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.
“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.”
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:
Pyle: If Indochina goes—“
Fowler: “I know that record. Siam goes. Malaya goes. Indonesia goes. What does ‘go’ mean?”
It will take some people twenty-five or thirty years to discover what was always wrong about our presence there. It would probably take Mr. Rusk even longer. It should have taken about twenty-five minutes.
Because we concentrate on ourselves, the result of Vietnam will probably be that of the Bay of Pigs—a search for some new place to prove our toughness. How obscenely our Congress welcomed the chance to bomb a small Cambodian island, to demonstrate America’s spiritual-military health. It is too much to hope we can break out of our solipsism. But it is the only thing worth hoping for.
Ten years ago I thought of the Vietnam caper as our empire’s Syracusan adventure, an analogy which now seems melodramatic, for during all this time there has not been a Sparta (pace Kissinger—Schlesinger—Fordinger) capable of bringing us down. Only we could have done that; and we came close. Fortunately, the very thoroughness of our defeat ought to put an end forever to our loony military pretensions. Americans have always been lousy soldiers. In the face of the enemy, Kilroy throws away his gun and splits; should an officer object, Kilroy frags him. To me our enduring cowardice is a sign of good judgment. We win the occasional war and deter would-be Spartas through our superior production of lethal toys. This true state of affairs makes all the more meaningless the rhetoric of those who have no actual connection with American life, like the current administration which has now taken to warning us that the last virginal orifice of the all-American, all-macho imperium is in serious danger of penetration by nuclear-tipped cylindrical hardware unless we cease our pitiful, helpless “isolationism.”
But even the ventriloquists who speak through the dummy in the Oval office know that we are none of us isolationist, nor can we ever be, thanks to the interdependency of the world’s economies. “Isolationist” is simply this year’s code word for those who oppose the use of military force against other nations, for those who refuse to bear any burden, make any sacrifice, etc. After 1976, I predict (being an optimist) that the word will have gone forth to friend and foe alike that the era of American bullshit is finished and that we will now try to create that society the world has been waiting two hundred years to see: an American civilization.
One can only be glad about the victory of the DRV and the PRG, but there seems little taste for rejoicing. It would have been disheartening beyond imagination if America had its way with Indochina, and yet nobody I know has managed to feel festive. Celebrations of the war’s end, like the one in Central Park a few Sundays ago, had the wanness of a class reunion, its participants moist-eyed and nostalgic for the Sixties’ gallant hopes, communal ardors, and risks antic and real.
For while “they” won, “we” did not. The “we” who wanted “us” to lose had long since been disbanded. The domestic convulsion set off by the Vietnam War had subsided long before the peoples of Indochina were liberated from the American murder machine. Those of us who raged against this unjust war and its unbearable accretion of atrocities reached the limit of our influence when the Sullen Majority turned against the war for quite other reasons—because it was interminable, or wasteful, or bungled. When the warriors in Washington switched to fighting by proxy, Nixon won in 1972 by a huge majority. “We” in the “Movement” affected public opinion, but weren’t able to affect the use of power or damage the spectacular electoral consensus for continuing a surrogate war without American deaths.
The American-financed and supplied slaughter of Asians by Asians might have gone on indefinitely. Only the distractions of Watergate prevented Nixon from resuming the bombing of North Vietnam in 1973. Vietnam could have been our Spain (for the generations born after 1930) right through to the usual denouement of such a great political Passion play. And living with their victory (however devoutly that was to be wished) will not be as edifying or as simple morally as protesting their martyrdom—a matter which is already clear as they busy themselves installing a social order in which few of us who supported the DRV and the PRG would care to live, and under which none of us, as “us,” would survive.
The Vietnamese won politically; the antiwar movement lost. Although the Mad Bomber in chief has been pensioned off, most of the warriors, unrepentant, are still in office. The Nobel Peace Prize winner remains secretary of state; the architect of the CIA’s Phoenix Program (20,000 South Vietnamese civilians fingered and assassinated) now heads the CIA. The US is still “in” Southeast Asia. Two weeks after the fall of Saigon, Kissinger is headlined as “now pushing hard-line foreign policy” (what was it before?). The avowedly theatrical and didactic use of firepower in the Mayagüez rescue has become Ford’s first popular act.
The reasons why “we” lost are complicated. While for some Americans the Vietnam war was an extraordinary, decade-long political education in the nature of imperialism, state power, etc., for many more it was an éducation sentimentale which quite underestimated the nature and extent of state power. The Movement was never sufficiently political; its understanding was primarily moral; and it took considerable moral vanity to expect that one could defeat the considerations of Realpolitik mainly by appealing to considerations of “right” and “justice.” (See Thucydides, Book V, the Melian Dialogue.)
The Movement was in fact an ad hoc and leaderless coalition, most of whose constituents (what was dubbed the “counterculture”) were always antipolitical. Movement politics had a great deal of innocence (both inadvertent and willed) about them, guaranteeing both their integrity and their powerlessness. And in the Movement (and in the agitation of the Seventies that inherited its rhetoric) were other impulses reflecting the death wish that infects our culture itself: along with a properly aggrieved relation to power, a nihilistic impatience with all structures and institutions. “Right” and “left” labels seemed more and more unworkable, with some New Left rhetoric echoing the rhetoric of the European fascist movements of the Twenties and early Thirties—much as Wallace’s right-wing rabble-rousing can sound like left-wing populism. Kids played at being urban guerrillas and settled for being punks. Intellectuals played at being egalitarians and zealots, only to discover that they were still elitists and liberals. And liberals can only have an ambivalent attitude toward revolutions.
The Sixties made political life interesting again, restored its urgency. But awakening to the recklessness, cynicism, and ingenuity of power would mean understanding, finally, how long and difficult a task it is to effect real political change. The Seventies could be a more serious time of political education, with a growing and history-minded distrust of all slogans of historical optimism, a respect for the implacableness of cultural diversity, a lessening of affection for our own innocence, an awareness of the perils of self-righteousness—“liberal” virtues, all, but no less necessary if the anger that still burns in America is to have political meaning.
The only beneficiaries I can see of the event of April 30 are the Vietnamese. As the end approached, it was hoped, by many Americans and their sympathizers abroad, that some domestic benefit would be noticed. A weight, it was argued, ought to be lifted, of taxation, guilt, and shame, and new priorities could be set for the republic. With Vietnam out of the way, liberty and equality, a package, would no longer have to be viewed as articles for export and promotional salesmanship. The “lesson of Vietnam” would have been learned, both by our leaders and by the citizenry, which had been viewing the instructive spectacle on television.
It is too soon, of course, to be sure that nothing of the kind is happening. Perhaps a subliminal effect has been registered. Yet since so few “lessons” are ever learned in private life, one wonders why the process should be expected to take place in public life, so much less subject to the control of individual conscience and so poorly endowed, comparatively, with the means of reform. In any case, as it seems to me, the time had long passed when an opportunity for “correction of errors” was present and visible to everyone. That time was 1968, when the light had been seen, as Johnson’s “abdication” in the spring had made clear. The war ought to have been terminated then with North Vietnamese cooperation in an American exit. Between April 1968, when the Paris peace talks were agreed upon in principle (though not, in practice, until the fall), and April 1975, when the last American was withdrawn, nothing basically changed except the color of the corpses.
Had the US gone home then seriously, for good, the result would have been the same as what we are seeing now, with the single difference that third-force elements in the South might have been in a stronger position. At home, the time seemed right for reform or renovation; it looked as if a new leaf might really be turned. The Bobby Kennedy candidacy, the Gene McCarthy “children’s crusade,” the youth rebellion on the campuses, all touched off by revulsion from the war in Vietnam, were signs of a change of heart. The first and last signs. The nomination of Humphrey by the Democratic convention that summer demonstrated that inertia had resumed control of US political behavior. The reaction to Vietnam lost its impact, frittered away in fringe manifestations, such as the various mobilization marches—fun and games dampened by tear gas. Despite all the bloody and sensational events in between—Martin Luther King’s murder, Bobby Kennedy’s murder, Kent State, the attempt on Wallace, Watergate, Nixon’s fall—you could almost say that time had stood still during those seven years.
Nothing is worse for a private person than to have seen in a moment of clarity the error of his ways and then failed to alter them; the last state of the man is worse than the first. That is where our country is now, and to blame our leaders, with their professional deformations, for not rising to the occasion offered them by the war’s end, in other words for not being different from what they evidently are, is a stupid exercise, itself the product of fatigue. That Ford and Kissinger, anxious about US “credibility” abroad, inflated the Mayagüez incident in their own minds and action as though it were a missiles confrontation, that Defense Secretary Schlesinger “warns” the North Koreans that the US has “learned the lesson of Vietnam” (does he mean that the next time we will use nukes?) only shows that the bruised leopard cannot change its spots. The acclaim of Congress for the Mayagüez performance is nothing new either—the Tonkin Gulf reflex all over again. And when we now hear that our air force tear-gassed and nearly killed the crew it was bent on retrieving, we remember Têt and the officer explaining, “We had to destroy the city in order to save it.”
If anything has been added it is the smell of vengefulness associated with the Mayagüez episode, typical, I fear, of the current mood of this moody nation. It is not proceeding just from the White House and Capitol Hill.
We read that the American people want to forget about Vietnam; they are sick of it. That, obviously, is the opposite of learning a lesson, where a fact or an experience is imprinted on the memory, with cautionary results. I admit that I myself hoped last summer during the House Judiciary Committee hearings that Vietnam and Watergate, between them, would have caused us, at least, to do some self-questioning. The first awful intimation that this was not so came with the orphan airlift. The competition for Vietnamese babies made clear that Americans were still intent on mass demonstration of their essential goodness—a fatal motive in the Vietnamese enterprise, as hospitals, dispensaries, GI-built schools, improved seed strains, toothbrushes, surplus canned goods were strewn over the bombed, defoliated country, proving good intentions. If this sincere delusion had not been persisted in, the war could not have continued. With the orphans, the national heart again began to swell with the familiar philanthropic sentiments; nobody thought to ask what right we had to appropriate these babies, who in fact were part of the Vietnamese patrimony. Again, we were “saving” them, from disease and malnutrition; at the same time, they were little trophies, keepsakes—war loot salvaged from the wreck of the US involvement, so costly to the taxpayer.
The American amour-propre was seriously damaged in Vietnam, and the orphans in the end were insufficient restitution, especially since everybody could not have one. In any case, our generous image, not wholly inexact (Americans are kindly and helpful), is a dangerous reflection of our sense of national superiority, of our having more things to give away, like the ballpoints Nixon used to distribute on the streets of West European capitals, imagining that there was still a hunger for them. The idea that some nations would not want our things or our “know-how”—which made them—is inconceivable to most Americans.
The immense natural wealth of the American continent, ready for exploitation, and the wide internal distribution of that know-how have been a baneful gift. It is not only that the indigenous profit system must keep seeking fresh fields for investment as well as new consumers, but that the feeling of being an enormous creative matrix implies notions of leadership in every sphere of activity: literature and the arts, science, space, communications; democracy is regarded as an American manufacture along with Diners Club cards, happenings, rock music, and what were once called groovy life styles. No American is immune to the conviction of having something to offer the world by virtue of this native plenitude, and rejection (as happened in Vietnam) appears so incomprehensible that quite a few of the GIs who turned against the war turned also and simultaneously against the Vietnamese. Few Americans really drop out; instead they transfer their managerial and entrepreneurial skills, and the burgeoning pride that goes with them, to marginal activities such as the health food network or LSD manufacture, in which again they are “ahead” of other countries.
One of America’s problems is an inability to see itself. Hence the concern even among intellectuals with how the US looks after the defeat and how the defeat has affected our “position” in the rest of the world, as though what has happened were as much a social snub or slap in the face as a true loss. And the concurrent hope that the loss can somehow be turned into a gain, something positive, which would be true if whole peoples were able to revise their unthinking estimate of themselves, that is, break with all their habits.
There is no doubt that Germany was profoundly changed and sobered by the Nazi defeat, but it would take an atomic catastrophe, I often think, for the US to recover from the American way of life—the production-consumption cycle that has become an almost biological fact, resting as it does on rapid obsolescence and replacement. Intermittent elections add to the helpless feeling of stasis and eternal recurrence. You watch the same old candidates—Reagan, Jackson, Kennedy, Humphrey, Wallace—on your new color TV set. Anybody in his right mind would rather have it the other way around: fresh voices and faces on a quavery senior citizen TV screen. But for some un-Marxist reason, the constant restyling of the objects among which we live has no effect on the political superstructure, politicians being sent to the junk heap of history at a much slower rate than cars and ice-dispensers.
I can think of no way in which US political life can now be revitalized. The wistful idea (in which I have fitfully shared) of a “use” to which the Vietnam experience could be put shows that our faith remains a naïve, mechanical utilitarianism, which has no room in it for death in private life or tragedy in politics.
The responsibility for the war is entirely ours. The US was immersed in a geopolitics that looked on countries as aggregates. Whoever had the most aggregates won the Christianity versus Communism game. The domino theory was a corollary of this kind of thought, and the domino theory has proved “operative,” but in the worst way. Agrarian communist cadres, their intelligence tempered by war, will take over from urban Indochinese populations which now have small desire to resist. America’s military forged those communist cadres. My point is that the domino theory was always operative; the communists would have absorbed Southeast Asia whenever America was no longer there.
If it had happened earlier without our presence, those communists would however have been less ready, less skilled, less wise, and more prone to be at odds with one another. Ten years ago, there would have been intense local resistance to the communists, who would have suffered ideological schism in the yaws of trying to control countries they were not ready to govern. What was utterly lacking in American geopolitics was a rudimentary idea of real self-interest. Was there even a clue to the concept that it is often to corporate America’s advantage for countries to turn communist? The argument rests on Russia and China. Who would argue the USSR is better off because of Communist China?
The effect of the war on American life and on the US position in the world has obviously been next to wholly negative. With one remarkable exception. The resistance of the left in America broke the will of the establishment to wage a serious war. One by one, influential members of the military-industrial complex and the higher enclaves of finance came to decide that the war would wreck America morally, economically, and finally technologically. They did not decide this because secretly they admired the militancy or ideology or principles of the left. They detested all that. But about the time students began to destroy valuable equipment and burn university buildings—even a minority of students in a minority of universities—the perspective was clear. Those students were America’s future technological experts. (I obviously include the soft technologies of communications, sociology, et al., which center around social planning.) So members of the establishment came to recognize each by himself—will a novelist ever capture their long dark night?—that America could never run its industrial and media complex if even a fraction of its brightest people were determined at sabotage. And it seemed likely that sabotage would increase in at least direct relation to an increase in the war effort.
Who can now measure the subterranean effect of the March on the Pentagon upon the Washington establishment? Lyndon Johnson must have been first to see the significance of fifty thousand middle-class souls spending their own money to come to Washington in the full possibility that any one of them could meet physical violence on their person, that well-protected middle-class person! Johnson must have known some part of the game had to be up because he could have counted in the low hundreds those of his own Americans who would pay money and travel in order to be beaten up as an expression of faith in him and his war. Johnson, consciously or unconsciously, could read the meaning of that.
Now the next question becomes real to us: do we recover from Vietnam? The answer is most certainly yes. We will recover. We will doubtless come out of the depression for a time and come to some terms with inflation. But we will never be the same. We will be considerably better or worse. Perhaps the establishment has gained one vast intellectual clarity. It can hardly continue to operate on the old paranoid J. Edgar vision, which saw communist operators as more attuned to a psychic network than American patriots. The establishment may even see the likelihood that communism can prove as full of contradiction, internecine war, and internal crisis as Christianity in the Reformation.
The critical question for America is then not our-role-in-the-world but the nature of the democracy we can or cannot create here. Even if three-quarters of the world turns communist, our interest, even our most conservative interest, will not be endangered. That communist world will never be able to function as a single force. It takes little imagination to recognize that some communist countries in the future will prove relatively superb and others will prove God-awful.
Our real question is not geopolitical at all. It is whether America can improve, whether we can come to grips with industrial pollution, and the psychic pollution of high-rise and suburban real-estate overdevelopment, with automobiles and freeways, with the voids of synthetics, with the buildings of the last twenty years which have to be the worst architecture in the history of the world, with the packaging of food—it may yet prove the most unhealthy food in the history of the world—with the shriek-zones of electronics and media glut, and all of our lack of participatory democracy, yes, all of our political impotence, and the next question is whether we find answers to the assassinations, and solutions to CIA operations in symbiosis with the Mafia (read CIA cum FBI cum DIA cum good old Treasury narcotics in symbiosis with the Mafia) plus the labor unions in symbiosis with the Mafia, plus the entertainment industry. We have not even spoken of the lack of solution to civil rights, sexual rights, and the fast disappearing sense in every American of a neighborhood or any other root. We’re bombed on future shock.
Improve America? Good luck, sisters and brothers. Our odds are not going to look like even. Yet the future is hardly predictable. In all the technological horror of the social machine and TV’s cancer gulch there has to be—it might as well serve as our political faith—there has to be the notion that all this enormous and stupefying overdevelopment of our years is somehow wrong, gluttonous, and deadening even to the most mindless of Americas. We may as well suppose that the desire to look for a better way to live is not dead in this country and we will find solutions that yet surprise us. There may be demonstrations of imagination in the manipulated we could never expect. The odds are against us, but then ten years ago who ever thought we would play a serious role in bringing to an end the fecal strategies of our developing nightmare in Vietnam?
I am glad the war is finished, despite the poison it leaves behind: it leaves more than we can face, the catastrophic moral and military disaster, 55,000 dead, a half million unpardonably unpardoned deserters, half Vietnam killed, robbed, and scrapped with our complaisance—the Waterloo of anti-Stalinism. How can we get out of the indignities of the display window? The black prophet is now drowned by his truth. In our defeat communism is inevitable and cleansing, though tyrannical forever.
Any lingering illusions that this was to be the American century have been shattered by the collapse of anticommunism in Southeast Asia.
After World War II the United States emerged, temporarily, as the strongest power in the world, and its leaders entertained visions of vast and continuing influence. But American ascendancy, even while it lasted, was based on highly unusual circumstances—the economic exhaustion of Europe, the disintegration of Japanese influence in the Far East, the collapse of older colonial systems in general, and the polarization of the world into rival blocs led by the two great nuclear powers, the United States and the USSR.
As these conditions passed, cold-war alliances crumbled and both Soviet and American influence declined. In both cases, but especially in the American case, misguided policies hastened even if they did not cause this decline. As early as the mid-Fifties, détente and “disengagement” would have provided a better basis for American foreign policy—as critics within the establishment, like George F. Kennan, understood—than containment, especially in the bloated and militarized version the US adopted. The containment policy committed the United States to resist the expansion of communism even into regions where the United States had no real diplomatic, economic, or political influence—like Southeast Asia. On the one hand American policy makers exaggerated their own capacity to control events by means of their overwhelming military supremacy, while on the other hand they worried excessively about the American “image” abroad, as if they themselves were not quite sure they were as tough and big as they pretended to be.
Given at the outset of the postwar period the advantage of unprecedented economic and military power, those bigtime bunglers—Truman, Acheson, Dulles, Kennedy, Johnson, McNamara, Kissinger, and the rest—dissipated that advantage in a series of actions chosen without regard to strategic considerations but purely with an eye to American “prestige”; the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, Cambodia. The latest escapade in the Gulf of Siam, though far more puny and contemptible, bears all the earmarks of earlier American interventions—panicky and premature resort to force out of all proportion to the actual stakes involved, undue attention to such considerations as “credibility” and saving face, refusal to seek congressional advice, utter disregard for the electorate’s will or capacity to sustain long-term military commitments. The Mayagüez incident is the Cuban missile crisis writ small, history repeating itself as farce.
The American intervention in Indochina was a grotesque mistake from the start. Any reasonably intelligent student of politics would have foreseen (and did foresee) the futility of backing dictators with no popular following and no other means of support than American arms. Even the CIA warned repeatedly that military measures would not work unless accompanied by social reforms instituted by Saigon. Many other officials reluctantly came to the same conclusion in the course of time: yet the war went on because no President wanted to be the first to lose a major war (including Nixon who might still be bombing today if he had not carelessly allowed himself to be driven from office). What made it a major war in the first place if not American intervention, which furnished the arms that allowed both sides to escalate a little war into a big one?
Both sides have been corrupted by the American “presence.” No doubt this is the story of Western colonialism in general, but at least France left Indochina something besides missiles, venereal disease, and a taste for PX high living. The rot that finally undermined the anticommunist regime was in part the direct result of prolonged American intervention. As for the other side, it would be naïve to think that they have not been corrupted in their own way by the bitterness generated by a very long war, by the experience of having been bombed nearly back to the Stone Age, by deprivations, the desire for revenge, and thirty years of military discipline. What may have begun as a heroic struggle for liberty is likely to end in a wholesale political regression, thanks in part to the intensification of violence that American intervention made possible. Only sentimentalists would argue that the long war for independence has laid the foundations of democratic socialism, popular rule, and civil liberties.
As for those other sentimentalists, the totalitarian liberals—who will predictably remind us that omelets can’t be made without breaking eggs—the so-called peasant revolution in Cambodia ought to give them pause. That “revolution” already suggests that it is no socialist omelet that is in the making but the familiar scrambled eggs that pass for political progress in our century—a socialism of barbed wire, the forced march, the forced confession, the concentration camp, and “self-criticism.”
The lessons of Vietnam are few and plain: not to be hypnotized by the word “communism” and not to mess into other people’s civil wars where there is no substantial American strategic interest at stake.
Beyond that, the end of the involvement in Indochina changes nothing in the pattern of needs and challenges with which our world environment confronts us. Learning to view Russia and China as national rather than communist great powers, we must treat them accordingly, with a view primarily to avoiding serious destabilization of the international power balance, further proliferation of nuclear weaponry, and the catastrophe of nuclear war. This requires continued support of NATO and the continued recognition of our stake in the security of Japan. In the Middle East we should be concerned to establish for the first time a power of independent decision—vis-à-vis both parties; for without that we can play no useful and constructive role at all.
Elsewhere, there can indeed be an extensive curtailment of American involvement. We need have little fear of the establishment of pseudocommunist regimes in Third World countries. They may be unfortunate for the inhabitants; they need not be for us. They have the advantage that their anti-Americanism is declared, not concealed; and they offer less provocation to our inane impulse to involve ourselves everywhere, to dispense arms and largesse, and try to be loved.
Besides the strategic problems, our main international tasks lie in the environmental field: the curtailment of the inexcusable misuse of the oceans, the bringing of ourselves and others to desist from the mad production of atomic wastes for which we have no safe means of disposal, the frank confrontation, generally, with the abuse modern industrialization and urbanization are inflicting on the usefulness of the earth as a seat of human living. It is here that there lie our greatest possibilities for leadership and for usefulness to ourselves and others in the aftermath of Vietnam.
I feel some hesitation about a final statement. One’s adjectival vehemence has been used up. Novelty is beyond me and the horrific repetitions fall from the air without instruction. The intervention, undertaken for the most glassy motive, prestige, was destructive with a mad excess that finally became an unfathomable national caprice. Now, at the end, we are prepared to grant that Indochina was always far, far away. Yet neither distance nor defeat quite separates us as we had imagined: they, there in the Mekong Basin, in the damp heat, with the memory of forests of hard woods and care-worn rubber trees; and we, back home from a foreign adventure, sore and bored, and not altogether pleased with our too many friends who have made the journey back with us.
Are we separated, divorced from the past so swiftly? Hardly; not yet. It appears that Saigon and Phnom Penh are cut deeply into the rock of our imagination; they are not at all like Seoul. The war transformed the will and the possibilities of Cambodia, the curtain has not yet gone up on the stage of the future, but our attention is fixed by the chaos and the mysteriously drastic decisions of the beginning. Saigon, Da Nang, and Hue in a trembling, vigilant truce, await the historical process, whatever it may be. There is nothing more interesting to us than these destinations right now. They move past us, not as strangers, but as movements we are bound to by, at the least, the most active fascination. And we are bound to events by buried wishes that lie far from indifference. A wish perhaps for disaster and the wish of others for radical prosperities.
There is no visible remorse about Vietnam on the part of our leaders. They speak of the “tragedy” of losing; they give the appearance of having in the end lost by way of a perplexing and questionable degree of leniency. But they are far from seeing virtue in the limitations of force brought about by processes, political and American. Those limitations alarm and so the leaders are quick to assert that we will stand by our commitments, as if it were the constancy that mattered rather than the justice, the wisdom of the commitment itself.
The incongruities of the Nixon years with the furry, velvety ceremonial visits to Russia and China and the coarse, passionate vindictiveness toward the presumptions of North Vietnam. He (Nixon) will be “remembered for his foreign policy.” Everyone reminds us of that peculiarity—his children, his fallen comrades, the newspapers. And now President Ford, eager for the historic, enters the mist-heavy gloam of “foreign policy.” He seems to expect to find there a clear day, a sort of sunlight of distance, to have a taste of the foreign pleasures of his predecessor. The President and his vexed secretary of state issue on the far shores the multifarious commands and orders of the mythical America for whose rights and character they like to stand. The last arena for the exhibition of powers. Back home, for the two protagonists, the weary processes of government: carping at dawn, suspicion at midnight, and a long daytime of obstruction and ingratitude. They have learned a lesson, yes. But which one?
As an Englishman who lived in America from 1963 to 1970 I recall that there was always well-informed opposition within the US to the war, from 1965 onward. Why then were the opponents of the war able to see the realities of the situation while the men in the Washington war-rooms, particularly Johnson’s advisers, utterly misjudged events?
One reason is not often enough mentioned, I think. Neither American presidents nor the American people have learned by long experience, as European governments and people gradually have, that they must distrust chiefs of staff and military leaders and advisers as being liable always to be wrong about foreign policy. De Gaulle, Eisenhower, and Churchill, the first two because they were generals themselves, and Churchill because of World War I, knew that the plans and forecasts of their generals were apt to be wrong and biased in favor of more bombing, more fighting.
A check is needed within the government, always there alongside the military. The US must have a real foreign service and a real diplomatic service. A Kitchen Cabinet, together with predominantly amateur, untrained ambassadors, is a recipe for blundering and inconsistency and is a danger to the world. A State Department that offers a career and the opportunity of a decisive influence on policy is necessary so that young men of ability can be recruited from the universities. The State Department has become a shadow. A real State Department, properly manned, would be in a position to counterbalance the military effectively and would make it possible to reduce the CIA to a reasonable size.
There are obviously more fundamental needs, though an Englishman is not well qualified to speak about them. The American involvement in the war in Indochina was prolonged after 1968 principally for electoral reasons: it seemed politically disastrous to withdraw. Democracy, pressed so far, can destroy the human race for the sake of someone not losing an election. Respect for human rights and for liberal values ought always to prevail over the claims of democracy; at the very least, the international decencies need professional guardians, however recruited.
I have of course been assuming that there will be no change in the social composition of the ruling groups in the US. Within this framework, I think the strengthening of the State Department is the best that can be done immediately: the universities should be called in to help. I know that Americans distrust elites in political matters and that I am being undemocratic. But the Pentagon Papers showed a frightening illiteracy, and both the lives of Cambodian villagers and Angkor Wat were put at risk, or worse, partly because of this illiteracy: one cause of the unnecessary war, among others.
John K. Fairbank
Many “lessons” are being drawn from Vietnam, most of them profoundly culture-bound. Ignorant of Buddhism, rice culture, peasant life, and Vietnamese history and values generally, we sent our men and machines to Saigon. Now we are out, and still ignorant, even of the depth of our ignorance.
Ignorance of local languages, traditions, loyalties, and reactions leaves the cultural stranger prey to his own preconceptions, hopes, and fears, ready to be cozened by the local English-speakers and manipulated for their private ends. It puts him out of touch with reality. “The enemy is hurting,” it used to be said in Washington, “and so he will negotiate.” But Hanoi never seemed to get the message. Lesson one: do not intervene when culture-blind.
Our successful interventions have been within our own Atlantic culture area—notably World War I and World War II in Europe, “just” wars to defend “democracy” and “freedom.” Our interventions in China against Japan, later in Korea, and finally in Vietnam took us into strange territory, the age-old Chinese culture area of East Asia. Lacking common roots, we imposed on East Asian situations the stereotypes we brought from home, supporting “Free China” against Japan’s invasion and subsequently looking for “democratic” leaders in our sense of elected representatives of the people. But Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee, Ngo Dinh Diem invariably disappointed us by proving less Jeffersonian than out-of-date Confucian and, even less forgivably, losing power.
After a century of contact with Chinese, Koreans, and Japanese we had many common bonds from trade, missionary work, medicine, education, student exchanges, diplomacy, and tourism back and forth between our countries. But with Vietnam no such background had accumulated. It was for us part of France, not open to American contact or enterprise. Until 1945 even the people there were known to us not as Vietnamese but as Annamites, from the old Chinese name, Annam, “the pacified south.” The root cause of our Vietnam failure was thus the profound American cultural ignorance of Vietnamese history, values, problems, and motives when we originally went to the aid of the French in Vietnam after World War II. The worst evil of such ignorance was that it left Vietnam faceless and speechless, an almost meaningless object to be manipulated by us for our power-politics purposes.
Thus cultural ignorance leads on to imperialistic exploitation, not for gain but for seemingly worthy aims of international security. This amounts to disregarding the interests of the local people as they see them in their cultural terms and imposing upon their situation our view of the world as seen in our cultural terms. To call this arrogant is of course an understatement. Arrogant or not, it is a recipe for disaster. Lesson two: Our values are not those of everyone. In a multi-cultural world we must pursue more vigorously the understanding of other cultures. We may even get a cultural perspective on ourselves.
Another lesson of Vietnam is to revise the history of the “loss of China,” which was in fact not a loss but a lucky escape. When General Marshall returned from his unsuccessful mediation of 1946 and became secretary of state in 1947, he was able to forestall our intervening in the Chinese civil war in what might have become a super-Vietnam, in spades, doubled and vulnerable. Granted that we “lost” China in our national sentiments where “China” had been peculiarly enshrined, the main fact after 1949 was that we had escaped from fighting the Chinese communist-led revolution, that amalgam of nationalistic sentiment and communist doctrine that has since remade China. The lesson of our “loss” of China was simple: do not intervene against patriotic revolutions, no matter what they call themselves.
The lesson derived by the American political leadership came from closer to home—namely, that a “loss” of a foreign country could be disastrous for the party in power. This dubious proposition, which overlooked most of the facts in the situation, was accepted as a lesson of history and served as a motivation for our Vietnam intervention. Seldom has history been worse understood. Even after the Chinese fought us to a standstill in Korea despite their inferior firepower, we persisted in regarding our exit from China as having been a loss rather than a boon.
From this record one obvious conclusion is that we should try to avoid engraving a “lesson of Vietnam” on our minds, since the last time around is seldom similar to the next crisis. It is one thing to avoid intervening in civil war in the vast areas of the agrarian-bureaucratic societies of mainland East Asia. It may be quite another thing to maintain security arrangements among the islands and peninsulas of the trading world in the western Pacific. Power politics will not go away. The lessons of history are never simple. Whoever thinks he sees one should probably keep on with his reading.
The US government was defeated in Indochina, but only bruised at home. No outside power will compel us to face the record honestly or to offer reparations. On the contrary, efforts will be devoted to obscuring the history of the war and the domestic resistance to it. There are some simple facts that we should try to save as the custodians of history set to work.
In its essence, the Indochina war was a war waged by the US and such local forces as it could organize against the rural population of South Vietnam. Regarding the Geneva Accords of 1954 as a “disaster,” Washington at once undertook a program of subversion throughout the region to undermine the political arrangements. A murderous repression in South Vietnam led to the renewal of resistance. Kennedy involved US forces in counterinsurgency, bombing, and “population control.” By 1964 it was obvious that there was no political base for US intervention. In January 1965, General Khanh was moving toward an alliance with anti-American Buddhists and had entered into negotiations with the NLF. He was removed as the systematic bombardment of South Vietnam began, at triple the level of the more publicized bombing of the North. The full-scale US invasion followed, with consequences that are well known. The civilian societies of Laos and then Cambodia were savagely attacked in a war that was at first “secret” thanks to the self-censorship of the press.
In January 1973 Nixon and Kissinger were compelled to accept the peace proposals they had sought to modify after the November 1972 elections. As in 1954, the acceptance was purely formal. The Paris Agreements recognized two equivalent parties in South Vietnam, the PRG and the GVN, and established a basis for political reconciliation. The US was enjoined not to impose any political tendency or personality on South Vietnam. But Nixon and Kissinger announced at once that in defiance of the scrap of paper signed in Paris, they would recognize the GVN as the sole legitimate government, its constitutional structure—which outlawed the other party—intact and unchanged.
In violation of the agreements, Thieu intensified political repression and launched a series of military actions. By mid-1974, US officials were optimistically reporting the success achieved by the Thieu regime, with its vast advantage in firepower, in conquering PRG territory where, they alleged, a North Vietnamese buildup was underway. As before, the whole rotten structure collapsed from within as soon as the “enemy” was so ungracious as to respond, and this time Washington itself had collapsed to the point where it could no longer send in bombers.
The American war was criminal in two major respects. Like the Dominican intervention and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, it was a case of aggression, conscious and premeditated. In 1954, the National Security Council stated that the US reserved the right to use force “to defeat local Communist subversion or rebellion not constituting armed attack,” i.e., in violation of “the supreme law of the land.” The US acted on this doctrine. Furthermore, the conduct of the war was an indescribable atrocity. The US goal was to eradicate the revolutionary nationalist forces which, US officials estimated, enjoyed the support of half the population. The method, inevitably, was to destroy the rural society. While the war of annihilation partially succeeded in this aim, the US was never able to create a workable system out of the wreckage.
Opposition to the war at home made full-scale mobilization impossible and placed some constraints on the brutality of the war planners. By 1971, two-thirds of the US population opposed the war as immoral and called for the withdrawal of American troops. But the articulate intelligentsia generally opposed the war, if at all, on “pragmatic”—i.e., entirely unprincipled—grounds. Some objected to its horror; more objected to the failure of American arms and the incredible cost. Few were willing to question the fundamental principle that the US has the right to resort to force to manage international affairs. Throughout this period, there was a negative correlation between educational level and opposition to the war, specifically, principled opposition. (The correlation was obscured by the fact that the more articulate and visible elements in the peace movement were drawn disproportionately from privileged social groups.)
The gulf that opened between much of the population and the nation’s ideologists must be closed if US might is to be readily available for global management. Therefore, a propaganda battle is already being waged to ensure that all questions of principle are excluded from debate (“avoid recriminations”). Furthermore, the historical record must be revised, and it will be necessary to pretend that “responsible” political groups acting “within the system” sought to end the war, but were blocked in their efforts by the peace movement. People cannot be permitted to remember that the effective direct action of spontaneous movements—both in the United States and among the conscripted army in the field—that were out of the control of their “natural leaders” in fact played the primary role in constraining the war makers.
The US government was unable to subdue the forces of revolutionary nationalism in Indochina, but the American people are a less resilient enemy. If the apologists for state violence succeed in reversing their ideological defeats of the past years, the stage will be set for a renewal of armed intervention in the case of “local subversion or rebellion” that threatens to extricate some region from the US-dominated global system. A prestigious study group twenty years ago identified the primary threat of “communism” as the economic transformation of the communist powers “in ways which reduce their willingness and ability to complement the industrial economies of the West.” The American effort to contain this threat in Indochina was blunted, but the struggle will doubtless continue elsewhere. Its issue will be affected, if not determined, by the outcome of the ideological conflict over “the lessons of Vietnam.”
J. M. Cameron
Outside the United States there is some gloomy joy over the way in which the Vietnam war ended. David’s slaying of Goliath is always a good story and a heart-warming spectacle. Those of us who know and like the United States and its people are sad and anxious.
My mind goes back over the whole period, from the decision, under Eisenhower, to take no notice of the Geneva agreements, through the earliest military intervention under JFK, through the terrible Johnson years, and then the long and bloody, and futile, effort of the Nixon regime to get the soldiers out of Vietnam without loss of face. Only for a brief moment, during the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, did it seem likely that, outside the antiwar circles, people in general might come to believe that the question was one of morality and not of military and political calculation.
My memories are a confusion, though some things stick out. There are the words of Cardinal Spellman on Christmas Eve 1966 in Vietnam: “Anything less than victory is inconceivable.” These words were spoken in a sermon at Mass, for Catholics the great sign of God’s love for the entire human family. When Spellman got to Manila on December 28, he was asked if his remark had been intended to deny the possibility of a negotiated peace (something Vatican diplomacy was then trying to bring about). His reply was memorable: “Total victory means peace.”
Well, many days and many lives, many maimings and many betrayals later, a kind of peace has come. The B-52s from Thailand will fly no longer and Thailand will soon rid itself of their obscene presence. The Claymore mine—a flying bolt from this could kill a man more than a hundred yards from the explosion—invented by the Americans and copied by the Viet Cong, will explode no more. The poisoned fields and woods will begin to regenerate themselves year by year. All this will happen under the hard rule of the communists and the NLF. The bitterness secreted in the years of war with the French and the Americans and their Vietnamese allies will continue to prompt acts of terror and counterterror.
I remember the time when, to innocents such as myself, it looked just possible that Eugene McCarthy would be the Democrats’ antiwar candidate. Instead we had the intervention of Bobby Kennedy, seeking to reap where McCarthy had plowed and sown, then his assassination; and then Humphrey’s steering his way between the Scylla of Yes and the Charybdis of No.
To my mind the lesson of the war is not that it turned out to be a mistake, an error, the mistake and the error being shown by the failure of American arms. It was a vicious and immoral war in which the means employed bore no proportion to the (variously and often incoherently stated) objectives of the war. It is often said by the apologists of the Pentagon that the war was fought with restraint. Of course, it was. North Vietnam wasn’t bombed back into the Stone Age in Curtis Le May fashion. But the reasoning behind the talk of restraint is curious. If a superpower does not use nuclear bombs or if it doesn’t use conventional weapons to bring about the total destruction of civilian lives and property it is said to be exercising restraint. The corruption of the mind and heart represented by such an argument is the worst consequence of the war for the United States. The McCarthy candidacy, the burning of draft cards, all the campaigns of the peace movement, the Calley trial, these and many other happenings will have been fruitful if the shocking nature of this argument is perceived. (Compare: we only abort, sterilize, and so on in the cases of one out of every four teen-age mothers on welfare. What restraint!)
War is a moral question and the lesson of history is that governments can’t be trusted to think of it in such terms. Stephen Decatur’s often misquoted maxim is interesting. “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” If this is turned into the doctrine that loyalty to the duly constituted government of one’s country is the supreme moral imperative, the consequences are—as we have seen—very evil. “Putting Vietnam behind us” is not a wise prescription so long as there are influential men who continue to congratulate themselves on their high-minded “restraint” in the period of maximum American intervention in Indochina.
The decision to liquidate the entanglement in Vietnam may have marked, in President Ford’s words, the end of one chapter. It also marked the beginning of another. What matters now is not the antecedents but the sequel. As a historian, Kissinger is well aware of the old adage: reculer pour mieux sauter, and there is a good deal of evidence that what we are witnessing is not a revulsion against imperialism but a reappraisal of America’s imperial mission in terms better suited to the present constellation of world forces.
Nearly thirty years ago, enunciating the misguided policies which led with ironic logic to the sorry outcome in Vietnam, George Kennan spoke of “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” Can it be that all that has happened is that the geographical and political focus, which appeared in 1954 to have shifted to Southeast Asia, has shifted away again? If one main reason, back in 1969, for the initial decision to run down American commitments in Vietnam was the realization that the United States was overextended, and that the entanglement in Southeast Asia was impairing its ability to defend its interests elsewhere, can it be that what we are witnessing now is a redeployment of forces enabling the United States to intervene more effectively in areas—say the Middle East—where it has more vital interests to defend?
I raise these questions not to answer them, but because of the danger of mistaking a change of direction for a fundamental break with the past. A corporation with an unprofitable subsidiary may wind it up and put it in liquidation, but it does not go out of business; it concentrates on its profitable operations. All we know at present is that, as late as April 12, when he was well aware of the imminent outcome of the fighting for Saigon, Kissinger spoke of his determination “to conduct a strong foreign policy” and “re-establish American leadership.” This does not sound like the leopard changing its spots.
In terms of power politics (which are the only politics Kissinger understands) the decision to get out of Vietnam was a wise one—provided always it does not mean getting in somewhere else. That is to say, there was never a serious American interest involved, and it is likely, now that the whole entanglement is over, that Indochina, far from entering an anti-American communist camp, will land safely in a neutralist stance, which may not do the United States any good (once again, in terms of crude power politics) but certainly will do it no harm.
The trouble is that imperialism is a many-headed monster, and if one head is chopped off, as Thieu’s has been, another is apt to sprout. If the Vietnam commitment has been wound up, it is not because the nature of imperialism has changed, but because the world we live in is different from the world of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Power may be transient, but its nature remains the same though, like the chameleon, it may change its color. That is why, though withdrawal from Vietnam may end one imperialist chapter, it may just as easily mark the beginning of another.
Many years ago Dean Acheson got himself into bad odor when he said that “Britain has lost an empire, but not yet found a role.” At the risk of incurring similar bad odor, I would say that Acheson’s dictum applies no less forcefully to the United States today. The liquidation of the Vietnam adventure provides an opportunity for reappraisal of the United States’ role in the world; but there is little evidence, so far, that the opportunity has been taken, and a lot of evidence that it is being botched. If the object is still, in Kissinger’s words, “to re-establish American leadership” in the world, the lesson of Vietnam has not been learned; for the one thing that is certain is that the world repudiates American leadership—or that of any other country, including Soviet Russia.
No one threatens a United States which looks after its own concerns; but a United States which throws its weight around and tries to make the world an “American world” is in for trouble, as Vietnam should have shown. Happily, if Ford and Kissinger do not realize this, the American people—far more concerned with the depression and unemployment, which were the price of Vietnam, than with the display of American power—seem to do so; and that at least provides a hope for the future.