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A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam

In early May, The New York Review asked some of its contributors to write on the meaning of the Vietnam war and its ending. They were asked to consider the questions of the responsibility for the war; its effect on American life, politics, and culture, and the US position in the world; and the prospects of recovery from it—or any other questions they felt to be important. > —The Editors

Sheldon S. Wolin

The lessons of the past in Vietnam,” the President said recently, “have already been learned—learned by Presidents, learned by Congress, learned by the American people—and we should have our focus on the future….” The past, he declared, should be left to the historians. For then, presumably, after events have lost their preternatural shape and passions have cooled, when no one cares any longer, perspective is possible once more. Not long ago, Watergate evoked the same advice, even the same words. Then, too, we were advised to “put the past behind us,” to cease our recriminations, and to concentrate on the urgent matters of the day. Then as now, when the nation has been transfixed by events of extraordinary peril and significance, our leaders have all but told us that, as a people, we lack the maturity to reflect upon the meaning of great events. They have invited us, instead, to emulate the landlord who walks away from his profitless investment, leaving only the memorial of a tax write-off. Then as now, we have had urged upon us a politics of oblivion, a mass drinking ritual by which we drown memory in the sweet waters of Lethe and find in forgetfulness the healing balm for “our” wounds.

In one respect the President is right. Political common sense tells us what Freud confirms, that it is unhealthy to pick endlessly at bygone failures and to indulge an “abnormal attachment to the past.” Practical statesmen have to deal with the world as it is and as it is becoming, not as it was. But if the politics of oblivion is necessary for the politician, is it the right course for the citizen?

Among our crimes oblivion has been set;

But ‘tis our king’s perfection to forget.

The question which Dryden’s couplet suggests is: does the rationale still hold for allowing kings their perfection so that they may “get on” with the nation’s problems? Until recently the rationale for not burdening politicians with the past has been a faith in their power and ability to master events, to deal creatively (“new” deals) with problems, and to set new directions (“new” frontiers) for society. Now Vietnam and the current depression have combined with recent experience of Watergate, ecological warnings, the chaos of welfare programs, the bankruptcy of cities, racial violence, and persistent unemployment to signify a new and awesome fact of our national existence that the politics of oblivion seeks to hide from us. The fact is that the options of the politician have been drastically narrowed and there is little of significance that he can “get on” with. Wherever he looks, at home or abroad, his choices are few and they consist mainly of struggling to hold things together and of riding out the times. Wherever he turns, he is hemmed in: by previous commitments, programs hardened into structures, once hopeful directions which now serve only as demanding grooves down which the present must run.

As a practical people, proud of its adaptability and experimentation, we have long been practicing our own politics of oblivion by which immigrants effaced their origins, workers surrendered their skills and bodies to the tempo of machines, and localities traded history for the benefits of centralized control. All the fruits of progress, increase, and expansion have been purchased by the dependence of each of us on structures—governmental, economic, and educational—whose steady expansion has increased that dependence to the point where, as a society, we are literally enslaved, that is, our daily existence requires the expansion, let alone the perpetuation, of governmental bureaucracies, huge corporations, and international networks in which government and business are intricately interwoven.

What all of this means, Vietnam included, is a dramatic and qualitative break in American history. We have moved from a society of free choice and opportunity to a society shaped by necessity. Instead of being the showcase refutation of Marxian determinism, we have become an instance of it. Watching the Vietnamese claw their way into our planes; listening to Nixon’s last tapes—we have learned that the nation does have a fate, that concentrations of power in the name of welfare are easily transmuted into the power to suppress liberty and promote empire.

Vietnam and the other experiences of recent years signify not only a different future but a different past. December bombings, search-and-destroy missions, free-fire zones are an indelible part of our history, as are Watergate, the misuse of our natural resources, and the shocking realization that we have a long record of past wrongs against blacks, Indians, and Mexican-Americans. A history has begun to take shape in which we can scarcely recognize ourselves—“Among our crimes oblivion has been set” and we all must long for that king’s perfection. Instead, by some terrible irony, we have been forced to enter history a second time, in this our bicentennial year. The first time we entered proclaiming our independence and liberty, the second time frantically trying to conceal our dependence and servitude.

There are, nonetheless, choices available. We can obey necessity and follow the grooves of the past, trying to deal with problems as they arise, making some gains, dealing with discontents by making the discontented more dependent on the system, and waiting apprehensively for “the return of the repressed.” Or we can embark on a riskier and more demanding politics which rejects the notion that growth, satisfaction, and skill can only be realized through expansion. It would be a politics of smaller scales, of more intensive care, of common concerns that are immediate to our daily lives. During the past decade we have witnessed many examples: in the struggles of neighborhoods to survive; of local school boards to control their affairs; of professionals turning to community services; of people trying to form new communities or to revitalize older ones.

We remain a people of great energy, inventiveness, and moral concern, but our lives and our politics have always had the potentiality of a politics of oblivion, of obliterating memories, things, and peoples. We first entered history under the sign of Eros, seeking a “more perfect union”; but we sought also what Hobbes called “felicity,” “a continual progress of the desire from one object to another; the attaining of the former being still but the way to the latter.” Then we entered history again, this time under the sign of Thanatos, fulfilling the Hobbesian prophecy that those who seek felicity through “a perpetual and restless desire of power after power” will find that it “ceaseth only in death.”

Thanatos or death is that which cannot be undone or overcome, least of all by seeking refuge in anonymous structures of abstract power where cruelties are no less cruel for being remote. The true choice is the harder, more challenging one of a politics of reversal which does not mean going back to a pastoral society but of undoing our own necessities and seeking the intensive fulfillments that can only be found in smaller scales where we cannot evade the consequences of our own actions.

Garry Wills

It may take twenty-five or thirty years before one can make a real judgment where the course of wisdom lay, either in getting in or getting out.”

Dean Rusk

Analyzing the Vietnam war may become as long and futile a process as waging it. Most of the debate will involve problems of self-perception. The war was, among other things, a social thermometer for this country. Its opening years reflected our confidence, our reliance on technology, our belief in “surgical” tamperings with anything and everything beneath (or on) the moon. Its middle time showed a dying of confidence, disguised by a tendency to soothe ourselves with lies: the official rejection of the Kerner Report on American racism was a domestic Tonkin Gulf affair. Nixon inherited a legacy of mendacity, one he had great talents for but did not initiate. Our confidence, once it crumbled into lying, led to fear—an anticipation of violence by pre-empting violence: Kent State was a domestic My Lai. And as we were stunned into impotence—ready to settle at last, and to call anything we settled for “peace with honor”—we clung to the despicable and claimed it was our preference: Nixon was the domestic Thieu.

The war was invisible at the outset, from mere ignorance; we kept it invisible by an ever-more-difficult willed ignorance. We waged it absent-heartedly, without songs or slogans, movies or morale—to the end, few Americans could point the damn place out on any map or globe. There were 50,000 Gold Star Mothers; but no one wanted to see the stars hung in their windows. It became, instead, a civil war—hawk against dove, bombing Hanoi to impress the Woodstock Nation, a kind of bloodless infanticide (with Asians to do the dying for us).

But to pursue this line of thought is to keep dealing with a series of American peripheries, without ever reaching a Vietnamese center. It concentrates on ourselves—and self-absorption was our problem from the outset. America has never been “isolationist.” It has been solipsistic. The world only mattered as a projection of ourselves, our novus ordo seclorum. Vietnam should have been, but wasn’t, a reality breaking in. It became our own surreality breaking out. Our success or failure; idealism or greed, philanthropy or cruelty; our spiritual health or sickness. How the rest of the world must tire of America’s rapt self-accusations and exonerations.

We shall not understand Vietnam till we stop seeing it as anything particularly American. It was one rather small (but unnaturally inflated) episode in a large historical process. We splashed our way into the quickening ebb of the long colonial tide. France lost Indochina as it lost Algeria, or as England lost India—and France knew Indochina better than we did, had settled it longer, and fought for it more skillfully. Even now we talk of how things went wrong, how we did things wrong at this or that stage. None of that matters. The only wrong thing was being there.

The great rebuke to our self-absorption is the fact that Graham Greene wrote all about our engagement, in The Quiet American, ten years before it became full-scale. He predicted that we would think we were a Third Force—fresh; outside of history. We would pay no attention to the “old colonialists,” whose sins could not infect us. We would be the Good Guys, and everyone would know it—except the Bad Guys, who must be communists. We would shout at the anticolonial wave, “Stop!” And the wave would not listen. It is all there, in 1955, the napalm, the My Lais, the body counts, even the dominoes:

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