Is America’s use of strategic bombing ethical or effective? Bill Moyers sits down with Marilyn Young, author of BOMBING CIVILIANS: A TWENTIETH CENTURY HISTORY and former Pentagon official, Pierre Sprey, to discuss this military strategy’s use throughout history. Also in this JOURNAL episode, a look the cost of a college degrees and how much they’re really worth in the workplace.
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BILL MOYERS: Welcome to the JOURNAL.
Very often in the White House, the most momentous decisions are, at the time, the least dramatic, the least discussed. And they don’t make news, or history, until much later, when their consequences bubble to the surface downstream. There are observers who think that could prove to be the case with a decision made within hours of Barack Obama’s swearing in last week.
It started as a few lines in wire reports – a bit of buzz on the web – then a story here and there in the weekend papers. Unmanned American drones like this one, called Predators, honing in on villages in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, striking like silent intruders in the night, against suspected terrorists.
Early accounts of casualties varied from a dozen to more than 20 dead and wounded. One Pakistani security official told THE WASHINGTON POST that perhaps ten insurgents had been killed, maybe even a high value target, a senior member of al Qaeda or the Taliban. Then the TIMES of London quoted locals who said “… three children lost their lives” when the missiles destroyed several homes.
Since last August, 38 suspected U.S. missile strikes have killed at least 132 people in Pakistan, where allegedly we are not at war.
In next door Afghanistan, the number is much higher. For seven years American and NATO forces have been chasing Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and the Taliban, not only with Predator drones, but with guided missiles and bomber raids as well. According to the United Nations and the organization Human Rights Watch, aerial bombing has killed or wounded more than a thousand civilians, what the Pentagon calls, “collateral damage.”
The death of civilians has brought sharp criticism, including from some of our NATO allies and the president of Afghanistan. They believe the bombing is turning people in both Afghanistan and Pakistan against the West, actually undermining an effective campaign against terrorists.
The bombing of civilians from the sky is an old and questionable practice, argued over since the moment the military began to fly. It was deliberate strategy in World Wars I and II. American presidents approved it in Korea and extensively in Vietnam, again in the first Gulf War, then in Bosnia and Kosovo, and six years ago during the campaign of “shock and awe” over Iraq.
But what lifted those reports last weekend out of the routine is the simple fact that for the first time the air strikes occurred on President Obama’s watch. As he said during his campaign, and as Secretary of Defense Gates reaffirmed this week, Obama is escalating America’s military presence in Afghanistan. He may increase it to as many as 60,000 troops this year.
When I read the first story about the Predator strikes last weekend, I thought back to 1964, and another president.
LYNDON JOHNSON: My fellow Americans…
BILL MOYERS: After an encounter in the Gulf of Tonkin between American destroyers and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, President Lyndon Johnson ordered bombing raids over North Vietnam.
LYNDON JOHNSON: Air action is now in execution…
BILL MOYERS: LBJ said we want no wider war, but wider war is what we got, eleven years of it.
Now military analysts and historians, including my two guests are wondering aloud – could Afghanistan become “Obama’s war,” a quagmire that threatens to define his presidency, as Vietnam defined LBJ’s?
Marilyn Young is a professor of history at New York University. She’s published numerous books and essays on foreign policy, including THE VIETNAM WARS, 1945-1990, THE NEW AMERICAN EMPIRE and IRAQ AND THE LESSONS OF VIETNAM. She is the co-editor of a collection of essays to be released next month titled BOMBING CIVILIANS: A TWENTIETH-CENTURY HISTORY.
Pierre Sprey is a former Pentagon official, one of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s famous “whiz kids” who helped design and develop two of the military’s most successful airplanes, the F-16 Falcon Fighter and the A-10 Warthog Tankbuster. But in the late 1970s, with a handful of Pentagon and congressional insiders, Sprey helped found the military reform movement. They risked their careers taking issue with a defense bureaucracy spending more and more money for fewer and fewer, often ineffective weapons.
You will find an essay with his shared by-line in this new book, AMERICA’S DEFENSE MELTDOWN, published by the Center for Defense Information.
Welcome to both of you.
MARILYN YOUNG: Thank you.
PIERRE SPREY: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: Marilyn, what did you think last weekend when four days into the Obama administration we read those reports of the strikes in Pakistan?
MARILYN YOUNG: My heart sank. It absolutely sank. It had been very high. I had been, like I think the rest of the country, feeling immensely encouraged and inspired by this new administration and by the energy and vigor with which he began. And then comes this piece of old stuff on approach to a complicated question that in comes in the form of a bomb and a bomb in the most dangerous of all places. And, yeah, my heart sank, literally.
BILL MOYERS: Our military, Pierre, says it’s sure that it’s striking militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And that they’re not targeting civilians. Can they be sure? From your experience, can they be sure?
PIERRE SPREY: I’m sure that their purpose is to strike militants. I have no doubt of that whatsoever. But with the weapons they use and with the extremely flawed intelligence they have.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yes.
PIERRE SPREY: I’d be astonished if one in five people they kill or wound is in fact, a militant.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean “flawed intelligence”?
PIERRE SPREY: You can’t tell with a camera or an infrared sensor or something whether somebody’s a Taliban. In the end, you’re relying on either, you know, some form of intercepted communications, which doesn’t point at a person. It just, you know, points at a radio or a cell phone or something like that. Or, most likely, you’re relying on some Afghani of unknown veracity and unknown motivation and who may, may very well be trying to settle a blood feud rather than give you good information.
BILL MOYERS: But don’t these drone planes and Predator missiles provide a commander-in-chief, a President of the United States, with enormous political convenience for being able to order military action without risking American lives?
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: Yes.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah, it’s-
PIERRE SPREY: But-
MARILYN YOUNG: Simple. Yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: And-
MARILYN YOUNG: And then-
PIERRE SPREY: A very dangerous option because it’s so convenient and because at home it’s politically acceptable because our boys aren’t dying on the ground, it gets us into tremendous trouble, which, of course, in general is true of bombing.
BILL MOYERS: And your-
PIERRE SPREY: Bombing is always politically popular relative to sending infantry and killing our boys.
BILL MOYERS: Aren’t these drone planes and these Predator missiles effective? Don’t they get the bad guys, even though they might kill a few civilians?
PIERRE SPREY: Their importance is enormously exaggerated, as is their glamour. A Predator is a very large radio-controlled model airplane with a 48-foot wingspan and a snowmobile motor in the back. It only goes about 80 miles an hour. And it stays up for 10, 15 hours and carries a missile. And when they launch the missile, the missile is not pinpoint accurate. You know, if it’s a house, reasonably often it hits the house it’s aimed at. And when it does, it usually kills a bunch of other people around.
MARILYN YOUNG: And it’s true, you can aim at this table. But the question is who’s sitting at – well, they might want to aim at this table. But, you know, who’s sitting at the table? And you don’t know. Or actually you do want to hit Pierre but you don’t want to hit the two of us. Unfortunately, pieces of what hit him, hit us. And we are severely injured or dead. But really Pierre is what you wanted and Pierre is what you got. And this is supposed to be a triumph. And it seems to me that it is a triumph in the most abstract sense. And if you are on the ground as one of these things come at you, the material meaning of being bombed becomes very clear. And that’s not ever discussed or taken into account.
BILL MOYERS: The material meaning?
MARILYN YOUNG: Yes. What it feels like to be bombed, not to be in the crosshairs going down but to be on the ground looking up. And the footage that we have in the sense we have of drones is of someone 10,000 miles away pushing a button and, wham, there it goes. But nobody’s sitting there on the ground looking at what happens after it goes up.
PIERRE SPREY: And what happens on the ground is for every one of those impacts you get five or ten times as many recruits for the Taliban as you’ve eliminated. The people that we’re trying to convince to become adherents to our cause have turned rigidly hostile to our cause in part because of bombing and in part because of, you know, other killing of civilians from ground forces. But we’re dealing with a society here, that’s based on honor, you know? The Pashtun are very ancient people.
BILL MOYERS: This is the tribe in the southern part of the-
PIERRE SPREY: Well, it’s not a tribe. It’s a nation. This is 40 million people spread across Afghanistan and Pakistan, you know, who don’t even recognize that border. It’s their land.
BILL MOYERS: Forty million?
PIERRE SPREY: There’s 40 million of them. That’s a nation, not a tribe. Within it are tribal groupings and so on. But they all speak the common language. And they all have a very similar, very rigid, in lots of ways very admirable code of honor much stronger than their adherence to Islam.
PIERRE SPREY: They have to resist, you know, being invaded, occupied, bombed, and killed. It’s a matter of honor. And they’re willing to die in unbelievable numbers to do that.
BILL MOYERS: Are you suggesting that these strikes could be contributed to the destabilization of Pakistan, one of our allies?
MARILYN YOUNG: It’s clear that they’re doing that. I mean, there never was before an organization called Taliban in Pakistan. This didn’t exist as an organization. It does now. It’s unclear to me as well the relationship between our punitive enemy, al Qaeda, and the Taliban. That’s unclear. And it’s, it’s very unclear what American policy will be with respect to either group. Mainly what’s unclear is what our goal is in Afghanistan. It’s really unclear.
BILL MOYERS: Well, we went there to get Osama bin Laden after 9/11 and to free Afghanistan from the brutal grip of the Taliban, religious extremists who were wrecking misery and creating a base there for al Qaeda, right? That was-
PIERRE SPREY: And we failed miserably on both missions, you know? al Qaeda’s obviously flourishing, undoubtedly stronger around the world than it was when we started this in 2001. And what did we liberate the country from? We certainly caused the Taliban to withdraw. We didn’t defeat them. They withdrew. And Afghanistan turned into a battleground for warring huge, extremely violent drug gangs. All these provincial governors, all these people we call warlords euphemistically are large-scale drug gangsters.
MARILYN YOUNG: Uh-huh.
PIERRE SPREY: And the country was ripped apart by them. And that’s why the Taliban is coming back.
BILL MOYERS: You saw the story in THE WASHINGTON POST this week from Secretary of Defense Gates who says, you know, we’re not longer going to be involved with these gangsters you talk about, with a corrupt government of Karzai in Kabul. We’re going to concentrate instead on doing something about the mess you just described by waging a war that will ultimately defeat the insurgents. That was, in effect, his message. New strategy.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Involvement with the civilian government.
MARILYN YOUNG: And we’ll focus on the provinces. And there is also an implication from earlier stories that there will be an effort to buy off various warlords to try and import some of what was done in Iraq into Afghanistan. The problem is the focus remains a military solution to what all the other information I have says is a political problem. So I don’t care how you slice the military tactic, so long as your notion is that you can actually deal with this in a military way. You’re just going to march deeper and deeper into what Pete Seeger used to call the “Big Muddy” or I guess in Afghanistan it’s pretty dry. It would be some other expression. But the point is if you can’t figure out a political way to deal in Afghanistan then you can only compound the compound mess that Pierre talked about.
PIERRE SPREY: Yeah, the military approach is always and the conventional think tank approach and the General Petraeus approach is, first, we’ll establish security.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right. That’s-
PIERRE SPREY: And then we’ll fix the government.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
PIERRE SPREY: That doesn’t work. In fact, that’s already failed. And the more we try to fix the security situation, the more we will drive these people, particularly the Pashtun, into implacable opposition. And whether the military solution is more bombing from Predators or from F-16s or more special forces on the ground, you know, attacking villages and inadvertently killing lots of civilians, it doesn’t matter. As long as security comes first, the mission will fail because these people are sick and tired of a government that’s oppressing them and a foreigner who’s killing them.
BILL MOYERS: There was a photo the other day of a protest in Pakistan, a few days after a drone attacked. The banner reads, quote, “Bombing on tribes. Obama’s first gift to Pakistan.” Now, that’s part of the blowback, isn’t it?
PIERRE SPREY: That’s incredibly dangerous.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: I mean, I don’t think people in America have any sense of how dangerous that is. By bombing into those areas, those traditional Pashtun areas, that the Pakistani government long ago made a pact, you know, at the founding of the state of Pakistan to never invade those areas and to leave the Pashtun to govern themselves. And we are forcing the Pakistanis to break that pact, both on the ground with their army. And we’re breaking it by bombing the Pashtun in Pakistan. That is taking a weak and also rotten Pakistani government and crumbling it. That’s putting them on the horns of a dilemma that they don’t need. Why is that so dangerous to us? Because this is a nuclear armed country. And when they fall apart and fall into the hands of people like, people that are running Afghanistan, you could have a nuclear war with India, you know? I mean, we’re talking about not just blowback, but we’re talking about catastrophe could result.
MARILYN YOUNG: You know, the thing that gets me, Obama appoints George Mitchell and he says what we’re going to do is listen. What we’re going to do is figure we’re just going to listen. And in his first press interview on that Arab TV network, which was a brilliant move I thought, he talked about respect.
BARACK OBAMA: We are ready to initiate a new partnership based on mutual respect and mutual interest.
MARILYN YOUNG: He used the word “respect” repeatedly. And it’s an excellent word to use and an important one. He, it’s not impossible to say we’re going to pause in Afghanistan and listen. We’re going to think about it. We’re going to figure it out. We’re not going to move militarily at this moment until we know what we’re doing.
BILL MOYERS: But suppose, Marilyn that somebody from the Pentagon came to the White House right after the inauguration and said, “You know, we’ve had this drone attack planned. And we’ve spotted these insurgents whom we think really are militants–”
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
BILL MOYERS: “and killers in their own right. And we want to – we want you to approve this raid.” And suppose he had said no four days after the inauguration and that had been leaked. You know what would have happened on all of the right-wing talk radio shows in.
MARILYN YOUNG: Sure.
BILL MOYERS: And maybe THE WASHINGTON POST and editorial page and others like that. He has no backbone, right? I mean, wasn’t he in a sense, trapped by this option?
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah, but that’s, that’s you know, he’s read history. He should at least or he should have been very familiar with the Johnson administration. That’s exactly the trap that Johnson walked into. And it’s not necessary. I have this odd notion that the American public is actually, in the main, adult enough to listen and think and to respond to a president who says, I’m going to tell you what’s going on. For eight years there has been miasma, lies, deception, bizarre behavior. We’re going to change that and not just economically and not just domestically. But we’re really going to see what we’re doing everywhere. That means I did not approve a military move I was urged to approve because I want to know what I’m doing. And I’m sure my fellow citizens will join me in wishing to know what it is the United States is doing militarily before it does it.
PIERRE SPREY: I would applaud, I would have the utmost admiration.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: For any leader, even for a senator or congressman who had the guts to say exactly what you just said. But it’s not in the cards. And we knew it wasn’t in the cards when during the campaign Obama subscribed to the fact that we’re in a war on terror.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
PIERRE SPREY: This is not a war on terror. You know? And anybody who starts from the premise that it’s a war on terror is heading straight into disasters error.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: And he said-
BILL MOYERS: I don’t understand that because George W. Bush defined this as a war on terror. And I think Obama must be using the same invocation, you know?
PIERRE SPREY: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: This is all part of the war on terror. He said it in his inaugural address.
PIERRE SPREY: Yes, he said that. I was appalled. You talk about our hearts sinking.
PIERRE SPREY: 9/11 was not an act of war.
BILL MOYERS: What was it?
PIERRE SPREY: It was a criminal act. It was a simple.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
PIERRE SPREY: Criminal act by a bunch of lunatic fanatic violent people who needed to be tracked down and apprehended and tried exactly as you would with any other lunatic violent person, like we do with our own domestic terrorists, like the guy who bombed the Oklahoma federal building.
BILL MOYERS: Federal building. Right.
PIERRE SPREY: You know? Exactly the same thing we did to him is what we should have launched on a huge basis, of course, on a huge international police basis and not called it.
MARILYN YOUNG: And there would have been totally international support.
PIERRE SPREY: It’s not a war.
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
PIERRE SPREY: We, by calling it a war, we have glorified al Qaeda. We have glorified the cause of violent radical Islam. All that tiny minority have become heroes. And we made them heroes. We made their propaganda. We made their case for them.
BILL MOYERS: Let me read you an excerpt from the official White House statement on foreign policy under President Obama. Quote, “Obama and Biden will refocus American resources on the greatest threat to our security, the resurgence of al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They will increase our troop levels in Afghanistan, press our allies in NATO to do the same, and dedicate more resources to revitalize Afghanistan’s economic development.” There you have a very clear statement of their intentions that we’re going to concentrate on the war. And in fact by the end of this year there’ll be 60,000, not 30,000 American troops in Afghanistan. And there’s no indication the strikes, the air strikes that are killing civilians are going to stop.
PIERRE SPREY: And the 60,000-
MARILYN YOUNG: No.
PIERRE SPREY: -will be useless.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: You know, the Russians at the peak of their invasion – who dealt with the Afghanis a good deal more brutally than we did – had over 150,000 and a trained a 250,000-man Afghan army. And they lost. 60,000 is a recipe for failure, defeat, and ultimately a disgraceful withdrawal by the United States. One way or another, no matter how nice a face we put on it, we’ll be kicked out of there just like we were kicked out of Vietnam.
BILL MOYERS: Speaking of Vietnam, and you’ve written so much about this, we have a conversation between President Johnson and, your old boss, Secretary of Defense McNamara about bombing. Take a look at this.
ROBERT McNAMARA: If we hurt them enough it isn’t so much that they don’t have more men as it is that they can’t get the men to fight because the men know that once they get assigned to that task their chances of living are small. And I, myself, believe that’s the only chance we have of winning this thing. And when they see they’re getting killed in such high rates in the South and they see that supplies are less likely to come down from the North, I think it will just hurt their morale a little bit more. And to me that’s the only way to win, because we’re not killing enough of them to make it impossible for the North to continue to fight. But we are killing enough to destroy the morale of those people down there if they think this is going to have to go on forever.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: All right. Go ahead, Bob.
ROBERT McNAMARA: Thanks.
BILL MOYERS: Now, Secretary McNamara and President Johnson were talking about a different kind of bombing from the drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan and a lot more of it. But do you see a historical parallel there?
PIERRE SPREY: Absolutely.
MARILYN YOUNG: Oh, yeah. I mean, the notion that you will break the will of the enemy, I – that’s such a depressing clip. I just can’t – I mean, it just sinks me right back into the moment when all that was going on. Winston Churchill is held up as a great hero because he defies German bombing and says we will fight them everywhere. They can’t break our will. And he is considered a great hero. McNamara is incapable of reading that same spirit back into his enemy. Instead, he assumes that he can bomb them into submission. And it’s the same notion now that you can scare them, break their will. And the drone, this precise thing, is maybe, in the minds of those who use it, even more scary because you don’t see us but we see you. And zap we gotcha. But it’s, again, an effort to deal with a political issue with force. And it doesn’t work.
BILL MOYERS: Pierre, as I said in the introduction, you helped develop a couple of very effective fighter planes. Is there a moral dimension to this use of drones that you didn’t see in a more conventional kind of weapon?
PIERRE SPREY: There’s a moral dimension to every kind of bombing that destroys civilians, particularly bombing that destroys more civilians than military people. You can’t avoid it. There’s nothing notable about the drones that changes that. And the moral dimension is very simple. And it dates back to the original theologian of bombing, Giulio Douhet, a rather fanatical Italian from World War I who first hypothesized, wrongly, that you could destroy an enemy’s morale, exactly what you said, and win victories without any ground armies if you simply bombed them enough. And secondly, that the bombers would always get through, that they would always defeat fighter opposition and antiaircraft opposition. Both propositions have been provided in history over and over and over again to be not only wrong, but thumpingly wrong.
BILL MOYERS: Has civilian bombing ever been effective, Marilyn?
MARILYN YOUNG: I can’t think. Can you?
PIERRE SPREY: The answer is no.
MARILYN YOUNG: No.
PIERRE SPREY: Very simply, no.
BILL MOYERS: Here you say there are none.
MARILYN YOUNG: No. I don’t think ever.
PIERRE SPREY: And by the way-
MARILYN YOUNG: No.
PIERRE SPREY: You know? Churchill tried it. Churchill, by the way, after that brave stand to resist the Germans, turned around and, for politic reasons, just like our leaders, decided that it would be a great idea to simply area bomb Germany. What that means is to kill civilians. And they deliberately set out to kill German civilians on the same premise of Giulio Douhet that we would kind of kill them into submission. And it failed miserably.
BILL MOYERS: Does it seem to you that President Obama believes he can escape the outcome in Afghanistan that George W. Bush did not escape in Iraq?
MARILYN YOUNG: Right. I think he does think he can escape it. I think anybody would imagine coming into fresh into power would imagine he can make it happen better. If he didn’t believe that, he would not have said – he would not have signed off on the drone attack. So I think he thinks he can escape it. And by fiddling within the same set of tactics that the Bush administration did. And isn’t it any – there’s no new thinking going on.
PIERRE SPREY: See, that’s the problem.
MARILYN YOUNG: Yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: Is – he’s surrounded by people who tell him, you know, “Boss, you know, all we need is, like, 30,000 more people here to secure the nation. And we need to get rid of Karzai because he’s a problem. And we got a few more Band-aids here, and it’ll all be fine.” So-
BILL MOYERS: We couldn’t keep up with who we were getting rid of in Saigon, you know? I’m serious about that.
PIERRE SPREY: Exactly. And we’re-
MARILYN YOUNG: Right.
PIERRE SPREY: It’s – same thing’s going to happen when we get rid of Karzai because the people behind him are worse. And they will be worse. And Obama is going to be in exactly that situation, surrounded by a bunch of Robert McNamaras, except not so smart.
BILL MOYERS: So do you believe THE NEW YORK TIMES was accurate the other day when it said Afghanistan could quickly come to define the Obama presidency?
MARILYN YOUNG: I hope not. I cannot tell you how much I hope not. I think he’s got so much he wants to do. And he has so many good things he wants to do. And he starts out, you know, really marvelously, trying to do those good things. And if he is deflected, as Johnson was, that would be, well, it’s this sort of tragedies that America’s good at. It turns out to be as much a tragedy for the people we’re supposedly engaged with as it is for us.
PIERRE SPREY: I’m pessimistic on that. I’m more pessimistic than Marilyn.
MARILYN YOUNG: I’m, yeah.
PIERRE SPREY: I think he will be trapped in it. I think.
MARILYN YOUNG: I’m hopeful.
PIERRE SPREY: I mean, he’s already-
MARILYN YOUNG: I’m not, I knock wood a lot.
PIERRE SPREY: He’s already so committed through his campaign of reinforcing Afghanistan and continuing the path we’ve been on unless he finds an act of enormous political will and courage and a way of explaining it to the American people that, you know, we’ve engaged on a path that’s wrong and that’s not going to work. And I’m about to reverse course. That’s really hard to do.
MARILYN YOUNG: You know, it’s-
PIERRE SPREY: And if he doesn’t reverse course, it’s the same quicksand. It’s deeper and deeper, step by step.
MARILYN YOUNG: See, suppose that Osama bin Laden stayed where he was. Suppose he did. I mean, the acts of terror occur or they don’t occur and they’re deflected or they’re not deflected no matter where he’s living, right?
PIERRE SPREY: Yep.
MARILYN YOUNG: So the question of why we’re in Afghanistan looms very large indeed.
PIERRE SPREY: Absolutely.
MARILYN YOUNG: Since it doesn’t seem to relate in any way I can really name with precision American security.
BILL MOYERS: Two important books, BOMBING CIVILIANS: A 20TH CENTURY HISTORY,” with Marilyn Young, and AMERICA’S DEFENSE MELTDOWN: PENTAGON REFORM FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA AND THE NEW CONGRESS, with an important chapter from Pierre Sprey. Thank you both for being with me on the JOURNAL.
MARILYN YOUNG: Thank you, Bill.
PIERRE SPREY: Thank you, Bill.
BILL MOYERS: Last week, students at the Las Vegas campus of the University of Nevada came out to raise hell because Nevada’s governor, Jim Gibbons, has just proposed slashing the state budget for higher education by a whopping 36 percent.
STUDENTS: No more cuts! No more cuts!
NEVADA CHANCELLOR JIM ROGERS: God, I’m glad to see you.
BILL MOYERS: The chancellor of the system was incredulous.
NEVADA CHANCELLOR JIM ROGERS: These budget cuts are not acceptable, and I will not support them.
BILL MOYERS: For students, that could mean a possible tuition increase of 225 percent. That’s right, 225 percent!
STUDENT: I’m here to support the cause, man. I can’t believe the governor’s thinking of cutting education.
MAN: We just want to be able to show our support, let the governor know and the legislators know that we’re serious about education, and that we don’t want the budget cuts.
BILL MOYERS: All across the country it’s the same. State governments are staring down the barrel at $300 billion worth of deficits for the next two years. Twenty-six states already have either cut their budgets for higher education, raised tuition fees, or done both. When it comes to college affordability, this report from The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education gives a failing grade of “F” to 49 of the 50 states. Tuition at public four-year colleges is up an average of more than $6,500, at two-year schools, almost $2,500. Yet even with the increases, THE CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION reports that many college buildings are outdated, inefficient, even crumbling. So what’s to be done? Some took hope when President Obama spoke up for higher education in his inaugural address.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age.
BILL MOYERS: If the colleges and universities do wind up big winners in Washington, no one will be happier than this man, or more responsible. Long a dynamo for the cause of public education, Vartan Gregorian bears testament to the value of a lifetime of learning. Born to Armenian parents, Gregorian grew up in Iran and Beirut, Lebanon. He came to the United States in 1956 to earn a Ph.D. in history from Stanford University and launched a career in higher education. He perhaps is best known for his eight years as the innovative president of the New York Public Library, followed by nine years as president of Brown University. For almost a dozen years now, he has been president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation for education and citizenship.
Vartan Gregorian is an erudite charmer, a master of the handshake and bear hug, a consummate fundraiser and champion of the public good. His passion for education, philanthropy and friendship is contagious. Last October, Gregorian convened a group of educators to urge whoever would become our next president to invest in higher education. Their meeting later resulted in this two-page newspaper ad, an open letter to then President-elect Obama asking that whatever economic stimulus package comes out of Washington, five percent of it – around 40 to 45 billion dollars – go to higher public education.
Vartan Gregorian, welcome to the JOURNAL.
Your ad claims, “Today, only the federal government has the resources and vision to meet these threats to education.” But the fact is that everybody, and I mean everybody, has both hands out, hoping that Barack Obama’s stimulus spending will fill those hands. I mean, the highway industry, the automobile industry-
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Everybody.
BILL MOYERS: -the steel industry. I mean, are people like you living metaphorically in an ivory tower? Why should education be privileged when all these other priorities are pressing against the window?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: That’s an excellent question. I don’t have a complete answer, but I can tell you this one: Adam Smith will roll in his grave to see that capitalism says, “When I make money, it’s mine; when I lose money, you have to rescue me.” Right? Businesses. Business, when it becomes very big for the country, the country cannot afford for them to collapse. And that’s what has happened. All the mergers that happened have come to roost now. We’re too big. We may be inefficient, but we’d like you to rescue.
Education is different because you’re investing human resources that are necessary to change a society, a system. Even retraining some of these people who are let go, is through education. Education is very central to our democracy. You can neglect it, you can get it on the cheap, and you get what you pay for. And if you think education is costly, try ignorance, because that will be far more costly.
BILL MOYERS: But this country’s lost two million jobs in the last year.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: There are millions of families out there losing their homes to foreclosure. And you’re asking them to be taxed more or to print more money to support higher education, which may prove too expensive for their kids when they get there?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Maybe. Maybe. But as an immigrant I have a different view of America. I see America in perspective. As a historian, I see the depth of it as well. And there are great moments in American history. Since President Obama is fond of Abraham Lincoln, so I’ll start with Abraham Lincoln. In the middle of the Civil War, worst tragedy that happened to America, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, established land grant universities. Imagine now any president doing that in the middle of all the calamities we have, Afghanistan, Iraq, economy, and Iran and the Middle East, somebody spending that much effort on – because he wanted to see the future of America.
In the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln established a National Academy of Sciences, 1863, because he wanted to see the future of America. In the middle of Civil War he established a commission to study the merits of metric system for America. Because he wanted to see not one year, one to four year; he wanted to see 20, 30, 40 years. The second thing that happened in the middle of the war. World War II, ’44, Japan is still fighting, Germany’s still fighting, Roosevelt established the Servicemen’s Act, which later became the GI Bill, to see what will happen if ten to eleven million soldiers return without jobs. Would it unleash a new major depression? What? He came up with this brilliant idea to give them opportunity to be educated.
BILL MOYERS: My brother went to college after coming out of the Navy on the GI Bill and so did millions of others.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Millions of others. Brilliant. In the middle of the war, 1945, ’46, Roosevelt established the Vannevar Bush Commission for the future of science in America, which then Truman adopted. It said science should not be based in institutions like European and Soviet, you know, these institutes. It should be based in universities. Then we have, of course, Senator Pell who just died-
BILL MOYERS: Claiborne Pell from Rhode Island, who established the Pell Grants-
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Pell Grants. Greatest democratization of process of access to higher education in our country’s history. So we made many strides in the middle of adversity.
BILL MOYERS: And yet you say in this ad, America’s losing ground on a number of these very fronts.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Number of it, because we see education as an expenditure rather than as investment. And let me just give you a couple of reasons why. My fundamental problem has been with public institutions that somehow they have come to accept the fact that democracy and excellence, public sector and excellence are not mutually compatible. That public excellence belongs to the private domain. And all my career, I have fought against that concept. Whether it’s the New York Public Library, whether it’s railway stations, whatever it is, these are monuments built in honor of democracy, 19th century, these institutions. And so one of the main things that I worry about is public higher education: What is going to happen to public higher education? States’ support is dwindling. Yet the public has the impression that the land grant universities are providing free education to the public. That’s not the case. So public higher education, most of them, cannot compete with private universities in the United States or abroad. I was worried that great universities like Michigan, University of California, University of Texas, and so on, put them in the disadvantage.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: I think all of them are on the defensive because the public expects them to accommodate them; at the same time, states see it as a cost. And then they’re subjected to deferred maintenance, which in my book means planned neglect. And for twenty years these have been neglected.
University of California has one of the great universities in the world. Still has in many units. University of Texas has, Penn State, Michigan, Indiana. But lack of support is going to bring them gradually to be not excellent.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: America’s greatness in higher education has been its diversity and its private-public arrangement. And if we force everybody to go to private domain, then tuitions will definitely increase. Some of them will collapse.
It pains me to see all of these great universities struggling to keep their reputation. And, ironically, even though I have two sons who are journalists, one of them sports writer – if a football team loses in one of these state universities for two or three years, it affects also their funding in the legislature, which is crazy.
BILL MOYERS: Guarantee a winning football team.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: It’s crazy. It does not make sense.
BILL MOYERS: But why have the costs of higher education risen so fast? I mean, you say in this ad, since 1986, that’s just 22 years, college tuition and fees have risen nearly three times as fast as the median family income. Why? And where has that money gone?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Okay. Take any university of your choice. Universities are small city-states. You have from 5,000 to 50,000 students-
BILL MOYERS: My alma mater, University of Texas, 50,000 students.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes, 50,000. Yes.
BILL MOYERS: It’s larger than the town I grew up in.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes. Dormitories, feeding, health, entertainment, physical education, all of this. And then you also have to hire professors. You have governmental relations, development office, all of this. So, these universities, everybody wants everything from the university. It’s fascinating. All the failures of K through 12, the university has to fix. Everything is put at the doorstep of the university to solve, but without adequate funding.
BILL MOYERS: You convened in August these leaders of higher education. And they came to the conclusion that, quote, “We’ve fallen from first place among nations to tenth in the percentage of our population with degrees in higher education.” What does that mean practically?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Practically it means research universities in other countries are catching up. We’re not falling behind as much as others are catching up, whether it’s Singapore, whether it’s China, whether it’s India. And second thing is many of our students, thanks to Pell Grants and others who go to university, do not finish, because of either ill preparedness or lack of resources for them. We’re not talking about just to educate. We’re talking about how to build the next generation of our youth to be able to compete globally and to re-engineer our nation’s reemergence in the next phase of the global competition.
We need all the infrastructure. We need all the engineers, all the doctors, all the computer specialists, all kinds of work. So we can no longer allow 50 percent of our students not to graduate from high school or 30, 40 percent drop out from our universities, especially minorities and others. Because in the past 19th century, we had industrial backbone that you could send all of this to manufacturing. We don’t have it. So the result, it’s gone.
BILL MOYERS: Shipped abroad.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: It’s a knowledge society now in which you need all the talent that you can.
BILL MOYERS: Why are we in such trouble right now? What has happened to the country that brought you here in 1956, that offered so much promise to a young Armenian Iranian immigrant arriving here? What is your own personal conclusion about why we are in such trouble?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, for several reasons. I guess, first, lack of knowledge about the rest of the world. Another one, media that was asleep when all kinds of decisions were made. Along with independent judiciary, executive, we need also independent media. And also we don’t have the kind of individuals which I came to know. And I.F. Stone on the left, “I.F. Stone’s Weekly”, did more about Korean War and other things, so forth.
BILL MOYERS: One of the great investigative journalists-
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: -on the left, as you said.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes. Bill Buckley I met when he just launched the NATIONAL REVIEW. Where are those independent-minded people, whether they’re conservative, liberal, radical?
BILL MOYERS: Well, some people would say they’re on the internet, that the internet has become the great conversation of democracy.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, let’s hope so. Let’s hope so. But the internet has to provide common vocabulary. I don’t want to be picking a piece here, a piece there, and so forth, construct my own hut. I want to have a national significance.
BILL MOYERS: You want an editor?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Editor, national editor
BILL MOYERS: I’d like to be your editor.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Because-
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying you want a professional class of disinterested people who help you assemble how the world looks like every day?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Well, the synthesis you mentioned is missing. What I want is the institution of journalism, institution of news, institution of education, institutional values, the ones that promote to be a durable, predictable tying tradition, past, present, and the future. That’s my prejudice because I come from a print side. And every Sunday I read eight British and French newspapers, plus three American ones, in order to have – not to be manipulated, in order to understand what are nuances and ambiguities, who’s pushing opinion, who’s pushing fact, who’s pushing what ideology, so I can accept knowingly, rather than be manipulated. I learned that first lesson at Stanford when I came in 1956. There was an ad. They were showing Hamlet, and on television this small animal ran. And it said, “Burgemeister Beer. Have a Burgy,” in the middle of the thing. First time I saw-
BILL MOYERS: A commercial?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: A commercial. Right on the screen.
BILL MOYERS: Welcome to America.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: So we left. Yes, we left. We were upset. French arrogance and so forth. Two weeks later I went to a bar. We said, “Well, we’d like beer.” “What kind of beer?” I said, “Burgy.”
BILL MOYERS: The ad worked. You remembered the ad-
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes. Imagine that happening on a national scale.
BILL MOYERS: It does happen, don’t you think?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes, it does.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: I want us to accept, consciously, things, not to be manipulated in acceptance. I still believe in intelligence, in knowledge, independence, should not be just reserved or elite but for the public, too. We should educate the public on what’s in the public interests. They may like it or not. They may accept it or not. But my conscience I want to be clear that I did my duty as an educator while you did your duty as a journalist to educate the public. That’s our obligation.
BILL MOYERS: The scholar Charles Murray-
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: -back in December argued in an op-ed piece in THE NEW YORK TIMES that we should have more vocational schools and stop using college degrees as a requirement for jobs. That we need more mechanics, more carpenters, more electricians, more machinists. And that our high schools should be used for that purpose and not the traditional educational-
VARTAN GREGORIAN: He has a very good point. Our community colleges, some of them are doing exactly that. Community colleges provide now task forces or workforce for our medical schools, hospitals, and others. They are happening. But where he’s right that we have always looked down upon vocational institutions, whatever vocation in the United States is antiquated. We still have maybe World War II or World War – Korean War, whatever, equipment and others. It does not have the respect the way it has in Germany.
We need vocations. We need the best plumbers. We need the best electricians. In Germany and elsewhere, vocational schools prepare workforce. We have switched that to our community colleges, some of it. But we have not formally introduced it into our high schools. In Germany when you finish you have – you can go either route. You can go vocational or you can go into the academic sector. And somehow we have to revisit that whole issue of vocational education because we need the manpower for that. And we cannot just import immigrants to do that from countries who invest in vocational education.
BILL MOYERS: There is an argument today that colleges and universities should continue to turn out generally educated, liberally educated, critical thinkers. But that we should take the people who want to be mechanics and electricians and plumbers and let them go to vocational school and not pretend to want to study BEOWULF or MACBETH.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: I think you’ll have two sets of problems. You’ll have a well-educated private university, some select, and they’re the cultured ones. And the others are specialists who can only do. And that will be terrible in my opinion because even the plumbers should know about American history. Not “Beowulf” necessarily. They should know about Constitution. They should know about American history. They should know about Civil War. They should know about The Depression.
I mean, we live in a country we cannot just say we’re citizens, but we don’t know anything about our country. Yet we’re the greatest country in the world. Well, on what basis? Just economy does not make that right. We need also values. We need also to participate as citizens in the fate and future of our country. So, we cannot have a democracy without its foundation being knowledge, in order to provide progress. And knowledge does not mean only technical knowledge. But also you need to have knowledge of our society, knowledge of the world. If we’re a superpower, the world’s greatest power, we should know about the rest of the world.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, both candidates said during the campaign, they kept saying over and over again, this is the greatest country in the world.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: It is.
BILL MOYERS: You hear that. And then you read what you conclude in your report-
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: -and that’s a different picture.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Yes, a different picture because it’s the greatest country in terms of potential, opportunity. But if the pipeline is not working, you may not be able to keep it.
BILL MOYERS: And your thesis is the pipeline of education from pre-K right on up through graduate school is broken?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Absolutely. The point I’m saying, that America should not take anything for granted anymore. We cannot afford any more mistakes. We cannot afford duplication. We have to bring collaboration and a twenty-year vision, a twenty-year plan, how to bring higher education of the United States, both public and private, to help re-engineer, re-ignite, and keep the momentum of the United States and its progress by educating its workforce, by educating its leadership.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think merit still counts today in a society where so much wealth buys both power and policies and laws and places that it wants?
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Merit always counts, especially when economy tanks. You find true values of individuals. I can’t tell you how many people are calling me about going to non-profit business rather than Lehman Brothers or so forth. People suddenly have stopped in their tracks. And they’re looking to see what they could do otherwise. Economic crisis, you find not just poverty, not just human condition, also people confront themselves, their values. It’s like when you leave a hospital with catastrophic news, you see the world differently. The same thing when you’re humiliated, you’ve lost everything. You cannot go home to face your family, that you lost everything. You confront you what holds you together as a family, as an individual.
So, many individuals now are questioning whether their chosen business was the right thing to do. Hope is built in expecting that something can happen. If that hope does die, if that trust dies, then we’ll be very big trouble.
BILL MOYERS: Vartan Gregorian, thank you very much for this discussion.
VARTAN GREGORIAN: Thank you for having me. Thank you.
STUDENTS: No more cuts! No more cuts!
BILL MOYERS: A footnote to my conversation with Vartan Gregorian. The stimulus plan passed this week by the House provides considerable assistance to higher education. So the plea by Gregorian and his colleagues may come to pass. But this bill still has a long way to go.
I’m Bill Moyers. See you next time.
This transcript was entered on June 8, 2015.