BATON ROUGE, La. Former Senator Bob Kerrey's admission
of his involvement in the killing of Vietnamese women and
children in February 1969 is a sobering reminder of the
horrible carnage of war. That someone like Mr. Kerrey could
commit these acts only serves to demonstrate the madness that
manifests itself in all wars but that particularly
characterized the latter years of the tragic American
experience in Vietnam.
Mr. Kerrey's disclosure is disturbing, and he should be
commended for finally acknowledging the truth. Yet I fear this
episode might cause us to spend too much time examining the
misconduct and crimes of individual soldiers while ignoring
the unconstitutional acts committed by our leaders in
Washington in the 1960's and 1970's.
I do not wish to diminish the horror of this or other
similar incidents. Nonetheless, it is evident to me that a
collective calamity occurred in Washington in the mid-1960's
that, in time, led to tragedies like those Mr. Kerrey and
others have acknowledged. It was a calamity that might have
been avoided if President Lyndon Johnson had been truthful
with the American people and if members of Congress had not
been so eager to forsake their constitutional responsibilities.
It began, in earnest, in August 1964, when Congress almost
unanimously renounced its constitutional role for the making
of war by passing the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. That action
ratified for Johnson the breathtaking powers that he would
employ to send the United States military in far greater
numbers into the Vietnamese quicksand, beginning in 1965.
Throughout the 1960's, members of Congress most of them
understanding little about Vietnam and our reasons for
fighting supported the American policy, many fearing
political retribution if they did not. However, most leaders
of both parties in Congress generally knew the futile and
reckless nature of our involvement, but did too little to try
to stop our headlong rush into Southeast Asia.
In a telephone conversation in May 1964 with Johnson,
Senator Richard Russell always skeptical of American
involvement complained that Vietnam was "the damn
worst mess I ever saw," a sentiment Johnson confessed
that he shared. Majority Leader Mike Mansfield privately
opposed Johnson's escalation of the war, but never forcefully
challenged it on the Senate floor. J. William Fulbright,
chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after
managing the 1964 resolution, changed course and opposed the
conflict, but did not seriously attempt to choke off the funds
that supported the fighting.
These were the actions of some of the war's most notable
opponents; Congressional supporters generally complained that
the United States was committing too few resources, dropping
too few bombs, sending too few soldiers into battle. Sadly, it
took the deaths of more than 58,000 American soldiers and
between two and three million Vietnamese and the erosion
of public support before Congress finally mustered the "courage"
to end a war that it had enthusiastically supported and
financed for 10 years.
More than a quarter-century after the war ended, it seems
more apparent than ever that our political leaders were
culpable in the senseless deaths of Americans and Vietnamese
perhaps more so than Mr. Kerrey and the hundreds of
thousands who took up arms. Listening to the debate over Mr.
Kerrey's individual actions, I am reminded of the powerful
condemnation of Washington's collective action by George
McGovern in the Senate on Sept. 1, 1970, as he and Senator
Mark Hatfield pushed to end funding for the war:
"Every senator in this chamber is partly responsible
for sending 50,000 young Americans to an early grave. This
chamber reeks of blood. Every senator here is partly
responsible for that human wreckage at Walter Reed and
Bethesda Naval [hospitals] and all across our land young
men without legs, or arms, or genitals, or faces, or hopes.
"There are not very many of these blasted and broken
boys who think this war is a glorious adventure. Do not talk
to them about bugging out, or national honor, or courage. It
does not take any courage at all for a congressman, or a
senator, or a president to wrap himself in the flag and say we
are staying in Vietnam, because it is not our blood that is
being shed. But we are responsible for those young men and
their lives and their hopes."
Mr. McGovern spoke a truth that is worth remembering today.
Bob Kerrey's conduct resulted in the deaths of more than a
dozen civilians. Let us not forget that official decisions
made in Washington in the White House and in Congress
resulted in the needless deaths of millions.
Robert Mann is the author of "A Grand Delusion:
America's Descent Into Vietnam."
May 2, 2001
Re "The Guilt of Political Leaders," by Robert
Mann (Op-Ed, April 30): As we consider the wrongs that were
done in Vietnam, let us also consider how we can express our
compassion to those who survived the war, and to their
Vietnam in many ways is still a traumatized nation. Anyone
there over 50 has had a life filled with war and terror,
something difficult for many Americans to understand.
As Vietnam strives now to enter the modern world, we should
be pressing our leaders to help the Vietnamese finance and
construct health and rehabilitation centers for their millions
of disabled. Former Senator Bob Kerrey and all of us still
have to come to terms with the continuing suffering in that
Mental Health Workers Without Borders
New York, April 30, 2001
The writer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at N.Y.U.
Medical School, was a consultant for psychosocial
rehabilitation to the World Health Organization in Vietnam in
Dr. Martin Gittelman
Director, NYU-OMH Program for Psychiatric Rehabilitation
NYU Medical School
100 West 94th
New York, NY 10025
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