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A Special Supplement: The Responsibility of Intellectuals

TWENTY-YEARS AGO, Dwight Macdonald published a series of articles in Politics on the responsibility of peoples and, specifically, the responsibility of intellectuals. I read them as an undergraduate, in the years just after the war, and had occasion to read them again a few months ago. They seem to me to have lost none of their power or persuasiveness. Macdonald is concerned with the question of war guilt. He asks the question: To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly, he turns the question back to us: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history. To an undergraduate in 1945-46—to anyone whose political and moral consciousness had been formed by the horrors of the 1930s, by the war in Ethiopia, the Russian purge, the “China Incident,” the Spanish Civil War, the Nazi atrocities, the Western reaction to these events and, in part, complicity in them—these questions had particular significance and poignancy.

With respect to the responsibility of intellectuals, there are still other, equally disturbing questions. Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions. In the Western world, at least, they have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, Western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying hidden behind the veil of distortion and misrepresentation, ideology and class interest, through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Macdonald calls the “responsibility of people,” given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.

The issues that Macdonald raised are as pertinent today as they were twenty years ago. We can hardly avoid asking ourselves to what extent the American people bear responsibility for the savage American assault on a largely helpless rural population in Vietnam, still another atrocity in what Asians see as the “Vasco da Gama era” of world history. As for those of us who stood by in silence and apathy as this catastrophe slowly took shape over the past dozen years—on what page of history do we find our proper place? Only the most insensible can escape these questions. I want to return to them, later on, after a few scattered remarks about the responsibility of intellectuals and how, in practice, they go about meeting this responsibility in the mid-1960s.

IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious. Thus we have Martin Heidegger writing, in a pro-Hitler declaration of 1933, that “truth is the revelation of that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong in its action and knowledge”; it is only this kind of “truth” that one has a responsibility to speak. Americans tend to be more forthright. When Arthur Schlesinger was asked by The New York Times in November, 1965, to explain the contradiction between his published account of the Bay of Pigs incident and the story he had given the press at the time of the attack, he simply remarked that he had lied; and a few days later, he went on to compliment the Times for also having suppressed information on the planned invasion, in “the national interest,” as this term was defined by the group of arrogant and deluded men of whom Schlesinger gives such a flattering portrait in his recent account of the Kennedy Administration. It is of no particular interest that one man is quite happy to lie in behalf of a cause which he knows to be unjust; but it is significant that such events provoke so little response in the intellectual community—for example, no one has said that there is something strange in the offer of a major chair in the humanities to a historian who feels it to be his duty to persuade the world that an American-sponsored invasion of a nearby country is nothing of the sort. And what of the incredible sequence of lies on the part of our government and its spokesmen concerning such matters as negotiations in Vietnam? The facts are known to all who care to know. The press, foreign and domestic, has presented documentation to refute each falsehood as it appears. But the power of the government’s propaganda apparatus is such that the citizen who does not undertake a research project on the subject can hardly hope to confront government pronouncements with fact.1

The deceit and distortion surrounding the American invasion of Vietnam is by now so familiar that it has lost its power to shock. It is therefore useful to recall that although new levels of cynicism are constantly being reached, their clear antecedents were accepted at home with quiet toleration. It is a useful exercise to compare Government statements at the time of the invasion of Guatemala in 1954 with Eisenhower’s admission—to be more accurate, his boast—a decade later that American planes were sent “to help the invaders” (New York Times, October 14, 1965). Nor is it only in moments of crisis that duplicity is considered perfectly in order. “New Frontiersmen,” for example, have scarcely distinguished themselves by a passionate concern for historical accuracy, even when they are not being called upon to provide a “propaganda cover” for ongoing actions. For example, Arthur Schlesinger (New York Times, February 6, 1966) describes the bombing of North Vietnam and the massive escalation of military commitment in early 1965 as based on a “perfectly rational argument”:

so long as the Vietcong thought they were going to win the war, they obviously would not be interested in any kind of negotiated settlement.

The date is important. Had this statement been made six months earlier, one could attribute it to ignorance. But this statement appeared after the UN, North Vietnamese, and Soviet initiatives had been front-page news for months. It was already public knowledge that these initiatives had preceeded the escalation of February 1965 and, in fact, continued for several weeks after the bombing began. Correspondents in Washington tried desperately to find some explanation for the startling deception that had been revealed. Chalmers Roberts, for example, wrote in the Boston Globe on November 19 with unconscious irony:

[late February, 1965] hardly seemed to Washington to be a propitious moment for negotiations [since] Mr. Johnson…had just ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to bring Hanoi to a conference table where the bargaining chips on both sides would be more closely matched.

Coming at that moment, Schlesinger’s statement is less an example of deceit than of contempt—contempt for an audience that can be expected to tolerate such behavior with silence, if not approval.2

TO TURN TO SOMEONE closer to the actual formation and implementation of policy, consider some of the reflections of Walt Rostow, a man who, according to Schlesinger, brought a “spacious historical view” to the conduct of foreign affairs in the Kennedy administration.3 According to his analysis, the guerrilla warfare in Indo-China in 1946 was launched by Stalin,4 and Hanoi initiated the guerrilla war against South Vietnam in 1958 (The View from the Seventh Floor pp. 39 and 152). Similarly, the Communist planners probed the “free world spectrum of defense” in Northern Azerbaijan and Greece (where Stalin “supported substantial guerrilla warfare”—ibid., pp. 36 and 148), operating from plans carefully laid in 1945. And in Central Europe, the Soviet Union was not “prepared to accept a solution which would remove the dangerous tensions from Central Europe at the risk of even slowly staged corrosion of Communism in East Germany” (ibid., p. 156).

It is interesting to compare these observations with studies by scholars actually concerned with historical events. The remark about Stalin’s initiating the first Vietnamese war in 1946 does not even merit refutation. As to Hanoi’s purported initiative of 1958, the situation is more clouded. But even government sources5 concede that in 1959 Hanoi received the first direct reports of what Diem referred to6 as his own Algerian war and that only after this did they lay their plans to involve themselves in this struggle. In fact, in December, 1958, Hanoi made another of its many attempts—rebuffed once again by Saigon and the United States—to establish diplomatic and commercial relations with the Saigon government on the basis of the status quo.7 Rostow offers no evidence of Stalin’s support for the Greek guerrillas; in fact, though the historical record is far from clear, it seems that Stalin was by no means pleased with the adventurism of the Greek guerrillas, who, from his point of view, were upsetting the satisfactory post-war imperialist settlement.8

Rostow’s remarks about Germany are more interesting still. He does not see fit to mention, for example, the Russian notes of March-April, 1952, which proposed unification of Germany under internationally supervised elections, with withdrawal of all troops within a year, if there was a guarantee that a reunified Germany would not be permitted to join a Western military alliance.9 And he has also momentarily forgotten his own characterization of the strategy of the Truman and Eisenhower administrations: “to avoid any serious negotiation with the Soviet Union until the West could confront Moscow with German rearmament within an organized European framework, as a fait accompli10—to be sure, in defiance of the Potsdam agreements.

But most interesting of all is Rostow’s reference to Iran. The facts are that there was a Russian attempt to impose by force a pro-Soviet government in Northern Azerbaijan that would grant the Soviet Union access to Iranian oil. This was rebuffed by superior Anglo-American force in 1946, at which point the more powerful imperialism obtained full rights to Iranian oil for itself, with the installation of a pro-Western government. We recall what happened when, for a brief period in the early 1950s, the only Iranian government with something of a popular base experimented with the curious idea that Iranian oil should belong to the Iranians. What is interesting, however, is the description of Northern Azerbaijan as part of “the free world spectrum of defense.” It is pointless, by now, to comment on the debasement of the phrase “free world.” But by what law of nature does Iran, with its resources, fall within Western dominion? The bland assumption that it does is most revealing of deep-seated attitudes toward the conduct of foreign affairs.

IN ADDITION to this growing lack of concern for truth, we find, in recent published statements, a real or feigned naiveté about American actions that reaches startling proportions. For example, Arthur Schlesinger, according to the Times, February 6, 1966, characterized our Vietnamese policies of 1954 as “part of our general program of international goodwill.” Unless intended as irony, this remark shows either a colossal cynicism, or the inability, on a scale that defies measurement, to comprehend elementary phenomena of contemporary history. Similarly, what is one to make of the testimony of Thomas Schelling before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, January 27, 1965, in which he discusses two great dangers if all Asia “goes Communist”?11 First, this would exclude “the United States and what we call Western civilization from a large part of the world that is poor and colored and potentially hostile.” Second, “a country like the United States probably cannot maintain self-confidence if just about the greatest thing it ever attempted, namely to create the basis for decency and prosperity and democratic government in the underdeveloped world, had to be acknowledged as a failure or as an attempt that we wouldn’t try again.” It surpasses belief that a person with even a minimal acquaintance with the record of American foreign policy could produce such statements.

  1. 1

    Such a research project has now been undertaken and published as a “Citizens’ White Paper”: F. Schurmann, P. D. Scott, R. Zelnik, The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam, Fawcett World Library, and Beacon Press, 1966. For further evidence of American rejection of UN initiatives for diplomatic settlement, just prior to the major escalation of February, 1965, see Mario Rossi, “The US Rebuff to U Thant,” NYR, November 17, 1966. There is further documentary evidence of NLF attempts to establish a coalition government and to neutralize the area, all rejected by the United States and its Saigon ally, in Douglas Pike, Viet Cong, M.I.T. Press, 1966. In reading material of this latter sort one must be especially careful to distinguish between the evidence presented and the “conclusions” that are asserted, for reasons noted briefly below (see note 22).

    It is interesting to see the first, somewhat oblique, published reactions to The Politics of Escalation, by those who defend our right to conquer South Vietnam and institute a government of our choice. For example, Robert Scalapino (New York Times Magazine, December 11, 1966) argues that the thesis of the book implies that our leaders are “diabolical.” Since no right-thinking person can believe this, the thesis is refuted. To assume otherwise would betray “irresponsibility,” in a unique sense of this term—a sense that gives an ironic twist to the title of this essay. He goes on to point out the alleged central weakness in the argument of the book, namely, the failure to perceive that a serious attempt on our part to pursue the possibilities for a diplomatic settlement would have been interpreted by our adversaries as a sign of weakness.

  2. 2

    At other times, Schlesinger does indeed display admirable scholarly caution. For example, in his Introduction to The Politics of Escalation he admits that there may have been “flickers of interest in negotiations” on the part of Hanoi. As to the Administration’s lies about negotiations and its repeated actions undercutting tentative initiatives towards negotiations, he comments only that the authors may have underestimated military necessity and that future historians may prove them wrong. This caution and detachment must be compared with Schlesinger’s attitude toward renewed study of the origins of the cold war: in a letter to the New York Review of Books, October 20, 1966, he remarks that it is time to “blow the whistle” on revisionist attempts to show that the cold war may have been the consequence of something more than mere Communist belligerence. We are to believe, then, that the relatively straight-forward matter of the origins of the cold war is settled beyond discussion, whereas the much more complex issue of why the United States shies away from a negotiated settlement in Vietnam must be left to future historians to ponder.

    It is useful to bear in mind that the United States Government itself is on occasion much less diffident in explaining why it refuses to contemplate a meaningful negotiated settlement. As is freely admitted, this solution would leave it without power to control the situation. See, for example note 26.

  3. 3

    Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days; John F. Kennedy in the White House, 1965, p. 421.

  4. 4

    The View from the Seventh Floor, Harper and Row, 1964, p. 149. See also his United States in the World Arena, Harper and Row, 1960, p. 244: “Stalin, exploiting the disruption and weakness of the postwar world, pressed out from the expanded base he had won during the second World War in an effort to gain the balance of power in Eurasia…turning to the East, to back Mao and to enflame the North Korean and Indochinese Communists…”

  5. 5

    For example, the article by cia analyst George Carver placed in Foreign Affairs, April, 1966. See also note 22.

  6. 6

    Cf. Jean Lacouture, Vietnam between Two Truces, Random House, 1966, p. 21. Diem’s analysis of the situation was shared by Western observers at the time. See, for example, the comments of William Henderson, Far Eastern specialist and executive, Council on Foreign Relations, in R. W. Lindholm, ed., Vietnam: The First Five Years, Michigan State, 1959. He notes “the growing alienation of the intelligentsia,” “the renewal of armed dissidence in the South,” the fact that “security has noticeably deteriorated in the last two years,” all as a result of Diem’s “grim dictatorship,” and predicts “a steady worsening of the political climate in free Vietnam, culminating in unforeseen disasters.”

  7. 7

    See Bernard Fall, “Vietnam in the Balance,” Foreign Affairs, October, 1966.

  8. 8

    Stalin was neither pleased by the Titoist tendencies inside the Greek Communist party, nor by the possibility that a Balkan federation might develop under Titoist leadership. It is, nevertheless, conceivable that Stalin supported the Greek guerrillas at some stage of the rebellion, in spite of the difficulty of obtaining firm documentary evidence. Needless to say, no elaborate study is necessary to document the British or American role in this civil conflict, from late 1944. See D. G. Kousoulas, The Price of Freedom, Syracuse, 1953; Revolution and Defeat, Oxford, 1965, for serious study of these events from a strongly anti-Communist point of view.

  9. 9

    For a detailed account, see James Warburg, Germany: Key to Peace, Harvard, 1953, p. 189f. Warburg concludes that apparently “the Kremlin was now prepared to accept the creation of an All-German democracy in the Western sense of that word,” whereas the Western powers, in their response, “frankly admitted their plan ‘to secure the participation of Germany in a purely defensive European community’ ” (i.e., nato).

  10. 10

    United States and the World Arena, pp. 344-45. Incidentally, those who quite rightly deplore the brutal suppression of the East German and Hungarian revolutions would do well to remember that these scandalous events might have been avoided had the United States been willing to consider proposals for neutralization of Central Europe. Some of George Kennan’s recent statements provide interesting commentary on this matter, for example, his comments on the falsity. from the outset, of the assumption that the USSR intended to attack or intimidate by force the Western half of the continent and that it was deterred by American force, and his remarks on the sterility and general absurdity of the demand for unilateral Soviet withdrawal from Eastern Germany together with “the inclusion of a united Germany as as a major component in a Western defense system based primarily on nuclear weaponry” (Pacem in Terris, E. Reed, ed., Pocket Books, 1965).

    It is worth noting that historical fantasy of the sort illustrated in Rostow’s remarks has become a regular State Department specially. Thus we have Thomas Mann justifying our Dominican intervention as a response to actions of the “Sino-Soviet military bloc.” Or, to take a more considered statement, we have William Bundy’s analysis of stages of development of Communist ideology in his Pomona College address, February 12, 1966, in which he characterizes the Soviet Union in the 1920s and early 1930s as “in a highly militant and aggressive phase.” What is frightening about fantasy, as distinct from outright falsification, is the possibility that it may be sincere and may actually serve as the basis for formation of policy.

  11. 11

    United States Policy Toward Asia, Hearings before the subcommittee on the Far East and the Pacific of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, US Government Printing Office, 1966.

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