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The Thaw

There is a cord which is strung from the winter of 1948 until now, and along it hang the politics, the events, and the personalities of one long cold season of history. The length of span is far less than an epoch and still greater than a generation, and one day the period may seem to be not much more than a journalistic conception: the “Cold War decades.” But now people have been seized with the sense (it is as vague as that) that the strands have come together and the cord is somehow complete. It is only when such periods end that we can begin to describe them (and much later to define them), for only in their endings do their beginnings make sense. For Czechoslovakia, the sending-down of Novotny seems to complete a course which began with the throwing-out of Masaryk twenty years before, even if what will follow remains unclear. For the US, there is stark symmetry between the election of Truman and the abdication of Johnson; the formation of the Cold War coalition in the Democratic Party in 1948 gains an essential clarity of relief against its dissolution in 1968.

The events of these weeks hardly constitute a revolution, but they do seem to follow Lenin’s description of a revolutionary time in which things fall rapidly out of place and historical space is compressed. The motive force, of course, has been the war in Vietnam, and the prime movers are the guerrillas of the South and the armies of the North. Their Têt offensive, despite its limited military accomplishments (and objectives), had the power to wrench the vision of Americans—and others to the extent that America touches them—from one perspective of the world to another. The realities of the war were not much changed; troop ratios, supply lines, areas of control, and the distribution of firepower are not significantly different today from what they were in late November when the Johnson Administration’s great optimism campaign began. What has changed radically is the way the war is perceived and it is from that new expectation that a new politics has developed.

The expectation that the expedition in Vietnam was doomed destroyed worldwide confidence in the ability of America to solve its monetary problems, and led directly to the gold crisis (really a dollar crisis). That set the teeth of the American corporate and financial establishment on edge; both the money managers and the industrial directors yearned for retreat. Reinforcing their misery, profits declined in some of the biggest, most highly technologized defense industries. The war turned out to be a bear. Crucial confirmation was supplied by The Wall Street Journal, which in an editorial on February 23, advised its readers to “prepare for defeat,” and be more or less grateful for it. Not only the professional anti-war students and protesters had seen what was coming. Business magazines and investment newsletters had been as full of protest, in their own ways, as any liberal journal. But those who had learned their lessons early (David Rockefeller, for instance, began to fear imperial overextension last year) could conceive of no way to translate their fears into political action, for some reason. American corporatists, with all their immense resources and potential power, have never figured out how to play their roles as political actors. Now the politicans have struck out on their own. They have gained legitimacy for an anti-war position indirectly from the Viet Cong, by way of the ranks of desperate voters and nervous business leaders. While the Administration could still pretend that there was a hope of military victory in Vietnam, the old Cold War vetoes obliged politicians to maintain a respectful anti-communism and a determination to contain the world revolution. With that hope gone in Vietnam, the restrictions were removed.

EUGENE McCARTHY saw the opportunity earliest of all. His own intense dislike of the war led him into the Presidential campaign, but his feeling of isolation from the center of political power probably made him underestimate the possibilities for a broad “peace” candidacy, and for several months he refused to believe that he was doing much more than creating a “dialogue.” Robert Kennedy was no less unhappy about the war (on any possible scale of feeling), but much more hung up on power. For him, dialogue was insignificant; the Presidency was not. But he feared that Johnson could finagle the war—escalation here, a bombing pause there—and outmaneuver his own campaign strategy. The results of the Thanksgiving Week optimism speeches gave confirming evidence; the President’s popularity rose to its highest point in a year, and support of the war gained commensurately.

The NLF (or General Giap, or whoever) had to sacrifice thousands of lives and use large reserves of its power simply to destroy the President’s fantasies. But it worked, and the political situation was suddenly more fluid than it had ever been. Johnson was in a box. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in its hearings with Secretary Rusk, made serious congressional politics out of the war for the first time. A panel of some of the most important men in the Senate spent two days on national network television staking out a hard opposition to the war; at the very least, they voted a blanket “no confidence” in any future escalation the President might attempt. The hearings, like the New Hampshire primary in the same week, were held under the cloud of “rumors” that General West-moreland had requested 206,000 more troops in Vietnam. There is no telling how many votes all that cost Johnson in the primary, but the ratio of rumored troops to real votes was probably no more favorable to him than that of soldiers to guerrillas in Vietnam. Even at ten to one (and even with a technical “victory”), Johnson lost.

The political difficulty of escalation was only half of the President’s predicament. The other part was the difficulty of deescalation because of the weakened structure of the Saigon government in Vietnam. As the Kennedy strategists figured it, the US command could stop the bombing or begin negotiations only at the enormous risk of destroying the remnants of General Thieu’s authority, and pushing many of the provincial administrators (and perhaps whole ARVN battalions) into the NLF’s arms. Already Thieu was proposing a new bac tien (“march to the North”), as former President Nguyen Khanh had done in July, 1964, when his government was in similar straits. Then, the US had supported him with the manufacture of the Tonkin “incident” and the resulting air strikes on North Vietnam. This time, domestic politics made support all but impossible.

Kennedy concluded easily if prematurely that Johnson was trapped. From all reports, Kennedy’s vision on the morning after the New Hampshire primary was not terribly clear. It sounded as if he were half-way up the wall before the final returns were in, and his aides had all they could do to restrain him from declaring his candidacy before noon. He suddenly understood what many of them (Arthur Schlesinger, Adam Walinsky, Burke Marshall) had been saying for months: silence this spring would do him more political damage than defeat this summer. If Kennedy misjudged the President’s ability to deescalate, he guessed that any major change in the war strategy would go to his own advantage. As it turned out, of course, Kennedy was right; Johnson could not seriously sue for peace in Vietnam without admitting the vanity of his four-year strategy. In his April Fool’s Eve speech, Johnson implicitly confessed that he had condemned 150,000 Americans to death or injury, and had completed the obliteration or subjugation of much of Southeast Asia, for reasons that were now unimportant or irrelevant. He had no choice but to leave the Presidency. At least his epitaph might now be kinder than his press.

THE FIRST TASK before both Kennedy and McCarthy was to develop their political bases in preparation for an Administration onslaught. Their methods were essentially similar: to create a “grass roots” movement of such intense enthusiasm and appeal as to overwhelm the more conventional sources of power at the President’s command. The equation was simply stated: going into the first months of the campaign, Johnson had organized labor, the few big city Democratic machines, most of the state organizations where there are Democratic governors, a fair number of senators and congressional leaders up for reelection this year, and a rapidly dwindling number of industrial managers who supported him against Goldwater in 1964. Besides, a President ordinarily could manipulate events and the media that present them to the public for dominating attention. On the other side, there were the unorganized peace constituencies scattered throughout suburbia, who might vote directly “against the war,” or simply against its symbol, Lyndon Johnson.

Even after New Hampshire, McCarthy had little hope of convincing those who enjoy power, rather than dialogue, that he could be in a position to deliver goods to them next year. His role was something like the demonstrators’—even the dirty ones, whom he dislikes; he opened a space for more conventional (and therefore more real) politics to operate. Kennedy shares the peaceniks and the “kids” with McCarthy, but he does not stop there. He is out to build a new coalition, with nasty elements as well as nice ones, and he has an ability to attempt it that McCarthy, so far, does not. Kennedy rushes off to Watts, McCarthy had to suffer the embarrassment of Kennedy’s success in the streets before he would venture into a Milwaukee ghetto. Kennedy immediately began calling in the political loans he had made over the years to the active new edge of labor. Even before his campaign announcement he flew to California to join a rally for Cesar Chavez’s grape-strikers (one of Walter Reuther’s favorite projects); McCarthy has no political methodology for gathering major labor support. Kennedy is not above brazening his way into working-class neighborhoods and playing the old JFK line for the ethnic vote, no matter how racist or reactionary it may be. McCarthy may be tempted by the same prospect, but he has no taste for it, and he leaves much of the work to his lieutenants.

Anyone can make a list of the stylistic differences between Kennedy and McCarthy, and everyone will, before the campaign is over. But it is a stylistic difference, not one of basic politics, which distinguishes the two candidates. Bobby-watching has been the most fashionable political game for four long dry years, and it is now almost impossible to add any new arguments to move those who either completely identify with the good Bobby or are completely appalled by the bad. McCarthy only seems refreshing, because he is so little known; anyone who has followed his dreary senatorial record of petty sell-outs to the oil and gas industries, or his petulant antagonism to the first Kennedy administration, or his cynical attitude to politics in general, will find him no more appealing, though no less, than Kennedy. But McCarthy’s past record (unlike Kennedy’s) is no issue now. His attraction lies in his lowkey, disorganized, highly personal operation, which is so easily distinguished from the Kennedy razzmatazz. A sizable class of politically interested, well-educated voters gets the comfortable feeling that McCarthy means what he says, although for a while he appeared to be running more against John Quincy Adams in 1824 than Lyndon Johnson (and Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon) 144 years later.

McCarthy’s main bloc of popular support so far (or at least the leading edge) comes from the old Stevensonian party and its spiritual heirs. The older types, at least, never liked the Kennedys in the first place (although they were sucked in eventually like everyone else). They remember that McCarthy’s noblest effort was his nomination of Stevenson at the 1960 Democratic convention. McCarthy’s “second choice” that year, he told an interviewer at the time, was Lyndon Johnson. The “clean for Gene” crew is a widely mixed bag of earnest young people, not unlike the Kennedy youth brigade, and both led by cadres of decidedly unalienated young operators. Like Sam Brown, the Harvard Divinity School student who has been a principal in the McCarthy drive in New England, they are the kind of kids who have been making their way in the youth “establishment” by adopting the rhetoric of the radical movements while maintaining the politics and the style of the liberal system. Brown, for instance, was an NSA Advisory Board officer who helped save the organization after its CIA connection was disclosed. No doubt Kennedy will have counterparts to Brown in plenty. There is more than one way of making it in the youth bag this year.

All of that helps to determine the political locus of the campaign. Under it, both Kennedy and McCarthy had been working for the same broad objectives: to “save” the Democratic Party, and by extension the country, by reforming the most undemocratic aspects of the one and liquidating the worst failures of the other. In the dead of winter, the US was deep in a kind of despair that had not been felt since the pre-Roosevelt depression. Whether the institutions of the republic were in the state of degeneracy they appeared to be is arguable; what was obvious to everyone was that there were no enlivening political alternatives and, in a sense, no politics. For a society that so completely identifies its nature with its political structure, that is a killing weakness.

The Viet Cong made politics possible again; McCarthy made it thinkable; Kennedy made it seem workable. The importance of the campaign is not that it will solve America’s problems, or that either Kennedy or McCarthy will even win—in August or November. But even if they ultimately lose, the political system will have been seen to work. It has produced alternatives, which is its function. The fact that even those alternatives present secondary, not elemental, choices, is by and large ignored. Neither Kennedy nor McCarthy will even think of breaking up the concentration of corporate power which is at the heart of America’s un-democracy and produces the effects of imperialism and racism which the candidates decry. Neither will move to disengage the power of America from its necessarily domineering role in the world; indeed, both have said that only by ending the war in Vietnam can the country get on with the business of consolidating its power elsewhere. Neither, finally, can encourage the development of institutions of black unity which, for the moment at least, seem to be the only way for black people to fight the nightmare oppression of racism. What it will take to do all that is a politics independent of a Kennedy or McCarthy or Nixon Administration; radicals have their work cut out for them.

The two candidacies together (more successfully than either one could have done) have let loose a surge of energy in the society which is essential if anything good is to happen. It is the direction of that energy which confirms the end of the last “twenty years’ crisis.” It is focused against the Cold War. It opposes the centralization of bureaucratic power which has characterized the organization of government since the New Deal. It implicitly establishes many of the values of “liberation” which the youth movements have produced. It denies the preeminence of anti-communism as the dominant ideology.

JOHNSON’S SUNDAY SPECTACULAR represented an Americanized version of a government’s fall. It was all played with makeshift, para-political institutions that substitute for direct confrontations of power in this country. The New York Times “presented” the government’s motion to escalate the war by bannering the rumor of the huge troop increase. The next day, the Fulbright hearings registered a vote of congressional no confidence, and the defection of Johnson stalwarts (such as Symington) as well as the usual opponents indicated that the President’s majority was cracking. The New Hampshire primary was the indicative byelection. The entrance of Kennedy was the symbolic reappearance of the old hero who had been waiting in his Northern Virginia Colombey-les-deux-Eglises for the magic moment. Johnson’s speech was his resignation.

As always, the major factors in the President’s decision were political. In New Hampshire, he saw that Clark Clifford’s 1948 strategy of smearing the Left opposition with treason and fellow-traveling could not work this time around. After that, there was really no other available method for victory. No doubt the President heard from Mayor Daley in Chicago, from National Committeeman Edwin Weisl in New York and their counterparts in other states, and their messages must have been the same: all systems fail.

What politics may come are completely unpredictable, for the rush of events is by no means over. Whatever the NLF and the North Vietnamese do now will have powerful effects on US politics. So far, there is no reason to doubt the brilliance of their strategy; the Khe Sanh siege and the Têt offensive broke the resolve of America to pursue the war, as they always predicted (and Johnson always feared) it would.

A classic element in the stock scenario for the failure of a war and the fall of a government is the attempted coup by the generals. Whether it is a possibility, in any attenuated from, in this situation is difficult to say. There is no charismatic general to lead it, and in fact much of the military establishment has been distinctly dove-ish in the past six months. There has been a steady stream of news leaks from the Pentagon meant to embarrass the commander-in-chief, and reports from Vietnam indicate that US officers in the provinces—through the rank of colonel—think the war has been much of a bad bargain, and would just as soon be out of it. Defense informants have told McCarthy of the preparations for use of tactical nuclear weapons, and The New York Times heard all about General Westmoreland’s absurdly optimistic appraisal of the war in January.

Humphrey could now enter the campaign on his own, or the President could endorse (or seem to endorse) one or another candidate; perhaps the favor McCarthy did for Johnson in 1960 could now be returned, as a means to “stop Kennedy.” Humphrey would be a logical focus for the affections of the Johnson die-hards who cannot bear the thought of a more contemporary candidate: labor, the state machines, the conservative corporatists, and the unreconstructed New Dealers. They might try to promote Humphrey on a peace-and-continuity platform. And if the projected pre-negotiation “talks” between the US and North Vietnam are more immediately productive than now seems likely, the President himself could emerge as a draft candidate at the Democratic convention in August. We will all need a strong stomach.

But already the first effects of the thaw can be seen. The New Left, which had hoped for a grand breakthrough into above-ground politics this summer, finds suddenly that its potential base (which it never organized) has evaporated into the Kennedy phenomenon. Draft resistance work will go on but now many youths hope they can win a little time with draft appeals boards before the war ends and their resistance becomes moot. The “hippie thing,” which blossomed in a time of political stasis, is showing signs of rapid decay. The “old liberalism,” which died with the end of the Johnson consensus, is being replaced by a newer form, which is no closer to radicalism but has an originality and contemporaneity no one could foresee. Throughout, there is a sense of breathing space in the society at last, a hope that the next months will not bring the boot heel down on everyone who is trying to resist.

Best of all, the war is coming to an end. Not that there won’t be much more fighting, and not excluding the possibility that an act of rage or duplicity could elevate that conflict again into a still larger calamity. But it is hard to see how any now or future president can again maintain a winning face. The huge problem of liquidation remains—for Kennedy as well as Nixon, or for President Johnson. But the old cord has snapped, and the new one begins with at least the expectation of peace.

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