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Lessons from unnecessary wars come too late

When the news of Shirley Temple’s death came through last week, my mind went first to one of the least-remembered episodes of her career. In 1967, she ran for the U.S. House.

It was a special election in a Northern California district around San Jose, prompted by the death of Rep. J. Arthur Younger. Temple drew several Republican and Democratic opponents, although the district was heavily GOP and all the candidates had to run together — no party primaries.

Temple, the front-runner, ran as a supporter of the Vietnam War. One of her principal opponents was Paul McCloskey, a lawyer, businessman and highly decorated Korean War veteran. McCloskey began the campaign as a hawk on Vietnam. But challenges from members of the public shook his assumptions about the war and he began studying.

Questions of the legality of the war especially disturbed him as a lawyer, and he would disappear into the Stanford law school library instead of campaigning. He consulted with at least two international law experts, one of them a former Eisenhower administration official who had been at the 1954 Geneva conference on Indochina.

Concluding that the U.S. had broken international law, McCloskey called for reinstating the Geneva accords the U.S. had violated and negotiations with Hanoi.

McCloskey won both the primary and the general election. Temple didn’t reach the general. She placed third in the primary.

McCloskey’s experience typified what happened all across the nation during the war. The more people learned, the less they liked the war, which is why doves used education as a tactic. In 1965, with the support of 200 professors and over the opposition of Gov. George Romney and the Michigan Senate, the first Vietnam teach-­in was held at the University of Michigan. State Supreme Court Justice Paul Adams attended, calling the teach-­in “a vital service … in promoting debate on the question of U.S. policy in Vietnam.”

The tactic spread across the country.

Two paperbacks became omnipresent: 1964’s “Vietnam/History, Documents, and Opinions,” edited by Marvin Gettleman (its bright red cover jumped out from any bookshelf) and 1965’s “The Viet-Nam Reader” by Marcus Raskin and Bernard Fall. They included information on both sides.

After the televised 1966 hearings on Vietnam before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which themselves were educational with their testimony from both hawks and doves, the publisher of the Raskin/Fall book brought out “The Vietnam Hearings,” a book of transcripts that similarly became widely circulated.

Opinion surveys showed the result of all this intellectual ferment. “But as the nation learned more and more about the war, the migration went in only one direction — from hawk to dove,” David Halberstam wrote.

Then in 1971, The New York Times and other newspapers disclosed the Pentagon Papers, a Pentagon compilation of documents about the war, and a huge flood of more information became available. The studying and learning accelerated and soldiers in particular took an interest in the papers. One veteran told author Myra MacPherson,“When I read them I remember saying, ‘Holy­­­­ ——, everything everybody was saying all along is true.’ It especially confirmed earlier reports that the Tonkin Gulf incident was a completely trumped-­up piece of theater.”

Imagine if all that information we learned during the Vietnam War had already been in our heads when our government decided to drag us into the war. From 2.1 million to 3.8 million Vietnamese and 58,220 U.S. citizens, including 149 Nevadans, might still be alive today. Imagine if members of the U.S. House and Senate had done their jobs and dug out the truth about Iraq before voting on whether to authorize war.

Every incident and policy that involved war and peace in my lifetime — Korea, U­2, Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, Vietnam, Iran, Panama, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Angola, Kuwait — all depended on falsehood for public support, and in every instance we learned too late.

Being informed is not just a good idea in a good-­government way. It is simple self-defense. Information is power. Our government cannot be trusted with war-making power, and only by knowing everything there is to know about these disputes that lead to unnecessary wars can we defend ourselves from our own government.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.

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