What Will History Make of Colin Powell?
By Stanley Kutler
How do we remember history? Time diminishes our memories of details and spear carriers. Thirty-five years ago, as Richard Nixon prepared to resign, we readily recited the real-life cast of all the president’s men: Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell, Dean, Kleindienst, Colson, Liddy and Agnew. Today, memory of them has all but vanished, except for the few still active in the public arena.
From the Vietnam War, do we remember Gen. William Westmoreland, or do we remember the ironic incantation of “light at the end of the tunnel”? South Vietnam’s Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu rests in the ashcan of history. Khe Sanh and Hue are half-century-ago battles now reserved for military buffs; more prominent in today’s memory banks are our recognition of and trade with Vietnam.
How history plays out is, however, a very real concern for key players. Nixon campaigned for history, beginning with his teary White House farewell on Aug. 9, 1973, and continuing through two decades, with a number of books, carefully calibrated appearances and meetings with prominent leaders at home and abroad. He struggled mightily to turn the public loathing of him into admiration for his achievements. He had virtually nothing to say about Watergate; fortunately, he left an enduring gift of his thoughts and words on tape. He was the greatest self-bugger of all.
Public figures understandably fuss over their reputations and how they will be remembered. Recent news brought to mind memories of two prominent figures of their moment: Colin Powell and Robert McNamara.
Powell certainly is very conscious of his historical reputation. He said on CNN last Sunday that “history” will have to decide whether George W. Bush’s decision to make war in Iraq was correct. Like the former president, he presents a formidable example of history by amnesia. “A dictator is gone, a despicable regime is gone, the Iraqi people have been given a chance to have a representative form of government living in peace with its neighbors,” Powell said.
If “history” will decide whether Bush (with Powell) made the correct decision, then we have to confront a factual reality. Surely, Gen. Powell knows that he participated in an unprovoked war of aggression, resulting in the deaths of over 4,000 U.S. combatants and countless Iraqis. He knows that his United Nations speech describing Saddam Hussein’s menacing weapons of mass destruction was utterly fictitious, concocted in the White House and Defense Department. Powell undoubtedly has the excuse that he was handed a script full of errors, lies and poor judgments. He always has been the “good soldier.” Ironically, he was chosen for the U.N. performance for his credibility, not to mention his loyalty. President Bush, ably seconded by Vice President Dick Cheney, soon launched the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad. They quickly marginalized Powell, but he loyally stayed for slightly more than a year and a half.
Powell favors history by omission. His and Bush’s rationale rests on proven lies and factual inventions. In his recent TV appearance Powell offered his judgment of the Iraq war, minus the fact of its undeniably dubious raison d’être. Silent on that fact, Powell proceeded to the standard interpretation for Bush and his followers.
That we lied, that we misrepresented the actual facts—that Condoleezza Rice warned of a mushroom cloud over us if we failed to act against Saddam Hussein—are facts easily discarded or ignored. Powell’s interpretation simply forgets that an unnecessarily provoked war brought needless sacrifices of lives and treasures. We can hope that future historians will use all the facts.
Robert McNamara died in the same week that Powell tried to rewrite history. McNamara loyally served John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. For both, he was the principal architect and desk officer of the Vietnam War and, for six years at least, the most vocal advocate of victory through a military solution. (McGeorge Bundy and Walt Whitman Rostow helped with the heavy lifting.) His public utterances, too, promised “light at the end of the tunnel.”
For an earlier event, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, McNamara labored mightily to influence our understanding of that history, claiming he helped Kennedy forge a peaceful resolution. But the tapes do not lie: McNamara urged JFK to attack Soviet missile sites. Sheldon Stern, the leading authority on those tapes, has written that they “prove conclusively that McNamara was not JFK’s principal ally in ‘trying to keep us out of war,’ ” as McNamara often said.
McNamara readily hijacked the truth, and tried to stamp his visions upon recorded history.
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