebrities who endured the hatred of their fellow citizens and taken a beating in their bank accounts for adopting a principled stand against war. But with all due respect to the Dixie Chicks, who arguably took the most shit of any American celebrities to come out against the Iraq War before it began (after singer Natalie Maines made a single on-stage comment at a London concert about being against the war and embarrassed to be from Texas), Ali's opposition changed the game.

Like the pop country trio, Ali endured death threats and business suffered, but Ali (who was not yet wealthy) was literally barred by the government from earning a living. And while most of the architects of the Iraq War were pulling questionable stints in the national guard or finding other clever ways to avoid fighting an asymmetrical enemy in a Southeast Asian jungle, Ali told a country that loved sports heroes (but was fraught with institutionalized racism) that his conscience and belief in his God forbade him from doing the bidding of the state, even when its leaders were framing it as part of an existential battle with totalitarian communism.

Public protest against the Iraq War faded even as the war became a shameful, bloody quagmire, and once a Democrat became the Commander-in-Chief sending young men and women to die for a hopelessly lost cause, the anti-war movement receded and celebrity protest became practically non-existent. 

But Ali's opposition wasn't a protest song or a bumper sticker or even a speech at an anti-war rally, it was a single young man willfully volunteering the most precious thing he could — his life and liberty — and in doing so laid the groundwork for a resistance to the war that ultimately became mainstream, and that resistance has been vindicated by history. 

Author Tom Mullen wrote in a blog post on his website that Ali's commitment to "opposing an immoral and unnecessary war was not draft-dodging (a dance performed during the Vietnam War by all too many present-day neoconservative hawks), but was instead "based on the founding libertarian principle of nonaggression."

Ali's legacy can also be seen in Sen. Rand Paul's (R-Ky.) recently introduced amendment to the Senate's National Defense Authorization Act, which would do away with the draft entirely. Even though private citizens have not been conscripted into the military since the Vietnam War, the penalty for failing to register for Selective Service remains "imprisonment for up to five years and/or a fine of not more than $250,000."

50 years after Ali asked to be taken to jail over Vietnam, a Republican senator may yet be able to convince his colleagues to vote on ending the possibility that a young man like Ali would ever be forced to make that kind of decision again.

That we're having this conversation at all can at least be partly attributed to the selfless actions of The Greatest. 

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  1. It’s my understanding that Ali was anti-the-Vietnam-War, not antiwar in general.

    Or rather, against white-people imperialist wars (as he saw them), not against wars of liberation as he saw them.

    It was brave to take a stance against conscription, and it was evil to compel a young man to go overseas to fight in a cause he believed unjust – whether the belief was right or not.

    A country fighting a just war in some remote country should be able to make such a persuasive case for the justice of the war that people voluntarily join up to fight.

    1. ditto for funding. If the cause is just and is truly connected to our national defense, surely the average citizen wouldn’t mind coughing up 1-2 percent of their AGI to fund the war. Funny how just like national healthcare, it polls well until people think they get to foot the bill.

      1. That’s the entire appeal of the Welfare-Warfare State.

        Americans want a big government providing “national security” and entitlement programs up the wazoo so long as they don’t have to pay for it.

        It’s like how Americans expect businesses to forgo making profits while keeping their prices low, offering a range of choices, giving employees high wages (plus benefits), and never moving those precious JERBS outside of their town/city.

        tl;dr — voters are gullible, greedy, and self-defeating.

        1. And Hillary Clinton is their candidate.

      2. The entire government should funded by voluntary subscription, like NPR. Especially wars.

  2. I always had the impression that Ali’s motivation was not just being against the war, but that the country that commanded him to put his life on the line for their cause treated him as a second class citizen.

    I have argued before that it isnt just immoral but also a really bad idea to rely on the efforts of people who have no stake in society (slavery and second class citizenship).

    1. I always had the impression that Ali’s motivation was not just being against the war, but that the country that commanded him to put his life on the line for their cause treated him as a second class citizen.

      That’s certainly as good a reason as any to not go to war for a country.

  3. I always had the impression that Ali’s motivation was not just being against the war, but that the country that commanded him to put his life on the line for their cause treated him as a second class citizen.

    I have argued before that it isnt just immoral but also a really bad idea to rely on the efforts of people who have no stake in society (slavery and second class citizenship).

    1. It cuts both ways – if you’re a despised minority, serving your country bravely should in theory help persuade the majority that maybe they should appreciate you more.

      And for a time in the Civil War, many whites were indeed inspired by the courage of the black soldiers (and relieved that black soldiers meant fewer whites drafted).

      But during the whole Buffalo Soldier era, and after the First World War, brave black soldiers at the front didn’t translate into first-class citizenship at home.

      World War Two was helpful in awakening self-respect and self-confidence in a new generation of black Americans, but it still took some pushing to get respect from the whites.

      In the 60s, the draft was anti-poor, and in many places anti-black as well, but even where it was “merely” anti-poor that would translate into more blacks drafted.

      So all this military service *still* hadn’t won full respect from the honky community.

      So Ali gave voice to a lot of frustration. Well founded to a large extent, though he put it in NOI terms of whites being pretty much incurable of their racism.

      1. Extremely interesting are the Japanese of Hawaii who fought for the USA in WW2.

  4. ” Though there were protests and the occassional ceremonial draft card burning, according to Gallup, 59 percent of Americans still believed in the war…”

    Despite the protests by principled anti-anti-Communists and the burning of draft cards, there was still public support for the war? Imagine that!

    As for the effect of Ali’s protest, I expect it was quite influential among black people, but to your average whitey I’m not sure that it would really have been an aha moment to turn them against the war.

    1. Correlation not indicating causality and all that, but:

      “but in just the first few months following Ali’s refusal to be conscripted, the percentage of Americans willing to tell pollsters that the war was a mistake jumped by 11 percentage points,”

      It is conceivable that his principled stance and willingness to be quite public about it, did in fact influence the opinion of thousands of “average whiteys,” as evidenced by the sudden poll shift.

    2. I was young but still remember the heated arguments that took place over that. Some of my family supported him, others hated him for what he did. It was really something.

      When my uncle came back from Vietnam with no legs, a broken spine and only one arm that cinched it for me. I found out later that he had married a Vietnamese girl and they had a baby. One night the VC went to her village and killed them.

      I guess you could say I was against the war so my sympathies lay with Ali.

      1. Holy shit, I’m sorry to hear about your uncle (and aunt).

      2. My uncle came back physically whole, but he was pretty much an unemployable alcoholic & drug addict when he got home.

        1. an unemployable alcoholic & drug addict when he got home.

          This still describes my father-in-law = also a Vietnam vet.

      3. Can a soldier actually marry a local girl? He knew he would be coming home (if he wasn’t killed), and even that he might be transferred to another part of the country before that. Doesn’t sound like much of a marriage. That he had a child with her, I believe. That he cared about her, I can believe. That he really considered himself married, I have my doubts. What happened is a tragedy anyway.

  5. Of course, even more ironic was that Cronkite was wrong and completely mistook the effect of the Tet offensive – it was a disastrous rout for the Viet Cong.

    (I agree completely, however, on Ali’s principled opposition to the draft.

    I think the Vietnam war was, overall, a just war that was not only winnable but being won even in 1968.

    But not one that justified conscription.)

    1. Cronkite was exposed as a jackass with those comments. By 1971 the war was won – then was given away in Paris and by Congress when they refused to fund the South.

    2. The Vietnam war not only wasn’t justified, but no war ever justifies conscription. Conscription is necessarily wrong.

  6. I’m a huge Ali fan, but i’m already super-wary of people using his death to Out-Prince-Prince in making him into some kind of historical super-being which we can project all our modern cultural-conflicts on and hold up as some sort of ideal.

    He was a great boxer. the other stuff is interesting, but he wasn’t freaking Gandhi.

    my favorite ali film is a pretty old one. worth watching. the nice part about it is that it doesn’t have the excess glorification you find in most others done since. Also – groovy beats.

    1. Seriously = those feet!

    2. I’d say that it would be useful from to time to ask about someone, “what would I write in his obituary if he died? and why can’t I be that nice to him *now*?”

      It would be an incentive to charity.

      1. Indeed. i think someone more articulate than either of us has said as much before. Or maybe it was the bible?

        When admiration and respect are primarily reserved for the dead, they provide little value to either the speaker or the subject.

    3. Ali was an historical super-being.

      And Prince was the greatest living musician.

    4. Ali was a great boxer and I greatly admire his Vietnam War protest.

      The rest of the time he was a jackass and a bully.

  7. And this is why the anti-war George McGovern famously routed Nixon and became president.

    Oh wait, that didn’t happen. It was the exact opposite and Nixon crushed McGovern almost entirely on a platform of opposing the hippies and achieving “peace with honor”.

    Ali may have been right and may have been vindicated by history many years later, but the case here is being vastly overstated ex post facto.

    1. Amazing times they were. The Dem nominee running a campaign based on how bad a sitting Democrat President had screwed up.

      1. It sounds similar to McCain (and every Republican, really) in ’08. No way they were going to win anything with how unpopular Bush had made them. In fact, they still haven’t recovered from it.

  8. When is it going to be Howard Cosell’s time? When’s Howard Cosell going to get his moment?

    1. Right after Lou Reed gets his.

  9. I think it was pointed out this morning – but he was named after a dedicated 19th Century abolitionist. When Ali dumped that name, his “slave name”, and instead named himself after a nasty slaver, he lost a lot of us. His clownishness became pure stupidity.

    He was right about the draft and wrong on just about everything else.

  10. I’ve known conscription defenders who point to WW II as a prime example of how good the draft was in making things fair, while also admitting it wouldn’t have been necessary. I’ve never understood any argument for the draft at all; they are all cover for “we know what’s best, so you go and fight it for us”. Draft defenders like to trot out national existence, as if the Russkies or ChiComs were invading as we speak; I ask them if they think there would be so few volunteers in such a situation?

    If a war can’t attract volunteers, it ain’t popular enough to support a draft. Go pound sand, slavers!

    1. The state exists on the fiction that when push comes to shove, the state will defend us. When push really comes to shove, the state will take your children and make them defend it.

    2. SWR-

      This,

      The only reason there was a “draft” in 1941-1942 was because the number of volunteers were overwhelming recruiting stations… The Gov’t needed to regulate the process.

  11. Over 180,000 U.S. troops were fighting in Vietnam, nearly 2,000 had already been killed,…

    Crazy how fast it escalated up after that. The 2,000 number is a little light, but just a couple years later (1968) almost 17,000 died.

  12. Ali’s commitment … was instead “based on the founding libertarian principle of nonaggression.”

    lol reason

    1. What? Isnt that one of the basic principles enshrined in Islam?

      1. “And fight in the way of God with those who fight with you, but aggress not: God loves not the aggressors.”

        Kinda.

  13. It is hard to overstate how unpopular it was to be anti-war at this time. […] 59 percent of Americans still believed in the war

    So – slightly over half the population supported it. Not the ringing endorsement implied in the first sentence.

    1. Do you know how hard it is to get almost 60% of the population to agree on any serious issue? The American Revolution didn’t have that kind of support when it was launched.

      1. The American Revolution didn’t have that kind of support when it was launched.

        Iraq II got bigger numbers at the outset IIRC.

    2. Yes, 59% for it, 16% didn’t have an opinion, leaves 25% against it. That’s more than 2:1.

  14. Question: why was Ali 24 years old when he was drafted? I had friends who were drafted within a year of registering at age 18 in the early 60s? I’m assuming he was boxing and not in college before 1966.

    1. They weren’t calling up everybody yet. I don’t know what the criteria were then, only that the lottery wasn’t added until later. Was he in the 1964 Olympics and not yet uppity? Maybe they held off until after the Olympics. Maybe it was just dumb luck.

      Related to that … I once figured out another reason to despise the draft: it must be selective by design. Consider these back-of-the-envelope figures:

      Population 300M.

      Life expectancy of 75 years:

      4M people in every age bracket.

      If you draft everybody for one year, that’s 4M new recruits every year. If each stays in two years, that’s total military of 8M.

      Obviously there are lots of details to change things (physically ineligible, lifers, more young people than old) but it’s a good general guide. The US military never exceeded 4M during the Vietnam War, so that’s 1 year terms at most. Drop the military size to 2M, it’s six month terms. All you’re really doing is creating a huge inactive reserve.

  15. RE: Muhammad Ali Was America’s Most Effective Anti-War Advocate (And Still Is)
    The Greatest put his life and career on the line and helped turn public sentiment against the Vietnam War.

    1. Muhammad Ali was a great man and an outstanding boxer.

    2. Muhammad showed the libertarian view that the draft was un-American and should be abolished because no one should be forced by Big Government to do something that goes against his conscience.

    3. He also showed the world why we have a Bill of RIghts in the Constitution when the boxing commission stripped him of his title without due process.

    4. May he rest in peace.

  16. This is a beautiful article and the kind of content I really appreciate. Thank you, Anthony.

    Also, here is the great Ron Paul on Muhammad Ali:

    https://youtu.be/0JthaD9twyE

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