Bill Clinton and the KGB
George Bush assails Bill Clinton's `judgment' for protests overseas and a visit to Russia in 1969. But does this attack use good judgment?
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THE Bush camp's new effort to turn Bill Clinton's bit part in the anti-war movement that swept the country 25 years ago, plus a student trip to Moscow, into something akin to treason is the latest evidence that President Bush has strayed far from his Yankee heritage and, as Mr. Clinton reminded him in Sunday night's debate, the example of his father, the late Sen. Prescott Bush of Connecticut.Skip to next paragraph
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The elder Bush was one of few senators who had the courage to denounce Sen. Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin for the reckless charges he made against foreign-affairs experts in the mid-1950s.
As strategies go, the attack on Clinton is not new. In the 1960s, attempts were made to link the anti-war movement, civil rights protests, inner-city riots, and student uprisings at leading universities to subversive influences.
But efforts to find such a link proved futile. A classified report prepared for the Central Intelligence Agency on student protests in a number of countries in 1968 found "there is no convincing evidence of control, manipulation, sponsorship, or significant financial support of student dissidents by any international communist authority."
The Kerner Commission, set up in 1967 by President Lyndon Johnson to delve into the causes of rioting in inner-cities, found the turmoil rooted in "unusual, irregular, complex, and unpredictable social processes." The riots "were not caused by nor were they the consequences of any organized plan or conspiracy," the commission's report stated.
The CIA report, "Restless Youth," found that student dissidence worldwide was "shaped in every instance by local conditions." It cited student strikes led by Mark Rudd at Columbia University, by Rudi Duschke at Berlin's Free University, and by Daniel Cohn-Bendit in Paris. The authors of the CIA report pointed repeatedly to a deep contempt Kremlin leaders felt for long-haired, undisciplined rebels coming out of Western society. Pravda's Yuri Zhukov called them "werewolves" who would split progressive move ments. They called Mr. Cohn-Bendit "a provacateur."
Bush's surrogates, also trying to exaggerate Clinton's quite minor role in the anti-war movement in 1969, say he met with former organizers for Sen. Eugene McCarthy's 1968 presidential campaign at Martha's Vineyard. They also speak of Clinton's "role" in the Vietnam Moratorium in 1969.
Actually there were two meetings on Martha's Vineyard. The first was in a private home after the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968; the meeting was an unsuccessful effort to agree on what to do in that fall's election. The next summer the group returned for what attendee David Mixner called "sort of like a Big Chill reunion." Clinton, never part of the Eugene McCarthy crowd, was invited to the second meeting mainly to bolster the group's Southern contingent, which by then consisted only of Taylor Branch, today a Pulitzer Prize-winning author.
AT the time, the Vietnam Moratorium was being put together by several of the group, including Mr. Mixner and Sam Brown, who would head the Peace Corps under President Jimmy Carter. It was an obvious topic of conversation at the meeting, and later that summer Clinton showed up in the Moratorium office in Washington. He stayed two weeks, possibly less. Marge Sklencar, one of the Moratorium's four coordinators, remembers: "He [Clinton] passed through like a lot of people did.... Some stayed a few days and l icked some envelopes and Clinton was one of those."
History also shows that the 1969 Moratorium was the first anti-war group to come out of the mainstream. "We were the first to get endorsements from organizations like the United Auto Workers and the National Council of Churches," remembers Mixner.
Ms. Sklencar recalls her time at the Moratorium as one of little political risk taking. She finds it "absurd" to think that Clinton went to Moscow to meet an agent of the KGB.
Mr. Bush has backtracked from raising questions about Clinton's Moscow trip. But on CNN's Larry King show and again in Sunday night's debate, he argued that Clinton "showed bad judgment" in helping to organize a demonstration against the Vietnam War while a Rhodes scholar at Oxford in 1969. "It's not a matter of patriotism but of judgment," Bush insisted.
Yet protest of any policy, let alone one as divisive as Vietnam, in front of an embassy does not exactly constitute subversion on foreign soil. The land embassies are located on is "extra-territorial." The American Embassy in London where Clinton protested is rightly regarded as United States soil.
As for questions about judgement, one might remember the context of Vietnam. It was an undeclared war that crept up on the nation over a period of years. One president after another escalated our role in Vietnam until by 1968 a half million US troops were there. Opposition grew in direct ratio to the draft calls, the daily body count, to the failure of Washington to come up with a convincing rationale for the war.
Americans have long resisted foreign military involvement. Only four months before Pearl Harbor, the House of Representatives agreed by only a single vote - 203 to 202 - to extend the draft. The US was deeply divided over possible involvement in the war.
Pearl Harbor silenced dissent. It was a call to arms, a time to bury disagreements and unite. But there was nothing in the Vietnam conflict remotely like a Pearl Harbor to resolve US differences. As a result, it divided the nation.
Questions about judgment work both ways. Bush once asked America to put Vietnam behind. Its disappointing to see him now try to use that war to pull down Clinton in a race that will be decided on jobs and taxes, not past military failures. Or successes.