Every news organization has been wallowing in Watergate this week, digging back in its files to recreate the drama of the break-in 10 years ago and the scandal that stemmed from it.
No harm in it, I suppose, but when we are looking for lessons from the past, there have to be better teachers than Richard Nixon and his fellow conspirators. So I went back in our files to the mid-June days, not of 1972, but of 20, 30, 40 and 50 years ago--and was suitably rewarded.
For those liberals who think, for example, that ambitious civil defense plans are a folly unique to the Reagan administration, a Page One story on June 17, 1962, reported that Congress had rejected a $460 million nuclear fallout shelter program proposed by President John F. Kennedy.
The threat of nuclear war--a threat that puts even the malefactions of a perverted presidency into perspective--was recognized early. In mid- June 1952, the Alsop brothers, Joseph and Stewart, announced in their column the imminent development of a "super-bomb," the hydrogen bomb, whose destructiveness "goes beyond what the normal human imagination can comprehend."
Because of the "extreme probability that the Soviets will have a super-bomb of their own almost as soon as we shall," they said, leading scientists are "insisting that a bold new effort must be made to explore the possibility of a disarmament agreement with the Soviet Union."
But 10 years later, in 1962, with the first nuclear test-ban treaty still a year away, there was a story reporting that fallout from atomic tests had raised to dangerous levels the radioactivity in milk being drunk in Minneapolis, Des Moines and St. Louis.
Another decade elapsed before we got SALT I and now, another decade later, the people are still trying to teach governments the importance of nuclear weapons control.
We seem similarly unable to recognize the inevitability of change in the poor nations--or to curb our tendency to confront it with military force. In June 1942, when war headlines dominated the front page, The Post did report an interview from Wardha, India, with a man named Mohandas K. Gandhi, who wore "little else save a twist of white sheeting about the hips." Gandhi said he would "launch a movement against British rule . . . that will be felt by the whole world."
He did and it was. But the lesson was not learned. In June 1952, the French administrator of Indochina, Jean Letourneau, promised "complete independence" to Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. But in June 1962, the news was that two U.S. military advisers were killed in a Viet Cong ambush 30 miles from Saigon. And that same week, a team of Michigan State University professors, ousted after seven years of advising the Saigon government, criticized the new U.S. tactic of strafing "Viet Cong villages," because, as one member said, "ultimately we've got to get the peasants on our side, and that is not the way to do it."
That warning went unheeded for another decade, and thousands died. We might ponder why.
We also might wonder why, in 1982, we are still fighting about the right to vote. On June 16, 1962, the same day Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy filed suit against officials blocking the registration of black voters in Choctaw County, Ala., Evans Foreman of Mobile, the Republican nominee for the House of Representatives, said, "The Kennedy administration is getting ready to register the monkeys to vote."
That needs to be remembered as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) tries to filibuster the Voting Rights Act extension.
And there are other lessons from the earliest anniversary I checked. On June 16, 1932, Herbert Hoover was renominated for the presidency. (Why the Republican National Committee is not celebrating the anniversary, I cannot guess.) A "bonus army" of 6,000 ragged veterans was camped in Washington; the Senate spurned their pleas, rejected an emergency farm-aid bill and ordered the furloughing of "excess" government employees.
President Hoover, in a telegram accepting the nomination of the Chicago convention, said "the storm still surrounds us." But in language that is familiar today, he added, "The measures which we want adopted and the policies which you have outlined will, with patience and courage, restore confidence and, with it, employment, agriculture and business."
Don't laugh. The Washington Post took it seriously. In an editorial 50 years ago, The Post declared, "The Republican Party goes into the contest with its best contender, under conditions favorable to success. . . . Mr. Hoover's knowledge and experience are factors of strength, and the remarkable success of his program of rehabilitation is in his favor. . . . In this national crisis, he has been a national leader, and unless a Democratic champion of commanding ability should capture the fancy and win the confidence of the people, they are very likely to put their faith in Mr. Hoover."
Well, nobody's perfect. And in this week when Watergate nostalgia is giving the press inflated self-importance, that's another lesson to remember.