The crises of the Republic, of this form of government and its institutions of liberty, could be detected for decades, ever since what appears to us today as a minicrisis was triggered by Joe McCarthy. A number of occurrences followed which testified to an increasing disarray in the very foundations of our political life. One consequence of the McCarthy episode was the destruction of a reliable and devoted civil service, something relatively new in this country, probably the most important achievement of the long Roosevelt administration. It was in the aftermath of this period that the “ugly American” appeared on the scene of foreign relations; he was then hardly noticeable in our domestic life, except in a growing inability to correct errors and repair damages.
Immediately thereafter a few thoughtful spectators began to have doubts whether our form of government would be able to withstand the onslaught of this century’s inimical forces and survive the year 2000—the first to utter such doubts publicly, if I remember rightly, was John Kennedy. But the general mood of the country remained cheerful and no one was prepared, not even after Watergate, for the recent cataclysm of events, tumbling over one another, whose sweeping force leaves everybody, spectators who try to reflect on it and actors who try to slow it down, equally numbed and paralyzed.
No doubt, the cataclysm of events that numbs us is due to a large extent to a strange, but in history by no means unknown, coincidence of occurrences, each of which has a different meaning and a different cause. Our defeat in Vietnam—by no means a “peace with honor” but on the contrary an outright humiliating defeat, with the helter-skelter evacuation by helicopter and its unforgettable scenes of a war of all against all, certainly the worst possible of the administration’s four options to which we added gratuitously our last public relations stunt, the baby airlift, the “rescue” of the only part of the South Vietnamese people who were entirely safe—the defeat by itself could hardly have resulted in so great a shock: it was a certainty for years, expected by many since the Têet offensive.
That “Vietnamization” would not work should have surprised nobody; it was a public relations slogan to excuse the evacuation of American troops who, ridden by drugs, corruption, desertions, and plain rebellion, could no longer be left there. What came as a surprise was the way Thieu himself, without even consulting his protectors in Washington, managed to accelerate the disintegration of his government to such an extent that the victors were unable to fight and conquer; what they found, when they could make contact with an enemy who fled more rapidly than they could persecute him, was not an army in retreat but a rout of a mob of soldiers and civilians on a rampage of gigantic proportions.
The point is that this defeat in Southeast Asia occurred almost simultaneously with the ruin of the foreign policy of the United States—the disaster…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.