Mount Greylock Books LLC has published my autobiography as an historian, A Life in History. Long-time readers who want to find out how th...
Sunday, April 30, 2006
As the readership increases I have done my best to continue posting at least once a week, but I'm afraid that next weekend will be "dark," because I will be attending a wedding.
For information about the bride, see http://stonepilgrim.com/
See you all in two weeks!
Saturday, April 29, 2006
Because of litigation by Nixon and his family, the records of his Administration have been slow to appear, but the logjam is now definitely broken. The State Department has now released several opening volumes of its basic historical publication, Foreign Relations of the United States, including, now, an enormous first volume on Vietnam covering the period January 1969-June 1970. The entire volume is available on line, albeit in rather unwieldy PDF format instead of State's usual html, and I have been able to read a few hundred pages. They tell an amazing, and highly relevant story. Although I am far from getting the whole picture, certain things are clear.
To begin with, within a year, National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger had organized a structure that left him in operational control of the American foreign and defense policy apparatus. Kissinger actually kept a very low profile during Nixon's first term--it was not until the 1972 Republican convention that Americans heard him speak live on television--but by early 1971 he was fully in command. His instrument was the Washington Special Action group, which he chaired. It included Richard Helms from the CIA (who emerges as a very important player indeed), one or two second-level officials from State and Defense, one or two members of the Joint Chiefs, and a few of Kissinger's own staffers such as then-Col. Al Haig. While it was not in operational control of what was happening on the ground in South Vietnam, it micromanaged events in Laos and Cambodia to a degree Lyndon Johnson never even aspired to. Indeed, at the time of the invasion of Cambodia, Kissinger generated a flap by having the WSAG designated the authority over that operation. Secretary of Defense Mel Laird immediately weighed in, noting that the statutory chain of command for military operations ran through him, and Kissinger had to change the WSAG to the "coordinating" body. He created another flap when he had President Nixon chair a meeting that included Laird and Secretary of State Rogers for a briefing on the possible invasion of Cambodia, and informed them a day or two later that the meeting had actually approved it. That invasion, by the way, turns out to have been a defensive as much as an offensive measure. The ouster of Prince Sihanouk by his Prime Minister, Lon Nol, while Sihanouk was on a long trip to Europe, had triggered new fighting in Cambodia, and Washington, rightly or wrongly, desperately feared that Phnom Penh was about to fall th North Vietnamese troops. The "incursion" was designed to stop them.
More important, of course, are the policies the documents reveal. Nixon apparently came into office convinced that the Johnson Administration had rushed too quickly to get peace talks going. (His campaign, as we know, had encouraged the South Vietnamese to stall the talks in the last few weeks of the Presidential campaign through Mrs. Anna Chennault, and he was remaining faithful to that policy in office.) South Vietnam under President Thieu, in his eyes (and in defiance of rather pessimistic reports about the Thieu government from the field) was a legitimate government and ally of the United States. The war should be settled by compelling or persuading the North Vietnamese to withdraw their troops from the South while the US withdrew its own, and allowing the Viet Cong to participate in elections. Eventually Nixon and Kissinger had to abandon that vision to make peace, but we don't know when they did so. Certainly it was not until well after the middle of 1970.
The volume includes verbatim accounts of Kissinger's meeting with North Vietnamese negotiations Xuan Thuy and Le Duc Tho, and they are remarkable as well. The North Vietnamese had an entirely different concept. Since they affirmed (as did the eventual 1973 Paris agreement) the unity, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Vietnam, their troops, they argued, were not "foreign troops," and their withdrawal would not be an issue, if at all, until after a peace agreement that got the Americans out. In addition, they insisted, South Vietnam had to have a new tripartite coalition government including the Viet Cong and neutralists, and General Thieu, Air Marshal Ky, and General Khiem could not take part. In the long meetings from March and April 1972 that I read, Kissinger dropped just one small hint that he MIGHT be willing to discuss changes in the South Vietnamese government after other issues were settled, but that was all. Another option--interesting because the 1972-3 agreements included it--was an acknowledged partition of South Vietnam into Viet Cong-controlled and govenment-controlled sectors. That option received thorough consideration in a paper Kissinger's staff wrote in 1969, but he did not bring it up as yet. Future volumes clearly will tell the tale of how the US gave up the essence of its position and the North Vietnamese gave up the demands for an immediate coalition and Thieu's resignation.
What was quite extraordinary, however, was Kissinger's brief summary of the second meeting, which stated that he had made some progress because the North Vietnamese had expresed some willingness to discuss their withdrawal, even though they didn't explain with whom they would discuss it. I sat stunned before my computer as I read it. I have spent much of my professional life with documents like that, and I could not remember a negotiator conveying such a blatant falsehood. The motive, however, seemed fairly clear. Nixon was determined to compel the North Vietnamese to agree to the kind of settlement he wanted. Kissinger's own power depended, to a certain extent, on validating Nixon's views. He never missed an opportunity to praise Nixon and his policies, or to solicit support from colleagues (such as the Joint Chiefs) based on the idea that the President had already made his decision.
What got me thinking, however, as one old enough to remember these events vividly, was the obvious, deep division between the leadership of the Administration on the one hand and the Congress and opinion leaders on the other. After the very heavy fighting of 1968 (which was not confined to the Tet offensive, but continued through the year), the bulk of Americans had concluded that we were not going to achieve our original objectives. Nixon had not. And so began a tradition that has persisted, off and on, for 36 years: that of an Administration more or less secretly pursuing a policy in which the American public does not believe, because it has convinced itself that such a policy is necessary and dissenters are simply playing politics, showing naivete, or working against their own country.
Something similar certainly seems to be happening today. President Bush and Secretary Rice remain totally committed to their idea of a democratic, pluralistic, relatively secular Iraq, despite the lack of any evidence that such an outcome is getting nearer. (It is not clear, on the other hand, that Vice President Cheney or Secretary Rumsfeld, the other major powers in the Administration, have ever cared much about the future of Iraq once Saddam was gone.) Realism in 1970 would have involved agreeing to a coalition government or acknowledged partition in South Vietnam, allowing the troops to come home, the American defense establishment to rebuild (clearly, based on the new documents, the main concern of Defense Secretary Laird), and the people of Vietnam at least to live in peace. A great deal of suffering might have been avoided, and it is possible that Communists would not have taken power in Laos (whose Prime Minister Souvanna Phouma told Nixon in the spring of 1970 that a coalition government was the answer in South Vietnam) or in Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge were not yet a significant factor. Realism today, in all probability, would involve recognizing that Iraq is almost certain to fracture into three parts, and trying to start negotiations to make that process as painless as possible. But within the Green Zone, the American authorities still seem committed to the vision of impartial security forces, disarmed militias, and law-abiding Iraqis. Events seem be happening on two entirely different planes. And it seems, as under Nixon, that no one can serve in the upper reaches of this Administration who does not officially believe in the happy ending to come. (A Washington Post article indicates that some American military officers are advocating partition, but they appear to be in a minority and do not yet include anyone of high rank. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/29/AR2006042901142.html.)
Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld apparently believed Saddam had to be eliminated, and did not much care about the consequences. Regime change--or rather, regime elimination--was the sum and substance of their policy. They seem to be, essentially, conventional military thinkers who are only intermittently interested in broader political trends. (Rumsfeld's leaked memo in 2003 or 2004, I believe, was one example of momentary interest.) And now they are fixated on Iran, which is more of a conventional threat than Iraq was. Nixon reacted to stalemate in Vietnam by opening a new front in Cambodia--one that ended even more disastrously--and deepening our involvement in Laos. When South Vietnam fell in 1975, Kissinger, now under Gerald Ford, reacted by trying to get the United States involved in a civil war in Angola to show we had not lost our will. If the Congress wants to stop an air campaign against Iran, it had better move pre-emptively to do so.
Sunday, April 23, 2006
This is the weekend's second post--a brief and focused one.
Last Sunday the New York Times book review section carried an outraged letter by Charles Krauthammer responding to its review of Francis Fukuyama's new book,
Krauthammer's text did include those words, but reading the whole text, one has to concede that
"Yes, it may be a bridge too far. Realists have been warning against the hubris of thinking we can transform an alien culture because of some postulated natural and universal human will to freedom. And they may yet be right. But how do they know in advance? Half a century ago, we heard the same confident warnings about the imperviousness to democracy of Confucian culture. That proved stunningly wrong. Where is it written that Arabs are incapable of democracy?
"Yes, as in
Krauthammer combines a belief in
Saturday, April 22, 2006
This week is full of food for thought and comment. Scott McClellan, who loyally refused to be moved off of talking points in the face of the most undeniable facts, has stepped down from the White House. For the record, I cannot believe that his successor, whoever he may be, will take a different approach, although he may have trouble matching McClellan for passive aggression. In Iraq Prime Minister Al-Jaafari (I apologize for the different spellings of his name I've used, but I'm not sure there's an accepted one) has finally stepped down, but the member of his own party who has replaced him, Jawad al-Maliki, is, as far as I can see, no more likely to bring our fantasy of a united, secular Iraq into being. Andrew Card's departure obviously means something, but I'm hard pressed to see what.
My original purpose here, however, was to use historical insights to put the present into perspective, and that is what I'm going to try to do this morning. In preparation for a new course next year, I've been reading up on the
In my lifetime two views of Woodrow Wilson have predominated, and both, I see now, were very specific products of the times in which they arose. In the 1940s and 50s he was a failed hero. Selfish Republican isolationists had rejected the Versailles Treaty, kept the
A new view emerged in the late 1960s, as leftist revolution became fashionable once again.
I am inclined, to think, having read this book, that both views were quite ahistorical and took little note of
Even after that,
All this, it seems to me, strikes a powerful chord because the alliance among the western nations has been disintegrating since George W. Bush took office. In both cases, a European and world order has begun to crumble 50 or 60 years after it was created. After the American and European crisis of the 1860s and 1870s,
It is not too late, it seems to me, for the major industrialized nations--including the Chinese--to design a common energy strategy that could benefit everyone. They need not wait for a world war, as they did in the 1930s. But they cannot do so without the
I discovered the 80-year cycle of
Saturday, April 15, 2006
Twice in the last year I have given talks comparing
Twice in the last year I have given talks comparing
Two weeks ago the New Yorker published another long article by George Packer, the author of The Assassin’s Gate, which I reviewed last fall. Much of the article described Packer’s experiences around Tal-Afar with Colonel H. R. McMaster, who has a Ph.D in history thanks to his book on the origins of the Vietnam War, Dereliction of Duty, which argued that senior generals failed to tell Lyndon Johnson what they really thought before going to war. (Having covered the same ground in my own book, I must register my dissent: the problem was not that generals did not say what they thought, but rather that neither generals nor civilians understood the situation in
The bad news, however, is that Tal Afar is one of the exceptions. Essentially the American military has been making the same mistakes that it made during the first four years of the Vietnam War, and for the same two reasons. Rather than actually occupy populated areas, the American divisions in
The other and perhaps even worse news in Packer’s article came from his descriptions of the political meetings McMaster held. They showed no trust whatever between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and no political basis for the united
In my talk on
“So your American President cannot tell you--with certainty--that a
And here is President Bush last January.
“In a time of testing, we cannot find security by abandoning our commitments and retreating within our borders. If we were to leave these vicious attackers alone, they would not leave us alone. They would simply move the battlefield to our own shores. There is no peace in retreat. And there is no honor in retreat. By allowing radical Islam to work its will -- by leaving an assaulted world to fend for itself -- we would signal to all that we no longer believe in our own ideals, or even in our own courage. But our enemies and our friends can be certain: The United States will not retreat from the world, and we will never surrender to evil .”
As I have noted here again and again, my generation and the President’s (he is 11 months older than I) has been characterized for forty years by a terrifying certainty. Lyndon Johnson, for all his faults, was willing to acknowledge at least that he might be wrong, and to paint his decision to continue as a difficult one. President Bush is not. He has a terrifying faith that has led him to reaffirm his confidence in Donald Rumsfeld. And like President Johnson, he will never be convinced to pull Americans out of
Sunday, April 09, 2006
Last week we learned that Libby told the Grand Jury that he spoke to Miller to give her the gist of a prewar National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq at the behest of Vice President Cheney, who in turn had gotten a go-ahead from President Bush. Scott McClellan immediately insisted that the NIE had been declassified by the President and Vice President, even thought he had announced its declassification "today" at a press briefing about a week later. It turns out, however, that that was not the whole story.
The problem, as the Times makes clear, is that what Libby told Miller about the estimate was false. He said that it expressed great confidence in the finding that Saddam had been trying to purchase uranium in Africa--the point that Ambassador Joseph Wilson had just undermined in an op-ed. In fact, the NIE severely qualified that assertion, and based its confidence in Iraq's ongoing nuclear program on the alumuminum tubes story which, we now know, came from the completely discredited source curveball. In other words, Vice President Cheney, if Libby told the truth, didnt' tell Libby to release true information, but rather false information.
Something else, however, emerges from other sources in the Times story. When the Wilson flap and the outing of Valerie Plame occurred, many wondered why Wilson, a retired Ambassador, could have disturbed the Administration so much. It was a friend of mine who first suggested to me that intimidating Wilson wasn't the point of the leak at all. The leak was aimed at the CIA, which the Administration was counting on to back up its claims. Outing a CIA agent was about as intimidating a measure as could be contemplated. Larry Wilkerson, Colin Powell's former chief of staff, confirmed to me privately that he believed the CIA was the target of the leak as well.
The new story will undoubtedly be the focus of questions at the next White House press briefing, and McClellan will undoubtedly take refuge once again in refusals to comment on an ongoing investigation. But some one in Congress should speak out about the Administration's whole relationship with the permanent executive branch, which it has ignored, intimidated and muzzled in matters foreign and domestic again and again. As I have pointed out again and again, the current White House focuses above all on controlling the public's image of reality. This is another example of how far it will go.
Saturday, April 08, 2006
As Kevin Phillips explains in the preface to his new book, American Theocracy, he has been at the forefront of the transformation of American politics over the last 40 years. In the mid-1960s he wrote The Emerging Republican Majority, the blueprint for Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy that he helped implement successfully in 1968 and spectacularly in 1972. Phillips, however, now feels himself to be a kind of Dr. Frankenstein. He is appalled by the transformation of the party he helped return to, and keep in, power, and he obviously believes that the
The book focuses on three separate developments: the crunch in world oil supply and its impact; the rise of the Evangelical religious right within the Republican Party; and the transformation of the American economy and our frightening, escalating levels of debt. They are all interconnected to a surprising degree, and none of them portends anything good for the
Phillips, to begin with, squarely confronts the issue of oil and how it has affected our foreign policy and threatens to affect our economic future. He makes a plausible case, first, that the entire industrialized world is threatened by the exhaustion of Saudi oil reserves, and that the United States is particularly affected because of its longstanding ties to the Saudis and because our own production has been falling. For years I have read that
Phillips' chapters on religion are very disturbing indeed. They argue, essentially, that well-to-do blue staters like myself have no idea what Protestantism means in today's
As I noted in a post on Social Darwinism exactly a year ago, a nineteenth century thinker named Godwin Smith noted an ongoing struggle between religion and reason going back at least to the time of the Roman Empire and marked by turning points such as the rise of Christianity, the Renaissance, the Reformation and Counterreformation, and the growth of rationalism in the eighteenth century. Phillips refers in the same spirit to the threatened "Disenlightenment" of the
In Phillips's last chapter he suggests that social issues and the unpopular war in
Here I must admit I learned a great deal from Phillips that I should have already known. I knew, of course, that the
Phillips uses historical examples to sound the alarm, focusing on 16th century
I do not know whether Phillips is right. Certainly he will make any reader who has managed to work against current trends by driving a high-mileage car, maintaining a strong equity position in his house, and putting a good deal of any available cash or retirement funds into foreign equities better, and avoiding long-term consumer debt a lot better, but his statistics suggest that such Americans are a depressingly small minority. We face the strong possibility of a crash, and no clear way out of it.
In retrospect, however badly it turns out abroad (a subject to which I shall return shortly), the war in
Saturday, April 01, 2006
I spent last weekend visiting my son and his fiancee, who are finishing their second year with Teach For America working in elementary schools in the Mississippi Delta. We met in
The museum is arranged chronologically but focuses on the years 1945-68. The civil rights movement in its great period, it struck me, owed a great deal to the Second World War and to the organizational spirit that had carried the US through both the war and the Depression. The contradiction between the ideals of freedom, democracy and self-rule for which the war was fought and the actual status of black Americans was simply too glaring to ignore, most of all for those Americans themselves. And although black troops were largely kept out of combat and, a recent book argues, denied their fair share of the benefits of the GI bill, they returned home determined to challenge the status quo. Certainly it was no accident that Jackie Robinson, himself a veteran, signed his first contract with the Dodger organization during the winter of 1945-6.
The center of the struggle for equality was the NAACP, founded early in the twentieth century and identified for its first thirty years with the great historian and publicist W. E. B. Dubois, the first black leader to challenge Booker T. Washington's accommodations strategies. DuBois, born in 1868, made a name for himself as a spokesman for full Negro equality (as it was then called), but was becoming increasingly disillusioned with white America by the 1930s--a trend that led to his ultimate conversation to Communism in the last 15 or so years of his life. He also fell out with the next two NAACP Executive Secretaries, Walter White (born 1893) and Roy Wilkins (born 1901), although he admitted, in a taped interview available from the Smithsonian that he recorded around 1960, that White had done an extraordinary job of building up the organization. So he had--from about 90,000 members in the 1920s to half a million by 1945. (I presume the organization continued to grow for the next fifteen years but I have not found any subsequent figures.)
During this period the NAACP and its Legal Defense Fund, headed by Thurgood Marshall, had mounted a long-term campaign against segregation in education and on the effective disenfranchisement of black Americans through devices like the all-white primary. Beginning with challenges to segregated law schools, they won a series of victories culminating, of course, in Brown vs Board of Education in 1954. Meanwhile, standard political techniques of lobbying and an alliance with the Democratic Party had led President Truman to endorse civil rights and desegregate the armed forces--a critical step--in 1947-8. The NAACP, which continually had to fight accusations of Communist influence throughout the South well into the 1960s, also played a key role in the passage of civil rights bills in 1957, 1960, and most of all, of course, in 1964-5. Its work, like so much successful political work, was painstaking and unromantic, involving holding meetings, circulating literature, collecting dues and buttonholing politicians. It was also, in much of the country, dangerous, and sometimes fatal. It was the focus of several exhibits at the museum, but I did not feel it received the attention that it deserved. Roy Wilkins made a few pictures of various civil rights leaders--for instance, at the March on
But while the NAACP put civil rights on the map and won the greatest initial victories, others contributed at least as much. Martin Luther King managed to create an activist mass movement in the heart of the South--something the NAACP had note dared to do. The Montgomery bus boycott, the demonstrations for equality in Albany, Georgia in the early 1960s, the sit-in movement in North Carolina (which was not originally an initiative of King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference), the Birmingham demonstrations of 1963, SNCC's Mississippi project in 1964, and the 1965 Selma march were, literally, campaigns in a war, one fought by non-violence. They involved thousands of people and lasted for years. (Everyone knows how Rosa Parks took the first step in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955, but few remember that the boycott took an entire year to achieve the desegregation of the buses.) The museum included a list--and it was a very long one--of violent acts against the voter registration workers in
The movement began to founder for various reasons in the late 1960s. King himself brought it to the north in
My son's own experience is in many ways a sad commentary on what was and was not accomplished. The school in which he teaches is nearly as segregated as
P.S. I added some material to last week's post--new data about Iraq, marked in bold.