Dick Cheney: Education & Vietnam

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Dick Cheney was a very active vice president. In this lesson, we're going to explore his early life and see how his experiences in the tumultuous 1960s impacted his later years in politics.

Dick Cheney

In the United States, most vice presidents are relatively inactive within the Oval Office itself. Dick Cheney wasn't most vice presidents. As the second-in-command to President George W. Bush from 2001-2009, Cheney became one of the most active vice presidents in history, displaying a disproportionately large amount of influence over the president's decisions. Cheney left office as a very controversial figure, and people debate his legacy to this day. But to really understand him, we need to look back before his years in politics. Certain elements of his youth, in particular, may be important to comprehending this active figure.

Dick Cheney


Richard Bruce ''Dick'' Cheney was born in Nebraska in 1941 and raised among the oil fields of Casper, Wyoming. There he met an oilman who had graduated from Yale University, Tom Stroock. Stroock had the clout to help Cheney get his application noticed by the admissions committee, and in 1959 he entered Yale on a full scholarship. He later joked that the university had only accepted him due to ''affirmative action,'' thus filling its quota of students from rural Wyoming.

Cheney soon found out that he did not fit in well at Yale. With falling grades, he lost his scholarship and returned to Wyoming to work setting up transmission lines. He returned to Yale but again dropped out and went home to Wyoming. Dick Cheney was done with the Ivy League.

Cheney went back to work as a power company lineman, but after two DUIs he realized that he needed to make some changes in his life. He eased back into school by attending the community college in Casper, then entered the University of Wyoming at Laramie. This was a better fit for Cheney, who proved to be a much better student than he had been before. He graduated with a B.A. in political science in 1965, and went on to earn his M.A. in political science in 1966. He was later admitted to the Ph.D. program at the University of Wisconsin, but dropped out to work for Wisconsin Congressman Bill Steiger.

The University of Wyoming was the only university from which Cheney graduated

Cheney's love for Wyoming and his deep connection to the oil industry would stay with him for the remainder of his career. However, his academic experiences also influenced him in another way. At Yale, he found the ivory tower to be elitist and rigid. It was highly competitive and the rules were unyielding to student demands or needs. Wyoming had been less pretentious, but in Wisconsin he'd seen massive student protests with no impact on regional or national politics. Cheney later claimed that his experience in these big schools inspired him to go into politics, where he felt he could make a difference and actually be heard.

Cheney and Vietnam

So, what were all those students at the University of Wisconsin protesting about? It was the late '60s, and America was reaching the peak of anti-Vietnam War sentiment. In general, Cheney seems to have been among the few students at the very politically active University of Wisconsin to have actually supported the war. This doesn't mean, however, that he was interested in serving in it.

Vietnam War protests on the University of Wisconsin campus

Cheney became eligible for the draft in 1959, but he doesn't seem to have been too keen on shipping out. He later claimed that he would have been happy to serve, but it's worth noting that he was deferred from selective service a total of five times in the 1960s. The first four draft deferments were because of his student status, and the last because he was a new father. In 1967 he turned 26, old enough to be exempt from the draft, and passed through the Vietnam War without ever having to fight in the military. It is worth noting that Cheney was far from alone in his experiences; about 60% of eligible men used deferments and other methods to avoid fighting in Vietnam.

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