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The “Oops!” Theory of American History


The last morning I myself happened upon a commentary by the presidential historian Stanley I. Kutler, he noted that “Principled resignations have not been prominent in American history,” while adding that “Resigning on principle, in the firm belief you behaved correctly, is a rare act.”

Kutler then proceeded to urge the American Secretary of State Colin Powell to remain true to the finest and noblest line of the American military tradition, and consider resigning his office. At once.


After all, “profound principles” were at stake, Kutler inveighed. “Does the [Bush] administration have a right to use foreign policy for its own political and personal agendas? May the government make a blatantly dishonest case, based on hyped claims that Iraq held vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction, and had strong links to Al Qaeda, to lead the nation to war? As evidence mounts that the Iraq war was unnecessary or, at best, unjustified, contrary to what the administration contended, Colin Powell should weigh his own beliefs and his responsibility.”

I’ll leave it up to the rest of you to guess the punchline—and what the Secretary of State did, ultimately, about it. (For the strong of heart, you can read Kutler’s commentary in its entirety, below. And to get a inkling of just how much Kutler’s advice pertains to the Colin Powell who lives and breathes in the real world of American politics, check out my old ZNet blogs, “A Good Soldier” and “A Good Soldier II.”)

Well. Another morning, another commentary by Mr. Kutler. But now more dangerous and more delicious than last time, given the nature of what is at stake today.

Writing in this morning’s Chicago Tribune, Kutler (whose academic bona fides now include his editorship of The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, please note well) got no further than the third sentence of his opening paragraph, before he asserted (“Why have we landed in Vietnam again?” Aug. 27):

When the North Vietnam government resumed hostilities–following our broken promise to allow free elections–we actively intervened with our longest war….

He was referring to the period 1954-1956, during which the U.S. Government successfully cancelled a national referendum originally scheduled for July, 1956 (as required by the 1954 Geneva Accords), a referendum which would have asked the Vietnamese both south of the 17th Parallel as well as north of it whether their country should be one unified Vietnam, and under whose political leadership. In both cases, Washington had determined that the outcome of the referendum wasn’t going to turn out the way it wanted the referendum to turn out. So it prevented the referendum from being held, and established in Saigon, the capital of the half of Vietnam over which it still exercised some control, a terror state of the kind that the world saw it establish again in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, resorting to state violence in order to achieve on the ground the kind of outcome that it knew it could not achieve at the polls. Hence, the start of what in American literature is known as the “Vietnam war.” At least the American phase of it.

More to the point: When Kutler asserted that the “North Vietnam government resumed hostilities,” he was referring to these events in the southern, U.S.-dominated half of Vietnam during this period in the mid-1950s. This claim is astonishing in its falsehood. The government of so-called North Vietnam didn’t even begin to dispatch forces south of the 17th Parallel until maybe as much as ten years later than Kutler implies, ca. 1965, and then only after the initiation of the American bombing campaign of the North called Operation Rolling Thunder in late February, 1965. Undeniably, the whole war from the French surrender in 1954 on was thus an American war, first against the people of so-called South Vietnam, where the U.S. Government established itself as an occupying power (ca. 1955-), later extended to so-called North Vietnam (ca. 1965-), and eventually the whole of Indochina (Laos and then Cambodia).

The question is, How can a man as highly respected as Stanley Kutler wade into the pages of this morning’s Chicago Tribune, and show himself to be as completely and abjectly ignorant of the material that he professes to know as an historian and for which he enjoys such a stellar reputation?

In short: How did he get away with it?

The reason, in my opinion, has to do with an entire academic discipline’s possessing zero understanding of the nature of the U.S. wars in Indochina. The U.S. Government rained terror and torture down upon the people of the south—and only several years later the people of the north and beyond—instigating the fundamental human dynamic of indigenous resistance to the American actions (i.e., the resistance wasn’t orchestrated from Hanoi—much less Moscow or Beijing or the “liberal” biases of the “media elite” back in the States); then more intensified American violence to wipe out this resistance; instigating then more intensified resistance to the American violence; and so on; and so on. Until such time as the managers of this process, back in the States, decided it was becoming too costly for the greater American Project to sustain it any longer.

But for an historian working from Kutler’s point of view, the deliberate actions undertaken by the U.S. Government to subjugate the bottom-half of Vietnam did not cause the Vietnam war—with the exception, perhaps, that “our broken promise to allow free elections” played a role early on. Instead, the “North Vietnam government resumed hostilities….” Period. And some 20 years later, the last American Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam, Graham Martin, caught one of the last choppers taking off from the sixth-floor helipad that crowned the old U.S. Embassy in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. Quite some way of telling Americans about the history of their country. This.

Now ask yourself how it is possible that the history of the American wars over Indochina, as recounted in a very public venue such as this morning’s Chicago Tribune, by a highly prestigious American academic the purpose of whose commentary was to deplore the misrepresentations of the Vietnam war that he believes rampant this presidential election cycle, and to implore his readers to remember that “Vietnam has considerable usefulness as a practical lesson” against the deliberate distortions of the current regime in Washington, could wind up so badly mangled and misrepresented?

(A further case in point: Kutler laments “Kerry’s critics” among the Swift Boat Veterans For Truth clique, who, he says, “are blithely unconcerned that the Vietnam adventure, too, resulted from deceptions or false assumptions the nation had nurtured throughout the Cold War,” and who have forgotten that the “Vietnam intervention was misconceived and misinformed from the start, and miscalculated and misdirected as it progressed.”—How’s that for the Four Mis-es? Seems that, at the absolute worst, the Americans can only make mistakes. Witness also the recent cascade of official accounts of the phenomenon of Americans resorting to torture and abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad. Or the phenomenon of pre-war claims of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” and “ties” to the Al Qaeda hijacker bombers of September 11, 2001. And the like. All versions of the “Oops!” Theory of American history. Collateral something or other. But always collateral. Never deliberate.)

My short answer? Because before all else, Stanley Kutler is an ideologue of American Power, addressing his fellow ideologues on a topic of the utmost gravity to American Power: Their right to wage war on behalf of the American Project, and to remain untouched at heart by the barbarity and the evil that flows from what they do—except when they make mistakes. Like any good Mother’s Sons and Daughters.

Read the Kutler commentary very closely. You’ll see just how ignorant the Americans remain about themselves.

It’s an ignorance our world can ill afford.

Documents Relating to American Foreign Policy: Vietnam

FYA (“For your archives”): Am depositing here copies of the two commentaries by Stanley I. Kutler, beginning with this morning’s lament about all of the mis-thises and mis-thats of the American war in Vietnam, followed by his earlier call for the American Secretary of State to show us what a “good soldier” he really is by resigning his post from the current presidential administration in Washington.

(A) Chicago Tribune
August 27, 2004
Why have we landed in Vietnam again?
By Stanley I. Kutler. Stanley I. Kutler is the editor of “The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War.”

The Vietnam War lies like an angry scar across America. Sen. John Kerry’s presidential candidacy provides yet another occasion for renewed skirmishes.

The “First Vietnam War” resulted from a futile French attempt to restore their Indochina empire from 1945 until their defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. The United States then provided substantial economic aid and military guarantees to the newly created Republic of South Vietnam. When the North Vietnam government resumed hostilities–following our broken promise to allow free elections–we actively intervened with our longest war, ending in our withdrawal in 1973 and the collapse of the puppet government two years later. Following that, we embarked on the “Third Vietnam War,” a new American civil war, in which we furiously debated the propriety of the war, demonize the 1960s, haggle over our posture toward the Vietnamese government, or insist that every aged Frenchman or drug addict spotted in Vietnam was a prisoner of war.

Finally, in 1994, President Bill Clinton, with considerable aid from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), normalized relations, essentially making Vietnam safe for American investment. When John Laurence, a former CBS reporter, returned to Vietnam, an American official ruefully rather than ironically remarked, “You know, it would have been a lot easier if they had just let us win the war.” Make no mistake: Twenty years have passed since Vietnam was unified, but our bitterness lingers. When Clinton announced he would send low-level envoys to Vietnam, Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), the then new Republican chairman of the House International Affairs Committee, denounced him for having “broken trust” with the American people.

We are just over two months away from a presidential election, one that offers a referendum on a sitting president. This time the incumbent has shifted American policy in significant new directions, with a doctrine of pre-emptive war and a revised version of wars of national liberation, yet one that carefully avoids conflict with formidable enemies. Vietnam has considerable usefulness as a practical lesson against such notions, but that is not what the current discussion is all about. Instead, a group of embittered partisans, substantially aided by legal and financial advice from President Bush’s supporters, has generated an astounding array of charges questioning the Democratic candidate’s war record. The media, apparently deciding that Iraq, the economy, the politicization of scientific research, prescription drug care, the prospect for privatization of social security, energy policy and the fiscal policies of the government are of no moment, have provided abundant space and legitimacy for our newfound fascination with the saga of swift boats. Why are we in the Vietnam quagmire once again?

Memories linger and corrode our politics. The “Bloody Shirt” prevailed in 10 presidential elections after the Civil War. Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover and the Great Depression for nearly 30 years. Republicans for the past 30 years have channeled their dissatisfaction with the 1960s transformation of the culture and “values” into monumental struggles over abortion, stem-cell research and capital punishment. Mercifully, long hair is no longer fighting ground.

The war on the 1960s is couched very much in macho terms. The assault on American foreign and military policies, critics charge, resulted in a lingering defeatism and paralysis for the United States. The permissiveness spawned in the 1960s arises, it is said, from both weakness and lack of principle. House Republican leader Tom DeLay has provided a new twist. If George W. Bush had been president in the 1960s, he has said, we would have won the Vietnam War.

John Kerry volunteered for Vietnam. His shipmates have testified to his bravery and his saving some of their lives. By official accounts, he served with distinction, even heroically. His detractors have offered us absolutely no credible evidence to belittle his war record, except to raise doubt if he actually was in Cambodian waters. One prominent Republican veteran remarked that he does not recall any directional signs stating, “Welcome to Cambodia.”

Kerry’s detractors have diverted their attention to his anti-war record. And now the cat is out of the bag. Kerry’s turn against the war struck at their conscious images of their own efforts, however heroic or ordinary. A wrong war? One with unnecessary American brutalities and war crimes? Those who complain about Kerry and others who pointed to atrocities on both sides in the Vietnam conflict have forgotten not only My Lai but Abu Ghraib–not to mention acts of unnecessary cruelty by Americans and their enemies in other wars.

Kerry’s opposition to the war is the heart of the matter. We fought a war in part in behalf of a “domino theory.” We did not win, but the dominoes did not fall–no “red hordes” descended on Japan, Hawaii, or La Jolla. Kerry’s criticism underscored former Democratic Sen. J. William Fulbright’s observation that the United States suffered from an “arrogance of power” and that we could not be the “world’s policeman.” What is American arrogance to one man is American mission and responsibility to another. Here is our real, intractable division.

Kerry’s critics have established an argument that has no end for them, except in Kerry’s defeat. They are blithely unconcerned that the Vietnam adventure, too, resulted from deceptions or false assumptions the nation had nurtured throughout the Cold War. Are we to forget that the Vietnam intervention was misconceived and misinformed from the start, and miscalculated and misdirected as it progressed?

The war becomes ever more murky and ambiguous in American minds as time recedes. The astonishing irony is that the blame cannot all fall on Kerry’s detractors. Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan insisted that Vietnam was a “noble crusade.” The nation never really bought into that dubious proposition, freighted as it was with self-serving political calculations. But nobility apparently is now fashionable. President Bush has called Kerry’s service noble. And as journalist Christopher Hitchens recently observed, Kerry’s brandishing of his military record, coupled with the Democrats’ loyal backing of him, has unintentionally bestowed on the Vietnam War what even Ronald Reagan could not: nobility.

(B) Chicago Tribune
April 25, 2004 Sunday
Chicago Final Edition
SECTION: COMMENTARY ; ZONE C; Pg. 11
HEADLINE: Powell’s choice of action;
Is it time for the `Good Soldier’ to resign as the secretary of state?
BYLINE: By Stanley I. Kutler.

Secretary of State Colin Powell is one of the most recognizable, and maybe the most well-liked figure across party lines, in the Bush administration. He has served his country long and well. Yet evidence mounts that he was (and remains) on the sidelines to advise and implement President Bush’s major foreign activities, especially the Iraq war.

Powell’s reluctance to invade Iraq has been no secret. Bob Woodward’s new book, “Plan of Attack,” has added new, attributable quotes. If, as Woodward suggested, Powell is “out of the loop,” and peripheral to the president’s major decisions, then he should resign. He owes that course to himself, his reputation and to the nation.

Principled resignations have not been prominent in American history. Resignations have become elaborately ritualized, designed largely to spare both sides public embarrassment. The famous Watergate resignations of April 30, 1973, offer a case in point. President Richard Nixon’s top aides, H.R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman “regretfully” resigned, and with apparent equal “regret,” the president accepted them. Atty. Gen. Richard Kleindienst similarly “resigned” that day. All three fought tenaciously to preserve their jobs; they had no choice, however, and they left at Nixon’s insistence. That same day, Nixon simply fired John Dean, the counsel to the president. Nixon was unconcerned about his feelings or reputation; for good reason, as we were to learn in less than two months.

Powell might want to be remembered for the manner of his leaving. Resigning on principle, in the firm belief you behaved correctly, is a rare act. U.S. Atty. Gen. Elliot Richardson resigned in 1973 with dignity and grace when he refused to carry out Nixon’s order to dismiss Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. William Jennings Bryan resigned as secretary of state because he believed President Woodrow Wilson’s actions would lead the nation to war. And Cyrus Vance, President Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, resigned because he disagreed with military operations to rescue Iranian hostages in 1979. All had the satisfaction of eventual vindication.

Richard Clarke’s resignation as Bush’s chief adviser on counter-terrorism apparently resulted from his growing sense of frustration. He also regarded the looming war with Iraq as misdirected. At first, he requested transfer to a cyber-security position, and apparently cared deeply about that issue. Yet in January 2003, he quit during the run-up to the Iraq war.

Powell has acknowledged that he talked to Bob Woodward about his role in the decision to go to war. He has denied that he was “out of the loop.” But he has not specifically confirmed or rejected any of the remarks Woodward attributed to him. Did Powell tell the president that he would be “the proud owner of 25 million people; [y]ou will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You’ll own it all.”? Did he tell the president, “If you break it, you own it.”? We don’t know. But the useful Latin maxim here is that “silence connotes consent.”

A principled resignation by Powell might offer the nation clarity and focus as it prepares to debate and judge the actions of the administration. Powell’s speech to the United Nations, “documenting” the administration’s case for war, has proven both exaggerated and deceitful. Powell himself found the usual Washington language to acknowledge his errors without, of course, explicitly saying so.

Profound principles are at stake: Does the administration have a right to use foreign policy for its own political and personal agendas? May the government make a blatantly dishonest case, based on hyped claims that Iraq held vast quantities of weapons of mass destruction, and had strong links to Al Qaeda, to lead the nation to war? As evidence mounts that the Iraq war was unnecessary or, at best, unjustified, contrary to what the administration contended, Colin Powell should weigh his own beliefs and his responsibility.

Powell is a highly decorated military officer, rising to chairman of the Joint Chefs of Staff, and he served well as President George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser. Powell certainly has been a good soldier for this president. Recently, he bristled at a congressman who had questioned Bush’s military record. Yet in his autobiography, Powell angrily denounced “the sons of the powerful and well placed … [who] managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units. Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal and owe equal allegiance to their country.”

Powell has indicated, and it has been widely reported, that he will not be part of a second Bush administration. His choice then is simple: serve until January 2005, fight some skirmishes against Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, yet remain marginalized except when there is a need to parade the “Good Soldier”; or resign now because he has been badly used, even ignored, by the administration.

Resignation would ensure a historic and successful memoir.

Stanley I. Kutler is the author of “The Wars of Watergate.”

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