“Well, what would you do?” Sooner or later the critic of US policy in Vietnam is faced with that question—a real crusher. Up to that point, he may have been winning the argument. His opponent may have conceded that it was a mistake to send American troops here in the first place, that there was no commitment under SEATO or any other “instrument” requiring it, that the war is horribly destructive, that pacification is not working, that Hanoi is not responding co-operatively to the bombing—in short, that everything that has been done up to the present instant has been wrong. But now resting comfortably on this mountain of errors, he looks down magnanimously on the critic and invites him to offer a solution. He is confident that the critic will be unable to come up with one. And in a sense he is right. If you say “Get Out”—the only sane answer—he pounces. “How?” And he sits back smiling. He has won. The tables are turned, and the critic is on the defensive. If he tries to outline a plan for rapid withdrawal, conscious that 464,000 troops, plus their civilian supporting services, cannot be pulled out overnight (and what about the “loyal” Vietnamese—should they be left behind or do we owe them an airlift to Taiwan?), the plan inevitably appears feeble and amateurish in comparison with the massed power and professionalism of the war actually being waged.
The fatal weakness in the thinking of most of Johnson’s critics is not to perceive that that question is a booby trap. In general, the more eminent they are, the more alacrity they show in popping up with “positive recommendations for policy,” “solutions,” proposals for gradual and prudent disengagement, lest anybody think they are just carping and have no better alternatives of their own. Take the painful example of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Bitter Heritage: “cogent, lucid, penetrating—tells us what really ought to be done about Vietnam” (John Gunther). It is cogent, lucid, penetrating until Schlesinger tells us what ought to be done in a wishful chapter entitled “The Middle Course,” urging a political solution while insisting on the need to keep applying force (in moderation) to get it, the pursuit of negotiations while “tapering off” the bombing (no cease-fire on the ground, he warns—too dangerous), a promise to the Viet Cong of a “say” in the future of Vietnam but not, it is implied, too much of a say, reliance on Oriental “consensual procedures” or the precedent of Laos to solve any little difficulties in the way of a coalition government—a chapter that anyone who agrees with Schlesinger’s negative arguments would like to snip out of the volume, working carefully with a razor blade so as to leave no traces before lending it to a less convinced friend. Presented with Schlesinger’s formula for meeting the Communist “threat,” the reader is likely to think that Johnson’s formula is better.
The same sinking feeling was produced by Richard Goodwin in The New Yorker, by J. K. Galbraith’s “moderate solution” (hailed by James Reston), by Senator Fulbright’s eight-point program, and, sad to say, by the Fulbright hearings taken as a whole. What emerges, when all the talk is over, is that none of these people really opposes the war. Or not enough to stop thinking in terms of “solutions,” all of which imply continuing the war by slightly different means until the Viet Cong or Hanoi (Schlesinger holds out the exciting possibility of an “exploitable split” between the Viet Cong and Hanoi) is ready to make peace.
Even a man like George Kennan, who evidently believes the war to be wrong and testified impressively against our policy before the Fulbright Committee, did not have an inner attorney to warn him to rest his case there. Instead, pressed by bullish senators to say what he would do in the President’s place (never mind what he would have done), Kennan fell back on the enclave strategy, making an easy target for the military, who can demonstrate without trouble how enclaves failed the French in their war, how Tito’s Partisans knew they had won when they finally maneuvered the Nazis into coastal enclaves, how in fact the last place you want to be when faced with guerrillas is holed up in an enclave. And Kennan himself must have known that he had lost a round in the fight for peace when he allowed himself to be cornered into offering inconsequent armchair recommendations, in the midst of the hostile terrain bristling with alert TV aerials, of US popular feeling.
These are the errors of an opposition that wants to be statesmanlike and responsible, in contrast to the “irresponsible” opposition that is burning its draft card or refusing to pay taxes. To make sure that it can be told apart from these undesirables, it behaves on occasion like a troop of Eagle Scouts. Think of the ludicrous message sent to North Vietnam by sixteen Congressional doves—an appeal to Ho to understand that they are a) an unrepresentative minority and b) loyal Americans whose speeches were not meant to be overheard and “misinterpreted” by Hanoi.
Or it can assume the voice of Johnson. A recent New York Post editorial sternly criticized the Ky government’s suspension of free speech (guaranteed by the new Constitution) and then continued: “We cannot heed the counsel of timid or misguided persons and withdraw. We dare not shrink from the duty democracy demands.” The truth is, the Post is too cowardly to call for withdrawal. For the respectable opposition, unilateral withdrawal has become steadily more unthinkable as United States intervention has widened. It was perfectly thinkable before 1961. It was even thinkable for Bobby Kennedy as late as September 1963, at a meeting of the National Security Council, when he asked whether now might be the time to get out. It is still thinkable, though not by the Kennedy men, who, out of power, dare not reason as they might have in the privacy of a president’s councils.
We could still, if we wished, take “French leave” of Vietnam, and how this should be done ought not to be the concern of those who oppose our presence there. When the French schoolteachers and intellectuals of the Committee of 121 insisted that France get out of Algeria, they did not supply De Gaulle with a ten-point program telling him how to do it. That was De Gaulle’s business. He was responsible, not they. As intellectuals, they confronted their government with an unequivocal moral demand, and far from identifying themselves with that government and thinking helpfully on its behalf, they disassociated themselves from it totally so long as it continued to make war in Algeria. The administrative problems of winding up the war were left to those who had been waging it, just as the political problem of reconciling the French electorate to a defeat was left in the hands of De Gaulle, a politician by profession.
OUR PAMPHLETEERS and polemicists, if they were resolute, would behave in the same way. Not: “We see your dilemma, Mr.President. It won’t be easy to stop this war, but here are a few ideas.” The country needs to understand that the war is wrong, and the sole job of the opposition should be to enforce that understanding and to turn it, whenever possible, into the language of action. It is clear that US senators and former ambassadors are not going to sit in at the Pentagon or hurl themselves at troop trains; nobody expects that of them and nobody seriously expects elected or appointed officials to practice tax refusal. But one could expect practical support for the young people who are resisting the draft from a few courageous officeholders and from private figures with a genuine sense of public responsibility.
Instead of hoping to avoid identification with unruly picketers and other actionists, Americans who are serious in opposing the war should be refusing to identify themselves with the US government, even a putative government that would change to a defensive “posture” and prepare, as they say, to sit the war out. The question is simple: Do I disapprove more of the sign that picket is carrying—and the beard he is wearing—or of the Vietnamese war? To judge by introspection, the answer is not pretty. For the middle-class, middle-aged “protester,” the war in Vietnam is easier to take than a sign that says “JOHNSON MURDERER.”
The war does not threaten our immediate well-being. It does not touch us in the consumer-habits that have given us literally our shape. Casualty figures, still low, seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups—the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices has had its effect on the opposition, which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices—what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it—a connection that is more evident to a low-grade GI in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.
A sympathy, sneaking or otherwise, for American power is weakening the opposition’s case against Johnson. He acts as if he had a mournful obligation to go on with the war unless and until somebody finds him an honorable exit from it. There is no honorable exit from a shameful course of action, though there may be a lucky escape. But the mirage of an honorable exit—a “middle road”—remains the deceptive premise of the liberal opposition, which urges the mistrustful President to attempt it on a pure trial-and-error basis; you never know, it may work.
For example, “Stop the bombing to get negotiations”—meaning the bombing of the North; strangely, nothing is said about the much worse bombing of the South. But in reality no one knows, unless it is Ho Chi Minh, whether a cessation of bombing would bring negotiations or not and, if it did, what the terms of Ho would be. Stop if for six months and see, suggests Bobby Kennedy. “Don’t pin it down. Be vague,” others say. But how does this differ, except in duration, from one of Johnson’s famous bombing pauses, which failed, so he claimed, to produce any response? Moreover, if stopping the bombing is only a trick or maneuver to get negotiations (that is, to see the enemy’s cards), then Rusk and Joseph Alsop have equal rights to argue that talk of negotiations, put about by the friends of Hanoi, is only a trick to stop the bombing and give the North a chance to rebuild. And what if the bombing stops and Hanoi does not come to the conference table or comes with intransigent terms? Then the opposition, it would seem, is bound to agree to more and perhaps bigger bombing. Advocates of a failed hypothesis in wartime can only fall silent and listen to Big Brother.
Copyright 1967 by Mary McCarthy. Reprinted by permission from her book "Vietnam" (Harcourt, Brace & World).