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Memoirs From a Veteran of the Foreign Policy Wars : Diplomacy: When State Department analysts strongly oppose U.S. policy--as those at the Balkans desk do--resigning is just one way out.

August 29, 1993|James C. Thomson Jr. | James C. Thomson Jr., a specialist in U.S.-East Asian relations, is a professor of history and journalism at Boston University. He served as an East Asia policy aide in the State Department and the White House under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson from 1961-66, and was curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, 1972--84.

BOSTON — Should I get out of the government, shouting from the rooftops? Should I resign quietly, making no waves? Or should I stay in, and try to keep worse things from happening?

These were questions that tore me apart--along with many of my co-workers--as I watched the Vietnam War massively escalate in the mid-1960s from my post on President Lyndon B. Johnson's National Security Council staff.

The same questions have clearly been tormenting middle-rank State Department specialists who grapple with the continuing Bosnia catastrophe under Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. And, in a dramatic break with the norms of Washington behavior, four Foreign Service officers have resigned during the past year, issuing public denunciations of U.S. policies with regard to the former Yugoslavia. The latest was Stephen W. Walker, head of the Croatia desk, who quit in mid-August, accusing the Administration of ignoring "genocide" against Bosnian Muslims.

To get out and speak out is a rare thing in the postwar history of U.S. foreign affairs. Traditionally, if you deeply oppose a particular policy and see no way to change it, you either request reassignment or--as a "sorehead"--are forcibly reassigned; otherwise, you resign politely with a friendly exchange of letters, not mentioning your dissent on paper or in public. The latter approach keeps the door open to possible later return to government. Such modes sustain your reputation as a good "team player," or at least a discreet club member.

There is a third alternative, of course--stay with the job, hoping for some opportunity down the road to help mitigate the bad policy. This is an honorable choice, one many public servants make.

The Kennedy-Johnson era provides several examples of the choices made by officials who opposed the policy of escalation--and even U.S. involvement in French Indochina.

For instance, Paul N. Kattenburg, the State Department expert who had known Vietnam best and longest and expressed his doubts with brave persistence, was shunted off to a consular post in Guyana. George W. Ball, the undersecretary of state and Johnson's pet in-house "dove," departed quietly in 1966, keeping the fullness of his dissent to himself.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara--initially an ardent promoter of what many called "McNamara's War"--had so lost faith in the enterprise by 1967 that a worried L.B.J. eased him into the presidency of the World Bank, well gagged against speaking out. And at the White House, Bill Moyers, the President's virtual adopted son, quietly argued against the war to little effect, then left government for journalism with his loyalty to Johnson intact--though L.B.J. would soon say Moyers had been "fired."

I myself quietly left the NSC staff in the fall of 1966; and it took me nine months to start writing denunciations of the policy from my Harvard teaching post.

In the Nixon years, there were a few dissenters who silently resigned when their consciences could no longer tolerate participation in the Indochina bloodletting. Among those who departed over the May, 1970, invasion of Cambodia was Anthony Lake of Henry A. Kissinger's NSC staff--now himself the Kissinger of the Clinton Administration. At first, Lake and others left without noise; but the press got onto their exit, and they were soon writing and working for anti-war Democratic candidates.

But Bosnia is not Vietnam. And public resignation in protest against policy is a good deal less suicidal than it was in the case of Vietnam. The difference is self-evident: By the mid- and late-1960s, the United States had poured hundreds of millions of dollars into backing the French, supporting the South Vietnamese, then doing it ourselves in "stopping communism" in Southeast Asia. Five American presidents, of both parties, had urged us on in this Cold War "commitment," and dissenters risked being called "soft on communism." In the case of fragmented Yugoslavia, however, we have no history of such a commitment and no monster ideology we must defeat.

So, the State Department dissenters who have resigned and gone public over Bosnia policy--and the many others who have elected to stay in and try to win the policy debate--are operating in a region and time of history far different from Vietnam. Those departing have to find new jobs; but they will not, so it seems, be persecuted by the executive branch, the Congress or the media.

This was not the case in the most turbulent period of Foreign Service dissension: the "loss of China" to communism in the 1940s.

In those years, most of the State Department's China experts, in Washington and overseas, had warned repeatedly that the U.S.-backed Nationalists could not prevail over Mao Tse-tung's Communists in the Chinese Civil War of 1945-49. They urged a realistic policy of accommodation with the Communists to keep them from postwar dependence on the Soviet Union.

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