Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

May 22, 2016

Vietnam: Admitting Error

By David K. Shipler


            Contrary to Republicans’ false accusation, President Obama has not been traveling the world apologizing for American misdeeds (although there are plenty to be sorry for). Nor will he do so during his tour in Asia, neither at Hiroshima as the first sitting U.S. president to visit the target of the first atomic bomb ever used, nor in Vietnam, where a misguided war killed 58,000 Americans and up to 2 million Vietnamese, according to Hanoi’s official estimate.
            Apologies aside, it would be healthy for Obama at least to name the colossal errors of judgment that led to the Vietnam War: the Cold-War assumption that monolithic communism would spread like a red stain around the globe, that North Vietnamese and Viet Cong forces were mere tools of Beijing and Moscow, that America could remake third parts of the world at will, and that American credibility would be shredded by a loss. In other words, he should call the Vietnam War what it was: a terrible mistake borne of historical ignorance and a disastrous misreading of the anti-colonialism that fueled Vietnamese nationalism.
             John Kerry, who is at Obama’s side as Secretary of State, missed his chance to talk about the war in these terms when he ran for president in 2004. Instead, he snapped a salute at his nominating convention and announced that he was reporting for duty. The transparent gesture to exalt his military role as a young Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam, rather than embrace his famous conversion into an eloquent opponent of the war, forfeited the opportunity to advance the country’s perspective on the tragedy of its error.
Presidential campaigns are rarely educational exercises, as we are seeing now, but Kerry—as a combat veteran and then a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War—was in a unique position to wage a credible process of reflection and reconsideration. Here is what he reported to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971 from testimony to his organization by more than 150 honorably discharged veterans:
“They told stories that at times they had personally raped, cut off ears, cut off heads, taped wires from portable telephones to human genitals and turned up the power, cut off limbs, blown up bodies, randomly shot at civilians, razed villages in fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan, shot cattle and dogs for fun, poisoned food stocks, and generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam in addition to the normal ravage of war and the normal and very particular ravaging which is done by the applied bombing power of this country.” Kerry called it “a civil war, an effort by a people who had for years been seeking their liberation from any colonial influence whatsoever.”
He continued: “We found most people didn’t even know the difference between communism and democracy. They only wanted to work in rice paddies without helicopters strafing them and bombs with napalm burning their villages and tearing their country apart . . . and they practiced the art of survival by siding with whichever military force was present at a particular time, be it Viet Cong, North Vietnamese, or American.”
We didn’t hear this from candidate Kerry 33 years later. Perhaps he was afraid he’d lose if he spoke so harshly about the immoral American enterprise. What he did lose anyway was not only the election, but also a role in leading historical memory in a more honest direction.
Now, 41 years after the war’s end, Obama has nothing to lose by laying out Vietnam’s lessons on the dangers of wading into civil wars, risks that he has seen in Syria, where he has wisely hesitated to step into the quagmire, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he is clearly more eager than able to diminish American involvement.
In 1997, Robert McNamara, who had been a chief architect of the war as Secretary of Defense to both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, led a delegation of other retired American officials to a conference in Hanoi to explore whether opportunities had been missed for a diplomatic solution prior to the 1973 Paris Accords. At the outset, the framework of history was in dispute.
McNamara wanted to begin the narrative in the 1960s, with the buildup of American military advisers and then the deployment of ground troops. The Vietnamese delegation, however, insisted on starting the clock in 1945, at the end of World War II, when the United States ignored the appeals of the Vietnamese leader, Ho Chi Minh, and invited France to re-establish its colonial rule.
The point of the Vietnamese delegation, made repeatedly to the Americans in 1997, was that Hanoi viewed the American war as a continuation of the war against France, against colonialism, and for liberation and independence. For them, American-backed South Vietnam was a vassal state, just as Washington saw North Vietnam as a proxy for Communist China and the Soviet Union. This American assessment ignored more than a thousand years of antipathy and strife between China and Vietnam, friction that continues today. For the leaders in Hanoi, communism was less an ideology than an alliance.
Obama is always inclined to look forward. He does not seem to be a man with much patience for the weight of history. That’s probably good in a president, especially one whose time in office is running out. He is poised to play Vietnam against China now, to tighten   trade relations and perhaps even establish some military ties.
Similarly, at Hiroshima, his aides say, he plans to lean ahead, not back, but pressing his case for a nuclear-free world. That is a most worthy and urgent case, especially now that terrorists and off-the-wall dictators strive to get the bomb, and the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump, favors nuclear proliferation to Japan and South Korea, as he told The New York Times, remarkably.

But honest history is a sober teacher. Wars, won and lost, tend to be sanitized, polished up, and given a heroic sheen. Obama does not have to enter the debate over whether the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified or necessary. He does not have to declare cruelly that the Americans who fell in Vietnam sacrificed their lives for naught. He just has to tell the truth about the way miscalculations and misunderstandings and misreadings can lead to momentous and tragic decisions. That would be refreshing to hear from a president.  

May 16, 2016

The Politics of the Beard

By David K. Shipler

            Here’s the short version: Since I grew a beard on a whim in the summer of 1978, I have been mistaken for many kinds of people in several different countries: a KGB agent, a Maine lobsterman, a Jewish settler, a member of ISIS, and a homeless person. I was told in Kabul that if I added a turban, I could be a mullah, and a conservative in Israel suggested that I put on a yarmulke and go to the West Bank to see how a religious Jew would feel among hostile Palestinians. Each misidentification carried an interesting little lesson.
So did the beard’s absence, for when I went without it for a few months in 1995, I became unrecognizable in certain quarters. When I attended an event at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where I’d worked from 1988-90, nobody greeted me; they simply didn’t know who I was. And my older son’s wedding pictures, taken during that interlude, show this mysterious fellow among the family members, like some interloper. Who is that guy? A woman I know slightly did recognize me bare-faced and quipped, “You’re in disguise!”

May 4, 2016

The Unknown America

By David K. Shipler


            Just as the world has entered a phase of post-nationhood, where warfare is committed most persistently by non-state actors such as ISIS, the United States has entered a phase of post-party politics, where insurgencies sap power from the party professionals who are supposedly schooled in the arts of campaigning and governing.
The political upheaval would be exciting if it weren’t scary, and it would be uplifting if the grassroots impulses were humane and inclusive. But the populist resentments are varied, and they are channeled into different streams. Bernie Sanders taps the noble yearning of those who want a society pledged to open opportunity. Donald Trump gives voice to a sinister tide so surprising in its scope as to raise the question of how well most Americans know their own country. How many of us realized that so much ugliness resided just beneath the surface of civility?
Probably not many, perhaps not even among those who find themselves supporting Trump. As they keep telling reporters, he says what they think. But do they really think that stuff? Has some intoxication with Trump removed their inhibitions? Do they all detest people not of their race, religion, ethnicity? Are they actually, deep down, soft on the Ku Klux Klan? Do the men, in their hearts, disparage women, and do the women among his voters ridicule themselves because of their gender? Do they truly admire crude name-calling, and would they tolerate such coarse rudeness in their children or their spouses?
Do they seriously misunderstand the American system of checks and balances that would prevent Trump from doing most of what he promises? Would they really prefer an authoritarian system whose head of state had semi-dictatorial powers? Do they actually believe that government, which has so disillusioned them, can resolve all the economic anxiety and hardship many of them have endured?
Do they admire Vladimir Putin as Trump does? Really? Do they truly want the nuclear proliferation that Trump proposes, with Japan and South Korea in possession of the bomb? Do they actually want a trade war with 45 percent tariffs on goods from China and China’s inevitable retaliation? Do they believe that America’s leadership will be enhanced by dismantling military bases and alliances? Do they think that swagger and bluster and boasting are what make America great?

April 29, 2016

What the People Do Not Want to Hear

By David K. Shipler

            I am old enough to remember when there were no credit cards. Yes, children, there was such a time, in the Olden Days. Personal accounts could be arranged at some local stores, which would note your purchases in a ledger, to be paid off eventually. Then some department stores—Macy’s, Sears, and the like—issued their own cards, valid for use in their stores only. Esso (now ExxonMobil) had its card for charging gas at Esso stations.
            But the only real private borrowing people did was to buy a house or a car. Even student debt was minuscule. The use-everywhere piece of plastic came along later, and with it, the ease of overspending and the boom in personal debt. Under the law, national banks’ interest rates were exempt from state restrictions on usury, and their terms weren’t exactly transparent. Add the second mortgage and the home equity loan, which allowed people to treat their houses like ATM machines, and you have a nation of folks craving what they see advertised, buying insatiably, and living beyond their means.
            Now, put that phenomenon onto the tectonic shifts in the American economy as it moves from an industrial age to a digital robotic age, and you have an upheaval as uncontrollable as global warming—only marginally manageable by the will of humans to make sacrifices and alter behavior. As manufacturing declined, union membership plummeted, eroding workers’ clout in the marketplace of labor. Wages did not keep pace with consumers’ appetites. As high-tech jobs mushroomed, the skills gap grew, with more and more Americans unable to compete effectively in a global economy.
            That’s where the current politics of rage enters the picture. Donald Trump tells people what they want to hear, but what they want to hear is a lie. It has two parts: First, everybody is at fault except yourself. Blame Mexicans. Blame Muslims. Blame “losers.” Blame liberal Democrats. Blame corporations that move jobs abroad.
            Second, solve the problems with a sweep of the hand: Ban Mexicans. Ban Muslims. Discard “losers.” Make deals. Run Democrats out of office. Isolate the U.S. from world trade. Bar corporations from closing factories here and opening them there.

April 19, 2016

My Composite Candidate

By David K. Shipler

            If only we could Photoshop politicians, taking a keen and honest eye from one, a civil and courteous tongue from another, a brain from one who happened to have one, and a heart from another to place into the one whose vacant soul echoes with unfeeling arrogance. If we could just move parts around with a cursor to combine into the ideal presidential candidate, we could relax instead of grinding our teeth until November. Imagine what a relief it would be if we didn’t have to wish that Bernie were more sensible and Hillary more credible, that Ted had learned something beneficial at Princeton, and that The Donald’s mouth didn’t have to be washed out with soap.
            So just for fun, permit me to irritate almost everybody who reads this by finding in each candidate some quality that would be suitable in a president, then assembling the array of characteristics into a composite.
            First, let’s combine the populist appeals of Trump and Sanders, but without their simplistic rhetoric. We leave behind Sanders’s one-note scapegoating of “Wall Street” so our perfect candidate has room for nuance and sophistication, which will come later in the construction process. Of course we lose Trump’s bigotry, misogyny, bullying, incitement to violence, and ignorance about the American system’s inconvenient obstacles to ruling by fiat.
            Absent those undesirable qualities, you might ask, what’s left? Good question. What’s left is both men’s instinctive talent for touching the legitimate frustrations and disaffections of large numbers of citizens who have suffered a raw deal or have seen others getting kicked. What’s left is both men’s knack for voicing the resentments about a government and an economy that have failed to protect those who have lost their homes, their reliable employment, and their sense of security and well-being.

March 24, 2016

The Problems of Boycotting Israel

By David K. Shipler

            A couple of years ago, a retired Israeli journalist, Yehuda Litani, walked into his favorite local grocery store in Jerusalem and noticed cartons of eggs from a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. He had words with the storekeeper. “I asked the grocer to bring eggs from other sources,” Yehuda told me. “He refused, and I stopped buying there since that day.”
            Such settlements are widely considered by the Israeli left—and officially by the U.S. government—as obstacles to the eventual creation of a Palestinian state on West Bank territory, which was captured by Israel from Jordan during the 1967 war. The settlements have spread and grown into commercial enterprises, and leading settlers have risen into the ranks of the parliament and government. For this and other reasons, the door appears to be closing on a two-state solution.
So Yehuda, who speaks Arabic as well as Hebrew, and who covered the West Bank as a reporter, has mounted his tiny, principled boycott. He has no illusions. “Some of my friends in Jerusalem are behaving the same way,” Yehuda emailed, “but I must say that we are but a small minority—most people do not care about the exact source of the agricultural products they are buying.”
            The question of how and whether to use purchasing and investing power to influence Israeli policy has inflamed some campuses in the U.S. and Europe, mobilized several Protestant church assemblies in the U.S., and alarmed the Israeli government and its American supporters. Boycott proponents comprise all sorts of folks: the idealistic, the malicious, the honorable, the anti-Semitic, those who think they are trying to save Israel from an immoral quagmire, and those who care nothing for Israel’s continued existence.

March 15, 2016

"Have You No Sense of Decency?"

By David K. Shipler

            On June 9, 1954, in a highly charged Washington hearing room, the elderly attorney Joseph Welch, a man partial to homespun clarity, put to Senator Joseph McCarthy the stiletto question that has entered American lore. Responding to the Wisconsin Republican’s smear of a young colleague of Welch’s, the lawyer demanded McCarthy’s full attention and began with this:
            “Until this moment, Senator, I think I have never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to persist, Welch cut him down: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
            In the old black-and-white film, McCarthy has a mean squint, a twisted look something like Donald Trump’s when attacked. Trump’s method is different, but he plays on the same ground of fear and demonization. So Welch’s question is relevant today, and it ought to be directed not only to Trump but also to the American people: Have you no sense of decency?
Or, to make a gesture toward hope: After many months of waiting, when will America’s slumbering decency awake?
            For that is what eventually happened to end McCarthy’s slimy innuendos that ruined so many lives with false implications of communist affiliations, based on scanty rumors, guilt by association, and fabricated evidence. Preceded by Edward R. Murrow’s devastating televised assault on McCarthy three months earlier, Welch’s rhetorical question hit home. Huge numbers of Americans, watching live on national television, knew the answer. Decency stirred.
            This episode remains as my first political memory. I was 11 years old. Coming home from school day after day, I saw my grandmother, a Southern-born, Eisenhower Republican who detested communists, sitting bolt upright in a straight-back chair in front of the TV, appalled by McCarthy’s vile slanders. She loved Joseph Welch. His gentle decency struck a chord with the decency she carried inside herself.
            So it was during the Civil Rights movement as well, as Americans saw in their living rooms the contorted, hateful faces of Southern white girls screaming racist epithets outside integrating schools, the burly white cops swinging truncheons at non-resisting black protesters, the dogs and fire hoses unleashed against peaceful citizens demonstrating for their basic rights. Segregationists played their role in a pageant of brutal injustice vividly enough to stir the decency that resides in most Americans.
            Where is decency now? Is it gone or just marginalized, merely dormant? For a long time, McCarthy got away with his witch-hunt as a sly weasel in an era of exaggerated fears about communist designs on America. Trump gets away with his bullying as a vicious Rottweiler in a time of real and fake fears about insecurity in all its forms. Many of his supporters are legitimately scared of their economic peril, unduly afraid of terrorism, and eager to accept the scapegoats he offers, which include the varieties of people who represent a diversifying America.
Even if Trump does not win the Republican nomination, or even if he wins that but not the White House, his supporters will remain a restive, fulminating force of anger. So he has offered the country a lesson in its failure to remember that tolerance, logic, and the acceptance of difference is not genetic but must be learned anew by each generation.
The society has failed those who accept him as he vilifies and ridicules vast groups of people, a whole religion, all who try to govern, all who disagree. It has failed those who give a Nazi salute outside his rally and shout, “Go to Auschwitz,” as one man did. It has failed those who shout, “Nigger,” and “Go back to Africa.” It has failed those who cheer his invitation to beat up protesters, the empty promises he cannot possibly fulfill, the coarse insults he levels at fellow candidates. It has failed those whose schools have not taught them to check facts, research reality, know history, follow public issues, and make decisions that are carefully informed.
            On his 1954 program, “See It Now,” Ed Murrow read from the script that he and Fred Friendly had written about McCarthy. It is worth listening to today:
“We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine—and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. … We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.
“We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home. The actions of the junior senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear. He merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves.’”
Murrow concluded with his traditional sign-off: “Good night and good luck.”

Good luck, indeed.

March 8, 2016

The Great Manipulator and the Velcro Candidate

By David K. Shipler

            If Ronald Reagan was the Great Communicator, as his admirers enjoyed saying, then Donald Trump is the Great Manipulator, with an uncanny eye for the voters’ nerves of fear and yearning. If criticisms slid off Reagan as if he were coated with Teflon, every one sticks to Hillary Clinton as if she were covered in Velcro. If Trump gets better at what he does, and if Clinton doesn’t unglue the labels of dishonesty and opportunism, the election could be close.
            Trump is dangerously clever at reading the electorate, at least the part of it whose anti-government anger and economic despair have been energized by Republican radicals who now wail as Trump rides the wave that they produced. Talk-show personality Glenn Beck, who incites furious extremism, compared Trump to Hitler in 1929 and warned Americans against voting in anger. “When you’re really angry, you don’t make good decisions,” Beck told a rally for Ted Cruz. “Don’t drive drunk, don’t vote angry.” That’s sage advice from a model of calm reason.
            But if Trump grabs the nomination, it would not be amazing to see him temper his insults, smooth his sharp edges somewhat, and stress the virtue of “flexibility,” a word he used a few times in the last debate. His bare-knuckled bullying appeals to some but repels others, even those who want a tough-guy act in the White House. If he managed to time his evolution deftly, he might just appeal to the wishful thinking of Republicans who want to beat Clinton at all costs. And costs there would be.

March 4, 2016

The Privacy Problem: Security vs. Security

By David K. Shipler

            We might be approaching a tipping point about privacy, as dramatized by the Apple-FBI dispute over decrypting a terrorist’s iPhone. After years of seeing privacy and safety as opposites in the war on terrorism, important segments of American society seem to be recognizing personal security and national security as parts of the same whole, not as a dichotomy in a zero-sum game. If this evolution continues, it could eventually produce a significant correction to the surveillance state that developed after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001.
In the meantime, however, the two versions of security are colliding: the government’s rising concern about security from crime and terrorism in an age of digital encryption on the one hand, and, on the other, the public’s heightened interest in security from hackers, identity thieves, cyber-ransom demands, and—yes—government surveillance. Both sets of anxiety are justified. How to resolve the clash intelligently is far from clear.
The FBI’s effort to force Apple to create new software to disable an iPhone’s security features is propelling the courts forward in time at a faster speed than they typically travel. They usually lag well behind technology. But now they and Congress need to catch up quickly. That phone and hundreds of others sit in evidence lockers waiting to be cracked by law enforcement, requiring a creative effort by judges, legislators, prosecutors, and high-tech companies to make it possible—legally and technically—to execute a legitimate search warrant on a particular device without the risk of compromising security on all such devices.

February 25, 2016

The Temporary Death of Political Cynicism

By David K. Shipler

            Cynicism about politics appears not to be genetic. It has to be relearned generation after generation, election after election. So it is that voters who are fed up with ineffective or unjust government, and by politicians who promise what they don’t deliver, are flocking to two candidates who cannot possibly deliver what they are promising: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
            The attraction, at each end of the spectrum, seems to run beyond protest or anger. Not only do Trump and Sanders supporters know what they dislike, they also know what they want to believe is doable: “Make America great again,” says Trump. “Make this political revolution a reality,” says Sanders.
            Polling shows that only six percent of voters “would consider voting for both men,” Thomas Edsall reports in The New York Times, based on recent NBC/Wall Street Journal surveys. But a few of their policy proposals actually overlap: hitting corporations for taxes on overseas profits; eliminating tax loopholes for the very rich, opposing trade agreements that have facilitated the American job drain; raising the wages required for foreigners who get H-1B work visas; and increasing spending on mental health treatment for veterans, for example.
Trump also favors letting vets use their Veterans Administration cards for private physicians, outside the system, who accept Medicare. Sanders takes credit for a law that “makes it easier for some veterans to see private doctors or go to community health centers,” his website declares.
If you take time to drill down into the positions detailed by both candidates, you’ll find that while both offer some concrete specifics about how they would accomplish their goals, Sanders’s are more solidly documented. Some liberal economists have questioned his math, but there is no doubt that his proposed tax increases would generate hundreds of billions in additional revenue. All he’d need is a Congress that looks nothing like the one we’re fated to have.