Donald Trump, Selective Service registrant No. 50-63-46-580, never served in the military during the Vietnam War. Neither did 15 million other young American men who won student deferments or were otherwise disqualified.
But 9 million Americans did serve during the 11-year conflict, and the cultural and political gulf that opened between them and those who avoided involvement in a bloody, unpopular and losing war remains a festering national wound half a century later.
On Wednesday, as world leaders gathered to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day, an epic battle in a war that defined national consensus, President Trump said in an interview broadcast Wednesday that he would have been “honored” to serve in Vietnam.
“I would not have minded that at all,” Trump said to British broadcaster Piers Morgan. “I would have been honored . . . But I think I make up for it right now . . . because we’re rebuilding our military at a level that it’s never seen before.”
The contradiction between Trump’s actions in the 1960s and his latest statement has reignited the long-simmering debate over how and why he avoided service. And the question of how he — like two of his 2020 rivals, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden — managed to avoid the war is now being raised by a new generation of presidential contenders who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Trump steered himself around service in Vietnam by obtaining four student deferments and one medical disqualification — something to do with a bone spur in one or both of his heels — between 1964 and 1972.
In the past, Trump has presented his avoidance of service as an accident of timing — his college years and his draft eligibility coincided with a period when the military was generous with student deferments.
“I was never a fan of that war, I’ll be honest with you,” he told Morgan. “I thought it was a terrible war; I thought it was very far away. You’re talking about Vietnam at that time — nobody ever heard of the country.” Trump has long said he was against the war, but did not take part in any of the antiwar protests that were regular events on the University of Pennsylvania campus when he was a student.
“The bell rang and Donald Trump was hiding,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University who has written often on Vietnam. “Many people are proud that they didn’t serve, saying it was an immoral war. But it’s embarrassing that President Trump is in Great Britain honoring the 75th anniversary of D-Day and pretending to be a wannabe service member in Vietnam. If he wanted to, he could have easily served like John [F.] Kerry or John McCain,” the former Democratic senator from Massachusetts and Republican senator from Arizona, respectively, whose Vietnam experiences defined their later political careers.
McCain, who spent five years in captivity by the North Vietnamese after his plane was shot down, said in 2017 that the inequities of the war had always gnawed at him. “I will never countenance . . . that we drafted the lowest-income level of America and the highest-income level found a doctor that would say that they had a bone spur. That is wrong.”
Trump until now has presented his avoidance of the draft as a stroke of fortune. “I actually got lucky because I had a very high draft number,” he said in a 2011 TV interview. He has said that he felt he had military experience because he went to a high school with a military focus.
This year, some of Trump’s younger Democratic opponents have slammed him for avoiding service.
Pete Buttigieg, the South Bend, Ind., mayor who is seeking the Democratic nomination, last week called Trump “somebody who, I think it’s fairly obvious to most of us, took advantage of the fact that he was a child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place.” Buttigieg, 37, was an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2013.
Another presidential candidate, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), last week said he’d “like to meet the American hero who went in Donald Trump’s place to Vietnam. I hope he’s still alive.” Moulton, 40, served in Iraq as a Marine Corps captain.
With septuagenarians Trump, Sanders (I-Vt.) and Biden in the race, this is likely to be the last presidential election in which candidates’ decisions about serving in Vietnam will be a political issue. Sanders, 77, a vocal opponent of the war while he was at the University of Chicago, applied for conscientious objector status, but aged out of draft eligibility before his application was processed. Biden, 76, got student deferments when he was at the University of Delaware and was then reclassified as disqualified for service because he had asthma.
“We used to elect presidents on the basis of their service, from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and JFK’s PT-109,” Brinkley said. “But starting with Bill Clinton, what the Vietnam generation did became a litmus test. How did you deal with that era? It tells us a lot about somebody’s character.”
Politicians close to Trump’s age have struggled to explain why they did not serve. President George W. Bush, who like Trump is 72, avoided the draft by signing up for Texas’s National Guard.
President Bill Clinton, also 72, got student deferments while he was at Georgetown University from 1964 to 1968, after which a family friend in Arkansas arranged for him to enlist in the Naval Reserve to avoid the draft. Clinton later wrote a thank-you note to an Army ROTC officer for “saving me from the draft.” The fact-checking service Snopes concluded that the fact “that Clinton went to great lengths to avoid the Vietnam-era draft [is] beyond dispute.”
Trump got four student deferments while he was enrolled at Fordham University in New York and then as a transfer student at Penn. As a student at New York Military Academy and in college, he was an active athlete, playing baseball, basketball, golf and football. He was 6-foot-2, 180 pounds, lean and strong. He described himself as “the best baseball player in New York.”
After he graduated from the Wharton School at Penn in spring 1968, he was reclassified 1-A — prime eligibility for the draft. He had an Armed Forces physical in September; records of that exam show only that he was declared “DISQ” for “disqualified.”
During the 2016 campaign, when Trump was asked what had held him back from serving, he said he could not recall which heel had the spur.
“You’ll have to look it up,” he told reporters. His campaign later issued a statement saying it was both heels.
On the draft registration card he filled out in 1964, Trump listed his only “obvious physical characteristic” that might aid in identifying his body as “birthmark on both heels.”
Trump acknowledged during the 2016 campaign that he got out of the draft by providing Selective Service officials with “a very strong letter on the heels.”
The New York Times reported last year that the Queens podiatrist who diagnosed Trump with bone spurs did so as a favor to the doctor’s landlord — the president’s father, real estate magnate Fred Trump.
In 2016, Trump’s campaign said his medical deferment was temporary and when his name was entered into the draft lottery in 1969, he drew a 356 out of 365, making it exceedingly unlikely that he would be drafted.
In 1998, Trump said on Howard Stern’s radio show that sex in the 1980s New York dating scene was his version of Vietnam.
“It is a dangerous world out there,” he said. “It’s like Vietnam. It’s my personal Vietnam. I feel like a great and very brave soldier.”