Sunday, October 05, 2003


The New York Times In America
October 12, 2003
'Senator Mansfield': He Told Them So
The Extraordinary Life of a Great American Statesman and Diplomat.
By Don Oberdorfer.
Illustrated. 593 pp. Washington: Smithsonian Books. $32.95.

There are parts of this fine new biography of Senator Mike Mansfield, as he pleads with Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson not to plunge America into war in Southeast Asia, that could break your heart. Mansfield served with the Marines in China in 1922, then worked his way from the copper mines of Montana to become a college instructor, a congressman and the Senate's acknowledged expert on Asia. He never varied in the advice he gave about Indochina: the United States had no compelling national interest to defend there, and it would lose any war it chose to fight. Had he been able to persuade his two old friends, there might be no need for that black granite gash and its 58,000 names on the Mall in Washington.

''We cannot hope to substitute armed power for the kind of political and economic social changes that offer the best resistance to Communism,'' Mansfield, then majority leader, wrote his friend President Kennedy about Vietnam in 1961. ''If the necessary reforms have not been forthcoming over the past seven years to stop Communist subversion and rebellion, then I do not see how American combat troops can do it today.'' A year later, he warned that the United States was in danger of being drawn ''inexorably'' into the doomed role and bloody fate of the French colonial armies in Southeast Asia: ''To ignore that reality will . . . be immensely costly in terms of American lives.'' Kennedy's face grew red with anger. ''This is not what my advisers are telling me,'' he said.

Nor did Mansfield relent after Johnson, an ally of many years, replaced Kennedy in office. ''The Communists are, obviously, not going to be faced down. It now appears that they are not going to be stung down. That leaves only the possibility of mowing them down and that is going to take a lot of time and a great many lives,'' he warned after the Pentagon reported that an American destroyer was attacked in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1964, and Johnson responded with bombing raids.

Toward the end of his 98 years, after capping a distinguished Senate career by serving two presidents as ambassador to Japan, Mansfield's voice still broke when he spoke of Vietnam. Like Oscar Schindler weeping for Jews he could not save, he found shame and tears in his failure to stop the killing. ''It still haunts me,'' he told Don Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post reporter who teaches international relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Though fond of his taciturn subject, in ''Senator Mansfield'' he doesn't duck the brutal question: Shouldn't the senator have gone public with his doubts, perhaps stepped down as Democratic leader in protest? Mansfield thought it better to preserve President Johnson's confidence, to ensure that the president got at least one expert and dissenting view. ''I could have been more vigorous, I could have adopted another kind of procedure,'' Mansfield concedes in an interview. ''But just don't know what it was.'' This is a thorough biography of a public man who served longer as majority leader than any other. It's perhaps a disservice to dwell so on Vietnam. Yet Oberdorfer recognizes Mansfield's role in the war as a core of the story. It is a timely topic.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States -- Mansfield lived to see them; he died a month later -- were no Tonkin Gulf incidents. There is little doubt that our national interest is now at stake: Ho Chi Minh didn't have hopes of acquiring pirated nuclear weapons or vials of smallpox, and could have been deterred if he had. Though the North Vietnamese fought with what we saw then as irrational commitment, Al Qaeda makes them look downright reasonable.

That said, it's instructive to weigh Mansfield's cleareyed prescriptions of how, and where, and in what proportion, the United States should best apply its military and economic power as it goes up against another guerrilla foe. Mansfield warned Kennedy that the United States was overreliant on military might, while shortchanging diplomacy and efforts to bring about social and economic reform.

''The Vietnamese problem since 1955 has been a compound in which one part has been military and several nonmilitary,'' he told Kennedy in 1961. ''Yet the remedy which has been applied to this problem has been a compound in which several parts have been military and only one part nonmilitary.'' In this season when another American intervention has etched a new place name -- Iraq -- on the gravestones at Arlington, it's a warning to which, this time, we should pay better attention.

John Aloysius Farrell, the Washington bureau chief of The Denver Post, is the author of ''Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century.''

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company
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