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A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam

Robert Lowell

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.

Christopher Lasch

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.”

George Kennan

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.

Elizabeth Hardwick

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?

Stuart Hampshire

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.

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