Naïve Questions about War and Peace
The Tuesday Cabinet
Alternative to Armageddon
It may appear banal to assert once again that America is in the throes of a crisis—or rather a series of crises—more threatening to its survival as a civilized society and a liberal, democratic polity than any previous ones have been. Yet the government, whose legitimacy rests upon its willingness and ability to protect us from the dangers that threaten us, prefers manipulating the politics of these dangers to confronting their substance. For if the administration were to do the latter, it would inevitably have to undertake a transformation of our domestic and foreign policies that would be unprecedented in its radicalism. Yet the government is forced by its political philosophy and interests to avert its gaze and to act as though these problems did not exist at all, or had been artificially created by some misguided small minorities (whom the police will control).
This somnambulistic defense of outmoded institutions and practices that are not worth defending and that in the long run cannot be defended with the instruments of liberal democracy is of course an integral part of the crisis itself. For the government to deny the reality of dilemmas that cannot be resolved with the means it is willing to employ is to abdicate its responsibility to govern—“neglect” being raised to a maxim of statecraft—and to substitute rhetoric and repression for effective substantive policies.
It is a reflection of the same crisis that explicitly or implicitly eminent members of the intellectual community are attempting to justify the government’s position. Thus we have recently been informed by a reputable magazine that the crisis is in our minds, created by intellectuals who talk about crisis, rather than in objective reality, the implication being that there would be no crisis if only the intellectuals stopped talking about it. And in the same issue of the same magazine a reputable social scientist announces that he has transformed himself from a “moderate radical” into a “moderate conservative.” While the former argument is the intellectual equivalent of the patient throwing out the thermometer in order to convince himself that he has no fever, the latter position is tantamount to a declaration of intellectual and political bankruptcy in the face of issues crying out for radical innovation.
These reflections are suggested by a number of recent books on the foreign and military policies of the United States. Most of them are defective because they refuse to deal with the actual problems facing us; instead, they show us the ways in which politicians and experts can use rhetoric and analysis to screen themselves from political reality. The two adequate books are by professional soldiers, and that very fact is troubling.
To start with the worst of the lot, Mr. Whitworth’s volume is not a book at all, but consists of the clearly unedited tapes of interviews with Professor Eugene Rostow, former Under-secretary of State for Political Affairs. It holds what must be a record of unfinished sentences per page. Whitworth: “That would materially enlarge China’s—“ Rostow: “Range of influence. Now, I think the other—“ Whitworth: “On the other hand, some economic affiliation with China wouldn’t necessarily mean a political affiliation.” Rostow: “Not a bit. Not at all. No, I’m talking about—“ Whitworth: “It’s just that it doesn’t sound like a good idea for—“ Rostow: “It’s a traditional attitude toward—“ On pages 71-73 alone, there are five such gems.
Mr. Whitworth, a staff writer for The New Yorker, where these interviews first appeared, approached Lyndon Johnson, Dean Rusk, Walt Rostow, and William Bundy, all of whom declined. They showed better judgment than did Professor Eugene Rostow. For while Mr. Rostow has something useful to say about our relations with Europe and while some of Mr. Whitworth’s questions are less naïve than Mr. Rostow’s answers, the whole enterprise is a waste of time.
Mr. Whitworth seems to be aware of it. “This is a very depressing conversation,” he says on page 60. “This is all so vague. I’m trying to get something concrete, to get past these assertions…,” he complains on pages 76 and 77. And when Mr. Rostow tells him that we are concerned with Asia because “We need a world of wide horizons—,” he interjects: “But that’s so vague. You can say those things, and they sound good, they sound reasonable, but what do they mean?” Two further questions need to be asked: What had The New Yorker in mind when it published this stuff, and what did W. W. Norton expect to gain by putting it between hard covers? Perhaps one of Mr. Rostow’s few completely intelligible answers gives a clue: “The world is absolutely nuts.”
The Tuesday Cabinet is not a good book either, but it contains interesting and sometimes revealing raw material for a future historian, especially a biographer of Lyndon Johnson. In 1965, The New York Times commission the author, a professor of history at Columbia University, to write three articles for its magazine on the modes of thought and action of the prominent members of the Johnson Administration concerned with Vietnam. I was told at the time that this commission was a response to White House complaints to The New York Times, which had just published my article “We Are Deluding Ourselves in Vietnam.”
This book is the complete record of Professor Graff’s visits to the Tuesday luncheons in the White House, a kind of war council on Vietnam, attended by Johnson, Rusk, McNamara, General Wheeler, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and others, as well as his meetings with individual members of that group. The result is neither journalism nor history, but a kind of court chronicle, setting down in indiscriminate detail what went on.
The personality of the chronicler appears only in his awe at being allowed into the presence of the powerful and in his unconditional surrender to political conformism. “The men of the Tuesday Cabinet were masterful figures, but the overwhelming force in their official lives was Lyndon Baines Johnson.” The intervention in the Dominican Republic is called a “forthright action.” The war in Vietnam is defined as “an unprecedented conflict between American humaneness and American commitment.”
At times the author plunges into unabashed Byzantinism:
The most important [sic] was that those who made the country’s policy were neither tired nor discouraged. They were hopeful, even though not enthusiastic about the bombing pause and the peace offensive, self-assured but not cocky. Their willingness to look for instruction and guidance from their opponents in Congress and in the nation was unimpaired. Seeing these men just after the Senate hearings, I found them in full command of their abilities. The course of this uniquely frustrating war had not turned them into vindictive warriors.
…the men of the Tuesday Cabinet were strong, discerning, and gallant.
I walked toward a police lieutenant to ask him how I could get to the Eastern Shuttle parking-lot, where I had left my car. He called to a sergeant: “Get this man wheels.” In a few minutes I was at my car, feeling I had been delivered there by the power of the Presidency itself.
Thus it is not by accident that “our meetings—I could not but realize—were important to the President. Whenever he had to postpone or delay a scheduled session with me—a meeting of the National Security Council had run late, or a forthcoming State of the Union Message required intensive work, or it was necessary for him to be out of the country—he rescheduled it almost immediately.” Graff’s importance to Johnson is obvious. It is outside Professor Graff’s assigned and assumed role to question the purposes and instruments of the Johnson Administration. His refusal to question policies and policy formation together with his awe of the powerful perform a positive function for the holders of power: they implicitly legitimize their actions. Thus it is not surprising that Lyndon Johnson remarked after Graff’s first visit: “We must have him back again.”
The merit of this book does not lie in its literal reproduction—passive, approving, or even admiring—of the arguments of the actors in the drama justifying their actions. The false analogies and political superstitions, the vulgar ignorance and paranoiac fears, the delusory expectations and the contempt for rational dissent on which they rested their case are public property. So are many of the psychological peculiarities of Lyndon Johnson. But the book, by quoting the President verbatim over long stretches, comes close to performing the functions of a psychoanalyst’s couch by illuminating the personality of the President and emphasizing certain propensities not formerly revealed in such vivid detail. Two aspects of the President’s psyche stand out in this account: his concern with race and his concern with violent sex.
Here is the President’s explanation of Senator Fulbright’s opposition to the war:
“It’s some little racial problem.” Fulbright, who had studied at Oxford, simply “cannot understand that people with brown skins value freedom too. I say,” added the President, clearly as if it were not for the first time, “if you want a social revolution in the Dominican Republic, why don’t you start it in Little Rock?”
…He replied that there was a strong strain of racism in it, by which he meant a feeling that the Vietnamese “are not our kind of people, that they’re an ancient people, that they’re a brown people, not able to take care of themselves.”
…”Fulbright feels racist.”
Referring to his trip to Australia, Johnson enumerates all the Asian leaders whom he met there and adds: “They all sat down at the table with this white man.” Once Johnson has established his freedom from racism, he shoulders the white man’s burden:
I want to leave the footprints of America there. I want them to say, “When the Americans come, this is what they leave—schools, not long cigars.” He paused: “We’re going to turn the Mekong into a Tennessee Valley.”
Clinching his arguments in defense of the war, Johnson startled his academic visitor with this rhetorical question: “I ask how many times do I let a fiend rape my wife?” He is incensed at what he calls the “disloyalty” and “unpatriotic sentiments of the Department of State” and adds, “It’s gotten so that you can’t have intercourse with your wife without it being spread around by traitors.” “Not to make absolutely certain, the President said, was like opening the way for ‘your wife to be attacked out in the hall.’ ”
The book’s other contribution to historic knowledge is the deflation of the myth that the then Undersecretary of State George Ball was opposed to the Vietnam war.
Moyers described Ball as a “necessary and effective devil’s advocate, seeking diplomatic and political options which might be pursued.” He “plays the role of seer, looking beyond many turns down the road. His avocation is to pursue a set of assumptions.”
Rusk said Ball had only played that role when he was “assigned” it.