Monday, May 28, 2018

The Worst and the Dimmest

This morning Democracy Now! rebroadcast part of their 2006 interview with the late Daniel Berrigan.  I've mentioned that interview before, to pick on Berrigan for hanging on to a juicy quote from Robert McNamara until the next day so he could ask a secretary to write it down in shorthand.  But for Memorial Day I want to return to the context of that quotation, which was the US invasion of Vietnam, then reaching its peak of aggressive violence.

Berrigan met McNamara
at a social evening with the Kennedys in about '65 and after this very posh dinner, which was welcoming me home from Latin America. One of the Kennedys announced that they would love to have a discussion between the secretary of war and myself in front of everybody, which we did start. And they asked me to initiate the thing, and I said to the secretary something about, “Since you didn't stop the war this morning, I wonder if you’d do it this evening.” So he looked kind of past my left ear and said, “Well, I’ll just say this to Father Berrigan and everybody: Vietnam is like Mississippi. If they won’t obey the law, you send the troops in.” And he stopped. ... And this was supposed to be the brightest of the bright, one of the whiz kids, respected by all in the Cabinet, etc., etc., etc. And he talks like a sheriff out of Selma, Alabama. Whose law? Won’t obey whose law? Well, that was the level at which the war was being fought.
McNamara has come to be treated as a tragic figure by the American mainstream, which always treats US aggression and terror as blunders, mistakes by a well-meaning giant: war just keeps following us home until we keep it.  But the glimpse into McNamara's mind in the remark quoted by Berrigan is fascinating, both in his dismissive contempt for dissent and in its moral monstrosity.

Let's extend McNamara's analogy and compare Vietnam to Mississippi.  Who can forget how, when Mississippi refused to obey the law, Washington promptly overthrew its more-or-less elected government and replaced it with a brutal dictator who staged sham elections, threw white supremacists into prison to be tortured and murdered, and when popular resistance emerged, carpet-bombed the state with a fury not seen since World War II?  Who can forget the shocking photograph of a white Mississippian being shot in the head by a member of the occupying regime?  Or the heart-rending photograph of white Mississippian children as they ran, naked and screaming, from a US napalm attack on the cotton fields of Jackson County?  But if you won't obey the law, you pay the price; that's America.

Now let's get serious.  Washington's response to Mississippi's resistance to the law was considerably milder than its response to Vietnamese defiance -- which was not, in fact, disobedience to "the law"; that would better describe the US trampling on a full range of international agreements in order to impose its will on Southeast Asia.  In general the government was basically sympathetic to white supremacists, and intervened only half-heartedly against racist obstructionism and terror; think of Dwight Eisenhower's remark to Justice Earl Warren that "white southerners 'are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.'"  (Actually Warren "sanitized" the quotation, which didn't keep it from pissing Eisenhower off; what the great man actually said was "big black bucks.")  For those too young to remember, here's actual photographic evidence of one of those big black bucks (in the foreground) and some of those sweet little girls.

Generally, what concerned the US government was not racists' defiance of the law, nor white supremacy itself, but that American racism made us look bad in the eyes of the world, and would give the Communists fodder for propaganda.  These worries weren't enough, however, to keep the government from dragging its feet and hoping the problem would go away by itself it the government ignored it long enough.

Another point about McNamara's response to Berrigan: it seems to count against Jon Schwarz's claim that conservatives aren't as good at constructing analogies as liberals are.  There are those who would argue that McNamara was No True Liberal, but as Berrigan suggested, McNamara was one of the Kennedy team marketed as liberals, The Best and Brightest, both at the time and in today's liberal hagiography.  I'm not saying that conservatives do construct accurate analogies, only that liberals aren't very good at it either.  Nor, since McNamara probably thought he was making a funny, are liberals any funnier than conservatives, except as targets of laughter rather than makers of it.  Effective humor, and certainly effective satire, Goes Too Far.