My "Dixie" letter to "All Things Considered" and the business as usual response it evoked was as much a part of the continuing war in Indochina as the contest of arms. Though our medias best may not have viewed themselves as still fighting the Vietnam War, Hanois strategic planners had to. Seeing how effectively our medias visions of war and warriors from the `60s and `70s were being used to deny military aid to their enemies in the `80s, they would have been foolish to settle for anything less than victory.
Once youve seen what war is, you cant unsee it. You cant pretend that our media is not a weapon of war, that it is not the number one weapon of choice for every SOB in the world with a gun, a hostage and a "just cause."
As I sat at my mighty Smith Corona word processor typing this chapter for the first time in 1988, Iran was trying to get the world to condemn Iraq for starting the Iran-Iraq War. True, the Iraqis did invade Iran. You could therefore say that the Iranians were right. You could also make the case that they invited it by threatening Iraq, then appearing to have weakened their own armed forces beyond hope of recovery. After all, they wiped out their officer corps and antagonized their biggest arms and spare parts supplier, the United States.
But how were we antagonized? Did a bunch of low-life sons-of-bitches seize our embassy and take our people hostage? ...Well, no, not exactly. According to ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS and NPR, they were "students." And they werent the low-life sons-of-bitches our president was making them out to bewe were.
Our embassy was a nest of spies. Among them was a war criminal as well, an Air Force officer who flew bombing missions over Vietnam. To show what swell fellas they were, they released some of the prisoners, among them, a couple of black marines. We had visits by way of television with spokespeople for the hostages, who, like the American POWs interviewed by "peace delegates" to Hanoi, coincidentally, agreed with everything their captors said. Why, they wanted to know, was President Carter refusing to accept the students legitimate demands? And why, our media appeared to be asking, was Jimmy Carter not doing more to end the crisis he started by not learning how to speak Farsi, and by embracing the evil Shah of Iran?
It took six months or more for our media to catch on to the "sophisticated" techniques the ayatollahs were using to manipulate them (like carrying protest signs in English and organizing their "Death to America!" rallies for prime time television broadcasts in the United States). They eventually stopped trying to cut each others throats for the best stories from the Iranians point of view and started doing other things altogether. Besides, we had heard all of the stories and seen all of the pictures of why we were "the Great Satan," and we were sick of them.
Naturally, American politicians and peace activists like Ted Kennedy and Ramsey Clark wanted to apologize to the enemy for our criminal behavior, but the average American citizen wasnt buying it. The Iranians had committed an act of war against us. We were never going to accept their idea of "just" terms for peace and there wasnt going to be a debate about it. We had found the enemy, and it was them.
It took two dozen or so dead GIs and one dead GI displayed on American television after a failed military rescue attempt to convince our media monarchs that, right or wrong, we were helpless. That was enough to make it so because that was the end of our efforts to make it otherwise.
As the turmoil of those times was setting the stage for Iraqs invasion of Iran and Kuait, ABCs "America Held Hostage" became "Nightline" with Ted Koppel and a new messenger prince of the media was born.
During the Pelopennesian War, a conquering Athenian general was said to have replied to a vanquished foe asking for justice, "You and I know that, as the world goes, justice is in question only between equals in power; whereas the stronger do what they will, the weaker suffer what they must." Modern philosophers somehow turned that functional definition of justice into an abstract question of whether "might makes right." You and I know that, as the world goes, abstract answers dont count. As the world has gone since Vietnam created journalists who outrank generals in time of war, justice has been in question only when they said it was. Theirs has been power without equal in any contest shaped by the hammer of public opinion.
In keeping with the noble image of Vietnams Communist leaders, our media showed respect only to those who stood by the proposition that justice was on their side. In educated circles, long after they got what they wanted in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, our leaders who opposed them carried the brand of "war criminals." Though some peace activists didnt hesitate to use those words, our news and documentary elite made the point in other ways. One of those ways was to let the principles condemn themselves.
For instance: The "Air War" chapter of "Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War" juxtaposed tea drinking members of Lyndon B. Johnsons cabinet with pictures of their bombing campaign in Vietnam. Target selections were, in fact, made during luncheons where tea was served, but the impression conveyed by those pictures was of leaders without conscience. Though that was far from the truth, an unedited misstatement by the Johnson administrations Secretary of State Dean Rusk sounded almost like an admission of guilt. If you werent listening carefully, you might have thought that targets were selected, in part, to protect American pilots at the expense of innocent North Vietnamese lives when the opposite was true.
Let me remind you that the voice-over is done by Richard Basehart, co-sponsor of Hanoi Janes Entertainment Industry for Peace and Justice. The EIPJ alumni and friends were the heart of the "post-Vietnam" peace movement, pumping the life blood of their philosophy wherever possible into any war and peace issue they touched. Basehart didnt write the script, but PBS, who first aired the program, and the producers who selected him as their voice of authority had to know that Jane would approve of it. Its content gave her no reason to disapprove.
Dean Rusk: "At those Tuesday luncheon sessions where we considered bombing targets in the North, there were times when we would require our fliers to go in through the more heavily populated [heavily defended] areas to deliver their bombs on military targets rather than easier targets because of the difference in the possible threat to civilian neighborhoods and the civilian population.
Voice-over: "The policy makers also rely on the air war to reduce American casualties in South Vietnam."
Dean Rusk: "We did not want to expand the war into a war of total destruction. What we were trying to do was to keep the North Vietnamese from overrunning South Vietnam and, hopefully, we were trying to bring about the kind of settlement that we achieved in Korea, that we achieved with the Berlin blockade, that we achieved with the Greek Guerrillas, without that massive, all-out course of destruction. And there was some point, in effect, of leaving Ho Chi Minh there as a person with whom we might make peace, or at least an armistice. So, we didnt really go after the city of Hanoi and the structure of government of North Vietnam."
Voice-over: "Some American bombs are aimed at military targets in heavily populated suburbs of Hanoi. These communist films show civilian destruction (film clips of massive destruction, dead children laying in rubble, etc.). Most towns south of Hanoi are completely leveled in the period 1965-1968. According to an official US estimate, 50,000 civilians are killed. The North never discloses its casualties. Its twenty million people withstand 800,000 tons of bombs."
The heroism of North and South Vietnamese Communists was a common theme of the American news media along with the cowardice of Saigons soldiers and the brutality of ours. In all wars, heroism, cowardice and brutality abound on all sides, but in a war fought by totalitarian governments, the people have no say in what they will withstand. They do what they are told, or else. Our media did not take that peculiarity of a police state into account when comparing the obvious division in America over the war to communist Vietnams apparent unity. They forgot that all wars produce dissenters on both sides which each side normally censors among its own, the way we did pro-Nazis during World War II, and exploits to the fullest among the enemy.
The lack of visible protest against the communist war effort in communist Indochina came off in our media as evidence of their resolve. After television stars like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather decided that the enemy was us, it seemed to make sense.
For a short time I thought that Cokie Roberts, who was hired in the `70s by Robert Siegel to work for "All Things Considered," might reverse her Cronkite/Rather/EIPJ position on the lessons of Vietnam. She was one of several NPR staffers who got a copy of the commentary I began this book with. I know that she read it or others like it by her commentary on the slaughter of the Kurds and Shiites in Iraq while the most powerful military fighting force on the globe literally stood by and watched. I saw her on ABCs "This Week with David Brinkly," trying to argue that Bushs betrayal of those Iraqis was also a betrayal of Americans who believed in the principles evoked to justify our intervention in Kuait. Nobody was rude enough to say so, but they were the same principles that justified our intervention in Vietnam.
She was put down fast and hard by Sam Donaldson and George Will, who dismissed such "naive" ideas out of hand and proceeded to explain why it was better to allow the genocide than to oppose it. When David Brinkley weighed in on the side of peace for our fighting men, she smiled the smile of polite concession to the dictates of civilized discourse and let it drop, never to be raised again. But when the breakup of Yugoslavia into three independent states set into motion a struggle for the "ethnic cleansing" of the Moslem-led multi-ethnic state of Bosnia, she spoke up again for acting on principle. Again, she was put down by Donaldson and Will.
This time, with only those two men to tangle with, she hung tough. She answered their disingenuous objection to our involvement, which presumed a choice of sides between ethnic groups, with the honest solution of blasting the bad intentions out of anybody who targeted civilians. That was also my solution and the solution of others I talked to who couldnt abide the free worlds tolerance of the kind of killing shaping up in the former Yugoslavia. Wed seen it before in Iraq and the former French-Indochina.
The next time the issue came up, Cokie Roberts stood alone among the media elite in arguing forthrightly for American military intervention. This went on until April of `93 when something happened in Waco, Texas, of all places, which ostensibly caused her to change her mind.
An FBI raid on Ranch Apocalypse, stronghold of religious cult leader David Koresh, ended in the fiery deaths of 79 men, women and children. On that weekend with ABCs David Brinkely, Sam Donaldson and George Will, she did what I knew she would: she reversed her stand on Bosnia by paralleling what could happen there with what did happen in Waco.
"That shows how much I know," she laughed.
It showed how much I knew, which I would not have if I did not know her connection to the peace movement or if she had been honest enough to repudiate it.
Cokie Roberts, daughter of Louisiana Congressman Hal Boggs who vanished in 1972 in a light plane over the Alaskan tundra, is one of the most influential people in Washington. We can safely assume that she was laughing at herself, at her own human frailty, not at something that she thought was amusing about Waco or Bosnia. I honestly believe that what she did was worse. She said, in effect, that she was wrong about Bosnia when she must have known at some level of her being that she was right.
Whether she was lying to the world or to herself, I knew she was lying to somebody. What happened in Waco was a natural for anyone in her position to use as an excuse to shed her hawkish feathers and slip into something more consistent. Since she was the only person in that position I knew of, I knew she would do it. I could not have pictured anyone else.
The only similarity between Bosnia and Waco was in the possible consequences of forceful action. The same could be said for trying to foil the rape of a little girl and accidentally kicking her teeth out in a scuffle to do it, or cutting the jugular of a wildly thrashing man while attempting an emergency tracheotomy. If the possible consequences of doing the right thing were not as bad as doing nothing, it would not take courage to do it. Cokie Roberts was smart enough to know that and as long as she was pursuing the truth, she would have had to deal with it.
Given enough cases of forceful intervention, some of them will turn out disastrously. But, given a policy of acting forcefully only when the risks are small and the outcome is certain, the outcome in most cases is certain to favor the tyrants, the bullies and the madmen with power who arent afraid to use it. That is what was happening in Bosnia. Ms. Roberts hawkish tack on the subject was the only one that an informed commentator, for whom the truth came first, could take to identify the real options available to the free world. But it was putting her on a collision course with her dovish stand on Vietnam. One would have to give way to the other because only one could occupy the same intellectual space at the same time.
The implications of someone of her status doing a turnaround on Vietnam were equivalent to those of a Confederate general like Nathan Bedford Forrest or Robert E. Lee doing a turnaround on our first Civil War. Too much was invested by too many important people in honoring the rhetoric and the symbols of the peace movement, including the flesh and blood symbols like Jane Fonda, for that to have happened easily. It would have meant admitting that they, themselves, were traitors, no less than Forrest and Lee were, notwithstanding their minor differences on the issue of slavery.
Some 19th century rebels lived to see the rise of Stalin and the fall of Hitler. They also saw the survival of the racist ideas that justified slavery and the survival of their battle flag as a nationally respected symbol of regional pride. The 20th century rebels lived to see the end of communism and the start of a new world order which could peacefully co-exist with genocide. They saw the survival of their ideas that justified that brand of peace and the inverted delta-winged cross within a ring that idealized it.
You can say that the Confederates fought for states rights and the dissidents fought for peace, but youd have to ignore the evils of racism and the violent self-contradictions of unilateral peace to do it. For the most part, Americans have made those adjustments. Where we have, weve all suffered for it down the road with the images of ourselves which have guided our actions.
That point was driven home to me in a U.S. News and World Report story on guns in the classroom. In the index was a picture of young school childrenall blackin something described as a war zone. Thats an inner-city neighborhood with all of the ingredients for self-destruction hewn from a century of social engineering to keep blacks on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder. They were holding up a cardboard sign that said, "STOP THE VIOLENCE" and "BOOKS NOT BULLETS!" Three peace symbols were sandwiched in between. I looked at that picture and thought to myself, no fucking way. The answer was on the magazines cover. It showed a white boy with a gun and the words, "Even suburban parents now fear the rising tide of violence."
Americas Second Continental Congress recognized life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as universal human rights in a timeless document that broke ground for the foundation of American law. Our school children have always been taught to honor the men who signed it as patriots, though they could rightfully be called traitors to England. When I was first taught to revere those men whose fight for freedom included the right to own "Negro property," the last European-American to fight for his freedom to enslave African-Americans was still alive. The "Negros place" in America today is the legacy of not calling that man the traitor he was to the United States and the defenders of slavery in its first Congress, the traitors they were to the high ideals of their own Declaration of Independence.
George "Slow Trot" Thomas, perhaps the finest general on either side in the first American Civil War, was, thank God, a traitor to Virginia. Had Robert E. Lee seen himself as an American first, he could not have seen Virginia as his country and the United States as his enemy. Had Robert Siegels news team not given their personal vision of war and peace priority over their responsibility as journalists to seek and tell the truth, they would not have betrayed their profession or their country. They could be proud of doing both only if they maintained that the enemy was the United States, meaning our hawks in government and unrepentant veterans like me.
Independent of its consequenceslike the national vision of the Negros place in American life or the place of our military in world affairstreason is neither good nor bad. But, where big issues and influential people are involved, it always has major, long-lasting effects. That is why Im leaning so hard on Cokie Roberts and the other "Bobs" at NPR who have shown occasional flashes of honesty about justice "as the world goes." After twenty years of flashes like that, which never go back to Vietnam or last long enough to head off another killing field scenario, I have scant evidence that any of the old guard has the courage or integrity to change. But I still have hope for one or two of them and more than a few of the newer ones.
I have no such hope for Jane Fonda, a unique case in American history whose EIPJ was a gift of treason with a death dealing life of its own. To clarify where I stand on the subject, let me refer you to the black and white stickers affixed to the rear bumper of my `93 Escort. One was sent to me as a token of my financial support for NPRs local affiliate WDET where a one-on-one talk with a program host who played a song in praise of the Viet Cong turned her around on the spot. The other is the MIA/POW "You Are Not Forgotten" silhouette of a man and a watchtower with the following words in bold white letters beside it: "Boycott Jane Fonda, American Traitor Bitch."
It wouldnt be fair to condemn Cokie Roberts, Jane Fonda or Nathan Bedford Forrest, for that matter, for perpetuating the myths that made the causes they fought for seem noble. I mean, really, who is going to oppose his country in war without giving a noble reason for doing it? The most influential doves in America, like Tip ONeal and Oliver Stone, who began as hawks, claimed the moral authority of admitting they were wrong. Having switched sides once for spurious reasons, how could they do it again for good ones?
In Cokie Roberts on-air tribute to the memory of Tip ONeal in 1994, she praised the former Speaker of the House for his courage and integrity in opposing the Vietnam War. To believe that, she would have had to believe that ONeals leadership in cutting off the aid to Phnom Penhs defenders had something to do with courage and integrity. It didnt.
I am not saying that they chose their beliefs. I dont think thats possible. Im saying that people with a vested interest in seeing something as true cant always tell the difference between what they see and what they want to seebetween believing and wanting to believe. You can change beliefs with solid evidence and irrefutable logic if the goal is to learn the truth. But if the goal is to withdraw from a war or win a Pulitzer, its far more likely that the evidence and the logic will change as needed to support the desired beliefs.
The Congressional decision to facilitate Phnom Penhs fall to the Khmer Rouge had to do with a way of thinking personified by Jane Fonda and shared by Cokie Roberts, who, in 1993, still spoke proudly of her anti-war stand against her father. In January of `86 I wrote about that way of thinking, shared by the rest of Robert Siegels NPR news team, in a long, unedited letter to Ted Clark, Executive Producer of "ATC." It was my last desperate shot in what I expected to be North Vietnams final offensive of the war against the KPNLF. The following is a condensed version of it, so if it appears to be incomplete and a bit disjointed in places, thats because it is.
Dear Mr. Clark,
...The truth only speaks for itself when it has the right timing and the unquestioned voice of authority. The same voice at any time also speaks well for bullshit.
Last April 15th I got a chance to say a few words to Stanley Karnow, the man who outlined the award-winning series "Vietnam: A Television History." He was the featured guest on David Newmans radio call-in show on WJR in Detroit.
As I held the receiver waiting to go on, I heard him tick off one apocryphal item of historical truth after another with guru-like authority. The sheer number of them made it impossible to attack them all and next to impossible to discredit any particular one without making it look like a single misplaced hair on a prize-winning head of hair. I counted five within the span of five minutes (not counting his statement at one point that The United States entered into the conflict with no clear-cut goal and his contradiction of that point later on when a caller questioned the idea that the United States Armed Forces were defeated. He laughed derisively and then said, word for word what I called in to say about clear-cut goals. "Our goal was to keep the North from defeating the South. We didnt do it." Then he said, "If thats not a defeat I dont know what is.")
I decided to challenge his assertion that the communists could not be defeated because they were willing to suffer unlimited casualties in order to achieve their objective. There are at least seven things egregiously wrong with that statement. If you look at it from a charismatic madmans point of view, youll see one of them... If you look at it from any totalitarian government point of view, youll see another. I was fully prepared to nail him on all seven counts. There was one flaw in his logic roughly equivalent to that of the celebrated chemist who holds up a test tube and confidently announces that it contains an acid he has discovered which will instantly eat through anything. You dont have to be an expert in the field to know thats wrong. So thats the point I confronted him with.
As I anticipated, he pointed out the staggering number of casualties Hos troops had accepted in the past. Then he repeated what Ho Chi Minh told him (and other Western journalists) about his famous ten to one loss strategy for defeating the Americans psychologically. The way he put it, it sounded so righteously prophetic that few people were likely to consider the self-fulfilling prophesy value of having had it repeated throughout the war with honest conviction by a number of authoritative sources.
My time on the air ran out before I could say anything else.
The next day, at the Design Center where I work, some of the very bright people I work with told me that they heard the program. If I had made a fool of myself they would have let me know. Instead, they said things like, "he never did answer your question," and, "...now that I think about some of the other things he said..."
...I want to leave you with a final look at the kinds of evidence you disregarded and the kind of information you thought was crucial a long time ago in arriving at your present judgment on U.S. involvement in the wars called Vietnam. You remember, no doubt, that President Thieu held up the `72 Paris peace accords until the following year over a `trivial issue? Do you remember the issue. I do. You remember the carrot and stick provisions of the `73 peace accords announced at the time by Henry Kissinger on national radio and television. The carrot was to be reconstruction aid if Hanoi abided by the terms of the agreement. Do you remember what the stick was supposed to be if it didnt?
If I told you the answers you wouldnt believe them. And you wont check for yourself because you are not that interested in the subject at this particular moment. When you want answers about Vietnam, you dont consult your "unpublished" listeners, the public library or even your own tapes. You ask an expertlike Stanley Karnow.
There are at least 37 items like the ones I just mentioned whose importance over the years has expanded and contracted in your nutshell reviews of Indochina history in direct proportion to the peace movements best judgment at the time. Im going to reacquaint you with the temporal context in which one such judgment was made, in my last ever attempt to convince you of anything
...the following value judgments, myopic misrepresentations, half-informed interpretations of the whole truth, "minor" distortions of fact and language with which to describe them were borrowed from... ATCs treatment of Vietnam related issues... before and during the last debate of the war... [Authors note: I think that was an eight or nine line sentence]....
The year is 1975. The peace movement has done much to end the unjust, immoral and unwinnable war our country imposed on the people of Vietnam and Cambodia in spite of all the governments heavy-handed attempts to silence them. Seventy-eight percent of the American people are now against the war. There is no military draft. U.S. combat troops have been withdrawn. American bombing has been outlawed. And American consciousness has been raised to understand as the peace movement understood all along that a communist victory in Vietnam will only mean the removal of a corrupt, unpopular dictator and the reunification of a country that should not have been partitioned by us in the first place.
We know that Truman set the stage for our involvement in the war by backing the French colonialist against Ho Chi Minhs nationalist in 1945. We know that Eisenhower took over the war where the French left off. We know that Kennedy escalated the war out of hubris and Johnson escalated it out of all proportion to reason. We know that Nixon learned nothing from the folly of his predecessors. He bombed Cambodia, backed another corrupt dictator, invaded the country and started another unwinnable civil war against a monolithic communist threat to democracy that doesnt existanother Vietnam.
...If Thieu had not begun the cease fire violations that led to North Vietnams brilliant all-out invasion, there might even be peacealthough his weak, unpopular government would have fallen sooner or later anyhow. Now, five years later, an enlightened Congress has begun to apply the lessons of Vietnam to Cambodia.
The defenders of Phnom Penh have just about had it. The insurgents, who have been strengthened, rather than weakened by Nixons bombing, are stronger than ever. They have thereby proven, as the Viet Cong did with the `68 Tet offensive, that the United States is backing a loser. Still, President Ford is asking Congress for emergency funds to prop up Lon Nols government just a little longer against the bogie man of "communist aggression." He has even gone so far as to raise the old specter of a blood-bath if the communists are permitted to take over.
What that ignores, of course, is the desperate plight of refugees pouring into the city in an abortive attempt to escape the fighting, the one hundred thousand Cambodians who have already been killed because of American intervention, and the blood-bath thats going on right now. More arms and ammunition will only prolong the agony without changing the eventual outcome. Furthermore, as the March 10 issue of Time magazine points out, "The presidents dire prognosis also ignores the most crucial question about the Cambodian situation: To whom will the Phnom Penh regime fall? The answer: To other Cambodians."
Now who in his right mind is going to spit into the teeth of that wind?
Before and after that final hawk-dove debate, Jane Fonda was saluted by ATC as a person of conscience. She is still the quintessential weather vane for accurately determining your approach to news and information about Vietnam related issues. The extent to which her interests of the moment are paid attention to is the precise extent to which the long standing interests of Vietnam vets like me are not. The extent to which you ignore her Hanoi connection is the extent to which you leave yourselves out of the military equation and misread the inevitable outcome of any literal and figurative trial by combat (war) with armed and determined hawks on one side and celebrated disarming doves on the other.
...Which leads me back to an obscure terrorist organization, some obscure Buddhist monks and the wisdom of cutting their heads off and jamming them on poles along an obscure roadside in Indochina. You remember those monks, dont you, the ones who set themselves on fire and carried protest signs in English against successive Saigon governments, the ones with so much influence and so much disdain for anyone who would restrict their freedom? According to the Jane Fonda index of which way and how hard the wind is still blowing against any outright criticism of the Hanoi government (just ask yourself, would Hanoi Jane approve?) there is no way you are going to unless some big, dramatic event forces you tolike the drowning of 300 of them all at once off the coast of Malaysiaor something like that. But even then, we know that we would hear about them only and not about the ones who didnt make it to the boats.
We would hear lots of stories about Thai pirates, overcrowded boats and a word or two about the terrible state of the Vietnamese economy. To put everything in perspective, wed have recognized authorities fill us in on the most crucial question in the drowning monk situation: Who is ultimately responsible? The answer: Eight wrong-headed American presidents.
Copyright © 1994 by Jasper Garrison
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