William H. Harbaugh: Vietnam/Iraq Time Warp ... His Cambodia Crisis Speech

Historians in the News

The biographer and historian William H. Harbaugh, professor emeritus of history at the University of Virginia who died in the spring of '05, was a great friend and mentor to me. His Power & Responsibility: The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt (FS&G, 1961) remains the very best single-volume biography of TR ever published. Meanwhile, his biography of John W. Davis - Lawyer's Lawyer (Oxford University Press, 1973) - was a finalist for the National Book Award and a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in biography. Bill was a dear, generous and brilliant man - one who will always be much missed. He was also a highly decorated veteran of the Second World War.

What makes me think of him is that I've just been rereading a speech he gave in the Rotunda of the University of Virginia on May 6, 1970, during an action protesting both the invasion of Cambodia and the state-sanctioned murder of students, just two days before, at Kent State University. Bill's words from 1970, regarding Vietnam and Cambodia, trigger no small amount of dejavu given our contemporary situation in Iraq. I quote only portions. The entirety of Bill's remarks can be found here.

Members of the Committee, students, tourists, faculty, Billy and Rickey [his sons] and guests from the Charlottesville chapter of the FBI:

We meet in a time of despair. We have witnessed worse tragedies than the one at Kent State University Monday. We see them on TV every night - the wanton destruction by our troops and by our allies of the moment, the South Vietnamese, of the innocent peasant men, women and children of Vietnam and now Cambodia. But not until we saw on TV Monday the slaying of four of our kind did many among us finally perceive the real nature of the violence to which this nation has been committed in South East Asia for a decade and against which some among us have been protesting ever since the first teach-ins five years ago ...

... We meet at what may well be the most critical juncture in the history of the United State, and, indeed, of mankind. The crisis which prompted the designer of this architectural complex - this testament to that which is sensitive, beautiful, and creative in man and which makes the struggle to live worth sustaining - the crisis, I repeat, which prompted him to write the Declaration of Independence was nothing as compared to the one that now confronts us. Nor was the Civil War, nor World Wars I or II of comparable magnitude to the one that confronts us now. For not until our times has man possessed bacteriological and nuclear weaponry in sufficient capacity to destroy mankind.

One would think that harsh truth would have long ago inspired a reordering of the assumptions on which our foreign policy is based. But it has not. For ten years now policy scientists in the Rand Corporation and the highest councils of government have grounded their tragic advice to John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon on assumptions that are rooted in the misuse, rather the understanding, of history.

They have transformed the Munich analogy, the domino thesis, and the idea - not of national interest - but of national prestige into a kind of Holy Trinity of foreign policy making. They have not told us that for every Munich there were nine rational compromises which averted war. They have not told us that it was the failure to compromise that precipitated World War I. They have not told us that the chip-on-the-shoulder diplomacy of Cordell Hull destroyed the viability of the peace party in Japan prior to Pearl Harbor.  (Nor, parenthetically, have they told us - presumably because they have not bothered to reflect on the matter - that the Asia we went to war to protect in 1941 was not even an Asia ruled by Asians. It was an Asia owned or dominated by Europeans - by Britons, Frenchmen, and Dutchmen - and run by them in the interests of their fellow Europeans. It was, moreover, an Asia which was not then, and is not now, within either the vital or the legitimate sphere of influence of the United States.) ...

Read entire article at Edward J. Renehan Jr. at his blog

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