I spent Friday and Saturday participating in a conference at the JFK Library in Boston on Presidents and Vietnam. My own contribution was a presentation on what John Kennedy’s presidential tapes showed about his Vietnam policies, and I pointed out, as I did in my book American Tragedy, that he had repeatedly refused during 1961 to put large numbers of American troops into either Laos or South Vietnam. (Interested readers can watch the whole conference in a few weeks on C-Span.) But the conference was notable in many ways as a tenuous link between two Americas—the world of the 1960s and the world of today.
Friday was devoted to two historical panels and a keynote address by David Halberstam, but Saturday moved on to a different plane. After a taped interview with former President Carter, Saturday’s first panel featured four surviving representatives of the Administrations in question: Theodore Sorensen, vigorous although nearly blind; Jack Valenti, who left the Johnson White House in 1966; Henry Kissinger; and Al Haig. The contrast between their presentations and ours was, to say the least, rather striking, and questions from the historians to the participants didn’t get very far in closing the gaps between them. On Friday Jeffrey Kimball, who has written the two most thorough books about Nixon and Vietnam, presented impressive evidence that Kissinger and Nixon in 1971-2 were indeed thinking in terms of a “decent interval” between an American withdrawal and a probable Communist victory. Kimball on Saturday passed Kissinger a question about a well-documented nuclear alert that Nixon ordered in October 1969, when he was also planning a massive escalation of the war code-named “Duck Hook.” Using the technique which Robert McNamara confessed to in The Fog of War, Kissinger answered the question he wished he had gotten, and stressed that Duck Hook had never been executed. That was true, but the nuclear alert was executed, and he ignored that part of the question. Kissinger also refused to apologize for anything he had done, saying that one had to agree that all through the war, “serious men” were making serious decisions, and thus, apparently, should enjoy immunity from any deeper questions about their motives or their judgment. Both Kissinger and Haig blamed the American people for the loss of South Vietnam. I remarked to Kimball at a break that it a frustration of doing our kind of contemporary history that no matter how thorough and accurate one managed to be, many living people would never accept one's conclusions. He agreed.
It occurred to me as I listened, not for the first time, that in one sense, Americans like me must put up with these kinds of retrospectives from our leaders. The weekend struck a nostalgic note for me, because my childhood homes were full of the great and the near-great, since my father had spent his career among them. I enjoyed stepping back into that life, but it was not one that I ever wanted for myself. The career of a historian frees one’s judgment, but those who pursue it, I think, should try to conserve some grudging respect for those who, for whatever reason, are willing to assume and exercise power. Our own unwillingness to do so limits, in a sense, our freedom to complain—although that hardly means, as Dr. Kissinger seemed to be saying, that power confers immunity from any analysis of one’s motives.
But the subsequent panels were more interesting from another point of view. The next one focused upon the media and included three Vietnam correspondents: Steve Bell of ABC News, Frances Fitzgerald, and Dan Rather. All of them described the extraordinary autonomy they enjoyed in those days, when digitizing had not been invented, satellites were in their infancy, and even telephone calls home were too expensive to make very often. They had the time and the autonomy to develop stories of their own, and they tended to be analytical because their pieces would not appear for days or even weeks. Rather in particular stressed that today’s reporters have become performers who often work from a script dispatched from the United States. Brian Williams kindly asked them the question I passed them: “It sounds as though in those days, reporters had to think. Now they aren’t allowed to.” Although Rather immediately tried to stand up for contemporary reporters, both of them essentially confirmed my thought.
The final panel included four veterans: retired general and once and perhaps future Presidential candidate Wesley Clark, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert (who served in Korea, not Vietnam, during that era), and Pete Peterson, who spent six and a half years as an Air Force POW in Hanoi and later became our first Ambassador to a united Vietnam. They made an extraordinary impression upon the packed house and drew repeated rounds of applause. All of them, in various ways, directly addressed what Brian Williams called “the elephant in the room,” the war in Iraq, and confirmed that we were, indeed, making many of the same mistakes. Clark revealed that within ten days after September 11, 2001, friends of his within the Pentagon had told him that the Administration was determined to go to war in Iraq. Hagel said that he voted for the war only under the assumption that it would be the last resort. Peterson, in perhaps the most moving of the conference, angrily attacked the Administration’s disregard of the Geneva Convention, which he believed might well have saved his and his fellow prisoners’ lives. No one wanted to say directly that we had made an even worse strategic mistake in Iraq—and it should be noted that our casualties in three years of war there have not reached the level of the first six months of full-scale war in South Vietnam—but all made that point to varying degrees.
There were, however, several interesting and in a way disturbing aspects to the criticism. None of the panelists wanted to mention any names of current policy makers, least of all those of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. And the media panelists, as well as John Burns of the New York Times, who was back on a visit from Iraq and whom Brian Williams invited to say a few words, showed an almost desperate determination to avoid a reprise of the accusation that the press had lost the war in Vietnam, even as they denied (quite rightly in my opinion) that that was true. Everyone spoke warmly and repeatedly about the valor and idealism of our troops in Iraq—qualities that are very real, but which, in Iraq as in Vietnam, become sadly irrelevant when the national leadership has made a basic strategic mistake. (Recently I heard indirectly that New York Times editors do not allow their reporters to make specific analogies between Vietnam and Iraq—reminding me of Paul Krugman’s revelation to Terri Gross that during the 2000 campaign, his editors refused to allow him to use the word “lie” in reference to statements by candidate Bush.) And no one had the courage or, in my case, the presence of mind, to ask the last panel if they were confident that the current Administration would not now make war on Iran.
But what was most disturbing to me as I sat in the audience yesterday, paradoxically, was the calm confidence expressed by all four panelists—including Senator Hagel—that the electoral process would take care of our problems within a relatively short time and get the country back on track. All of them seemed to believe that the American people would decisively repudiate the policies of the men and women they declined to name later this year and again in 2008, and that centrist government would resume. Yet this morning, before I sat down to write this piece, I found evidence in my New York Times of how optimistic these hopes might be. I had stepped for two days into a kind of parallel universe, almost a time-capsule, whose inhabitants—yes, even Henry Kissinger and Al Haig—struck me indeed, as “serious” people with enough judgment to keep the United States essentially on track, even if they collaborated in the absolutely useless prolongation of the Vietnam war for another four years and more then 20,000 killed in action. They felt the world was still their world, but I was not so sure.
As Chuck Hagel mentioned, he had chosen to attend our conference in preference to a conclave of Republicans and potential Republican candidates like himself in Tennessee. And there, as I read, the Republican hopefuls, from John McCain on down, lavishly praised the President and his foreign policy to the skies, even though a few of them (such as Governor Romney of Massachusetts) had the extraordinary temerity to raise the issue of increasing federal budget deficits. “We must keep our presidential ambitions a distant second to standing with the President of the United States,” McCain said. “Anybody who says the president of the United States was lying about weapons of mass destruction is lying.” Senator Bill Frist bragged that his successful intimidation of the Democrats had secured the presence of John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court—where, I fear, they may well bless the Administration’s disregard of the Geneva Convention. “Thank heavens we have a president who recognizes the extent of this threat,” Romney said, regarding terrorism. “Thank heavens the president recognizes the greatest ally peace has on this planet is a strong United States.” Only Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas dared invoke the names of Ronald Reagan and the elder President Bush in preference to the incumbent (tempting me to invoke the title of the recent movie that included the governor’s name.)
The panelists yesterday, to quote a famous, anonymous White House staffer whom one day will be identified, I feel sure, as Karl Rove, belonged to “the reality-based community,” but the most reliable and best-organized political bloc in the United States today, still amounting to perhaps 40% of the electorate or more, remains devoted to what President Bush stands for. The President’s leadership in the war on terror will probably remain a key Republican campaign plank this year, and it is not clear how many Democrats will dare to stand up against him on this issue. And even if, as I think is actually quite likely, the Democrats can regain at least one house of Congress this fall, their triumph may be only temporary. I was even more disturbed by another piece of intelligence I gathered from some leading Democrats—that Hillary Clinton already has most of the biggest Democratic campaign contributors behind her, and will almost surely capture the Democratic nomination. Nearly all my friends agree that she is on the one hand too polarizing to win, and on the other, too frantically centrist (especially on foreign policy and the war) to count on for the drastic re-orientation of our foreign policy that we need. But no one, apparently, is likely to persuade her that the country needs her to forego this opportunity. On the whole, I believe that anyone who watched the conference on C-Span will come away with a better feeling about the United States and what we are still capable of; but they will still wonder, to paraphrase a poem I have already quoted here, whether the best have enough conviction to overcome the passionate intensity of the worst.