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Advice from the Past about Yugoslavia

by Martin Halpern on Jun 16, 1999

Widespread doubts about NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia have been replaced by relief that a peace agreement has been achieved. But reports of “mass graves” and conflict with Russia make one wonder if this is just a pause in the fighting. Will the U.S. continues its propaganda war against the Serbs? Will provisions for the demilitarization of the Kosovo Liberation Army and respect for Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity be implemented? Instead of claiming military victory, President Clinton should learn from the examples of two leaders he much admires, President John Kennedy and Senator J. William Fulbright. Both rethought hawkish policies and became peace advocates. Clinton, too, needs to reverse course and realize, as Kennedy and Fulbright did, that the U.S. needs to stop demonizing enemies and relying on military superiority and instead find common ground with its adversaries.

In October 1962 Kennedy led the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis. Fortunately, he and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev negotiated a solution to the crisis. Each side made concessions. Until the crisis, Kennedy was a militant cold warrior, promoting military buildups and confrontation with cold war adversaries.

But the experience of the missile crisis led Kennedy to move away from seeing foreign policy as a tough competitive game. He came to appreciate the human stakes involved. He was, after all, a parent of young children as well as a president.

In a speech at American University on June 10, 1963, Kennedy indicated the changes in his thinking. He said that the U.S. should seek a “genuine peace” so that nations can “build a better life for their children” rather than a “Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war.”

Casting a critical eye on cold war attitudes, Kennedy sought to “make the world safe for diversity.” He stressed that “we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” Kennedy’s speech was accompanied by actions that led to the first major break in the cold war, the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

We have no way of knowing if Kennedy would have taken further steps toward peace or if he, like his successor, Lyndon Johnson, would have gotten the United States bogged down in the Vietnam War. But we do know that it was Fulbright who helped lead the way in rethinking the nation’s Vietnam policy. He opposed the use of ground troops and called for a halt to the bombing of North Vietnam.

Initially Fulbright supported the Vietnam War. He helped Johnson by securing quick Senate passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution on August 7, 1964, which authorized the president’s use of “armed force” in Vietnam. When Johnson introduced hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops, the senator regretted his action.

Fulbright concluded that the Vietnam War was a civil war, that “the most effective nationalist movement is communist-controlled,” and that the U.S. needed to “come to terms with both Hanoi and the Viet Cong.” Fulbright went on to reexamine a U.S. foreign policy increasingly based on “the arrogance of power.” He wanted us to assume “the role of the sympathetic friend to humanity rather than its stern and prideful schoolmaster.” We should treat communists as “human beings, with all the human capacity for good and bad, for wisdom and folly, rather than embodiments of an evil abstraction.”

Fulbright could well have been talking about recent events in Yugoslavia when he wrote: “The view of communism as an evil philosophy is a distorting prism through which we see projections of our own minds rather than what is actually there. Looking through the prism, we see the Viet Cong who cut the throats of village chiefs as savage murderers but American flyers who incinerate unseen women and children with napalm as valiant fighters for freedom.”

The U.S. demonized one side in the dispute in Yugoslavia and assumed that it, though an outside party, knew best how to resolve the problems besetting the Serbs and the Kosovar Albanians. By threatening military action if its solution were not accepted and then bombing Yugoslavia because it failed to accept its ultimatum, the U.S. sent the message to every other culture and state: the U.S. believes it is superior, that we are at once the “stern schoolmaster” and the world’s police force.

Instead of seeking “a Pax Americana enforced on the world by American weapons of war,” we should meet with Yugoslav representatives and offer assistance in repairing the damage caused by the NATO bombings. It is time to end the assumptions that the U.S. and its allies alone have all the answers while their adversaries are the “embodiments of an evil abstraction.” It is time to “come to terms” with Yugoslavia. Let us once again seek a world that is “safe for diversity.”


Martin Halpern is Fulbright Lecturer in the Faculty of Economics at Tohoku University, a professor of history at Henderson State University, and a writer for the History News Service.