Lawrence R. Velvel: Halberstam And History
Re: Halberstam And History.
January 4, 2008
From: Dean Lawrence R. Velvel
It is often remarked that Korea is a war about which most of us know little or nothing. It is called a black hole by the late David Halberstam in his recent book about it, The Coldest Winter. I personally knew very little about it before reading Halberstam’s book: I was not yet eleven when it started, so, unlike Viet Nam, which was a focus because it took place in my 20s, Korea did not stick in my mind. Halberstam himself knew little about Korea, he says, before he set out to research and write his book about a war which began when he was 16, but which came to interest him because of talks he had about it in Viet Nam in the early 1960s with a colonel who had fought in Korea.
Halberstam has provided us a remedy for our ignorance. His book, which some reviewers have called the best general history of the war, extensively informs about the background to Korea, the main players, the style of war fought there, and, perhaps above all, the long list of mistakes by both sides. Near the end of the work, on pages 631-632, he summarizes major mistakes on each side. It is quite appalling, especially because the previous 600 plus pages have given one an appreciation for what this summary really means.
No attempt will be made here to review the content of a book that is well north of 600 pages in length. Rather, the focus will be on certain points that repeated themselves from Korea onward, that are of particular human interest to me, or both. Points that repeated themselves -- a fact that Halberstam mentions only glancingly -- did so with regard to Viet Nam, with regard to Gulf II, and, potentially, with regard to Iran or other present or future problems. They illustrate something that historians generally do not care to discuss, but that seem to me to be of the essence, seem to me to be the most important and one of the most interesting reasons to study history. Patterns of thought and conduct repeat themselves, often again and again. If we were willing to learn from the past -- which in matters such as war and peace Americans generally are not, except for people who (now usually wrongly) always react in the same slavering way to the word “Munich” -- we could avoid making the same mistakes over and over again. (It is a disastrously curious thing that in everyday life we make a practice of operating on the basis of the lessons of experience, but in our public matters we ignore patterns that constantly repeat themselves.)
Not only do patterns repeat themselves in history in “big” ways, a number of which will be discussed below in connection with Halberstam’s book, but “smaller” items of human conduct (and sometimes resulting consequences) also repeat themselves within given fields. Even more importantly, and as is often true as well of “big” matters too - - like the question of secrecy discussed below in connection with Hallerstam’s book - - they repeat themselves not just within given fields, but across fields, sometimes across all fields it seems. And they too have consequences. Yet we pay little attention to this existence across fields, partly because of lack of ready intellectual access to this phenomenon and partly because of failure to recognize its importance.
I shall give some examples that have stuck in my mind of phenomena that are true across fields or that have existed previously within a field. Examples that I noted when I read of them, and promptly forgot about, are probably legion.
Here are examples of “large” phenomena that exist across or within fields and that have stuck in my mind because I wrote about or wanted to do a conference on them. One subject that cuts across fields is secrecy. As discussed below in connection with Halberstam’s book, secrecy is everywhere in America, so it exists across fields as well as within them. But so little is written about it except with regard to national security matters that our law school was unable to put together a conference dealing with its vast but unacknowledged breadth and consequences. Another example is ghostwriting, about which I’ve written, with its many bad consequences. This too is a subject which exists broadly - - in academia, in medicine, in politics, in business, in the publishing industry. Yet one cannot get anything like a full handle on it, or on its bevy of consequences, because it is not usually written of except when it causes major problems in a particular field, like medicine.
Here are some “smaller” examples. Once, perhaps about twelve or fifteen years ago -- it could be more, it could be less, I really can’t remember -- I was writing about the fact that many law professors have an easy job. It occurred to me that decades before I had read a statement by a guy who said a reason he had quit being a law professor was that it was the only job he knew of that could be done in ten minutes a day. The only things I could remember about the fellow was that he had been a lawyer and a law professor, but now was a businessman. I asked our library to see if it could find out who he was. The internet having come into existence in some form at the time, the library did learn who he is: David Bonderman, a founder of Texas Pacific, now one of the nation’s largest private investment firms, a firm that is a major rival to Kohl, Kravis, the Carlyle Group, Blackstone, etc.
Why is this of consequence? Because it is one thing for some unknown law dean of a small school in Massachusetts -- a dean and school even more unknown then than now -- to say that law professors do not do much work. But it is quite another thing for the same point to have been made by the likes of David Bonderman. The views of an unknown dean of an unknown school can readily be dismissed by the big shots. Not so readily the views of a David Bonderman.
Here is a second example to the same effect. Fifteen or twenty years ago I was in some connection making the point that law professors are very stubborn, argumentative people. I recollected reading decades before, in his autobiography, that James Bryant Conant, the former President of Harvard and a major player in the Manhattan project, who when President of Harvard had made a point of visiting a meeting of each Harvard faculty, had gone to a Harvard law faculty meeting but had never returned because he found the Harvard law faculty to be the most argumentative, stubborn group of men he had ever seen. Again, I asked some of MSL’s people to look this up. They had to get Conant’s book and go through it, all of which took a few days, but they found what I had recollected. Once again, it was one thing for an unknown dean in Massachusetts to make the point -- he could be easily sloughed off by the profession’s big shots. James Bryant Conant cannot be so easily sloughed off.
Bonderman and Conant were speaking about a field I was writing on, but illustrate a much larger point, especially because, as said, one finds the same kinds of conduct or actions in field after field (even if -- like Eisenhower being unable to remember at a press conference any contribution Nixon had made to the Eisenhower administration’s ideas, and so said that if the reporters would give him a week he would come up with something - - I cannot now remember specific examples although I’ve seen many). The larger point is that persons who are dissenters in their fields are often dismissed as dealing in mirage or mistake or as just wrong. Yet, if they could point to the oft repeated prior occurrence elsewhere of the phenomena or actions they decry, it would be much harder to dismiss them as lunkheads, mere radicals, or criers of wolf. Harry Truman once said that the only thing new under the sun is the history you don’t know. Yet Americans know little history; and commonly laugh at or scorn the views of people who say things that are different and who themselves do not know there is history on their side although it may be history in other fields. The chances of our accepting truth might be significantly better if dissenters had access to and knew the history in other fields that supports them, or even the history in their own fields that does.
In the past there was little or no access to such history, especially across fields. Economists read economists, not microbiologists. Psychologists read psychologists, not chemists. And so on. But the internet may make it possible to overcome the walled off character of reading, the more so as Google’s book project proceeds and as other companies undertake the same or similar projects. (This prognosticating, mind you, from a guy who does not even know how to turn on a computer.) If one can put in the right words in a search engine, one might come up with huge lists of examples of a particular phenomenon, and of the good or bad that it has caused, in a host of fields and over time. To give but one illustration of a characteristic that was present to a fare thee well in Douglas MacArthur -- and that is rather more broadly known than many -- take the question of arrogance. What if one were to “Google” arrogance, or arrogance plus mistakes, or some similar words, when all the world’s written works or even a large share of the world’s written products are on line? One would doubtlessly come up with a list of disasters linked to arrogance that might cause even the most arrogant person to be very careful. One would be swamped, I imagine. Or what if one were to Google “obstinacy and argumentativeness” (or some similar phrases) (ala Conant’s experience), or “lack of work” or “lack of effort” or some similar words (ala Bonderman’s)? If my non-computer-user’s view is correct despite my technological backwardness, the internet might provide the Great Leap Forward that the Chinese Communists used to talk about, but in a different way. Characteristics, or particular types of actions, and often the very same ones, and the consequences of the characteristics or actions, seem to me to be the great driver of events in field after field, yet usually they are not in themselves the focus of historians. If we were to be able to focus, and were to begin to focus, on them in and of themselves, and to assess what they led to in case after case, we might -- one thinks we would -- benefit immensely in deciding what to do in the present and future.
But I digress, lengthily. Albeit not really because, while these ruminations have been in my head a long time, they were called forth by matters written of by Halberstam, even if such matters are generally more of the world shaking kind than of the less noticed type that I personally see or read of from time to time. Let me, then, start a discussion of some of Halberstam’s points with some of his views of Douglas MacArthur.
Halberstam is fair to people. He tells you both their good and bad points. But he also tells you where he comes down on them in the end. And where he comes down on MacArthur is that the general’s reputation cannot survive Halberstam’s scathing smashing up, at least not his reputation from the start of the Korean War onwards, nor various aspects of it from before that war (the Bonus Army, making his planes a sitting duck for Japanese attack, leaving Bataan). MacArthur was arrogant, racist, delusional (the word “madness” is often used with regard to him and his top commanders in Halberstam’s book), not infrequently a liar (like Bill Clinton, he believed the truth was whatever served his purpose at the moment), a demander of yes men and sycophants, and concerned obsessively with his own public relations and image, which were polished by a never ceasing P.R. machine. He had around him some men -- his personal favorites -- whose reputations, as one can well imagine of persons who suck up to a MacArthur, can likewise not survive Halberstam’s onslaught, Generals Almond and Willoughby (nee Weidenbach, apparently -- he originally was a Prussian) exemplify.
MacArthur believed and told everyone the Chinese wouldn’t enter the war, and that if they did, they would be resoundingly defeated. His view, supported by his sycophants, including his intelligence chief, Willoughby, was delusional - - it ignored or played down or doctored a tremendous amount of intelligence data. It was racist. It was arrogant. It was wrong. It led to hundreds of thousands, maybe almost 1.5 million unnecessary deaths, including a huge number of the 33,000 American dead. The guy was simply a wacked out right winger by the time of Korea.
The ignoring of intelligence, the doctoring of truth, the lies, were one of those things we’ve seen repeatedly from 1950 onwards: the Gulf of Tonkin in Viet Nam, body counts there, denials of escalation there, hiding of secret wars in Southeast Asia, WMDs in Iraq, denials of torture - - you name it, we’ve had it. MacArthur set the stage, if not the pattern. (Perhaps the pattern goes back to the Indian wars or, at minimum, the Spanish American war.) Sometimes the lies have been by the military (MacArthur, Tonkin, body counts), sometimes by the politicians (Tonkin, denials of escalation, secret wars, WMDs). But always there have been lies. Always, too, there were people who knew or suspected the truth, but weren’t listened to.
Fakery and lies have been one of those patterns that have gotten us into trouble time and time again. They continue. But does anyone study, does any historian study, the pattern of, or impact of, lies as a continuing genre of conduct, as a continuing matter of conduct in American foreign policy, not to mention domestic affairs and everyday life as well? Not that I know of. And this despite the fact that lies and dishonesty, as I’ve written elsewhere, are probably the major cause of disaster. They exist all the time. They cause foreign, domestic and personal disaster all the time. But they are not studied. They are not a genre of the history profession. The history profession is obviously lacking in this respect.
Often closely related to lies are miscalculations – which can occur because ideas or plans are based on falsehoods. The incredible list of miscalculations in Korea cost about 1.5 million lives, all told. Just a few of them were that the Russians gave the North Koreans a green light to go south because they thought the Americans would not come in. The North Korean leader thought he could win the war in just a few weeks. The Americans expected the North Koreans to be lousy soldiers and phenomenally underestimated the Red Chinese military. MacArthur proclaimed the Chinese would not come in though there were ample signs and warnings that they would. MacArthur insisted on going to the Yalu (instead of stopping at a defensible line across the neck of North Korea). Mao thought his troops could be more successful against the Americans than they ultimately were. The whole thing was a massive strategic eff up by both sides. And this is not even to mention “lesser” effects of miscalculations, like when the high command insisted that our forces retreat on a road south through a continuous gauntlet of Chinese ambushes -- the famous retreat from the Chosin reservoir -- instead of allowing them to escape via a road west that was open and that one unit, disobeying orders because their situation had become so desperate, finally took and along which it escaped with little opposition. Also, American racism was one of the reasons the high command miscalculated that our opponents would be ineffective (and also caused Almond to be against integration in American units). The whole war was an object lesson in the fact that war is not merely death and horrible injury, it is also death and horrible injury by stupidity.
Here again Korea set the stage: our miscalculations in future major wars were equally as awful as Korea, and show that miscalculations and outright stupidity regarding war is a continuous pattern of conduct. Our leaders completely misunderstood and miscalculated what Viet Nam was all about, thinking it merely another step in a march of monolithic communism. Our military stupidly thought that since we’re not the French -- we’re much better -- we would win where they had lost. The capability of an allied government -- the South Viet Namese government -- was long overestimated (just like we vastly overestimated Chiang’s rotten government). The capability and willingness of the other side to endure punishment yet continue indefinitely was vastly underestimated. (Halberstam points out that when Pentagon war games consistently showed Hanoi coming out ahead, the Pentagon simply stopped playing the war games.) Racism was a major feature of miscalculated American attitudes.
In Iraq the same pattern has held. The WMD miscalculation was simply hooked up bovine defecation. The lack of planning for the war’s aftermath was not only stupid in itself, but apparently was based on the preposterous miscalculations that we would be welcomed in Iraq and the middle east -- where many have long hated us as well as our predecessors, the British and French -- and that Chalabi and his gang would be effective. Our leaders never figured on a fantastic insurgency though there were a few people who warned of the possibility -- including, obliquely but in retrospect unquestionably, Saddam himself.
Our leaders knew nothing of the British experience in Iraq in the 1920s, which we’ve succeeded in replicating. They stupidly disbanded the whole governmental structure of Iraq and sent home even the lowest level, non-political Iraqi groundpounders. They refused to recognize that a tripartite division of Iraq, which has now been massively occurring defacto as people move within the country, is the only solution to end continuous religious strife.
So the miscalculating stupidities that Halberstam shows to have been the case in Korea descended upon us again in Viet Nam and Gulf II. Sometimes the stupidities were identical, sometimes different. But that there is a pattern of miscalculating stupidities of one type or another is inarguable.
They are inarguable, that is, except to the right wing -- which wishes to argue strongly, thank you very much. And why shouldn’t it want, and desperately hope, to argue? It was the right wing, after all, as Halberstam lengthily describes, that caused much of the difficulties we experienced regarding Korea, including giving MacArthur his (deranged) head and letting him approach the Yalu. It was the right wing that wanted to “unleash” Chiang’s incompetents -- whom Mao’s army had already crushed – and wanted to fight a huge war with Red China. MacArthur himself, as well as his right wing buddies in the Senate, wanted this. It was fear of the right wing that caused a fool like Lyndon Johnson to get us ever deeper into Viet Nam (lest the Democrats be crucified by the right wing); that, if I understand matters correctly, caused the twin criminals, Nixon and Kissinger, to take over four years to get us out; and that even today thinks we could have won in Viet Nam -- if we had risked World War III with China and Russia, each of which had men fighting or working in Nam already, a fact not widely known by Americans to this day. It was the right wing -- now called the neocons -- who cooked up and were the driving force of the current Iraq war, who again turned the Democrats into jelly legs on the subject of the war, and who have now replaced their crusade against anti-communism with a crusade against Islamism, or, as they put, Islamofacism. Again there is a historical pattern: the right wing extensively contributes to causing, or itself taking us into, disaster.
Korea also illustrated another historical pattern, one that has been true time and again since the Union army fought in the American Civil War. As Halberstam points out, an army takes its cue from, it fights in accordance with -- sometimes, as with the Chinese in Korea -- necessarily fights in accordance with its nation’s culture. Since before the American Civil War, this country (or the North from 1861-1865) has been an industrial, technological powerhouse. We fight well when we can bring our massive industrial and technological strength to bear. (Thus it was that Robert E Lee’s farewell message to the Army of Northern Virginia lamented – though perhaps too monistically -- that it had been forced to bow to the endless flow of superior resources.) We do not fight well when compelled to participate in the other guy’s kind of war. Using our cultural attributes -- using massive technology -- we won the Civil War and World War II, and eventually fought the Chinese to a stalemate in Korea (where they, lacking an industrial or technological base, had to rely on their nation’s culture of using endless manpower to get things done (which was the way they did everything from constructing large engineering projects to fighting Americans)). When we have been forced to fight our opponent’s kind of war, as in the Philippine Insurrection, Viet Nam and Gulf II after Baghdad, we find it very difficult to succeed (at least without violating all rules of decency), or utterly impossible to succeed.
But do we learn from this pattern? Nope. We keep getting into wars where we will inevitably have to fight the other guy’s kind of war, as in the guerrilla war in Viet Nam and the insurgency in Iraq. The fools who run our government, and those in the military who choose to advance their careers by toadying to them instead of telling them the truth (admittedly one can get sacked for the latter, viz. Shinseki and Taguba), think that because we are so big, so rich, so powerful, so technologically advanced, we can do anything, can fight any kind of war. Well, it’s not so, partly because it’s intrinsically not so and partly because the American people won’t stand for the huge forces we would have to put in the field (10 to 1 is the estimate for guerilla wars, I believe) and neither will they stand for the fantastic losses we would suffer. So it ain’t so and our opponents know it ain’t so. At minimum, having no hope of keeping up with us in our style of warfare, our opponents are determined to use theirs. The historical pattern shows that this means horrendous trouble for us. Yet we keep playing the opponents’ game by getting into war after war where opponents can neutralize our cultural advantages and employ theirs against us. (This has implications, one notes, for future Rwandas and Darfurs, but few, if any, people have even began to think publicly about the problem or how to even conceivably solve it.)
Then there is the question of fighting for one’s country versus fighting in the other guy’s country thousands of miles away in order to take over the other guy’s country and, in the process, posing a threat to the countries neighboring the other guy’s country. Abraham Lincoln once said that if all the armies of Europe commanded by Napoleon were to invade the United States, they would never be able to water their horses in the Ohio unless we defeated ourselves. And, for over a century, we reacted badly when European countries were on our borders or even in the western hemisphere. For these reasons, in the 1800s, we fought, threatened to fight, or bought out the English, the French, the Spanish, and announced the Monroe Doctrine. In 1917 the Germans’ Zimmermann Telegram to Mexico was practically a casus belli in itself. But we have entirely ignored our own prior attitudes in the last half of the 20th Century, a time when, in John Quincy Adams’ words, we went abroad in search of monsters to destroy. With regard to Korea, as Halberstam points out, Mao did not want Americans on his border (or preparing Chiang offshore for the right wingers’ proposed return to the mainland). Neither did Stalin, I believe, care for the fact that we would be on the Soviets’ small border with North Korea. (And he certainly wanted buffer states in Eastern Europe in order to keep the west off his borders - - which Hitler had invaded).) One of the reasons Mao decided to intervene when we moved north to the Yalu was to make sure we did not sit astride his border (which we could then cross and attack his nation). Another reason was to fire a shot across our bow with regard to the right wingers desire to “unleash” Chiang to attack the mainland. So Mao was, in effect, reacting much as we had in the 19th century.
But we learned no lesson. We went into Viet Nam not understanding that it was their country that our opponents were fighting for. (One Viet Namese told an American -- was it a Northern general speaking to McNamara long after the war? -- that even if the Americans had stayed for 20 years, at the end the Americans would go home, but the Viet Namese would still be there.) Nor did we understand that China was not going to sit still and let us defeat and defacto take over a country which, like Korea, was on its border -- not even one against which it had itself fought many wars.
And in Iraq we face the problem of Iran, which takes steps to help the insurgents, in part because it does not want on its borders a far distant major power which could, and has even threatened to, attack it, just as we didn’t want England, France or Spain on our borders. Yet somehow or other our fool politicians think and say, and have persuaded much of the citizenry, that we have some sort of right to be on Iran’s borders, and Chomsky is ignored, ridiculed or berated when he suggests we consider what our reaction would be if it was Iran that was on our border. (Remember Zimmermann?)
Yet again Halberstam has educated us, with regard to Korea, on a matter that is a historical pattern -- nations’ desire not to have far distant foreign major powers in their countries or on their borders. Yet it is a pattern we ignore or think ourselves superior to.
There is also the matter of what can rightly be called linear thinking or, perhaps, serial thinking. This is a style in which lawyers are trained to think (albeit perhaps only within limits) and is exemplified by the Harvard Business School decision tree (at least as I understand it). It asks, well, if A happens, then what? What are the possibilities of B or C or D or E happening after A and what can we do if B or C or D or E occur. And if D happens (or C, or, D, or E), what are the possibilities and reasons one way and another of it being followed by X or Y or Z, and what can we do? And so on down the line (or up the line). One’s assessments of probabilities, or even possibilities, in the chain of reasoning may prove wrong -- if one follows the chain far enough, will prove wrong. But perhaps surprisingly, perhaps counterintuitively, that is not the important point. The important point, one confirmed by experience though not necessarily by abstract logic, is that, having engaged in serial thinking in advance of the events, one has a framework for understanding what is going on, for responding to it more intelligently than if one has never thought beyond step one.
But after his masterstroke of the Inchon landings, MacArthur and his toadies, as best I gather, seem not to have considered what might happen next and what to do if it did. MacArthur seems to have done all the wrong things, the things guaranteed to cause the Chinese to come in as they were threatening and guaranteed to enable them to smash his army in their first great attack. After Inchon, I am afraid, MacArthur was never again the genius thinker of that masterstroke nor the extraordinary thinker of World War II whose sophisticated thought process I read about decades ago in William Manchester’s American Caesar.
Just as awful as MacArthur’s negligence, the politicians (and the Joint Chiefs) likewise did not give serious consideration to what could happen and how to respond if the Chinese made good on their threat to come in. To the contrary, and despite concerns about China, the pols deliberately avoided the subject when it certainly should have been brought up. After Inchon, Truman, Dean Rusk and some others met with MacArthur on Wake Island shortly before the November 1950 Congressional election. This meeting, Halberstam says, was in reality an attempt by the pols to bask in, to grab a share of, the glory of Inchon. (It was sort of like George Bush announcing “Mission Accomplished” on the deck of an aircraft carrier.) The meeting on Wake was therefore a very short meeting in which the pols deliberately did not vigorously pursue, or wholly avoided, the questions and sub questions which should have been paramount: questions such as avoiding action that would cause Chinese entry and what to do if the Chinese did come in.
Such failure to consider future possibilities and courses of action is one of the most disastrous patterns of American political thought since 1950. The failure was repeated in Nam, big time. There was never, as far as I know, or rarely, serious high level consideration of North Viet Nam’s manpower resources and willingness to use them, although there were those who knew -- I seem to recollect that Townsend Hoopes may have been one of them -- that demographic data of births and combat deaths showed that the North could sustain the war indefinitely. (As said, when war games showed Hanoi doing well, the Pentagon simply stopped holding war games.) There was no consideration early in the war of how many men we might really need to put into Nam if our escalation were matched by the other side’s. There was no consideration of the possibility that our escalations would be matched by the other side – because it was their country, after all. There was no thought given to the fact that massive bombing cannot ruin a third world agricultural country, as it could and did ruin Germany. (Mao said that, if the Americans decided to use nuclear bombs against China in the Korean war, this would not be successful because, after all, you can’t effectively use the nuclear weapon on a bunch of fields. What he rightly or wrongly claimed true about the ineffectiveness of using nuclear weapons against a primitive agricultural nation is certainly true for conventional weapons -- and we proved it in Viet Nam.)
Gulf II was a reprise of the failure to consider future alternate possibilities and courses of action. This is so much in everyone’s mind today that little need be said about it. The failure to consider how to control and govern Iraq after defeating Saddam, the failure to consider how many soldiers would be needed for this, the failure to consider the possibility that other countries in the region would not react to the situation with the Bushian rush to democracy propagandized to us, the failure to consider historical enmities in Iraq -- the list of “failures to consider” which have led us into a horrid situation that bin Laden could but dream of is long, and shows what can happen when the government is in the hands of an unthinking, stupid but obstinate man and his fellow criminal cronies.
Nor does one recollect an awful lot of domestic problems in which serial thinking has been prominent in the public discourse. That is not the nature of American public discourse, which focuses on sound bites and sex. The only, even mere, possibility of linear thinking in domestic affairs which springs readily to mind is Bush’s desire to get rid of social security. He claimed certain results would follow, but others, who largely were horrified at bad possibilities, claimed very different results might follow. All of this was serial thinking of greater or lesser competence. Once incipient, but later actually occurring, disasters resulting from lack of linear thinking do spring readily to mind, however. The most recent is the real estate and securitized mortgage meltdown of recent months -- a meltdown that was readily foreseeable and that people like Gramlich warned of. How smart did one have to be to know that adjustable rate mortgages were a personal and national disaster waiting to happen? Not very. But one didn’t hear much about this possibility. How smart did one have to be to know that the securitized mortgage industry was another disaster waiting to happen, when years ago Barron’s was warning, accurately, that buyers, even fairly sophisticated ones, had no notion of how the “tranches” they bought could become disastrous? Again, not very, and again one heard little discussion of this notwithstanding Barron’s warnings. Alan Greenspan, Wall Street, Executive officials and ignorant media toadies were too happy about supposedly great economic developments and riches for the financial industry to indulge in the slightest linear thinking, the slighted serial thinking, about what could happen because of obvious matters that were staring them right in the face but which they chose not to see.
One last point regarding failure to think in a linear fashion. In the late 1940s George Kennan, one of America’s brilliant thinkers for decades, wrote of containment, the policy we followed with regard to Russia. Halberstam says of Kennan that “He was convinced that bad things would happen if we tried to apply our power where it did not seem applicable. Places like Vietnam and China were outside our reach (and concern) as other places, nearer and dearer to us, were outside the reach of the Soviets. In fact, he believed that there was already an involuntary balance of power forming in the world despite the rhetoric of the two great powers—and in the long run it favored the United States.”
Kennan’s view that bad things will result if we try to apply our power where it is not applicable has come true in spades in Nam and Iraq. It is applicable as well to Iran and much of the rest, if not all, of the Mideast, as may also be -- as is likely to be -- his strategy of long run containment. Our failure to avoid Chinese entry into Korea (which we could have done), and our efforts in Nam and Iraq to apply military power rather than a true Kennanesque strategy, caused the price we had to pay in lives, treasure and lack of success to rise dramatically. One can only hope that, in future, Americans will give more thought -- more linear thought -- to the potential results of fighting war after war thousands of miles from our shores against people who do not have the power to seriously threaten to destroy us, the power that was possessed by Germany in World War II. (This relates to patterns of action that were discussed earlier, one notes.)
Of course, Halberstam also says that Kennan, who was “in his own way . . . a considerable snob,” was “decidedly uncomfortable with what he considered the great American unwashed who, in his view, might hinder the ability of the elite to make decisions in a democracy.” I would not agree with Kennan’s view of Everyman, but I do think the pols, the media, Hollywood, and the TV industry have cheapened our discourse, have caused its quality to deteriorate, to the point where he might be right about democracy’s inability to make sound decisions.
Another pattern pertinent to Halberstam’s book is that of getting sucked in -- sucked into a trap or disaster. Let me start this with a line from the movie Gettysburg. Longstreet is discussing with Lee what the Confederates should do. In both real life and the movie, Longstreet wanted to move around the Union left and occupy advantageous ground between Gettysburg and Washington, where Meade would be forced to attack the rebels. Lee, on the other hand, meant to strike the Union forces where they were, on the high ground of Cemetery Ridge at Gettysburg, and, as memory serves, says in the movie that if Meade is still on Cemetery Ridge the next day, he will attack him there. Longstreet, who in real life was one of the few Civil War generals who understood that the relatively new rifles (called rifled muskets, or just muskets) used in the Civil War had changed the battlefield equation drastically, says in the movie that if Meade is still there the next day, it will be because Meade wants Lee to attack him there. In short, Meade wants Lee to send his troops into a solid defensive position, as they eventually went into the killing ground of Picketts charge because Lee did not listen to Longstreet.
Well, the American forces went into the same deliberately set trap when they kept going north in Korea. The Chinese infiltrated 250,000 or 300,000 men unseen, and were all around the Americans who marched deeper and deeper into the trap. To lure the Americans as deeply into the trap as the Chinese wanted them to be, the Chinese moved north but did not blow a bridge which they surely would have blown had they been truly retreating instead of baiting a trap. The Commander of the First Marine Division, General O.P. Smith, knew this, but was required by the higher brass to keep going north anyway. Here is Halberstam’s unforgettable description of the situation:
Smith was now sure that the Chinese were baiting an immense trap for him, and there was one bit of empirical evidence that definitely showed that. That was the Chinese failure to blow the bridge at the Funchilin Pass . . . . Just north of Sudong and south of Kotori, the road became more and more difficult, elevating at an accelerating rate, twenty-five hundred feet in eight miles, to a terrifying stretch known as the Funchilin Pass, becoming, as Matt Ridgway wrote, “a narrowing, frightening shelf with an impassable cliff on one side and a chasm on the other.” At a critical point in the pass the only way to keep going north was over a concrete bridge that covered four gigantic pipes, which pumped water from the Chosin Reservoir to a power plant. The mountain was so steep, and the passageway so narrow, that if the Funchilin Pass bridge were blown, given the hideous nature of the terrain and the overwhelming logistical limitations, it would be the end of the offensive for the American troops, so dependent on motorized equipment. But the Chinese heading north had not blown the bridge. To Smith, it was like the dog that hadn’t barked. The failure to blow the bridge on the part of so formidable and shrewd an adversary was a sure sign that the Chinese wanted the Americans to cross it—it was virtually an invitation—but it meant nothing to Almond, so disrespectful was he of his adversary. “Smith was sure that they wanted us to come across, and that they were going to blow the bridge after we crossed, thus completely isolating us,” said Major (later Major General) James Lawrence, who had been the executive officer at Sudong when the Chinese struck.
The Chinese did blow the bridge after the Marines crossed it and got further north in the trap, and it took some kind of miracle(s) for them later to fight their way out. (It was this retreat that caused General O.P. Smith to make the famous statement, when asked what he thought about his Marines’ retreat, “Retreat hell, we’re simply attacking in a different direction.” (This ranks, one thinks, with General McAuliffe’s response to the German demand for surrender of Bastogne, “Nuts.”)
Blundering into major disasters has become almost an American specialty. Need one say that that is how we got deeper and deeper into Viet Nam, and that that has been the story of Iraq since we took over Baghdad? Robert E. Lee and Ned Almond had nothing on their fellow southerners Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk and G.W. Bush (or on Northern fools like McNamara and Rumsfeld, or a western criminal like Cheney). And we have for a few years lived with the possibility of blundering into what could prove to be another huge trap, war with Iran (and/or, it was thought for awhile, Syria or North Korea).
Keeping things secret also played a big part in regard to Korea. After MacArthur was fired, and came home to vast, Godlike acclaim -- some of the biggest ticker tape parades ever -- the Congress held hearings on our foreign policy. Halberstam writes that MacArthur’s display of lack of knowledge and thought at the hearings, his utter failure to have taken account of the Soviet Union or of what could happen in Europe, reduced him dramatically. No longer was he the great hero, the Roman Caesar, returned from decades of foreign wars. Now, as the public saw, he was just a shrunken old man with narrowly based, right wing ideas.
But one part of the hearings was kept from the public, the issue of Chiang’s troops, which MacArthur had wanted to “unleash” and whose “unleashing” against the Communists (who had recently smashed them from pillar to post) was a tenet of the right wing. As Halberstam says, “the excised parts of the record included a devastating critique of one of [the Republican right’s] great beliefs -- about the value of Chiang’s troops in this war.” The critique was by such as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Omar Bradley. Chiang’s “troops were in fact regarded [by the Pentagon] as a disaster waiting for another place to happen.” But because the hearing record of testimony about Chiang’s forces was kept secret, the right wing, and the associated China Lobby of historical infamy, were able to maintain the myth that in Chiang on Formosa (Taiwan) we had a powerful ally who could do us much good -- and whose enemy, Red China, had to be our enemy.
Because the truth about Chiang and his forces was kept from the American public by secrecy, Red China remained our enemy until a semi-wacked out member of the Republican right, the criminal Richard Nixon, and his criminal buddy Kissinger, thereafter did what only a Republican rightist could get away with at the time and opened the door to relations with Mao’s regime in the early 1970s. And that enmity with China, fostered by secrecy of hearings in 1951, was one of the reasons we got sucked deeper and deeper into Viet Nam.
Secrecy as a pattern of American public life really took off after Korea, with the creation of the American national security state, and got us into trouble time and time again. We had secret Johnsonian plans to escalate in Viet Nam, a secret Nixon plan for peace whose actual nonexistence was hidden by its purported secrecy but which helped this disaster get elected, we had secret Nixonian wars in Laos and Cambodia, extensive secret CIA spying on Americans which finally was disclosed in the mid 1970s, secret torture, secret prisons, secret renditions, secret spying on Americans and the rest of the litany of secret horrors associated with G.W. Bush and Cheney. Nor is disastrous secrecy confined to the national government. In America it exists everywhere: in corporations (viz, undesirable results of pharmaceutical trials which are kept secret), in universities, etc. It is one of those large matters which, as discussed at the beginning of this posting, cuts across field after field, but which we cannot get a sufficient handle on because fields are walled off from each other (and, in the case of secrecy, it is usually and wrongly thought of only as a national security or governmental matter rather than as the pervasive phenomenon that it in fact is). What happened because of the secrecy of a crucial part of the hearings spawned by MacArthur’s recall was part of a pattern which deeply and often disastrously affects all of American life.
Then there is the question of moral courage. As one reads American history, there often is recognition, starting at least with the Civil War, that there is a difference between physical courage and moral courage. Physical courage -- the ability and willingness to face physical danger -- is pretty common, it seems. Moral courage -- the willingness and ability to question the questionable and to do the right thing -- is far, far less so. The numerical discrepancy sometimes seems so pervasive that one is tempted to say the human race is a collection of physically brave sheep.
There was a failure of moral courage with regard to Korea. The top military men in Washington, who had concerns about MacArthur’s views and actions, were weak and failed to stop him from creating a disaster. Writing in connection with the possible use of atomic weapons, Halberstam is brilliant on the difference between physical and moral courage.
The Joint Chiefs were especially weak in those months. Brave and otherwise independent men often became quite bureaucratic once they were members of the JCS. That reflected one of the great secrets of the military culture—how officers who had been so brave in battle, fearless when it mattered, could be so bland and cautious as they reached what was seemingly a career pinnacle. That had been true in Korea; it would be even truer in Vietnam.
The high political officials likewise showed a total lack of moral courage. Again Halberstam’s writing on the subject is brilliant.
In general, those who worked in that administration are now regarded as among the ablest men of a generation. The phrase “The Wise Men” has been applied to them in the title of an admiring, best-selling book. But all of them, even as they had sensed during October and November that something terrible was about to happen, had been silent, frozen in place, while MacArthur continued to stretch his orders. They and the civilians who had gone to Wake Island had never asked MacArthur the tough questions when it mattered, in no small part because the political tide was moving away from them. They, who had never trusted him, had acted as if he were some kind of prophet, authorized to speak not merely for his own command but for the Chinese commanders as well. Now, as he unraveled in Tokyo, they once again seemed powerless to do anything about him or the command.
The constant, sometimes even continuous, failure of moral courage is a hallmark -- I use the word very deliberately -- is a hallmark of American life, especially American public life. There was a continuous failure of moral courage regarding civil rights during the 1940s, 1950s and up until the mid 1960s. A failure of moral courage caused us to get deeper and deeper into the disaster of Viet Nam, as the Democrats refused to act against “their” President, Lyndon Johnson, even though so many of them knew that we were in fact neck deep in disaster. (As for Republicans, they were simply accomplices of the criminals of both parties). A failure of moral courage has rendered the Democratic Party a nullity from the beginning in regard to Gulf II. It causes legislators, executive officials and judges to let big business get away with -- to cooperate with big business in getting away with -- the destruction of democracy as we once thought we knew it. And, as one looks back over history, it is hard to find presidents who exhibited true moral courage. Lincoln surely did to an extent never equalled. John Adams did by unpopularly keeping us out of war. Probably TR did by taking on the big business establishment of his day. John Kennedy on the other hand -- whose very high equalled public rating among presidents (the public stupidly ranks him near the very top) could be cited by those who think Kennan was right about decisions in a democracy -- was a moral weakstick in everything from sex to civil rights and, initially, though not subsequently, in foreign policy too.
The paucity of moral courage in regard to Korea and afterwards makes especially poignant two episodes written of by Halberstam. One concerns General Matthew Ridgway, who took over in Korea and stymied the Chinese after the commanding general, in Korea, Walton Walker, was killed in a jeep accident in late December 1950. Halberstam writes very favorably of Ridgway; as always he gives you both sides but you know where he comes down; and in giving you both sides he makes clear Ridgway was a man of formidable intellect, immense determination, and generosity in giving credit to colleagues. Ridgway also had less likable qualities: he was, to put it in a nutshell, a very hard individual.
Before he was sent to Korea, Ridgway had displayed great moral courage in Washington by vigorously questioning MacArthur’s actions and his refusal to obey orders. (Yes, MacArthur did that too.) But that was not the episode that Halberstam writes of as being, in the view of one military historian, an “instructive moment that caught his character perfectly.” That episode had occurred in late 1943, when Ridgway had “comparatively little status in the upper echelons of the military hierarchy.” He had been given the job of having his airborne division parachute into Rome in order to cause the Italians to quit the war and turn their guns on the Germans. All of his superiors had “signed on” to this. They ignored Ridgway’s constantly voiced concerns that aspects of the plan didn’t smell right. Finally, he ordered a daring reconnaissance by Maxwell Taylor that proved his concerns were valid and his
airborne division might well be completely destroyed. Then, with his men already in their planes and the engines warming up, the mission was called off. That night Ridgway had shared a bottle of whiskey with a close friend, and then, drained by the closeness of disaster, he began to cry. To do what he had done at that moment, to place his entire career on the line, was, Hamburger thought, the mark of an uncommon soldier, someone whose courage away from the battlefield was the same as that on it.
This example of moral courage -- courage to question in the face of higher authority -- is an episode involving a major figure. Another episode, involving both the moral and the physical courage to do the right thing, is about someone whose identity is not even known. About 40 Americans were trapped on a hill; they were assaulted by “a major Chinese force.” Almost every American was hit, and it looked like they would all die.
At dusk the men on the hill had gotten a boost when an Army spotter plane marked some of the Chinese positions for American jets that raked the area with rockets, napalm, and machine gun fire. Then the little plane returned and dropped some ammo and medical supplies. Most of it missed the perimeter, but one case of ammo got through. The pilot made pass after pass trying to drop ammo off, coming in so low they could see his face. Wilson added him to his pantheon of heroes, someone who risked his life again and again on behalf of men he had never met, pushed by an exceptional internal code of honor.
This is a striking and moving story. Not only for its own sake, but also for what it shows to be missing in American life. Does anyone think that Americans in civilian life today have “an exceptional internal code of honor”? Does anyone think our politicians have it? Our politicians who will say and do anything to get money, get votes and win elections? Does anyone think our high level military men have it, men who, to protect and advance their careers, will say what Bush wants them to say? Does anyone think our big businessmen have it, big businessmen who care only about making scores of millions for themselves by shoddy financial and other products and by moral fraud? Does anyone think it exists at the highest level of our university systems, where presidents defend their right to million dollar plus salaries while professors make a small fraction of that and students cannot afford education? No, internal codes of honor are widely lacking in American life.
This writer has often said that the key problem in America today, and in all nations at all times, is our, or their, culture. A culture of honesty, a culture of competence, a concern for the other guy, not just oneself -- all of this is crucial to a decent society and can collectively be summed up within the individual by whether or not he or she has a decent internal code of honor. But look as hard as you want, and you are not going to find that internal code in most people, at least not in people who are big deals in this society. It was recently said of Condoleezza Rice that her only core principle is success. What was said to be true of her - - and I personally think worse of her than that - - is an oft true principle of American life in general. There is no decent internal code of honor among the big shots, who care for success alone. The absence of such a code, and of the elements comprising it, in the big shots and many others is, I think, as often said here, the single most profound tragedy of our country, because it causes so many others.
This posting represents the personal views of Lawrence R. Velvel. If you wish to comment on the post, on the general topic of the post, or on the comments of others, you can, if you wish, post your comment on my website, VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com. All comments, of course, represent the views of their writers, not the views of Lawrence R. Velvel or of the Massachusetts School of Law. If you wish your comment to remain private, you can email me at Velvel@mslaw.edu.
VelvelOnNationalAffairs is now available as a podcast. To subscribe please visit VelvelOnNationalAffairs.com, and click on the link on the top left corner of the page. The podcasts can also be found on iTunes or at www.lrvelvel.libsyn.com