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II Machismo in Washington

I see by the New York papers that the Bronx, like Vietnam, is plagued by civil war. I feel for Congressman Biaggi, who has been trying to bring its rival gangs together. There was something more than faintly familiar in the New York Times account on April 22 of his peace efforts. One gang leader, Ted Gonzalez of the Seven Immortals, avowed that his gang’s intentions were utterly peaceful, unlike its rival the Black Spades. “The Spades just want to fight while we want to make peace,” he told Biaggi. “But I tell you, if fight we must, then we’re prepared for a rumble too. No one’s going to tread on our turf.” This manly readiness to stand up against aggression, to face up to the test of will at whatever cost—this sounds like those who rallied to support Nixon’s bombing of Haiphong in the Senate a few days earlier.

If we fail to stand up to the aggressor in Vietnam, Thurmond of South Carolina told the Senate during the bombing debate on April 19, “our nation will be regarded with justification as a paper tiger.” “The invasion of Vietnam,” Dole of Kansas said, “is a test of our national will.” “Should we accept Hanoi’s terms now and surrender,” Tower of Texas declared, “the President would have to crawl on his belly to Moscow in May.” “The President,” averred Allott of Colorado, “will not be intimidated….” And Goldwater promised that the actions taken by Nixon “will overcome the weakkneed, jelly-backed attitude of Members* of this body and citizens of this country who think you can end a war overnight by snapping your fingers….” These Senators and the Bronx’s Seven Immortals have machismo in common.

A related maxim of statesmanly behavior was reported by Terence Smith in the New York Times April 23. The day after the bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong the President ran into an old friend as he was leaving a luncheon on Capitol Hill. When the friend asked about the bombings, Mr. Nixon punched him affectionately on the shoulder and said, “When they jump on you, you have to let them have it.”

The small boy mentality is also visible in military pronouncements. Orr Kelly, the Washington Star‘s Pentagon reporter, was given a “background briefing” on the tactics being pursued in the new bombings of the North. “US Following ‘Classic’ Script in Escalation,” said the headline over his story of April 23. The military in the Johnson-McNamara years claimed that the bombing of the North failed because the escalation was too gradual. The theory now being applied by the Pentagon, Mr. Kelly was told, “calls for rapidly increasing pressure on the enemy until he gives up.” The theory is certainly classic in its simplicity. The rationale, Mr. Kelly’s Pentagon informant explained, in an unconsciously revealing simile, “is much like the tactics of two boys fighting”:

If one boy gets the other in an arm lock, he can probably get his adversary to say “uncle” if he increases the pressure in sharp, painful jolts and gives every indication of willingness to break the other boy’s arm.

There are subtleties involved, as in any systems analysis. “Between each painful move,” so Mr. Kelly was briefed, “he must pause long enough to give the other boy a chance to think things over and give up.” But if the pressure is applied “slowly and with obvious reluctance,” as under Johnson and McNamara, “the boy on the ground has a chance to get used to the pain.” This is the mistake the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Nixon are determined to avoid. Why read Clausewitz or consult Herman Kahn, why drop more coins in the computers, when the military can draw upon so rich a store of puerilities?

The first rule of this small boy statecraft is that the leader of a gang, like the leader of a tribe, horde, or nation, dare not appear “chicken.” This axiom is as old as the cave man, but it remains a guiding principle of international confrontation a quarter-century after the nuclear age began at Hiroshima. It still charts our course as, in the waters of the Tonkin Gulf, we may be drifting toward the world’s second nuclear “crunch,” if wiser second thoughts do not prevail.

In the first, world peace was saved because Khrushchev backed down. Khrushchev soon after lost his job. Kennedy, had he lived, would have found it hard to keep his at the next election if he had made the sacrifice for peace and “blinked,” leaving Soviet missiles aimed at us from Cuba. Now again, as then, the desire not to appear a pitiful, helpless giant, a patsy in office, is predominant. The risks to the leader’s political future outweigh the risks to his country and the world. Crunch may become catastrophe because the man in power would rather risk a nuclear showdown than lose the next election or his majority in the Politbureau. This is not a rational planetary order. But it would be too easy to blame this on the “politicians.” Their calculus of political expediency rests on the existence within each nation’s boundaries of a sizable population of small boy mentalities and primitives who still see war as a test of their virility.

The leaders of the superpowers look toward their coming meeting in Moscow in mutual suspicion and fear. Mr. Nixon, as Senator Gravel told the Senate in the bombing debate, believes “what is happening” in Vietnam “is part of a diabolical plan by Mr. Brezhnev to pressure him into going to Moscow in a much more humble fashion than he would be prone to.” On the other hand, Gravel continued, “it has been said, and accurately so, that the situation that exists in Moscow today is not unlike the situation that existed prior to the political demise of Nikita Khrushchev.” The present Kremlin leadership may be feeling the hot breath of the hardliners down its neck, too.

When Ted Gonzalez of the Bronx gang, the Seven Immortals, told Congressman Biaggi, “If fight we must…. No one’s going to tread on our turf,” Biaggi—an ex-policeman, swamped with complaints from all over the Bronx about chronic gang warfare—retorted angrily, “You shouldn’t rumble—get that out of your heads. It’s not your turf. It’s the community’s. And you aren’t laws unto yourselves.” But who is to say to Washington and Moscow that the planet is not their turf—“You aren’t laws unto yourselves”? When, indeed, they are.

Had the Cuban nuclear crisis erupted into nuclear war, Western Europe would have been doomed, too. But Kennedy did not consult our allies in NATO, much less the United Nations. Acheson was sent, after the decision was made, to inform de Gaulle, not to ask his consent to the showdown. Should the Vietnamese confrontation erupt into nuclear war, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea, our allies in the Far East, would all suffer gravely, perhaps irremediably, even if only from radioactive fallout. But Nixon is not consulting them either.

No doubt Moscow and Peking are terrified of a nuclear confrontation. Nixon’s strategy of spreading terror by unpredictability recalls Hitler. I do not compare the President to the Fuehrer, but in this respect their tactics are similar. Hitler won one Munich-style concession after another by them, but at a cost Germany and the world remember all too well.

In the Tonkin Gulf we are again entering treacherous waters. The other day an American guided missile frigate, the Worden, was badly damaged by what appeared at first to be enemy planes. It turned out later that the ship was hit by two air-to-ground missiles from American planes assigned to bomb Haiphong. What if an American ship, what if a carrier, should be sunk with heavy loss of American lives? What if the headlines proclaim it an enemy attack? And we do not find out until too late, or perhaps ever, that our own bombs did the dirty work?

If we move toward blockade, if we mine the harbors, if Moscow sends protective vessels and minesweepers, if the havoc done to Haiphong and Hanoi becomes unendurable even to the most appeasement-minded in Moscow and Peking…? The chances of the situation getting out of hand, through accident or loss of nerve or design, will multiply swiftly, the flash point at which neither side can back down may pass much too quickly for anything as archaic as the Congressional right to declare war.

Secretary Rogers told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that reintroducing US combat troops and using nuclear weapons were the only options excluded in escalating the war against North Vietnam. How easily these limits could be swept aside by some unexpected catastrophe! It is time again to “Remember the Maine,” whose mysterious and still unsolved sinking precipitated the Spanish-American war.

The simple fact is that the world as now organized lives on the edge of destruction. Everyone knows it but everyone tries to forget about it. Most of the planet can be incinerated within less than a day should a crunch get out of hand. This didn’t happen over Cuba, but it may happen over Vietnam. If it doesn’t happen over Vietnam, it may happen over the Middle East. If it doesn’t happen there, there will be other flash points—Bangladesh was the first flicker of the lightning over the Indian Ocean, the newest theater of confrontation. With each crunch, the probability—by sheer arithmetic—of its getting out of control will increase. The safety of mankind depends on somehow finding a way to a new world order in which no nation is so “sovereign” that it can press the button that may mean planetary extinction.

And what if Nixon “succeeds”? What if he escalates the bombing of the North without precipitating a third World War? What a price to prove that he and America are not “chicken.” How many must die in the smaller countries, how many millions elsewhere must be placed in jeopardy because a superpower suffers from an inferiority complex?

  1. *

    Like God, always capitalized in the Congressional Record.

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