A reporter's tally of US mistakes

Over the years, from time to time, I have made inserts in a manila folder in my file cabinet called ambiguously ''5 mistakes.'' The ''mistakes'' are supposed to have been made by the US government in major matters from time to time -- I being the judge. A peculiar project to say the least! The arbitrary number ''five'' has varied. What is the score now?

1. League of Nations.

As a very young man I came to Washington with the idealism of the generation that joined Wilson's crusade to ''make the world safe for democracy.'' But the postwar Washington I came to was dominated by hard-eyed isolationists who said the whole thing was a hoax. Would we join the League? It is hard to recall (let alone believe) the confusion of the time. It was the exposure of youthful incandescence to ice water cynicism of Borah, Johnson, Knox, Moses, McCormick, and Henry Cabot Lodge. The Constitution gave 33 senators veto power over the League and the results of the, till then, greatest war in history. Three-fourths of the Senate at all times favored some form of the League but never two-thirds who favored a specific form. It was rejected. That, I thought, sadly was Mistake No. 1.

2. Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

President Hoover signed this highest of all tariffs in 1930. It put a protectionist wall around America; it prevented a prostrate Europe from paying its war debts (we had loans of $11 billion from other nations). Some 1,028 leading US economists protested it. Never mind, said the administration! Within two years 25 countries had established retaliatory tariffs. It opened the way for Hitler.

3. A-bomb.

The list of ''mistakes'' in my file is a little uncertain. How about the 18th Amendment (ratified 1919; repealed 1933)? My entries vary on this, depending on the year. Ultimately I yield ''No. 3'' place to a more stark and terrible issue, the dropping of the A-bomb. The destruction of Hiroshima came in August 1945. Arguments for use proved irresistible; Japan had precipitated the war. We knew that Germany was working on the weapon, too. Its use probably shortened the war. And yet there, for all time, America loosed the bomb, a city was destroyed (and then another), and the age of nuclear combat began. Am I wrong? -- I list it as Mistake No. 3.

4. The 22nd Amendment.

This item seems laughably petty after the monstrous entry preceding (but who accounts for the items found in a reporter's file cabinet?). President Roosevelt had violated the unwritten two-term tradition and had been reelected not only for a third term in 1940 but a fourth term in 1944. The 22nd Amendment limiting presidents to two terms was partly the expression of fear of a dictator, and partly the posthumous frustration of a party that saw bouyant Mr. Roosevelt gaily thwart it. I thought the two-term limitation a mistake -- another rigidity planted in constitutional law no matter what emergency lies ahead. (This folder, remember, is a list of prejudices accumulated over the years; in general I prefer parliamentary flexibility to fixed terms.)

5. Vietnam.

This war, I think, marked America's Coming of Age. Until then Americans still carried a historical sense of inevitable victory. They had never lost a war; they lived in an unreal world. The Chinese were funny little yellow men in dark pyjamas. Depredations of Senator McCarthy had driven a generation of Asian experts from the State Department. President Kennedy had a brilliant, activist, stylish, can-do team, ''the best and the brightest.'' Lyndon Johnson called Diem ''the Winston Churchill of Southeast Asia.'' Nixon fell into the trap: a dream of unreality; the problem from the first was political but the US response was always military. Leaders formulated brilliant plans that defied common sense. American combat troops finally arrived in 1965 in the little Asian country; at home civilians lost control of the war and of the economy; inflation began and the intellectual community rebelled. So, on Sunday night, March 31, 1968, before a nationwide television audience, LBJ announced that he wouldn't run for election.

That completes my odd folder with random notes and reflections accumulated from time to time. It is marked, simply, ''5 mistakes.''

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