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.

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?