Forty years ago, while campaigning in the Indiana Democratic primary, Robert F. Kennedy spoke to the citizens of Bloomington about his desire to alter the course of American foreign policy so there would be "no more Vietnams." Today, with the United States entering its sixth year of occupying Iraq, with American soldiers fighting a war of attrition with a people who want us to leave their country, and with two current presidential candidates promising to escalate the conflict in the region, Kennedy's words still have resonance.
We find ourselves waiting the outcome of another Indiana Democratic primary and a new war has replaced Vietnam as the pivotal issue. Below are a some brief excerpts of his remarks that day:
"Long ago it was said, 'The time for taking a lesson from history is ever at hand for those that are wise.' The war in Vietnam is not yet consigned to history. The fighting and bloodshed continue. The bombing of North Vietnam is restricted; but that too continues. And the negotiations, toward which we have taken the most tentative and still far from certain steps -- these have not yet begun.
"Still in one sense the war may be passing into history; and that is in the thinking of the American people. There has been settled, in the year 1968, one simple proposition: the American people -- scholars and officials, soldiers and citizens, students and parents -- are determined that there must not be another Vietnam.
"What we must now debate and come to understand is what it is about -- the war in Vietnam that we are determined not to repeat; what effect this determination will have on our own policies and goals; what it meant to our own lives and to the future of our nation. What does it mean to say, 'No more Vietnams?' . . .
"Almost all the nations of Asia and Africa are only recently emerged from colonial domination -- from 300 years in which the entire structure of their societies and culture was torn apart, degraded, and humiliated. They are still torn today by the tremendous effort to modernize and develop their economies; to create new leadership groups capable of managing modern society and to cope with demands for social justice that have been awakened by the example of the successful egalitarian West. We can expect that these nations and the nations of Latin America, which are Western but not yet modern, will be plagued by instability for decades to come.
"For these nations we can hope that their progress will be humane and decent; hope that they avoid the excesses of violence which accompanied the development of so many nations of the West. And we should offer to their effort such assistance as we can, or what will be effective.
"But we cannot continue, as we too often have done in the past, to automatically identify the United States with the preservation of a particular internal order within those countries, or confuse our own national interest with the rule of a particular faction within them. Of course, those in power in these countries will often seek to preserve their position by requesting our help.
"Faced with such requests, we must make calm and discriminating judgments as to which governments can and should be helped, which are moving effectively to defend themselves and meet the demands of their people. Where the central interests of the United States are not directly threatened, I could propose a simple functional test: We should give no more assistance to a government against any internal threat than that government is capable of using itself, through its agencies and instruments. We can help them but we cannot again try to do their jobs for them. . . .
"America was a great force in the world, with immense prestige, long before we became a great military power. That power has come to us and we cannot renounce it, but neither can we afford to forget that the real constructive force in the world comes not from bombs, but from imaginative ideas, warm sympathies, and a generous spirit. These are qualities that cannot be manufactured by specialists in public relations. They are the natural qualities of a people pursuing decency and human dignity in its own undertakings without arrogance or hostility or delusions of superiority toward others; a people whose ideals for others are firmly rooted in the realities of the society we have built for ourselves."
In this prolonged presidential campaign season we've heard bellicose rhetoric from candidates from both parties. John McCain has sung a little ditty about bombing Iran. Hillary Clinton recently promised to "obliterate" Iran if that nation acted outside of the bounds of U.S. policy in the region. What does Ms. Clinton mean by "obliterate?" Dropping a nuclear bomb on an Iranian city? Launching air strikes against Iranian targets related to its nuclear program? Does she wish to follow the advice of Joe Lieberman and Jon Kyl and use American military power for "regime change" in Iran? This kind of "tough talk" coming from presidential hopefuls raises serious questions about the judgment of these people.
Any attack on Iran will be a disaster for the United States. A nuclear attack is unthinkable. The nations in the region will not tolerate any nation, even the United States, throwing around atom bombs near their borders. The reaction from Turkey, Pakistan, Russia, and even the U.S.-backed regime in Iraq would be unpredictable and volatile. Anyone who seeks to appeal to voters' base instincts by joking about bombing countries or talks about "obliterating" a nation of 70 million people turns Robert Kennedy's 40-year-old plea on its head by saying: "many more Vietnams."