It was late November 1965 when the poet Allen Ginsberg ignited the flower-power movement in Berkeley, Calif., urging protesters against the Vietnam War to greet the police with blossoms, not rocks. A few miles south, at button-down Stanford University, young men would exchange chinos for jeans that academic year. An anti-war activist would become student body president; anti-draft protesters would occupy the university president’s office.
That same November, a newly minted Stanford freshman named Mitt Romney was in Berkeley on a less rebellious mission.
Romney was on the AxeComm, a school spirit committee. His charge was to keep students at the University of California, Berkeley, from stealing the Stanford Axe, an old lumberjack’s ax awarded to the winner of the universities’ annual football game. He succeeded, infiltrating a cabal of Berkeley students under the pseudonym Tim Yenmor (his name spelled backward), learning their plans and planting disinformation about the ax’s location.
"We were more concerned about protecting the ax from Berkeley students than about the war in Southeast Asia," said Michael Roake, another freshman who joined Romney on the mission. "It sounds silly and trivial now. But at the time, we were very earnest."
The cultural divide that opened that school year on California campuses forever changed some young men. The new Stanford student president, David Harris, was later imprisoned for refusing military service. Some freshmen in Romney’s dormitory, Rinconada Hall, joined an anti-war commune or fought the draft as conscientious objectors.
Romney, though, stayed true to his chinos and the Vietnam War, even joining a counterprotest against the occupation of the office of the university president, Wallace Sterling. Forty-six years later, some classmates remember his pro-war stand as principled and heartfelt; others say he merely championed the worldview of his father, George Romney, then Michigan’s governor, a war supporter and a future contender for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. Still others say he sailed through the most schismatic moral and political issue of that time — and perhaps of any period since in the United States — with neither much angst nor introspection.
On his own for the first time, Romney finished his freshman year as he began it: conventionally patriotic and faithful to the traditional values of the time.
"He was loyal to his family beliefs, his church beliefs and his country’s beliefs without trying, really, to understand what qualifications they had," said Karl Drake, another Rinconada freshman and an anti-war activist who sometimes clashed with Romney.
It is unclear whether Romney’s hawkish Vietnam stance in 1966, when he was 18 years old and first exposed to the larger world, presaged his hawkish foreign policy stance as a presidential candidate in 2012, in which he has promised more confrontational approaches toward China, Iran and Russia than those adopted by President Barack Obama. But just as Romney’s views on some other issues evolved over the years, his public assessments of the Vietnam War shifted markedly.
His pro-war sympathies at Stanford changed four years later, when he recanted and called the war a mistake. After saying in an interview during his failed bid to unseat Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1994 that he had no interest in military service as a youth, Romney said in 2007 during his first run for the Republican presidential nomination that he had sometimes longed to join the troops in Vietnam.
At Stanford, Romney was exempt from the draft, holding the 2-S student deferment then given to most undergraduates. He kept it but one year; like his older brother, Scott, Romney left Stanford early to serve for 30 months as a missionary abroad, as is customary for devout Mormon men.
During that period in France, from 1966 to 1968, he held another draft exemption as a missionary — a controversial one, as critics complained that it disproportionately excluded Mormon men from service.
The Selective Service eventually limited church districts to one religious deferment every six months, sharply reducing draft exemptions in Utah. But in Michigan, where Romney grew up, the small Mormon population made it unlikely that others competed for the mission that Romney accepted, said Barry Mayo, a counselor at the time to the district bishop. (After returning from France, Romney transferred to Brigham Young University and again secured a student deferment.)
When Vietnam and the draft did come up at Stanford, several former dorm mates said, Romney did not evade the issue. But his pro-war views seemed both deeply held and tightly bound to those of his father.
Wayne Brazil, now a private mediator in California, was the upperclassman adviser on the third floor of Rinconada, where Romney spent that year.
"I have a sense of him being in what was then the political and philosophical minority" on the war, he said, "and standing his ground — not running or hiding from the debate.
"But whether real listening was occurring," he added, "I don’t know."
Tall and good-looking, Romney impressed fellow freshmen with his enthusiasm and self-confident bearing. Robert Mardian, now a California restaurant owner who lived on Romney’s floor, called him "unpretentious, very easygoing, very fun-loving — a not-so-serious, happy-go-lucky guy."
In Romney’s dorm closet hung parts of a Michigan state trooper’s uniform, apparently cadged from his father’s security detail. Some were amused by his boast that he had donned the uniform and slapped a flashing red light atop his vehicle to dash at high speed to the San Francisco airport for a late flight. Others said it underscored what they saw as the bubble of privilege he occupied — a scion of a powerful family who was not necessarily bound by the usual rules.
Like many of Romney’s friends, Mardian, whose family was solidly Republican, stood apart from Stanford’s tilt to the social and political left. Several were in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps.
Yet the war and the draft were all but unavoidable issues in Rinconada Hall that year. Harris, a passionate and charismatic radical and the future student president, was one of the dormitory’s three upperclassmen advisers.
Harris’ first-floor room became a hothouse for budding anti-war activists: a debating hall fueled by drugs and songs by his girlfriend (and later wife), Joan Baez, where students thrashed out the war’s morality and legality long into the night.
"David was someone who would always be willing to talk," said Roake, who was attending Stanford on an ROTC scholarship. "He used to give me a bad time because I’d be in my little uniform, and he would make comments about it." But Roake said those discussions began a process that led him as a junior to seriously consider becoming a conscientious objector. (He instead became a Marine medevac pilot in Vietnam, saying he wanted to change things from the inside.)
He said he recalled Harris’ urging Romney and other Rinconada students to begin thinking about the war and other social issues.
"If anybody could turn you, it was he," he said. "But Mitt resisted his blandishments."
For his part, Harris, now an author, said Romney "made no ripple on my pond."
"The most remarkable thing I see is that he was at Stanford for a year during that period, with all that’s going on in the Bay Area during that time," he said. "And then he goes to Paris, where the students take over the city" — a protest, demanding sexual and academic freedom, that brought France to a standstill and ousted the autocratic President Charles de Gaulle.
"He missed them both," Harris said. "He was going in exactly the opposite direction."
Romney stood — conspicuously — at the opposite end of the spectrum from Harris. In that first year of the anti-war movement, Stanford was divided between war critics and supporters. Romney’s strongly held views were all the more prominent by virtue of his father’s national standing as a backer of the war.
In November 1965, returning from a tour of Vietnam sponsored by the Pentagon, George Romney stopped at Stanford for dinner and remarks on Vietnam with Rinconada’s freshmen.
The students were split over whether to honor a war supporter with a formal dinner, Drake said. Some urged the residents to forgo coats, ties or even shirts to show their displeasure. Others boycotted the meal.
For the governor’s son, however, "it was Mitt’s finest hour in the dorm to have his father, the governor, come and visit our group," said Peter Davenport, a Rinconada resident. Others described the younger Romney as beaming with pride.
Afterward, Drake said, he argued heatedly with Romney over whether the government had given his father and others on the trip a true picture of the conflict — something he said Romney found nearly inconceivable.
"I remember trying to convey this to Mitt — that you can’t necessarily believe what the government is telling you," he said. "He really got quite angry about this. My sense very much was he felt it was unpatriotic to question the information we were being given. He felt the criticism was a personal attack on his family’s integrity."
As Romney’s freshman year waned, Harris won a landslide victory as student body president. Anti-draft demonstrators soon took over the Stanford president’s office.
Romney demonstrated as well — outside, in khakis and a sport jacket, picketing the occupiers with a sign that read "Speak out, don’t sit in." Within three months, he was bound for France, never to return to Stanford.
Four decades later, in 2007 during his run for the Republican presidential nomination, Romney told The Boston Globe that while in France, "I longed in many respects to actually be in Vietnam and representing our country there."
"In some ways," he said, "it was frustrating not to feel like I was there as part of the troops that were fighting in Vietnam."
That frustration may have been short-lived. In August 1967, as Romney proselytized in the south of France, his blunt-spoken father abruptly turned against the Vietnam War, calling himself a victim of "brainwashing" by officials from the State Department and the Pentagon, comments that helped doom his already faltering presidential candidacy. Not three years later, after George Romney had become the housing secretary in the Nixon administration, a journalist interviewed children of top administration officials about their views on the war.
"If it wasn’t a political blunder to move into Vietnam," the 23-year-old Mitt was quoted as saying, "I don’t know what is."