Texas hosts a war criminal

May 11, 2016

Cindy Beringer reports on a University of Texas conference to honor Henry Kissinger.

WHEN STUDENTS at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin learned that Henry Kissinger would be speaking on their campus, they knew what to do: organize a protest.

Kissinger was the first speaker in a three-day Vietnam War Summit hosted by the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library and UT Austin. Promotional materials for the event promised that guest speakers and panels would take a "substantive, unvarnished look" at this period in U.S. history.

Approximately 50 protesters gathered an hour before Kissinger's speech outside the LBJ School of Student Affairs, carrying signs and chanting against the insult of allowing a man of such infamy to spew his lies on this campus. Listing the speaker as "The Honorable Henry Kissinger" on the program was an infuriating preview of just how "unvarnished" the reflections on this war would be.

Protesters chanted outside the line of the mostly Vietnam-era audience, which filed slowly into the auditorium.

Reaction to the protesters seemed mostly positive, a very few hostile, and a few openly supportive. As tribute to Johnson's presidency, we chanted the familiar "Hey hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" which morphed into the same question for "Henry K, Henry K." "On trial, not on campus," and "1-2-3-4; We don't want your fucking war" filled the outdoor area while "Justice for East Timor," "Free, Free Palestine," and "Laos, Cambodia, Chile as well, Kissinger can go to hell" updated the protest to cover Kissinger's later crimes, which we knew he was not likely to bring up during his talk.

Demonstrators gathered to protest a conference honoring Henry Kissinger
Demonstrators gathered to protest a conference honoring Henry Kissinger (Charles Holm)

The protest was sponsored by the International Socialist Organization, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, United Students Against Sweatshops, and UT Austin Students for Bernie Sanders. Austin Justice Coalition, CodePink Austin and Socialist Alternative also endorsed the protest.

Amazingly fit at 93 and not a whit less evil, Kissinger was interviewed by LBJ Library director Mark Updegrove and later fielded questions from the audience. The audience was promised that all topics were fair game during this exchange, but Kissinger was as sharp as ever at turning the truth on its head before anyone had time to object.

In his talk, Kissinger described the fall of Saigon as one of the saddest moments of his life, but added that he had "no regrets." When asked to respond to the charge that he had been called a war criminal for bombing Laos and Cambodia, two countries with which the U.S. had no formal declaration of war, he responded simply that casualties went down 80 percent--that would be American casualties, of course, and no source was given for the statistic.

Much has been made of the fact that Johnson inherited a war not of his making that kept him from deploying his true genius, which was creating legislation. When asked what kind of a war president he was, Kissinger said that President Johnson was "saddled" with the war. "It was a personal tragedy that he had to spend so much time of his life to achieve that office, that he had to be impelled to do the things that had not been his major focus," said Kissinger.

ANOTHER MISSION of the summit, albeit unstated, was to remove the blood from Johnson's hands and the lies from the corners of his mouth. Johnson had the power to issue an executive order that could have ended the war, but he never did. Instead, he allowed spending on the war to take precedence over his War on Poverty.

A half-sized replica of the much-hyped Vietnam Memorial War--referred to constantly as "The Wall That Heals" for reasons that remain elusive--was brought into Austin with much fanfare and a police escort a few days before the summit. It was open for "healing" 24 hours a day outside the LBJ School.

Several sessions were held throughout each day of the summit. One of the most interesting and honest was "The War at Home."

Participants included antiwar activist and politician Tom Hayden; Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post journalist and author David Maraniss whose book They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace Vietnam and America October 1967 provides a truly unvarnished account of what war was like for Vietnam vets; and Marilyn Young, professor of history at New York University.

Hayden made a moving and powerful statement against U.S. militarism in the Vietnam War as well as the wars of the present. He argued that the antiwar movement is still alive and well and announced plans to challenge the Pentagon's "unbalanced" narrative of the wars.

"There is no question," he argued, of the tremendous impact the antiwar movement had on restructuring American society and ending the war. He continued:

I ask you, are we not all Vietnam veterans in our own way? Were we not all lied to and divided by our government? Isn't the shared experience of our generation that we were mutually manipulated into that cauldron? And who was responsible, those of us in our twenties or those who were in power?

Of course, Hayden has been a stalwart proponent of the inside-outside strategy since the 1970s and a Democratic Party elected official in the 1990s, despite the steadily rightward drift (and sometimes lurch) of the party over four decades.

Documentarians Ken Burns and Lynn Novick discussed and showed previews of their forthcoming 18-and-a-half-hour PBS documentary on the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War, says Burns, "challenged Americans' faith in our leaders, our government, and many of our most respected institutions, and called into question the belief in our own exceptionalism."

Secretary of State John Kerry gave the keynote address on Vietnam today on the second night of the summit. He began by offering some critiques of the war, all from the perspective of the U.S. side in the war. He said that the U.S. made a lot of mistakes.

Kerry was deployed to Vietnam in 1969 as a Navy lieutenant, and when he came home, he joined Vietnam Veterans Against the War. He was a fervent spokesperson against the war, accusing the U.S. military of committing war crimes. Sometime during his career in public office he switched over to the dark side. He is now responsible for carrying on the diplomacy that sustains our never-ending wars, every one as horrible and senseless as the war in Vietnam.

KERRY REPEATED the two major themes of the summit--blame the wars not the warriors and work hard to begin the process of healing.

Kerry then switched to the "economic miracle," which he claimed is the result of our new relationship with the country we devastated. "The legacy of the Vietnam War has to be a constant reminder of the capacity to make mistakes, but we shouldn't become the prisoners of history."

He went on to describe the current state of affairs in Vietnam in glowing terms--a neoliberal World Bank and International Monetary Fund economic "miracle" that will benefit U.S. investors and open up new markets for American companies looking for cheap labor. The Vietnamese, he said, "are as market-oriented as any place I've ever seen."

He added that while Vietnam had a one-party system, it is definitely not a communist country. "Communism is an economic theory; the Vietnamese are raging capitalists!" he said.

But as the capitalists rage, the workers are experiencing a deficit of human rights and labor standards, which is precisely why Nike has contracted with factories to produce its shoes there over decades.

Ken Burns asked Kerry how the Vietnam War came into his consciousness today. Kerry disjointedly answered that he was "struggling to end the war of absurdity in Syria, and war in Yemen, prevent war in North Korea, end the war in Afghanistan, with Boko Haram, Somalia." Kerry admitted that we are "constantly still living with war," but he was "pleased to be in a place to work to prevent or end war."

For Kerry, it seems, serving as an architect of the U.S. war machine is somehow equivalent to preventing war--presumably because he says so.

There was of course more obvious stuff missing from the summit. The Vietnamese people were hardly there at all. The Laotians and Cambodians even less. The many homeless Vietnam veterans and veterans of later wars who suffer from PTSD and beg for change along Austin freeways were not healing at the Wall. Agent Orange and napalm were missing most of the time also. Conspicuously absent were the soldiers' revolt, fragging, the G.I. coffee houses, Kent State, and so much more.

The most conspicuous absence, however, was the truth--the truth about why the war began and how it ended and a thousand other truths that if allowed in the narrative would shut the war machine down.

"Hate the war, love the warrior" is a phrase meant to place the blame for the outcome and perception of the war on the American people. It was and is the U.S. government that hates the warrior--by not acknowledging the dangers of substances like Agent Orange until it is too late, by performing experiments on soldiers without their knowledge, by refusing to provide adequate medical care, and for sending them into wars based on lies in the first place.

Also missing was any connection to the present wars. To discuss the Vietnam War in isolation from the present never-ending wars of monumental disaster and scale makes a mockery of the concept of summitry. And how is it possible to heal when the country is engaged in wars based on a mountain of lies even larger than in Vietnam? Better to lick our wounds and fight the wars.

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