Washington: The Vietnam Generation

The skirmish over a presidential nomination reveals the chasm between those who fought and those who stayed home


THOMAS PAUKEN IS a thirty-sevenyear-old lawyer from Dallas. As a student at Georgetown University in the 1960s, he was active in conservative politics, and in 1965 he became the national chairman of the College Republicans. In the 1970s, after serving in the Army in Vietnam and completing law school at Southern Methodist University, he became active in Dallas politics and ran twice as a Republican for the congressional seat held by Representative Jim Mattox, losing narrowly both times. Early this year, Thomas Pauken became President Reagan’s nominee to run ACTION, the federal agency that oversees a number of volunteer programs, including, in an indirect way, the Peace Corps.

The Senate confirmed Pauken’s nomination by a voice vote on May 7, but only after a portentous struggle. It was often said during the Senate hearings on Alexander Haig’s appointment as secretary of state that arguments about his fitness were really continuations of old arguments about Watergate. To a significant degree, the controversy over Pauken was a resumption of disagreements about Vietnam. Although the Pauken case is settled, the divisions it revealed imply that, unlike Watergate, Vietnam may be a source of more, not less, friction in coming years.

Nothing in Pauken’s appearance suggested his vulnerability as a nominee. He is a square-faced man of medium height and build, with orderly black hair and a salesman’s ready smile. Seen in his offices at ACTION during the controversy over his appointment, he seemed to be a classic specimen of the enthusiastic movers and self-improvers who have always made up the Republican Party’s greatest pool of young talent. He was a success in the law before turning to politics; he did his part for Dallas, through the United Way and other volunteer groups. He is happily married and is the father of five children, the oldest of whom is six; he has an honorable record of military service. The last was the problem.

The complaint against Pauken turned on the choices he had made during the Vietnam War. Pauken volunteered for the Army early in 1967 and served for nearly three years. Throughout that period he was an officer in Army intelligence. He spent most of his first two years in training—at the Army’s intelligence school, at Ft. Holabird, Maryland, then at language school in Fl Paso, then again at Ft. Holabird. Early in 1969, he went to Vietnam, where he began as a “province intelligence officer” in the Mekong Delta and later became a “senior analyst” with the Strategic Research and Analysis division in Saigon. While he was stationed in the delta, his work consisted of collecting “order of battle” information specific reports about the nature of troops and equipment that enemy forces possessed. In Saigon, he prepared research reports on subjects such as communist revolutionary strategy and the North Vietnamese theorist Truong Chinh.

Seen from the perspective of those devoted to the Peace Corps, the case against Pauken was open and shut. The Peace Corps was established in the first days of the New Frontier, when intelligence operations in general and the CIA in particular had more respectability and cachet than they have since enjoyed. One of the Peace Corps’s major struggles in self-definition had been to keep itself free of connections with the spies. From the beginning, it extracted an extraordinary promise of immunity from the intelligence agencies: alone among American organizations operating overseas, it would be protected from all attempts at penetration by the CIA. The policies of the Corps prohibit any former CIA employee from working on its staff or as a volunteer; there is also a ten-year waiting period before anyone who has worked in any intelligence organization can apply for a position with the Peace Corps. For their part, the intelligence agencies reciprocated with a promise not to hire former Peace Corps volunteers.

“The policies were set up knowing that Peace Corps volunteers and staff would be accused of being agents of American intelligence,” William Josephson, who was the Peace Corps’s general counsel in the early 1960s and now practices law in New York, told the Senate committee considering Pauken’s nomination this spring. “We decided . . . that we had to deny any kind of credence to the charges, the false charges, that we knew would be made.”

When news of Pauken’s nomination traveled through the Peace Corps network, there was widespread reaction against this apparent breach in the dam between the volunteers and the intelligence agents. Petitions were presented to the Congress and letters mailed to the press concerning the danger Pauken’s selection might pose to those who represent the Peace Corps overseas. Volunteers who had returned from service in Afghanistan, Angola, Kenya, the Philippines, and elsewhere submitted affidavits about the way that local suspicion of their motives had constantly undermined their work. “The extreme sensitivity of Turks— rightist, leftist, and centrist—to any thought of American intelligence activities cannot be overemphasized,” a former volunteer named Margaret Gall wrote. “I think it would be disastrous for any link, public or private, to be forged between Peace Corps and U.S. intelligence activities.” Another said, “I was usually able to explain that the Peace Corps was in no way associated with intelligence activities . . . Some volunteers weren’t so lucky. Bill Ward, a volunteer in Yemen, was beaten by local men who mistook his curiosity about their country and culture to be signs of intelligence involvement.”

One young senator who has served in the Peace Corps, Paul Tsongas, of Massachusetts, raised what became known as the “blood on our hands” question: “I think the major issue is the physical security of the volunteers ... I don’t think that people’s lives potentially should be put into the balance.”

Resistance to Pauken’s nomination increased after Senator Alan Cranston, a Democrat from California who once was an evaluator for the Peace Corps and who led the opposition, obtained Pauken’s military records and, much to the nominee’s displeasure, made their contents known. The “officer efficiency reports” for Pauken’s tenure in Vietnam said that he had been a “team chief in a unilateral clandestine intelligence collection operation” and “team chief of an intelligence collection team engaged in covert intelligence operations.” William Josephson told the Senate committee that such covert service “converts what would have been a clear case of disqualification when I was general counsel for the Peace Corps into an absolutely unquestionable case. He could not have served in the Peace Corps had I been general counsel under any circumstances.” Josephson then summarized the case against Pauken: “If the Senate gives its advice and consent to Mr. Pauken’s nomination, and if the President appoints him director of ACTION, for the first time, to my knowledge, the United States will have acted knowingly —however unintentionally—but knowingly to lend credence to the false charge that the Peace Corps is an arm of United States intelligence.”

The forces opposing Pauken obviously had a point. This particular matchup of man and job created wholly unnecessary problems, not only for the Peace Corps but also for Pauken himself. Although Pauken gamely insisted through the worst of it that this was the job he’d always wanted and that he had no second thoughts, several of his friends suggested that it might have been better all around if he had pinned his hopes on running, say, the Small Business Administration instead. But some of those same friends seemed to find it hard to place full faith in their opponents’ assurances that there was nothing personal in the attacks on Pauken. In their view, the heart of the matter was the political and social tensions within their generation that have been unresolved since the Vietnam War.

THE ISSUE WAS personified in the contrast between Pauken and the man he believed to be his central antagonist, Jonathan Steinberg. Steinberg is five years older than Pauken and also a lawyer. He was educated at Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and he has served as a Senate assistant in one capacity or another since 1969, most recently as counsel for the Veterans Affairs Committee, which Alan Cranston chaired when the Democrats controlled the Senate. From 1964 to 1969, while Pauken was giving speeches for conservative causes and entering the Army, Steinberg was working in Washington for the Peace Corps, and he finally became its deputy general counsel. Pauken would fit easily into a crowd of ambitious business and professional men in Dallas; Steinberg is lanky and curly-haired, with the confident bearing typical of Capitol Hill assistants. If Pauken represents everything that the Peace Corps alumni say they oppose, Steinberg represents the part of his generation from which Pauken feels estranged.

“There is no question but that the entire campaign against me has been led, organized, directed, and manipulated by Jonathan Steinberg,” Pauken said shortly before the vote on his confirmation. “My personal opinion is that he is still fighting the Vietnam War.”

Such an interpretation of events arose naturally from the special preoccupations that Pauken and others like him brought to the case. If the Peace Corps is super-sensitive to even the appearance of contamination, many Vietnam veterans are correspondingly alert to seeming slurs directed at their service in the war. This is especially so when the slurs come from that part of their generation that, in condemning the war, at least temporarily condemned the warrior. Pauken’s predecessor at ACTION was Sam Brown, who organized anti-war movements in the 1960s. “To many people, I am the worst possible symbol as a successor to him,” Pauken said. “The combination of my political activism and my military service means there would have been hostility to me in any case. The intelligence question just gives them a hook to hang it on.”

The most outspoken of Pauken’s supporters was John P. Wheeler III, a West Point graduate and, like Pauken, a noncombat veteran of Vietnam who left the military to become a lawyer. Over the past few years, Wheeler has frequently advanced the idea that Vietnam produced a “wounded generation,” made up of groups who mistrust each other and, unable to express their suspicions, let them fester instead. Wheeler detected a slight in the tone that Peace Corps volunteers used to denounce Pauken at the Senate hearings. “They all say that their organization stands for commitment, sacrifice, love, dedication, and imply that therefore someone like Tom Pauken is an inappropriate director. The argument by omission is that soldiers do not know about commitment, sacrifice, love, dedication. There’s absolutely no awareness that self-giving was the essence of men in combat.”

The clinching evidence, Wheeler said, was that the men who were at the hearings said they felt it. “This feeling of personal disesteem was just radiating off Steinberg. If anyone thinks that is a frivolous argument, he ought to look at the cases of sexual harassment at the office, where innuendo, facial expression, muscle tone, and body language are considered to convey meaning . . . Tom was being treated as an object, and . . . his military service was being considered as something dirty and dishonorable.” Nearly all of Pauken’s opponents contended that they would be happy to confirm him for any government job other than this one. They argued that the facts of this case made it the worst possible test for feelings about Vietnam veterans. Wheeler said that, on the contrary, it was the best test case: “Only when they have this kind of factual opening will they feel justified in making the attack.”

To these complaints Steinberg replied, in essence, “Hogwash.” At roughly the same time as the Pauken controversy, President Reagan nominated a man who had served eight and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam to be deputy director of the Peace Corps. No objections were heard. If anti-veteranism were really the issue, Steinberg said, this nominee too would have been vigorously opposed. Steinberg also frequently mentioned Alan Cranston’s role in the dispute. Who, he asked, has done more for Vietnam veterans than Cranston?

“They’re happy to do things for veterans,” Pauken responded. “They’re only really comfortable treating Vietnam veterans like victims. If you don’t fit into the stereotype of the wounded puppy, so they can pat you on the head and give you a few scraps, they’re uncomfortable.” Wheeler said, “This is the first time I’ve seen where some really able people who wore the uniform have gathered not to discuss the veterans as victims but to do something positive. It is an act that promises political power. Therefore it could be misunderstood as threatening.”

THE ARGUMENT ABOUT anti-soldierism can readily be overstated. Without judging Pauken too harshly, it is easy to imagine that this theme assumed such prominence in his mind only after he saw that it could be relied upon for mileage in the press. But, if asked to choose between Pauken’s assertion that the passions generated by his nomination included a considerable element of refighting the last war and the other side’s denial that Vietnam was a factor at all, I would find Pauken’s the more believable view.

It is even more obvious that each side to the dispute had tremendous difficulty comprehending the other’s experience or view of the world. Pauken was at his most amusing when describing the difference between “intelligence work” as those who have served only in the Peace Corps imagine it and intelligence work as he saw it in Vietnam. Scott Armstrong, a Washington Post investigative reporter, talked to some of Pauken’s associates from Vietnam and determined that he had been “managing ... a network of agents” in the delta. Pauken recalls that one of the crack agents in his network was in business only to extort enough money to start a chicken farm. “The reason I transferred out of the delta was to start doing something worthwhile,” he says. “The only substantive work I did in Vietnam was the strategic analysis. I just hope somebody read it.” Cranston accused Pauken of deception, because he told the committee that he “happened” to be assigned to intelligence, whereas his service records showed that he requested it. “What they don’t realize is that the Army would ask who was interested in foreign policy or learning a language, and all the wise guys who said they were interested found out later that they had ‘requested’ intelligence. Somebody came up to me during the recess at Holabird and said, ‘You must have had the same Army recruiter I did.’ ” Pauken’s military records contain mention of “covert” and “clandestine” activities. He says that his opponents took such references as evidence that he was a James Bond figure, but that “It was really like Our Man in Havana.”

Yet when Pauken and his friends view the other side, they, like their opponents, see cartoon versions of reality. Pauken says that his background should not matter, because an executive order issued by Jimmy Carter in 1979 empowered the Peace Corps director to report to the President rather than to the head of ACTION. Those who have worked as volunteers say this reveals a wild misunderstanding of the realities. William Josephson said, “I can just imagine a guy who’s captured in Afghanistan, as a volunteer recently was, trying to explain the provisions of the executive order to the people holding a gun to his head and saying he’s a spy.” Pauken takes the New Left quite seriously as a continuing force in American politics. In 1979, he prepared a documentary film on Tom Hayden, and he sees Hayden as the man who will reemerge to lead a movement of “Left Populism” in the 1980s. The look of concern with which he makes these points is matched by Pauken’s opponents when they say that Soviet intelligence undoubtedly has records of everyone who has passed through Ft. Holabird.

Intra-generational strife emerged in the Senate when it considered Pauken’s case. Paul Tsongas, who served in the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, vividly rendered the details of life in the bush: “If the committee members could consider themselves living in a village in a Third World nation, totally at the mercy, in terms of physical security, of how the people felt about you, they might reconsider. There are no emergency rooms, there is no protection of any kind, and your life hangs on whether people think you are there for good or for ill.” Senator Larry Pressler of South Dakota, who was in the Army in Vietnam, tried to knock down portrayals of Pauken as a master spy: “His efficiency reports . . . said he participated in ‘covert’ intelligence activities. Well, regarding efficiency reports, let me say that when I read about what I did in Vietnam, it sounds as though I was running the whole show.” Senator Christopher Dodd had joined the Army after his Peace Corps service and had been turned down in his application for Army intelligence precisely because of his background as a volunteer. On that precedent, he voted against Pauken. Except for Dodd, the partisans on both sides had difficulty understanding the realities their opponents attempted to describe.

For the Peace Corps, the case of Thomas Pauken will probably amount to a furor that quickly comes and goes. Even without the legislation that would completely separate the Peace Corps from ACTION, proposed by Senator Cranston, the dispute left Pauken with little choice but to take a ten-foot-pole policy toward the Peace Corps. For the generation to which Pauken belongs, the case may be more significant. As the children of the baby boom—those of college and military age during Vietnam— move through their thirties and forties, they will be grabbing harder for bigger brass rings. The misunderstandings and hostilities left over from the 1960s are likely to give that competition a nasty edge.

—James Fallows