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Ideology and Vietnam

In response to:

On Withdrawing from Vietnam: An Exchange from the January 18, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

In her reply to Mrs. Trilling, in The New York Review (January 18), Mary McCarthy says, among other things: “Certainly town planning, city planning, conservation of natural and scenic resources are more in the spirit of socialism, even a despotic socialism, than that of free enterprise…variety of manufactures, encouragement of regional craft, ought to be easier for Communist planners whose enterprises are not obliged by the law of the market to show a profit or perish….”

But what is true now in many Communist countries—almost completely so in Yugoslavia, increasingly so in the others—is that enterprises are obliged by the law of the market to show a profit or perish. And the reason is that communist planners have learned that the “law of the market” and “profits” are not intrinsic to capitalism, but are necessary economic mechanisms for producing what consumers want, while using scarce resources efficiently. And as for “conservation of natural and scenic resources,” Miss McCarthy clearly has not read of the protest last year—the first time one was made openly—by the scientists of Novisibirsk against the spoliation of Lake Baikal by a number of industrial plants, which sought to fulfill their production quotas (with the backing of their ministries in Moscow) at the expense of the natural and scenic resources.

But Miss McCarthy’s evident ignorance of economics is of little moment other than what it may reveal of her mood: that in the renewed desire to be “Left,” she can only pick up the shards and detritus of radical stereotypes she learned thirty years ago, and, that in becoming once again such a strong critic of American society she comes close to slipping over into an either/or mood—which was one of the risks Mrs. Trilling was pointing to in her letter.

This defensive reaction emerges so strangely in Miss McCarthy’s peroration in which she finds herself saying, well, if Communism does win, “some life will continue as Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavski, Daniel have discovered,” (though Pilnyak, Babel, Bergelson did not) and, in effect, she would rather be an anti-Communist in Russia than one in the United States because the American Committee for Cultural Freedom “was actually divided within its ranks” as to whether Senator McCarthy was a friend or an enemy of democratic liberty.

I cannot untangle her associative logic, but I can redress her history. The American Committee for Cultural Freedom did oppose Senator McCarthy; which is why James Burnham, George Schuyler, and several others resigned, and it did protest the denial of a visa to Graham Greene. There was a division in the American Committee for Cultural Freedom between those who in condemning McCarthy wanted to point out as well the evidences of previous Communist influence in government, and those who felt it was more important to concentrate on the actions of Senator McCarthy alone. Miss McCarthy held the latter view at the time and may have been angered by those who held the other view; but this division is a far cry from the formulation she now makes. (May I point out, in addition, that the successive executives of the American Committee had been staff members of the Voice of America whose jobs had been erased when the government reorganized several divisions of that organization following the attacks by McCarthy on Foy Kohler, the head of the Voice, and Bertram D. Wolfe, one of its policy makers. Further, the American Committee for Cultural Freedom sponsored the book by James Rorty and Moshe Decter, McCarthy and the Communists, which was a clear and outright condemnation of Senator McCarthy.)

Miss McCarthy may have a different view now of liberal and left anti-communism in the Fifties than she held then, but there remains a responsibility to the historical record, and to the distinctions which are relevant to those experiences. It is in the danger of moving from intellectual to moralizer—and this again, it seems to me, was the cautionary warning of Mrs. Trilling—that such a responsibility becomes befogged.

Daniel Bell

New York City

Mary McCarthy replies:

Since Mrs. Trilling announces her unilateral withdrawal from the discussion, your readers can be left to determine what it was all about. She appears to be satisfied that I have finally started on a search for solutions, but in fact I haven’t. My unbending idea is that the US should get out of Vietnam, but she would not consider that a solution but rather some sort of an evasion. Everybody, starting with the government and proceeding down to me, is evading her plea for answers. And this is an old story, going back to the time when we had the atom bomb and the Russians didn’t. There were political uses, she is sure, to which our possession of the bomb could have been put. Tell that to the Marines.

Possession, by one party, of devastating weapons, unless it is joined with the willingness to use them, far from being a political lever, is almost a handicap. That was exactly our situation vis-à-vis Hanoi early in 1965: the US had the capability of “conventionally” bombing the North to pieces, and Hanoi was acting as if it did not recognize this capability. Hence the fateful decision to bomb. Which precluded and still is precluding a political settlement.

Mr. Bell had better redress his own history. He is remembering rather tardy developments in the McCarthy-Committee for Cultural Freedom story. Contrary to what seems to be his recollection, I was not a member of the Committee, regarding it then and now as a farce, but I remember taking part in a debate the Committee sponsored at the Waldorf in March, 1952. The topic was: “What Forces Threaten Cultural Freedom Today?” McCarthy had then been in operation more than two years, yet one of the principal speakers argued that the “evidence on McCarthy was not in yet,” that it was “too early to judge,” and said, though I don’t recall now whether this was in public, that he did not know of a single individual falsely charged by McCarthy. The man talking was a pillar of the Committee and remained so. Another speaker went further and endorsed McCarthy. The Committee at that time was divided not on what should be emphasized in condemning McCarthy but on whether he was a danger at all, and the membership was split between “Yes,” “No,” and “Don’t Know.” My own speech on the occasion is reprinted in On the Contrary under the title of “No News, or, What Killed the Dog.”

Glancing through it, I am reminded that there was also a school of thought—perhaps then the most authoritative—that granted that McCarthy might have made “a few mistakes” but feared that if one criticized him one ran the risk of aiding Communism. The division as to what to “highlight” in condemning McCarthy came later and shows how preoccupation with that danger persisted even when the senator’s advocates had been eliminated from the Committee. What they were doing there in the first place is something else. Unless I am mixed up about dates, the case of the Voice of America was crucial in making up the Committee’s mind about McCarthy: as with the Army, the senator suddenly looked like a bad apple when he struck close to home. As for Graham Greene, the Committee did protest his being denied a visa but only after harrowing debate, telephone calls, threats of issuing a counter-statement; this I knew of at second hand, but others may recall the strange episode in detail.

All that was a long time ago, and Soviet intellectuals of the period were behaving shamefully too. They, however, had more excuse, and ever since the Twentieth Congress a new generation of Soviet intellectuals has been trying to redeem that infamy by courageous speech and action. Admiration, mixed with slight envy and wonderment, must have been felt, I think, by every Western intellectual who read the statement of young Litvinov and Larissa Daniel. These young people (and older writers like Solzhenitsyn) are as much a part of the Soviet reality as the KGB. To feel solidarity with them, unless it is just a form of words, is to imagine yourself in their life and to see that it has some rewards. Also that it has a future. At least they are behaving as if they thought so and as if their actions could count. By contrast, the protest movement in the United States is too easily discouraged by lack of agreement from Johnson, Rusk, and the opinion pollsters. Of course it is melancholy for the killing to go on in Vietnam and not to be able personally or jointly to stop it, but there is no need to add to this the luxurious melancholy of self-pity. We are overly moved by the pathos of our own failure, impotence, etc. Least productive of all is to sit on a crape-hung fence, crying for answers and deploring the extremism and awful failure in responsibility of others.

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