IN 1971, WASHINGTON was shocked when a throng of battle-scarred veterans showed
up to protest the war in Vietnam. They camped on the Mall, and the Nixon administration
quickly obtained a ruling from Chief Justice Warren Burger ordering the veterans
to clear out.
They refused. Would they be arrested? It was then that Senator Edward M. Kennedy
boldly went to the Mall where the antiwar veterans had pitched their tents and
sleeping bags. ''You have served your country well abroad,'' he told them, ''and
will serve it even better here in Washington.''
Kennedy's public support of the illegal demonstrators was key in turning the
tide of opinion - and then law - in the veterans' favor, and a crucial blow against
the war was struck (See ''Home to War'' by Gerald Nicosia).
Ted Kennedy is doing it again. ''I started my career at a time when there
was a war that was important to end,'' he said to me as we sat together last Saturday.
''And now - not that I am finishing my career - there is a war that requires us
to relearn those lessons of history.''
A few minutes later, in Harvard's Sanders Theater, Kennedy delivered a stirring
address at the induction ceremony of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,
perhaps the strongest criticism of the move toward war in Iraq yet made by a leading
politician, although you would not know that from the way the speech was ignored
in the drum-beating media.
Instead of focusing on the details of the prowar resolution that Congress
will likely approve this week, Kennedy hom ed in on ''a more fundamental debate
that is only just beginning - an all-important debate about how, when, and where
in the years ahead our country will use its unsurpassed military might.'' Iraq
is simply the first case in point.
Responding to the Bush administration's recently published ''National Security
Strategy of the United States,'' Kennedy carefully dissected the radical assumptions
that are driving the nation toward war. First, he showed that by equating the
two quite distinct purposes of ''prevention'' and ''preemption,'' President Bush
is leading America to embrace a course of action it has long condemned in others.
''Traditionally,'' Kennedy said, ''`preemptive' action refers to times when
states react to an imminent threat of attack.'' He offered Israel's response to
the border-moves of Egypt and Syria in 1967 as an example of justified preemption.
By contrast, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, intending to undercut a potential
''capability that could someday become threatening,'' was a ''preventive'' action.
''The coldly premeditated nature of preventive attacks and preventive wars makes
them anathema to well-established principles against aggression.''
To Kennedy, preventive war is still anathema, and his denunciation of the
Bush embrace of preventive war against Iraq draws its edge from the fact that
President John Kennedy, in 1961 and 1962, rejected the argument for preventive
war against the Soviet Union, protecting a moral boundary. ''For 175 years,''
Edward Kennedy quotes Robert Kennedy as saying, ''we have not been that kind of
Are we now? The Bush administration's new doctrine, Kennedy said, ''asserts
that global realities now legitimize preventive war and make it a strategic necessity.
The document openly contemplates preventive attacks against groups or states,
even absent the threat of imminent attack I strongly oppose any such extreme doctrine.''
The second feature of Bush's radical new approach that Kennedy lambasted was
its assumption that the United States is somehow exempt ''from the rules we expect
others to obey.'' Kennedy reiterated an old cliche of public morality - ''Might
does not make right!'' - but in the present context, his reference rang with prophetic
relevance. The hubris of overwhelming power is corrupting the nation. ''America
cannot write its own rules for the modern world. To attempt to do so would be
unilateralism run amok.'' Bush is undercutting the war on terrorism, destroying
alliances, setting dangerous precedents, and eviscerating America's moral legitimacy.
Again daring to go where few of his colleagues venture, Kennedy defined all
of this by its proper name: ''The administration's doctrine is a call for 21st
century American imperialism that no other nation can or should accept.'' The
debate in Congress this week is centered on Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but what
is really at stake are basic structures of the American idea. The name Kennedy
is properly attached to this nation's noblest impulse, and it is fitting that
the last of the brothers is raising his voice in its defense.
The afternoon of his speech, the senator and I were sitting in a Somerville
cafe. A customer approached our rear-corner table to say, ''Senator, I want to
thank you for all you're doing to stand up for us against this rush to war.''
I asked her name, and if I could quote her. ''Lucy Borodkin,'' she said firmly.
''And you certainly can.''
James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company