|That’s 19-year old Mitt Romney on the right, holding the sign that says “Speak Out! Don’t sit in!” Romney was one of about 150 students protesting against an anti-draft “sit-in” at Stanford University in May 1966.
Anyone in college in the late 1960s knew both of these types. But now we have Mitt Romney, possibly a third “baby boom” president. Where does he fit? Not surprisingly, someplace else.
Mitt Romney (born 1947) spent most of the turbulent late 1960s out of the country. In mid-1966, he left for a 3-year Mormon missionary assignment to France, a traditional rite-of-passage in his family. During this time, stationed in Le Harve, then Nantes, Bordeaux, and Paris, young Mitt mostly kept away from politics, even as his father was running for President in 1967 and 1968. (See Part II of this series.) Mitt’s missionary work forbid him from smoking, drinking, or dating (though he already was committed to his future wife Anne back in the USA).
He avoided military service in Vietnam during these years first through a student draft deferment and then a ministerial deferment.
Still, Mitt had a point of view. The Vietnam War was an increasingly hot issue in 1966 and 1967 as President Lyndon B. Johnson was escalating American involvement from 16,500 to almost 500,000 troops, mostly draftees. Not surprisingly, protests centered on college campuses, and focused on the draft. “Hell no !! We won’t go !!!”
At first, Mitt supported the War. The photograph at the top of this post, published recently by the London Daily Mail, shows 19 year-old Mitt at Stanford University — where he studied for one year before leaving for France. Mitt is on the far right holding a picket sign. Here’s how the MailOnline described the scene: “The photograph was taken on May 20, 1966, shortly after a group of students had taken over the office of Stanford University President Wallace Sterling…. They were protesting at the introduction of a test designed to help the authorities decide who was eligible for the draft. Mr Romney was one of approximately 150 conservative students who counter-picketed the sit-in.“
In other words, Romney was protesting against the protesters — supporting the War and the draft, despite his own deferment.
In France as a Mormon missionary during 1967-1969, Mitt hardly escaped the maelstrom. He was present in Paris for the May 1968 Paris general strike and student revolt. According to various accounts, he was frequently challenged by French students about America’s role in Vietnam (France itself had left Vietnam in 1954 after its defeat at Dien Bien Phu), which Mitt always still backed.
When Mitt returned to the US in mid-1969 to finish school at Brigham Young University, his draft deferment ran out. But he had luck on his side and drew a number 300 in the 1969 draft lottery, making him effectively exempt. (Full disclosure: I pulled a number 14 in the 1970 lottery, creating some major life complications back then. Maybe more on that some other time.) Mitt was surprised at how things had changed while he was away, particularly his own father’s new strong views against the War. Mitt quickly changed as well. In 1970, the Boston Globe quoted him as criticizing the War. “If it wasn’t a political blunder to move into Vietnam,” he told a reporter, “I don’t know what is.”
By mid-1971, however, all this was over. Mitt had enrolled at the Harvard Business and Law schools and was on to his next career in business and finance.
So what does this tell us about Mitt Romney? Which side of the 1960s culture wars was he on? Apparently both at different times, and neither very strongly. Mitt followed his own drummer — to France, to Brigham Young, and to Harvard. And apparently he is following his own drummer still.