Courtesy Reuters

One Thing We Learned

Whatever else we may say of the dissent to the war in Viet Nam, it has effectively reminded us that we are still a democracy. Some may demur that we did not need to be reminded so noisily, but the fact remains: so many Americans turned from indifference or passive skepticism to outright opposition that the policy had to be changed. There comes a time, in foreign affairs as in domestic policies, when "the people" will be heard.

The tradition of dissent, of course, has been upheld by those who were its targets as well as by those who, not always with the best of manners, exercised their right to be heard. Even when they would not publicly admit it, or admitted it grudgingly, most of the top officials I knew in Washington agreed with Woodrow Wilson's assertion: "We do not need less criticism in time of war, but more. It is to be hoped that the critics will be constructive, but better unfair criticism than autocratic suppression."

The preoccupation with the tradition of dissent, however, obscured another basic tradition of U.S. foreign policy, whose neglect has done more to turn public opinion against the war than any other factor. I mean the tradition of consent. Our system assumes a sense of participation by the people in the making of critical national decisions. When that sense of involvement is absent, when the public feels excluded from the judgments that are made in its name, a policy is doomed from inception, no matter how theoretically valid it may be.

There is a continuing tension in American democracy between the "will of the people" and the judgment of their chosen representatives. It was brought home to me during the week of crisis surrounding the march on Selma, Alabama, in 1965, as the President and his advisers met in the Cabinet Room to discuss alternative courses of Federal action. At a particularly exasperating moment, when no option appeared likely to succeed, one man exclaimed

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