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  Old Speeches, New Questions

The interview with Professor Robert Kaufman in the Summer 2002 Vermont Quarterly brought back memories of events on the UVM campus in the 1960s when a very small number — at first — of faculty, students, and townspeople opposed the politically disastrous and morally outrageous policies being pursued in Vietnam by the government of the United States. I felt compelled to peruse my old papers from the era, knowing — because times change, people change, the world changes — that I would question some of my words.

But, to be honest and a little vain, I found much that remains quite relevant in the short speech which I delivered to the first major teach-in on campus in the spring of 1965. One must be very careful when speaking of parallels and analogies since history almost never quite repeats itself. But the lessons of the past do need to be learned, even in this excessively present-minded nation.

For instance, the administration of President George W. Bush would like to quiet the critics of the policies he has pursued since September 11, 2001. In 1965, I thundered (when one is in his thirties, it is permissible to thunder; now, in my seventies, I am somewhat more restrained):

“What is even more disturbing to note is the deep hostility with which the Johnson administration responds to all criticism of its policy. We condemn the Germans for being silent during the days of Hitler and reject their pleas that they had to support their leaders ‘whether right or wrong.’ And now, what do we find in our own country? The critics, whether Democrats such as Senators McGovern, Morse, and Gruening or Republicans such as Senators Javits or Aiken are branded as appeasers or supporters of the enemy. This is no way to encourage the free debate so essential to a genuinely democratic society and it tends to repudiate the President’s statement that he was a ‘free man’ before he was anything else. The critics are also ‘free men’ and it is their obligation to themselves and their fellow citizens to speak their mind as they see it.”

A year later, in the spring of 1966, the supporters of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam were still strong enough to howl us down when we attempted our first outdoor demonstration on the campus Green. It would take seven more years of suffering, blood, and death before the U.S. finally acknowledged its blunder and departed from that poor, unhappy land. But enough of old speeches and Ancient History; let us return to Professor Kaufman’s interview.

Terror, terrorists, and terrorism are difficult words to define. Does Professor Kaufman denounce, without distinction, the violence and terror that have been a part of all modern wars and revolutions? Means and ends are infinitely complicated in the deplorably imperfect world which we inhabit. One person’s terrorist is another’s patriotic hero.

I find disturbing the moral superiority asserted in Professor Kaufman’s notion that, “Saddam’s history also demonstrates that he does not calculate by Western standards.” Are these the standards which allowed slavery, the massacre of American Indians, and the denial of equal rights for so many citizens for such lengthy periods of time? Professor Kaufman notes, quite correctly, that Saddam Hussein “came to power by the muzzle of a machine gun.” And yet was it not the government of the United States which assisted in the destruction of the elected government of Iran in 1953, the overthrow of the elected government of Guatemala in 1954, and the murder of the elected president of Chile in 1973? One could continue.

Saddam Hussein is a ruthless dictator, rather like many we have assisted if they were anti-communist or supported our policies. What makes him different, of course, are the weapons of mass destruction he may have at his disposal. We have, however, managed to survive more than fifty years in a world where nations, at times hostile to us (the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, etc.) have possessed such threats.

Saddam Hussein is not a fool. He knows that the U.S. would destroy him if it could be shown conclusively that he intended to use these weapons against us or was providing them to other nations or groups hostile to the United States. The only way to possibly cause him to use his weapons of mass destruction (if he has them) would be to attack him.

We have had no conclusive evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the dreadful events of September 11 and yet Professor Kaufman wishes to destroy this “most dangerous person” as a “signal to other troublesome states.” Are we then, a country which refuses to join the new International Criminal Court, to become the new International Hangman who will step in and act whenever we, unilaterally, decide there is a “dangerous” individual or a “troublesome” nation in the world?

No absolute security exists this side of the grave for any individual, people, or nation in this complicated, uncertain world. Writing in the Washington Post, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger calls for a “national debate” because he feels “the case for removing Iraq’s capacity of mass destruction is extremely strong.” But he warns that “it is not in the American national interest to establish preemption as a universal principle available to every nation.”

Kissinger would do well to re-read his splendid study of the Congress of Vienna (1814-15), A World Restored, published some forty years ago. In that volume, Kissinger notes that feelings of insecurity and being threatened, which describe many U.S. citizens today, are “inherent in the nature of international relations based on sovereign states.” A state becomes “revolutionary” if nothing can comfort or reassure it. “Only absolute security — the neutralization of the opponent — is considered a sufficient guarantee, and thus the desire of one power for absolute security means absolute insecurity for all the others,” Kissinger wrote.

One cannot think of the Congress of Vienna without reflecting upon the “Absent One” — Napoleon Bonaparte. Always an optimistic gambler, Bonaparte believed that you had to make a decision, commit yourself, and then work to achieve the results you desired. For twenty years, his luck had been extraordinary; he doubted it could possibly change. But then came the Russian winter and Waterloo. The great adventure ended on a rock in the middle of nowhere.

If we decide to invade Iraq without just and sufficient cause, we too may be stranded alone on a rock in the middle of nowhere with catastrophic consequences for ourselves and the entire world.

Professor Emeritus Thomas Spinner taught at UVM from 1957 until 1989. His publications include George Joachim Goschen, The Transformation of a Victorian Liberal.
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