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A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam

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.

Norman Mailer

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?

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