How Did the Gates of Hell Open in Vietnam? January 18, 2013Posted by rogerhollander in History, Imperialism, Vietnam, War.
Tags: general westmoreland, history, jonathan schell, lbj, Lyndon Johnson, my lai, nick turse, roger hollander, scorched earth, vietcong, vietnam, vietnam atrocities, Vietnam War
add a comment
A New Book Transforms Our Understanding of What the Vietnam War Actually Was
For half a century we have been arguing about “the Vietnam War.” Is it possible that we didn’t know what we were talking about? After all that has been written (some 30,000 books and counting), it scarcely seems possible, but such, it turns out, has literally been the case.
Now, in Kill Anything that Moves, Nick Turse has for the first time put together a comprehensive picture, written with mastery and dignity, of what American forces actually were doing in Vietnam. The findings disclose an almost unspeakable truth. Meticulously piecing together newly released classified information, court-martial records, Pentagon reports, and firsthand interviews in Vietnam and the United States, as well as contemporaneous press accounts and secondary literature, Turse discovers that episodes of devastation, murder, massacre, rape, and torture once considered isolated atrocities were in fact the norm, adding up to a continuous stream of atrocity, unfolding, year after year, throughout that country.
It has been Turse’s great achievement to see that, thanks to the special character of the war, its prime reality — an accurate overall picture of what physically was occurring on the ground — had never been assembled; that with imagination and years of dogged work this could be done; and that even a half-century after the beginning of the war it still should be done. Turse acknowledges that, even now, not enough is known to present this picture in statistical terms. To be sure, he offers plenty of numbers — for instance the mind-boggling estimates that during the war there were some two million civilians killed and some five million wounded, that the United States flew 3.4 million aircraft sorties, and that it expended 30 billion pounds of munitions, releasing the equivalent in explosive force of 640 Hiroshima bombs.
Yet it would not have been enough to simply accumulate anecdotal evidence of abuses. Therefore, while providing an abundance of firsthand accounts, he has supplemented this approach. Like a fabric, a social reality — a town, a university, a revolution, a war — has a pattern and a texture. No fact is an island. Each one is rich in implications, which, so to speak, reach out toward the wider area of the surrounding facts. When some of these other facts are confirmed, they begin to reveal the pattern and texture in question.
Turse repeatedly invites us to ask what sort of larger picture each story implies. For example, he writes:
If one man and his tiny team could claim more KIAs [killed in action] than an entire battalion without raising red flags among superiors; if a brigade commander could up the body count by picking off civilians from his helicopter with impunity; if a top general could institutionalize atrocities through the profligate use of heavy firepower in areas packed with civilians — then what could be expected down the line, especially among heavily armed young infantrymen operating in the field for weeks, angry, tired, and scared, often unable to locate the enemy and yet relentlessly pressed for kills?
Like a tightening net, the web of stories and reports drawn from myriad sources coalesces into a convincing, inescapable portrait of this war — a portrait that, as an American, you do not wish to see; that, having seen, you wish you could forget, but that you should not forget; and that the facts force you to see and remember and take into account when you ask yourself what the United States has done and been in the last half century, and what it still is doing and still is.
Scorched Earth in I Corps
My angle of vision on these matters is a highly particular one. In early August 1967, I arrived in I Corps, the northernmost district of American military operations in what was then South Vietnam. I was there to report for the New Yorker on the “air war.” The phrase was a misnomer. The Vietnamese foe, of course, had no assets in the air in the South, and so there was no “war” of that description.
There was only the unilateral bombardment of the land and people by the fantastic array of aircraft assembled by the United States in Vietnam. These ranged from the B-52, which laid down a pattern of destruction a mile long and several football fields wide; to fighter bombers capable of dropping, along with much else, 500-pound bombs and canisters of napalm; to the reconfigured DC-3 equipped with a cannon capable of firing 100 rounds per second; to the ubiquitous fleets of helicopters, large and small, that crowded the skies. All this was abetted by continuous artillery fire into “free-fire” zones and naval bombardment from ships just off the coast.
By the time I arrived, the destruction of the villages in the region and the removal of their people to squalid refugee camps was approaching completion. (However, they often returned to their blasted villages, now subject to indiscriminate artillery fire.) Only a few pockets of villages survived. I witnessed the destruction of many of these in Quang Ngai and Quang Tinh provinces from the back seat of small Cessnas called Forward Air Control planes.
As we floated overhead day after day, I would watch long lines of houses burst into flames one after another as troops moved through the area of operation. In the meantime, the Forward Air Controllers were calling in air strikes as requested by radio from troops on the ground. In past operations, the villagers had been herded out of the area into the camps. But this time, no evacuation had been ordered, and the population was being subjected to the full fury of a ground and air assault. A rural society was being torn to pieces before my eyes.
The broad results of American actions in I Corps were thus visible and measurable from the air. No scorched earth policy had been announced but scorched earth had been the result. Still, a huge piece was missing from the puzzle. I was not able to witness most of the significant operations on the ground firsthand. I sought to interview some soldiers but they would not talk, though one did hint at dark deeds. “You wouldn’t believe it so I’m not going to tell you,” he said to me. “No one’s ever going to find out about some things, and after this war is over, and we’ve all gone home, no one is ever going to know.”
In other words, like so many reporters in Vietnam, I saw mainly one aspect of one corner of the war. What I had seen was ghastly, but it was not enough to serve as a basis for generalizations about the conduct of the war as a whole. Just a few years later, in 1969, thanks to the determined efforts of a courageous soldier, Ron Ridenhour, and the persistence of a reporter, Seymour Hersh, one piece of the hidden truth about ground operations in I Corp came to light.
It was the My Lai massacre, in which more than 500 civilians were murdered in cold blood by Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry, of the Americal Division. In subsequent years, news of other atrocities in the area filtered into the press, often many years after the fact. For example, in 2003 the Toledo Blade disclosed a campaign of torture and murder over a period of months, including the summary execution of two blind men by a “reconnaissance” squad called Tiger Force. Still, no comprehensive picture of the generality of ground operations in the area emerged.
It has not been until the publication of Turse’s book that the everyday reality of which these atrocities were a part has been brought so fully to light. Almost immediately after the American troops arrived in I Corps, a pattern of savagery was established. My Lai, it turns out, was exceptional only in the numbers killed.
Turse offers a massacre at a village called Trieu Ai in October 1967 as a paradigm. A marine company suffered the loss of a man to a booby trap near the village, which had in fact had been mostly burned down by other American forces a few days earlier. Some villagers had, however, returned for their belongings. Now, the Marine company, enraged by its loss but unable to find the enemy, entered the village firing their M-16s, setting fire to any intact houses, and tossing grenades into bomb shelters.
A Marine marched a woman into a field and shot her. Another reported that there were children in the shelters that were being blown up. His superior replied, “Tough shit, they grow up to be VC [Vietcong].” Five or ten people rushed out of a shelter when a grenade was thrown into it. They were cut down in a hail of fire. Turse comments:
In the story of Trieu Ai one can see virtually the entire war writ small. Here was the repeated aerial bombing and artillery fire… Here was the deliberate burning of peasant homes and the relocation of villagers to refugee camps… Angry troops primed to lash out, often following losses within the unit; civilians trapped in their paths; and officers in the field issuing ambiguous or illegal orders to young men conditioned to obey — that was the basic recipe for many of the mass killings carried out by army soldiers and marines over the years.
The savagery often extended to the utmost depravity: gratuitous torture, killing for target practice, slaughter of children and babies, gang rape. Consider the following all-too-typical actions of Company B, 1st Battalion, 35th infantry beginning in October 1967:
The company stumbled upon an unarmed young boy. ‘Someone caught him up on a hill, and they brought him down and the lieutenant asked who wanted to kill him…’ medic Jamie Henry later told army investigators. A radioman and another medic volunteered for the job. The radioman… ’kicked the boy in the stomach and the medic took him around behind a rock and I heard one magazine go off complete on automatic…’
A few days after this incident, members of that same unit brutalized an elderly man to the point of collapse and then threw him off a cliff without even knowing whether he was dead or alive…
A couple of days after that, they used an unarmed man for target practice…
And less than two weeks later, members of Company B reportedly killed five unarmed women…
Unit members rattled off a litany of other brutal acts committed by the company… [including] a living woman who had an ear cut off while her baby was thrown to the ground and stomped on…
Pumping Up the Body Count
Turse’s findings completed the picture of the war in I Corps for me. Whatever the policy might have been in theory, the reality, on the ground as in the air, was the scorched earth I had witnessed from the Forward Air Control planes. Whatever the United States thought it was doing in I Corps, it was actually waging systematic war against the people of the region.
And so it was, as Turse voluminously documents, throughout the country. Details differed from area to area but the broad picture was the same as the one in I Corps. A case in point is the war in the Mekong Delta, home to some five to six million people in an area of less than 15,000 square miles laced with rivers and canals. In February 1968, General Julian Ewell, soon to be known by Vietnamese and Americans alike as “the Butcher of the Delta,” was placed in charge of the 9th Infantry Division.
In December 1968, he launched Operation Speedy Express. His specialty, amounting to obsession, was increasing “the body count,” ordained by the high command as the key measure of progress in defeating the enemy. Theoretically, only slain soldiers were to be included in that count but — as anyone, soldier or reporter, who spent a half-hour in the field quickly learned — virtually all slain Vietnamese, most of them clearly civilians, were included in the total. The higher an officer’s body count, the more likely his promotion. Privates who turned in high counts were rewarded with mini-vacations. Ewell set out to increase the ratio of supposed enemy soldiers killed to American soldiers killed. Pressure to do so was ratcheted up at all levels in the 9th Division. One of his chiefs of staff “went berserk,” in the words of a later chief of staff.
The means were simple: immensely increase the already staggering firepower being used and loosen the already highly permissive “rules of engagement” by, for example, ordering more night raids. In a typical night episode, Cobra gunships strafed a herd of water buffalo and seven children tending them. All died, and the children were reported as enemy soldiers killed in action.
The kill ratios duly rose from an already suspiciously high 24 “Vietcong” for every dead American to a completely surreal 134 Vietcong per American. The unreality, however, did not simply lie in the inflated kill numbers but in the identities of the corpses. Overwhelmingly, they were not enemy soldiers but civilians. A “Concerned Sergeant” who protested the operation in an anonymous letter to the high command at the time described the results as he witnessed them:
A battalion would kill maybe 15 to 20 a day. With 4 battalions in the Brigade that would be maybe 40 to 50 a day or 1200 a month 1500, easy. (One battalion claimed almost 1000 body counts one month!) If I am only 10% right, and believe me its lots more, then I am trying to tell you about 120-150 murders, or a My Lay [My Lai] each month for over a year.
This range of estimates was confirmed in later analyses. Operations in I Corp perhaps depended more on infantry attacks supported by air strikes, while Speedy Express depended more on helicopter raids and demands for high body counts, but the results were the same: indiscriminate warfare, unrestrained by calculation or humanity, on the population of South Vietnam.
Turse reminds us that off the battlefield, too, casual violence — such as the use of military trucks to run over Vietnamese on the roads, seemingly for entertainment — was widespread. The commonest terms for Vietnamese were the racist epithets “gooks,” “dinks,” and “slopes.” And the U.S. military machine was supplemented by an equally brutal American-South Vietnamese prison system in which torture was standard procedure and extrajudicial executions common.
How did it happen? How did a country that believes itself to be guided by principles of decency permit such savagery to break out and then allow it to continue for more than a decade?
Why, when the first Marines arrived in I Corps in early 1965, did so many of them almost immediately cast aside the rules of war as well as all ordinary scruples and sink to the lowest levels of barbarism? What chains of cause and effect linked “the best and the brightest” of America’s top universities and corporations who were running the war with the murder of those buffalo boys in the Mekong Delta?
How did the gates of hell open? This is a different question from the often-asked one of how the United States got into the war. I cannot pretend to begin to do it justice here. The moral and cognitive seasickness that has attended the Vietnam War from the beginning afflicts us still. Yet Kill Anything that Moves permits us, finally, to at least formulate the question in light of the actual facts of the case.
Reflections would certainly seem in order for a country that, since Vietnam, has done its best to unlearn even such lessons as were learned from that debacle in preparation for other misbegotten wars like those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here, however, are a few thoughts, offered in a spirit of thinking aloud.
The Fictitious War and the Real One
Roughly since the massacre at My Lai was revealed, people have debated whether the atrocities of the war were the product of decisions by troops on the ground or of high policy, of orders issued from above — whether they were “aberrations” or “operations.” The first school obviously lends itself to bad-apple-in-a-healthy-barrel thinking, blaming individual units for unacceptable behavior while exonerating the higher ups; the second tends to exonerate the troops while pinning the blame on their superiors.
Turse’s book shows that the barrel was rotten through and through. It discredits the “aberration” school once and for all. Yet it does not exactly offer support for the orders-from-the-top school either. Perhaps the problem always was that these alternatives framed the situation inaccurately. The relationship between policy and practice in Vietnam was, it turns out, far more peculiar than the two choices suggest.
It’s often said that truth is the first casualty of war. In Vietnam, however, it was not just that the United States was doing one thing while saying another (for example, destroying villages while claiming to protect them), true as that was. Rather, from its inception the war’s structure was shaped by an attempt to superimpose a false official narrative on a reality of a wholly different character.
In the official war, the people of South Vietnam were resisting the attempts of the North Vietnamese to conquer them in the name of world communism. The United States was simply assisting them in their patriotic resistance. In reality, most people in South Vietnam, insofar as they were politically minded, were nationalists who sought to push out foreign conquerors: first, the French, then the Japanese, and next the Americans, along with their client state, the South Vietnamese government which was never able to develop any independent strength in a land supposedly its own. This fictitious official narrative was not added on later to disguise unpalatable facts; it was baked into the enterprise from the outset.
Accordingly, the collision of policy and reality first took place on the ground in Trieu Ai village and its like. The American forces, including their local commanders, were confronted with a reality that the policymakers had not faced and would not face for many long years. Expecting to be welcomed as saviors, the troops found themselves in a sea of nearly universal hostility.
No manual was handed out in Washington to deal with the unexpected situation. It was left to the soldiers to decide what to do. Throughout the country, they started to improvise. To this extent, policy was indeed being made in the field. Yet it was not within the troops’ power to reverse basic policy; they could not, for instance, have withdrawn themselves from the whole misconceived exercise. They could only respond to the unexpected circumstances in which they found themselves.
The result would combine an incomprehensible and impossible mission dictated from above (to win the “hearts and minds” of a population already overwhelmingly hostile, while pulverizing their society) and locally conceived illegal but sometimes vague orders that left plenty of room for spontaneous, rage-driven improvisation on the ground. In this gap between the fiction of high policy and the actuality of the real war was born the futile, abhorrent assault on the people of Vietnam.
The improvisatory character of all this, as Turse emphasizes, can be seen in the fact that while the abuses of civilians were pervasive they were not consistent. As he summarizes what a villager in one brutalized area told him decades later, “Sometimes U.S. troops handed out candies. Sometimes they shot at people. Sometimes they passed through a village hardly touching a thing. Sometimes they burned all the homes. ‘We didn’t understand the reasons why the acted in the way they did.’”
Alongside the imaginary official war, then, there grew up the real war on the ground, the one that Turse has, for the first time, adequately described. It is no defense of what happened to point out that, for the troops, it was not so much their orders from on high as their circumstances — what Robert J. Lifton has called “atrocity-producing situations” — that generated their degraded behavior. Neither does such an account provide escape from accountability for the war’s architects without whose blind and misguided policies these infernal situations never would have arisen.
In one further bitter irony, this real war came at a certain point to be partially codified at ever higher levels of command into policies that did translate into orders from the top. In effect, the generals gradually — if absurdly, in light of the supposed goals of the war — sanctioned and promoted the de facto war on the population. Enter General Ewell and his body counts.
In other words, the improvising moved up the chain of command until the soldiers were following orders when they killed civilians, though, as in the case of Ewell, those orders rarely took exactly that form. Nonetheless, the generals sometimes went quite far in formulating these new rules, even when they flagrantly contradicted official policies.
To give one example supplied by Turse, in 1965, General William Westmoreland, who was made commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam in 1964, implicitly declared war on the peasantry of South Vietnam. He said:
Until now the war has been characterized by a substantial majority of the population remaining neutral. In the past year we have seen an escalation to a higher intensity in the war. This will bring about a moment of decision for the peasant farmer. He will have to choose if he stays alive.”
Like his underlings, Westmoreland, was improvising. This new policy of, in effect, terrorizing the peasantry into submission was utterly inconsistent with the Washington narrative of winning hearts and minds, but it was fully consistent with everything his forces were actually doing and about to do in I Corps and throughout the country.
A Skyscraper of Lies
One more level of the conflict needs to be mentioned in this context. Documents show that, as early as the mid-1960s, the key mistaken assumptions of the war — that the Vietnamese foe was a tentacle of world communism, that the war was a front in the Cold War rather than an episode in the long decolonization movement of the twentieth century, that the South Vietnamese were eager for rescue by the United States — were widely suspected to be mistaken in official Washington. But one other assumption was not found to be mistaken: that whichever administration “lost” Vietnam would likely lose the next election.
Rightly or wrongly, presidents lived in terror of losing the war and so being politically destroyed by a movement of the kind Senator Joe McCarthy launched after the American “loss” of China in 1949. Later, McGeorge Bundy, Lyndon Johnson’s national security advisor, would describe his understanding of the president’s frame of mind at the time this way:
LBJ isn’t deeply concerned about who governs Laos, or who governs South Vietnam — he’s deeply concerned with what the average American voter is going to think about how he did in the ball game of the Cold War. The great Cold War championship gets played in the largest stadium in the United States and he, Lyndon Johnson, is the quarterback, and if he loses, how does he do in the next election? So don’t lose. Now that’s too simple, but it’s where he is. He’s living with his own political survival every time he looks at these questions.”
In this context, domestic political considerations trumped the substantive reasoning that, once the futility and horror of the enterprise had been revealed, might have led to an end to the war. More and more it was understood to be a murderous farce, but politics dictated that it must continue. As long as this remained the case, no news from Vietnam could lead to a reversal of the war policies.
This was the top floor of the skyscraper of lies that was the Vietnam War. Domestic politics was the largest and most fact-proof of the atrocity-producing situations. Do we imagine that this has changed?
Jonathan Schell is the Doris M. Shaffer Fellow at The Nation Institute, and a Senior Lecturer at Yale University. He is the author of The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger and The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People. .
The Vietnam War and the Struggle For Truth June 22, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: american exceptionalism, fort apache, history, ho chi minh, john ford, john grant, john wayne, kissinger, lbj, nixon, robert mcnamara, roger hollander, the man who shot liberty valance, truth, U.S. imperialism, vietnam, vietnam veterans, Vietnam War
add a comment
Roger’s note: nearly 60,000 American soldiers and over a million (!!!) Vietnamese, including civilians, were killed in the Vietnam War, hundreds of thousands were wounded, much of Vietnam was destroyed — the notorious scorched earth policy — and untold thousands of American Vietnam veterans returned home to lives traumatized by what they saw and did, many choosing suicide as a way out. That our war mongering president, himself with blood on his hands, is launching a project to whitewash the shameful Vietnam Holocaust is disgusting and criminal in itself.
opednews.com, June 22, 2012
Vietnam, a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.
-Bernard Brodie, 1973
The Vietnamese won the Vietnam War by forcing the United States to abandon its intention to militarily sustain an artificially divided Vietnam. The history is clear: It was the United States, not the Vietnamese, who scotched the unifying elections agreed on for 1956 in the Geneva negotiations following the French rout at Dien Bien Phu. Why did the US undermine these elections? As Dwight Eisenhower said in his memoir, because everyone knew Ho Chi Minh was going to win in a landslide of the order of 80% of the population of Vietnam.
So much for Democracy.
“We can lose longer than you can win,” was how Ho described the Vietnamese strategy against the Americans. Later in the 1980s, a Vietnamese diplomat put it this way to Robert McNamara: “We knew you would leave because you could leave. We lived here; we couldn’t leave.”
The Vietnam War was finally over in 1975 when the North prevailed over the US proxy formulation known as South Vietnam, which then disappeared as a “nation,” as many thousands of our betrayed Vietnamese allies fled in small boats or were subjected to unpleasant internment camps and frontier development projects deep in the hostile jungles.
In a word, the Vietnam War was a debacle for everyone involved.
Now, we learn the United States government is planning a 13-year propaganda project to clean up the image of the Vietnam War in the minds of Americans. It’s called The Vietnam War Commemoration Project. President Obama officially launched the project on Memorial Day with a speech at the Vietnam Wall in Washington. The Project was established by Section 598 of the 604-page National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2008. It budgets $5 million a year.
President Obama at The Wall by Unknown
“Some have called this war era a scar on our country,” Obama told the specially invited Vietnam veteran crowd at The Wall. “But here’s what I say. As any wound heals, the tissue around it becomes tougher, becomes stronger than before. And in this sense, finally, we might begin to see the true legacy of Vietnam. Because of Vietnam and our veterans, we now use American power smarter, we honor our military more, we take care of our veterans better. Because of the hard lessons of Vietnam, because of you, America is even stronger than before.”
Vietnam toughened us up, made us better human beings. I would submit the President is wrong on that score, that there are profound lessons we have failed to learn.
Phase One of the Commemoration Project goes through 2014 and “will focus on recruiting support and participation nationwide. There will inevitably be international, national, regional, state, and local events planned, but a focus will be on the hometown level, where the personal recognitions and thanks are most impactful. The target is to obtain 10,000 Commemorative Partners.” Phase Two, through 2017, will encourage these Partners to commit to two events a year. “The DoD Commemoration Office will develop and host a “Master Calendar’ to list all the events, reflecting tens of thousands of events across the nation, as we thank and honor our Vietnam veterans.” Phase Three, from 2017 to 2025, will focus on “sustainment” of the positive legacy established in Phases One and Two and will involve “targeted activities” as deemed necessary.
The planners of the Project decided the Vietnam War began in 1962, which makes 2012 the 50th Anniversary of the start of the war. Just that decision alone exhibits disingenuous calculation. Anyone who has read anything beyond a pop novelization of Rambo knows it’s impossible to understand US involvement in the Vietnam War unless one goes back at least to 1945 and the decision to succumb to Cold War hysteria and support the re-colonization of Vietnam by the French. When you understand how Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh soldiers fought side-by-side with US soldiers against the Japanese occupiers of Vietnam, when the Vichy French colonial garrisons were cowed by the Japanese, you begin to understand the profound betrayal at the root of the entire war.
The problem is that understanding is the last thing the Pentagon and the US Government want the American people to wrestle with. If President Obama’s launching language is any indication, the purpose of the Vietnam War Commemoration is to create a malleable and supportive populace for future military operations — especially under the new doctrine of focused killing with drones and special-ops units now being established around the world.
Everyone in Washington knows the post-World War Two behemoth United States faces an inevitable decline vis—vis former third world, colonial nations like China, India and Brazil. It’s also clear globalized actors like al Qaeda founded as a reaction against our international interventions are not static and will evolve with our changing tactics. The world is, thus, getting more and more frightening for Americans, especially those who insist on holding on to the good-old-days of Manifest Destiny and American Exceptionalism.
It has to do with an insistence on living in a glorious western colonial past, a bubble that’s part historical fact and part illusion and that entails ignoring what the Buddhists call the fundamental impermanence of life or what the Greek Heraclitus meant when he said, “You can’t step into the same river twice.” Today we might say: sh*t happens and things change. But for an imperialist, these are subversive thoughts. Just the mention the word “imperialism” and people turn into Sergeant Schultz: “I see nah-thing.”
In our schools and institutions it’s unfortunate American citizens are rarely taught to understand historical events like the Vietnam War. History is subversive, and our leaders have all become corporate panderers who want what every other pandering leader in history has ever wanted: a compliant populace waving the flag and not asking questions. Thus we have the Vietnam War Commemoration Project.
John Ford’s America
I’m a cineaste, a subversive-sounding French word for film buff. Nothing dramatizes all this quite as perfectly as two iconic John Ford movies, in which the director, a Navy reserve admiral, employs John Wayne as a key player in the patriotic task of burying Truth in American popular history. John Wayne, of course, was key to the imagery that got us into Vietnam. Wayne even co-directed and starred in the 1968 patriotic clunker The Green Berets. For those who question the relevance of classic film to American political meta-narrative, one need only mention Ronald Reagan who rose to power by confusing the two realms.
The two Ford movies are Fort Apache in 1947 and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance in 1962. The former is a cavalry and Indians story and the latter is a gunfighter and bad man story. Ford was an amazing director and both are excellent fiction films that reinforce Manifest Destiny and American cultural values — to the point of necessarily burying unpleasant truths and encouraging popular legends.
At the end of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, a newspaper editor learns that dude lawyer Jimmy Stewart really didn’t shoot the bad gunman Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. The shooting of Valance in a western town at night made Stewart famous and got him elected a US senator. The editor learns that gunfighter John Wayne knew Valance would kill his tenderfoot pal Stewart, so Wayne had dry-gulched Valance with a rifle from a nearby alley.uestion is, will the editor spill the beans and destroy good-guy Stewart’s senatorial career. In what is now an iconic line, the editor says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Both the official and popular histories of the Vietnam War are rife with this kind of slippage. The emotional emphasis on anti-war activists “spitting” on soldiers and the emphasis on the heroics of individual soldiers in Vietnam are just two examples. In both cases, the larger, historical realities are buried in favor of popularly endorsed and highly publicized narratives on an individual and personal level. The fact anti-war activists were actually opposing LBJ, Robert McNamara, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and the cruel and insidious war they and the institutions they controlled were determined to escalate is lost in the cynical, patriotic focus on individual heroism.
The colonel’s debacle and a newly promoted Wayne promotes the legend by Unknown
Fort Apache is a perfect analogy for the Vietnam War. John Wayne is a cavalry captain in Apache country; he’s a good soldier who respects Cochise and his braves. At this point, along comes Henry Fonda as a tight-ass lieutenant colonel taking command of the garrison; he resents being sent with his teenage daughter Shirley Temple to this smelly armpit of the world — in this case, Ford’s favorite location, the incredibly austere Monument Valley in Utah.
Besides the grand-scale scenes of precise cavalry units advancing on horseback amongst the mesas and desert tabletops, there’s the usual John Ford cotillion dances with officers in formal uniforms and ladies in gowns that are simply preposterous for the frontier. And there’s the usual male camaraderie and buffoonery amongst the enlisted men centered on drinking to lighten things up. Plus a Romeo and Juliet romance between upper class Temple and the fresh West Point 2nd lieutenant son of grizzled Sergeant Major Ward Bond, a Civil War Medal Of Honor winner.
Fonda wants to reestablish military discipline at the fort and to regain the glory he once had as a general in the Civil War. (It seems rank was shuffled considerably once that conflagration was over.) He also wants to rip into the goddamned savages who caused him this ignoble assignment.
Fonda reluctantly allows Wayne to go with only a Spanish translator to talk with Cochise unarmed in his stronghold. (Cochise speaks Spanish but not English.) Wayne and Cochise get on smartly and agree that Cochise can resettle in his former lands. But Fonda has different plans. He dismisses Wayne’s agreement and orders the garrison to mount up to meet Cochise. To Wayne, it’s a loathsome betrayal.
The Apaches have the US cavalry outnumbered ten to one. But this doesn’t phase the madman Fonda. He orders the recalcitrant Wayne to guard the wagons and orders a frontal attack that takes his troops right into an Apache ambush that Wayne warned him was there.
Fonda is shot off his horse, and Wayne rides like the wind to save the wounded officer. But Fonda shoves him away and mounts Wayne’s horse to join his encircled men, now in a formation that resembles images of Custer’s Last Stand. Fonda apologizes to Bond, who makes a jovial crack about their future grandchildren. Then they’re all killed by the infuriated Apaches.
Cut to Wayne back behind the wagons, awaiting the advancing savages. A lone rider comes up and, as Wayne goes out unarmed to meet him, the rider angrily slams the garrison colors into the dirt at Wayne’s feet. Cochise has let his paleface amigo live for another day.
Then there’s a break and its some years later. Wayne is now a colonel, and he’s engaged with some reporters in his office. There’s a dignified, formal portrait of the Fonda character on the wall. The reporters all want to hear about the glory of Fonda’s now famous fatal charge. Wayne plays along and passes on the legend of the great man. Then he goes outside and leads his troops on a stirring march out of the compound. The end.
The fact the arrogance and incompetence of the Fonda character and his blatant betrayal of a negotiated agreement he had sent an officer out to obtain at significant risk had caused the loss of much of his garrison is simply swept under the rug. Truth is secondary to institutional integrity. Wayne has now realized on which side his bread is buttered and that his career is not about negotiating with savages. Geronimo was pointedly introduced earlier in the meeting with Cochise. To protect the women folk and advancing civilization on the frontier, Wayne now has the guerrilla Geronimo to clean up.
As well-wrought film art, one can see Fort Apache in two ways — as glorifying Manifest Destiny and the extermination of Native Americans or as explaining the process of how truth is the first casualty of war and, if we let it happen, a permanent casualty of permanent war.
The Truth Will Set Us Free
A friend of mine just gave me three boxes of books on the Vietnam War to add to my collection; and I’m always looking for more in thrift shops and used book stores. Chris Hedges says we’re becoming an illiterate culture attuned to spectacle. That may be true, but I’m not going to be one of Orwell’s proles in such an equation. The point is, we in the antiwar movement — especially those of us who are Vietnam veterans and still read — have a responsibility to make sure the national record is complete. Bernard Brodie was right in 1973 in his mature, analytic book War and Politics when he said Vietnam was “a story of virtually unmitigated disasters that we have inflicted on ourselves and even more on others.” Nothing has changed in the past 39 years, and a well-funded Pentagon propaganda campaign won’t affect that truth.
I’ll be the first to concede honor and bravery exist even in a lousy, unnecessary and cruel war like the one in Vietnam. But we cannot allow the rah-rah garbage that appears to be lined up for the well-funded Vietnam War Commemoration Project to prevail without a fight — even if that fight is asymmetrical and has to be fought in guerrilla mode with rhetorical jujitsu and even strains of Dada absurdity if necessary. The fact is, there are two sides to the Vietnam War, and the one that says the war was not necessary needs to be heard loud and clear and needs to be respected. Plus, it needs to be made clear to Americans that the Vietnamese endured vastly more pain and suffering than any of us did.
The poet W.D. Ehrhart was a young Marine infantryman in the war. He was wounded there. He returned to Vietnam in 1985 and wrote about his trip, about the good things and about meeting Mrs. Na who lost five sons to The American War. As he is led into her modest peasant home, she looks at him. “I have suffered so much misery,” she tells him, “and you did this to me.”
Ehrhart wants to flee the little house and vomit in the road. The incident reminds him of a poem he had written earlier called “Making the Children Behave.”
in those strange Asian villages
where nothing ever seemed
and my few grim friends
moving through them
When they tell stories to their children
of the evil
that awaits misbehavior
is it me they conjure?
It takes great humanity and courage to get to a place like Ehrhart has reached. John Ford would not have understood the need to recognize the truths Ehrhart and other vets have tried to tell Americans, though many Americans like Platoon director Oliver Stone certainly do. The Pentagon and the US government do not want to encourage such difficult truths when they need young soldiers for future wars that may, like Vietnam and Iraq, turn out to be tragic debacles.
In another poem, Ehrhart poignantly addresses the human problem of sending young men to fight delusional and unnecessary wars. It’s called “Guerrilla War.”
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Vietcong.
Nobody wears uniforms.
They all talk
the same language,
(and you couldn’t understand them
even if they didn’t).
They tape grenades
inside their clothes,
and carry satchel charges
in their market baskets.
Even their women fight,
and young boys,
It’s practically impossible
to tell civilians
from the Viet Cong.
you quit trying.
Profiting Off Nixon’s Vietnam “Treason” March 4, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: eugene rostow, history, lbj, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, robert parry, roger hollander, vietnam, vietnam peace process, Vietnam War, Wall Street, Wall Street Bankers, walt w. rostow
add a comment
Roger’s note: it has been my opinion that in our time things really began to go “off the track” with the Nixon presidency and not with the Bush era, as many argue (of course, in a broader sense the car jumped the rail in 1492). The Nixons and the Bushes and the Obamas and the military-industrial complex behind them sacrifice lives by the hundreds of thousands, and we honor them as presidents and patriots. The cynicism behind it all is almost beyond comprehension, not to mention surreal.
Robert Parry, www.opednews.com, March 3, 2012
This article cross-posted from Consortium News
As I pored over documents from what the archivists at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library call their “X-File” — chronicling Richard Nixon’s apparent sabotage of Vietnam peace talks in 1968 — I was surprised by one fact in particular, how Johnson’s White House got wind of what Johnson later labeled Nixon’s “treason.”
According to the records, Eugene Rostow, Johnson’s Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, got a tip in late October 1968 from a Wall Street source who said that one of Nixon’s closest financial backers was describing Nixon’s plan to “block” a peace settlement of the Vietnam War. The backer was sharing this information with his banking colleagues to help them place their bets on stocks and bonds.
In other words, these investment bankers were colluding over how to make money with their inside knowledge of Nixon’s scheme to extend the Vietnam War. Such an image of these “masters of the universe” sitting around a table plotting financial strategies while a half million American soldiers were sitting in a war zone was a picture that even the harshest critics of Wall Street might find hard to envision.
Yet, that tip — about Nixon’s Wall Street friends discussing his apparent tip on the likely course of the Vietnam War — was the first clear indication that Johnson’s White House had that the sudden resistance from South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu to Paris peace talks may have involved a collaboration with Nixon, the Republican candidate for president who feared progress toward peace could cost him the election.
On Oct. 29, Eugene Rostow passed on the information to his brother, Walt W. Rostow, Johnson’s national security adviser. Eugene Rostow also wrote a memoabout the tip, reporting that he had learned the news from a source in New York who had gotten it from “a member of the banking community” who was “very close to Nixon.”
“The conversation was in the context of a professional discussion about the future of the financial markets in the near term. The speaker said he thought the prospects for a bombing halt or a cease-fire were dim, because Nixon was playing the problem as he did the Fortas affair — to block. …”They would incite Saigon to be difficult, and Hanoi to wait. Part of his strategy was an expectation that an offensive would break out soon, that we would have to spend a great deal more (and incur more casualties) — a fact which would adversely affect the stock market and the bond market. NVN [North Vietnamese] offensive action was a definite element in their thinking about the future.”
(The reference to Fortas apparently was to the successful Republican-led filibuster in the Senate to block Johnson’s 1968 nomination of Associate Justice Abe Fortas to replace Earl Warren as Chief Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.)
In other words, Nixon’s friends on Wall Street were placing their financial bets based on the inside dope that Johnson’s peace initiative was doomed to fail. (In another document, Walt Rostow identified his brother’s source, who disclosed this strategy session, as Alexander Sachs, who was then on the board of Lehman Brothers.)
A separate memo from Eugene Rostow said the unidentified speaker at the lunch had added that Nixon “was trying to frustrate the President, by inciting Saigon to step up its demands, and by letting Hanoi know that when he [Nixon] took office ‘he could accept anything and blame it on his predecessor.'”
So, according to the speaker, Nixon was trying to convince both the South and North Vietnamese that they would get a better deal if they stalled Johnson’s peace initiative.
In a later memo providing a chronology of the affair, Walt Rostow said he got the news about the Wall Street lunch from his brother shortly before attending a morning meeting at which President Johnson was informed by U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam Ellsworth Bunker about “Thieu’s sudden intransigence.”
Walt Rostow said “the diplomatic information previously received plus the information from New York took on new and serious significance,” leading to an FBI investigation ordered by Johnson that uncovered the framework of Nixon’s blocking operation. [To read that Rostow memo, click here, here and here.]
The Rostow memos are contained in a file with scores of secret and top secret documents tracing Nixon’s Vietnam peace-talk gambit as Johnson tried frantically to stop Nixon’s blocking operation and still reach a peace agreement in the waning days of his presidency.
After Nixon narrowly prevailed in the 1968 election and as Johnson was leaving the White House without a peace agreement in hand, the outgoing President instructed Walt Rostow to take the file with him. Rostow kept the documents in what he called “The ‘X’ Envelope,” although the archivists at the LBJ Library in Austin, Texas, have dubbed it the “X-File” after the once popular TV series.
Rostow’s “‘X’ Envelope” was not opened until 1994, which began a process of declassifying the contents, some of which remain secret to this day.
After Johnson’s peace initiative failed, the Vietnam War dragged on another four years, leading to the deaths of an additional 20,763 U.S. soldiers, with 111,230 wounded. An estimated one million more Vietnamese also died.
[For a much detailed examination of what Johnson called this “sordid story,” see Consortiumnews.com’s “LBJ’s “X’ File on Nixon’s “Treason.’“]
“Vietnam Ambush”: A Cautionary Tale March 4, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: book review, daniel seidenberg, david krieger, Dick Cheney, history, roger hollander, tonkin gulf, vietnam, vietnam ambush, Vietnam War, war, westmoreland
1 comment so far
Vietnam Ambush Daniel Seidenberg Jr. PublishAmerica Baltimore, 2010
In the 1960s, the United States of America conscripted young men into its military forces. The head of Selective Service, which imposed conscription, was General Lewis B. Hershey. Assisted by local draft boards, he gobbled up young men and put them in uniforms. Then they were trained to kill.
Most young men were edgy and wary about conscription, particularly after it became apparent that the military’s destination of choice was the jungles of Vietnam. To receive a deferment and remain beyond the military’s clutches, one had to stay in college or graduate school. Dick Cheney, one of the subsequent great warmongers of our time, successfully used college deferments to stay out of the military until he qualified first for a marriage deferment and then a deferment for having a child. He always managed to stay one step ahead of the military’s grasp.
Other means of escaping being drafted into the military were failing one’s physical examination, claiming to be gay and conscientious objection. All were difficult. One rumor at the time was that if you drank enough Coke fast enough, it would raise your blood pressure to the point that you would fail your physical. This advice seemed more like an urban legend than fact. Not many young men were secure enough to use homosexuality as a reason for staying out of the military, and the criteria for conscientious objection were rigid and based in traditional religious practices that objected to killing. The truth was that most of us were naive and hadn’t given much thought to avoiding military “service.” That changed as the war in Vietnam heated up and expanded.
The generation before us had fought in World War II, which seemed like a good war, pitting democracy against fascism (Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo). More recently, there had been the war in Korea, which was touted as a fight for democracy against communism. There was precedent for young men to go docilely into the US military and do its bidding. And then, along came Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson’s lies about the Tonkin Gulf incident and General William Westmoreland (“General Waste-more-men”), who always saw a light at the end of the tunnel – all he needed was more conscripts.
The net of conscription ensnared many of us. I was one. Another was Daniel Seidenberg Jr., who received his draft notice at the age of 19 in the winter of 1967. He was just out of high school, and he was a surfer. When his notice came, he thought about escaping to Canada, but, after visiting Canada, decided against it. Instead, he joined the regular army, having been promised by the recruiter that he would not be sent to Vietnam. Despite the promise, after being trained as an infantryman, he was sent to Vietnam. He ended up with near-fatal head wounds that have left him disabled for life.
In 2010, Seidenberg published a book he wrote about his military experience in Vietnam. The book, titled “Vietnam Ambush,” confirms the worst fears of those of us who didn’t go to fight in that needless, reckless and lawless war. It is a well-written account of the war from the perspective of a soldier in the field. It should be read by every young American who thinks war might be glorious. In fact, it is a cautionary tale that should be read by young people throughout the world. It takes the adventure and heroics out of war and tells it like it really is, a dirty business in which the old send the young to fight, kill and die in far-off lands – in the case of the Vietnam War, to fight in humid jungles which US military planes were busy defoliating with the poisonous chemicals napalm and Agent Orange.
Here is how Seidenberg describes his dilemma as a US soldier in Vietnam on the opening page of his book:
I was a combat infantryman in Vietnam. We were shooting dice for our souls. Our very spirits were on the line, if we survived.
No one could say what we were fighting for. The consensus was that our purpose was to simply survive it all. I knew that merely surviving would not be enough. I had to make sure that I survived with a clean conscience.
What good is living, if you wind up hating yourself? And I didn’t want to be responsible for any crimes.
In a war fought entirely in cold blood, keeping a clean conscience was not easy. Simply staying alive was not easy.
Although today there is no longer conscription, there is instead a “poverty draft,” which makes the military an economically attractive option for escaping poverty. Being put into a killing zone makes it difficult to not become a killer if only in order to stay alive oneself. Should we allow ourselves to be used as tools in war? Should we not fight against militarism and those who, like Dick Cheney, promote it? Should we not refuse to subordinate our consciences to leaders who lie us into war?
“Vietnam Ambush” is a short book. It is written in simple prose. It tells the truth. It reminds us that our society has corrupted its youth with war. It reminds us that war steals from the young – their youth and their consciences. It reminds us about the importance of having political leadership that is decent and truthful, not deceitful and dishonest. It reminds us that war is not a game played on a field of battle; it has consequences that last for lifetimes. War traumatizes young men and women. It kills and maims soldiers and civilians alike. It reminds us to choose peace.
Monsanto, Agent Orange Creator, Returns To Vietnam February 8, 2012Posted by rogerhollander in Asia, Health, History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: agent orange, environment, genetically modified, gmo, history, monsanto, roger hollander, vietnam, vietnam history, Vietnam War
1 comment so far
Monsanto ready to sell GM crops and weed-killing chemicals in Vietnam; Many outraged
Multinational agricultural biotech corporation Monsanto, known as the creator of chemical weapon Agent Orange, is attempting to infiltrate Vietnam once again — this time as GMO dealer.
Agent Orange, used for chemical warfare in the Vietnam War, is estimated to have killed 400,000, deformed 500,000 and sickened another 2 million.
“BA VI, VIETNAM: Handicapped orphans are fed by the medical staff at the Ba Vi orphanage. These young children represent the 3rd generation of Agent Orange victims more than 30 years after the war in Vietnam, where a battle is still being fought to help people suffering from the effects of the deadly chemical.” – Global Post (Photo Paula Bronstein / AFP/Getty Images)
“Between 2.1 to 4.8 million Vietnamese were directly exposed to Agent Orange and other chemicals that have been linked to cancers, birth defects, and other chronic diseases during the war that ended in 1975, according to the Vietnam Red Cross,” Thanh Nienn News writes.
30 years after the war, three generations have suffered from the effects of Agent Orange.
Now, as Monsanto seeks to reap profits in Vietnam once again, this time through agribusiness, many are speaking out against the corporation as well as the potential effects of the GM seeds and herbicides that Monsanto seeks to sell.
* * *
Thanh Nienn News in Ho Chi Minh City reports:
No biotech company has yet got the official green light for selling genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but it does not assuage the fears that Vietnam could end up with another tragic legacy from a company that once caused many deaths in the country, environmental activists say.
It would be ironic if Vietnam becomes a willing party to a “lethal” product made by the same US company that manufactured Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used during the Vietnam War.It would be ironic if Vietnam becomes a willing party to a “lethal” product made by the same US company that manufactured Agent Orange, the toxic defoliant used during the Vietnam War, they pointed out. […]
In 2006 the government approved a blueprint that envisaged covering between 30 percent and half of the country’s agriculture lands with the controversial gene-altered crops by 2020.
Only three companies – Monsanto, Syngenta, and Pioneer – have been licensed to carry out lab research and tests in Vietnam, the minister’s statement said.
Monsanto accounts for almost one-quarter (23 percent) of the global proprietary seed market.
[Senior Lieutenant General Nguyen Van Rinh, former deputy defense minister, chairman of the Vietnam Association of Victims of Agent Orange] is also worried about the weedkiller Roundup Monsanto plugs for use along with its crops.
“By introducing [GMOs] paired with toxic weed killers, the tragic legacy of Agent Orange might repeat itself,” he warned. […]
The U.S. Airforce spraying ‘Agent Orange’ defoliant over the countryside of Vietnam. Originally termed “Operation Hades,” the spraying program was renamed “Operation Ranch Hand” to improve public relations.
Jeffrey Smith, author of the bestseller Seeds of Deception and founder and executive director of the California, US-based NGO Institute for Responsible Technology, said: “It is not inconsequential that a new genetically modified corn up for review is designed to be tolerant to the herbicide 2,4-D, a component of Agent Orange.
“This means that much higher amounts of toxic 2,4-D will drench the agricultural lands where this new crop is planted.
“It would be a harsh and ironic consequence if Vietnamese people suffer from birth defects from both of these Monsanto products, Roundup and Agent Orange.”
* * *
The Global Post reports:
Monsanto is, of course, highly aware of Agent Orange’s reputation and has fought numerous lawsuits filed by chemical’s victims both Vietnamese and American. The chemical, commissioned by the U.S. military, was dumped over jungles to kill vegetation and rout communist forces.
In Monsanto’s own primer on the Agent Orange era, it casts the chemical as patriotic — it was meant “to save the lives of U.S. and allied soldiers,” Monsanto says — and contends that the matter “should be resolved by the governments that were involved.”
Keeping Monsanto out of Vietnam already appears to be an uphill fight.
A Vietnamese legislator and former deputy defense minister has, according to Thanh Nien, faced evasion when he tried to raise the issue with the [government].
When Muhammad Ali took the real heavy weight June 25, 2011Posted by rogerhollander in History, Racism, Vietnam, War.
Tags: anti-war, boxing history, cassius clay, dave zirin, draft resister, heavywieght title, history, muhammad ali, peace activism, permanent war, Race, racism, roger hollander, tet offensive, vietnam, vietnam deaths, Vietnam War
add a comment
In an era defined by endless war, we should recognise a day in
history that wasn’t celebrated on Capitol Hill or in the White House. On
June 20, 1967, the great Muhammad Ali was convicted in Houston for
refusing induction in the US armed forces. Ali saw the war in Vietnam as
an exercise in genocide. He also used his platform as a boxing champion
to connect the war abroad with the war at home, saying: “Why should
they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop
bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro
people in Louisville are treated like dogs?” For these statements, as
much as the act itself, Judge Joe Ingraham handed down the maximum
sentence to Cassius Clay (as they insisted upon calling him in court):
five-years in a Federal penitentary and a $10,000 fine. The next day,
this was the top-flap story for the New York Times with the headline:
“Clay Guilty in Draft Case; Gets Five Years in Prison.”
The sentence was unusually harsh, and deeply tied to a Beltway,
bipartisan consensus to crush Ali and ensure that he not develop into a
symbol of anti-war resistance. The day of Ali’s conviction the US
Congress voted 337-29 to extend the draft for four more years. They also
voted 385-19 to make it a federal crime to desecrate the flag. Their
fears of a rising movement against the war were well-founded.
The summer of 1967 marked a tipping point for public support of the
Vietnam “police action”. While the Tet Offensive, which exposed the lie
that the United States was winning the war, was still six months away,
the news out of south-east Asia was increasingly grim. At the time of
Ali’s conviction, 1,000 Vietnamese noncombatants were being killed each
week by US forces. One hundred US soldiers were dying each and every
day, and the war was costing $2bn a month.
Anti-war sentiment was growing and it was thought that a stern rebuke
of Ali would help put out the fire. In fact, the opposite took place.
Ali’s brave stance fanned the flames. As Julian Bond said, “[It]
reverberated through the whole society. … [Y]ou could hear people
talking about it on street corners. It was on everyone’s lips. People
who had never thought about the war before began to think it through
because of Ali. The ripples were enormous.”
Ali himself vowed to appeal the conviction, saying: “I strongly object to
the fact that so many newspapers have given the American public and the
world the impression that I have only two alternatives in this stand –
either I go to jail or go to the Army. There is another alternative, and
that alternative is justice. If justice prevails, if my constitutional
rights are upheld, I will be forced to go neither to the Army nor jail.
In the end, I am confident that justice will come my way, for the truth
must eventually prevail.”
Already by this point, Ali’s heavyweight title had been stripped,
beginning a three-and-a-half-year exile. Already Elijah Muhammad and the
Nation of Islam had begun to distance themselves from their most famous
member. Already, Ali had become a punching bag for almost every
reporter with a working pen. But with his conviction came a new global
constituency. In Guyana, protests against his sentence took place in
front of the US embassy. In Karachi, Pakistan, a hunger strike began in
front of the US consulate. In Cairo, demonstrators took to the streets.
In Ghana, editorials decried his conviction. In London, an Irish boxing
fan named Paddy Monaghan began a long and lonely picket of the US
Embassy. Over the next three years, he would collect more than twenty
thousand signatures on a petition calling for the restoration of
Muhammad Ali’s heavyweight title.
Ali at this point was beginning to see himself as someone who had a
greater responsibility to an international groundswell that saw him as
more than an athlete. “Boxing is nothing, just satisfying to some
bloodthirsty people. I’m no longer a Cassius Clay, a Negro from
Kentucky. I belong to the world, the black world. I’ll always have a
home in Pakistan, in Algeria, in Ethiopia. This is more than money.”
Eventually justice did prevail and the Supreme Court overturned Ali’s
conviction in 1971. They did so only after the consensus on the war had
changed profoundly. Ali had been proven right by history, although a
generation of people in Asia and the United States paid a terrible price
along the way.
Years later upon reflection, Ali said he had no regrets. “Some people
thought I was a hero. Some people said that what I did was wrong. But
everything I did was according to my conscience. I wasn’t trying to be a
leader. I just wanted to be free. And I made a stand all people, not
just black people, should have thought about making, because it wasn’t
just black people being drafted. The government had a system where the
rich man’s son went to college, and the poor man’s son went to war.
Then, after the rich man’s son got out of college, he did other things
to keep him out of the Army until he was too old to be drafted.”
As we remain mired in a period of permanent war, take a moment and
consider the risk, sacrifice, and principle necessary to dismantle the
war machine. We all can’t be boxing champions, but moving forward, all
who oppose war can rightfully claim Ali’s brave history as our own
Big Media’s Curious Nixon Judgment December 15, 2010Posted by rogerhollander in Media, Vietnam, War.
Tags: 1968 election, anna chennault, dean rusk, henry kissinger, hubert humphrey, journalism, kissinger, lbj, Lyndon Johnson, Media, nixon, Richard Nixon, robert parry, roger hollander, thieu, treason, vietnam, Vietnam War
add a comment
www.consortiumnews.com, December 11, 2010
When Richard Nixon’s presidential library this week released tapes of him making bigoted remarks about blacks, Jews and various ethnic groups, major American news outlets jumped at the juicy details, recounting them on NBC’s Nightly News, in the New York Times and elsewhere.
Which is all well and good. It was also worth knowing that National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, himself a German-born Jew, would express nonchalance at the prospect of the Soviet Union putting its Jewish population in gas chambers.
“The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy,” Kissinger remarked in a taped conversation on March 1, 1973. “And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.” (Maybe?)
“I know,” President Nixon responded. “We can’t blow up the world because of it.” [See NYT, Dec. 11, 2010.]
But the Nixon-Kissinger Realpolitik wasn’t limited to such an unlikely prospect as the Soviets undertaking a Jewish extermination campaign. More shocking was the powerful evidence released two years ago by Lyndon B. Johnson’s library corroborating long-held suspicions that Nixon and Kissinger conspired to sabotage the 1968 Vietnam peace talks to ensure their ascension to power.
In that case, however, the major U.S. news media looked the other way. Except for a brief reference to an Associated Press dispatch, the New York Times and other leading news outlets apparently didn’t regard as newsworthy that Nixon and Kissinger had consigned more than 20,000 American soldiers and millions of Indochinese to their deaths in order to win an election.
By extending the Vietnam War for those four years, Nixon and Kissinger also ripped apart the social and political fabric of the United States – turning parents against their children and creating hatreds between the American Left and the Right, which continue to this day.
One might have thought that the LBJ Library’s evidence, which included a dramatic pre-election confrontation between President Johnson and then-Republican presidential candidate Nixon over what Johnson had termed Nixon’s “treason,” would be worthy of some serious attention. But none was forthcoming. (It fell to us at Consortiumnews.com to provide a detailed account of these exchanges.)
As has happened with other high-level scandals – such as the CIA’s admissions about cocaine trafficking by Ronald Reagan’s beloved Nicaraguan Contra rebels – the major U.S. news media shies away from evidence that puts the national Establishment in too harsh a light or that suggests the preeminent U.S. news organizations have missed some monumentally important story.
For the mainstream media, it’s safer to focus on the foibles of an individual like Nixon than to accept that respected members of the ruling elite in the United States are so corrupt that they would sacrifice the lives of ordinary citizens for the achievement of some political or foreign policy goal.
So, we get to learn from the new Nixon tapes that he made bigoted assertions about “abrasive and obnoxious” Jews, Irish who get “mean” drunk, Italians without “heads screwed on tight,” and blacks who would need “500 years” and have to “be, frankly, inbred” to become useful contributors to the nation.
The Peace Talk Gambit
As offensive as those remarks are, however, they pale in newsworthiness to the now unavoidable conclusion that Nixon, aided by Kissinger, struck a deal with South Vietnamese President Nguyen van Thieu in fall 1968 to block Johnson’s negotiated end to the Vietnam War.
The significance of Nixon’s “treason” was that – while 500,000 U.S. soldiers were serving in Vietnam – Nixon’s campaign assured Thieu that Nixon would, as U.S. president, continue the war to get a better deal for Thieu. That left Nixon little choice but to extend the war and expand the fighting because, otherwise, Thieu would have been in a position to expose Nixon’s treachery to the American people.
Yet, what was also stunning to me about the “treason” tapes when the LBJ library released them in December 2008 was how much Johnson knew about Nixon’s sabotage and why the Democrats chose to keep silent.
Right before Election Day 1968 – with the Paris peace talks in the balance and with Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey closing the gap on Nixon – Johnson considered allowing the White House to confirm the facts of Nixon’s gambit to Christian Science Monitor reporter Saville Davis who had gotten wind of the story.
Johnson raised this possibility in a Nov. 4, 1968, conference call with Defense Secretary Clark Clifford and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. However, both opposed going public, with Clifford – a pillar of the Establishment – arguing that the disclosure risked national disorder.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” Clifford said. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
So, instead of confirming the story, Johnson agreed to maintain his public silence. He stood by as Nixon’s narrowly won the presidential election over Humphrey by about 500,000 votes or less than one percent of the ballots cast.
Still, four decades later, when the Johnson library released the audiotapes, they offered a dramatic story: an embattled president angered over intelligence intercepts that revealed emissaries from Nixon’s campaign, including right-wing China Lobby figure Anna Chennault, urging the South Vietnamese government to boycott peace talks in Paris.
Beginning in late October 1968, Johnson can be heard on the tapes complaining about this Republican maneuver. However, his frustration builds as he learns more from intercepts about the back-channel contacts between Nixon operatives and South Vietnamese officials.
On Nov. 2, 1968, just three days before the election, Thieu withdrew from his tentative agreement to sit down with the Viet Cong at the Paris peace talks. That same day, Johnson telephoned Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen to lay out some of the evidence of Nixon’s treachery and to ask Dirksen to intervene with the Nixon campaign.
“The agent [Chennault] says she’s just talked to the boss in New Mexico and that he said that you must hold out, just hold on until after the election,” Johnson said in an apparent reference to a Nixon campaign plane that carried some of his top aides to New Mexico. “We know what Thieu is saying to them out there. We’re pretty well informed at both ends.”
Johnson then made a thinly veiled threat about going public with the information. “I don’t want to get this in the campaign,” Johnson said, adding: “They oughtn’t be doing this. This is treason.”
Dirksen responded, “I know.”
Johnson continued: “I think it would shock America if a principal candidate was playing with a source like this on a matter of this importance. I don’t want to do that [go public]. They ought to know that we know what they’re doing. I know who they’re talking to. I know what they’re saying.”
The President also stressed the stakes involved, noting that the movement toward negotiations in Paris had contributed to a lull in the war’s violence.
“We’ve had 24 hours of relative peace,” Johnson said. “If Nixon keeps the South Vietnamese away from the [peace] conference, well, that’s going to be his responsibility. Up to this point, that’s why they’re not there. I had them signed onboard until this happened.”
Dirksen: “I better get in touch with him, I think.”
“They’re contacting a foreign power in the middle of a war,” Johnson said. “It’s a damn bad mistake. And I don’t want to say so. …
“You just tell them that their people are messing around in this thing, and if they don’t want it on the front pages, they better quit it.”
The next day, Nixon spoke directly to Johnson and haltingly professed his innocence, while also acknowledging that he knew how close Johnson was to negotiating an end to the war.
“I didn’t say with your knowledge,” Johnson responded. “I hope it wasn’t.”
“Huh, no,” Nixon responded. “My God, I would never do anything to encourage … Saigon not to come to the table. … Good God, we want them over to Paris, we got to get them to Paris or you can’t have a peace.”
Nixon also insisted that he would do whatever President Johnson and Secretary Rusk wanted.
“I’m not trying to interfere with your conduct of it. I’ll only do what you and Rusk want me to do. We’ve got to get this goddamn war off the plate,” Nixon said. “The war apparently now is about where it could be brought to an end. … The quicker the better. To hell with the political credit, believe me.” [Emphasis added]
But the South Vietnamese boycott continued, leading to Johnson’s conference call about going public with the story of Republican sabotage, before he was dissuaded by Rusk and Clifford.
In the aftermath of the election, Johnson continued to confront Nixon with the evidence of Republican treachery, trying to get him to pressure the South Vietnamese leaders to reverse themselves and join the Paris peace talks.
On Nov. 8, 1968, Johnson recounted the evidence to Nixon and described the Republican motivation to disrupt the talks, speaking of himself in the third person.
“Johnson was going to have a bombing pause to try to elect Humphrey. They [the South Vietnamese] ought to hold out because Nixon will not sell you out like the Democrats sold out China,” Johnson said.
“I think they’ve been talking to [Vice President-elect Spiro] Agnew,” Johnson continued. “They’ve been quoting you [Nixon] indirectly, that the thing they ought to do is to just not show up at any [peace] conference and wait until you come into office.
“Now they’ve started that [boycott] and that’s bad. They’re killing Americans every day. I have that [story of the sabotage] documented. There’s not any question but that’s happening. … That’s the story, Dick, and it’s a sordid story. … I don’t want to say that to the country, because that’s not good.”
Faced with Johnson’s implied threat, Nixon promised to tell the South Vietnamese officials to reverse themselves and join the peace talks. However, the die was cast for more war. Thieu could not be pressured because he had the leverage over Nixon; Thieu could go public even if Johnson didn’t.
The U.S. participation in the Vietnam War continued for more than four years (including its expansion to Cambodia) at a horrendous cost to both the United States and the people of Indochina. Before the conflict was finally brought to an end, a million or more Vietnamese were estimated to have died along with an additional 20,763 U.S. dead and 111,230 wounded.
At home, the growing resistance to the war also led to more abuses by Nixon, who routinely cited national security to justify a massive political spying operation against his enemies.
That paranoia led to the White House “plumbers unit” breaking into the Democratic National Committee at Watergate in 1972, planting bugs but eventually getting caught. The Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation two years later.
However, it took almost another decade before the story of Nixon’s “treason” began to reach the American public.
Journalist Seymour Hersh sketchily described the initiative in his 1983 biography of Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. Hersh reported that the Nixon campaign had benefited from back-channel communications from Kissinger who was working as a consultant to the Johnson administration.
U.S. intelligence “agencies had caught on that Chennault was the go-between between Nixon and his people and President Thieu in Saigon,” Hersh wrote. “The idea was to bring things to a stop in Paris and prevent any show of progress.”
Hersh noted that in her own autobiography, The Education of Anna, Chennault had acknowledged that she was the courier. She quoted Nixon aide John Mitchell (who became Nixon’s Attorney General) as calling her a few days before the 1968 election and telling her: “I’m speaking on behalf of Mr. Nixon. It’s very important that our Vietnamese friends understand our Republican position and I hope you made that clear to them.”
However, Kissinger had powerful defenders in Washington, including inside the upper echelons of the news media, people such as Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s influential “Nightline” program, and Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post and Newsweek.
So, Hersh’s reporting came under a barrage of criticism and his account of Nixon’s 1968 peace-talk gambit was treated as a dubious conspiracy theory.
Gradually, however, more evidence bubbled to the surface. Reporter Daniel Schorr added some details in a Washington Post “Outlook” article on May 28, 1995, citing decoded cables that U.S. intelligence had intercepted from the South Vietnamese embassy in Washington.
On Oct. 23, 1968, Ambassador Bui Dhien cabled Saigon with the message that “many Republican friends have contacted me and encouraged me to stand firm.” On Oct. 27, he wrote, “The longer the present situation continues, the more favorable for us. … I am regularly in touch with the Nixon entourage.”
Anthony Summers’s 2000 book, The Arrogance of Power, filled in more of the blanks, including a reference to the debate within Democratic circles about what to do with the evidence.
Both Johnson and Humphrey believed the information – if released to the public – could assure Nixon’s defeat, according to Summers.
“In the end, though, Johnson’s advisers decided it was too late and too potentially damaging to U.S. interests to uncover what had been going on,” Summers wrote. “If Nixon should emerge as the victor, what would the Chennault outrage do to his viability as an incoming president? And what effect would it have on American opinion about the war?”
Summers quoted Johnson’s assistant Harry McPherson, who said, “You couldn’t surface it. The country would be in terrible trouble.”
As it turned out, however, the country was in terrible trouble anyway. Not only did the Vietnam War continue for four more years – before Kissinger negotiated a settlement along the lines of what Johnson had hammered out in 1968 – but the Republicans discovered that key Democrats would stay silent even if GOP candidates sabotaged Democratic presidents.
In 1980, faced with a similar opportunity as President Jimmy Carter struggled to resolve a crisis over Iran’s holding of 52 American hostages, Republican operatives, including Kissinger and other veterans of the 1968 gambit, interfered again. [For details on the so-called October Surprise case of 1980, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
Though much of this history about the electoral scandals of 1968 and 1980 has now been painfully pieced together, the major U.S. news media continues to look the other way, either ignoring the evidence as it emerges or disparaging those who have put the pieces together.
Apparently, it’s one thing to note that individuals within the Establishment have personal weaknesses but it’s another to question the integrity of the Establishment as a collective body. Then, the defenses come up and inconvenient history gets shoved into the memory hole.
The contrast between the coverage of Nixon’s bigoted remarks and his role in sabotaging peace talks that could have saved countless lives is further proof that the U.S. national press corps is more comfortable commenting on a politician’s flaws than on crimes of state.
[For more on these topics, see Robert Parry’s Lost History and Secrecy & Privilege, which, along with Neck Deep, are now available as a three-book set for the discount price of $29. For details, click here.]
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth’ are also available there.
Agent Orange in Vietnam: Ignoring the Crimes Before Our Eyes October 17, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Media, Vietnam, War.
Tags: agent orange, chemical warfare, dave lindorff, dioxin, dow chemical, geneva conventions, james dao, monsanto, new yori times, roger hollander, vietnam, vietnam defoliation, vietnam veterans, Vietnam War, War Crimes
1 comment so far
On Oct. 13, the New York Times ran a news story headlined “Door Opens to Health Claims Tied to Agent Orange,” which was sure to be good news to many American veterans of the Indochina War. It reported that 38 years after the Pentagon ceased spreading the deadly dioxin-laced herbicide/defoliant over much of South Vietnam, it was acknowledging what veterans have long claimed: in addition to 13 ailments already traced to exposure to the chemical, it was also responsible for three more dread diseases-Parkinson’s, ischemic heart disease and hairy-cell leukemia.
Under a new policy adopted by the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, the VA will now start providing free care to any of the 2.1 million Vietnam-era veterans who can show that they might have been hurt by exposure to Agent Orange.
This is another belated step forward in the decades-long struggle by Vietnam War veterans to get the Defense Department and the VA to acknowledge the American government’s responsibility for poisoning them and causing permanent damage to them and often to their children and grandchildren. Dioxin, one of the most poisonous substances known to man, is known to cause many serious systemic diseases, autoimmune illnesses, cancers and birth defects. (It is also a warning about the general Pentagon and government approach to other hazards caused by its battlefield use of toxins-most significantly the increasingly common use of depleted uranium projectiles in bombs, shells and bullets-an approach which features lack of concern about health effects on troops and civilians, denial of information to troops, and denial of care to eventual victims.)
Missing from the Times article, written by military affairs reporter James Dao, which did include mention of the obstructionist role the government has played through this whole sorry saga, was a single mention of the far larger number of victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam-the people on whose heads and lands the toxic chemical was actually dropped, or of the adamant refusal by the US government to accept any responsibility for what it did to them.
According to the article, the VA estimates that there may be as many as 200,000 US veterans who are suffering from Agent Orange-related illnesses. But according to a court case brought on behalf of Vietnamese victims, which was dismissed by a US Federal District Judge who ruled that there was “no basis for the claims,” there are at least three million Vietnamese, and possibly as many as 4.8 million, who are suffering the same Agent Orange-related illnesses as American veterans and their children. It is estimated that as many as 800,000 Vietnamese in the country’s south currently suffer from chronic health problems due to Agent Orange exposure, either to themselves, or to a parent or grandparent. Most of these victims, some of whom are retarded, and others of whom cannot walk or have no use of their arms, need constant care.
Veterans for Peace, an organization whose membership includes a large number of Vietnam War veterans, has issued a call for the US to provide funds for health care, education, vocational education, chronic care, home care and equipment to clean up hotspots of dioxin in Vietnam-a call which Congress and the White House have consistently ignored. Tests have found dioxin levels around the sites of the three main former US bases in what was South Vietnam to be 300-400 times recognized safe levels. The US dumped huge amounts of Agent Orange for miles around those bases to kill off jungle cover that Vietnamese fighters could use to approach the bases, but it was never cleaned up when the US pulled out.
One organization that includes a number of American veterans of the way, including former military doctors or soldiers who later became physicians, is the Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA Inc., which raises funds to help establish communities in Vietnam to care for the victims of Agent Orange.
It may seem a pathetic stab at principle given America’s use of two nuclear weapons against civilian targets in Japan a few years later, but back in World War II, in the midst of the most brutal island-to-island fighting during the Pacific War, a US Judge Advocate General in the Pentagon ruled that a military request for permission to use herbicides against the Japanese on Pacific islands would be illegal under the Hague Convention (forerunner of what are now called the Geneva Conventions). He ruled that trying to destroy the crops of civilians on those islands to deny food to the Japanese troops would be a war crime. The US went ahead and used the herbicides anyway, arguing that even though it was illegal, the US was free to go ahead, since the Japanese had already broken the laws of war by using strychnine to kill military guard dogs in Siberia. Under the rules of war, if one side breaks a rule, the other side is no longer bound by it.
But the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese never used toxic materials against US forces or against South Vietnamese forces. And the Pentagon in the Vietnam War never even considered whether spraying a highly toxic herbicide over 1.4 million hectares-12% of the total land area of Vietnam and almost 25% of the southern half of the country-might be a war crime.
Moreover, the Pentagon knew, before it began its massive defoliation campaign, about studies showing that Agent Orange was heavily laced with deadly dioxin, but covered up those studies, some by the chemical’s makers, Dow Chemical and Monsanto, and never even warned the troops who handled the material daily, or who were sent out to fight in areas that had been heavily sprayed.
The ongoing medical disaster in Vietnam caused by America’s criminal use of Agent Orange to defoliate a nation would be a good place for President Obama to start earning his just-awarded Nobel Peace Prize. He could kick off his peace campaign by finally honoring President Richard Nixon’s immediately broken promise to provide several billion dollars in reconstruction aid to Vietnam at the conclusion of peace talks at the end of the war. Not a dollar of such aid was ever given.
Dao says he didn’t mention significance for Vietnamese dioxin victims of the VA’s decision to recognize three new diseases as being Agent Orange-linked, because “my beat is veterans,” and because he only had 800 words in which to cover his story. That may be true (though surely the Vietnamese at least deserved a one-sentence mention). But back on July 25, when the Times ran a story (by Janie Lorber, not by Dao) about the finding by an expert panel of the National Institute of Medicine linking Parkinsons, ischemic heart disease and leukemia to Agent Orange, upon which the latest VA decision was based, it also failed to mention the Vietnamese victims. In that case, the lapse was simply journalistically inexcuseable, since it was about a new medical finding, not a policy decision regarding the treatment of veterans.
At this point, the only way the New York Times can salvage a bit of its journalistic reputation on this topic would be by having Dao, Lorber or some other reporter write a piece about the impact of America’s Agent Orange use on the people of Vietnam. They could start by calling a veteran at Veterans for Peace or the Vietnam Friendship Village Project USA.
Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. He is author of Marketplace Medicine: The Rise of the For-Profit Hospital Chains (BantamBooks, 1992), and his latest book “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net
Celebrating Cronkite While Ignoring What He Did July 18, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in History, Media, Vietnam.
Tags: anti-war, corporate media, david halberstam, dissent, glenn greenwald, journalism, lewis lapham, martin luther king, Media, roger hollander, tim russert, U.S. imperialism, us press, vietnam, vietnam history, Vietnam War, walter cronkite
add a comment
“The Vietcong did not win by a knockout [in the Tet Offensive], but neither did we. The referees of history may make it a draw. . . . We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. . . .
“For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate. . . . To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past” — Walter Cronkite, CBS Evening News, February 27, 1968.
“I think there are a lot of critics who think that [in the run-up to the Iraq War] . . . . if we did not stand up and say this is bogus, and you’re a liar, and why are you doing this, that we didn’t do our job. I respectfully disagree. It’s not our role” — David Gregory, MSNBC, May 28, 2008.
When Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Halberstam died, media stars everywhere commemorated his death as though he were one of them — as though they do what he did — even though he had nothing but bottomless, intense disdain for everything they do. As he put it in a 2005 speech to students at the Columbia School of Journalism: “the better you do your job, often going against conventional mores, the less popular you are likely to be . . . . By and large, the more famous you are, the less of a journalist you are.”
In that same speech, Halberstam cited as the “proudest moment” of his career a bitter argument he had in 1963 with U.S. Generals in Vietnam, by which point, as a young reporter, he was already considered an “enemy” of the Kennedy White House for routinely contradicting the White House’s claims about the war (the President himself asked his editor to pull Halberstam from reporting on Vietnam). During that conflict, he stood up to a General in a Press Conference in Saigon who was attempting to intimidate him for having actively doubted and aggressively investigated military claims, rather than taking and repeating them at face value:
Picture if you will rather small room, about the size of a classroom, with about 10 or 12 reporters there in the center of the room. And in the back, and outside, some 40 military officers, all of them big time brass. It was clearly an attempt to intimidate us.
General Stilwell tried to take the intimidation a step further. He began by saying that Neil and I had bothered General Harkins and Ambassador Lodge and other VIPs, and we were not to do it again. Period.
And I stood up, my heart beating wildly — and told him that we were not his corporals or privates, that we worked for The New York Times and UP and AP and Newsweek, not for the Department of Defense.
I said that we knew that 30 American helicopters and perhaps 150 American soldiers had gone into battle, and the American people had a right to know what happened. I went on to say that we would continue to press to go on missions and call Ambassador Lodge and General Harkins, but he could, if he chose, write to our editors telling them that we were being too aggressive, and were pushing much too hard to go into battle. That was certainly his right.
Can anyone imagine any big media stars — who swoon in reverence both to political power and especially military authority — defying military instructions that way, let alone being proud of it? Halberstam certainly couldn’t imagine any of them doing it, which is why, in 1999, he wrote:
Obviously, it should be a brilliant moment in American journalism, a time of a genuine flowering of a journalistic culture . . .
But the reverse is true. Those to whom the most is given, the executives of our three networks, have steadily moved away from their greatest responsibilities, which is using their news departments to tell the American people complicated truths, not only about their own country, but about the world around us. . . .
Somewhere in there, gradually, but systematically, there has been an abdication of responsibility within the profession, most particularly in the networks. . . . So, if we look at the media today, we ought to be aware not just of what we are getting, but what we are not getting; the difference between what is authentic and what is inauthentic in contemporary American life and in the world, with a warning that in this celebrity culture, the forces of the inauthentic are becoming more powerful all the time.
All of that was ignored when he died, with establishment media figures exploiting his death to suggest that his greatness reflected well on what they do, as though what he did was the same thing as what they do (much the same way that Martin Luther King’s vehement criticisms of the United States generally and its imperialism and aggression specifically have been entirely whitewashed from his hagiography).
So, too, with the death of Walter Cronkite. Tellingly, his most celebrated and significant moment — Greg Mitchell says “this broadcast would help save many thousands of lives, U.S. and Vietnamese, perhaps even a million” — was when he stood up and announced that Americans shouldn’t trust the statements being made about the war by the U.S. Government and military, and that the specific claims they were making were almost certainly false. In other words, Cronkite’s best moment was when he did exactly that which the modern journalist today insists they must not ever do — directly contradict claims from government and military officials and suggest that such claims should not be believed. These days, our leading media outlets won’t even use words that are disapproved of by the Government.
Despite that, media stars will spend ample time flamboyantly commemorating Cronkite’s death as though he reflects well on what they do (though probably not nearly as much time as they spent dwelling on the death of Tim Russert, whose sycophantic servitude to Beltway power and “accommodating head waiter”-like, mindless stenography did indeed represent quite accurately what today’s media stars actually do). In fact, within Cronkite’s most important moments one finds the essence of journalism that today’s modern media stars not only fail to exhibit, but explicitly disclaim as their responsibility.
UPDATE: A reader reminds me that — very shortly after Tim Russert’s June, 2008 death — long-time Harper‘s editor Lewis Lapham attended a party to mark the release of a new book on Hunter Thompson, and Lapham said a few words. According to New York Magazine‘s Jada Yuan, this is what happened:
Lewis Lapham isn’t happy with political journalism today. “There was a time in America when the press and the government were on opposite sides of the field,” he said at a premiere party for Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson on June 25. “The press was supposed to speak on behalf of the people. The new tradition is that the press speaks on behalf of the government.” An example? “Tim Russert was a spokesman for power, wealth, and privilege,” Lapham said. “That’s why 1,000 people came to his memorial service. Because essentially he was a shill for the government. It didn’t matter whether it was Democratic or Republican. It was for the status quo.” What about Russert’s rep for catching pols in lies? “That was bullshit,” he said. “Thompson and Russert were two opposite poles.”
Writing in Harper‘s a few weeks later, Lapham — in the essay about Russert (entitled “An Elegy for a Rubber Stamp”) where he said Russert’s “on-air persona was that of an attentive and accommodating headwaiter, as helpless as Charlie Rose in his infatuation with A-list celebrity” — echoed Halberstam by writing:
Long ago in the days before journalists became celebrities, their enterprise was reviled and poorly paid, and it was understood by working newspapermen that the presence of more than two people at their funeral could be taken as a sign that they had disgraced the profession.
That Lapham essay is full of piercing invective (“On Monday I thought I’d heard the end of the sales promotion. Tim presumably had ascended to the great studio camera in the sky to ask Thomas Jefferson if he intended to run for president in 1804″), and — from a person who spent his entire adult life in journalism — it contains the essential truth about modern establishment journalism in America:
On television the voices of dissent can’t be counted upon to match the studio drapes or serve as tasteful lead-ins to the advertisements for Pantene Pro-V and the U.S. Marine Corps. What we now know as the “news media” serve at the pleasure of the corporate sponsor, their purpose not to tell truth to the powerful but to transmit lies to the powerless. Like Russert, who served his apprenticeship as an aide-de-camp to the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, most of the prominent figures in the Washington press corps (among them George Stephanopoulos, Bob Woodward, and Karl Rove) began their careers as bagmen in the employ of a dissembling politician or a corrupt legislature. Regarding themselves as de facto members of government, enabling and codependent, their point of view is that of the country’s landlords, their practice equivalent to what is known among Wall Street stock-market touts as “securitizing the junk.” When requesting explanations from secretaries of defense or congressional committee chairmen, they do so with the understanding that any explanation will do. Explain to us, my captain, why the United States must go to war in Iraq, and we will relay the message to the American people in words of one or two syllables. Instruct us, Mr. Chairman, in the reasons why K-Street lobbyists produce the paper that Congress passes into law, and we will show that the reasons are healthy, wealthy, and wise. Do not be frightened by our pretending to be suspicious or scornful. Together with the television camera that sees but doesn’t think, we’re here to watch, to fall in with your whims and approve your injustices. Give us this day our daily bread, and we will hide your vices in the rosebushes of salacious gossip and clothe your crimes in the aura of inspirational anecdote.
That’s why they so intensely celebrated Tim Russert: because he was the epitome of what they do, and it’s why they’ll celebrate Walter Cronkite (like they did with David Halberstam) only by ignoring the fact that his most consequential moments were ones where he did exactly that which they will never do.
© 2009 Salon.com
Glenn Greenwald was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator in New York. He is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book “How Would a Patriot Act?,” a critique of the Bush administration’s use of executive power, released in May 2006. His second book, “A Tragic Legacy“, examines the Bush legacy.
Robert McNamara and Smedley Butler July 13, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in History, Vietnam, War.
Tags: fog of war, general butler, nuremberg, robert mcnamara, roge hollander, smedley butler, tom gallagher, vietnam history, Vietnam War, war, War Crimes
add a comment
Butler, of course, achieved far greater clarity than the ever-hedging McNamara did. Butler’s story is fairly well known: four years after a military career that included service in Cuba, China, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Haiti, and France, he wrote a book called “War is a Racket.” He gave speeches in which he would say things like, “during that period, I spent most of my time being a high class muscle- man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for the Bankers. In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”
Whether any of this later-in-life understanding made Butler a better or worse person I do not know. What I do know, though, is that what Butler was willing to say and write was extremely helpful to more than one generation of antiwar activists: “Hey, you don’t have to take my word for it. Listen to this guy, he should know.”
Likewise, I suggest to no one that they should get over their antipathy to Robert McNamara if that is what they feel – the evil that he and Kissinger and the rest did will long outlive them. And anyone who no longer hates the criminals should certainly remain outraged at their crimes. But let us take something of value out of McNamara’s life.
When we encounter potential military recruits looking to serve in one of the nation’s seemingly always available wars but not looking too closely at exactly what it is we’re fighting for because they assume our leaders wouldn’t lead them astray on matters of life and death, let’s tell them about Robert McNamara. If the man in charge of one of our wars could later write that what the US did at the time was “wrong, terribly wrong,” don’t we all owe it to ourselves to take a closer look at where those in power are leading us today?
And when it comes to questioning the conduct of modern war, it’s hard to beat McNamara’s comments in Errol Morris’ documentary film “The Fog of War”: “We burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo — men, women and children,” he told Morris. “[General Curtis] LeMay said, ‘If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.’ And I think he’s right. He — and I’d say I — were behaving as war criminals.” And that was World War II he was talking about – the “good war.” Words to keep in mind the next time one of our drones accidently bombs a wedding.
A remark of McNamara’s made during a C-SPAN discussion of his 1995 memoir, “Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam,” is a good reminder of just how infuriating he could be, right to the end. In regard to Vietnam, he told his interviewer, “We were fighting — and we didn’t realize it — a civil war. Now, true, obviously there were Soviet and Chinese influence and support and no question that the communists were trying to control South Vietnam, but it was basically a civil war.”
Well, if McNamara didn’t know it was a civil war, it wasn’t because tens of thousands of the war’s opponents hadn’t said so or because President Eisenhower hadn’t publicly acknowledged that Ho Chi Minh would have been elected president of Vietnam in a fair election.
But even if McNamara may never have been a man to be taken entirely at his word, what he went on to say on C-SPAN that day might just have some value today as the US plunges deeper into an already nearly eight year old war in Afghanistan: “And one of the things we should learn is you can’t fight and win a civil war with outside troops, and particularly not when the political structure in a country is dissolved.”