January 7, 2018–I want to mark the passing of Marcus G. Raskin, a long-term fighter for progressive causes, who died at home on Christmas Eve. The teaser in the headline refers to a famous passage in the political struggle against the Vietnam war, where the Draft was the vehicle the United States used to fill many of the ranks of those sent to the front. Under U.S. law it was a requirement (mostly honored in the breach) to have on your person a “Draft Card” that identified you and specified your status in terms of being called up for military service. The card was considered property of the United States. While the possession clause was largely ignored, deliberately destroying a Draft Card was a definite no-no. Needless to say, destroying Draft Cards soon became a symbol of resistance to this arbitrary system of filling the armed forces. Marc Raskin and four colleagues–the famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock, the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr., chaplain of Yale University; author Mitchell Goodman, and grad student Michael Ferber–were put on trial in Boston for burning Draft Cards (most, but not all, their own). All the participants except Raskin were convicted at trial (overturned on appeal). Raskin was acquitted. He wanted a retrial!
That was a time when principles were real and citizens deemed civil disobedience necessary to rein in an increasingly imperial presidency. I’ve wondered what Marc thinks about the times through which we live today, but it’s been increasingly difficult for him to express himself. I last saw him about eight months ago and just held his hand. To the earth we all shall return.
But Marcus Goodman Raskin accomplished a number of important things in his time among us. His greatness was prefigured at an early age. His father a plumber, his mother a seamstress, Marc became a concert pianist–good enough for Juilliard, to attend which he dropped out of high school. But Marc was always about convictions. He began in piano at age 4, but at 16, in 1950, Marc decided the nervous tension, even playing just for himself, was too much. Abandoning the piano–though he took a year off after college, in Italy extending his talent–Raskin decided to attend the University of Chicago. There he ran into the future composer Philip Glass, then a student, who asked his help learning the piano. Convinced he saw talent and yearning, Raskin became a coach and helped Glass develop a real technique.
Yet it was in the nation’s service that Marc Raskin really achieved his metier. A Milwaukee boy, Raskin joined the staff of Wisconsin congressman Robert W. Kastenmeier, who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1958. By then Marc had a doctorate in jurisprudence from Chicago. Kastenmeier joined the Liberal Project Group in Congress, an informal circle that commissioned essays, then met to discuss them, attempting todevise policies that were consistent with liberal thinking and solved real problems. Raskin took notes. When the group published a book, The Liberal Papers, Marc contributed an essay and help edit others. That brought wider attention.
When John F. Kennedy won the 1960 elections he needed to staff his administration, including the National Security Council (NSC) staff, as head of which he appointed McGeorge Bundy. Raskin and JFK had shaken hands once, at some congressional function; but Carl Kaysen–Bundy’s right-hand man, and David Riesman, a Harvard social science guru, knew Raskin better. They pushed for him. Kennedy also wanted to build a bridge to liberal Democrats like Kastenmeier. As a result Marcus Raskin was offered a post on the NSC staff.
Raskin’s office was in the Old Executive Office Building, next to one the Mac Bundy occupied before he moved across to the West Wing. Marc’s portfolio was to help with Congress, the United Nations, disarmament issues, and later added the UN trusteeship in Micronesia, Albania and Yugoslavia. Introducing Raskin to his then-NSC deputy, Walt Rostow, Mac Bundy had said, “Marc is going to be our conscience.”
But while these were formal roles, nothing kept Raskin from commenting where he thought some point needed to be made. Early after his inauguration President Kennedy presided over the disastrous CIA invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. That travesty was naturally followed by multiple inquiries, post-mortems, and investigations. All of them included CIA participants among the principals. The most important one, the “Taylor Board”–named for General Maxwell D. Taylor, to whom JFK had taken an especial liking–included CIA director Allen W. Dulles. On May 1, 1961 Raskin wrote a memo to Mac Bundy: “It seems to me that we should have some other kinds of people on the panel which is presently looking into the operation of the CIA.” Marc warned that the inquiries were going to take an operational or tactical view–seeking to optimize techniques, not asking questions like “What is the relation of an outfit like the CIA to a free society?” “How is such an organization going to be held accountable?” “How do we make sure that so-called para-military outfits don’t so completely change the nature of our society and what we want to do internationally that we wind up being as unstable as the Weimar Republic?”
All good questions. All very uncomfortable. None likely to endear Marc to his White House colleagues. Pressures for conformity were great.
Another 1961 episode, quite notorious, concerned U.S. nuclear war plans. There was a terrible moment when the Joint Chiefs of Staff briefed the president on the scenarios in the nuclear plan, responses that would automatically go into effect if Kennedy ever approved a nuclear strike. The generals estimated that Russia and China would be devastated and the world suffer between 325 and 525 million deaths. Kennedy was horrified. He demanded changes. Today Dan Ellsberg is taking credit for sparkplugging reductions in the war plan that took China, at least, off the target list, but the truth is that the push for more limited options came from right inside the White House. There was a basic national security policy paper (BNSP) drafted at RAND in the fall of 1961, but it could be read either to justify big war or limited strikes. A rewrite at the Pentagon, where the issue of limited options became confused with the option of an early, counterforce strike to disarm the Russians, sounded to Raskin like a formula to start a nuclear war. Raskin had been attending all kinds of meetings on this matter in his capacity of NSC specialist on disarmament. Carl Kaysen had headed the White House team, and the latest rewrite of the BNSP paper sounded like Kaysen had had a hand in it. Raskin went to Kaysen to object that the BNSP looked like a first-strike war plan. Kaysen demurred. Raskin then asked how Kaysen thought the United States was different from the people who had loaded the boxcars for Auschwitz. After that day the two men hardly spoke again.
Meanwhile The Liberal Papers actually appeared in print, and though Mac Bundy had induced Raskin to take his name off of it, it came out that Marc had had a lot to do with that project. To get Raskin out of the White House he was packed off to Geneva, to the U.S. delegation at negotiations for General and Complete Disarmament, which had largely devolved into a propaganda forum where the communist bloc and the West hurled charges at each other. A year of that soured Marc Raskin on changes from within the government, and that is when he joined up with a similarly disillusioned ex-State Department fellow, Richard J. Barnet, to create the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS).
Most of the obituaries and commentaries on Marc Raskin have centered on the IPS years. That’s fine, because IPS really became lodestar–for Raskin and Barnet both. But these early stories are important because they show the man of principle. I’ll tell one more story. It’s about the Pentagon Papers. By 1970 Dan Ellsberg–like Marc himself–was fighting against the Vietnam war. Ellsberg had tried to get Congress to take heed of the revelations in these important documents. Importantly, he had taken them to senators like J. William Fulbright and George S. McGovern. On The Hill, congresspeople were sympathetic to Ellsberg but then never followed through. That’s when Ellsberg began approaching the media. He also went to IPS. The Institute did not get a full set of the Pentagon Papers but it got enough of the 7,000 pages to fill a banker’s box–and the IPSers did not sit on them. In early 1972 they hit with a book in preparation from before the big scandal broke in June 1971. Raskin joined with Barnet and Ralph Stavins to publish Washington Plans an Aggressive War. The title was a play on the Nuremberg Principles, for Germans and Japanese had been sent to prison–and the gallows–for planning and waging “aggressive war” in World War II. Marc’s piece in the book dealt with Congress permitting the erosion of its power, the presidency dangerously out of control, and–following his passion for disarmament– the possibilities for a political system loosely based on the post-World War II measures to demilitarize Japan (in particular) and Germany.
To the end Marc Raskin remained a man of principles. The contrast to today’s enablers in the White House, from John Kelly to “Appropriate Dereliction” McMasters, are palpable. America needs more like Raskin, not like them.