Elliot L. Richardson '41 is an improbable hero. But in Nixon's Washington jungle almost anything passes for courage, and Richardson's resignation as Attorney General last week started the accolades rolling in.
Memories in America are growing shorter. Perhaps the tempo of crises is thundering along at such a rapid rate that the past is buried instantaneously, or perhaps the growing number of liars and thieves in Washington demands that a hero be produced to balance them.
Unfortunately, Elliot Richardson does not fill the bill. In the rapid shuffle of personnel in the Nixon administration, Richardson's brief appearance as Secretary of Defense has been forgotten. After all, he only headed Defense for a few months before he was transferred to Justice. What did he do in the Defense Department?
Somewhere in Cambodia, peasants are trudging back to their bombed out villages. Although fighting still flares between the revolutionary Khmer Rouge and the American-backed Lon No1 government, the murderous American bombing ended over two months ago, called off by Congressional decree after 160 consecutive days of aerial war.
The bombing is over. No longer do American heavy bombs sail earthward, destroying homes and villages and people and dreams. No longer do American anti-personnel bombs land silently in fields at night, waiting sinisterly to explode at human contact, shredding bodies, blinding children, killing cousins and friends and lovers.
For the first time in over a decade, American warplanes are not killing people. An estimated one-third of Cambodia's 12 million people were made refugees by the American bombing. Yet the bombing is over, and most of them can go home now--home to rebuild, to mourn for dead friends and care for crippled cousins, to try to live again.
Most Cambodian farmers have never heard of Elliot Richardson. Their world view most likely extends no farther than the particular region of Cambodia in which they live. The occasional trip to Phnom Penh to market rice is like entering a different universe, beyond the pale of comprehension. Cambodians know nothing of the intricacies of American politics--their only contact with this country occurs when its bombers whine overhead.
Elliot Richardson was Secretary of Defense for the first few months of the Cambodian bombing. He was out front for Richard Nixon, defending the air war against mounting criticism.
Members of Congress denounced the bombing as unconstitutional, pointing out that no Congressional decree even stretched to the utmost rendered the air war legal. Rumblings of funds cut-offs began to be heard in Washington, and even previously hawkish Congressmen began to line up against the Nixon war policy.
Richardson spearheaded the Nixon counterattack in February, March and April. He appeared before Congressional committees and testified that the bombing could continue because Nixon possessed "residual" powers as Commander-in-Chief. In effect, Richardson was saying that Nixon could do anything he wanted militarily. And more Cambodians were murdered.
Now Elliot Richardson is a hero. He is being called courageous and principled, a shining exemplar in an Administration of forgers and grafters and crooks. He is talked of as a presidential possibility.
Mary McCarthy has written that Watergate is the round-about way for Americans to try to come to terms with the Indochina War. Americans are unwilling to look directly at a decade of genocide in Indochina, McCarthy says, so they flagellate themselves about the thieves and the crooks in Washington.
Indochina has been forgotten and Elliot Richardson, one of the greater and lesser men responsible for the war crimes, is now a hero. Richardson, who never stood up for the Cambodian people, stood up for Archibald Cox '33. So he is the man of the hour, and Indochina is forgotten.
The crimes in Indochina were so brutal and monstrous that there is probably not enough compassion and courage in America to ever come to terms with them. The destruction and the killing in the Middle East in the past three weeks has been terrible, but that kind of warfare was waged in Indochina for ten long years.
As Allied armies entered Germany at the end of World War II and discovered the concentration camps, there was much consternation and horror. How could this happen in a civilized country? Why did the German people not put a stop to these mad crimes?
An estimated 11 million people were murdered by the Hitler regime. The Indochina death toll is less exact, but it ranges somewhere between 1 1/2 to 2 million. The questions remain, but in a different formulation. For we are the Germans now, and all the Elliot Richardsons we can produce cannot save us from our guilt.
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