What Have We Learned from the Vietnam War?

April 29, 2015–On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon in 1975 I participated in a roundtable discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations. Some of the things I heard there are actually disturbing for citizens of a nation that is continually faced with new appeals for it to commit blood and treasure in foreign ventures, some important, some not so much.

One panelist went on about transformation. That is, since the Vietnam war the lands of East Asia have enjoyed an economic boom, greater prosperity, more cohesion in terms of regional politics, and the like, attributed to the “stand” the United States made in Vietnam. When you have lemons, make lemonade. First, the United States did not make a “stand” in Vietnam, that was an intervention. More to the point, while it is perfectly understandable that national and international investments had been slowed by the security fears occasioned by the war, and therefore surged once it ended, attributing economic prosperity to the war is mistaking consequence for purpose. America lost the Vietnam war–and not prettily–and to make it out as a victory of any sort is inadmissible. This version is actually something popularized by Walt W. Rostow in the 1990s, when Robert McNamara’s memoir deploring the mistakes of White House insiders put Rostow on the hook of responsibility for some of the trauma of Vietnam.

Another panelist learned that presidents need to keep their sights on three things– the need to keep on the right side of the Congress, the American people, and the media. There were no lessons about valid purposes, none about proper commitments, nothing learned about the need for exit strategies. Apart from the question of whether it is any longer even possible to stay on the right side of the Congress, this whole thing is about freedom of action. Presidents can do anything they like so long as they follow these three easy rules.

If this is the caliber of our takeaway from the Vietnam war then perhaps it is a good thing that Americans spent several decades trying to forget all about Vietnam.

New Wilderness of Mirrors

April 25, 2015–Among other things this is the 40th anniversary year of the  investigations of U.S. intelligence that took place in 1975. The Church Committee, Pike Committee, and Rockefeller Commission, with journalists hard on their heels, explored many facets of U.S. intelligence activity. Among them was counterintelligence, where the public would be startled to discover that the vaunted CIA and other agencies had been twisted up in knots by suspicions that enemy spies lurked behind every corner. It got so bad in the late 1960s that CIA operations against the Soviets virtually ground to a halt amid accusations–largely unanswerable since they were about “proving” the negative–against a wide array of the top agency talent on the Soviet account. Journalist David Martin got hold of this story and investigated it for his book A Wilderness of Mirrors. Martin’s point about the counterspies was that paranoia in excess becomes self-damaging.

Today we have reached the same place with our war on terror, in particular the drone war. The spectacle of the President of the United States having to stand up and take responsibility for the United States government illegally killing American citizens–in this case a citizen held hostage by terrorist adversaries–is something not seen in three decades of covert operations–not since Ronald Reagan stood up to admit he was illegally trading anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles with terrorists to recover U.S. citizens held hostage.

The current situation is worse than deplorable. It has been the position of the United States government at least since the Reagan era that there should be no bargaining for hostages. Thus the Obama administration has consistently obstructed efforts by American families to recover loved ones held hostage overseas, even while countries allied with us work to free their nationals. In the present case, as the public discovered upon revelation of the killing of Warren Weinstein, the family had actually paid a ransom, obtained no assistance from the U.S. in freeing Mr. Weinstein, and now the United States itself kills Mr. Weinstein.

Not knowingly. That is the feeble official defense. The CIA carried out five drone strikes in Pakistan this past January. One of them killed Mr. Weinstein–along with an Italian hostage, two more Americans (who were affiliated with Al Qaeda), and two other persons. The first the CIA knew anything was wrong came when Pakistanis retrieved too many bodies from the rubble. No excuse for that. The January attack was one of those so-called “signature strikes” that have been conducted without specific authorization. There were plenty of complaints at the time these were revealed that the procedure was inherently dangerous and the worst would happen, and now it has.

The presence of the other two Americans killed with Weinstein was also, it is reported, unknown. Both of these men had been sought–one was on the FBI’s “most wanted” list for nearly a decade–but neither figured as a target for this attack. No “Hit List” was approved, Mr. Obama did not deliberate on the mission as he has said he does. Instead, two bad guys are killed by coincidence in an attack deliberately targeting a facility where a good guy dies. “Not knowingly” does not begin to cover the excesses here.

A longstanding complaint about the drone war has been that it amounts to extrajudicial killing–especially egregious where Americans are victims since they possess rights under the U.S. Constitution. The defense has lain precisely in the assertion that due diligence is exerted in making determinations for targets, who are sought only when they cannot otherwise be apprehended. What you see here is the day-to-day reality. In the Gulf War of 1991 they called it “tank plinking.” It’s a blind effort to neutralize targets the CIA or U.S. military assumes have something to do with the enemy. This is an interdiction campaign, not a planned strategy.

Paranoia regarding the terrorist threat has led us to self-defeating tactics. To illegality under the rules of war, extraconstitutionality with respect to American citizens, disutility in serving as a recruiting mechanism for the adversary, and plain bull-headed stupidity, we can now add that any positive effects of the drone war are likely as not accidental. The public can’t know because, of course, that is all secret. There is no accountability whatsoever. It’s no way to run a railroad!

Stan, We Hardly Knew Ya!

April 9, 2015– A couple of weeks ago I was in Charlottesville, Virginia, at the Virginia Festival of the Book, speaking on a panel about American presidents and their audiotapes, most especially the Nixon tapes, at the Miller Center of the University of Virginia, which staged this event. We were a good panel–I had compiled a selection of presidential tape recordings from all who had used them, colleagues Luke Nichter and Ken Hughes, respectively, had co-edited a set of transcriptions specifically of Nixon tapes, or written a book based primarily on the Nixon tapes.

But I remember thinking that Stanley Kutler, the guy who really ought to have been there, was missing. Then today I see he has passed away. Much was lost there. Among historians Stan numbered among those who–absolute bulldogs–never let go until the story is told. The Nixon tapes–more specifically, the American public’s access to them–is one particular legacy of Kutler’s work.

Briefly, the Presidential Records Act of 1978, now credited with preserving the documents of denizens of the White House by making these records government property, actually followed on a Watergate-era law passed to secure Richard Nixon’s documents, including some 3,432 hours of tape recordings. A small fraction of these had been used in the Watergate investigation and prosecutions, but Nixon asserted that his tapes and documents were personal property. The disgraced president was correct in terms of practice–previous presidents had been accorded that privilege (George Washington’s relatives even sold his papers)–but perhaps only because the country had never before been forced to focus on this matter. Presidential documents, after all, are created at government expense, on government equipment, by United States employees, and housed in government facilities.

Based on congressional action the Archivist of the United States took custody of the Nixon records, but the process of opening them to scholars or anyone else halted once Mr. Nixon asserted property rights. Long negotiations followed to establish a “value,” then a price, then haggling. There were some partial deals. The former president asserted that some remnant of the set were exempt as his private records, and continued to dispute releases across the board. Nixon’s tapes and documents languished for decades. Until Stan Cutler took a hand. In 1992 Kutler and the Ralph Nader group Public Citizen filed suit to force release of the material. Under pressure of the lawsuit the Archivist stopped dragging his feet on finalizing the acquisition, and began a more systematic effort to open the files. More years passed while all this material underwent review for secret information.

Dr. Kutler got the first tranche of new tapes and commissioned transcripts, which he used for the eye-opening 1997 collection titled Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes. Since then there have been periodic releases of tapes, until today when we are near the end of the road, with only the last few months of White House tape plus the previously-excised security classified passages still kept in the darkness. But for Stan the public would likely still be waiting.

Stan’s monument of a book The Wars of Watergate, written while the tapes were still a political football, proved surprisingly generous toward a former president who went out of his way to stymie Kutler and all of those who, like him, sought to understand the dark underside of the Nixon White House.

It may be true, as the wags put it, that “even paranoids have real enemies.” But Stanley Kutler was a friend of the truth more than an enemy of Richard Nixon. With the predicament the country is in today, we need friends of the truth more than ever.