While everyone today is celebrating the life of Muhammad Ali, who passed away last Friday, such was clearly not the case back in the 1960s, when Ali took on the vast and powerful U.S. national-security establishment with his steadfast refusal to be conscripted to “serve” in the U.S. Army, which would have sent him to Vietnam to fight and die for “freedom.”
As Ali put it so succinctly, “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” That was 1966, three years after the assassination of President Kennedy, when his successor Lyndon Johnson was ramping up U.S. involvement in Vietnam’s civil war.
Ali didn’t let it go at that. He also stated:
Why should me and other so-called “negroes” go 10,000 miles away from home, here in America, to drop bombs and bullets on other innocent brown people who’s never bothered us and I will say directly: No, I will not go.
Here was the clincher:
Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again: The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.
Needless to say, Ali’s words were heresy to the U.S. national-security establishment, which was telling Americans how necessary it was to invade Vietnam to save America from the Vietcong and North Vietnamese communists. If Americans weren’t force to kill and die in Vietnam, they said, the dominoes would start falling to the communists, with the big, final domino being the United States.
The attack against Ali leveled by sports broadcaster David Susskind reflected the predominant view of the pro-draft, pro-war establishment at that time:
I find nothing amusing or interesting or tolerable about this man. He’s a disgrace to his country, his race, and what he laughingly describes as his profession. He is a convicted felon in the United States. He has been found guilty. He is out on bail. He will inevitably go to prison, as well he should. He is a simplistic fool and a pawn.
Yes, if only Ali had behaved like Elvis and loyally and dutifully complied with the state’s decision to conscript him into serving the national-security state. If only he had supported the troops, who were fighting and dying for “freedom” and “defending our rights and liberties” in a faraway land thousands of miles away from American shores.
Of course, never mind that North Vietnam and the Vietcong never attacked the United States or even threatened to do so.
Unfortunately, the professional sports world back then was as intertwined with the national-security establishment as it is today. Upon his conviction for draft resistance (which the U.S. Supreme Court later overturned), they stripped him of his boxing title and refused to let him fight during three of what would have been his most productive years.
But Ali’s words were, indeed, dangerous and constituted a grave threat to “national security.” After all, if millions of American blacks took them to heart, who would have been left to draft and serve as their cannon fodder in Vietnam except poor white guys?
Obviously, they had to make Ali an example. They had to send a message to all other blacks (and whites as well): “Don’t even think about it!” And so they went after him with a vengeance for daring to stand up to the national-security state and its gigantic anti-communist crusade. They prosecuted him, convicted him, and sentenced him to serve 5 years in their federal jails.
All for refusing to go along with their immoral and illegal undeclared war against the Vietnamese people.
“But Jacob, what about the communists? Weren’t they coming to get us! If Americans didn’t permit themselves to be drafted, every state in the union would have become Red.”
Ali saw through all it all — he recognized it as a crock, much as President Kennedy did in the months before his assassination (as Martin Luther King, who was also considered a threat to national security, did too). (See Regime Change: The JFK Assassination by Jacob Hornberger and JFK’s War with the National Security Establishment: Why Kennedy Was Assassinated by Douglas Horne.) That’s what made Ali a grave threat to the national-security racket, just like Kennedy and King. All three of them were questioning a war racket that was set to enrich lots of people during succeeding decades in what President Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex.”
Muhammad Ali stood his ground and said No the all-powerful national-security establishment and its illegal, immoral, and destructive war on Vietnam. He didn’t permit them to warp his mind, conscience, and spirit with their Cold War anti-communist crusade. He was a real profile in courage, a genuine patriot, and a true hero. Too bad there aren’t many like him today.
(Also, see The CIA, Terrorism, and the Cold War: The Evil of the National Security State by Jacob G. Hornberger.)