Two years away, and Washington seems strangely metamorphized, like a cocoon that instead of giving birth to a butterfly has, in one’s absence, produced a frog. In the fall of 1964 it seemed likely that the promises of Kennedy could be redeemed by the energies of Johnson, that the neglected nation might still become a Great Society, and the accidental involvement in Southeast Asia could be quietly liquidated with a vague diplomatic agreement and a few well-chosen words. The long-awaited and long-neglected reform of the American society seemed finally at hand. The interventionist style of the Kennedy administration appeared tempered by the quiet pragmatism of its successor. There was a feeling of renewal and expectation: a belief that although much was difficult, nothing was quite impossible. Washington was on the verge of recognizing that if it had no answers for the world, it at least knew what to do for itself.
That optimism has faded. The quest for “excellence” at home has been subsumed by the pursuit of grandeur abroad. The re-building of our cities, the reform of an outdated social structure, the re-cementing of a fractured society—these urgent national needs have once again been pushed into second place by the demands of an ideological war. Perhaps this was inevitable. Perhaps this war, and the methods used to wage it, were pushed upon us by an uncooperative foe and the demands of an implacable destiny. Perhaps America’s role, as Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia said a few weeks ago, is to “spread war and ruin everywhere”—in the name of a higher moral order. If so, we have little choice but to live with the consequences of this role—until we should choose another one for ourselves.
But this was not the role America seemed ready to embark upon only two years ago. Then Lyndon Johnson, the voice of compassion and restraint, was blasting the folly of a Presidential candidate who sought to win the war in Vietnam by bombing the North and napalming the South. What provocation, what madness, what futility. One could hardly take the Goldwater proposals seriously—until they were adopted a few months after the election by the President himself. Maybe this, too, was inevitable. But a visitor who has been away from the capitol and from the country, between the Presidential campaign of 1964 and the mid-term elections of 1966, cannot help but feel that something rather strange has happened in the interval.
WHAT HAS HAPPENED 44, of course, is that a minor skirmish in Vietnam involving a few thousand American advisers has turned into a major American war which has preoccupied the administration and is draining energies that might otherwise be employed elsewhere. Washington is a city obsessed by Vietnam. It eats, sleeps, and particularly drinks this war. There is virtually no other subject of conversation worthy of the name, and no social gathering or private discussion that does not inevitably gravitate toward the war. Never, one feels, has a war been …