I am working on a book called Remembering Tomorrow - a memoir type work that uses experiences to try to convey history, lessons, etc. It is in process, long, still being edited. I thought I would put some excerpts here, to get reactions that might help with editing. Part Two of the book, called The Ringing of Revolution, is about Sixties life and activity, off campus. Chapter 10, called Bean Town, is on events in Boston. Then Chapter 11, called Washington Bullets, is about some sixties demos in DC and related incidents, etc. Here is the first few pages of chapter 11. More sections from that chapter will follow.
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
- Bob Dylan
I rarely remember my dreams, taking for granted, that is, that the pyschologists are right that we all do it. Even beyond dreams, I can remember only one recurring nightmare that ever haunted my nights. In it, planes flew over and dropped packages held by parachutes. The packages contained nuclear bombs. Next, rockets blasted off, crescendo-ing the world into oblivion. Then I’d wake up.
At the Z Media Institute summer school, in the mid 1990s, Stephen Shalom, my friend from MIT, taught sessions on U.S. foreign policy including addressing the Cuban missile crisis. This crisis was a time when our planet came closer than ever before, and probably than we ever have since, to nuclear war. The Cuban Missile Crisis was what nourished my nightmare. I went to hear Steve’s session. He recounted how U.S. officials throughout the crisis slept in bomb shelters. He recounted how the CIA told Kennedy they estimated a one-third to one-half chance of all-out nuclear war and Kennedy went ahead anyway. That was, the media told us, Kennedy at his finest…and that’s my image of Washington DC.
The United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons and long range missiles that could deliver those nuclear weapons from one country to the other. In the 1960 presidential election between Nixon and Kennedy, Steve recounted, the hawk in that campaign – the more militaristic candidate – was John Kennedy, the Democrat. Kennedy said that there was a missile gap opened under the do-nothing Republicans. He urged that we hadn’t built enough missiles and that the Soviet Union had gotten more missiles than us. Using this scare tactic, among other means, Kennedy got elected.
There was indeed a missile gap, but contrary to Kennedy’s claims, it was in fact a gap of about 100 to one in the U.S. favor, as U.S. spy satellites confirmed. U.S. officials decided they were going to tell the Soviet Union that we knew the gap was in our favor, while they told the American people the opposite. Shalom continued, “You see Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, was a bit of a cheapskate. He thought that although the Soviet Union knew how to build these missiles, they cost a lot of money. So what he’d do is he’d talk a big game and make a lot of threats and pretend he had a lot of missiles, but wouldn’t build them. On May Day, he would have military parades in Red Square and he would have the Soviet Air Force fly over Red Square and they would go around behind some clouds and come back and fly over again and you would see more and more waves of planes and you would say, wow, look at that! It’s all very impressive, but Khrushchev in fact didn’t build any significant number of ICBMs.”
So the U.S. led by Kennedy said to Khrushchev we know you’re bluffing. You can’t push us around. In fact, we’re going to push you around now because we’re the ones who’ve got the advantage. In addition to its ICBMs, the intercontinental range ballistic missiles, the U.S. also had shorter range nuclear missiles in Turkey, right on the Soviet border.
Shalom recounted how the Soviet Union decided to respond to this nuclear imbalance by putting Soviet missiles in Cuba 90 miles from the United States. They did so, secretly, but U.S. spy planes saw the missile sites being constructed and Kennedy had to decide how to respond to this. One option, Shalom told the ZMIers, was to do nothing. After all, the Soviet Union could in any event deploy missiles in the Soviet Union. (Whether you’re hit by a missile from Cuba or from Russia doesn’t matter much, admitted Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.) Neither side was planning to launch a sneak attack on the other, so what’s the big deal? A second option was to use this opportunity to do some disarming. We could say to the Soviet Union, hey, we’ll trade our missiles in Turkey for your missiles in Cuba. While we’re at it, let’s get rid of some intercontinental range missiles too.
Those two approaches were refected by the Kennedy administration. They didn’t advance militarism, imperialism, and U.S. war making capability. Instead the debate within the administration centered on three other options: (1) invade Cuba, (2) launch air strikes to take out the Soviet missile sites, and (3) put a blockade around Cuba because not all of the missiles were in Cuba yet.
The Air Force thought the air strike was the best strategy and Kennedy said to them, well, what happens when we knock out those missile sites, would we kill any Russians? The Air Force replied that we’d probably kill a few thousand Russians. Kennedy asked what happens if the Soviets respond by attacking West Berlin? That will start a nuclear war, remarked the Air Force.
Kennedy was not that rash and said he’d go with the blockade, but of course the problem with the blockade was that there was still enough equipment in Cuba that they could build from what they had, and how would a blockade stop that. Kennedy went on television and said I am putting a blockade around Cuba. Any Soviet ship heading to Cuba will be stopped and searched. If it has military equipment, we will not let it in.
Now this was an act of war. Countries are allowed to trade with whomever they want. The United States didn’t ask Soviet permission before sending its missiles to Turkey. Countries send weapons as their sovereign right to other countries.
Anyway, Kennedy announced the blockade. Khrushchev responded that he was not backing down. He was sending ships through. They would not stop. The U.S. Navy said we will sink you if you try to get through. The Soviet Union said we’ve got our submarines in the area and we’ll sink you back, and the U.S. built up its force, and a Soviet ship got closer and closer to the U.S. blockade and this was, I very well remember, a very scary 24 hours.
Ultimately, Khrushchev turned his ships around and Dean Rusk, the U.S. Secretary of State said it was a nuclear “game of chicken.” “We were eyeball to eyeball, and they blinked first.” This is the way our leaders treated the survival of the human race – as a game of chicken.
Khrushchev offered Kennedy to trade the missiles in Cuba for the missiles in Turkey. Kennedy said that was unacceptable. You must grovel. You must surrender. There are some analysts who now say that privately Kennedy had decided that before he started a nuclear war he would have been willing to trade the missiles, but what’s interesting is that for many, many years, even supposing it is true, this wasn’t known. All the members of the Kennedy administration and all those writing about the Cuban missile crisis who said this was Kennedy’s greatest hour thought that one of the great things about it was that Kennedy was willing to risk nuclear war in order to achieve the principle that the U.S. is allowed to do what it wants, put missiles in Turkey next to Russia, and the Soviet Union is not allowed to do what it wants, have some missiles in Cuba, next to Florida.
Moreover, the U.S. missiles in Turkey were obsolete. The U.S. had already decided to remove the missiles in Turkey, not because the Soviet Union wanted them out, but for other reasons. The United States had recently developed submarine-launched missiles and it thought it would be better to put submarines in the Mediterranean that could hit the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. There was no need to retain vulnerable land-based missiles in Turkey. The missiles in Turkey were precarious. They were above ground and a terrorist driving by could shoot a bullet through one of them. Thus, the U.S. was willing to risk nuclear war rather than trade off obsolete missiles for Soviet missiles. This was what has become known as Kennedy’s greatest moment – the greatest victory of the Cold War.
And that gave me nightmares. And those nightmares, apolitical, pre-political, during my late high school and early college days, no doubt fueled my passions about the government in Washington DC and still do.
Of course, beyond the missile crisis, and the Cold War too, the main impetus for my own radicalization was Vietnam. It made my life what it is, even as it corrupted, curtailed, made courageous, or terminated so many other lives – millions upon millions at that time and ever since.
I remember what I think is called a waking dream, beyond my nightmare about missile scorching mayhem. I was in the TV room of a house I had lived in from junior high through high school and that my parents had continued to live in through my college years. I was visiting home. There was a woman friend with me, someone I had met at the sanctuary at Brandeis. Suddenly, I guess it was a psychosis of a kind, I was in Vietnam, a place I had never seen and still haven’t visited. It was as if the room was in the jungle. The warmth we had there was suddenly for survival and not for pleasure. The sky was falling. The daydream lasted only a few minutes, though it was very vivid. Dreams aside, for me Vietnam will last forever, and is also very vivid. Imagine what Vietnam is for those who were really under its falling skies.
In Vietnam, the U.S. set all kinds of records for military maliciousness. Why? World War II was the Good War, Vietnam was the Bad War, people agree, and there are very few Americans today who will say the Vietnam War was not a mistake. Even the gung-ho military types will agree that something went wrong. And yes, there were mistakes involved, miscalculations, but of course the sadder truth is that the Vietnam War wasn’t a mistake at all, from the point of view of those perpetrating it. It was a logical outgrowth of U.S. foreign policy.
The argument against Vietnam being an imperialist war goes, as Shalom told his ZMI students: “Look, we spent more in Vietnam than any possible estimates of the total value of any investments then or in the future in Vietnam. So how could finances have been the motivation?”
Shalom answered his own question. “There’s a bank down the street. Let’s say the bank is robbed and the robbers take $5,000. The police will chase these robbers. They will chase them across state borders. They will spend great amounts of money to catch them, put them on trial, and put them in prison. And if you add up that total cost – of the police work, the courts, and the prison – it will be incredibly beyond $5,000, and so you might say, well what’s the logic of that? Well, the logic of it is – as any public official will readily tell you – that if you don’t stop this bank robber – if you let this bank robber get away with it – if you let bank robbers know they can get away with this kind of thing, there will be bank robberies all over the place. And so the purpose of catching and punishing this bank robber, whatever the cost, is not just to punish this one but to deter others, and that’s the way one needs to look at U.S. foreign policy.”
The U.S. position in the early and then in the late sixties, and until the nineties when they began to look at literally everything greedily, was that the entire world except for China and the Soviet Union was part of the American capitalist system. As Shalom put it, against China and the Soviet Union Washington would try various subversive actions, but it wasn’t going to pursue an all-out war. The rest of the world, however, was going to be subordinated to the United States, and so Washington had to deliver a message to third world revolutionaries everywhere: If you try to break out, we will smash you.
The benefit U.S. policy makers expected to get from defeating the Vietnamese revolution was not that this one piece of territory would be added to the U.S. empire instead of extricated from it, but rather that everyone would understand that you don’t leave the U.S. empire when the U.S. doesn’t want you to leave it.
U.S. officials talked about the domino theory and said if Vietnam falls, Laos will fall, Cambodia will fall, Thailand will fall, all like a stack of dominos. That’s why we’re in Vietnam, said Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson. What they meant was outside subversives were going to hop from place to place and overthrow otherwise stable systems. Now that claim was ridiculous. There were no hoppers and there were no otherwise stable systems. But there was a sensible version of their theory which is that if revolutionists succeeded in Vietnam, revolutionaries in other countries would say, hey, we could have better lives for our people too. We don’t have to accept U.S. domination. To prevent that lessons from spreading, what Chomsky has called the threat of a good example, it was crucial for the United States to make sure that the Vietnamese revolution did not succeed. The Vietnamese couldn’t be allowed to become free and prosperous not because we hated Vietnamese or were sadists, but because our elites wanted to maintain their world dominance.
Here is Shalom, from the ZMI class, concluding the point:
“Now usually when people talk about Vietnam, they talk about this as the war that the United States lost and that the Vietnamese won. Noam Chomsky has an interesting approach to this, however. He says no, the U.S. won the Vietnam War. It’s a little quirky of an interpretation, but here’s his point. He says, the U.S. preferred solution in Vietnam would have been an outright military victory. The U.S.’s second choice solution in Vietnam was to so devastate that country so that no sensible revolutionary anywhere in the third world would want to do it again – would want to undertake a revolution.
You know, if I were sitting in some jungle in a random third world country and I looked at Vietnam, I would say well, let’s see what happened. The Vietnamese people fought for decades. They suffered about four million deaths, and what do they have today to show for it: a country that’s at the same standard of living it was at perhaps in 1950, and a country with almost nothing remaining of the egalitarian impulses of that earlier period. That hardly seems like a cause for which you would want to give your life. And from the U.S. point of view, that’s precisely the idea – to make such sacrifices seem pointless. And that’s why when the war was over in 1975, the U.S. was determined that it was not going to trade with Vietnam, and it was not going to let anyone else trade with Vietnam.
One of the consequences of the war was that the water buffalo that are so crucial to the Vietnamese economy were devastated in the course of the war. India offered to provide Vietnam as aid some water buffalo, and the United States said to India, if you provide that aid to Vietnam, we cut off all foreign aid from you. And the United States made sure that international bodies provided no aid to Vietnam. What’s the purpose of this? The purpose was to make sure that Vietnam would be a hell-hole again so that any potential revolutionaries anywhere in the world would look at this and say, this is not something I’m going to give my life for.”
For the U.S., Vietnam was a war to prevent the spread of a good example. It was a war to demonstrate U.S. might and resolve. It was a war to teach that resistance is futile and costly. It was a war to drop bombs, bombs, and more bombs – with the point of blowing everything up. Millions died.
For the Vietnamese, Vietnam was resistance to win independence and freedom. It was resistance to demonstrate that the power of the people is greater than the man’s technology. It was resistance to inspire, inform, and motivate. It was resistance to fight, fight, and fight some more – to win a new world, someday.
Washington was the architect of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia’s destruction. It was a giant axe mercilessly beheading nations. Washington, unlike what the public tally sheets say, won the proximate war. Freedom inspired dominos did not fall. The good example was set back. At the same time, Vietnam not only repelled our troops, its aspirations will win in the end.
And I sure as hell hated Washington. And I sure as hell loved the spirit of the Vietnamese resistance. Vietnam was for me a parent, a brother, a sister, a life guide. Vietnam was and still is everything for me. But then again, so is Nicaragua, El Salvador…Iraq…so is Watts and Seattle, and every employee punching every clock, waiting for, and at some deep level, however unknowingly, getting ready to fight for, liberation.