I am strongly of the impression that, when the present administration was formed, it was in significant measure influenced by the judgment that, in the recent past, the United States had been too powerful. It was felt that our military power had been too great, our economic hegemony too vast. This had led to temptation and to sorrow. . . .
The war in Vietnam was principally the work of two previous Democratic administrations. The war failed. A new Democratic administration had to account for that failure.
Not to the public so much. The public, I think, remembers the Democratic Party in opposition to the war. For that was the dominant tendency-mine surely-in the final days of the last Democratic administration involved, and became a central theme in the years of opposition that followed.
But this does not erase history, especially in an administration such as the present in which foreign and military policy is pricipally under the direction of persons who made their reputations either conducting the Vietnam war or opposing it.
There was only one common ground on which persons of such disparate experience could easily meet; only one explanation that absolved "hawk" of too much hubris, "dove" of too little heart. That is the explanation that it was America's overwhelming strength that, inexorably-a fate that no participant could resist or overcome-led to overweening pride and foreordained downfall. . . .
It is a chorus that proclaims guilt and bespeaks mercy. It has as its counterpart a kind of internal dialogue that comes through, muffled but decipherable, in the thoughts that the leaders of the administration sometimes reveal in public.
I will offer [an example], involving [a recent statement] of the president: On Feb. 20, the president gave a major foreign-policy address at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I thought the prepared text to be thoughtful and candid, and yet what seemed a departure from it in a television excerpt led me to read the subsequent White House version "as delivered." There was, as I thought I had noticed, a difference.
The text states: "The United States cannot control events within other nations." Fair enough. The Soviet Union can, but by the use of force in an manner which, in the main, we deny ourselves and which, in my view, we ought to deny ourselves. Accordingly, we cannot. But when the president came to that passage he added: "A few years ago, we tried this and we failed." Now the reference must be to Vietnam, to our experience there, which the president, as noted, had earlier declared to be one of "intellectual and moral poverty."
But what about this secon assertion, that we were trying to control events within "another nation?" . . .It was simply not the case that the United States in the middle 1960s was trying to contro events "within" South Vietnam. We were trying to prevent the conquest of that by North Vietnam. We failed. Very well. Nations often fail. But why describe our failure in terms that make us so culpable rather than merely fallible? . . .
Michael Oakeshott has spoken of those nations fortunate enough to have been spared a "hatred of their own experience." I wonder whether in this generation of American politics we are not acquiring just that. . . .
And so the great enervating, yet reassuring hypothesis of the early years of this decade arose. America had become too powerful. We had become a danger not only to the world, but to ourselves. However , it remained within our power to overcome this danger-simply by becoming less powerful. American would come home again. We would reduce our presence in the world generally, reduce our level of arms, and sharply inhibit any disposition to act anywhere in the world, which came to be defined as intervening in someone else's affairs. This idea was fully in place by 1976, especially in my party. . . .
By contrast, the startling aspect of the proposition that America had become too powerful was that it was utterly at odds with realtiy.
It seemed to me self-evident that we have failed in our purposes in South Vietnam not because we were too powerful, but because we were not powerful enough. The enterprise was beyond our capcity. Nothing unusual in life, and nothing to be ashamed of. What troubled me, then as now, is our seeming inability to accept such limits. . . .