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The War on Terror: Are we destroying what we're fighting for?
Scripps Howard News Service


June 07, 2006

I like to keep old books around the house, even though many of them sit on shelves unopened for decades. Occasionally, though, they provide remarkable insights into the past and perspectives on the present.

For example, recently I pulled from a shelf a heavy bound volume of The Educational Record for 1950, a quarterly publication of The American Council on Education. A year's subscription was $3, and each issue contained serious scholarly articles like "Higher Education in Postwar Austria." The theme of the July 1950 issue was "The World Crisis," referring to the incipient standoff between the two powers that emerged from World War II, the United States and the U.S.S.R. The articles are by historians and university presidents, and they consider the ways various scholarly disciplines might respond to what would soon become the Cold War.

One of the articles, however, is by Edward R. Murrow, who is described as a news analyst and a war correspondent from 1939 to 1945. "The World Crisis - Our Way Out," is the text of an address Murrow made before the annual meeting of the American Council on Education on May 6, 1950, several years before the events depicted in the recent film, "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Murrow doesn't provide any easy solutions, but some of his remarks are interesting in the light of subsequent events. For example, during the question-and-answer period following the address, someone asked Murrow how he would prevent a communist takeover of Southeast Asia. Murrow pointed out that the United States was already committed in Indochina (modern Vietnam), a commitment that he, as well as many others, believed to be of "doubtful wisdom." Since we were committed, however, he believed that the United States should work toward an agreement among the nations in the area.

He says, with considerable understatement, that developing policy with the British and French may "lead us into a disastrous situation since the European powers have a tradition of colonialism, to put it mildly, in the area and are therefore suspect."

With our extensive help, the French held on until 1954, when they were ejected from Indochina after Dien Bien Phu. The United States, thoroughly associated with French colonialism in the minds of many Vietnamese, began in 1965 the misguided troop buildup that ended with a desperate exit 10 years later.

Murrow's perspective is too late for Vietnam and the 58,000 Americans who died there, of course. But he has suggestions that, although they were offered at the beginning of the Cold War, have an eerily modern feel as we embark on the early stages of the so-called War on Terror.

Murrow says that we must learn to live in a "state of perpetual crisis" and recognize that there are no easy or quick solutions. We must learn to "cherish our allies." We must be patient, determined and steady and, at the same time, plan for disaster, even to the point of creating "an alternate capital" for our country.

Finally, Murrow reaches his point of greatest concern: he says that the enemy (in his case, the Russians) is patient and can afford to indulge the hope that we will "lose most of our liberties in the process of trying to defend them." In short, he worries that the war will change us to the point that we destroy the things that we believe are worth fighting for.

Here, unfortunately, are some of the things that we're doing in the name of the War on Terror: Wiretaps without judicial oversight. Imprisonment of U.S. citizens without charges. Pre-emptive war based on doctored intelligence. Renditions. Violation of the principles of the Geneva Accords. Detention of unindicted suspects in inhumane conditions. Perhaps worst of all, torture.

Near the end of his speech, Murrow mentions the event that he says impressed him more than any other during World War II: During the Blitz, the House of Commons, risking destruction at any moment from the German bombers overhead, debated for two days "the conditions under which enemy aliens were being held on the Isle of Man because the members of the House were determined that there were to be no concentration camps, no illegal arrests in Britain, even though the Island fell."

This is a debate that we could do well to have in our own Congress.


John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.
Email jcrisp(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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