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An Exchange on Vietnam

In response to:

The Vietnam Protest from the November 25, 1965 issue

To the Editors:

In their statement on “The Vietnam Protest” (NYR, Nov. 25) Messrs. Howe, Harrington, Rustin, Coser and Kimble spoke of “a few professors” who shared with a larger number of students the tendency to “transform the protest into an apocalypse, a ‘final conflict,’ in which extreme gestures of opposition will bring forth punitive retaliation from the authorities.” I believe I am one of the professors they have in mind, and I wonder if I may have the opportunity to respond?

First let me say that I for one welcome a variety of forms of protest, including those recommended by your correspondents. One reason I believe that extreme forms of protest during the summer and fall have been helpful is that, far from leading to the disappearance of more moderate dissent, they have stimulated it. Witness the forthcoming SANE-sponsored march on Washington, the newly-formed committee for Reappraisal of Far Eastern Policy, and indeed, your correspondents’ statement. Many persons who last Spring were silent are now taking a more forthright position.

However, just as Mr. Howe and his colleagues see dangers in blocking troop trains or advocating resistance to the draft, so I see dangers in their proposals. They say that the protest movement should urge that the United States immediately stop bombing North Vietnam; that the United States declare its readiness to negotiate with the NLF; that the United States propose an immediate cease-fire as a preliminary to negotiations; that the United States “recognize the right of the South Vietnamese freely to determine their own future, whatever it may be, without interference from foreign troops, and possibly under United Nations supervision”; and finally, that Hanoi and the NLF accept the proposed cease-fire and declare their readiness to negotiate.

The central weakness of these proposals is their vagueness as to the withdrawal of American troops. Last spring, before the massive build-up of American forces in South Vietnam, it may have been sufficient to call for an end to bombing and direct negotiation with the NLF. Now that 160,000 American servicemen are there any negotiating proposal must make it crystal clear that a cease-fire would not mean the indefinite presence of United States troops. Clarity on this point is the more urgent because of several recent statements by high-ranking decision-makers. On October 12 The New York Times reported a statement by Senator Stennis that United States’ troops would have to stay in Vietnam “possibly for 15 years or longer” after the fighting ends. On October 26 the same newspaper reported a statement by the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, that United States troops might have to stay in Vietnam after the shooting stops to protect “the security of the people and the process of nation-building.” The general was quoted as saying: “Even if the level and scope of hostilities in Vietnam were to decline, a sudden phasedown in our strength would not necessarily follow.”

Note especially that, according to this same Times article, General Johnson also said that he favored a start on peace talks. The experience of Santo Domingo warns how troops which stay on after a cease-fire can be used as a club to influence “the process of nation-building.” For this reason, even if President Johnson were to adopt as his own the proposals of “The Vietnam Protest,” they would undoubtedly be rejected by the other side. Once more the President would say that his peacemaking efforts had been rebuffed. When the enemy’s refusal to negotiate on this basis became evident, bombing of North Vietnam would be resumed; meantime the far more terrible bombing of South Vietnam would go on unchecked. In effect, by offering proposals which Hanoi and the NLF were bound to reject the authors of “The Vietnam Protest” would have assisted the President self-righteously to continue the war.

Mr. Howe and his collaborators base their proposals on the understandable conception that “the central need of the moment” is “an end to the bloodletting.” But those against whom the United States fights apparently do not view the situation this way. They want, literally, liberty or death. For three times the length of America’s War for Independence they have struggled to oust foreign intruders. They will not stop fighting if that means de facto American domination of South Vietnam. According to Neil Sheehan, writing from Saigon for The New York Times on October 23, de facto domination is precisely what the United States intends: the Johnson Administration, Sheehan says, has made it clear to Hanoi “that it will not countenance a Communist South Vietnam or the creation of any coalition regime in Saigon which might [italics mine] lead to a Communist seizure of power.” As I see it, the difficulty with the program suggested in “The Vietnam Protest” is that it offers Hanoi and the NFL no concrete assurances that if the people of South Vietnam desire a Communist government, the United States will let them have it.

Your correspondents have much to say about the “impotence” of those who oppose the war by direct action and civil disobedience, about our “failure to affect the actual course of events.” But to offer negotiations on conditions which (however reasonable they may sound to a broad coalition of concerned Americans) are sure to be rejected by the other side, is also a formula for futility.

Now I readily concede that it will not be easy to explain to the American people why the United States must offer unilateral withdrawal of its troops if there is to be peace in Vietnam. To explain this requires just that “fullscale analysis of the Vietnam situation” which Messrs. Howe et al. believe to be impossible in a broadly-based protest movement. But at this point, is it not they who have yielded to “impatience”? There is no shortcut to the truth. Most of those known to me who have taken the lead in direct action against the war have also spent night after night, week after week, on lecture platforms around the country presenting a “full-scale analysis of the Vietnam situation.” May we not ask at least that Mr. Howe and his associates join us in this effort?

The authors of “The Vietnam Protest” deplore sectarianism yet they propose to ban from their coalition anyone who gives “explicit or covert political support to the Vietcong.” There follows the remarkable statement that this condition is “both a tactical necessity and a moral obligation.” May I inquire why it is immoral to desire a Vietcong victory? I had thought that, just as during the American Revolution there were many Englishmen who hoped for a victory by the American colonists, so it would be only natural to expect that some sincere opponents of the Vietnam War should actively sympathize with the National Liberation Front. It seems that in excluding such persons Messrs. Howe et al. have in fact implicitly assumed a “full-scale analysis of the Vietnam situation” which others are required to accept unarticulated and unexamined.

The authors of “The Vietnam Protest” are at pains to distinguish civil disobedience against the war in Vietnam from civil disobedience in the Southern civil rights movement. This section of their argument concludes with the assertion that Southern civil rights demonstrators, in contrast to Vietnam war protestors, “acted in behalf of the legal norms and moral values to which the nation as a whole had given its approval.” Isn’t it the point that the nation had “given its approval” to racial equality in just that insubstantial sense in which it might now be said to have “given its approval” to the doctrine of loving one’s enemies? In other words, isn’t the effort in the one case as in the other to make the nation live up to concepts which it had endorsed in the abstract but which it had failed to practice?

Finally, I passionately object to the deprecation of those who blocked troop trains in California as “the action by a small minority to revoke through its own decision the policy of a democratically elected government.” From where I sit, it was President Johnson and his Tuesday luncheon club—a very small minority indeed—who revoked through their own decision the policy to which they had pledged themselves in the 1964 election campaign (“so we are not going North”) and to implement which the voters had elected them. Earlier in their presentation, the authors of “The Vietnam Protest” insist that the escalation policy “has never been seriously debated in Congress or candidly presented to the country.” Nonetheless, it seems we are to regard it as “the policy of a democratically elected government.”

This, in the words of Kipling’s elephant child, is too much for me. I shall continue to say “No” as an individual in every way open to me, at the same time urging others to do likewise.

Staughton Lynd,

Department of History

Yale University

Irving Howe replies:

Staughton Lynd’s letter helps make clear the distance between those, like myself, who adhere to the democratic left and those, like him, who declare themselves to be radicals but “refuse to be anti-communist” (cf. his article in Studies on the Left, Summer 1965, p. 134). It is a principled difference, and it derives neither from ill-will nor “a breakdown of communication.”

1) Cease-Fire and Unilateral Withdrawal. I favor a broadly-based Vietnam protest movement with the cental immediate aim of pressuring the belligerents toward a cease-fire and negotiations. There are, I think, a growing number of Americans who can be persuaded to accept this objective, together with the enabling subsidiary points proposed in our statement in the November 25 New York Review.

Mr. Lynd writes, astonishingly, that these proposals, “however reasonable they may sound to a broad coalition of concerned Americans, are sure to be rejected by the other side.” How does he know? And if he is right, what then happens to the claim that it is Hanoi which has been willing to negotiate, but not the U.S.? Recent statements from Hanoi, including Ho’s letter to Dr. Pauling, seem deliberately ambiguous as to whether the Communists insist upon U.S. withdrawal of troops as a pre-condition for negotiations or a goal that must be achieved through or in the course of negotiations. If Hanoi is saying the latter, then the point is quite reasonable: there is no political or moral basis for a U.S. military “presence” after some sort of peace has been achieved. But if Hanoi is saying the former, than it is showing itself to be no more serious about bringing the bloodshed to an immediate than the Johnson administration is. And if Mr. Lynd speaks with any authority about Vietcong and North Vietnamese intensions, then things are black indeed. He and his friends would then seem morally obliged to add to their thunderous denunciations of U.S. policy at least an occasional whisper, if only into my ear, denouncing the rejection by “the other side” of cease-fire and negotiations.

There has just appeared a report that Rumania is proposing negotiations to both sides. The report is important whether or not it is accurate, for if something of the sort doesn’t occur today, it will occur tomorrow. It is noteworthy that the Rumanian Communists speak about negotiations and do not propose as a prerequisite the unilateral withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. For whatever else, they are realistic people, and understand that in the present circumstances anyone who wishes now to end the Vietnam blood-letting will get absolutely nowhere by insisting upon the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

It would be political folly if such an insistence became a central focus of the Vietnam protest movement. Surely Mr. Lynd and his friends must know that this “demand” will not be accepted by a significant section of the U.S. public; surely they must know that if it were to become our major preoccupation, the Johnson Administration could isolate us and render us helpless with charges of “appeasement.” We must decide what we wish to have: a mounting protest to pressure the Administration into a cease-fire and negotiations, or an isolated band of campus guerillas proclaiming what Mr. Lynd regards as “the truth”? In the present circumstances I doubt that anything less than a full-scale revolution (which, if conducted under Mr. Lynd’s auspices might lead me, for one, to take to the hills) can effect a unilateral withdrawal. But it is at least possible—there are no guarantees in politics—that relentless, widening pressure toward a cease-fire will have some effect.

Given a cease-fire, the point concerning U.S. troops becomes cogent. In our November 25 statement we anticipated that by declaring in favor of “the right of the South Vietnamese to determine their own future, whatever it may be, without interference from foreign troops, and possibly under United Nations supervision.” Once there is a cease-fire, we can propose as the next step of free elections in South Vietnam, one consequence of which could be a decision by its people to tell the U.S. (as also to tell the North Vietnamese) to get the hell out. Good! A major purpose of negotiations is to lead to the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Vietnam; and that purpose, in turn, cannot now be achieved in any way but through cease-fire and negotiations.

Some people say: “What! Negotiate with the U.S. invaders? Would you have been willing to negotiate with the Russians when they invaded Hungary?” Answer: Yes, of course I would have, since that might have been a way of salvaging something of the doomed Hungarian revolution. If only the Russians had been willing to negotiate, if only they had even proclaimed, in the manner of the U.S., a willingness to negotiate!

2) Communists and the Protest Movement. Mr. Lynd does not read carefully. We said nothing about “excluding” from protest actions those who “sympathize with the National Liberation Front.” It would be objectionable and absurd, in a demonstration, to go through the ranks and try to weed out Communists—just as it would be objectionable and absurd to “exclude” pro-Communists (or even pro-Goldwaterites) from a demonstration against a segregated lunch-counter. But the Civil Rights movement has the right, indeed the obligation, to make sure that its program and character is not pro-Communist or pro-Goldwater. So too the Vietnam protest movement has the right, indeed the obligation, “not to give explicit or covert political support” to the Vietcong.

The pro-Vietcong people are not necessarily for peace in Vietnam. They want a victory for their side, and just as Johnson thought it inexpedient to negotiate in 1964, so now the Vietcong might think it inexpedient to negotiate. The pro-Johnson people are stuck trying to find some way by which to justify the scandalous refusual of the administration to talk with Hanoi; the pro-Vietcong people are not, in principle, in a different kind of relationship to their side. I condemn Johnson’s refusal to negotiate last year, and if Mr. Lynd is accurate in reporting that Hanoi and the Vietcong refuse negotiations short of unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops (which amounts to refusing negotiations), then I condemn them too. I would then accuse both sides of refusing, in behalf of a political advantage, to end the killing.

3) Vietcong and Liberty. “May I inquire why it is immoral to desire a Vietcong victory?” Because, Mr. Lynd, a victory for a Communist or Communist-dominated movement means another totalitarian dictatorship suppressing human freedoms. But, writes Mr. Lynd, the Vietcong is fighting for “liberty or death.” Alas! Would that it were so: then our politics could be marvelously simple. If by “liberty” Mr. Lynd means the kind of society that exists in North Vietnam and China, then no matter what their sincerity, heroism and intentions, the Vietcong partisans are fighting in behalf of a totalitarian society. (If there is any evidence that the Vietcong has repudiated the kind of society existing in China and North Vietnam, I would be delighted to hear it.)

Mr. Lynd has done yeoman service for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. He ought to know that even in the wretched state of Mississippi it is possible, at no small cost, to organize such a party: that even under the rotten and insupportable South Vietnamese regimes it has been possible to organize protests and overthrow cabinets. Nothing of the kind is possible in North Vietnam—unless, of course, Mr. Lynd proposes to help organize a Freedom Democratic Party there, as a participant in a free election. (In which case I would applaud his decision, but advise him to be a bit more cautious than he has had to be in his political activities at home.) And really, why not a Freedom Democratic Party in North Korea? Might it not be desirable that some of the people who are so ready to document the miserable record of South Vietnam in failing to hold free elections, also trouble to do just a little of the same for North Vietnam?

I would not propose that free elections in North Vietnam be made a condition for a cease fire or even a peace settlement. Not because I see anything wrong with such a proposal, but because I think that today it is no more a realistic demand than Mr. Lynd’s call for U.S. “unilateral withdrawal.” Insistence upon such demands could even hinder the achievement of a cease-fire and negotiations. (Negotiations might lead to a Vietcong takeover, immediately or eventually; but because the political possibility for avoiding that possibility has been lost and because I do not think military methods can or should be used to undo political defeat, we must accept that possibility. Still, I’m not convinced that a Vietcong victory in a free election is a foregone conclusion; if Mr. Lynd is so convinced, then he should welcome the opportunity to be shown correct.)

4) Democracy and Promises. Mr. Lynd objects passionately to our description of troop-train stoppers as “a small minority [trying] to revoke through its own decision the policy of a democratically-elected government.” He seems to think that the government cannot be so described because it broke an election promise. Now I too would attack the administration for breaking its promise, but surely even Mr. Lynd cannot be trying to tell an adult readership that the breaking of election promises is adequate evidence for denying that a government has been democratically elected. Indeed, one might even argue that it is only democratically-elected governments which can be charged with violating democratic procedures. No one in his right mind would charge Mao or Ho with having broken an election promise; no one would even remember which election…

Mr. Lynd and his friends ought to make up their minds whether they think they are living in a democracy (with all the faults, deceits, scandals, and crimes that can and do occur in a democracy or under something resembling fascism. His remarks on this subject are of a piece with his even more astonishing outburst a few months ago fantasying that demonstrators in Washington take over the government for a little while so that they might proclaim “the truth” to the world. Is he prepared to tolerate a parallel fantasy from John Birchers, who also have a “truth” to proclaim?

There remains Mr. Lynd’s shattering comparison between Americans supporting the Vietcong and Englishmen supporting the American rebels in 1776. Somehow, I really think a professor of American history ought to be able to recognize the difference.

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