Last summer, at a Marianne Williamson seminar in Seattle called “Spirit in Action,” an unassuming gray-haired man in a suit raised his hand. “My name is Egil Krogh,” he said, soft-voiced and hesitant before the group of about 200. “I was the lawyer who headed the ‘plumbers group’ in the Nixon White House, hired G. Gordon Liddy, and coordinated the break-in at the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist, Dr. Lewis Fielding. I pleaded guilty and spent six months in prison. I’ve apologized to Ellsberg and Fielding. We’ve met and talked. But those apologies aren’t complete enough. I want to apologize publicly now, for what we did, and what it caused.”
People sat stunned. Krogh was one of the men who had helped demonize the Democrats and those who protested the war, and who had made them into enemies. He’d served a Nixon administration that believed so much in its own righteousness that it waged war on every aspect of American democracy. It had launched the secret bombing of Cambodia, disrupted Democratic campaigns, attacked domestic opponents as vultures and parasites.
Now he was making a full confession — unexpected, unsolicited, and unequivocal: “I spent a long time at the Vietnam Memorial, thinking about my actions. Those of us involved have a responsibility to help America heal.” He expressed hope that those in the audience could forgive him.
Fake apologies abound in our culture: face-saving apologies delivered to curry favor; bureaucratic and corporate apologies designed to evade unpleasant jail time or lawsuits; bitter personal apologies delivered through clenched teeth.
Even Robert S. McNamara hedged when he reassessed his role in Vietnam in his 1995 book In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. While he had the courage to admit that the war he had helped promote was a terrible mistake, and that we ought to apply its lessons toward the need for nuclear disarmament, McNamara also said he did the best he could at the time with flawed information. “We made an error not of values and intentions,” he wrote, “but of judgment and capabilities.”
It’s hard to sort out apologies of substance from those of expedience. Krogh’s words were notable, for no one had compelled them.
One could mock this moment, with its New Age setting. Contrary to stereotype, however, Krogh’s words didn’t lead to a group hug, but rather to a sober rethinking of both a nation’s recent history and the moral choices required of each of its citizens. One woman recalled marching against the war, then working in a refugee camp with Vietnamese boat people. “I was right to work for peace,” she said, “but wrong to romanticize the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.” She thanked Krogh for his words.
Egil Krogh hadn’t planned to voice this testament. As a matter of fact, except in the personal meetings he’d had with Ellsberg and Fielding, he had not raised these issues in public. Krogh had come because Williamson’s work on how to get past mistakes had moved him. The day before, he had talked with her briefly about his history, about the way his own actions had violated basic moral laws of trust, compassion, and truthfulness. He thought this might be an appropriate time to speak.
Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Nuclear Culture. His new book, Soul of a Citizen, is forthcoming from St. Martin’s Press.