April 30, 2001
The Guilt of Political Leaders
By ROBERT MANN
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
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
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
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