Watching Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on the Vietnam War the other night. One clip showed Dr. Spock, the famous pediatrician, protesting the war because, he said, soldiers should not have to continue dying to keep President Johnson from “getting egg on his face.” In other words, Dr. Spock was interpreting that the President of the United States could not stop the war because of the crushing sense of shame he would feel if he admitted he was wrong about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

So shame is a factor in the personalities of even the wealthy and powerful, like an American President. It is not only insecure people who experience shame, or who are terrified of it and who avoid it at all costs. Johnson’s defenses against shame led him to keep the U.S. in the war and to lie to the American people about the true extent of the bombing campaign. These decisions ruined his presidency, and probably ended his life early.

The documentary also showed a clip of the prominent American diplomat, George Kennan, the author of the policy of the containment of communism. Testifying before Congress, he said the U.S. was fighting in Vietnam because of insecurity about the worth of its democratic values. The U.S. should not fight wars because it feels like it must prove something to the world, even when some countries became communist. Kennan’s analysis about a sense of insecurity in Johnson and U.S. foreign policy again implicate self-esteem and its absence, shame, as key to understanding American entanglement in the Vietnam War.

It is crucial to pay attention to the workings of narcissism, self-esteem, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, and all of the related feelings under this psychological umbrella in the human personality. Dr. Spock and Kennan were aware that these basic and powerful human emotions are active in the minds of even the most successful people, and sometimes lead even them to commit grave errors.

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