“Well, what would you do?” Sooner or later the critic of US policy in Vietnam is faced with that question—a real crusher. Up to that point, he may have been winning the argument. His opponent may have conceded that it was a mistake to send American troops here in the first place, that there was no commitment under SEATO or any other “instrument” requiring it, that the war is horribly destructive, that pacification is not working, that Hanoi is not responding co-operatively to the bombing—in short, that everything that has been done up to the present instant has been wrong. But now resting comfortably on this mountain of errors, he looks down magnanimously on the critic and invites him to offer a solution. He is confident that the critic will be unable to come up with one. And in a sense he is right. If you say “Get Out”—the only sane answer—he pounces. “How?” And he sits back smiling. He has won. The tables are turned, and the critic is on the defensive. If he tries to outline a plan for rapid withdrawal, conscious that 464,000 troops, plus their civilian supporting services, cannot be pulled out overnight (and what about the “loyal” Vietnamese—should they be left behind or do we owe them an airlift to Taiwan?), the plan inevitably appears feeble and amateurish in comparison with the massed power and professionalism of the war actually being waged.
The fatal weakness in the thinking of most of Johnson’s critics is not to perceive that that question is a booby trap. In general, the more eminent they are, the more alacrity they show in popping up with “positive recommendations for policy,” “solutions,” proposals for gradual and prudent disengagement, lest anybody think they are just carping and have no better alternatives of their own. Take the painful example of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Bitter Heritage: “cogent, lucid, penetrating—tells us what really ought to be done about Vietnam” (John Gunther). It is cogent, lucid, penetrating until Schlesinger tells us what ought to be done in a wishful chapter entitled “The Middle Course,” urging a political solution while insisting on the need to keep applying force (in moderation) to get it, the pursuit of negotiations while “tapering off” the bombing (no cease-fire on the ground, he warns—too dangerous), a promise to the Viet Cong of a “say” in the future of Vietnam but not, it is implied, too much of a say, reliance on Oriental “consensual procedures” or the precedent of Laos to solve any little difficulties in the way of a coalition government—a chapter that anyone who agrees with Schlesinger’s negative arguments would like to snip out of the volume, working carefully with a razor blade so as to leave no traces before lending it to a less convinced friend. Presented with Schlesinger’s formula for meeting the Communist “threat,” the reader is likely to think that Johnson’s formula is better.
The same sinking feeling was produced by Richard Goodwin in The New Yorker, by J.…
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Copyright 1967 by Mary McCarthy. Reprinted by permission from her book "Vietnam" (Harcourt, Brace & World).