Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Clinton's "Big Chill" ordeal. Friend killed self

Clinton's "Big Chill" ordeal. Friend killed self


It was obvious in 1969 that Bill Clinton would someday run for president. It

was just as clear that his roommate at Oxford, Frank Aller, would become a

big-time journalist, another Edward R. Murrow.

The two Rhodes scholars were good-looking, gifted, well liked - close

friends who had everything in common, particularly a hatred of the Vietnam War.

After Aller decided to resist the draft Clinton called him "one of the

bravest, best men I know" in his now famous letter to an ROTC director in

Arkansas explaining why he had given up his own thoughts of resistance to

safeguard his "political viability."

Clinton will become the next president of the United States on Jan. 20.

Aller committed suicide in 1971 - in despair, his friends say, over a decision

that had ruined his life.

"I hoped that the spectacle of young men refusing to fight would somehow

`move the conscience of America' " is how Aller explained himself in a Nov. 5,

1970, letter to a friend in New York City.

Clinton had left Oxford for Yale Law School. Aller had stayed in England, a

fugitive from justice. "The problem is that," he wrote, "while the exile goes

on and on and on, the effect does not."

In the same letter Aller mocked his predicament, inventing a future

conversation between strangers straining to remember the Rhodes scholar who, as

he put it, "refused induction and went to Canada or something way back in 1971."

And he was prescient about his best friend's destiny, having an imaginary

respondent reply: "I'm not sure, you mean the guy who was at Oxford when Gov.

Clinton was. ..."

Aller had brains, humor, talent and as much drive and ambition as any of his

friends. Something Clinton describes as "a very finely developed ethical

sensibility" made him give up the pursuit of glittering prizes to protest the

Vietnam War.

On Sept. 12, 1971, Aller, who had returned to his hometown, Spokane, Wash.,

borrowed the keys to the apartment of a childhood friend and shot himself

through the head with a .22-caliber Smith & Wesson. He died instantly.

The next morning Clinton was having breakfast with his girlfriend Hillary

Rodham at a cafe in New Haven when a friend rushed in to tell him there was an

urgent phone call.

"Instinctively, I knew it had something to do with Frank," Clinton recalled

in an interview before the election. "I just felt this incredible premonition.

It was awesome."

In 1969 there were a few Rhodes scholars who were headed for military

service in Vietnam. But almost all of Clinton and Aller's friends had placed

themselves beyond the reach of combat - some with deferments from obliging

draft boards; others with trick knees, bad eyesight and even self-induced


Clinton and Aller, however, were both classified 1-A (available to be

drafted) and both had exhausted their student deferments. Clinton says he and

his friend "agonized" over what to do.

Aller was particularly anguished over how his straight-laced parents would

feel if he became, in their eyes, a draft dodger. Some urged him to apply for

conscientious objector status. But Aller felt he could not honestly claim to

oppose all wars. Finally, he concluded he could not maneuver for an easier way


"Frank was a casualty of the war just like any dead U.S. soldier or dead

Vietcong," says Derek Shearer, an urban planner who knew Aller well at Oxford.

It is almost too fitting that the first baby boomer president would have a

"Big Chill" experience in the midst of his run for the White House.

'A victim of the war'

Yet, just as one character's suicide in the 1983 movie prompted a

soul-searching reunion of his peers, Clinton's campaign and election have

resurrected Aller.

Aller's friends describe him as a victim of the Vietnam War, the unknown

soldier of the anti-war movement and even, as David Edwards, an investment

banker in Little Rock who befriended Clinton and Aller in England, says,

"someone who died for what he believed in."

But suicide is never that simple.

What Clinton did during the Vietnam War has turned out to be the most

controversial issue of his political career. Those experiences were also among

the most formative of his entire life.

Describing the bond he forged with Aller more than 20 years ago, he says,

"It is just almost impossible to re-create the personal agony we felt then."

Aller grew up in an insular, middle-class community in a modest, ranch-style

house. His father Herbert was a World War II veteran who worked for the

Internal Revenue Service; his mother Anita did volunteer church work. Both his

parents were conservative Presbyterians whose lives revolved around their

church - and their son.

Aller was always exceptionally smart. By the time he left University High

School, where he was the valedictorian and the only alumnus ever to become a

Rhodes scholar, he was routinely described as "brilliant."

No one was surprised when Aller won a Rhodes scholarship after graduating

Phi Beta Kappa in Far Eastern and Slavic studies from the University of

Washington in 1968.

But many were shocked when he became a draft resister one year later. His

closest friends knew how strongly he felt about the war, however, and how

compelled he felt to act upon his convictions.

But after a miserable year in exile Aller went home to try and piece his

life together. To his own surprise, he succeeded. In the end he couldn't

forgive himself for that - any more than he could shake the black bouts of

depression that had begun clouding his perspective in England.

Paying the price

On a wall of his study in Little Rock, Clinton keeps a blown-up poster-size

picture of himself, Aller and a third roommate from Oxford in 1969, Strobe

Talbott, a Soviet scholar who is now a Time magazine columnist. "I really loved

him," he says of Aller.

Clinton was close to all his Oxford friends - the war had created an

unusually tight bond among the Americans studying there. Yet Aller and he were,

in many ways, the closest.

The president-elect remembers Aller coming to talk to him the day he made up

his mind to resist the draft. "He told me: `I know you couldn't make this

decision and I don't think you should.' "

Clinton speaks elliptically of the guilt he and other friends felt about not

taking so principled a stand. "We feel Frank paid the price for all of us,"

Edwards says.

"Frank sort of became everyone's alter ego," says Robin Raphel, a college

girlfriend of Aller's who was at Cambridge while he was at Oxford.

Raphel, now the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, says

Aller was ill-suited to the role of anti-establishment martyr. "Others were

able to live their own need to resist through Frank," she says, "but even

thinking about rebelling didn't come naturally to Frank."

On Jan. 20, 1969, Aller sent a three-page letter to the Spokane draft board

that began, "... I cannot in good conscience accept induction into the Armed

Forces of the United States."

Aller charged that the government's power to deny deferments to critics of

the Vietnam War was forcing young Americans to act against their principles.

On Dec. 1, 1969, Clinton drew the high lottery number 311 and was out of

reach of the draft. On Dec. 4 Aller was indicted, in absentia, by a federal

grand jury in Spokane for failure to submit to induction.

"Frank was the only guy among the Rhodes scholars who actually did something

about the war - who risked himself," says David Satter, a Soviet expert now

living in Moscow.

Loneliness in exile

Clinton enrolled at Yale Law School - and fell out of touch with Aller.

Aller remained behind, dividing his time between working on his thesis at

Oxford and protesting the war in London.

"He thought if he, a Rhodes scholar, did it, others would pay attention,"

Edwards says bitterly. "Guess what - he did it and nobody cared."

In addition, Aller was finding himself to be temperamentally unfit for

rebellion. A straight arrow of sorts, he was beginning to fear he would be an

outlaw forever.

In the summer of 1970 Aller went to Spain to write and look for work. There,

cut off from the support of other American draft resisters and adrift in an

alien culture, loneliness seemed to engulf him.

Feeling abandoned, Aller grew "paranoid," according to his father, about

being hunted down by American authorities. He wrote scores of letters and began

dreaming of going home.

In one dated Oct. 3, 1970, he wrote, "I don't want to become a broken old

man nursing a faded ideal which no one else remembers."

Two months later he returned to the United States through Canada and was met

at the Spokane airport on Dec. 9 by his parents, his younger sister Margaret

and a U.S. marshal.

Aller, his mother remembers, walked off the plane with his hands up,

expecting to be handcuffed. The marshal waited until he got in the car to serve

his warrant.

His mother saw the change right away. "He had always had a sunny

personality, but now he seemed to be wearing the weight of the world on his

shoulders," she says.

Depression worsens

Aller flew to Boston soon after his arraignment, telling his parents he

wanted to see old friends. He also saw a lawyer, Edward Rudnitsky, who in the

'60s and '70s handled more than a thousand deserter and draft-resister cases.

Rudnitsky sent Aller to Robert Cserr, a Boston psychiatrist who diagnosed

many draft-age men. As Rudnitsky puts it, "In almost every case he found them

not fit for the military."

After one appointment Cserr concluded that Aller was psychologically

unqualified for military service and submitted a report to Rudnitsky. But Aller

was shocked and upset by what the doctor had written. He had not yet begun to

think of himself as clinically depressed.

Armed with the letter, Aller returned to Spokane and reported for his

physical. His Selective Service records show he was found 1-Y (not qualified

for service - but still on the hook to be called in case of a national


Supplementary documents revealing the exact reason he failed his physical

were destroyed after his death, following then common practice. The same day he

flunked his physical the U.S. attorney's office dropped the charges against him.

Aller told almost no one among his friends why he was found unfit. To this

day, most think he was saved by a bad ear.

Aller spent much of the spring and early summer of 1971 in Southern

California, hunting for work, anguishing over what he called his "legal

hassles" and staying in the West Los Angeles guest house of Lloyd Shearer, a

columnist with Parade magazine and the father of Derek.

The Shearers introduced Aller to Robert Gibson, the foreign editor of The

Los Angeles Times. Gibson was so impressed with Aller that he decided to send

him to Vietnam as a correspondent.

Soon after being offered the Saigon job, Aller began studying Vietnamese.

In a May 30, 1971, letter he told his girlfriend Jan Brenning about the

Vietnam assignment and the irony of his ending up there. "Vietnam - there could

be no more appropriate place for me to go," he wrote. The letter contains no

hint that only a few months later Aller would take his own life.

Three weeks after writing that letter he had eased his legal predicament,

but not his conscience. His mother remembers the moment her son told her about

his new job overseas and confided timorously, "I'm not an Asia expert." The

admission shocked her. He had never expressed a lack of confidence before.

The first attempt

After signing his contract with The Los Angeles Times, Aller flew back to

Spokane for what was thought to be a long-weekend visit to say goodbye before

heading to Vietnam.

But instead, on Friday night, he made a half-hearted suicide attempt,

swallowing a handful of sleeping pills and drinking a bottle of wine. He went

for a walk, then returned to his parents' house, his face ashen.

Alarmed, his mother tried - to no avail - to reach a psychologist Aller had

been seeing off and on for several months. Aller slept it off and later

admitted to his mother he had tried to take his life.

On Saturday he seemed fine. He spent the day with his best friend from high

school, Bernie Johnson, who had returned the previous year from working

alongside South Vietnamese soldiers as a member of a mobile advisory team.

Aller peppered the Vietnam veteran with questions about his tour. That night

he insisted they go to a Vietnamese restaurant so Aller could try out his

language skills. "I was amazed by how much Vietnamese he already knew," Johnson


Johnson also recalls that Aller asked him some very specific questions about

the workings of guns and armaments. "He told me he didn't want to look foolish

over there," he says.

Johnson didn't suspect what was really on his friend's mind. "He seemed

happier than I'd ever seen him," Johnson says. "I thought it was because he was

happy with the direction his life was taking. Later I realized it was because

he had made up his mind to kill himself."

On Sunday morning Aller asked his friend for the use of his apartment,

saying he needed a quiet place to calculate some travel expenses. Johnson went

off to teach a civil-defense class at a local school. There were two guns in

the apartment. Aller drank some wine and wrote a note.

When Johnson returned to his apartment that afternoon, he found Aller

sprawled out on the living-room floor in a pool of "red stuff."

It took Johnson a long time to get over the sight of his friend. "I

sometimes think he did it at my place because he knew I'd seen bad things in

Vietnam and could take it better," Johnson says.

To be 'at peace'

Johnson read Aller's suicide note in a state of shock and can't remember a

word of it. Aller's mother says she could never bring herself to read it. She

was told it said something about her son's desire to be "at peace."

Some friends firmly believe Aller's decision to resist - and his change of

heart - devastated his self-esteem. Others point to the emotional trauma he

suffered as a fugitive from justice and the guilt he felt for having hurt his


If there is one thing that almost everybody agrees on it is that Aller was a

sensitive young man who was torn apart in the tempest of the times.

"I'll never forget," Satter says, "how he once told me he took his

decision with him to bed every night - and woke up with it each morning."

Raphel says she cannot explain Aller's suicide any better than anyone else.

"At the end of the day he took it all too seriously," she says wearily. "Most

people checked out of the intensity of those times - and Frank never did."


Be the first to know

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Related to this story

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alerts

Breaking News


Entertainment & Dining

Latest News

Local Sports

NWI Prep Sport News

Weather Alerts