Loading ...
Sorry, an error occurred while loading the content.

CONFLICT IN VIETNAM AND AT HOME by Robert F. Kennedy

Expand Messages
  • Ram Lau
    http://ome.ksu.edu/lectures/landon/trans/Kennedy68.html Landon Lecture by Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. Senator, New York March 18, 1968 CONFLICT IN VIETNAM AND AT
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 4, 2007
    • 0 Attachment
      http://ome.ksu.edu/lectures/landon/trans/Kennedy68.html
      Landon Lecture by Robert F. Kennedy,
      U.S. Senator, New York
      March 18, 1968
      CONFLICT IN VIETNAM AND AT HOME
      by Robert F. Kennedy

      The reason I'm here is that someone sent me a history of this city.
      And I discovered that it was founded by people from Chicago who came
      to Kansas to found a town named Boston, which they later changed to
      Manhattan. So I knew I'd be right at home.

      I am proud to come here at the invitation of Alfred M. Landon. I met
      him at the White House when he visited there. I know how highly
      President Kennedy respected Governor Landon, and the continuing
      contribution he made – still makes – the public life of the country.

      I am also glad to come to the home state of another Kansan, who wrote,

      "If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who
      rebel, who attack life with all the youthful vision and vigor, then
      there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come
      on college campuses, the better world for tomorrow."

      The man who wrote these words was that notorious seditionist, William
      Allen White – the late editor of the Emporia Gazette and one of the
      giants of American journalism. He is an honored man today; but when he
      lived and wrote, he was often reviled on your campus and across the
      nation as an extremist – or worse. For he spoke as he believed. He did
      not conceal his concern in comforting words; he did not delude his
      readers or himself with false hopes and illusions. It is in this
      spirit that I wish to speak today.
      A Year of Choice

      For this is a year of choice – a year when we choose not simply who
      will lead us, but where we wish to be led; the country we want for
      ourselves – and the kind we want for our children. If in this year of
      choice we fashion new politics out of old illusions, we insure for
      ourselves nothing but crisis for the future – and we bequeath to our
      children the bitter harvest of those crises.

      For with all we have done, with all our immense power and richness,
      our problems seem to grow not less, but greater. We are in a time of
      unprecedented turbulence, of danger and questioning. It is at its root
      a question of the national soul. The President calls it
      "restlessness;" while cabinet officers and commentators tell us that
      America is deep in a malaise of the spirit – discouraging initiative,
      paralyzing will and action, dividing Americans from one another by
      their age, their views, and the color of their skins.

      There are many causes. Some are in the failed promise of America
      itself: in the children I have seen, starving in Mississippi; idling
      their lives away in the ghetto; committing suicide in the despair of
      Indian reservations; or watching their proud fathers sit without work
      in the ravaged lands of Eastern Kentucky. Another cause is in our
      inaction in the face of danger. We seem equally unable to control the
      violent disorder within our cities – or the pollution and destruction
      of the country, of the water and land that we use and our children
      must inherit. And a third great cause of discontent is the course we
      are following in Vietnam: in a war which has divided Americans as they
      have not been divided since your state was called "bloody Kansas."
      Crisis of Confidence

      A11 this – questioning and uncertainty at home, divisive war abroad –
      has led us to a deep crisis of confidence: in our leadership, in each
      other, and in our very self as a nation.

      Today I would speak to you of the third of those great crises: of the
      war in Vietnam. I come here, to this serious forum in the heart of the
      nation to discuss with you why I regard our policy there as bankrupt:
      not on the basis of emotion, but fact; not, I hope, in clichés – but
      with a clear and discriminating sense of where the national interest
      really lies.

      I do not want – as I believe most Americans do not want – to sell out
      American interests, to simply withdraw, to raise the white flag of
      surrender. That would be unacceptable to us as a country and as a
      people. But I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned
      – that the course we are following at the present time is deeply
      wrong. I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned –
      that we are acting as if no other nations existed, against the
      judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike. I am
      concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned – that our
      present course will not bring victory; will not bring peace; will not
      stop the bloodshed; and will not advance the interests of the United
      States or the cause of peace in the world.

      I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more
      Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the
      bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of
      thousands of Vietnamese slaughtered; so that they may say, as Tacitus
      said of Rome: "They made a desert, and called it peace."

      And I do not think that is what the American spirit is really all about.

      Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public. I
      was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions that
      helped set us on our present path. It may be that the effort was
      doomed from the start; that it was never really possible to bring all
      the people of South Vietnam under the rule of the successive
      governments we supported – governments, one after another, riddled
      with corruption, inefficiency, and greed; governments which did not
      and could not successfully capture and energize the national feeling
      of their people. If that is the case, as it well may be, and then I am
      willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and
      before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own
      perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a
      guide by which to live. Now as ever, we do ourselves best justice when
      we measure ourselves against ancient tests, as in the Antigone of
      Sophocles: "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows
      his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride."
      Reversals and Escalations

      The reversals of the last several months have led our military to ask
      for 206,000 more troops. Recently, it was announced that some of them
      – a "moderate" increase, it was said – would soon be sent. But isn't
      this exactly what we have always done in the past? If we examine the
      history of this conflict, we find the dismal story repeated time after
      time. Every time – at every crisis – we have denied that anything was
      wrong; sent more troops; and issued more confident communiqués. Every
      time, we have been assured that this one last step would bring
      victory. And every time, the predictions and promises have failed and
      been forgotten, and the demand has been made again for just one more
      step up the ladder.

      But all the escalations, all the last steps, have brought us no closer
      to success than we were before. Rather, as the scale of the fighting
      has increased, South Vietnamese society has become less and less
      capable of organizing or defending itself, and we have more and more
      assumed the whole burden of the war. In just three years, we have gone
      from 16,000 advisers to over 500,000 troops; from no American bombing
      North or South, to an air campaign against both, greater than that
      waged in all the European theater in World War II; from less than 300
      American dead in all the years prior to 1965, to more than 500 dead in
      a single week of combat in 1968.

      And once again the President tells us, as we have been told for twenty
      years, that "we are going to win;" "victory" is coming.

      But what are the true facts? What is our present situation?
      The Present Situation

      First, our control over the rural population – so long described as
      the key to our efforts – has evaporated. The Vice President tells us
      that the pacification program has "stopped." In the language of other
      high officials, it is a "considerable setback" with "loss of
      momentum," "some withdrawal from the countryside," "a significant
      psychological setback both on the part of pacification people
      themselves and the local population." Reports from the field indicate
      that the South Vietnamese Army has greatly increased its tendency to
      "pull into its compounds in cities and towns, especially at night,
      reduce its patrolling, and leave the militia and revolutionary
      development cadres open to enemy incursion and attack." Undoubtedly,
      this is one reason why, over two recent weeks, our combat deaths –
      1049 – were so much greater than those of the South Vietnamese – 557.
      Like it or not, the government of South Vietnam is pursuing an enclave
      policy. Its writ runs where American arms protect it: that far and no
      farther. To extend the power of the Saigon government over its own
      country, we now can see, will be in essence equivalent to the
      reconquest and occupation of most of the entire nation.

      Let us clearly understand the full implications of that fact. The
      point of our pacification operations was always described as "winning
      the hearts and minds" of the people. We recognized that giving the
      countryside military security against the Viet Cong would be futile –
      indeed that it would be impossible – unless the people of the
      countryside themselves came to identify their interests with ours, and
      to assist not the Viet Cong, but the Saigon government. For this we
      recognized that their minds would have to be changed – that their
      natural inclination would be to support the Viet Cong, or at best
      remain passive, rather than sacrifice for foreign white men, or the
      remote Saigon government.

      It is this effort that has been most gravely set back in the last
      month. We cannot change the minds of people in villages controlled by
      the enemy. The fact is, as all recognize, that we cannot reassert
      control over those villages now in enemy hands without repeating the
      whole process of bloody destruction which has ravaged the countryside
      of South Vietnam throughout the last three years. Nor could we thus
      keep control without the presence of millions of American troops. If,
      in the years those villages and hamlets were controlled by Saigon, the
      government had brought honesty, social reform, land – if that had
      happened, if the many promises of a new and better life for the people
      had been fulfilled – then, in the process of reconquest, we might
      appear as liberators: just as we did in Europe, despite the
      devastation of war, in 1944-45. But the promises of reform were not
      kept. Corruption and abuse of administrative power have continued to
      this day. Land reform has never been more than an empty promise.
      Viewing the performance of the Saigon government over the last three
      years, there is no reason for the South Vietnamese peasant to fight
      for the extension of its authority or to view the further devastation
      that effort will bring as anything but a calamity. Yet already the
      destruction has defeated most of our own purposes. Arthur Gardiner is
      the former chief of the United States AID mission in South Vietnam,
      and currently Executive Director of the International Voluntary
      Services. He tells us that we are "creating more Viet Cong than we are
      destroying" – and "increasing numbers of Vietnamese are becoming
      benevolently neutral toward the Viet Cong." As a consequence, the
      political war – so long described as the only war that counts – has
      gone with the pacification program that was to win it. In a real
      sense, it may now be lost beyond recall.
      Our Regressive Ally

      The second evident fact of the last two months is that the Saigon
      government is no more or better an ally than it was before; that it
      may even be less; and that the war inexorably is growing more, not
      less, an American effort. American officials continue to talk about a
      government newly energized, moving with "great competence," taking
      hold "remarkably well," doing "a very, very good piece of work of
      recovery." I was in the Executive Branch of the government from 1961
      to 1964. In all those years, we heard the same glowing promises about
      the South Vietnamese government: corruption would soon be eliminated,
      land reform would come, and programs were being infused with new
      energy. But those were not the facts then, and they are not the facts
      today. The facts are that there is still no total mobilization: no
      price or wage controls, no rationing, and no overtime work. The facts
      are, as a Committee of the House of Representatives has told us, that
      land reform is moving backward, with the government forces helping
      landlords to collect exorbitant back rents from the peasantry. The
      facts are that 18-year-old South Vietnamese are still not being
      drafted; though now, as many times in the past, we are assured that
      this will happen soon. The facts are that thousands of young South
      Vietnamese buy their deferments from military service while American
      Marines die at Khe Sanh.

      The facts are that the government has arrested monks and labor
      leaders, former Presidential candidates and government officials –
      including prominent members of the Committee for the Preservation of
      the Nation, in which American officials placed such high hopes just a
      few weeks ago.

      Meanwhile, the government's enormous corruption continues,
      debilitating South Vietnam and crippling our effort to help its
      people. Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives have
      officially documented the existence, extent, and results of this
      corruption: American AID money stolen, food diverted from refugees,
      government posts bought and sold while essential tasks remain undone.
      A subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Government Operations has
      reported that the Vietnamese Collector of Customs had engaged in
      smuggling gold and opium – and that he was protected by figures even
      higher in the government. President Johnson has responded to criticism
      of corruption in Vietnam by reminding us that there is stealing in
      Beaumont, Texas. I for one do not believe that Beaumont is so corrupt.
      I do not believe that any public official, in any American city, is
      engaged in smuggling gold and dope; selling draft deferments, or
      pocketing millions of dollars in U. S. government funds. But however
      corrupt any city in the United States may be, that corruption is not
      costing the lives of American soldiers; while the pervasive corruption
      of the Government of Vietnam, as an American official has told us, is
      a significant cause of the prolongation of the war and the continued
      American casualties. As this government continues on its present
      course, and our support for it continues, the effect can only be to
      leave us totally isolated from the people of Vietnam. Our fighting men
      deserve better than that.
      The Cost of Destruction

      Third, it is becoming more evident with every passing day that the
      victories we achieve will only come at the cost of destruction for the
      nation we once hoped to help. Even before this winter, Vietnam and its
      people were disintegrating under the blows of war. Now hardly a city
      in Vietnam has been spared from the new ravages of the past two
      months. Saigon officials say that nearly three quarters of a million
      new refugees have been created, to add to the existing refugee
      population of two million or more. No one really knows the number of
      civilian casualties. The city of Hue, with most of the country's
      cultural and artistic heritage, lies in ruins: Of its population of
      145,000, fully 113,000 are said to be homeless. There is not enough
      food, not enough shelter, not enough medical care. There is only death
      and misery and destruction.

      An American commander said of the town of Ben Tre, "it became
      necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." It is difficult to
      quarrel with the decision of American commanders to use air power and
      artillery to save the lives of their men; if American troops are to
      fight for Vietnamese cities, they deserve protection. What I cannot
      understand is why the responsibility for the recapture and attendant
      destruction of Hue, and Ben Tre and the others, should fall to
      American troops in the first place.

      If Communist insurgents or invaders held New York or Washington or San
      Francisco, we would not leave it to foreigners to take them back, and
      destroy them and their people in the process. Rather I believe there
      is not one among us who would not tear the invaders out with his bare
      hands, whatever the cost. There is no question that some of the South
      Vietnamese Army fought with great bravery. The Vietnamese – as these
      units, and the Viet Cong have both shown us – are a courageous people.
      But it is also true that a thousand South Vietnamese soldiers, in Hue
      on leave for Tet, hid among the refugees for three weeks, making no
      attempt to rejoin their units or join the town's defense; among them
      was a full colonel. And it is also true that in the height of the
      battle for Hue, as trucks brought back American dead and wounded from
      the front lines, millions of Americans could see, on their television
      screens, South Vietnamese soldiers occupied in looting the city those
      Americans were lighting to recapture.

      If the government's troops will not or cannot carry the light for
      their cities, we cannot ourselves destroy them. That kind of salvation
      is not an act we can presume to perform for them. For we must ask our
      government – we must ask ourselves: where does such logic end? If it
      becomes "necessary" to destroy all of South Vietnam in order to "save"
      it, will we do that too? And if we care so little about South Vietnam
      that we are willing to see the land destroyed and its people dead,
      then why are we there in the first place?

      Can we ordain to ourselves the awful majesty of God – to decide what
      cities and villages are to be destroyed, who will live and who will
      die, and who will join the refugees wandering in a desert of our own
      creation? If it is true that we have a commitment to the South
      Vietnamese people, we must ask, are they being consulted – in Hue, or
      Ben Tre, or in the villages from which the 3 million refugees have
      fled? If they believe all the death and destruction are a lesser evil
      than the Wet Cong, why did they not warn us when the Viet Cong came
      into Hue, and the dozens of other cities, before the Tet Offensive?
      Why did they not join the fight?

      Will it be said of us, as Tacitus said of Rome: "they made a desert
      and called it peace?"

      It is also said that we are protecting Thailand – or perhaps Hawaii –
      from the legions of the Communists. Are we really protecting the rest
      of Southeast Asia by this spreading convict? And in any case, is the
      destruction of South Vietnam and its people a permissible means of
      defense?

      Let us have no misunderstanding. The Viet Cong are a brutal enemy
      indeed. Time and time again, they have shown their willingness to
      sacrifice innocent civilians, to engage in torture and murder and
      despicable terror to achieve their ends. This is a war almost without
      rules or quarter. There can be no easy moral answer to this war, no
      one-sided condemnation of American actions. What we must ask ourselves
      is whether we have a right to bring so much destruction to another
      land, without clear and convincing evidence that this is what its
      people want. But that is precisely the evidence we do not have. What
      they want is peace, not dominated by any outside force. And that is
      what we are really committed to help bring them, not in some
      indefinite future, but while some scraps of life remain still to be
      saved from the holocaust.
      Our Weakening World Position

      The fourth fact that is now clearer than ever is that the war in
      Vietnam, far from being the last critical test for the United States
      is in fact weakening our position in Asia and around the world, and
      eroding the structure of international cooperation, which has directly
      supported our security for the past three decades. In purely military
      terms, the war has already stripped us of the graduated-response
      capability that we have labored so hard to build for the last seven
      years. Surely the North Koreans were emboldened to seize the Pueblo
      because the knew that the United States simply cannot afford to fight
      another Asian war while we are so tied down in Vietnam. We set out to
      prove our willingness to keep our commitments everywhere in the world.
      What we are ensuring instead is that it is most unlikely that the
      American people would ever again be willing to engage in this kind of
      struggle. Meanwhile our oldest and strongest allies pull back to their
      own shores, leaving us alone to police all of Asia; while Mao Tse-Tung
      and his Chinese comrades sit patiently by, fighting us to the last
      Vietnamese: watching us weaken a nation which might have provided a
      stout barrier against Chinese expansion southward; hoping that, we
      will further tie ourselves down in protracted war in Cambodia, Laos,
      Thailand; confident, as it is reported from Hong Kong, that the war in
      Vietnam "will increasingly bog down the United States, sapping its
      resources, discrediting its power pretensions, alienating its allies,
      fraying its ties with the Soviet Union, and aggravating dissensions
      among Americans at home." As one American observer puts it, truly "We
      seem to be playing the script the way Mao wrote it."

      All this bears directly and heavily on the question of whether more
      troops should now be sent to Vietnam – and, if more are sent, what
      their mission will be. We are entitled to ask – we are required to ask
      – how many more men, how many more lives, how much more destruction
      will be asked, to provide the military victory that is always just
      around the corner, to pour into this bottomless pit of our dreams?

      But this question the Administration does not and cannot answer. It
      has no answer – none but the ever – expanding use of military force
      and the lives of our brave soldiers, in a conflict where military
      force has failed to solve anything in the past. The President has
      offered to negotiate – yet this weekend he told us again that he seeks
      not compromise but victory, "at the negotiating table if possible, on
      the battlefield if necessary." But at a real negotiating table, there
      can be no "victory" for either side; only a painful and difficult
      compromise. To seek victory at the conference table is to ensure that
      you will never reach it. Instead the war will go on, year after
      terrible year – until those who sit in the seats of high policy are
      men who seek another path. And that must be done this year.

      For it is long past time to ask: what is this war doing to us? Of
      course it is costing us money – fully one-fourth of our federal budget
      – but that is the smallest price we pay. The cost is in our young men,
      the tens of thousands of their lives cut off forever. The cost is in
      our world position – in neutrals and allies alike, every day more
      baffled by and estranged from a policy they cannot understand.
      The Price We Pay

      Higher yet is the price we pay in our own innermost lives, and in the
      spirit of our country. For the first time in a century, we have open
      resistance to service in the cause of the nation. For the first time
      perhaps in our history, we have desertions from our army on political
      and moral grounds. The front pages of our newspapers show photographs
      of American soldiers torturing prisoners. Every night we watch horror
      on the evening news. Violence spreads inexorably across the nation,
      filling our streets and crippling our lives. And whatever the costs to
      us let us think of the young men we have sent there: not just the
      killed, but also those who have to kill; not just the maimed, but also
      those who must look upon the results of what they do.

      It may be asked, is not such degradation the cost of all wars? Of
      course it is. That is why war is not an enterprise lightly to be
      undertaken, nor prolonged one moment past its absolute necessity. All
      this – the destruction of Vietnam, the cost to ourselves, the danger
      to the world – all this we would stand willingly, if it seemed to
      serve some worthwhile end. But the costs of the war's present course
      far outweigh anything we can reasonably hope to gain by it, for
      ourselves or for the people of Vietnam. It must be ended, and it can
      be ended, in a peace of brave men who have fought each other with a
      terrible fury, each believing he and he alone was in the right. We
      have prayed to different gods, and the prayers of neither have been
      answered fully. Now, while there is still time for some of them to be
      partly answered, now is the time to stop.
      What We Can Do

      And the fact is that much can be done. We can – as I have urged for
      two years, but as we have never done – negotiate with the National
      Liberation Front. We can – as we have never done – assure the Front a
      genuine place in the political life of South Vietnam. We can – as we
      are refusing to do today – begin to deescalate the war, concentrate on
      protecting populated areas, and thus save American lives and slow down
      the destruction of the countryside. We can – as we have never done –
      insist that the Government of South Vietnam broaden its base,
      institute real reforms, and seek an honorable settlement with their
      fellow countrymen.

      This is no radical program of surrender. This is no sell-out of
      American interests. This is a modest and reasonable program, designed
      to advance the interests of this country and save something from the
      wreckage for the people of Vietnam.

      This program would be far more effective than the present course of
      this Administration – whose only response to failure is to repeat it
      on a larger scale. This program, with its more limited costs, would
      indeed be far more likely to accomplish our true objectives.

      And therefore even this modest and reasonable program is impossible
      while our present leadership, under the illusion that military victory
      is just ahead, plunges deeper into the swamp that is our present course.

      So I come here today, to this great University, to ask your help: not
      for me, but for your country and for the people of Vietnam. You are
      the people, as President Kennedy said, who have "the least ties to the
      present and the greatest ties to the future." I urge you to learn the
      harsh facts that lurk behind the mask of official illusion with which
      we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. Our
      country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies; but above all,
      from our own misguided policies – and what they can do to the nation
      that Thomas Jefferson once told us was the last, best, hope of man.
      There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart
      of America. In these next eight months, we are going to decide what
      this country will stand for – and what kind of men we are. So I ask
      for your help, in the cities and homes of this state, into the towns
      and farms: contributing your concern and action, warning of the danger
      of what we are doing – and the promise of what we can do. I ask you,
      as tens of thousands of young men and women are doing all over this
      land, to organize yourselves, and then to go forth and work for new
      policies – work to change our direction – and thus restore our place
      at the point of moral leadership, in our country, in our own hearts,
      and all around the world.
    Your message has been successfully submitted and would be delivered to recipients shortly.