The Need to Speak Truth to Power
by Scott Bittle
Sometimes, the world turns on one person in a room willing to buck the trend.
During the Cuban Missile Crisis, for example, several key advisers were pushing President John F. Kennedy to order air strikes to take out Soviet missile bases, said Ambassador Donald Gregg, former envoy to South Korea and speaker at the June 15 Public Agenda/Maxwell School Policy Breakfast. Then Gen. Walter Sweeney, the head of the Strategic Air Command, told the president candidly: "I can't guarantee you I can hit every missile in Cuba."
"If it comes to the point where you have to break a rule or disobey orders or quit, do it," argued Donald Gregg, left, with Robert Siegel of NPR. (Photo courtesy of the Ford Foundation)
That turned the tide, away from air strikes and toward the blockade strategy that succeeded in ending the crisis, Gregg said. But that kind of candor is also still unusual in government and the military.
"Saying 'we can't complete the mission you want us to' is terribly, terribly important and very rare," Gregg said. "In Vietnam, it was always, 'yes, sir; yes, sir; three bags full.'"
That kind of honesty is also critical as the United States faces critical decisions in places like Afghanistan and the Korean peninsula, he said in a conversation with Robert Siegal, the NPR journalist who moderates the breakfasts at the Ford Foundation.
Gregg started his career at the Central Intelligence Agency in 1951, serving in Burma, Japan, Vietnam and South Korea. Later, he became national security adviser to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, and was named ambassador to South Korea in 1989. He is also a former chairman of the Korea Society.
Next year will be a critical year for both Afghanistan and Korea, Gregg said. The Obama administration will be making preliminary decisions on the direction of the Afghan war this year and "really tough decisions" next year.
It's important for the United States to "leave respectably," and leave something positive behind us there, he said. A positive sign, he said, is the appointment of Gen. David Petraeus, former commander in both Iraq and Afghanistan, to lead the CIA, and who might have more freedom to speak there than he did as a military officer.
Next year will be important in Korea as well, and one of the difficulties is that we still have trouble understanding the isolated North Korean regime, Gregg said.
"I call North Korea the longest-running failure in the history of American espionage, and I can say that because I was part of that failure for 30 years," he said. "We still don't know what they're thinking."
But from the North Korean point of view, Gregg said, the United States has been inconsistent as well, contradicting ourselves on decisions like whether to hold military exercises and including them in the "Axis of Evil" after making overtures for talks.
On the other hand, the United States has a good relationship with South Korea, a "very dynamic democracy" which has the potential to play a crucial role in Asia, he said.
A general Gregg knew in Vietnam once told him there were two kinds of commanders: "butt-kickers" and "example setters." Overall, Gregg said, the risk is that the "butt-kicking" type of leader will end up stifling creative thinking among their subordinates.
"The butt-kickers don't get nearly as good advice as the example-setters," he said.
We can also deceive ourselves when we "demonize" our opponents, he said. In cases like Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, we ended up clouding our own judgment. That's all the more reason why it's important to speak up.
One of the proudest moments of his career, Gregg said, came when he was CIA station chief in Seoul during a South Korean crackdown on dissent. Gregg said he disobeyed orders to lodge a personal protest over the case of a professor who died while in the custody of the South Korean intelligence service. Shortly after, the head of the agency was replaced.
He tells that story when he speaks to CIA recruits.
"The ability to speak truth to power is terribly important to a society," Gregg said. "If it comes to the point where you have to break a rule or disobey orders or quit, do it."