The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
JIM LEHRER: Good evening. I'm Jim Lehrer. On the NewsHour tonight: We look at a new Republican proposal for seniors' prescription drugs, Betty Ann Bowser tells of the Pataki gun control plan in the state of New York, Gwen Ifill runs a discussion about the U.S. military's Vietnam legacy, and Elizabeth Farnsworth talks to the Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction. It all follows our summary of the news this Wednesday.
JIM LEHRER: Attorney General Reno headed to Miami today, hoping to settle the Elian Gonzalez custody battle. A spokesman said she planned meetings with the boy's relatives and with community leaders. A plan to have Elian visit his father in Washington fell through last night. Instead, the relatives moved him to the home of a nun in Miami Beach. She had this to say.
SISTER JEAN O'LAUGHLIN: There are many good people involved, people of good will and people who seek to do the best for the boy. And that is my prayer this day, that somehow the Lord will bring resolution to this human tragedy that involved the death of a mother, the yearning of a father and the aching of a sponsoring family.
JIM LEHRER: In Washington, federal officials worked on a letter telling the relatives to surrender the boy tomorrow or Friday. House Republicans today offered a prescription drug plan for seniors. The federal government would subsidize medicine for the elderly poor through a private insurance plan, and, it would pick up the entire cost for those who spend the most on drugs, regardless of their income. The cost was set at $40 billion over five years. We'll have more on the story right after the News Summary. There was a trade rally at the U.S. Capitol today. Some 15,000 labor activists protested giving permanent trade benefits to china. They said it would hurt the rights of Chinese workers and lead to job losses in the United States. The market-opening deal would also ease China's entry into the World Trade Organization. Teamsters president James Hoffa said this.
JAMES P. HOFFA, President, Teamsters: We say no to the imprisonment of Chinese labor leaders. We say no to the use of prison labor. We say no to the use of child labor. If China truly wants to be part of the great world and be a citizen of the world, they must act like a citizen of the world.
JIM LEHRER: The demonstration was one of many planned over the coming days in Washington. They will target the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. The institutions formally open their spring meeting on Sunday. The IMF today released its economic forecast for 2000. It said the world economy would grow at the fastest rate in more than a decade. But it also warned any sudden plunge in the U.S. Stock Market would mean trouble everywhere, and it said further interest rate hikes could cause a mild recession in the U.S. next year. On Wall Street today, stocks fell after an analyst lowered an estimate for Microsoft earnings. The company is a component of the NASDAQ Index and the Dow Jones Industrial Average. The NASDAQ lost 286 points to finish at 3769, a drop of more than 7%. It's down 25% in the last month. The Dow fell 161 points, to close at 11,125. The government today announced a plan to compensate workers in its nuclear facilities. It could affect 3,000 people exposed to radiation during the Cold War years. The workers, or their survivors, would receive payments of at least $100,000. Energy Secretary Richardson made the announcement.
BILL RICHARDSON, Secretary of Energy: This policy reverses decades old Energy Department practice of opposing claims filed by people who helped build America's toughest defenses. They are people who became ill after working with very hazardous materials under dangerous conditions. The President, the Vice President and I apologize for the suffering these men and women have been through.
JIM LEHRER: The plan would cost an estimated $400 million a year. It still must be approved by Congress. And that's it for the News Summary tonight. Now it's on to prescription drugs for seniors, guns in New York, the military's Vietnam legacy, and the Pulitzer fiction winner.
UPDATE - RX BENEFIT PLAN
JIM LEHRER: The prescription drugs debate. Susan Dentzer of our health unit begins. The unit is a partnership with the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.
SUSAN DENTZER: Medicare covers the lion's share of hospital bills and doctor's care for nearly 40 million of the elderly and disabled. But it offers almost no coverage for prescription drugs for patients not in the hospital. That's a huge drawback, when prescription drugs are becoming an ever more important way of preventing and treating disease. So last year, and again, this year, President Clinton has proposed allowing all Medicare beneficiaries to enroll voluntarily in a new part of the program that would help pay for drug coverage.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: More than three in five of our seniors now lack dependable drug coverage, which can lengthen and enrich their lives. In good conscience, we cannot let another year pass without extending to all our seniors this lifeline of affordable prescription drugs.
SUSAN DENTZER: Under the President's plan, beneficiaries would pay $26 a month in premiums, beginning in 2003. In return, Medicate would pay half of the beneficiaries' annual drug costs. The government would start out by paying as much as $1,000 a year and eventually pay as much as $2500 a year of annual drug costs for seniors. When the President first unveiled this proposal last year, it ran into a wall of opposition. Much of it came from pharmaceutical drug companies that backed alternative approaches.
SPOKESPERSON: Seniors are joining hands to support new plans in Congress based on the work of the national bipartisan Medicare Commission -- plans that help seniors who have private drug coverage to keep it, and seniors who need it, to get it. Knowing we are all covered -- that's peace of mind.
SUSAN DENTZER: Many lawmakers also feared that Medicare's long-term financial woes might only be worsened by adding drug benefits without making other changes in the program. That concern has grown with the projected costs of the President's proposal, now estimated at $160 billion over ten years. Meanwhile, members of both parties have developed a number of alternatives to the President's plan. And still more are likely to come forward later this year. Today, House Republicans put forth some details of legislation they hope to produce in coming weeks. Under the plan, no new drug benefit would be added directly to Medicare. Instead, private insurers would develop different drug benefit packages that beneficiaries could select. The government would chip in to help pay the costs for low-income seniors. Both Senate and House Republicans have earmarked $40 billion over five years for those subsidies. That suggests the proposal would fall far short of the comprehensive coverage that the President and many Democrats favor.
JIM LEHRER: And for more on this debate, Chris Jennings, deputy assistant to the President for health care policy, and Republican Congressman Jim McCrery of Louisiana.
Congressman, let's go through some of the details of your plan. Who actually would be helped by this? Who would be eligible for these kinds of subsidies?
REP. JIM McCRERY, (R) Louisiana: Well, all seniors, actually, would be eligible for one subsidy or another. First of all, just like the President's plan, we would cover low-income seniors. That is, we would purchase for them a private insurance plan that would help them pay, and in fact pay for their prescription drug needs.
JIM LEHRER: And what is low income? How is it defined?
REP. JIM McCRERY: Well, the President's plan goes up to about 135% of poverty. We think we can at least match that. We're still having our numbers scrubbed by CBO to see how high we can take that.
JIM LEHRER: That's the Congressional Budget Office.
REP. JIM McCRERY: Congressional Budget Office. But we think we can match the President's plan on that score.
JIM LEHRER: Roughly what, $12,500 a year would be the... anybody who made less than that, a single person would be eligible for...
REP. JIM McCRERY: Would get 100% subsidy for the insurance plan, that's correct.
JIM LEHRER: Okay.
REP. JIM McCRERY: But all seniors with benefit from another subsidy that we would provide to the insurance market to basically buy down the high-risk seniors, kind of a high-risk pool in the insurance market. And all seniors would benefit from that in the form of lower premiums.
JIM LEHRER: I see. In other words, you wouldn't be targeted for individuals, though?
REP. JIM McCRERY: Right.
JIM LEHRER: It would be targeted just to bring down the whole price?
REP. JIM McCRERY: That's correct.
JIM LEHRER: And why did you decide not to go through Medicare with this?
REP. JIM McCRERY: Well, we... Look, we think the President has a good plan. We think ours is better; his could be improved. One which it could be improved is by offering more competition for seniors' drug costs. The President's plan really allows HICVA to regulate and control....
JIM LEHRER: That's the agency in the federal government that regulates...
REP. JIM McCRERY: That controls Medicare. And they keep their prescription drug benefit inside HICVA, inside Medicare, so it's kind of a one size fits all. We could like to get more competition in the marketplace, to give seniors more choices for their prescription drug needs.
JIM LEHRER: And these subsidies would go directly to the individual, or would they go to the drug company or to the health insurance plan?
REP. JIM McCRERY: Well, all the details need to be worked out, but basically the low-income seniors would have their premiums paid by the government.
JIM LEHRER: I see. What do you think of this?
CHRIS JENNINGS, White House Health Care Policy Adviser: Well, it sounds good. I think the rhetoric is quite good, and we're very pleased that the Republicans now are... have offered a proposal. As you know, the President's been talking about prescription drugs since 1998. He talked about it in the State of the Union and he released a detailed policy last year. Our concern is unfortunately, the policy doesn't meet the rhetoric or the principles. And if we can orient ourselves towards the goals and the principles, that's one thing. But the policies we're afraid don't meet that.
JIM LEHRER: What's the serious flaw in this? The most serious flaw?
CHRIS JENNINGS: I'd say that there's three: One, we're concerned that it's under funded. Yesterday, the Budget Committee chairman of the House and the Senate indicated that they weren't goingto dedicate the full $40 billion to that drug benefit, as had been indicated previously, and actually would pay 20. They say up to $40 billion, but it might not be adequately financed in the first place. Secondly, it may not be even available to all beneficiaries. Primarily they're relying on the insurance industry to provide voluntarily this option for Medicare beneficiaries. But if they don't offer it, then Medicare beneficiaries don't have that option. And even if they offer it, it may not be affordable.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let's stop right there. We'll come back to the cost thing in a minute, but Congressman, what about that? What assurance do you have that this would even be available to a low-income person?
REP. JIM McCRERY: Well, that's a legitimate question, and we certainly have to craft a proposal that will encourage the private market to respond. And we think we will do that. Certainly we're now vetting with the insurance industry, with the pharmaceutical companies, the plan so that we'll have some idea that they will in fact put into the marketplace an array of choices for seniors. And if we can't construct a plan like, that then we'll get together with Chris and maybe make some changes along his way. But we think our plan will work. We think it'll offer better, more choices to seniors.
JIM LEHRER: But do those choices... Your point is Mr. Jennings, those choices do not exist now? Even if this money was available, there'd be no place for people to go buy this, is that right?
CHRIS JENNINGS: Today of course insurers can offer a drug benefit through the Medigap plan, but it's very expensive and frequently inaccessible altogether. So it's just not... We're not interested in a false promise. If we're going to tell Medicare beneficiaries of all incomes, that they have access to a benefit, then there should be a benefit. I think the last point I'd like to make about, that though, that even if it is accessible, even though the insurance industry has stated previously that they won't offer this because they're afraid of offering this policy, they've indicated quite publicly that they don't think structurally it works.
JIM LEHRER: Why? Excuse me. Why do they say that?
CHRIS JENNINGS: They have stated that in the past primarily because they're concerned about risk selection, which is sick populations choosing that policy and the premiums going up and up and up and healthier populations not choosing the policy. And they're afraid of offering it. And so our concern is that, if they don't participate, there won't be a drug option, and then it is an empty promise. But one last point: Even if it is made available, there's no guarantee that it will be affordable because, you know, they're talking about, in this proposal, about giving the insurance industry some subsidies. And I guess I would leave it up to the public to... you know, if they believe that, if we give money to the insurance industry, it will come back to them in lower premiums, we'd rather give the dollars directly to Medicare beneficiaries to make sure it's affordable in the first place.
JIM LEHRER: Why did you decide, Congressman, to go that route, the subsidization rather than the individual route?
REP. JIM McCRERY: Well, first of all, let me say that if we were dealing with the plan that Chris is talking about and that he's relating comments made by the insurance industry, I would agree with him. But our plan is not the same plan that the Medicare Commission put forward, it's not the same plan that insurance companies commented on in the past. It's a completely different plan, it's a better plan. The new wrinkle is the subsidy at the top for those high-risk seniors that will allow insurance companies to get into the market, offer a product at a reasonable price. When we buy that down, it reduces the very high risk that Chris is concerned about.
JIM LEHRER: Have you drafted this plan, and have you come up with your critique of it in a vacuum, or have each much you talked to the insurance industry? For instance, have you all gone to them and say, "look, here's what we want to do? Will you all do this, will you participate?"
REP. JIM McCRERY: We have to some extent. We're in the process of vetting it some more. We've talked to actuaries. We're going to talk with some more actuaries. We're talking with CBO now, crunching numbers. But we think right now, after having talked with a number of folks in that industry, that we can make it work.
JIM LEHRER: And why do you think... Where do you draw your impression that these folks do not think it'll work and will not probably participate?
CHRIS JENNINGS: Well, one, because they straight out have stated that they won't participate on numerous occasions because of the risk selection concern. And I've got to tell you, we're looking forward to more details of this policy because, frankly, I couldn't tell you right now what the premium would be for the Republican proposal, what the benefit would be, and I'll tell you, if I'm a Medicare beneficiary, I want to know all those questions before I'm able to make a decision as to whether it's worthwhile for me. And once again, if it's not even available, then it won't be even affordable. And if it's available, it won't be affordable. And we have to get to the point where all of us can get together, work collaboratively, get a real meaningful drug benefit that's available and affordable to all beneficiaries.
JIM LEHRER: But you said a moment ago that, at least from your perspective, from the President's perspective, this is a major step that the Republicans have come this far on prescription drugs, is that right?
CHRIS JENNINGS: Well, we think from not mentioning the word last year to moving to rejecting a block grant approach to saying that they want to move towards a Medicare-type drug benefit, that that does mark an evolutionary change, and we welcome that. We want to make sure that change continues to have a meaningful benefit. And one last point: The President does have a specific policy that addresses all these issues. I could tell you what the premium is, I could tell you what the benefit is, I could tell you how much it costs, and I'm hoping that we can work together collaboratively in the context of reform to get a bill done this year.
JIM LEHRER: Congressman, is he reading your position correctly on this?
REP. JIM McCRERY: He's reading it correctly insofar as our not having concretized the numbers, what the premium will be. We don't know, that obviously, until we put the numbers out there and let the insurance market react. But I think the concept is sound. If we put enough money into it-- and I'll be frank, we don't know that yet. We're working CBO. We're crunching the numbers. We think we have a plan that's workable within the $40 billion range that we have to work with under the budget, and I understand what Chris said about the Senate, but this is the House. We're working on our plan, and we're planning to spend the $40 billion on the prescription drug benefit, plus some minor restructuring of the Medicare system.
JIM LEHRER: In a word to each of you, before we go -- I'm sorry to interrupt, Congressman.
REP. JIM McCRERY: It's quite all right.
JIM LEHRER: But if somebody's watching this tonight, listening to the two of you, should they get up from the chair and say, "hey, there is going to be some kind of prescription drug program for seniors soon?"
REP. JIM McCRERY: I think there will be. I'd like to say it's going to be this year. I'm confident we're going to put on the floor of the House this year a plan that will pass.
CHRIS JENNINGS: Well, when we prepared our policy, we developed it to address the needs of the elderly. We're concerned that this has been more oriented towards the needs of the pharmaceutical industry. What we'd like to really do is get to the point where we both mutually develop a policy that meets the needs of all older Americans and people with disabilities, and we think this year, if the Republicans can move off their current legislation and move towards the President, we can do that in the context of reform.
JIM LEHRER: But it is fair to say you're not there yet?
REP. JIM McCRERY: Certainly not.
CHRIS JENNINGS: I think that's fair.
REP. JIM McCRERY: We want to work with him.
JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.
FOCUS - ABOUT FACE
JIM LEHRER: Now, the escalating politics of gun control. President Clinton was in Colorado today to endorse a statewide ballot initiative, a step that highlighted state action as the new focus in the struggle. Betty Ann Bowser tells the story of what's happening in New York State, where the Republican governor has taken up the gun control mantle.
TEEN RAPPING: But it's starting with the youth get out of the dark see the light. We've got to stop all these guns being sold on the streets...
BETTY ANN BOWSER: New Yorkers against gun violence recently brought teenagers to the state capitol to rally for new gun control laws.
TEEN: Dear Governor Pataki, I am writing this letter to express my feelings on gun violence.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The kids wrote essays to Governor George Pataki, asking him to make it harder for young people to get their hands on guns and use them against other children. But they didn't have to do much to get Pataki's attention, because only days before, the Republican governor had laid out his own gun control agenda.
GOV. GEORGE PATAKI, (R) New York: We have five commonsense changes that will make our streets safer -- first of all, having trigger locks sold with every gun. This will help in the home, where if a gun is inadvertently stored in a way that creates a risk, at least the gun will be locked so that a child or someone not fit to use that gun won't be able to. We're going to have a state law banning assault weapons. They have no place in our society.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pataki also wants: to require every gun purchaser to undergo a mandatory background check at gun show; raise the age for gun ownership from 18 to 21; and the governor wants to keep ballistics records of every new gun manufactured so they can be traced by police. Like most Republicans, Pataki has never been a big control advocate. In fact, he didn't even mention this plan three months ago in his State of the State Address. But some political observers think he's using this issue to position himself for higher office, something the governor adamantly denies. Instead, Pataki says it's the rash of killings in public schools that's made him embrace gun control. And he thinks the time is right now to put angry rhetoric coming from both sides of the issue aside.
GOV. GEORGE PATAKI: There is a willingness of the public and a willingness of elected officials to take a look and not listen to rhetoric that might try to frighten people, but look at policies that might make people safer. I think now there is a reasonable chance that intelligent gun control, anti- gun violence legislation, can pass in New York State.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pataki thinks he has enough votes in the Democratically controlled New York assembly to get his gun control measures passed. But he faces a road full of political potholes in the Senate, controlled by his own Republican Party. Republican State Senator Joe Bruno is the Senate Majority Leader. Like every member of the state legislature, he's also up for reelection this fall.
SPOKESMAN: We're going to Senator Bruno's office. He's the Senate majority leader. He's the one we need to put pressure on.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Bruno is feeling a lot of heat right now from those on both sides of the gun debate. On a recent afternoon, pro-gun control teenagers presented his office with thousands of petitions asking him to support Pataki's five-point plan.
SPOKESPERSON: I'll give Senator Bruno the message that you stopped in, and I will make sure he gets these.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: And although Bruno says he favors some kind of reasonable approach to gun control, his Republican colleagues are all over the landscape on the issue.
JOE BRUNO, (R) New York State Senator: It's very pressurized because it's an issue that people get emotional about. Is it controversial? Yes, it is. Is it very, very difficult? Yes it is. Our conference is split several different ways: Those that would like to do very little; those that would like to do everything, and then some... and those that are somewhere in between.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: If Bruno sides with Pataki, he could face the wrath of the state's 200,000-member conservative party, which has made the difference in close elections in the past. Party chairman Mike Long is dead set against any new gun laws.
MIKE LONG, Conservative Party of New York: We're going to fight against it. We're going to lobby against it. We're going to keep talking to our leaders, and ask them to call their legislators, and tell them to vote against it. And if they don't vote against it, what we will do is rate them, and they have to bear the brunt of that. We're not a single-issue party, but we are a party that takes in consideration all the issues. And eventually some of these candidates will have opponents, and we will choose the other opponents.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The state's 3.5 million hunters and sports shooters are also angry with Pataki, and threatening not to support legislators who side with him on the issue. Tom King is the legislative director of the New York Rifle and Pistol Association.
TOM KING: Our response is going to be in the voting booths rather than through the media, rather than through any other methods. If the need be, we will support third-party candidates.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pataki's gun control plan comes at a time when other prominent GOP leaders are also moving to the center on the issue for the first time. They include three other Republican governors, and presidential candidate George W. Bush. Last month at one of the Republican debates, Bush was asked whether he supports trigger locks.
GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: (March 2) I have no problem. 80% of the guns sold today have trigger locks with them, and I think that's fine. I think there needs to be laws that say that if a parent is irresponsible and a child ends up with a weapon, the parent ought to be held accountable.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Pollster John Zogby says Republicans are talking about gun control because they want to appeal to women, who are overwhelmingly for it and who, in a close election, could determine the winner.
JOHN ZOGBY, Pollster: They need the women's vote. They sense for the first time in a while they can capture the women's vote because George W. Bush is particularly popular for a Republican among women. But add to that the sharpened rhetoric by the NRA, and you see a lot of Republican leaders running away from that because they're afraid that could blow it, the gains they've made with women.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Robert Spitzer, who's written a book on the politics of gun control, agrees, saying gun control is no longer an issue owned exclusively owned by the Democrats.
ROBERT SPITZER: It is becoming more of a bipartisan issue, and the Republican party itself seems to be edging a little more towards embracing an explicit, even if modest, gun control agenda. And it is no longer the sort of third rail, the rail that political candidates would rather not touch at the national level, because there is an increasing sense that gun control has become a mainstream issue, clearly an issue most Americans support and now more Americans are interested in, and that it may be a winning issue for national candidates for office, and also for state leaders around the country.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Republican State Senator Nick Spano is strongly in favor of Pataki's gun control measures. He sees the governor's move to the center on the issue in political terms.
NICK SPANO, (R) New York State Senator: We went through an era... of the Newt Gingrich era, of the extremists being in control of the Republican Party. And they frankly put us back decades: Decades on women's rights, decades on issues of gay rights, and on issues of gun control. And what we need is policies like George Pataki's policies to say, "wake up, America." It's the Republican Party who represents the middle-income, middle-class people all across the nation who want to send their kids to get a quality education, who want to take care of the seniors who need health care, who want to protect our young children from walking into classes with loaded weapons. And those are the issues that we're speaking out on.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But opponents of new gun control measures are dismayed by this sudden shift by Republicans; they say politicians are showing a real lack of leadership proposing new laws when current ones aren't even enforced.
MIKE LONG: I think we're running government by polls today. We are long past seeing the day when people stick to their principles, core values, and have the courage to promote what they believe in as legislators. I submit to the legislatures, not just here in New York but across the nation, to stop looking at polls and start doing what is right and what they believe in. (Bell tolls)
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Governor Pataki's gun plan is expected to be voted on in the next several weeks.
JIM LEHRER: Still to come on the NewsHour tonight, the military's Vietnam legacy, and the Pulitzer Prize winner for Fiction.
SERIES - LEGACY
JIM LEHRER: The second of our discussions on the legacy of the Vietnam War, 25 years after the American withdrawal. Tonight, we look at the impact on the U.S. military. Gwen Ifill is in charge.
GWEN IFILL: America's military involvement in Vietnam can be traced back to the Eisenhower years, the 1950's, when the conflict in Indochina was small and far away. South Vietnam was preparing itself for battle with Communist-led North Vietnam. American involvement at first involved onlya few hundred military advisors. The stated goal for three successive U.S. Presidents: Preserve the South while limiting American military involvement and American casualties.
PRESIDENT KENNEDY: To those new states who we welcome to the ranks of the free, we pledge our word that one form of colonial control shall not have passed away merely to be replaced by far more tyranny.
GWEN IFILL: But the war quickly escalated. In President Kennedy's term, U.S. advisors grew five-fold, eventually numbering 16,000. U.S. soldiers fanned out into the Vietnamese countryside, battling communist guerrillas. One hundred U.S. soldiers died in 1963. The next year, in the Gulf of Tonkin, North Vietnamese patrol boats fired on two American vessels, including the U.S. Destroyer, "The Maddox." >> Congress gave President Johnson the authority to expand the war, and U.S. planes began bombing North Vietnam. In 1965, U.S. ground troops arrived-- the first large contingent landing near the coastal city of Danang by the end of 1965. Some 180,000 U.S. troops would be based in Vietnam. Before long, the countryside became killing fields for American and Vietnamese troops. Vietnam was by now a full-scale war, but the U.S. government limited where U.S. troops would go, as they tried to prevent the fighting from spilling into china. As casualties continued to mount, both the American public and the fighting troops began to wonder what America was hoping to accomplish. War veteran and future Senator John Kerry:
JOHN KERRY, Vietnam Veteran: (1983) There were people who believed... there were people who believed that we were fighting Communism and that this was terrific and it was important, and who were all swept up in it, but I think most people did not, and most people began to see that we weren't gaining any territory, we weren't winning the hearts and minds of anybody. We certainly weren't securing any particular strongholds or strategic objectives.
GWEN IFILL: But President Johnson continued to defend the U.S. role.
PRESIDENT JOHNSON: Every country that I know in that area that is familiar with what's happening thinks it's absolutely essential that Uncle Sam keep her word and stay there until we can find an honorable peace.
GWEN IFILL: New domestic strains developed as the military began drafting more young men to swell its ranks. Troop levels peaked at 540,000 in 1968, before President Nixon began a gradual withdrawal, shrinking American forces in Vietnam to 150,000 within three years. Similarly, the number of dead soared to more than 16,000 in 1968, then fell gradually to 641 in 1972. In all, 58,000 Americans died in Vietnam. For the South Vietnamese army, an estimated quarter million died, along with 900,000 North Vietnamese soldiers and guerrilla fighters. And Vietnamese civilian toll was more than one million. When the Paris Peace Accord was signed in 1973, the stage was set for the departure of American combat troops and the release of more than 600 U.S. prisoners of war. The last American combat troops departed in 1973, but even today, some 2,000 soldiers are still listed as "Missing in Action."
JIM LEHRER: We get four views. General Charles Krulak was commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999. He served two tours in Vietnam as a rifle company commander. Colonel Ronald Joe served in Vietnam after joining the army in 1966. He was commandant of the Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute from 1991 to 1996. Richard Kohn was Chief of Air Force History from 1981 to 1991. He's now a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters served in the Army from 1976 to 1998. He is the author of several books on the future of warfare.
General Krulak, what stamp has the experience of Vietnam left on the American military, in your opinion?
GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK (Ret.), Former Marine Commandant: Well, I think we've learned many lessons. But at the strategic level, I think what we learned was "don't let your enemy have a strategic sanctuary, in this case, a place that they can go where you can't reach them, Cambodia, Laos, the demilitarized zone itself, portions of Hanoi and certainly the Harvard Hyfong. If you can't hit the enemy, you're going to have a tough time beating them. And the second is to define in very real terms what national interests mean, have a debate with the people of America to ensure that they understand national interests and only use power when those interests are at stake.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Kohn, what would you say was the legacy of Vietnam on the U.S. military.
RICHARD KOHN, Military Historian: In answer to, that I would say that the American military tried to fight a war...
GWEN IFILL: Go ahead. We were having some problems with your audio, but I think you just kicked in.
RICHARD KOHN: I think the American military learned that it not only wants clear objectives, about you it wants to remain close to the...
GWEN IFILL: We've lost you again. We'll come back to you, how's that? We'll go back here to Colonel Peters. What's your answer to that question?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS (Ret.), U.S. Army: Well, I think the legacy of Vietnam was very complex. But really we're suffering in today's military in the legacy of the Cold War. You see Vietnam today in the way the forces are structured, for instance, the Army consciously put forces into the Guard and reserves so that they couldn't go to war without involving the country. But we've turned over two generations in the military. The vast majority of officers no longer remember Vietnam. In fact, the majority of officers don't remember Desert Storm. It's a much younger force. So I think the legacy is really slipping away. On the other hand, it's very strong on Capitol Hill because, although the military, because of our career demographics, has turned over, the generation that was on campus during Vietnam is really in the throes of power on the hill and in the White House. So when you look at the legacy of Vietnam, I think you're seeing it stronger on the other side of the Potomac from the Pentagon.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Kohn, I'm going to bring that this back to you and I wonder if you agree with that, the point being that maybe Vietnam is farther away in our memories than we gave it credit for being.
RICHARD KOHN: Well, I think that it's not very far in our memories because it looms like a shadow. We don't want to get sucked into quagmires. I this the Pentagon has been very resistant of some of these missions and gradual interventions in the 1990's for precisely the reason that the objectives were not clear, the exit strategies were not obvious, and the American people seemed to be indifferent to some of them. So I see that legacy quite alive, and I think it's been passed down by the generation of military leadership that served there as young officers and in the mid grades to the generation now that has not served. You see it in the polls of officers, you see it in the reading matter and in their reaction to many of the military issues of today.
GWEN IFILL: Colonel Joe, you just heard the word quagmire. You also heard the term national interests.You hear a lot of terms question which apply to U.S. intervention in foreign wars that you didn't hear before Vietnam. How has Vietnam, in your opinion, changed the way we look at ourselves in warfare?
COL. RONALD JOE (Ret.), U.S. Army; I think that I agree with what I've heard thus far about the strategic portions of warfare. But I certainly want to say that I think the Vietnam War had a profound effect on us in term of our way of dealing with African Americans, people of color and women. Vietnam was the first war in which we really employed our forces based on military occupational specialty or based on their capabilities, as opposed to being overly concerned about their race or color. And I think it was the first time that we had, for example, General Davison, Fred Davison, who commanded all forces as African American in combat. I think we learned top respect each other, to work together P. We came home and that it's made a difference in our armed forces. I think it's a hard struggle be, so it's going to be a continuous struggle, but I think it's made a tremendous difference. It's given us Colin Powell and I think it's made for a better society for us all, in spite of the fact that there's still much work to be done.
GWEN IFILL: So Colonel Joe, you would say that this is considered in so many circles to have been a bad war, there was good that came out of it in a societal sense?
COL. RONALD JOE: I think it certainly was a bad war, so I wouldn't even go to that question because I think it's a deep one. It was certainly a bad war and of course in the military we go and do what we were asked to do and many soldiers did that. But I do think if you look at of senior officers, women, people of color, positions that they held in wars prior to Vietnam and the positions that they hold now today and the positions they've held since then, that this war was absolutely essential in having all of us understand that color did not in any way dictate the level of performance and efficiency on the part of people who were doing the very tough job that the nation was asking them to do.
GWEN IFILL: General Krulak, when we talk about bad wars and good wars, if you can even call them that, is it permissible 25 years later yet to say that America lost the Vietnam War?
GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK: Well, that wasn't a victory parade off of the top of the Saigon embassy. I don't think we won the war. I would like to take exception to a man I respect greatly and that's Mr. Peters, but I don't think that the leadership of the military has forgotten Vietnam and that it's as strong a sense in the leadership as it is across the river in the Congress. The military remembers Vietnam, both the good and the bad, and what you're seeing as we move into the chaos of the 21st century, is the willingness of the military to reach back to that Vietnam experience and try to come out of it with some knowledge that will help us as we move in to the chaos that we're going to see in the 21st century.
GWEN IFILL: Certainly. Reach back and learn what, Colonel Peters?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Well, I think there's plenty to learn and we're mislearning some of the lessons. I agree with General Krulak. The military leadership have not forgotten, but there were a small number of men and they're leaving, that last three star and four-star level is going. My point is there are enlisted people serving today... It's foreign to them, it's as foreign as World War II, so the leadership hasn't. But I'm really much more concerned with the lessons on the political side, the wrong lessons, the mislearned lessons. For instance, the casualty issue and I think General Krulak would probably agree with me on this-- I'll let him have his say-but the idea that American people would not accept casualties. The lesson of Vietnam was that the American people are sensitive, they don't want their sons and daughters' lives wasted. But we're a nation of fighters and the idea of zero tolerance for casualties I think is silly. If you give Americans a good cause that they understand, a villain helps-- they will fight. They will accept casualties, but the other lesson we mislearned is the idea that a body count's a bad thing. You'll never fight a war without giving the American people a body count. We have a Super Bowl mentality and they want to win and win big. They will accept casualties, but they want them disproportionately on the other side.
GWEN IFILL: But it's got to be a very defined mission now in a way that it wasn't before.
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: Yes. And I think what General Krulak was getting at very nicely was the problem is we don't have defined missions. They're very hazy and nebulous. And success I administrations have done a very poor job of articulating the strategic environment and what we are specifically trying to do in one mission after another.
GWEN IFILL: General.
GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK: He hit the nail right on the side. And I would agree 1,000%. The bottom line is the mothers and fathers of this great country of ours are willing to send their daughters and their sons into combat, but they'd better have a dog gone good reason for going. And they'll accept the casualties, but they they'd to have at least had a debate over why and where and how we're going to prosecute this conflict. And we have not been doing a good job of that.
GWEN IFILL: Professor Kohn, are you with us?
RICHARD KOHN: I hope so. I'd add a thought about victory and loss in the Vietnam War, Gwen. Certainly we lost the campaign in Vietnam, but Vietnam was a campaign of the Cold War, and if you think of it in that context, we had this that debate during the Vietnam War itself, and America sent its mostly sons into that war, understanding that it was part of that larger struggle. And while we lost the Vietnam War itself, as a part of the Cold War, I think we have to understand that it had as tragic as it was, as poorly as it came out for us, it had importance in the history of the United States' activity in the Cold War.
GWEN IFILL: Let's talk... Colonel Joe, let's talk a moment about exactly what's happened to the military. We know and we focus on what's happened to society. But is the military a different place? Is it structured differently now than it was pre-Vietnam, or have things which have happened since, is say the Gulf War or things that happened before, like World War II and the Korean War had a greater impact in shaping had the military we see today?
COL. RONALD JOE: I think from the perspective that I've addressed myself to that our military has changed, and it's a much better military. I, in my time at the only -- through studying to leaders in the Department of Defense and the military, have absolutely said that our military absolutely sets an example, not only in the nation but in the world in ensure people that they can enter the military, armed forces, that they can work hard and achieve and go to the very highest levels based on how hard they're willing to work. And I think that Vietnam slowed all of us that we could work one with the other and that we could, you know, work hard and get ahead. I think that our nation,as has been said earlier, is committed to not sending our forces again off to war without having a definitive purpose for going and without having an exit strategy for victory. We came back from Vietnam, it wasn't a victory, for the first time, our soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, were not hailed as returning heroes, and it had a profound effect on us. But I think our army is a much better place. I should say I think our armed forces, all of our armed forces is a much better place.
GWEN IFILL: Does that mean, Colonel Peters, that we're only willing now to fight wars at a distance, Cruise missiles and air wars?
LT. COL. RALPH PETERS: No, absolutely not. And I'd like to just say on the subject of who won, while we lost the war, but we won the century. And my point about casualties is that that's a total misreading, the idea that you have to do it cleanly with stand off weapons. First of all, you can't do it. Some things you can do neatly with high-tech weapons. Other things, especially in this decaying world-- much of the world is really coming apart, in Africa, and parts of Asia, Colombia-- it's closed in bayonet fighting, the kind that General Krulak really understands and I'd really defer to him on that.
GWEN IFILL: But General, we're talking about a force that now has to be prepared for peacekeeping in regional conflicts, more than the kinds of wars that we've fought in the past. Isn't that a fundamentally different shift for the military?
GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK: Well, that's if you believe we're preparing for peacekeeping. I refer to it as the three-block war, where we've got to have these young men and women of character ready to at one moment in time, be conducting humanitarian assistance, the next moment in time peacekeeping and the next moment in time, they're in highly lethal -- mid-intensity conflict and it's going to take place over a period of 24 hours and within three city blocks. We saw it in a Somalia -- the army having this tragedy where they suffered major casualties when they went through all three blocks of the three-block war in a matter of about an hour and a half. That's what we're going to be faced with. And what we need to do is to train our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines to fight in an environment that is totally different than the one we've seen before. It is not going to be the son of Desert Storm. It's going to be the stepchild of Chechnya and we'd better be ready for it.
GWEN IFILL: That's all the time we have. Officers and gentlemen, thank you all very much.
JIM LEHRER: Next week our Vietnam series will focus on what the war did to journalism.
CONVERSATION - WINNER
JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, another of our conversations with winners of this year's Pulitzer prizes in the arts, and once again, to Elizabeth Farnsworth.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The fiction winner this year was Jhumpa Lahiri for her collection of short stories, "Interpreter of Maladies." Using a variety of characters, Lahiri gives life in these stories to the feelings of alienation, loneliness, and hope that so often mark the immigrant experience. She was born in England in 1967 and raised in Rhode Island. Her parents were born and raised in India. "Interpreter of maladies" is her first book, and the title story also won an O. Henry award. Thank you for being with us, and congratulations.
JHUMPA LAHIRI, Pulitzer Prize, Fiction: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the title of the book. It's an unusual title, "Interpreter of Maladies." Where does it come from?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: The title is... Well, it's the title of one of the stories in the book. And the phrase itself was something I thought of before I even wrote that story. I thought of it one day after I ran into someone I knew. I asked him what he was doing with himself, and he told me he was working as an interpreter in a doctor's office in Brookline, Massachusetts, where I was living at the time, and he was translating for a doctor who had a number of Russian patients. And he was fluent in English and Russian. And on my way home, after running into him, I thought of this... I just heard this phrase in my head. And I liked the way it sounded, but I wasn't quite sure what it meant, but I wrote it down. I just wrote down the phrase itself. And for years, I sort of would try to write a story that somehow fit the title. And I don't think it happened for maybe another four years that I actually thought of a story, the plot of a story that corresponded to that phrase.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It occurred to me that you're kind of an interpreter of maladies yourself in these stories.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I guess that's what has... That's the way it's turned out, yeah. But I didn't know... At the time, I wasn't aware of it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: There's longing and loss in these stories, the longing and loss that often comes with the life of an immigrant. Is this your longing and loss, do you think, as the child of immigrants, or is this more the longing and loss of your parents' generation coming through?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Both. I think that, in part, it's a reflection of what I observed my parents experiencing and their friends, their circle of fellow Indian immigrant friends. It's also, in part, drawn from my own experiences and a sense of... I always say that I feel that I've inherited a sense of that loss from my parents because it was so palpable all the time while I was growing up, the sense of what my parents had sacrificed in moving to the United States, and in so many ways, and yet at the same time, remaining here and building a life here and all that that entailed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: One of the stories that raises these issues is called "When Mr. Perzada Comes to Dine." If begins like this: "In the autumn of 1971, a man used to come to our house bearing confections in his pocket and hopes of ascertaining the life or death of his family." I love that beginning. Tell us a little bit about the story, and then read from it for us, please.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Sure. This story is based on a gentleman who indeed did... used to come to my parents' house in 1971 from Bangladesh. He was at the University of Rhode Island. And I was four, four years old, at the time, and so I actually don't have any memories of this gentleman. But I've heard... I heard through my parents what his predicament was. And when I learned about his situation, which was that he was in the United States during the Pakistani civil war and his family was back in Taka, I just sort of... I was so overwhelmed by this information that I wrote this story based on that... Based on that experience in my parents' life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Read the paragraph, please.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Sure. "At 6:30, which was when the national news began, my father raised the volume and adjusted the antennas. Usually I occupied myself with a book, but that night my father insisted that I pay attention. On the screen I saw tanks rolling through dusty streets, and fallen buildings, and forests of unfamiliar trees into which East Pakistani refugees had fled, seeking safety over the Indian border. I saw boats with fan-shaped sails floating on wide coffee-colored rivers, a barricaded university, newspaper offices burnt to the ground. I turned to look at Mr. Perzada. The images flashed in miniature across his eyes. As he watched, he had an immovable expression on his face, composed but alert, as if someone were giving him directions to an unknown destination."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Reviewers have called your narrative voice "elegant, bittersweet, gentle." How did you get this voice? It seems so deceptively... It's so spare and so simple, but it must have been very hard to arrive at.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you. I don't know. I can't tell you exactly how I found it. It was just a process of writing a lot of stories and reading a lot of stories that I admired and just working and working until the sentences sounded right and I was satisfied with them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Were you surprised to get the Pulitzer? It doesn't happen very often, does it, that a first book gets a Pulitzer?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Oh, absolutely shocked. I had no idea. I didn't even think it was possible. I'm just in disbelief still.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Will it make a difference in your writing or in your life, do you think?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: It's made a little bit of a difference the past few days.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I bet.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I will try not to think about it, though, when I write. I don't know... I mean, I think I'll... It's wonderful and it's an honor and I feel so humbled and so grateful, but I think that I'll think of it very much as the final sort of... final moment for this book and put it behind me along with the rest of the book, as I write more books.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you feel like you're in a long tradition of American writers who deal with the immigrant experience? I mean, we could sit here and name many of them. Do you feel very much a part of that tradition?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I didn't feel part of it as I was writing the stories, but I think that now that the book has been published and that ere have been... You know, since the reviews have come out and people have reacted to it, I've realized that is in a sense what has happened. But as I was writing them, I didn't feel a part of any tradition. I think that would have been too overwhelming, in a sense.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, are you writing now? And if so, can you tell us what about?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: I am working on another book. I'm working on a novel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Also about India and the United States and all of the connections between them?
JHUMPA LAHIRI: More or less, not... I don't think it'll be as vast in scope, but definitely about Indian immigrants in the United States, yes.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Jhumpa Lahiri, thank you very much. And congratulations again.
JHUMPA LAHIRI: Thank you so much.
JIM LEHRER: Again, the other major stories of this Wednesday: Attorney General Janet Reno headed to Miami, hoping to settle the Elian Gonzalez custody battle, and some 15,000 labor activists rallied at the U.S. Capitol against permanent trade benefits for China. We'll see you online and again here tomorrow evening. I'm Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
- The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer
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- Episode Description
- This episode's headline: RX Benefit Plan; About Face; Series - Legacy; Conversation - Winner. ANCHOR: JIM LEHRER; GUESTS: REP. JIM McCRERY, (R) Louisiana; CHRIS JENNINGS, White House Health Care Policy Adviser; GENERAL CHARLES KRULAK (Ret.), Former Marine Commandant; LT. COL. RALPH PETERS (Ret.), U.S. Army; RICHARD KOHN, Military Historian; COL. RONALD JOE (Ret.), U.S. Army; JHUMPA LAHIRI, Pulitzer Prize, Fiction; CORRESPONDENTS: MIKE JAMES; TERENCE SMITH; BETTY ANN BOWSER; SUSAN DENTZER; RAY SUAREZ; SPENCER MICHELS; MARGARET WARNER; FRED DE SAM LAZARO; GWEN IFILL; TERENCE SMITH; RICHARD RODRIGUEZ; KWAME HOLMAN
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- This item is part of the South Asian Americans section of the AAPI special collection.
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- To view the segment on Jhumpa Lahiri, visit https://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-jd4pk07r91?start=2893.32&end=3380.46 or jump to 00:48:14.
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- APA: The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Boston, MA: NewsHour Productions, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-jd4pk07r91