Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, U.S. Senator from New York

Landon Lecture
March 18, 1968

Conflict in Vietnam and at home

The reason I'm here is that someone sent me a history of this city. And I discovered that it was founded by people from Chicago who came to Kansas to found a town named Boston, which they later changed to Manhattan. So I knew I'd be right at home.

I am proud to come here at the invitation of Alfred M. Landon. I met him at the White House when he visited there. I know how highly President Kennedy respected Governor Landon, and the continuing contribution he made – still makes – the public life of the country.

I am also glad to come to the home state of another Kansan, who wrote,

"If our colleges and universities do not breed men who riot, who rebel, who attack life with all the youthful vision and vigor, then there is something wrong with our colleges. The more riots that come on college campuses, the better world for tomorrow."

The man who wrote these words was that notorious seditionist, William Allen White – the late editor of the Emporia Gazette and one of the giants of American journalism. He is an honored man today; but when he lived and wrote, he was often reviled on your campus and across the nation as an extremist – or worse. For he spoke as he believed. He did not conceal his concern in comforting words; he did not delude his readers or himself with false hopes and illusions. It is in this spirit that I wish to speak today.

A Year of Choice

For this is a year of choice – a year when we choose not simply who will lead us, but where we wish to be led; the country we want for ourselves – and the kind we want for our children. If in this year of choice we fashion new politics out of old illusions, we insure for ourselves nothing but crisis for the future – and we bequeath to our children the bitter harvest of those crises.

For with all we have done, with all our immense power and richness, our problems seem to grow not less, but greater. We are in a time of unprecedented turbulence, of danger and questioning. It is at its root a question of the national soul. The President calls it "restlessness;" while cabinet officers and commentators tell us that America is deep in a malaise of the spirit – discouraging initiative, paralyzing will and action, dividing Americans from one another by their age, their views, and the color of their skins.

There are many causes. Some are in the failed promise of America itself: in the children I have seen, starving in Mississippi; idling their lives away in the ghetto; committing suicide in the despair of Indian reservations; or watching their proud fathers sit without work in the ravaged lands of Eastern Kentucky. Another cause is in our inaction in the face of danger. We seem equally unable to control the violent disorder within our cities – or the pollution and destruction of the country, of the water and land that we use and our children must inherit. And a third great cause of discontent is the course we are following in Vietnam: in a war which has divided Americans as they have not been divided since your state was called "bloody Kansas."

Crisis of Confidence

A11 this – questioning and uncertainty at home, divisive war abroad – has led us to a deep crisis of confidence: in our leadership, in each other, and in our very self as a nation.

Today I would speak to you of the third of those great crises: of the war in Vietnam. I come here, to this serious forum in the heart of the nation to discuss with you why I regard our policy there as bankrupt: not on the basis of emotion, but fact; not, I hope, in clichés – but with a clear and discriminating sense of where the national interest really lies.

I do not want – as I believe most Americans do not want – to sell out American interests, to simply withdraw, to raise the white flag of surrender. That would be unacceptable to us as a country and as a people. But I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned – that the course we are following at the present time is deeply wrong. I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned – that we are acting as if no other nations existed, against the judgment and desires of neutrals and our historic allies alike. I am concerned – as I believe most Americans are concerned – that our present course will not bring victory; will not bring peace; will not stop the bloodshed; and will not advance the interests of the United States or the cause of peace in the world.

I am concerned that, at the end of it all, there will only be more Americans killed; more of our treasure spilled out; and because of the bitterness and hatred on every side of this war, more hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese slaughtered; so that they may say, as Tacitus said of Rome: "They made a desert, and called it peace."

And I do not think that is what the American spirit is really all about.

Let me begin this discussion with a note both personal and public. I was involved in many of the early decisions on Vietnam, decisions that helped set us on our present path. It may be that the effort was doomed from the start; that it was never really possible to bring all the people of South Vietnam under the rule of the successive governments we supported – governments, one after another, riddled with corruption, inefficiency, and greed; governments which did not and could not successfully capture and energize the national feeling of their people. If that is the case, as it well may be, and then I am willing to bear my share of the responsibility, before history and before my fellow citizens. But past error is no excuse for its own perpetuation. Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live. Now as ever, we do ourselves best justice when we measure ourselves against ancient tests, as in the Antigone of Sophocles: "All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only sin is pride."

Reversals and Escalations

The reversals of the last several months have led our military to ask for 206,000 more troops. Recently, it was announced that some of them – a "moderate" increase, it was said – would soon be sent. But isn't this exactly what we have always done in the past? If we examine the history of this conflict, we find the dismal story repeated time after time. Every time – at every crisis – we have denied that anything was wrong; sent more troops; and issued more confident communiqués. Every time, we have been assured that this one last step would bring victory. And every time, the predictions and promises have failed and been forgotten, and the demand has been made again for just one more step up the ladder.

But all the escalations, all the last steps, have brought us no closer to success than we were before. Rather, as the scale of the fighting has increased, South Vietnamese society has become less and less capable of organizing or defending itself, and we have more and more assumed the whole burden of the war. In just three years, we have gone from 16,000 advisers to over 500,000 troops; from no American bombing North or South, to an air campaign against both, greater than that waged in all the European theater in World War II; from less than 300 American dead in all the years prior to 1965, to more than 500 dead in a single week of combat in 1968.

And once again the President tells us, as we have been told for twenty years, that "we are going to win;" "victory" is coming.

But what are the true facts? What is our present situation?

The Present Situation

First, our control over the rural population – so long described as the key to our efforts – has evaporated. The Vice President tells us that the pacification program has "stopped." In the language of other high officials, it is a "considerable setback" with "loss of momentum," "some withdrawal from the countryside," "a significant psychological setback both on the part of pacification people themselves and the local population." Reports from the field indicate that the South Vietnamese Army has greatly increased its tendency to "pull into its compounds in cities and towns, especially at night, reduce its patrolling, and leave the militia and revolutionary development cadres open to enemy incursion and attack." Undoubtedly, this is one reason why, over two recent weeks, our combat deaths – 1049 – were so much greater than those of the South Vietnamese – 557. Like it or not, the government of South Vietnam is pursuing an enclave policy. Its writ runs where American arms protect it: that far and no farther. To extend the power of the Saigon government over its own country, we now can see, will be in essence equivalent to the reconquest and occupation of most of the entire nation.

Let us clearly understand the full implications of that fact. The point of our pacification operations was always described as "winning the hearts and minds" of the people. We recognized that giving the countryside military security against the Viet Cong would be futile – indeed that it would be impossible – unless the people of the countryside themselves came to identify their interests with ours, and to assist not the Viet Cong, but the Saigon government. For this we recognized that their minds would have to be changed – that their natural inclination would be to support the Viet Cong, or at best remain passive, rather than sacrifice for foreign white men, or the remote Saigon government.

It is this effort that has been most gravely set back in the last month. We cannot change the minds of people in villages controlled by the enemy. The fact is, as all recognize, that we cannot reassert control over those villages now in enemy hands without repeating the whole process of bloody destruction which has ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam throughout the last three years. Nor could we thus keep control without the presence of millions of American troops. If, in the years those villages and hamlets were controlled by Saigon, the government had brought honesty, social reform, land – if that had happened, if the many promises of a new and better life for the people had been fulfilled – then, in the process of reconquest, we might appear as liberators: just as we did in Europe, despite the devastation of war, in 1944-45. But the promises of reform were not kept. Corruption and abuse of administrative power have continued to this day. Land reform has never been more than an empty promise. Viewing the performance of the Saigon government over the last three years, there is no reason for the South Vietnamese peasant to fight for the extension of its authority or to view the further devastation that effort will bring as anything but a calamity. Yet already the destruction has defeated most of our own purposes. Arthur Gardiner is the former chief of the United States AID mission in South Vietnam, and currently Executive Director of the International Voluntary Services. He tells us that we are "creating more Viet Cong than we are destroying" – and "increasing numbers of Vietnamese are becoming benevolently neutral toward the Viet Cong." As a consequence, the political war – so long described as the only war that counts – has gone with the pacification program that was to win it. In a real sense, it may now be lost beyond recall.

Our Regressive Ally

The second evident fact of the last two months is that the Saigon government is no more or better an ally than it was before; that it may even be less; and that the war inexorably is growing more, not less, an American effort. American officials continue to talk about a government newly energized, moving with "great competence," taking hold "remarkably well," doing "a very, very good piece of work of recovery." I was in the Executive Branch of the government from 1961 to 1964. In all those years, we heard the same glowing promises about the South Vietnamese government: corruption would soon be eliminated, land reform would come, and programs were being infused with new energy. But those were not the facts then, and they are not the facts today. The facts are that there is still no total mobilization: no price or wage controls, no rationing, and no overtime work. The facts are, as a Committee of the House of Representatives has told us, that land reform is moving backward, with the government forces helping landlords to collect exorbitant back rents from the peasantry. The facts are that 18-year-old South Vietnamese are still not being drafted; though now, as many times in the past, we are assured that this will happen soon. The facts are that thousands of young South Vietnamese buy their deferments from military service while American Marines die at Khe Sanh.

The facts are that the government has arrested monks and labor leaders, former Presidential candidates and government officials – including prominent members of the Committee for the Preservation of the Nation, in which American officials placed such high hopes just a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, the government's enormous corruption continues, debilitating South Vietnam and crippling our effort to help its people. Committees of the Senate and House of Representatives have officially documented the existence, extent, and results of this corruption: American AID money stolen, food diverted from refugees, government posts bought and sold while essential tasks remain undone. A subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Government Operations has reported that the Vietnamese Collector of Customs had engaged in smuggling gold and opium – and that he was protected by figures even higher in the government. President Johnson has responded to criticism of corruption in Vietnam by reminding us that there is stealing in Beaumont, Texas. I for one do not believe that Beaumont is so corrupt. I do not believe that any public official, in any American city, is engaged in smuggling gold and dope; selling draft deferments, or pocketing millions of dollars in U. S. government funds. But however corrupt any city in the United States may be, that corruption is not costing the lives of American soldiers; while the pervasive corruption of the Government of Vietnam, as an American official has told us, is a significant cause of the prolongation of the war and the continued American casualties. As this government continues on its present course, and our support for it continues, the effect can only be to leave us totally isolated from the people of Vietnam. Our fighting men deserve better than that.

The Cost of Destruction

Third, it is becoming more evident with every passing day that the victories we achieve will only come at the cost of destruction for the nation we once hoped to help. Even before this winter, Vietnam and its people were disintegrating under the blows of war. Now hardly a city in Vietnam has been spared from the new ravages of the past two months. Saigon officials say that nearly three quarters of a million new refugees have been created, to add to the existing refugee population of two million or more. No one really knows the number of civilian casualties. The city of Hue, with most of the country's cultural and artistic heritage, lies in ruins: Of its population of 145,000, fully 113,000 are said to be homeless. There is not enough food, not enough shelter, not enough medical care. There is only death and misery and destruction.

An American commander said of the town of Ben Tre, "it became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it." It is difficult to quarrel with the decision of American commanders to use air power and artillery to save the lives of their men; if American troops are to fight for Vietnamese cities, they deserve protection. What I cannot understand is why the responsibility for the recapture and attendant destruction of Hue, and Ben Tre and the others, should fall to American troops in the first place.

If Communist insurgents or invaders held New York or Washington or San Francisco, we would not leave it to foreigners to take them back, and destroy them and their people in the process. Rather I believe there is not one among us who would not tear the invaders out with his bare hands, whatever the cost. There is no question that some of the South Vietnamese Army fought with great bravery. The Vietnamese – as these units, and the Viet Cong have both shown us – are a courageous people. But it is also true that a thousand South Vietnamese soldiers, in Hue on leave for Tet, hid among the refugees for three weeks, making no attempt to rejoin their units or join the town's defense; among them was a full colonel. And it is also true that in the height of the battle for Hue, as trucks brought back American dead and wounded from the front lines, millions of Americans could see, on their television screens, South Vietnamese soldiers occupied in looting the city those Americans were lighting to recapture.

If the government's troops will not or cannot carry the light for their cities, we cannot ourselves destroy them. That kind of salvation is not an act we can presume to perform for them. For we must ask our government – we must ask ourselves: where does such logic end? If it becomes "necessary" to destroy all of South Vietnam in order to "save" it, will we do that too? And if we care so little about South Vietnam that we are willing to see the land destroyed and its people dead, then why are we there in the first place?

Can we ordain to ourselves the awful majesty of God – to decide what cities and villages are to be destroyed, who will live and who will die, and who will join the refugees wandering in a desert of our own creation? If it is true that we have a commitment to the South Vietnamese people, we must ask, are they being consulted – in Hue, or Ben Tre, or in the villages from which the 3 million refugees have fled? If they believe all the death and destruction are a lesser evil than the Wet Cong, why did they not warn us when the Viet Cong came into Hue, and the dozens of other cities, before the Tet Offensive? Why did they not join the fight?

Will it be said of us, as Tacitus said of Rome: "they made a desert and called it peace?"

It is also said that we are protecting Thailand – or perhaps Hawaii – from the legions of the Communists. Are we really protecting the rest of Southeast Asia by this spreading convict? And in any case, is the destruction of South Vietnam and its people a permissible means of defense?

Let us have no misunderstanding. The Viet Cong are a brutal enemy indeed. Time and time again, they have shown their willingness to sacrifice innocent civilians, to engage in torture and murder and despicable terror to achieve their ends. This is a war almost without rules or quarter. There can be no easy moral answer to this war, no one-sided condemnation of American actions. What we must ask ourselves is whether we have a right to bring so much destruction to another land, without clear and convincing evidence that this is what its people want. But that is precisely the evidence we do not have. What they want is peace, not dominated by any outside force. And that is what we are really committed to help bring them, not in some indefinite future, but while some scraps of life remain still to be saved from the holocaust.

Our Weakening World Position

The fourth fact that is now clearer than ever is that the war in Vietnam, far from being the last critical test for the United States is in fact weakening our position in Asia and around the world, and eroding the structure of international cooperation, which has directly supported our security for the past three decades. In purely military terms, the war has already stripped us of the graduated-response capability that we have labored so hard to build for the last seven years. Surely the North Koreans were emboldened to seize the Pueblo because the knew that the United States simply cannot afford to fight another Asian war while we are so tied down in Vietnam. We set out to prove our willingness to keep our commitments everywhere in the world. What we are ensuring instead is that it is most unlikely that the American people would ever again be willing to engage in this kind of struggle. Meanwhile our oldest and strongest allies pull back to their own shores, leaving us alone to police all of Asia; while Mao Tse-Tung and his Chinese comrades sit patiently by, fighting us to the last Vietnamese: watching us weaken a nation which might have provided a stout barrier against Chinese expansion southward; hoping that, we will further tie ourselves down in protracted war in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand; confident, as it is reported from Hong Kong, that the war in Vietnam "will increasingly bog down the United States, sapping its resources, discrediting its power pretensions, alienating its allies, fraying its ties with the Soviet Union, and aggravating dissensions among Americans at home." As one American observer puts it, truly "We seem to be playing the script the way Mao wrote it."

All this bears directly and heavily on the question of whether more troops should now be sent to Vietnam – and, if more are sent, what their mission will be. We are entitled to ask – we are required to ask – how many more men, how many more lives, how much more destruction will be asked, to provide the military victory that is always just around the corner, to pour into this bottomless pit of our dreams?

But this question the Administration does not and cannot answer. It has no answer – none but the ever – expanding use of military force and the lives of our brave soldiers, in a conflict where military force has failed to solve anything in the past. The President has offered to negotiate – yet this weekend he told us again that he seeks not compromise but victory, "at the negotiating table if possible, on the battlefield if necessary." But at a real negotiating table, there can be no "victory" for either side; only a painful and difficult compromise. To seek victory at the conference table is to ensure that you will never reach it. Instead the war will go on, year after terrible year – until those who sit in the seats of high policy are men who seek another path. And that must be done this year.

For it is long past time to ask: what is this war doing to us? Of course it is costing us money – fully one-fourth of our federal budget – but that is the smallest price we pay. The cost is in our young men, the tens of thousands of their lives cut off forever. The cost is in our world position – in neutrals and allies alike, every day more baffled by and estranged from a policy they cannot understand.

The Price We Pay

Higher yet is the price we pay in our own innermost lives, and in the spirit of our country. For the first time in a century, we have open resistance to service in the cause of the nation. For the first time perhaps in our history, we have desertions from our army on political and moral grounds. The front pages of our newspapers show photographs of American soldiers torturing prisoners. Every night we watch horror on the evening news. Violence spreads inexorably across the nation, filling our streets and crippling our lives. And whatever the costs to us let us think of the young men we have sent there: not just the killed, but also those who have to kill; not just the maimed, but also those who must look upon the results of what they do.

It may be asked, is not such degradation the cost of all wars? Of course it is. That is why war is not an enterprise lightly to be undertaken, nor prolonged one moment past its absolute necessity. All this – the destruction of Vietnam, the cost to ourselves, the danger to the world – all this we would stand willingly, if it seemed to serve some worthwhile end. But the costs of the war's present course far outweigh anything we can reasonably hope to gain by it, for ourselves or for the people of Vietnam. It must be ended, and it can be ended, in a peace of brave men who have fought each other with a terrible fury, each believing he and he alone was in the right. We have prayed to different gods, and the prayers of neither have been answered fully. Now, while there is still time for some of them to be partly answered, now is the time to stop.

What We Can Do

And the fact is that much can be done. We can – as I have urged for two years, but as we have never done – negotiate with the National Liberation Front. We can – as we have never done – assure the Front a genuine place in the political life of South Vietnam. We can – as we are refusing to do today – begin to deescalate the war, concentrate on protecting populated areas, and thus save American lives and slow down the destruction of the countryside. We can – as we have never done – insist that the Government of South Vietnam broaden its base, institute real reforms, and seek an honorable settlement with their fellow countrymen.

This is no radical program of surrender. This is no sell-out of American interests. This is a modest and reasonable program, designed to advance the interests of this country and save something from the wreckage for the people of Vietnam.

This program would be far more effective than the present course of this Administration – whose only response to failure is to repeat it on a larger scale. This program, with its more limited costs, would indeed be far more likely to accomplish our true objectives.

And therefore even this modest and reasonable program is impossible while our present leadership, under the illusion that military victory is just ahead, plunges deeper into the swamp that is our present course.

So I come here today, to this great University, to ask your help: not for me, but for your country and for the people of Vietnam. You are the people, as President Kennedy said, who have "the least ties to the present and the greatest ties to the future." I urge you to learn the harsh facts that lurk behind the mask of official illusion with which we have concealed our true circumstances, even from ourselves. Our country is in danger: not just from foreign enemies; but above all, from our own misguided policies – and what they can do to the nation that Thomas Jefferson once told us was the last, best, hope of man. There is a contest on, not for the rule of America, but for the heart of America. In these next eight months, we are going to decide what this country will stand for – and what kind of men we are. So I ask for your help, in the cities and homes of this state, into the towns and farms: contributing your concern and action, warning of the danger of what we are doing – and the promise of what we can do. I ask you, as tens of thousands of young men and women are doing all over this land, to organize yourselves, and then to go forth and work for new policies – work to change our direction – and thus restore our place at the point of moral leadership, in our country, in our own hearts, and all around the world.

Robert F. Kennedy
Landon Lecture
March 18, 1968