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 …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.