• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam

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.

Gore Vidal

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.

Susan Sontag

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.

Mary McCarthy

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.”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print