Forty-four years ago, in the spring of 1968, a Newsweek writer telephoned one of President Lyndon Johnson's key aides, Harry McPherson, to talk about what he had seen and heard during a reporting trip to Arkansas. Dermott, in Chicot County, had won a new and badly-needed industry which required large amounts of water. Dermott voters approved a bond issue for the necessary pipes and filtration equipment, only to learn that the federal Economic Development Administration budget was strained "because of the war." For the same reason a planned expansion of the town's hospital was in jeopardy. Too, a defoliant required to protect the cotton crop was in short supply because so much of it was being used in Vietnam. Casualties hit these small towns especially hard, McPherson's friend remarked, because everybody is likely to know the boy who was killed. In Marked Tree, in Poinsett County, it was the co-captain of the '65 football team. "The bank president, the football coach and one of (the soldier's) teachers all said they had real doubts about the war. The only person I talked to who defended it was that boy's mother, and I think she had to for her own sake."

Forty-four years ago, in the spring of 1968, a Newsweek writer telephoned one of President Lyndon Johnson’s key aides, Harry McPherson, to talk about what he had seen and heard during a reporting trip to Arkansas. Dermott, in Chicot County, had won a new and badly-needed industry which required large amounts of water. Dermott voters approved a bond issue for the necessary pipes and filtration equipment, only to learn that the federal Economic Development Administration budget was strained “because of the war.” For the same reason a planned expansion of the town’s hospital was in jeopardy. Too, a defoliant required to protect the cotton crop was in short supply because so much of it was being used in Vietnam. Casualties hit these small towns especially hard, McPherson’s friend remarked, because everybody is likely to know the boy who was killed. In Marked Tree, in Poinsett County, it was the co-captain of the ‘65 football team. “The bank president, the football coach and one of (the soldier’s) teachers all said they had real doubts about the war. The only person I talked to who defended it was that boy’s mother, and I think she had to for her own sake.”

The journalist observed: “A lot of combat soldiers come from the Marked Trees.”

McPherson knew that. An early supporter of the war, he had concluded that Vietnam was a horrible mistake, unwinnable. He and Johnson’s new Secretary of Defense, Clark Clifford, resolved to maneuver the president toward scaling back, if not entirely ending, American involvement. They could not have known that a withdrawal would include Johnson himself. The above comes from A Political Education, McPherson’s memoir of his days in government, which began in 1956 and ended with the inaugural of Richard Nixon. Published in 1972, the book remains indispensable for its author’s insights; McPherson, a Senate assistant before joining Johnson’s White House staff, was profoundly involved in the dilemmas of the era. Harry McPherson, 82, died last week in Washington, where he had attained elder statesman status. Upon hearing of his death I went to my notes of a telephone interview he granted me in 2007, for a column that went unwritten, a column intended to address any parallels between “Mr. Johnson’s war” and Mr. Bush’s, the war that is now Mr. Obama’s, the one he seeks to wind down. “We haven’t had a Tet yet,” McPherson told me at the time, referring to the huge offensive by the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong that swept South Vietnam after years of combat operations and merciless bombing, a military defeat for the Communists but a spectacular political victory. “The American people, seeing all these attacks on television, concluded that this war would never end, McPherson sighed.”

Still no Tet, not on the scale of the Vietnamese version. But in Iraq, in Afghanistan, lots of smaller Tets. They continue to this day, most frequently directed at rival ethnicities, sects and tribes and not at U.S. forces. It is cold comfort to the families of the 6,400 American service personnel killed since Afghanistan-Iraq began nine years ago. At least 84 of them were Arkansans.

As best I can determine none of the dead called Marked Tree home. But, as McPherson’s reporter friend related, there are a lot of Marked Trees, including towns within easy driving distance: Jonesboro and Paragould and Pocahontas and Trumann; Evening Shade and Wynne and West Memphis. Green Forest and Fort Smith, and Van Buren; Pine Bluff and Camden and Humnoke. There are a lot of Dermotts, too, towns big and small, with needs for assistance that in an earlier time would have been accommodated almost automatically. Our present overseas conflicts cannot alone be blamed for our neglect of domestic needs, but the trillion dollars or more they will have cost us hangs heavy. Was history repeating itself? I asked McPherson.

“Absolutely,” he shot back. “Any time a great power such as ours goes into a third world country it really creates instantly all kinds of issues which are not present when great powers fight other great powers.”

His was hindsight, McPherson acknowledged, which he said made it no less valid. But even after Vietnam, he continued, political pressure — especially on Democrats, mindful that much of the public traditionally finds them less than muscular on national security issues — often compels reluctant members of Congress to climb aboard an administration’s war wagon. “We had no business getting into this war,” Harry McPherson told me that morning in 2007, “but I don’t know if I would have had the guts to cast a vote that way at the time.” It was a significant comment from a man who had never been to Marked Tree, or Dermott, but who knew much about politics, and war.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.