Fifty years ago, a remarkable thing happened in America. A pro-peace candidate, George McGovern, won the nomination for one of America’s two major political parties. Of course, McGovern went on to lose big time to Richard Nixon in the fall, but his rise within the Democratic Party, much of it driven by grassroots activism, still inspires hope.
McGovern was right in 1972 in his justly famous “Come home, America” speech after he gained the nomination. It’s time to end overseas wars and military adventurism and heal our divisions here at home. The big problem, of course, is that so many powerful elements within the U.S. thrive best when the masses are kept busy fighting each other.
A friend posted this image on Facebook, which sums up much of America’s predicament today:
To borrow from my father once again, in America the rich are getting richer and the poor poorer. And the rich have neither sympathy nor use for the poor. Unless by “use” you mean soldiers for empire, cleaners for mansions, and so on.
What is to be done? People ask me this a lot, expecting me to have a magical solution. I say fight the best you can, using your skills and the tools at your disposal. But make sure you’re fighting the right people and forces. Don’t fight your neighbors within the terrarium. Fight the powerful who are preventing change by keeping us divided, distracted, and downtrodden.
In the presidential election of 1972, Richard Nixon destroyed George McGovern. McGovern won only one state, and it wasn’t even his home state. Of course, Nixon soon experienced his own destruction with Watergate, but the fact remains that McGovern and the Liberal/Left wing of the Democratic party never fully recovered from their drubbing in 1972.
And what a shame that was for America. I’ve been reading “The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party,” by Bruce Miroff, and the more I read, the more impressed I am by McGovern’s principled stance against the Vietnam War, and war in general.
Miroff cites a Senate speech McGovern made in September of 1970 that deeply impressed me. McGovern didn’t mince words as he called his fellow senators to account for their complicity in approving and continuing war in Southeast Asia:
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. And if we do not end this damnable war, those young men will some day curse us for our pitiful willingness to let the Executive carry the burden that the Constitution places on us.
Blunt and powerful words! How refreshing they are compared to the weasel words that come from Congress today. Unsurprisingly, McGovern’s principled stance against the war, and his gutsy call for the Congress to do something to stop it, were unpopular among his fellow senators. He didn’t care about them. He cared about saving lives and ending war.
Now, what was Nixon up to? He’d hoped he’d be running against McGovern, expecting he’d be vulnerable to dirty tricks. Reading Miroff, I discovered that Nixon, among other dirty tricks, actually discussed planting McGovern campaign material in the apartment of Arthur Bremer, the man who’d tried to assassinate George Wallace in May of 1972. Nixon’s scheme was only abandoned when it was learned the FBI had already sealed Bremer’s apartment.
Think of Nixon’s scheme here. He was already well ahead of McGovern in the polls, his reelection a near-certainty, yet Nixon would stop at nothing to tear McGovern down. It was such dirty tricks, of course, that would lead to Nixon’s downfall with Watergate.
History shows that Nixon won the election of 1972, but McGovern was the real winner in life. Nixon continued to prosecute a war with devastating consequences; McGovern fought to stop it. Nixon ran a dishonorable campaign; McGovern a hopeful one, an idealistic one, one that called on Americans to live up to their rhetoric of freedom and self-determination and charity.
What does Hillary Clinton stand for? It’s a serious question. Sure, she’s given a lot of speeches, but without saying much. I’ve watched the debates and have listened to her speak, and the best I can come up with is this:
She’s continuing the legacy of Obama. For example, Obamacare will be extended to cover all Americans.
She’s going to break the glass ceiling that has blocked a woman from being president.
She loves Israel and will support whatever the Israeli government wants.
She’s going to work to raise the minimum wage for workers — $12.00 is the goal.
She’s going to work against the TPP (after she was initially for it).
She’s against the Keystone Pipeline (after initially supporting it).
She’s fully for equality for the LGBT community (after initially being against it).
She’s for an aggressive U.S. military posture and fully supports enormous defense budgets.
She’s not going to do dumb things like that scary Donald Trump.
She’s got a lot of experience in government. The length of her resume alone qualifies her to be president.
That’s the gist of her message as far as I’ve been able to discern. Of course, there are other messages for her followers. Surely Hillary will support reproductive rights, to include access to abortion. Surely she will appoint justices to the Supreme Court that are somewhere to the left of Antonin Scalia. Such considerations shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
But a new path for our country? Fresh ideas? They’re not coming from Hillary. Important issues like campaign finance reform, reforming banks and other powerful financial institutions, reducing income inequality in the United States, and similar issues of reform and fairness are dead on arrival if she’s elected president.
Also, Hillary’s embrace of Henry Kissinger as well as neo-conservative principles in foreign policy ensures a continuation of wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and locations throughout the Greater Middle East. (When I first typed that, I unconsciously wrote, Greater Military East, because America’s engagement with the region is almost exclusively conducted in military terms, via bombing, drone strikes, and special ops raids).
The Clinton Campaign’s strategy of being fuzzy about specifics while vilifying her chief opponent (admittedly not difficult to do if your opponent is Trump) reminds me of a book I read many, many moons ago: “The Selling of the President 1968,” by Joe McGinniss. What I recall from that book was the cynical process of triangulation and secrecy as well as the tight control of “the message” by Candidate Nixon and his cronies, the cagey and sleazy way Nixon and his campaign refused to engage honestly with the American people. His campaign in 1968 foreshadowed the crimes of Nixon and his administration to come, most infamously Watergate. At the root was an attitude of privilege, superiority, and entitlement, a sense that Nixon had paid his dues and deserved to be president. Dammit, it was HIS turn. And look at the length of his resume!
Much can be said about comparing Hillary to “Tricky Dick.” Long political careers tainted by scandal. High negative ratings. A tendency by each to see vast right wing (or left wing) conspiracies, and therefore to compensate by surrounding themselves with trusted operatives, sycophants, and strap-hangers. A desire to appear tough, whether it’s about standing up to terrorists or communists.
After eight years of “No drama Obama,” perhaps the American people prefer a return to the paranoid style of politics of Richard Nixon — and Hillary Clinton. A style that’s economical with the truth, led by a person who believes himself — or herself — to be the smartest and toughest person in the room.
But I already saw how that ended in 1974; I’m not voting for a repeat, even if the dramatic lead this time around is female.
Hillary Clinton is a deeply compromised candidate. She and her husband have made over $125 million in paid speeches since 2001, including $30 million in 16 months. There’s nothing wrong with making lots of money: this is America, after all. But there’s something wrong about accepting big checks from powerful banks and investment houses and then positioning yourself as the champion of “everyday people” in your run for the presidency.
Along with her close alliance with Wall Street, Hillary is essentially a neo-conservative on foreign policy who admires the Real Politik of men like Henry Kissinger. She promises more interventionism overseas and doubtless more wars. She is especially close to Israel and advertises herself as a loyal ally to Benjamin Netanyahu.
The person she most closely resembles in recent U.S. politics is Richard Nixon. Like Nixon, she’s aggressive in foreign policy (recall her infamous quip about the fall of Qaddafi in Libya: “We came, we saw, he died”). Like Nixon, she is secretive and economical with the truth, despite her truth-telling vows. Like Nixon, she is a complex person, not without talent, but a person who often doesn’t appear fully comfortable, especially when pressed about her record. Like Nixon, she leaves very little to chance; there’s calculation to nearly everything she does.
A Hillary Clinton administration promises to be even less transparent than Obama’s. It would be more in service to the powers that be (big money donors such as the health care industry will come calling for their payback, and they’ll get it). Despite protestations of being “progressive,” a Clinton administration promises to be regressive in terms of peace, social progress, and fairness for the working classes.
Despite this, her path to the presidency seems remarkably clear. Bernie Sanders, an honest man of conviction, lacks establishment support. Hillary’s Republican opponent of the moment, Donald Trump, is an opportunistic business tycoon who apparently says whatever pops into his head. Trump may be the one candidate with more negative baggage than Hillary.
A Hillary/Trump matchup this fall promises lots of drama, but it’s a lose/lose scenario for anyone looking for real progressive change.
And Nixon said, “Let there be tapes.” And there was surveillance — and knowledge of good and evil — and a multitude of dirty tricks. And Nixon thought it was good. And American democracy was fallen, forevermore.
And after Nixon slew democracy, the Founders asked him where it was. And Nixon replied, “I know not. Am I democracy’s keeper?” And so he was banished, somewhere east of San Bernardino.
In his powerful introduction to Tim Weiner’s new book, Tom Engelhardt argues that Richard Nixon was in a sense the progenitor of today’s national security and surveillance state. That state seeks to sweep up everything, to know everything, because it mistrusts everyone, and because it seeks power over everyone, just as Nixon sought nearly half a century ago. If today’s surveillance state has a Bible (highly secret, no doubt, so how would I know?), Nixon contributed some of the earliest passages to its Book of Genesis.
How did our government come to implement on a macro scale what Nixon implemented on a micro (and microphone) scale? How did “dirty tricks” become legion — for they are many — in our government? Read on! W.J. Astore
Nixon’s Genesis of the Paranoid National Security State
Let me give you a reason that’s anything but historical for reading Tim Weiner’s remarkable new book, One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon. Mind you, with the last of the secret Nixon White House tapes finally made public some 40 years after the first of them were turned over to courts, prosecutors, and Congress, this will undoubtedly be the ultimate book on that president’s reign of illegality.
Still, think about the illegal break-in (or black-bag job) at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist committed by a group of Nixon White House operatives dubbed “the Plumbers”; the breaking into and bugging of the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters at the Watergate office complex; the bugging, using warrantless wiretaps, of the phones of administration aides and prominent media figures distrusted by the president and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger; the slush funds Nixon and his cronies created for his reelection campaign; the favors, including ambassadorships, they sold for “donations” to secure a second term in office; the privatized crew of contractors they hired to do their dirty work; the endemic lying, deceit, and ever more elaborate cover-ups of illegalities at home and of extra-constitutional acts in other countries, including secret bombing campaigns, as well as an attempt to use the CIA to quash an FBI investigation of White House activities on “national security grounds.” Put it all together and you have something like a White House-centered, first-draft version of the way the national security state works quite “legally” in the twenty-first century.
As a bonus, you also get a preview of the kinds of money machinations that, with the backing of the Supreme Court four decades later, would produce our present 1% democracy. The secret political funds Nixon and his cronies finagled from the wealthy outside the law have now been translated into perfectly legal billionaire-funded super PACs that do everything from launching candidate ad blitzes to running ground campaigns for election 2016.
Read Weiner’s new book — he’s also the author of a classic history of the CIA and another on the FBI — and it turns out that the president who resigned from office in disgrace in August 1974 provided a blueprint for the world that Washington would construct after the 9/11 attacks. If Weiner’s vision of Nixon is on the mark, then we never got rid of him. We still live in a Nixonian world. And if you need proof of that, just think about his infamous urge to listen in on and tape everyone. Does that sound faintly familiar?
Nixon had the Secret Service turn the Oval Office (five microphones in his desk, two at a sitting area), its telephones, the Cabinet Room (two mics), and his “hideaway” in the Executive Office Building into recording studios. He bugged his own life, ensuring that anything you said to the president of the United States would be recorded, thousands and thousands of hours of it. He was theoretically going to use those recordings for a post-presidential memoir (from which he hoped to make millions) and as a defense against whatever Henry Kissinger might someday write about him.
But whatever the initial impulse may have been, the point was to miss nothing. No one was to be exempted, including Nixon’s closest companions in office, no one but the president himself. He would know what others wouldn’t and act accordingly (though in the end he didn’t). What was one man’s mania for bugging and recording his world has become, in the twenty-first century, the NSA’s mania for bugging and recording the whole planet; a president’s mad vision, that is, somehow morphed into the modern surveillance state. The scale is staggeringly different, but conceptually it’s surprising how little has changed.
After all, the NSA’s global surveillance network was set up on the Nixonian principle of sweeping it all up — the words, in whatever form, of everyone who was anyone (and lots of people who weren’t). A generation of German politicians, Brazilians galore, terror suspects as well as just about anyone with a cell phone in the tribal backlands of the planet, twopresidents of Mexico, three German chancellors, three French presidents, at least 35 heads of state, the secretary general of the U.N., and so on. The list was unending. As with Nixon, only officials of the national security state were to know that all our communications were being logged and stored. Only they were to be exempt from potential scrutiny. (Hence their utter outrage when Edward Snowden revealed their racket to the world.) Like Nixon, they would, in the end, be left with the same hopeless, incriminating overload of words. They would sweep it all up and yet, drowning in data, they wouldn’t hear a thing.
So pick up Tim Weiner’s new book and don’t for a second imagine that it’s ancient history. Think of it as the book of Genesis for the American national security state’s Bible. In the meantime, thanks to the kindness of Weiner’s publisher, Henry Holt, TomDispatch offers a little taste of the lead-up to the last days of Richard Nixon from One Man Against the World — of the moment when his system began to cave in and threatened to bury him alive. Someday, we can only hope, the same thing will happen to those responsible for similar acts on an unimaginably larger scale in our own time.
In April of 2009, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com on the situation in Afghanistan. During his 2008 campaign for President, Obama had claimed that Afghanistan was the right war to be fighting, and that Bush and Company had taken their eye off the Afghan ball when they chose to invade Iraq in 2003.
Here we are in August 2014 and the news from Afghanistan is about as grim as one could expect. This week has witnessed costly “insider” attacks that killed an American major general as well as eleven Afghan police officers. Progress toward democratic reforms and political stability remains elusive. U.S. efforts to reshape and rebuild Afghanistan have cost more than $100 billion, exceeding the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II, but without corresponding results.
Obama appears to be channeling Richard Nixon. Publicly, he’s seeking “peace with honor” in Afghanistan. Privately, he’s seeking a “decent interval” between when the U.S. exits Afghanistan for good and when Afghanistan returns to Taliban and tribal control, i.e. chaos, or at least that’s my guess. The “fall” of Afghanistan will then become a political football, with Republicans attempting to paint Democrats as being spineless in leaving Afghanistan, whereas the Democrats will likely paint Afghan leaders as corrupt and incompetent and ungrateful. Perhaps a Democratic candidate will emerge in 2020 to explain to Americans that our failed efforts in Afghanistan were nevertheless part of a “noble cause” in the global war on terror.
What follows is my article from April of 2009. I think lesson (2) below will be especially telling in the weeks and months ahead.
Mary McCarthy in Vietnam, Barack Obama in Afghanistan
Seven Lessons and Many Questions for the President
By William Astore
In 1967, outraged by the course of the Vietnam War, as well as her country’s role in prolonging and worsening it, Mary McCarthy, novelist, memoirist, and author of the bestseller The Group, went to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to judge the situation for herself. The next year, she went to the North Vietnamese capital, Hanoi. She wrote accounts of both journeys, published originally in pamphlet format as Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968), and later gathered with her other writings on Vietnam as a book, The Seventeenth Degree (1974). As pamphlets, McCarthy’s accounts sold poorly and passed into obscurity; deservedly so, some would say.
Those who’d say this, however, would be wrong. McCarthy brought a novelist’s keen eye to America’s activities and its rhetoric in Vietnam. By no means a military expert, not even an expert on Vietnam — she only made a conscious decision to study the war in Vietnam after she returned from her trip to Saigon — her impressionistic writings were nevertheless insightful precisely because she had long been a critical thinker beholden to no authority.
Her insights into our approach to war-fighting and to foreign cultures are as telling today as they were 40 years ago, so much so that President Obama and his advisors might do well to add her unconventional lessons to their all-too-conventional thinking on our spreading war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
What were those lessons? Here are seven of them, each followed by questions that, four decades later, someone at President Obama’s next press conference should consider asking him:
1. McCarthy’s most fundamental objection was to the way, in Vietnam, the U.S. government decided to apply “technology and a superior power to a political situation that will not yield to this.” At the very least, the United States was guilty of folly, but McCarthy went further. She condemned our technocentric and hegemonic form of warfare as “wicked” because of its “absolute indifference to the cost in human lives” to the Vietnamese people.
Even in 1967, the widespread, at times indiscriminate, nature of American killing was well known. For example, U.S. planes dropped roughly 7 million tons of bombs on Vietnam and parts of Laos and Cambodia during the war, nearly five times the tonnage used against Germany during World War II. The U.S. even waged war on the Vietnamese jungle and forest, which so effectively hid Vietnamese guerrilla forces, spraying roughly 20 million gallons of toxic herbicides (including the dioxin-contaminated Agent Orange) on it.
In her outrage, McCarthy dared to compare the seeming indifference of many of her fellow citizens toward the blunt-edged sword of technological destruction we had loosed on Vietnam to the moral obtuseness of ordinary Germans under Adolf Hitler.
Questions for President Obama: Aren’t we once again relying on the destructive power of technology to “solve” complex political and religious struggles? Aren’t we yet again showing indifference to the human costs of war, especially when borne by non-Americans? Even though we’re using far fewer bombs in the Af-Pak highlands than we did in Vietnam, aren’t we still morally culpable when these “precision-guided munitions” miss their targets and instead claim innocents, or hit suspected “terrorists” who suddenly morph into wedding parties? In those cases, do we not seek false comfort in the phrase, C’est la guerre, or at least that modern equivalent: unavoidable collateral damage?
2. As Richard Nixon campaigned for the presidency in 1968 by calling for “peace with honor” in Vietnam, McCarthy offered her own warning about the dangers that arose when the office of the presidency collided with an American desire never to be labeled a loser: “The American so-called free-enterprise system, highly competitive, investment-conscious, expansionist, repels a loser policy by instinctive defense movements centering in the ganglia of the presidency. No matter what direction the incumbent, as candidate, was pointing in, he slowly pivots once he assumes office.”
Questions for President Obama: Have you, like Vietnam-era presidents, pivoted toward yet another surge simply to avoid the label of “loser” in Afghanistan? And if the cost of victory (however defined) is hundreds, or even thousands, more American military casualties, hundreds of billions of additional dollars spent, and extensive collateral damage and blowback, will this “victory” not be a pyrrhic one, achieved at a price so dear as to be indistinguishable from defeat?
3. Though critical of the U.S. military in Vietnam, McCarthy was even more critical of American civilian officials there. “On the whole,” she wrote, they “behaved like a team of promoters with a dubious ‘growth’ stock they were brokering.” At least military men were often more forthright than the civilians, if not necessarily more self-aware, McCarthy noted, because they were part of the war — the product, so to speak — not its salesmen.
Questions for President Obama: In promising to send a new “surge” of State Department personnel and other civilians into Afghanistan, are you prepared as well to parse their words? Are you braced in case they sell you a false bill of goods, even if the sellers themselves, in their eagerness to speak fairy tales to power, continually ignore the Fantasyland nature of their tale?
4.Well before Bush administration officials boasted about creating their own reality and new “facts on the ground” in Iraq, Mary McCarthy recognized the danger of another type of “fact”: “The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off — not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment… is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable.”
Questions for President Obama: If your surge in Afghanistan fails, will you be able to de-escalate as quickly as you escalated? Or will the fact that you’ve put more troops in harm’s way (with all their equipment and all the money that will go into new base and airfield and road construction), and committed more of your prestige to prevailing, make it even harder to consider leaving?
5.A cursory reading of The Pentagon Papers, the famously secret government documents on Vietnam leaked to the New York Times by Daniel Ellsberg, reveals how skeptical America’s top officials were, early on, in pursuing a military solution to the situation in South Vietnam. Nevertheless, knowing better, the “best and brightest,” as journalist David Halberstam termed them in his famous, ironic book title, still talked themselves into it; and they did so, as McCarthy noted, because they set seemingly meaningful goals (“metrics” or “benchmarks,” we’d say today), which they then convinced themselves they were actually achieving. When you trick yourself into believing that you’re meeting your goals, as Halberstam noted, there’s no reason to reexamine your course of action.
Questions for President Obama: Much has been written about an internal struggle within your administration over the wisdom of surging in Afghanistan. Now, you, too, have called for the setting of “benchmarks” for your new strategy’s success. Are you wise enough to set them to capture the complexities of political realities on the ground rather than playing to American strengths? Are you capable of re-examining them, even when your advisors assure you that they are being achieved?
6.In her day, Mary McCarthy recognized the inequities of burden-sharing at home when it came to the war in Vietnam: “Casualty figures, still low [in 1967], seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups — the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices [among the privileged classes] has had its effect on the opposition [to the war], which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices — what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it — a connection that is more evident to a low-grade G.I. in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.”
Questions for President Obama: Are you willing to listen to the common G.I. as well as to the generals who have your ear? Are you willing to insist on greater equity in burden-sharing, since once again most of the burden of Iraq and Afghanistan has fallen on “the silent part of society”? Are you able to recognize that the “best and brightest” in the corridors of power may not be the wisest exactly because they have so little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from our “overseas contingency operations”?
7.McCarthy was remarkably perceptive when it came to the seductiveness of American technological prowess. Our technological superiority, she wrote, was a large part of “our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there… The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit.”
Questions for President Obama: Rather than providing us with a war-winning edge, might our robot drones, satellite imagery, and all our other gadgetry of war seduce us into believing that we can “prevail” at a reasonable and sustainable cost? Indeed, do we think we should prevail precisely because our high-tech military brags of “full spectrum dominance”?
One bonus lesson from Mary McCarthy before we take our leave of her: Even now, we speak too often of “Bush’s war” or, more recently, “Obama’s war.” Before we start chattering mindlessly about Iraq and Afghanistan as American tragedies, we would do well to recall what McCarthy had to say about the war in Vietnam: “There is something distasteful,” she wrote, “in the very notion of approaching [Vietnam] as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan [President Lyndon Baines Johnson].”
Yes, there is something distasteful about a media that blithely refers to Bush’s or Obama’s war as hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans suffer. For American troops, after all, are not the only ones paying the ultimate price when the U.S. fights foreign wars for ill-considered reasons and misguided goals.
CBS News has an article that shows that President Richard Nixon sought to cover up the My Lai Massacre during the Vietnam War. The article draws from notes taken at the time by H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff and hatchet man. The notes suggest that Nixon ordered “dirty tricks” to discredit the testimony of the true Army heroes who intervened to stop the massacre. It further suggests neutralizing the gory details of My Lai by playing up atrocities committed by communist forces at Huế (“You think we’re bad in massacring innocents at My Lai? Well, the commies are a lot worse”).
Here are Haldeman’s notes from his meeting with Nixon:
Note that My Lai is treated as a problem in public relations, not as a war crime. It’s to be managed by dirty tricks and the exploitation of a senator or two. As long as we all stay on the same page and spout the same message (while suppressing the facts and intimidating and discrediting witnesses), My Lai and the 504 Vietnamese killed there in 1968 can just be made to disappear. That’s the gist of Haldeman’s notes.
Haldeman’s notes are further evidence of what The Contrary Perspectiveargued previously on the Vietnam War: We lost more than a war in Vietnam. We lost our humanity.