Excerpt: 'Your Government Failed You'

My last semester at the Latin School, the Tet Offensive made many in my graduating class think that our government was somehow getting something wrong in Vietnam, but we did not know yet how wrong. We had seen the civil rights movement as a way in which government could do the right thing, undo the wrongs of the past. Then, weeks after Tet, Martin Luther King, Jr., was killed and every major American city went up in flames. Our hopes dimmed that America would soon judge people "not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." At the hour that my class walked onstage to graduate several weeks later, Robert Kennedy succumbed to wounds from an assassin's gun. It was a bad year: Tet, Martin, Bobby. Our optimism was turning to anger.

As America's experience in Vietnam devolved into debacle and tragedy, my generation saw as none had before that the great resources of the U.S. government could be mismanaged with horrific effect. Good government was not self-executing. Badly run, our government did not just fail, it was a highly lethal weapon capable of spawning disaster on an immense scale, ruining the lives of millions.

But as I marched in the streets of Washington to protest that war, my desire to serve in government did not diminish, it grew. With the conceit and arrogance of youth, I thought that if those of us who had learned from the mistakes of Vietnam joined the government, we could prevent similar follies in the future. How much more effective could we be on the inside helping to shape decisions than on the streets protesting after they were made?

I went to work in the Pentagon in the latter days of Richard Nixon's presidency. There was no better place to see how government functioned. I saw how teams of analysts pored over data, trying to make complex decisions about budgets and weapons system procurements. Other analysts sifted through mountains of intelligence, trying to assess the threats to our nation and its forces. And there were real threats. Although it may now seem like a quaint and distant time, the Cold War brought real peril. The government of the Soviet Union worked hard to undermine the United States and our allies. Nuclear weapons flew through the air every day, only hours from their targets.

Within days of my assignment to the Pentagon's Middle East Task Force in 1973, the Soviet Union began moving nuclear weapons and troops in reaction to the ongoing Arab-Israeli War. Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger ordered American forces worldwide to go on full alert. Tens of thousands of nuclear weapons were ready to be used. I asked a Pentagon colleague what we would do if nuclear war began. The young Army major laughingly suggested that we go to Ground Zero, which was what the Pentagon staff called the courtyard hamburger stand, and look up to watch the missiles coming in. (Years later I would work again with that major when he was a four-star general. And later, a hijacked aircraft would turn part of the Pentagon a few feet away from the hamburger stand into a real Ground Zero.)

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...