The Bitter Heritage
Arthur Schlesinger has moved a considerable distance since the well-publicized symposium on Vietnam which the Theatre of Ideas held last year in New York. There his views struck me, and others, as unsettled. By contrast, his new book is a clear statement of opposition to the Johnson policy; and though it contains little in the way of fresh argument or evidence, the mere fact that Mr. Schlesinger has chosen to write it seems of political importance.
It is a book that falls uncomfortably between scholarship and journalism. For the minority of intellectuals actively aroused by the war and therefore likely to have read Fall and Lacouture, The Bitter Heritage has little to offer. But as a popular work it is also unsatisfying. If Mr. Schlesinger sees himself as trying to reach the large TV-soaked public which “supports” the war in a mood of sullen bewilderment, then he has not yet mastered the art of pamphleteering. For a pamphleteer must either stir up his own followers with inspiring rhetoric or, with a deep therapeutic patience, probe into and transform popular assumptions. Mr. Schlesinger does neither. Except when scowling at Dean Rusk he shows little anger and his argument is mostly directed toward those who accept the moderate reasonableness of his own brand of liberalism. He is, however, forthright enough: he urges “de-escalation” and an end to the bombing; he proposes negotiations with the NLF even though that may lead to unhappy consequences; he does not subscribe to Richard Goodwin’s view that the US should try to retake Vietcong-dominated territory “mile by painful mile.”
So it would not do to seem ungrateful. Mr. Schlesinger’s voice counts for something in this country, and at a time when the opposition to the war is in rather bad shape, his book should be welcomed. Better yet, it should be widely reprinted in paperback.
ANALYTICALLY, HOWEVER, it has serious drawbacks. One major omission has to do with the role of American liberalism in the Vietnam fiasco. Mr. Schlesinger implied that if President Kennedy had lived, things would have turned out better—a notion both impossible to refute and difficult to accept. There has been continuity of a kind in American foreign policy over the past twenty years, a continuity for which both conservative and liberal Presidents and Congressmen bear responsibility. Theodore Draper in his heavily documented article on Vietnam in the January Commentary makes it quite clear that President Kennedy, if with greater sophistication and hesitation, shared in the assumptions that led to the present full-scale military involvement. At the least, Mr. Schlesinger should have treated this matter with a fraction of the severity he reserves for other Presidents.
What is fundamental, however, is that nowhere does Mr. Schlesinger offer a serious criticism of the role of American liberalism in helping to prepare the ground for our Vietnam policy—neither as it subscribed to a facile version of “containment”…
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