Unwinnable?

On November 20, 2009, in Culture, History, Politics, War, by marc

Peter Braestrup’s Big Story: How the American Press and Television Reported and Interpreted the Crisis of Tet 1968 in Vietnam and Washington has been an interesting read so far.  The first chapter is a detailed description of exactly how many people were staffing press offices in Vietnam prior to 1968, and what their resources were.  In chapter two, we go from facts and figures into the story of Tet itself, and Braestrup makes this preliminary observation about reactions to the crisis:

Big Story by Peter Breastrup

Big Story by Peter Breastrup

…as it turned out, very few of the claims bade by “optimists” or “pessimists” concerning “progress” in Vietnam had much immediate relevance to the radically changed situation that followed the January 30-31 Tet attacks.  Perhaps out of shock, the Johnson Administration was to respond with caution and relative candor to the new situation; however, the press and TV, especially in commentary at home, were to hark back immediately to Johnson’s autumn progress campaign and cry, in effect, “Tet proved that you were all wrong and, thus, that the critics were right.”

This reaction lacked discernment.  The onset of the Tet offensive, per se, did not show that the war was winnable or unwinnable, worthwhile or not, moral or immoral.  By February 1968, one did not need Tet to make a judgement on these issues.  Tet showed that the enemy had scored a major surprise, and its ultimate effect was initially obscure.  It did not prove that either optimists or pessimists were right or wrong on the much-debated 1967 “facts,” except on two points.  First, Westmoreland was wrong in publicly underestimating (in November) the enemy.  Second, the media pessimists were wrong to write off South Vietnamese ability to fight and “muddle through with U.S. help.”  Americans did not know enough about Vietnam, North or South.

In a more fundamental, even ethical, sense, of course, the President was wrong both to launch the rose-colored progress campaign and to persist in it without warning the U.S. public of what he knew; that possible heavy fighting lay ahead… Journalists’ memories skipped back to Westmoreland’s star role in the progress campaign, to his promise that “success” was discernible on the horizon.

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William F. Buckley goes to Turtle Bay

On November 16, 2009, in Culture, Politics, by marc

I picked up a copy of William F. Buckley’s United Nations Journal: A Delegate’s Odyssey on a whim.  Buckley had recently passed away, and a number of books that he had in his personal stash were being sold on The Corner, and this one sounded interesting enough to take a chance on.  Buckley?  At the United Nations? The same Bill Buckley who founded National Review? His journal of the time he spent as a delegate to the UN in 1974 would have to be a riot to read.

So I ordered a copy, and within a few days I was curling up with my own sort of dog-eared copy of the book from Buckley’s personal stash, and it was a rip-roaring good read.  A short excerpt recounting Buckley’s first time speaking during the official proceedings of the UN:

I occupied the United States desk for the first time when the Third Committee’s session had already got under way.  The chairman had proposed that all seventeen items referred to the Third Committee by the General Assembly should occupy equally the attention of the committee, and the English representative now suggested that they be taken up exactly in the same order in which they fell in the General Assembly’s agenda.  But everyone knows that items taken up for consideration early in the session are given more time than those left for the end: indeed, it is a preliminary parliamentary maneuver to push off toward the end those one wants least to discuss.

Buckley's Rollicking UN Journal

Buckley's Rollicking UN Journal

Inasmuch as the chairman had made it clear, and the sense of the entire proceeding made it equally clear, that the question now to be debated was the order in which the proposals were to be discussed, not their relative merits, I found myself getting restless at the quite extraordinary lengths to which a wizened delegate sitting thirty yards across from me in the circular committee room was going on and on in expressing his opposition to giving any attention at all to item 57, which called for the creation of the post of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.  It happened that the United States position was in favor of a High Commissioner, which was one reason for resenting the speaker’s attack upon it before the subject was up for substantive debate; another reason, it seemed to me, was that so obvious an ignorance of parliamentary punctilio should be exposed very early in the adventures of the Third Committee, before people got into bad habits.  I leaned back to Guy Wiggins and asked him whether he agreed that the speaker was behaving improperly, and he said, yes, indeed he was behaving improperly, though as I thought back on it later, he seemed less surprised than I that people should behave improperly at United Nations committee meetings.  Well, I whispered, why don’t I interrupt, and ask the chairman to direct him to confine his remarks to the chronological question?  Well, he said, sure, why not?  Well — I continued in a whisper — what are the mechanics of an interruption?  he told me that I should tap my pencil on the water glass in front of me: so I did.  The chamber was visibly startled.  A Point of Order, Mr. Chairman . . . and I made it, and managed to use twice the indispensable word in the United Nations — “distinguished.”  by the time I was through, three months later, I found myself referring, at a dinner party unrelated to the United Nations, to my distinguished cocker spaniel.  The object of my pretty little demurral turned to me like the porridge-dispenser to Oliver Twist: a look of curiosity, graduating to indignation, and disdain, followed by a most copious reply, the point being that it is not possible to discuss the chronological priority without discussing the substantive priority — all of it said with relish, leavened with paternalism, and with abundant references to the length and experience of the speaker.  I had, quite by chance, in my first encounter at the UN, run into: His Excellency Jamil Baroody, the Permanent Representative of Saudi Arabia.

The man was a genius with the English language.  RIP.