Driven West: Andrew Jackson's Trail of Tears to the Civil War
After the War of 1812, President Andrew Jackson and his successors led the country to its manifest destiny across the continent. But that expansion unleashed new regional hostilities that led inexorably to Civil War. The earliest victims were the Cherokees and other tribes of the southeast who had lived and prospered for centuries on land that became Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia.
Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence
"...Though not a traditional military history, this book has a few rip-roaring battle scenes, such as Andrew Jackson's famous routing of the British at New Orleans...Langguth's prose is vivid, and he brings to life a panoply of personalities, from Dolley Madison to Tecumseh...he has provided a panoramic view of a decisive event in American military and political history."
--Publishers Weekly, July 31, 2006.
"Never again after this masterly work will 1812 be a forgotten war. Langguth brilliantly restores the war to its rightful place in American history while at the same time giving us a rousing good story that holds our attention from beginning to end."
--Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of "Team of Rivals"
"A. J. Langguth is incapable of writing a dull sentence. Here he brings rousingly to life the perilous, fascinating years between America's first and second wars of independence. With an artist's flair, a scholar's rigor, and the narrative genius of a born storyteller, he gives us presidents and their wives, Redcoats and frontier Caesars, heroes and scalawags--an unforgettable portrait gallery of young America."
--Richard Norton Smith, author of "Patriarch: George Washington and the New American Nation."
"...expertly guides readers through American history from the country's unsteady years as a sovereign nation to the culminating victories of the War of 1812. In vivid and richly detailed prose that can read like fiction but is based in well-researched fact, Langguth protrays a host of Federalist politicos and young America's many struggles.
"He explains the genesis, in political decisions and military actions, of the "second war of independence" with Great Britain.
"After delineating the war's numerous and diverse causes, he slows the book's pace by describing its disparate, far-flung battles, from the British capture of Fort Mackinac in Michigan to Andrew Jackson's heroism at the Battle of New Orleans, which in fact took place after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed.
"As he did in 'Patriots,' Langguth here relies heavily on letters, personal journal entries, speech transcripts, and other primary sources that are uniformly fascinating and enlightening. While in no way revisionist, this is well-done history and a worthy addition to any academic library's American history collection."
--Douglas King, University of South Carolina, Library Journal.
"A. J. Langguth's "Union 1812" is an excellent companion volume--and handy sequel--to his fine "Patriots," which entertained and enlightened readers with its cast of characters from the Revolutionary War. Anyone now looking for an equally engaging and reliable guide to the principal figures and events surrounding the War of 1812 need look no further. This is it."
--Benson Bobrick, author of "Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution"
"'Union 1812' both fills a gaping hole in our early history and inventively and pesuasively anchors the War of 1812 to the founding process, giving us portraits not only of players like Madison, Tecumseh, Jackson, and Harrison, but also of the revolutionary heroes Jefferson, Adams, and Washington, whose contributions take on new meaning in light of this 'second war of independence' and the true opening of the American West."
--William Hogeland, author of "The Whiskey Rebellion."
REMARKS AT THE ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER
DECEMBER 8, 2010
Usually for an evening like this one I prefer to speak more informally. But since I will be reading a few passages from my book, "Driven West," I've written out my remarks. As a former reporter, I would find it too ironic to misquote myself.
In coming to Georgia for research two years ago, I received a hospitable welcome at your many other archives and libraries, and I was grateful for the invaluable assistance of Dawn Hampton in Rome and Miss Kitty Rutherford in Calhoun.
I was particularly impressed by the New Echota State Historical Site, which was being overseen by Dr. Donna Myers.
While I was walking through that evocative park, troupes of Georgia schol children were also learning about the Cherokees and their life in the state until the 1830s. The boys and girls seemed enthralled by their vivid look into the past.
But in the months since then, I've been sorry to learn that the realities of the state budget have forced the closure or curtailment of historical sites that are such great assets to understanding our nation's past.
I hope this is not inappropriate, but if some of you should decide to support New Echota, you can reach Dr. Myer's volunteer group at--this is all one word--friendsofgastateparks.org, and then designate New Echota as your chapter.
End of commercial.
My own interest in the removal of the Cherokees to Oklahoma had been stimulated several years ago while I was writing a book about the War of 1812, a book that concluded with General Andrew Jackson's improbable victory in New Orleans.
I had come to feel that because we so often learned about our country's history as reluctant tenth graders, we tend to miss the grandeur and sweep of our American adventure.
For example, a strong case can be made that George Washington was one of the great men of all recorded history. And it's not mere chauvinism to say so. And yet Washington is too familiar in our wallets these days to stir our pulse.
In that same way, Andrew Jackson's defeat in New Orleans of some twenty-five hundred British soldiers--with his own loss of seven or eight men--was an epic victory on any scale in any age. At the time, Americans fully recognized his achievement, and General Jackson became a revered legend.
ButI found that writing about Jackson's life after the war--and especially his actions as president--was producing a different portrait. And what was most troubling was Jackson's determination to force the Cherokee nation from its land. I had already suspected that Jackson's well-publicized sympathy for the common man could be traced--at least, in part--to a resentment he had felt for decades. He knew that he was regarded as uncouth by the founders of the nation, by the Virginia plantation owners and their Northern allies. When suave Albert Gallatin met Jackson in Philadelphia, he summed him up as "a rough backwoodsman." Thomas Jefferson was even more dismissive.
Recalling Jackson's time in the Congress, Jefferson wrote, "He could never speak on account of the rashness of his feelings. I have seen him attempt it repeatedly and as often choke with rage."
Jackson's celebration of the common man, then, could seem to have been motivated by a desire to revenge himself on the moneyed class that he felt had despised him all his life.
As I reevaluated Jackson's presidency, I was more than happy to let economists judge the effect of his protracted battle against the Bank of the United States. In that instance, Jackson won, and he replaced the national ban with many small state banks.
But his victory was soon followed by one of the worst depressions in America's young history.
Reviewing Jackson's dealings with the Cherokee Nation suggested to me that his feud with the tribe followed much the same pattern. Jackson scored a political success, but it left behind a heritage of misery.
As I learned more about the history of the Cherokees in Georgia, the result was the emergence of very contemporary--and troubling--questions that I had not anticipated.
Those questions all concerned various forms of guilt--individual guilt, collective guilt, historical guilt. Even geographical guilt. Tonight, I'd like to raise a few of those questions with you.
First, though, I thought we might review what Jackson proposed for the Cherokee Nation and how the tribes responded.
Many of you know the story from your earliest school days. But for those, like me, who came late to the subject, some background may be helpful.
(The talk here summarized the narrative of "Driven West: Andrew Jackson and the Trail of Tears to the Civil War.) It then continued:
Tonight we will not explore once again the misery of the forced migration to Oklahoma as it was overseen by General Winfield Scott.
I'm troubled by the unintended consequences of dwelling on suffering: We may become hardened to other people's pain.
That's the reson the defense attorneys for the Los Angeles police officers in the Rodney King case played a tape of the beating over and over. They were counting on repetition to make the jurors finally bored and indifferent.
I do include in my book excerpts from the journal kept by an unusually pious Northern clergyman, Daniel Butrick, and readers came follow along with the Cherokees as they are forced west.
I don't believe that the Reverend Butrick's diary will leave anyone blase about the Trail ofTears.
I'm also passing over tonight the fate that befell in Oklahoma three of the Cherokees whom the reader will have come to know best--Major Ridge, his son John Ridge and Elias Boudinot, who gave the Cherokees their first newspaper.
Those three men took a principled stand during the tribal debate over migration. When they spoke out, they knew that they could pay for their actions with their lives, and so they did.
I'd like to return to thesubject I raised earlier. What can the bleak story of the Cherokees tell us in our own time about guilt--and responsibility?
It's important to remember that the voices raised in Congress by Northerners against Jackson's removal policy did not represent the views of most Americans.
On the Senate floor, Missouri Senaqtor Thomas Hart Benton delivered remarks that were probably closer to a national consensus.
Benton said he consiered the white race to be uniquely blessed by divine command to subdue the earth. He put it this way to his coleagues:
"I cannot repine that this Capitol has replaced the wigwam--that this Christian people replaced the savages--the white matrons, the red squaws." Indeed, "I lookupon the settlemen of the Columbia river by the van of the Caucasian race as the most momentous human even in the history of man since his dispersion over the face of the earth."
If the nation was indifferent, at best, to the plight of the Cherokees, Harriet Beecher Stowe held the entire country, and not only the South, to blame for slavery.
Her stern conclusion to "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in often overlooked:
She wrote, "The people of the free states hve defended, encouraged and participated in "the evils of slavery, and they were the more to blame because they did not have the excuse of their upbringing or the culture around them.
"Both North and South have been guilty before God, and the Christian Church has a heavy account to answer."
I understand her indictment better from having grown up during World War II.
I was twelve in 1945, and at a Saturday matinee at the neighborhood movie theater, when I first saw the newsreel pictures of skeletons being unearthed at the Auschwitz death camp.
Ever afterward, I felt a pang when people asked--always in a friendly spirit--"Langguth? What nationality is that?" And I was compelled to answer, "German."
Those memories made made appreciate a pattern that kept repeating itself in Mississippi and North Carolina almost twenty years later. I had been sent there by the New York Times to report on the Civil Rights marches that were disturbing the nation's conscience.
In Greensboro and Jackson, I came to expect the teachers, librarians and shopkeepers who would sidle up to me after some new defiance from Alabama by Governor George Wallace or by Sheriff Bull Connor.
They would murmur, "You should know: We're not all like that."
Still later, during the Vietnam War, anti-war activists launched a campaign for protestors to sign a vow that they would not pay their taxes until the war was ended.
But I remembered a local television news story--one night only--about a Southern California man who had made good on that pledge.
The man was arrested, his assets were seized, and he was sent to prison. Neither the newspapers nor the tlevision stations ever mentioned him again.
As it turned out, very few of us--and I admitted that I was not one of them--shared that man's total commitment to a cause.
And so, then as now, we go on deploring--privately and ineffectually--the actions that are being committed by our government in our name.
During my research for this book, I was sourly amused to find that our hypocrisy has long and distinguished roots.
I learned that Henry Thoreau had not bee paying his local taxes for five years before the beginning of the Mexican-Aerican War.
Then, once the shooting started, Thoreau seized on the war as his excuse for withholding from his township the money it need to meet its purely local expenses.
I also came to realize that even those Northerners who spoke out on behalf of the Cherokees could often be both patronizing and entirely ignorant of the tribe they were defending.
Ralph Waldo Emerson has won praise for an impassioned open letter he wrote protesting the forced migration. But even he described the Cherokees as a race of savage men.
And, in fact, Emerson's concern seemed less for the tribe itself than for any stain on the nation's honor.
He directed his letter to President Martin Van Buren as Van Buren was preparing to implement the policy he had inherited from Jackson.
"You, sir," Emerson wrote, "will bring down that renowned chair in which you sit into infamy if your seal is set to this instrument of perfidy; and the name of this nation, hitherto the sweet omen of religion and liberty, will stink to the world."
As for the Georgian Guard and the state's politicians, one should not be surprised that they would refer to the Cherokees as "barbarians." Whenever we confront those we have taken for our enemy, we first must deny them any common humanity.
Peace marchers who opposed the Vietnam War were shocked by the crude and racist names our soldiers and Marines called the Vietcong. But you cannot send young men off to kill other young men under a banner of universal brotherhood.
And so, during war time, we try to trn the guilt that an individual may feel into a general absolution for our troops.
Yet we read regularly that young soldiers are returning in growing numbers form Iraq and Afghanistan tortured by what they have seen and done.
During World War II, the Germans in my home state of Minnesota were not rounded up in concentration camps, even though the German-American Bund had distributed virulent anti-war propaganda before December 7, 1941.
At the same time that the Midwestern German communities were being spared, American society was being bombarded on all sides by constant vilification of the Japanese.
Movies, editorial cartoons, comic books all portrayed the Japanese as sub-human creatures, with buck-teeth and thick glasses. They were not better than rodents,torturing American prisoners and gnawing on Yankee flesh.
The impact of that incessant indoctrination does not simply vanish on the day peace is declared.
I was reminded again of its lingering effects in Hanoi in 1996, when I sat in on a meeting of former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara with a group of North Vietnamese generals and members of the Communist Politburo. By then, the war between our countries had been over for twenty-one years.
McNamara's hosts received him with unusual courtesy. They could afford to. They had won.
Only once in three days did their tempers flare. That moment came when Mr. McNamara repeated a cliche that had been voiced often during the war by many of America's leaders, including General William Westmoreland.
McNamara explained to the North Vietnamese that we Americans had been at a disadvantage in the fighting because our culture put a higher premium than theirs on human life.
Around the table, the North Vietnamese became tense and silent. Finally, one of the Communist leader said, with a fury he barely disguised, "Let me assure you, Mr. McNamara, that our mothers grieve for their sons every bit as much as yours did."
But as a young officer during World War Two, McNamara had participated in planning the firebombing of Tokyo. He still seemed, emotionally, unable to see Asians as fully human.
It's understandable to me, then, that neither Andrew Jackson nor the Georgians of that era could acknowledge the impressive advancements by the
Cherokee Nation. The tribe may have produced a constitution, a written language, a professional newspaper. But they were still men whom their white neighbors regarded as the enemy.
After World War Two, the Nuremberg trials held in Bavaria were an attempt to mitigate Germany's collective guilt. The trials were intended to establish which individual Nazis had been responsible for the unspeakable crimes.
But post-war literature out of Germany--often from writers too young to have been at all complicit in the Holocaust--has suggested that a collective national guilt is hard to shake off.
I've come to wonder whether we may not feel even guiltier about injustices that occurred in our lifetime. One example, again from 1945: Reading the newspaper on August 6 that year, I knew that something fundamental had changed in the world when America dropped the first atomic bomb.
All of the justifications since then--about the American servicemen who were spared by an earlier end to the war--have not changed that uneasy feeling.
And yet, I've seen that my students in the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California, whose parents had not been born at the time of Hiroshima,regard America's use of the bomb as a mere historical footnote. It has nothing more to do with them than the Salem witch trials.
By now, I may seem to be suggesting that we go through life with constant guilt weighing on our shoulders. That's not my point. I do think, though,that we may harbor feelings of guilt even without acknowledging them.
Take a different category: the guilt that may arise from what happens closest to home. A man goes on a murder spree, and his neighbors wonder why they hadn't stopped him
Or a political example: I can attest as a California resident that the rounding up of the Japanese at the start of World War Two resonates more deeply in my state than it may here in Atlanta.
After all, white Californians stood by--and often profited--while the Japanese and even the native-born Japanese-Americans were rounded up and shipped off to concentration camps.
Ah, the argument goes, but they were sent to live in camps in Wyoming, not to die in ovens. But with the wartime censorship, no one could have known their fate for certain.
If we went to indulge in blaming all people of Germany for the Holocaust, however, we must be very clear about just what their crime was.
They sinned when they permitted their neighbors to be rounded up and shipped away. And their offense was little different from the action of Californians--and, by extension, all Americans--with the internment of the Japanese.
Yes, our treatment of the Japanese ended less horrifically than the treatment of the Jews. But that's a blessing, not an excuse.
As you may recall, the Congress got around to apologizing to the Japanese in 1988, and it offered a minimal restitution for their losses.
But Congress then refused for several years to make a similar apology to the Cherokees and the other Indian tribes that had been swindled and mistreated by our government.
Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas first introduced legislation in 2004 that called for an official apology. His bill was finally passed five years later as an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act, and President Obama signed it into law a year ago this month.
The language specifically forbids regarding the apology as a basis for any sort of monetary compensation.
To sum up, then, here's what I've taken away from the Cherokee experience:
Sometimes, because of panic or greed, human beings--and we Americans are certainly human--may act against their own high principles.
But eventually remorse will assert itself in the form of what Lincoln memorably called "our better angels." Those voices will insist that we live up to our ideals.
To still our conscience, we may then tender an apology. It will always be too late, and it will always be inadequate.
Bearing in mind that history, I believe that these days we must resist every effort to demonize the Mexicans without papers or the Muslims living peaceably in our midst.
If we insist on labeling them all as drug lords or terrorists, we are simply guaranteeting that one day our grandchildren will have to apologize for our blindness and our bigotry.
I hope we don't pass on to them that burden.
End of sermon.
Thanks for listening, and now it's my turn to hear what you have to tell me.
"Reporters v. Historians"Remarks by A. J. Langguth at a panel honoring Professor George C. Herring during the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations conference, Lawrence, Kansas, June 24, 2006
In February, 1983, when the war in Vietnam had been over a scant eight years, the School of Journalism at the University of Southern California held a four-day conference titled, "Vietnam Reconsidered: Lessons from a War." Because feelings still ran high, the Los Angeles Police Department ringed the confence hall with mounted troops to protect against South Vietnamese demonstrators--refugees protesting a number of the panelists, including Mrs. Nguyen Ngoc Dung, Hanoi's observer at the United Nations.
It was an emotional four days. When General Westmoreland's chief press officer, Major-General Winant Sidle spoke, his appearance set off such anguished protests from veterans that counselors from the Veterans Administration had to race through the hall to calm them.
Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times acted as chairman. Arthur Miller and Frances FitzGerald were among the concluding speakers, and the journalists on hand included Morley Safer, David Halberstam, William Tuohy, Peter Arnett, Gloria Emerson and Peter Braestrup.
Crusty Seymour Hersh announced that "I do not think the press is very relevant at all." But it was Robert Scheer, the columnist and former editor of "Ramparts," who surprised me even more when he said, "I personally did not learn much about Vietnam by going there; I learned much more in the stacks of the University of California."
By the end of the conference, I took his point: Among the historians who had spoken were William Appleman Williams, Ronald Steel, James Thomson and, of course, the dean of Vietnam historians, Professor George C. Herring. Lucid and calm, where some panelists had dealt in bombast or histrionics, Professor Herring traced the development of U. S. policy in Vietnam, and his conclusions were considered but firm:
"In retrospect, the assumptions upon which U. S. policy was based in 1950--and after--appear misguided."
He went on to explain that "it seems highly doubtful that the fall of Vietnam would have triggered a chain reaction which would have resulted in Communist control of Southeast Asia."
Professor Herring's appearance came four years after the initial publication of "America's Longest War," the book we are celebrating today, and about the time of his momental "Secret Diplomacy of the Vietnam War." I had been a reporter for The New York Times in the mid-1960s, and as I began to write historical nonfiction myself, I remembered Professor Herring's example and speculated on the differences between a reporter and a historian.
The most obvious is a question of tense. The reporter is writing about the present, a historian about the past--although sometimes about a past that is recent and still contentious. But there are more significant differences.
Reporters accept the fact that their writing will be incomplete. They cannot wait until they have assembled every piece of a puzzle. The missing pieces often emerge only because a sketchy news story has already appeared. Knowing that their writing will be inherently fragmentary, even inadequate, keeps most reporters humble about their trade.
Historians have the luxury of time and greater resources for their research. Very few historians would ever claim to be writing the definitive account of an event. But they can expect that newly discovered documents or uncovered sources will not invalidate their work. Other historians may very well challenge their theories or conclusions but not, if they have been conscientious, their facts.
Compare that with reporting during the Tet offensive. Peter Arnett of the Associated Press was among the reporters criticized because he had vividly conveyed the unexpected shock and scope of the Communist attack. Peter Braestrup, for one, pointed out afterward in his book "Big Story" that, in military terms, the offensive had failed, and Braestrup claimed that the early reports had been factually wrong and had misled the American public about the progress of the war.
(His contrarian view did not endear Braestrup to his fellow correspondents. One enduring image from the 1983 conference was Gloria Emerson chasing Braestrup through the lobby of the University Hilton, swatting at him with her purse and shouting, "Bad Peter! Bad Peter!")
When the dust settled, figuratively and literally, Professor Herring could get it right. He noted that it was true that the offensve had not achieved its most ambitious military aims, but he also called Tet "a major political victory" for the Communists.
That leads to the question of bias. Diligent reporters try to be even-handed, presenting the facts as best they can and letting readers or viewers make up their own minds. Because The Times prided itself on being the newspaper of record, I found that reporting each day from Saigon could require a sort of formula.
A story might begin, "U. S. officials announced today that 45 Vietcong soldiers had been killed in fighting in the Central Highlands."
But the second paragraph would continue, "Observers on the scene,however"--that referred either to me or to one of my colleagues who had called me by field telephone from the battle site--"reported that only eight guerrillas had been killed, and the remainer of their unit escaped from the scene."
When historians come to deal with a skirmish like that one, they can peel away the contemporary puffery and exaggeration. In fact, we look to them for judgments that can uequivocal and even harsh. We don't expect to finish reading 500 pages of undigested information only to be asked, "What do you think?"
Another example of the difference: Leaving Saigon in 1965, I thought I was gone for good,and when the editor of The New York Times Sunday Magazine asked me to sum up my fourteen months in South Vietnam, my article concluded by questioning whether American involvement in the war might now be hurting the people of South Vietnam more than it was helping them.
I asked Seymour Topping, the consummate professional who oversaw The Times' Southeast Asia coverage from Hong Kong to read the piece before I wired it to New York. When he finished, Topping said, "If that's your opinion, Jack, you're obligated to write it. But publishing this article would have made it impossible for you to continue to be reporting from Vietnam."
As a historian, Professor Herring has not been reluctant to put forward his opinions in terms that would be off-limits for a daily reporter. He writes, for example, tht Kennedy and John had "repeatedly misled the public in their optimistic reports of progress." He characterizes South Vietnames President Nguyen Khanh--charitably, in my view--as "devious, opportunistic and ambitious."
And he is unsparing about the way Henry Kissinger used his Democratic connections to spy for the Republicans at the Paris peace talks in 1968.
I spoke a few years ago with Daniel Davidson, who had been a junior member of the American delegation in 1968 and had known Kissinger from his Harvard days. Davidson said he had believed Kissinger when he said he found Nixon repugnant; Davidson agreed to brief Kissinger off-the-record on the status of the talks.
Soon after Kissinger returned to the United States, he went to a pay phone to tell Richard Allen in the Nixon campaign everything he had learned about the secret negotiations. Nixon then encouraged South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu to resist agreeing to the peace terms reached by the Johnson Administration.
Nixon succeeded in denying any last-minute political advantage to Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic presidential nominee. He also guaranteed that the war would continue.
I would not challenge Professor Herring when he calls Kissinger's duplicity "one of the more sordid episodes in recent political history."
Despite their time for reflection, however, and their ability to draw togeter material beyond the reach of most reporters, historians may operate under serious handicaps of their own.
When an entity is as secretive as the Hanoi politburo, historians must wait until its proceedings are eventually published, knowing that if transcripts appear at all they may be highly sanitized. Or else historians must pass lightly over deliberations they cannot document.
That unenviable choice has been apparent in Professor Herring's treatment of Le Duan, the dominant figure in Hanoi policy-making during the American chapter of the war. He is mentioned only once in "America's Longest War," although, as we might expect, Professor Herring again does get it right. On page 80, we read, "Le Duan, a top party official--and a southerner--played a crucial role in decision making throughout the war."
During the 1960s and '70s, speaking with Hanoi's political leaders was impossible for American journalists, of course. But that has changed. Some historians have now taken up the reporter's role in order to flesh out our knowledge of the era. Their interviews with highly placed survivors are casting new light on Le Duan and underscoring the importance of this man, who effectively replaced Ho Chi Minh in the mid-1960s and overruled even Vo Nguyen Giap on military decisions.
Another point: I believe that reporters should resist making predictions. Readers deserve the available information about what has already happened, but they needn't be subjected to fortune-telling. A large and unlamented chunk of today's political reporting--particularly on television roundtables--would vanish if journalists were forbidden to speculate on the future of Senator Hillary Clinton.
On the historian's side, the temptation is not to predict the future but to second-guess the past. Under the fancy name of counter-factuals, they play the children's game of "What if?"
Admittedly, the exercise can be amusing. And as long as we are in thrall to the memory of Jack Kennedy, there will be historians to tell us what--had he lived--he would have done about Vietnam in 1965.
That's a game Professor Herring refused to play. After he indulgently summarizd the speculation about Kennedy's future decision, he concluded, "There is not a shred of evidence to support the notion of a secret plan for extrication."
Those are differeces involving content. But there is also a stylistic difference between reporters and historians that should cause apprehension on both sides. It involves the role of narrative in the writing of news and of history.
On August 5, 1965, when Morley Safer's cameraman showed an American Marine setting fire to a hooch in the village of Cam Ne, the CBS film had to be flown to San Francisco and then on to New York. It was more than a day later before the disquieting footage could reach its home audience. Now tranmission can be a matter of seconds.
Since print reporters cannot possibly match that immediacy, they have been falling back on treating news as a diverting story instead of offering efficient summaries of the facts as they can be known.
Certainly, context is to be encouraged. Too often, readers and viewers can feel as though they have come in midway through a drama with no program notes to guide them. But there is a danger in relying too heavily on novelistic detail. The result can swamp the significance of an event and reduce news to entertainment.
An opposite trend has been occuring for decades in the writing of history. Samuel Eliot Morison warned young scholars long ago that if academic historians did not reclaim the narrative tradition,they would be sacrificing their field to--in his words--"writers and journalists."
From his distinguished publications, we know that Professor Herring is a graceful writer with a talent for pacing and for conveying a sense of character. But it is true that a publisher may severly limit the length of any manuscript intended to be a textbook.
All the same, even the most apathetic student might agree with me that "America's Longest War" could itself be 100 pages longer if that greater length allowed for including more detail from the battle of Ap Bac or the Tet offensive or the My Lai massacre.
Or does my complaint simply reflect the regret I feel whenver a book by George Herring has come to an end?
"Should Intellectuals Be Trusted With Political Power?"
Excerpts from the Provost's Lecture given by A. J. Langguth at the University of Southern California on February 15, 2001; and at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University, April 11, 200l
Since we are meeting on a university campus, it may be relevant--if somewhat dicey--to ask that we consider the question: Should intellectuals ever be trusted with political power?
I want to stress that tonight I'll be drawing only on this country's Vietnam experience. I won't be going back through history to Cicero--for whom the answer was probably no.
Nor to Thomas Jefferson--for whom it might be a qualified yes.
But it's a question that occurred to me when I realized that the three National Security Advisers in the White House from 1961 to 1973, the men who presided over America's war in Vietnam, all came to Washington from two universities in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
--McGeorge Bundy had been dean of the faculty of arts and sciences at Harvard.
--Walt Whitman Rostow taught economic theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
--And Henry A. Kissinger was a professor of government at Harvard.
During that same period, two of the three Secretaries of State also had academic backgrounds. Before World War Two, David Dean Rusk had been an administrator at Mills College in Oakland, California. In 1961, John Kennedy appointed him as Secretary of State, and Lyndon Johnson kept him in the job for a total of eight years. Doctor Kissinger, as many of you remember, headed the State Department under both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.
Parenthetically, Robert McNamara's original inclination had also been for a life on the campus. Before he served as Secretary of Defense for both Kennedy and Johnson, McNamara had once aimed for a career at the Harvard Business School.
Then illness struck his family, and he decided he needed a larger income than a university could provide. He went instead to the executive offices of the Ford Motor Company. In Detroit, he rose to become Ford's president, but he shamed his fellow executives by living less like an automobile baron than like a frugal college professor...
I'd like to explore as well whether men from any other background--not academia--met the demands of Vietnam more successfully than the professors did. (We can pause here to note with some chagrin that women were excluded from foreign-policy posts in all three administrations.)...
Of the Vietnam-era presidents, only Jack Kennedy felt comfortable with professors in his inner circle. Kennedy had served on Harvard's Board of Overseers and, after he was elected President, he had turned naturally to Cambridge to staff his new administration...
Although the resumes of the professors I've mentioned had certain similarities, the men themselves were very different in character and outlook.
I'll start with McGeorge Bundy because I knew him best. In 1956, as I waited for the inevitable draft notice from the U. S. Army, I accepted Bundy's invitation to work as his assistant while he was dean at Harvard.
Bundy had the quickest mind I have ever encountered. At Groton, he had achieved perfect scores on his college board examinations, and at Yale he had been a champion debater...
He reminded me of a manic animal tamer, all whip and chair, and it always took some minutes when we met later to let him understand that I was not going to play his game, that I would not be leaping from my perch to try to maul him.
Once he had ratcheted down to my mental speed, we could proceed to have an agreeable evening's conversation...
In 1963, with Bundy installed as Jack Kennedy's National Security Adviser, Newsweek noted that "Dean Rusk was not known for force and decisiveness" and reported that Washington observers were calling Mac Bundy "the real Secretary of State."...
Bundy's practical approach to issues appealed to Kennedy, who was usually ill at ease with abstractions. Both men took a mechanic's approach to the engine of government: Find out what was broken, fix it and keep the ship of state aloft. Leave to others the mysteries of aerodynamics.
When Newsweek's editors asked Kennedy to evaluate Bundy, the President's reply began with the asset he ranked even above loyalty: "First," Jack Kennedy said, "you can't beat brains..."
But what are brains? Certainly, one could hardly be considered an intellectual without them. But alone are they enough to qualify? Most of the time, when we talk about intelligence, don't we simply mean speed and memory?
As I say, Bundy's quickness was dazzling. But if a man makes lightning chess moves and yet loses the game ignominiously, how much has his quickness availed him?
One day in 1964, Bundy was arguing the merits of intervening in Vietnam with Walter Lippmann, the dean of American political columnists.
Bundy startled Lippmann by not knowing when South Vietnam had come into existence. Since Lippmann met every year with Charles DeGaulle, he knew very well that the nation of South Vietnam had been created in Geneva in 1954 as a two-year temporary measure.
It had been intended to survive only until North and South Vietnam could be unified by a country-wide election. And Lippmann also knew, as did every other informed observer, that if those elections had been held as promised, they would have resulted in victory for Ho Chi Minh and his Communist comrades in the North. But Washington and its appointed leader, Ngo Dinh Diem, blocked those elections.
Yet here was Mac Bundy defending the integrity of South Vietnam and showing that he thought the country had a genuine and independent history.
To be fair, the world was large, and Bundy's White House staff was confronting challenges in a dozen other countries. But South Vietnam was the only place in which Americans were dying, and Bundy knew virtually nothing about it.
Robert McNamara suffered from that same ignorance, and in recent years he has been blaming his staff for it. McNamara says now that he never got adquate briefings from them...Bundy may have been no scholar, but his was the more subtle mind. An official who worked with both men compared Bundy's mind to a scapel, McNamara's to an axe...
The effective alliance between Mac Bundy and Bob McNamara, two like-minded pragmatists, had broken down during the Johnson years, and eventually both men left the administration. In the meantime, Bundy's power had passed to another professor, Walt Rostow.
If Bundy was neither a scholar nor an intellectual, Walt Whitman Rostow was arguably both. Before Kennedy's inaugural, Rostow had published a respected study called "The Stages of Economic Growth."
Describing him in "Our Vietnam," I wrote that Rostow "seemed to possess the intellectual rigor that Kennedy hoped would distinguish his administration. Rostow radiated as well a bluff good cheer straight from the pages of Dickens. His years in the classroom had left him impervious to twitting, and he never lost his beaming smile or his professorial aplomb."...
Rostow brought that absolute assurance to the White House where it was as aggravating as it had been at MIT. He has it still. I interviewed him over several days in the mid-90s in his office at the LBJ Library in Austin. There, with many a merry smile, he explained to me why the United States had actually won the war in Vietnam.
From 1966 through 1968, Rostow proved to be the most implacable Cold Warrior among the men whom Kennedy had first brought into government. When Bundy left Washington for the Ford Foundation, he urged strongly that his successor be Bill Moyers, who had been a young Johnson protege. Moyers was clearly the most able of the somewhat lackluster group of Texans whom Johnson had brought to Washington. At once point, in fact, Robert Kennedy had recommended that Johnson replace Rusk with Moyers as Secretary of State.
To Johnson, it was an outlandish suggestion. He had used all of his persuasiveness to keep the Kennedy cabinet intact after the assassination. And the very passivity in Dean Rusk that had frustrated Jack Kennedy had a different effect on Lyndon Johnson. It soothed the new President and made him feel that in Rusk, from a small town in Georgia, he had a kindred spirit. "I love that Dean," Johnson would tell friends...
Bundy was not the only person to be astounded by Johnson's choice of Rostow to succeed him. Around the State Department, Rostow's good-natured eagerness to bomb North Vietnam was considered as bizarre and dangerous as Curtis LeMay's enthusiasm for those bombing raids. But LeMay at least had the excuse of being Chief of Staff of the Air Force...
Rostow's motivation seemed to be his deep-rooted conviction that the Communists must be stopped in South Vietnam or all of Asia would succumb to the threat...
As you'll recall, Johnson announced in March of 1968 that he would not be a candidate for reelection that year, and he made enough concessions to the North Vietnamese Communists to get them to Paris for peace negotiations.
Throughout the rest of the year, Rusk and Rostow did all they could to derail the peace talks. But Johnson held firm, hoping to settle the war that had driven him from office. Perhaps he could salvage a bit of a reputation as a peacemaker to offset the hated label of warmonger.
It was at that moment that the third of the Cambridge professors took center stage. In 1961, Mac Bundy had vetoed Henry Kissinger for a position in Jack Kennedy's administration. From observing him at Harvard, Bundy had concluded that Kissinger was a shameless self-promoter. Now, during the Presidential election of 1968, Kissinger proved Bundy right.
Claiming to be disillusioned with the Republicans, Kissinger went to Paris and hooked up with a young acquaintance from Harvard. Daniel Davidson was by then on the Harriman team that was negotiating peace terms with the North Vietnamese.
Davidson has told me lately that Kissinger probably learned less from their conversation than from reading New York Times accounts of the negotiations. But when Kissinger returned to Cambridge, he got in touch with Dick Allen, who was Richard Nixon's young foreign policy adviser during the 1968 campaign.
Allen told me that Kissinger always called from pay phones to avoid any wiretaps that would reveal his duplicity.
Claiming inside knowledge, Kissinger advised Nixon to hold out on the peace terms being offered to South Vietnam. That same advice was also passed along by the Republicans to South Vietnam's president Thieu.
Kissinger alone did not dash Johnson's hopes for a settlement before he left office, but Kissinger had done what he could. And the war went on for another five years.
In return, Kissinger was named Richard Nixon's National Security Adviser, the same job that Bundy and Rostow had held under Kennedy and Johnson...
Last year, Dr. Kissinger agreed to respond to questions I put to him by fax. I asked about his dealings with the Republicans, which certainly looked underhanded. Kissinger responded brusquely: "My recollection and Dick Allen's differ, as I have repeatedly explained."
Since leaving office, Dr. Kissinger has written three volumes of his memoirs, and they total more than 4,000 pages. But sadly for his reputation, his recollections are not the only account of those years when he was in charge of America's foreign policy.
The diaries of Robert Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, were published posthumously in 1994, and they present a far different account of Kissinger's advice and behavior. Take, for example, Haldeman's entry for Monday, December 21, 1970:
Haldeman wrote that Nixon was thinking "about going to Vietnam in April or whenever we decide to make the basic end-of-the-war announcement. His idea would be to tour around the country, build up Thieu, and so forth, and then make the announcement right afterwards. Henry argues against a commitment that early to withdraw all combat troops because he feels that if we pull them out by the end of '71, trouble can start mounting in '72 that we won't be able to deal with and which we'll have to answer for at the elections.
"He prefers, instead, a commitment to have them all out by the end of '72 so that we won't have to deliver finally until after the elections and can keep our flanks protected. This would certainly seem to make more sense, and the P(resident) seemed to agree in general, but wants Henry to work up plans on it."
Reading Haldeman's diaries, I was struck by that passage because it showed Henry Kissinger giving cynical political advice to a President who never claimed to be compassionate. Kissinger was saying two things: Whatever accord we reach in Paris is likely to collapse. Therefore, we should let American troops continue to suffer and die for another year in order to assure Nixon's reelection.
Of course, I asked Kissinger about that advice, too. I'll read his response and leave it to you to judge its credibility:
"Your third question implies that Nixon had a plan to withdraw rapidly from Vietnam. You will find no reference to any such thought in any of his many memos to me, in the NSC files, or in the recollections of participants. I cannot reconstruct at this remove what Bob Haldeman claimed."
That then was the contribution of three prominent Cambridge professors over a fifteen-year period.
If intellectuals are identified by the way they can turn the concrete world into a series of abstractions, then both Rostow and Kissinger qualify as intellectuals.
To answer the question of whether those two particular men should have been entrusted with power, we might ask the families of the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians, North and South, who died on their watch.
Turning aside from the professors, how much better did the men from other backgrounds perform once they were in power?
Consider first the professional diplomats. Frederick Nolting was sent from Paris to Saigon in 1961 as ambassador to South Vietnam with no experience in Southeast Asia. His two main directives were to keep South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem happy and to see to it that he followed Washington's orders.
Those two objectives proved completely contradictory, and Nolting was recalled from Saigon and branded a failure.
In the State Department, however, it didn't always help to be right. Paul Kattenburg, another foreign service officer, was sent to Saigon in 1963 to survey the political scene and report back to the White House. On his return, he told Rusk, McNamara, Mac Bundy and the others that the situation was hopeless under President Diem and that the United States should consider withdrawing entirely.
Kattenburg told me that he understood immediately that morning tht he was far too low-ranking in the State Department to be taken seriously. All he accomplished that day was to end his career.
Although Kattenburg is now on the faculty in South Carolina, we professors can't claim credit for his foresight. He only turned to teaching after his foreign service career lay in shambles.
The best known of the State Department dissenters was George Ball. Like so many of his former colleagues--Dean Acheson, George Kennan and the rest--Ball was not much interested in Southeast Asia.
But even so, he had misgivings about the direction Washington was headed in Vietnam. Here is my account of his response during the last days of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 presidential campaign against Barry Goldwater:
"...From the time Congress mindlessly passed the Tonkin Gulf resolution, Ball had been obsessed with getting his forebodings on paper. He knew tht what he was recommending was too sensitive to let McNamara or the Joint Chiefs of Staff hear of it before he had finished the entire memorandum. Only a few secretaries and his closest aide knew what was afoot.
"On October 4, 1964, it was ready: a single-spaced 67-page analysis of the options the United States faced in Vietnam. When Ball sent copies to Rusk, McNamara and Bundy, he addressed them as 'Dean, Bob and Mac,' an indication that these were still informal thoughts. Ball did not send a copy to the President...
"Ball had titled his memo, 'How Valid Are the Assumptions Underlying Our Vietnam Policy?' In it, he pointed out how little time the President's advisers had given to considering a political way out of the war, and he called for a study in depth without further delay...
"Ball's own recommendation was that 'Washington might try for a political settlement, one without a U. S. military commitment but one that would delay the Communists from taking over South Vietnam.'"
Ball brought a copy of his memorandum to Robert McNamara, and he said later that the Defense Secretary fingered it as though it were a poisonous snake. McNamara was absoluely horrified and seemed to think that even setting down such thoughts was akin to treason...Nevertheless, when the 1964 election was safely won, Ball had a chance to make his argument directly to Johnson.
McNamara had recently returned from Vietnam with a recommendation tht General Westmoreland be given the 275,000 additional troops he had requested.
Here was Ball's chance.
After a brief discussion of Vietcong tactics, Johnson asked if anyone disagreed with McNamara's memo. Looking directly at Ball, he added, "If so, I'd like to hear from them."
By now, Ball had his speech rehearsed, but he delivered it with no real hope of converting his audience of one. Instead, he volunteered a pledge of loyalty that undercut what little leverage he might have had. Ball said that he foresaw a perilous voyage and had great apprehension that the United States could win.
"But let me be clear," Ball added. "If the decision is to go ahead, I'm committed."
With that concession, Ball guaranteed that he could always speak and could always be ignored.
Clark Clifford was another Washington figure somewhat like Ball: a lawyer who had come to town under Franklin Roosevelt and stayed on to become a force in the capital. At first, Clifford had no official position in the Johnson administration, but he had earned Johnson's confidence, even though he, too, had early doubts about expanding the war.
But when Clifford saw that the President had made up his mind to escalate, he put aside those doubts and supported Johnson's policy for the next three-and-a-half years.
It was only after Johnson named him Defense Secretary, expecting he would continue to be a hawk, that Clifford expressed his doubts once again. But by then it was 1968, after the Communists' massive Tet offensive had demonstrated to the whole world that Westmoreland's military strategy had failed.
What undercut Ball, Clifford and others like them in the government was their desperation not to be banished from the White House. It's probably misleading, finally, to talk about any advisers as truly powerful, whether they are intellectuals or not. Harry Truman once said bluntly that the President makes foreign policy, and history bears him out.
But to sit at the President's right hand and offer him one's best judgments at least gives the illusion of being powerful, and none of the men we've considered was willing to give up that illusion.
As for the Presidents themselves, they were, above all, politicians. In our system, that's inevitable and even healthy. But Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon made Vietnam policy with one eye on the next election. All three wanted to win a second term.
And the grim irony, of course, is that none of them was fated to complete it.
Let me touch now on two categories of men and women who are outsiders, and yet often claim to have some impact on decision making--journalists and historians.
If they do not set policy, they often help to determine how we think about it.
Whatever pretensions each group may harbor, they do the same work, just at different times in a politician's career. Journalists write about Presidents while they are still in office, historians after they are out of office or dead.
Most of the embattled early breed on reporters on the ground in Saigon--David Halberstam, Neil Sheehan, Peter Arnett--shared Washington's opinion that South Vietnam was worth defending. But even if they had held private doubts, they did not see their role as challenging that government assumption, and few of them did. At least, not those who worked for the major newspapers and wire services.
And any voice raised from the alternative journals, like I. F. Stone's, was easily ignored in Washington. For that matter, when Johnson found no way to muzzle Walter Lippmann's opposition to the war, he succeeded in hounding him out of the capital to New York.
An occasional historian was given entry to the White House, most notably Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who was brought to Washington to document the Kennedy years. Schlesinger did his duty by producing useful but uncritical volumes about both Jack and Robert Kennedy.
But Schlesinger did not speak out against the Bay of Pigs before that debacle was launched, and he offered no insight into Vietnam.
What about the military? I'm not one of those who think that the term "intellectual general" is an oxymoron, even though William Westmoreland once told me that he seldom read books. And I know from observing him in Saigon that Maxwell Taylor could only be considered learned if he were being measured against certain fellow chiefs of staff.
But assessing the Pentagon's role in Vietnam would take another evening, and it would be even more depressing than this one.
Summing up, then, professors, bureaucrats, Washington insiders, politicians, journalists and generals did not distinguish themselves during the Vietnam era.
Clergy--chief among them Martin Luther King, Jr.--often did better, along with some Vietnam veterans and students and housewives. But those protesters were not in the White House. They were in the streets. Any power they wielded came only from reacting against what they called the Establishment.
Were there members of any other profession within the government itself who saw the pitfalls of Vietnam and warned against them? The answer doesn't much please me, but I have to conclude that two of the most perceptive men were Chester Bowles and Edward Lansdale. And they shared a civilian background that may be highly influential in our culture but one which, for good reason, we rarely glorify.
Bowles and Lansdale were both advertising men.
To make matters worse, two other graduates of advertising agencies who also moved into government positions turned out to be less pernicious than most of their counterparts.
Jack Valenti never pursued the war with the bloodymindedness of Walt Rostow. And Bob Haldeman, who worked at the J. Walter Thompson agency in the years before he joined Nixon's staff, may not have been a hero in this story. He urged the invasion of Cambodia in 1970 and the bombing of Hanoi in 1972. But compared to Henry Kissinger, Haldeman was a model of restrained statescraft.
In the case of Lansdale and Bowles, their roles were far more substantial.
Before joining the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Lansdale had handled the Levi Straus advertising account in New York. After the war, he had helped the Filipinos put down a leftist rebellion, and he did it by plunging himself among the people and their culture.
Advertising executives, like politicians, must be alert to the public's mood and tastes. They must have, or develop, an instinct for what will be popular and how to present it in the most appealing guise. In Lansdale's case, he brought those attributes to the political arena. "It's not enough to be against Communism," Lansdale would say. "You have to be for something."
After the Philippines, Washington hoped that Lansdale could have an equal success in South Vietnam, and Lansdale did in fact become a confidante of President Diem. But by 1954, Ho Chi Minh's men had penetrated the entire country, and Diem was too suspicious and autocratic to endorse the kind of democratic system that Lansdale ws urging on him.
At home, Dean Rusk's State Department was hostile to Lansdale, and when Kennedy considered sending him back as ambassador to South Vietnam, State managed to block the appointment. Instead, Lansdale was shuffled off to cope with Cuba. He had never been to Cuba and knew nothing about it, but all the same he was added to Robert Kennedy's cabal, with its hare-brained plots to unseat Castro...
Chester Bowles is an even more persuastive reason for arguing that, in the case of Vietnam, admen performed better than anyone else.
As a precocious young executive, he had founded the advertising agency of Benton & Bowles. After he made his fortune, he turned to public service. Bowles served as governor of Connecticut, as Truman's ambassador to India and then in the House of Representatives.
During the 1960 campaign, Bowles was one of the first Stevensonian liberals to endorse Kennedy and hoped to be named Secretary of State. But Kennedy didn't want to be overshadowed in foreign affairs, and despite agonized pleading from liberals around the country the new President turned down both Stevenson and Bowles and settled instead on the lackluster Rusk, who had no political following. Bowles became Rusk's deputy.
In the early weeks of Kennedy's administration, Bowles was shut out of the planning for the Bay of Pigs. But he got word of it shortly before the invasion and went to protest to Rusk. Bowles said that a covert operation against Cuba would violate the Charter of the Organization of American States, and it would undercut Kennedy's stature as a new President committed to high principles in foreign affairs.
Bowles urged Rusk to go to Kennedy and oppose the invasion. But if Rusk would not do that, then he should set up a meeting so that Bowles could argue his case directly with the President.
Rusk assured him that the plan had been so scaled down that there was no chance of failure. When Bowles asked if the invasion would end up on the front page of The New York Times, Rusk said no.
And he added that it would not be necessary for Bowles to see Kennedy.
But even those of you who were not alive in 1961 know that the phrase "Bay of Pigs" has become shorthand for abject failure.
Kennedy defused the nation's outrage by going on television and forthrightly accepting responsibility for the fiasco. He did not use the-valid--excuse that its planning had begun under Eisenhower.
But in the shamefaced weeks that followed, Bowles found that he had lost his influence at the Whie House for much the same reason that Paul Kattenburg had--he had been right.
Even worse, Bowles had friends in the press, and he let them know that he had opposed the invasion. For that, the Kennedy brothers could never forgive him.
Bowles limped along as Rusk's deputy for another few months, but he was out of his job by Thanksgiving. Before he was forced to resign, however, Bowles drafted one last memorandum. He urged Kennedy to neutralize not only South Vietnam but to join with the Soviet Union, China, Japan and India in agreeing to neutralize the entire region of Burma, Thailand, Southeast Asia and Malaya.
Bowles again went through channels and sent his grandiose proposal to Rusk. Who never responded.
As Bowles was being fired, he suggested to Kennedy a reason why the two of them had never achieved a rapport:
"I am not one of those tough, terse, yes-or-no types you apparently find it easiest to work with," Bowles told Kennedy. "And there's nothing I can do to become one."
Kennedy politely turned aside that explanation, but Bowles had it right.
Two years ago, I raised the subject with McNamara at his club in Washington.
"You know," I said, "if Jack Kennedy had appointed Chet Bowles Secretary of States, he would have driven both of you crazy with his interminable memos and his gabby speeches at your meetings. But you would have had to rebut his calls for negotiation and for the neutralization of South Vietnam. With Rusk as Secretary of State, you got no political arguments and you concentrated only on a military solution."
"That's right!" For emphasis, McNamara hit the table, as he often does. "Dean never wrote a memo on anything!"
Back, then, to the question of whether intellectuals should be trusted with power.
For my part, I remain one of those hopelessly outdated and discredited liberals. As the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society--along with the Black Panthers and other activist groups--made clear to us in the Sixties, we liberals are unreliable allies--too indecisive, too wishy-washy.
So ask me whether intellectuals should be entrusted with power, and I answer: Maybe.
But I can say that President Kennedy may have missed a great opportunity to spare the world the Vietnam War when he did not name Chester Bowles as his Secretary of States. When he passed over that former advertising man, that occasional politician, that unabashed idealist and, yes, that windy intellectual.
"Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, with six short stories never before collected." (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1981)
Two magazine articles on the Vietnam War by A. J. Langguth from 1965 and 1968.
"THE WAR IN VIETNAM CAN BE WON, BUT--"
The New York Times Magazine, September 19, 1965.
When I first arrived in Vietnam, I thought the war could not be won but it was worth trying. Now I sometimes think it can be won but that it is not worth the price...
When a reporter singles out a turning point in historical trends, he invariably chooses an event he was on hand to witness. Indulging that tendency, I would say that the war in South Vietnam changed irrevocably on Feb. 19,1965.
Reporters from an earlier and less fettered time in Vietnam might pick Nov. 1, 1963, the day President Ngo Dinh Diem was deposed. Good argument has also been made for the night three months later when Diem's successor was himself removed by Lieut. Gen. Nguyen Khanh, setting off the squalid power struggle in Saigon that has not yet ended. On Feb. 7, 1965, the United States bombed military targets in North Vietnam and to some people that decision may one day seem more significant to the history of the United States than to the histories of North or South Vietnam.
But 12 days afterward, on Feb. 19, America began using its immense air power in a less-heralded way. U. S. jet pilots started to bomb South Vietnam...
Secretary of State Dean Rusk often says that American policy in Vietnam seems to him very simple. But what the United States is now doing would make more sense, in a way, if one were to imagine South Vietnam as a hostile coutry.
Imagine, then, all of its 15 million citizens implacably opposed to the Americans. The only exception is an armed band of mercenaries, about 550,000 men, who fight on the American side. In this enemy land, the Americans have made a successful coastal landing and have established beachheads. They have overturned the elected leaders of the country and taken Saigon as greedily as the Germans took Paris.
The rest of the country, however, remains unsubdued. And so, American pilots fan out over the country each day on hundreds of missions. They bomb huts, afterward described as "structures," and they kill Vietnamese, afterward described as "Communists."
In the meantime, the American Government prepares to send tens of thousands more soldiers to storm the enemy territory. When the bombs have blasted the people into submission and the infantrymen control the country, the United States will be prepred to repair the damage it as done.
Skin specialists, with devices perfected since Hiroshima, will treat the napalm victims. Industrialists and bankers, with blueprints tested in Tokyo and Bonn, with rebuild the economy. The huts at last will be turned into structures.
The war may have lasted five years. The recovery could take another 15. By 1985, South Vietnam could be a new Asian showplace for the Western way of life. Who has suffered but the half million or so natives who lost their lives? Must one not break eggs to make an omelet?
This interpretation of American actions in Vietnam is exaggerated nonsense, of course...The people of Vienam may not understand the role of the U. S. or bow in gratitude for the gifts and good works. But they are not hostile.
Then why are we bombing them every day?
I think the reason is simple: simple desperation. To trace the events of the past 14 months may help to show how that desperation, feeding upon Americn reverses, has grown into a full-fledged policy that would be difficult now to reverse...
I made a trip to the Mekong Delta, where I was greeted by an officer with one of the helicopter units. He was a jovial man, almost ready to return to the U. S. after a year in Vietnam.
When he had talked with gathering gloom about the problems in his province, I asked the question that usually ended a discussion.
"What's the answer? I asked.
"Terror," he said pleasantly. "The Vietcong have terrorized the peasants to get their cooperation, or at least to stop their opposition. We must terrorize the villagers even more, so they see that their real self-interest lies with us. We've got to start bombing and strafing the villages that aren't friendly to the Government. Of course, we won't do it. That's not our way of doing things and the people at home would not stand for it. But terror is what it takes."
"Thank God," I thought, "you are leaving the country."...
During his last trip to Vietnam, Secretary McNamara told reporters he had been disturbed by stories that American pilots were killing civilians in their raids over the South. He said he had asked many pilots during his five-day tour of Vietnam, and none of them said they were kiling civilians. At any rate, killing civilians was not American policy.
Pilots, the ones the Secretary missed, know they are hitting civilian villages. Some of them fret over it and brood. Others don't care. There is an elaborate system to relieve their consciences--checks and instructions, approval by the Vietnamese provincial chief--all aimed at permitting only the bombing of the Vietcong. Yet the pilots know the difference between the system and its result...
Some observers within the American mission here, the military command and the press believe that the current strategy cannot win. They say the U. S. can never send enough troops to do the job. Their premise may be wrong. The majority of Vietnamese will probably be neither hostile nor friendly. They will hate the war, and they will pour into refugee centers to avoid it. They will be numb from pain and loss and hopelessness. If the U. S. is prepared to use its planes to kill two or three for every Vietcong, the Communists may be defeated.
I ask myself these questions as I leave Vietnam: If one nation begins an ugly and inhuman war, does national honor require resisting even more brutally? But, then, why shouldn't America pursue a war on its terms, rather than follow rules that can only lead to failure? Won't, perhaps, the Communists be intimidated by American strength and draw back from aggression before the South Vietnamese suffer even more misery?
If the United States can win in Vietnam only by American bombers and American troops, has the country's leadership learned anything at all about guerrilla war? Will the American desperation over South Vietnam seem justified 15 years from now? Will the South Vietnamese peasant be better off under today's Premier Nguyen Cao Ky, or his successor, than under Ho Chi Minh?
Will Thailand be reassured by a victory in Vietnam if it is achieved at a great cost to the civilian population? Is the United States compounding mistakes in its policy toward China that it must one day redress? Or is the next generation of China's leaders learning that wars of liberation are too costly? Finally, is the United States now helping the people of South Vietnam more than it is hurting them?
I don't know.
* * *
"VIETNAM: HOW DO WE GET OUT?"
The Saturday Evening Post, January, 1969.
If the new President of the United States poses to himself two questions and answers them honestly and realistically, he will find the solution to the war in Vietnam that eluded his predecessor. First, he must ask, What is best for the American people? Not best for vindicating a former President who had sworn not to "lose" a war. Second, what is best for the people of South Vietnam? Not best for perpetuating a dozen generals in Saigon or another dozen in Bangkok and Taipeh.
Honesty provides the same answer to both questions: an end to the Vietnam war on almost any terms.
Realism supplies a postscript: Americans must not be misled again into thinking that there are any real prospects of forging a "third force" in Vietnam. In the decade after 1954, the United States thrashed about Indochina, looking for a middle way between Vietnamese Communism and French colonialism. More recently, Washington has abandoned the search and taken up the same military role the French found insupportable. The result is known to everyone. Yet even today a few tempting voices promise tht South Vietnam can still have its model democracy--not this year perhaps, or next, but one day when the war has been won. The new President must not be tempted. The war will not be won...
De-Americanizing the war is the answer advanced by those politicians unwilling to face the final responsibility of the United States toward Vietnam. They are saying, "Let the Vietnamese fight among themselves. If the anti-Communist generals lose, at least no one can blame us." The people of South Vietnam, invoked so often in American rhetoric, deserve better. The United States, which brought the Thieu-Ky government into being, should now protect the South Vietnamese from that government...
When Lyndon Johnson retired from the Presidency, when Richard Nixon endorsed the Paris talks, the strategists in Hanoi knew tht Washington was prepared to bring its troops home. By persisting in offensive operations now, the United States gains the smallest kind of military advantage and one that will not affect the ultimate future of Vietnam. A few thousand more American men will be killed, a few thousand Vietnamese. But the essential terms of the agreement in Paris have been clear from the night of President Johnson's retirement speech last March 31. Control over a half dozen district towns will not affect those terms.
Beginning immediately, the United States should limit its troops to defensive operations...The North would have nothing to gain from trying to push the Americans out by force while their representatives in Paris are easing the troops out by treaty...
On the evidence, Hanoi wants a Vietnam unified under the political leadership of Ho Chi Minh. With reason the Communists consider Vietnam not two countries but one...America's representatives should assume that North Vietnam will make every effort to set up a government it can influence; or, failing that, to win over or subvert any strictly neutralist government...
What is the most the American Government may expect from a treaty? Time. Nothing else. In 1954, the United States hoped that the time it was buying in Genenva could be used to build an anti-Communist South Vietnam. With a new treaty the United States can again hope for time, but only for the reaching of three modest goals: to allow an orderly retreat of American troops; to afford some minimal protection for the South Vietnamese who allied themselves with the United States; and to lessen at home the impact of the Paris settlement...
Throughout Indochina, Hanoi's gains in Paris will probably result in Laos and Cambodia eventually coming under some form of Communist control..It would be reasonable to predict that by the middle of the next decade Laos will be under Communist control.
In Cambodia, Prince Norodom Sihanouk is so genuinely popular that during his lifetime he may be able to keep his country neutral. His has been a neutrality, though, that favors China over the United States. On his death, Cambodia could be expected to move into the Communist bloc.
What will have been th lesson of Vietnam? Surely not that "wars of liberation" always succeeed--any more than Che Guevara's experience in Bolivia proved that they always fail. In Indochina, America has learned that French colonialism left a desire to be free of foreign control and a hatred of the white man, which Ho Chi Minh could turn to his advantage.
Other conclusions are there to be drawn: that within America's own hemisphere lies a huge continent exploited and ignored. That while the United States has managed to spend $30 billion a year on Vietnam, it spends less than one tenth that amount on aid projects throughout the rest of the world..
At home, the new President during his first year in office should be able to win over the American people to virtually any settlement in Vietnam. Polls that once showed two thirds of the nation approving the bombing of the North, and then a large majority later favoring a bombing halt, prove merely that the American people know little about the details of waging war in Vietnam. They want the war to end. They want to hear either that it was a victory or that the mistake will not be repeated. The new President may find a way to tell them both. No official explanation, however, will comfort the wives and parents of men killed or disabled in Vietnam. They will be bitter and they have reason to be...
Finally, Lyndon Johnson's pledge of one billion dollars of development in Southeast Asia should be redeemed by his successor with a program administered by the United Nations for hospitals, schools, orphanages, roads and dams throughout Indochina. When the offer was made, it seemed like nothing more than a crude bribe. But it remains on the books as a debt incurred. Certainly, the money will not erase the last eight years, restore the lives or heal the wounds in South Vietnam. It is for the good of the American people, more than for the Vietnamese, that some attempt at reparation must be made.