• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: The Responsibility of Intellectuals

A GOOD CASE CAN BE MADE for the conclusion that there is indeed something of a consensus among intellectuals who have already achieved power and affluence, or who sense that they can achieve them by “accepting society” as it is and promoting the values that are “being honored” in this society. It is also true that this consensus is most noticeable among the scholar-experts who are replacing the free-floating intellectuals of the past. In the university, these scholar-experts construct a “value-free technology” for the solution of technical problems that arise in contemporary society,20 taking a “responsible stance” towards these problems, in the sense noted earlier. This consensus among the responsible scholar-experts is the domestic analogue to that proposed, internationally, by those who justify the application of American power in Asia, whatever the human cost, on the grounds that it is necessary to contain the “expansion of China” (an “expansion” which is, to be sure, hypothetical for the time being)21—that is, to translate from State Department Newspeak, on the grounds that it is essential to reverse the Asian nationalist revolutions or, at least, to prevent them from spreading. The analogy becomes clear when we look carefully at the ways in which this proposal is formulated. With his usual lucidity, Churchill outlined the general position in a remark to his colleague of the moment, Joseph Stalin, at Teheran in 1943:

The government of the world must be entrusted to satisfied nations, who wished nothing more for themselves than what they had. If the world-government were in the hands of hungry nations there would always be danger. But none of us had any reason to seek for anything more…. Our power placed us above the rest. We were like the rich men dwelling at peace within their habitations.

For a translation of Churchill’s biblical rhetoric into the jargon of contemporary social science, one may turn to the testimony of Charles Wolf, Senior Economist of the Rand Corporation, at the Congressional Committee Hearings cited earlier:

I am dubious that China’s fears of encirclement are going to be abated, eased, relaxed in the long-term future. But I would hope that what we do in Southeast Asia would help to develop within the Chinese body politic more of a realism and willingness to live with this fear than to indulge it by support for liberation movements, which admittedly depend on a great deal more than external support…the operational question for American foreign policy is not whether that fear can be eliminated or substantially alleviated, but whether China can be faced with a structure of incentives, of penalties and rewards, of inducements that will make it willing to live with this fear.

The point is further clarified by Thomas Schelling: “There is growing experience, which the Chinese can profit from, that although the United States may be interested in encircling them, may be interested in defending nearby areas from them, it is, nevertheless, prepared to behave peaceably if they are.”

In short, we are prepared to live peaceably in our—to be sure, rather extensive—habitations. And, quite naturally, we are offended by the undignified noises from the servants’ quarters. If, let us say, a peasant-based revolutionary movement tries to achieve independence from foreign powers and the domestic structures they support, or if the Chinese irrationally refuse to respond properly to the schedule of reinforcement that we have prepared for them—if they object to being encircled by the benign and peace-loving “rich men” who control the territories on their borders as a natural right—then, evidently, we must respond to this belligerence with appropriate force.

IT IS THIS MENTALITY that explains the frankness with which the United States Government and its academic apologists defend the American refusal to permit a political settlement in Vietnam at a local level, a settlement based on the actual distribution of political forces. Even government experts freely admit that the NLF is the only “truly mass-based political party in South Vietnam”22 ; that the NLF had “made a conscious and massive effort to extend political participation, even if it was manipulated, on the local level so as to involve the people in a self-contained, self-supporting revolution” (p. 374); and that this effort had been so successful that no political groups, “with the possible exception of the Buddhists, thought themselves equal in size and power to risk entering into a coalition, fearing that if they did the whale would swallow the minnow” (p. 362). Moreover, they concede that until the introduction of overwhelming American force, the NLF had insisted that the struggle “should be fought out at the political level and that the use of massed military might was in itself illegitimate…. The battleground was to be the minds and loyalties of the rural Vietnamese, the weapons were to be ideas” (pp. 91-92; cf. also pp. 93, 99-108, 155f.); and, correspondingly, that until mid-1964, aid from Hanoi “was largely confined to two areas—doctrinal know-how and leadership personnel” (p. 321). Captured NLF documents contrast the enemy’s “military superiority” with their own “political superiority” (p. 106), thus fully confirming the analysis of American military spokesmen who define our problem as how, “with considerable armed force but little political power, [to] contain an adversary who has enormous political force but only modest military power.”23

Similarly, the most striking outcome of both the Honolulu conference in February and the Manila conference in October was the frank admission by high officials of the Saigon government that “they could not survive a ‘peaceful settlement’ that left the Vietcong political structure in place even if the Vietcong guerilla units were disbanded,” that “they are not able to compete politically with the Vietnamese Communists” (Charles Mohr, New York Times, February 11, 1966, italics mine). Thus, Mohr continues, the Vietnamese demand a “pacification program” which will have as “its core…the destruction of the clandestine Vietcong political structure and the creation of an iron-like system of government political control over the population.” And from Manila, the same correspondent, on October 23, quotes a high South Vietnamese official as saying that:

Frankly, we are not strong enough now to compete with the Communists on a purely political basis. They are organized and disciplined. The non-Communist nationalists are not—we do not have any large, well-organized political parties and we do not yet have unity. We cannot leave the Vietcong in existence.

Officials in Washington understand the situation very well. Thus Secretary Rusk has pointed out that “if the Vietcong come to the conference table as full partners they will, in a sense, have been victorious in the very aims that South Vietnam and the United States are pledged to prevent” (January 28, 1966). Max Frankel reported from Washington in the Times on February 18, 1966, that

Compromise has had no appeal here because the Administration concluded long ago that the non-Communist forces of South Vietnam could not long survive in a Saigon coalition with Communists. It is for that reason—and not because of an excessively rigid sense of protocol—that Washington has steadfastly refused to deal with the Vietcong or recognize them as an independent political force.

In short, we will—magnanimously—permit Vietcong representatives to attend negotiations only if they will agree to identify themselves as agents of a foreign power and thus forfeit the right to participate in a coalition government, a right which they have now been demanding for a half-dozen years. We well know that in any representative coalition, our chosen delegates could not last a day without the support of American arms. Therefore, we must increase American force and resist meaningful negotiations, until the day when a client government can exert both military and political control over its own population—a day which may never dawn, for as William Bundy has pointed out, we could never be sure of the security of a Southeast Asia “from which the Western presence was effectively withdrawn.” Thus if we were to “negotiate in the direction of solutions that are put under the label of neutralization,” this would amount to capitulation to the Communists.24 According to this reasoning, then, South Vietnam must remain, permanently, an American military base.

All of this is, of course, reasonable, so long as we accept the fundamental political axiom that the United States, with its traditional concern for the rights of the weak and downtrodden, and with its unique insight into the proper mode of development for backward countries, must have the courage and the persistence to impose its will by force until such time as other nations are prepared to accept these truths—or simply, to abandon hope.

IF IT IS THE RESPONSIBILITY of the intellectual to insist upon the truth, it is also his duty to see events in their historical perspective. Thus one must applaud the insistence of the Secretary of State on the importance of historical analogies, the Munich analogy, for example. As Munich showed, a powerful and aggressive nation with a fanatic belief in its manifest destiny will regard each victory, each extension of its power and authority, as a prelude to the next step. The matter was very well put by Adlai Stevenson, when he spoke of “the old, old route whereby expansive powers push at more and more doors, believing they will open until, at the ultimate door, resistance is unavoidable and major war breaks out.” Herein lies the danger of appeasement, as the Chinese tirelessly point out to the Soviet Union—which, they claim, is playing Chamberlain to our Hitler in Vietnam. Of course, the aggressiveness of liberal imperialism is not that of Nazi Germany, though the distinction may seem academic to a Vietnamese peasant who is being gassed or incinerated. We do not want to occupy Asia; we merely wish, to return to Mr. Wolf, “to help the Asian countries progress toward economic modernization, as relatively ‘open’ and stable societies, to which our access, as a country and as individual citizens, is free and comfortable.” The formulation is appropriate. Recent history shows that it makes little difference to us what form of government a country has so long as it remains an “open society,” in our peculiar sense of this term—that is, a society that remains open to American economic penetration or political control. If it is necessary to approach genocide in Vietnam to achieve this objective, than this is the price we must pay in defense of freedom and the rights of man.

In pursuing the aim of helping other countries to progress toward open societies, with no thought of territorial aggrandizement, we are breaking no new ground. In the Congressional Hearings that I cited earlier, Hans Morgenthau aptly describes our traditional policy towards China as one which favors “what you might call freedom of competition with regard to the exploitation of China” (op. cit., p. 128). In fact, few imperialist powers have had explicit territorial ambitions. Thus in 1784, the British Parliament announced: “To pursue schemes of conquest and extension of dominion in India are measures repugnant to the wish, honor, and policy of this nation.” Shortly after this, the conquest of India was in full swing. A century later, Britain announced its intentions in Egypt under the slogan “intervention, reform, withdrawal.” It is obvious which parts of this promise were fulfilled within the next half-century. In 1936, on the eve of hostilities in North China, the Japanese stated their Basic Principles of National Policy. These included the use of moderate and peaceful means to extend her strength, to promote social and economic development, to eradicate the menace of Communism, to correct the aggressive policies of the great powers, and to secure her position as the stabilizing power in East Asia. Even in 1937, the Japanese government had “no territorial designs upon China.” In short, we follow a well-trodden path.

It is useful to remember, incidentally, that the US was apparently quite willing, as late as 1939, to negotiate a commercial treaty with Japan and arrive at a modus vivendi if Japan would “change her attitude and practice towards our rights and interests in China,” as Secretary Hull put it. The bombing of Chungking and the rape of Nanking were unpleasant, it is true, but what was really important was our rights and interests in China, as the responsible, unhysterical men of the day saw quite clearly. It was the closing of the open door by Japan that led inevitably to the Pacific war, just as it is the closing of the open door by “Communist” China itself that may very well lead to the next, and no doubt last, Pacific war.

QUITE OFTEN, THE STATEMENTS of sincere and devoted technical experts give surprising insight into the intellectual attitudes that lie in the background of the latest savagery. Consider, for example, the following comment by the economist Richard Lindholm, in 1959, expressing his frustration over the failure of economic development in “free Vietnam”:

…the use of American aid is determined by how the Vietnamese use their incomes and their savings. The fact that a large portion of the Vietnamese imports financed with American aid are either consumer goods or raw materials used rather directly to meet consumer demands is an indication that the Vietnamese people desire these goods. for they have shown their desire by their willingness to use their piasters to purchase them.25

In short, the Vietnamese people desire Buicks and air-conditioners, rather than sugar refining equipment or road-building machinery, as they have shown by their behavior in a free market. And however much we may deplore their free choice, we must allow the people to have their way. Of course, there are also those two-legged beasts of burden that one stumbles on in the countryside, but as any graduate student of political science can explain, they are not part of a responsible modernizing elite, and therefore have only a superficial biological resemblance to the human race.

In no small measure, it is attitudes like this that lie behind the butchery in Vietnam, and we had better face up to them with candor, or we will find our government leading us towards a “final solution” in Vietnam, and in the many Vietnams that inevitably lie ahead.

Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam—as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.


The Responsibility of Intellectuals April 20, 1967

The Responsibility of Intellectuals April 20, 1967

The Responsibility of Intellectuals April 20, 1967

The Responsibility of Intellectuals April 20, 1967

  1. 20

    The extent to which this “technology” is value-free is hardly very important, given the clear commitments of those who apply it. The problems with which research is concerned are those posed by the Pentagon or the great corporations, not, say, by the revolutionaries of Northeast Brazil or by SNCC. Nor am I aware of a research project devoted to the problem of how poorly armed guerrillas might more effectively resist a brutal and devastating military technology—surely the kind of problem that would have interested the free-floating intellectual who is now hopelessly out of date.

  2. 21

    In view of the unremitting propaganda barrage on “Chinese expansion,” perhaps a word of comment is in order. Typical of American propaganda on this subject is Adlai Stevenson’s assessment, shortly before his death (cf. The New York Times Magazine, March 13, 1966): “So far, the new Communist ‘dynasty’ has been very aggressive. Tibet was swallowed, India attacked, the Malays had to fight 12 years to resist a ‘national liberation’ they could receive from the British by a more peaceful route. Today, the apparatus of infiltration and aggression is already at work in North Thailand.”

    As to Malaya, Stevenson is probably confusing ethnic Chinese with the government of China. Those concerned with the actual events would agree with Harry Miller (in Communist Menace in Malaya, Praeger, 1954) that “Communist China continues to show little interest in the Malayan affair beyond its usual fulminations via Peking Radio…” There are various harsh things that one might say about Chinese behavior in what the Sino-Indian Treaty of 1954 refers to as “the Tibet region of China,” but it is no more proof of a tendency towards expansionism than is the behavior of the Indian Government with regard to the Naga and Mizo tribesmen. As to North Thailand, “the apparatus of infiltration” may well be at work, though there is little reason to suppose it to be Chinese—and it is surely not unrelated to the American use of Thailand as a base of its attack on Vietnam. This reference is the sheerest hypocrisy.

    The “attack on India” grew out of a border dispute that began several years after the Chinese had completed a road from Tibet to Sinkiang in an area so remote from Indian control that the Indians learned about this operation only from the Chinese Press. According to American Air Force maps, the disputed area is in Chinese territory. Cf. Alastair Lamb, China Quarterly, July-September, 1965. To this distinguished authority, “it seems unlikely that the Chinese have been working out some master plan…to take over the Indian sub-continent lock, stock and overpopulated barrel.” Rather, he thinks it likely that the Chinese were probably unaware that India even claimed the territory through which the road passed. After the Chinese military victory, Chinese troops were, in most areas, withdrawn beyond the McMahon line, a border which the British had attempted to impose on China in 1914 but which has never been recognized by China (Nationalist or Communist), the United States, or any other government. It is remarkable that a person in a responsible position could describe all of this as Chinese expansionism. In fact, it is absurd to debate the hypothetical aggressiveness of a China surrounded by American missiles and a still expanding network of military bases backed by an enormous American expeditionary force in Southeast Asia. It is conceivable that at some future time a powerful China may be expansionist. We may speculate about such possibilities if we wish, but it is American aggressiveness that is the central fact of current politics.

  3. 22

    Douglas Pike, op. cit., p. 110. This book, written by a foreign service officer working at the Center for International Studies, M.I.T., poses a contrast between our side, which sympathizes with “the usual revolutionary stirrings…around the world because they reflect inadequate living standards or oppressive and corrupt governments,” and the backers of “revolutionary guerrilla warfare,” which “opposes the aspirations of people while apparently furthering them, manipulates the individual by persuading him to manipulate himself.” Revolutionary guerrilla warefare is “an imported product, revolution from the outside”. (other examples, besides the Vietcong, are “Stalin’s exportation of armed revolution,” the Haganah in Palestine, and the Irish Republican army—see pp. 32-33). The Vietcong could not be an indigenous movement since it had “a social construction program of such scope and ambition that of necessity it must have been created in Hanoi” (p. 76—but on pp. 77-79 we read that “organizational activity had gone on intensively and systematically for several years” before the Lao Dong party in Hanoi had made its decision “to begin building an organization”). On page 80 we find “such an effort had to be the child of the North,” even though elsewhere we read of the prominent role of the Cao Dai (p. 74), “the first major social group to begin actively opposing the Diem government” (p. 222), and of the Hoa Hao sect, “another early and major participant in the NLF” (p. 69). He takes it as proof of Communist duplicity that in the South, the party insisted it was “Marxist-Leninist,” thus “indicating philosophic but not political allegiance,” whereas in the North it described itself as a “Marxist-Leninist organization,” thus “indicating that it was int he mainstream of the world-wide Communist movement” (p. 150). And so on. Also revealing is the contempt for “Cinderella and all the other fools [who] could still believe there was magic in the mature world if one mumbled the secret incantation: solidarity, union, concord”; for the “gullible, misled people” who were “turning the countryside into a bedlam toppling one Saigon government after another, confounding the Americans”; for the “mighty force of people” who in their mindless innocence thought that “the meek, at last, were to inherit the earth,” that “riches would be theirs and all in the name of justice and virtue.” One can appreciate the chagrin with which a sophisticated Western political scientist must view this “sad and awesome spectacle.”

  4. 23

    Lacouture, op. cit., p. 188. The same military spokesman goes on, ominously, to say that this is the problem confronting us throughout Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and that we must find the “proper response” to it.

  5. 24

    William Bundy, in A. Buchan, ed., China and the Peace of Asia, Praeger, 1965.

  6. 25

    Lindholm, op, cit.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print