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The Defeat of America

Roots of War

by Richard J. Barnet
Atheneum, 406 pp., $10.00


American scholars are increasingly asking themselves the question that German scholars have been asking for the past quarter century: how to explain the catastrophe? For while the American involvement in Southeast Asia, examined in Richard Barnet’s perspicacious book, is materially catastrophic chiefly for Asians, morally it is a catastrophe for the American people analogous to that which so profoundly disturbed thoughtful and historical-minded Germans like Meinecke or Gerhard Ritter or Theodor Litt.

A basic difference in the inquiry is that while the German conscience could not find expression until after the ultimate defeat—a form of catharsis not very helpful to the victims of the Nazi terror—the American conscience, thanks to the still surviving freedoms of inquiry and of criticism, thanks to the New York Times, thanks to congressmen like Senator Gravel, and to civil servants’ like Daniel Ellsberg and investigators like Richard Barnet, and to universities which still shelter dissident scholars, prospectively rather than retrospectively may be effective in mitigating the ravages of American policies. It is perhaps a measure of the iniquity of this war that the upsurge of conscience against it is more pervasive and more vigorous than in any previous wars, even misguided wars like those with Mexico, Spain, and the Philippines. That is, however, small comfort to the victims of American terror.

No other war in which we have ever been engaged, except possibly the Civil War, poses so many or such difficult problems to the historian as does our ten-year war in Southeast Asia. With all the others the causes have seemed comprehensible, the conduct unexceptionable, the objectives plausible. The Vietnam war alone seems to be the product of willful folly, hysteria, and paranoia, lacking in logic, purpose, or objective, and waged with insensate fury against victims with whom we had no quarrel and who are incapable of doing us any physical or even any philosophical harm, waged for its own sake, or for the sake of “honor” which we have already forfeited or of “victory” forever elusive. What dramatizes and magnifies the demented quality of the war is that it is even now being fought with mounting fury after whatever rationale it ever pretended to have—that of “containing” China—has been officially abandoned.

The psychological and moral questions which this war poses will probably never be fully answered. Why did the United States transfer the cold war from the Soviet Union to China? Events of the past year demonstrate that there never was any logic—except domestic political logic—behind this: we could just as readily have accepted communist China in 1952 as in 1972. Why did American statesmen ever suppose that we had either the right or the competence to be an Asian power? We would, after all, think any Chinese statesman who thought that China should be an American power bereft of his senses. If we were prepared to fight an ideological war in Asia, why did we pick on Laos and Vietnam as our enemies, instead of China itself? If our purpose is to establish an outpost of freedom and democracy in Asia, why do we support one of the most ruthless dictators and one of the most corrupt and reactionary regimes in Asia, and why, for that matter, did we rally to the support of a totalitarian Pakistan rather than a democratic India?

Why have we grown increasingly callous to crimes against humanity which we ourselves outlawed at Nuremberg and Tokyo, and why are we indifferent to the destruction of a small country by pouring on her the equivalent of two Hiroshimas every month? Why have we persisted in a war which President Johnson by his cessation of bombing and President Nixon by his rapprochement with China have acknowledged to be pointless? And how does it happen that after popular disillusionment with the war persuaded one President to retire and another to come into office with a promise to “end the war,” we are dropping more bombs on North and South Vietnam than ever before?

If the war violates the logic of politics and of morals, it violates just as flagrantly the logic of our history and, if we may use the term, of our character. Perhaps, to be sure, we have deceived ourselves about our character all along: doubtless the American Indians would say this, and American blacks as well. But there is an almost perverse inconsistency in the spectacle of a people about to rededicate themselves with great fanfare to the “principles of seventy-six” devoting themselves so contumaciously to making a shambles of those principles.

Traditionally the United States has been committed to the principle of negotiation rather than the resort to force in international disputes: we did, after all, arrange the first international negotiating commission at the time of the Jay Treaty, and we were chiefly instrumental in setting up the Hague Tribunal. But in our relations with Vietnam we have ignored the provisions of the United Nations Charter and a series of overtures from U Thant, refused to submit our dispute to outside arbitration, and frustrated all meaningful negotiation by insisting that we negotiate on terms palpably unacceptable to North Vietnam because based on the premise that we have defeated it.

Traditionally we have avoided involvement in the internal affairs of Asia—a policy confirmed by the futility of our long championship of Chiang Kai-shek. Instead of taking heed of our own experience, and of the experience of the French in Vietnam, we have permitted ourselves to be drawn into a conflict in many ways the most costly in our history, certainly the most frustrating, the most divisive, and the most indefensible morally, and one from which we seem incapable of extricating ourselves.

We had ourselves been the first colony to throw off the yoke of colonialism, and the first nation to get rid of colonies altogether (we called them States instead), and outside our own hemisphere we boasted a long record of hostility to imperialism and colonialism—a hostility which Franklin Roosevelt concentrated heavily on European colonies and empires in Asia. Yet we allowed ourselves to act first as surrogate for French colonialism in Vietnam and then took over completely from the French, and we have tried to create all along the periphery of China a system of satellites or puppet states analogous to that of the puppet states which the Soviet maintains along her western borders—among them South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. If Mr. Nixon is re-elected will he invite representatives from these states to participate in our bicentennial celebrations as the Russians invite representatives from their puppet states to participate in celebrations of the triumph of communist ideology?

We had traditionally supported revolution—in Latin America, in Greece, Italy, Hungary, even in Ireland, though not in Russia—that was probably the turning point. Now we associate revolution with communism and oppose it, unless it is reactionary or military: thus we supported Balaguer in Santo Domingo, Chiang Kai-shek in China, Franco in Spain, Salazar and Caetano in Portugal, Colonel Armas in Guatemala, the Colonels in Greece and the Generals in Brazil and, of course, Thieu in Vietnam. The nation which fought the first revolution and which carried through a peaceful domestic revolution has become the leading opponent of revolution throughout the globe.

We had a record going back to the Civil War of trying to mitigate the ravages of war by the establishment of humane standards for civilians, and at Nuremberg we undertook to outlaw as crimes against humanity such acts as indiscriminate bombing of nonmilitary objectives, mistreatment of prisoners, and reprisals against whole communities for the alleged misdeeds of individuals. We are now bombing rural hamlets and villages indiscriminately (that is the meaning of a “free fire” zone), dropping napalm and “daisy-cutter” bombs whose only use is the killing or maiming of civilians, using defoliates and herbicides to destroy the ecology, and destroying Vietnam with an overkill prohibited by the laws of war which we ourselves prescribed. We had established the principle of accountability for “aggressive war” and for crimes against humanity at the German and Japanese war trials, convicted over 500,000 Nazis of crimes, hanged a score of them, and sentenced 720 Japanese officers to death. But so far the only war criminal to be brought to accountability in this war, for activities which cover the span of lawlessness from the destruction of villages to the massacre of civilians, is a lieutenant whose punishment is hardly that meted out to General Yamashita or to Karl Franck, hanged for the massacre at Lidice.

We had written into our Constitution the principle of the supremacy of the civilian over the military authority. The constitutional provision still stands, but has been in large part circumvented by the willing acquiescence of two successive commanders-in-chief in the exercise of independent authority by the Pentagon and the CIA in areas heretofore thought to be the domain of civil authority. Much of the emergence of military power has been the consequence of drift rather than of calculation. When Washington became President, the United States Army consisted of fewer than 1,000 men and officers. Now ours is the largest and most powerful military establishment in the world. It absorbs almost half the budget, it maintains its own foreign affairs policy, it even instigates wars and supports revolutions without the knowledge of the Congress to whom, presumably, is assigned the authority to declare war. There has been no formal repudiation of the principle of the supremacy of the civilian over the military, but we delude ourselves if we think the principle means what the Founding Fathers supposed it to mean.

The generation that made the nation thought secrecy in government one of the instruments of Old World tyranny and committed itself to the principle that a democracy cannot function unless the people are permitted to know what their government is up to. Now almost everything that the Pentagon and the CIA do is shrouded in secrecy. Not only are the American people not permitted to know what they are up to but even the Congress and, one suspects, the President (witness the “unauthorized” bombing of the North last fall and winter) are kept in darkness.

Even more serious is the practice of evasion, distortion, and duplicity, which is, by now, the almost official policy of the government from the White House down through the whole executive department and military establishment—a policy whose dimensions and character are documented in those Pentagon Papers whose full publication the government is even now resisting. Certainly the most conspicuous feature of the Vietnam landscape today is not the millions of craters which make the land look like the surface of the moon but the fog of deception and lies that hangs over it.

The Nixon Administration did not formulate this violent departure from and repudiation of tradition. Still it has eagerly welcomed it: welcomed, that is, the rejection of the pragmatic approach to politics and the eager embrace of absolutes. When William James said, “Damn the Absolute,” he spoke for most of his countrymen. Through most of our history the axiom “Theory may mislead us, experience must be our guide” has been controlling. The one major departure from it, the state sovereignty theories of the antebellum South, led to disaster. But much of the cold war, and the entire logic of the Vietnam war, is the product of abstractions and of absolutes, from the early theories about Chinese infiltration or the domino theory, or American commitment, to the current abstractions of “Vietnamization,” of “peace,” and of “honor.”

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