The New Vietnam War Documents
This week, the government released thousands of previously classified documents on the war in Vietnam. Bob Kerrey on why we should pay attention.
This week, the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry released thousands of declassified documents from testimony before the committee that took place in 1968 at the height of the Vietnam War.
That year, the ranking member of the committee, Sen. Bourke B. Hickenlooper, a World War I veteran, had begun to focus on the incident four years earlier involving the USS Maddox and Turner Joy. On Aug. 2, 1964, the USS Maddox had supposedly been attacked by three North Vietnamese torpedo boats—an incident formed the basis for Congress passing—with only two dissenting votes –a war powers resolution authorizing President Lyndon B. Johnson to use "such force as necessary" to confront North Vietnam.
He had been told by his commanding officer that the case was closed. "Don't look up a dead rabbit's ass," was the sentiment, he said.
Between 1964 and 1968, however, the number of Americans and their representatives who opposed the war and questioned the underlying cause for it had grown considerably, and one reason for these hearings was to find out what had actually happened, and if it was the same as what they had been told by President Johnson and the Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
Among the witnesses was a junior Navy officer who had stood on the bridge of a U.S. Navy vessel in the Gulf of Tonkin more than 30 miles off the coast of North Vietnam in September 1964. During the hearing, he was asked about the events surrounding the Maddox and the Turner Joy.
His answer was that he had been told by his commanding officer that the case was closed. Using a colorful and unusual metaphor to make the point that he should not ask questions about the incident his superior advised him: "Don't look up a dead rabbit's ass".
No doubt there are many Americans who feel the same way about examining the underlying causes of the Vietnam War. No doubt they would prefer to leave all the terrible things that were going on at home in 1968 unexamined.
Fortunately, Senator Kerry feels differently.
His decision to release these documents, which recorded the classified discussions that took place in 1968, is an important and commendable act.
The year 1968 was a terrible year in American history, and the late 1960s is a time worthy of careful study and remembering for what it was, not what we wish it to be. The country was bitterly divided, with both men and women suffering terrible consequences—even dying—for their political views, with Martin Luther King assassinated in April 1968, and Robert F. Kennedy struck down two months later.
There was also no shortage of heroic and cowardly behavior as well as many things in between. Indeed, the language on both sides would make even Mel Gibson blush.
Today's political disagreements are tame by comparison. But the same challenges exist for those who attempt to find common ground.
The Senator's decision is consistent with the finest traditions of our free and open society in which we are willing to allow citizens to examine the unvarnished details of our past for the purpose of learning without prejudice the good and the bad we have done.
For history to be a source of knowledge and wisdom it can never be treated like a dead rabbit.
Bob Kerrey served three years in the United States Navy. His career in public service also includes being the governor and U.S. senator from Nebraska during the 1980s and 1990s. In 2002, Kerrey published a widely praised memoir, When I Was A Young Man. He has been president of The New School since 2001.