Monday, August 23, 2010

Josef Korbel and George Shepherd: Notes on the Powerful

My friend and colleague George Shepherd had a long friendship with Josef Korbel. See my post on "Josef Korbel, Stalin and the Defense of Czech Democracy at Munich" here, In response to my recent post on "Condi Rice: 'let’s pretend'" here and the invitation of Condi to speak at the Korbel dinner next Saturday, George wrote to others:

“Alan's observations are well put. I knew Joe Korbel well and I agree he would have been appalled at this invitation. I do not think it will benefit the reputation of the School and will damage it to be the first* to legitimize the acts of the past Administration. I think we need to call out all of the Bush Administration on this as the book has not been closed on these Crimes Against Humanity. George"

Now even Joe Korbel had a hard time with his new relationship as an exile with the United States which had adopted him. He used to tell me that it was very important in the world – and it is – to have places of exile. He was, unsurprisingly, grateful to America. When he became the first Dean of the Graduate School of International Studies, he felt threatened by protest against the Vietnam War at the School's opening ceremony featuring a speech by Secretary of State Dean Rusk; Joe threatened faculty members who called for boycotting - a nonviolent kind of protest - the speech (he initially made it a “command performance”) as the following story by Don Will, once a graduate student at GSIS, now Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at Wilkinson College, relates:

“Despite George's friendship with and admiration of Korbel, their relations were not always amicable. When GSIS opened its new building, Cherrington Hall, in 1966, Korbel invited Secretary of State Dean Rusk to give the opening address. Along with George Croft of the History Department, George and several students announced their intention of boycotting the occasion in protest over the expansion of the Vietnam War. Korbel was furious and threatened to fire George. Protected somewhat by his status as a tenured professor, George pressed on and got Korbel to agree that the critics could have a discussion of Vietnam with Rusk in exchange for calling off a more overt protest. In this brief but telling exchange, Rusk revealed himself as convinced that the Christian God sanctioned the war, which was made necessary by communist expansion and the domino theory. George countered that we were ‘engaged in an unjust war against the right of self-determination of a former colonial people.’ He also emphasized the widening gap between China and the Soviets, which undercut the supposition of a communist monolith. Rusk was intractable and deemed George ‘a poorly informed young man, as many are who do not have access to our intelligence briefings.’ This ‘arrogance of power’ displayed by the ‘best and the brightest’ led to an expansion of the war and the commission of many atrocities, culminating in the deaths of over 2 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans. Korbel himself, later became disillusioned with the war, describing himself as a ‘victim of the 1968 Tet Offensive,’ when he came to realize that it was Ho Chi Minh, not the successive South Vietnamese regimes and Americans who had truly won the ‘hearts and minds’ of the Vietnamese masses.” - "Paradigm of a Scholar/Activist: Reflections on the Life of George Shepherd, Jr." by Donald Will, paper presented at the International Studies Association, March 10, 2000.

Note that Josef Korbel overcame his anger and did deal with the protest creatively, negotiating and organizing a debate (exactly the right thing, as Dean, to do) in which the truth - today visible to anyone - could be spoken. A deeply thoughtful man, Korbel took in evidence and did the right thing even more deeply as he later said, perhaps sheepishly, of his change on the War - another kind of "victim of the 1968 Tet offensive.”**

Don’s report of Rusk’s position is interesting. He, of course, had knowledge “only available in the government” and the blessing of ”the Christian God” – who must have damned those 2 million Vietnamese Buddhists and Catholics...In reality, even Rusk knew the War was going terribly. At the time, as the Errol Morris’ documentary “The Fog of War” reveals, Lyndon Johnson was saying on a taped phone call to his friend Senator Richard Russell that the US was losing but he couldn’t get out. Johnson didn’t want to be known as the President who lost a war, to be red-baited by the Republicans. He would sacrifice nearly 60,000 American lives and an enormous number of Vietnamese to feckless American politics. Note that this foreign policy was governed primarily by fear of domestic elections. See my "The Sorcerer's Apprentice: 'For LBJ, the domino theory really was a matter of domestic politics'" here. Contrary to neo-realism as a theory of international politics which mistakenly abstracts war utterly, as an ostensibly separate level of analysis from domestic politics, this interplay with and negative impact of foreign policy on democracy at home is a theme of my book Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy? See also my comments on John Mearsheimer’s forceful stands on Afghanistan and on Israel’s brutality and self-destructiveness here.

I guess that Rusk’s pompous religiosity – "it is God’s will, I know more than you, even though I can’t share with you any of it, let alone something convincing" - was what they all said the time. In the sphere of power, one can be a ninny and a war criminal* and widely “respected.” Unlike President Johnson who may not have been frank even with his cabinet, perhaps some of the secretaries believed in the emperor’s new clothes. For as a senior at Harvard, I debated McGeorge Bundy – one of six on a panel (see the poem Sanders Theater here). Bundy was a cousin of the poet Robert Lowell whom I much admired. But I had read the French histories of Indochina. They had not succeeded even with our military aid (the US had paid 80% of the French military budget at the time of Dienbienphu, and there was no reason, once one knew something about the struggle there, to think that an American imperialism would or, morally speaking, should prevail). I had also lived in Karachi, Pakistan, where my father advised the planning commission. I knew that the US sold weapons to the dictator; that the Americans were only diplomats, businessmen and military advisors mainly from the South, usually with little knowledge or sympathy for the vast number of impoverished West Pakistanis and Bengalis (my father told me of the East that having a Harvard Advisory Group to the government of Ayub Khan was, in this respect, like having such a group to Governor Wallace of Alabama). I later traveled back to college through Bangkok where the great round red Coca Cola signs overshadowed sacred places. For many of us who lived abroad outside of Europe (and later joined Students for a Democratic Society), what it meant that the US belligerently took the wrong side in Vietnam against the decent words of FDR about an end to French colonialism when the Vietminh was our ally against Japanese fascism, was plain to the naked eye.

Bundy assured us, when we met in private before the debate , that he knew things not available to the rest of us – “I am privy to esoteric information” he said. “Of course, today, I can only speak exoterically.” These were fancy words by a former Harvard dean and Boston brahmin. They were empty. No one in the State Department at the time knew Vietnamese; as former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara discovered in the 1990s – see the “Fog of War” – he believed ignorantly that the Vietnamese were pawns of the Chinese Communists, ignoring as Pham van Dong in amazement and anger informed him, 1000 years of conflict and Vietnamese resistance.

I was nervous (fortunately I got help from Larry Robinson, a graduate student in sociology who had taken Barrington Moore’s course – covering what would become Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy – with me). But most of the questions were timid, half-hearted, deferential. When I asked how the US expected to defeat a successful peasant revolution against France by trying to restore the landlords, the audience of 800 burst into applause. Bundy’s answer, a denial that there had been such a revolution against US-aided French colonialism, rang false.

It is sad that Democrats in power seem to be as full of hubris, as ready to believe fairy tales, as Republican authoritarians. Even Barack Obama, whom Andrew Bacevich – see here – and I both liked, has moved further and further, breathing the fumes of the war complex, down the path of a losing war and embracing elite American torturers. To go into the establishment, except for those who rebel like Daniel Ellsberg, seems to be a sure path to fantasy, and as the most powerful nation by far militarily, war crimes. It requires looking down on others or at best biting one’s tongue, and waging, repeating and extending horrific aggressions, murdering innocents with drones (100 at a wedding party in Yemen, for example), and torturing or protecting torturers. Ellsberg looks better and better in retrospect. Others who seemed so powerful like Secretary of State Rusk are lucky if deservedly forgotten. But what a wreckage they left behind…

*perhaps an early international studies school. The Berkeley law school which employs John Yoo, Georgetown which employs Douglas Feith, the University of Virginia which invited Yoo, and others have all striven for the distinction George mentions...

**At what sadly turned out to be a last celebration for Joe Korbel, at the end of my second year at the School of International Studies, Dean Bob Good invited Kurt Waldheim, Secretary-General of the United Nations. His speech was of an alienated banality which made me cringe, the split in the man’s personality between what he seemed and whatever he was, all too evident. Listening to it, one felt unclean (Joe and I shared some sarcastic and puzzled reflections afterwards). Later, it turned out that the Viennese Waldheim had been in his youth a major war criminal with the Nazis, what Korbel had fought with every fiber of his being. Korbel had chosen to found a school of international studies. That this speaker was picked to honor him was sad. The betrayal of Korbel, in inviting Waldheim, was unintentional - Waldheim was the head of the UN after all and not yet publicly seen for what he was. But it was, nonetheless, a special kind of betrayal even in the world of pretense that is high level government affairs and diplomacy.

1 comment:

Nick said...

Well said, and well-deserved accolades for George.

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