Friday, May 10, 2013

Vietnam - Division in Society and Politics

The Vietnam War was different from most military conflicts in which the United States has been. Two things were lacking: first, a broad understanding of why we were fighting and about what we were fighting; second, a general agreement that it was important for us to be in this war. In fact, while there was no significant disagreement in society about the war when the U.S. first entered it, there would be deep division within society about the war as it dragged on.

Divisions in society were paralleled, and possibly preceded, by divisions among policymakers and legislators. Those merely trying to inform themselves about the details of the war were frustrated by the Johnson administration’s tight control of military information. Congressman Donald Rumsfeld writes that, in 1965

on a number of occasions I joined other members of Congress in expressing concern about what appeared to be the White House’s attempts to manage the news on the war. This was an understandable inclination on the administration’s part, since no doubt they felt the media coverage of the war was unfair. But the administration made matters worse with their seeming reluctance to provide much, if any, documentation that would have given members of Congress a better sense of what was taking place.

Rumsfeld and other members of Congress worked to pry information out of President Johnson’s administration.

By this time, I had become a cosponsor and advocate for the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Members in the House of Representatives who were in the Democrat Party were uncomfortable

in the awkward position of promoting a bill that went against the express wishes of the President, so I helped

draft and promote the bill as it went into Congress, a bill that

was crafted in reaction to the Johnson administration's behavior.

It would be up to Rumsfeld and others to

develop the legislation and move it through the House. For me, support of the bill came down to one long-held belief: Good judgments require accurate information.

In addition to LBJ’s refusal to pass information along to the Congress, and to the public, another painful issue in American society at this time was the draft. Should young men in the United States be forced to fight in a war which was neither well-understood nor well-supported? Rumsfeld continues:

The situation in Vietnam, and the demonstrations against the war and the draft, strengthened greatly my support for a transition to an all-volunteer military. The draft had been in place since World War II. By the mid-1960s, many young Americans were asking why they were being forced to fight in a war they did not understand and that they did not see as critical to our country’s security. Since the various draft exemptions - being a college student, a teacher, married, or a conscientious objector - seemed to favor the more affluent, the draft also exacerbated racial and social tensions in the country. In October 1967, one of the largest antiwar demonstrations in the Washington area was held on the steps of the Pentagon, with many protesting that conscription was unwarranted, discriminatory, and unfair. I agreed with them.

In our free system of government, I believed, conscription was appropriate only when there was a demonstrated need. A volunteer system offered many advantages. First and foremost, it would preserve the freedom of individuals to make their own decisions about how they wished to live their lives. Volunteers who chose to enter the military would be more likely to make it a career, instead of serving for a short period. It also would avoid the implicit discrimination and the inherent inequalities caused by the various deferments and exemptions in the draft system.

Because of my interest in a volunteer military, I was invited to be part of a conference at the University of Chicago convened to discuss the topic. There I met one of the most passionate proponents of the all-volunteer system, the economist Dr. Milton Friedman, who I would turn to many times over the years for advice and guidance. Friedman’s belief in the power of freedom was inspiring, and he felt the same way about giving people the choice to serve in the U.S. military as he did about giving them a choice about their education. Other participants on the panel included Senator Edward Kennedy and the anthropologist Margaret Mead, both of whom favored continuing the draft.

Edward “Ted” Kennedy - or “Teddy” to friends - operated out of loyalty to his Democrat Party in supporting the draft. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead, however, had been influenced by the work of John Dewey. Mead’s mother, Emily (Fogg) Mead was a fan of Dewey’s at the University of Chicago, as was Mead’s fellow student Ruth Benedict at Columbia University. Dewey had no great love for war, but supported the draft on principle; he wrote that

conscription has brought home to the countries which have in the past been the home of the individualistic tradition the supremacy of public need over private

liberty. Margaret Mead thus represents an extension of Dewey’s progressivism. By contrast, Milton Friedman and Don Rumsfeld represented a version of American politics which places great value on personal freedom.