New York Times 30 April and 2nd May 2001
April 30, 2001

The Guilt of Political Leaders


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

Traumas of Vietnam


To the Editor:

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 children.

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 devastated country.  


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 1992.

Dr. Martin Gittelman
Director, NYU-OMH Program for Psychiatric Rehabilitation
NYU Medical School
100 West 94th
New York, NY 10025
Tel.: +1 212 369 0500
Fax: +1 212 663 0131
email: gittem01@med.nyu.edu

Mental Health Workers Without Borders
c/o Martin Gittelman
100 W. 94th Street
New York, NY 10025