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Home to Roost: A Bicentennial Address

The crises of the Republic, of this form of government and its institutions of liberty, could be detected for decades, ever since what appears to us today as a minicrisis was triggered by Joe McCarthy. A number of occurrences followed which testified to an increasing disarray in the very foundations of our political life. One consequence of the McCarthy episode was the destruction of a reliable and devoted civil service, something relatively new in this country, probably the most important achievement of the long Roosevelt administration. It was in the aftermath of this period that the “ugly American” appeared on the scene of foreign relations; he was then hardly noticeable in our domestic life, except in a growing inability to correct errors and repair damages.

Immediately thereafter a few thoughtful spectators began to have doubts whether our form of government would be able to withstand the onslaught of this century’s inimical forces and survive the year 2000—the first to utter such doubts publicly, if I remember rightly, was John Kennedy. But the general mood of the country remained cheerful and no one was prepared, not even after Watergate, for the recent cataclysm of events, tumbling over one another, whose sweeping force leaves everybody, spectators who try to reflect on it and actors who try to slow it down, equally numbed and paralyzed.

No doubt, the cataclysm of events that numbs us is due to a large extent to a strange, but in history by no means unknown, coincidence of occurrences, each of which has a different meaning and a different cause. Our defeat in Vietnam—by no means a “peace with honor” but on the contrary an outright humiliating defeat, with the helter-skelter evacuation by helicopter and its unforgettable scenes of a war of all against all, certainly the worst possible of the administration’s four options to which we added gratuitously our last public relations stunt, the baby airlift, the “rescue” of the only part of the South Vietnamese people who were entirely safe—the defeat by itself could hardly have resulted in so great a shock: it was a certainty for years, expected by many since the Têet offensive.

That “Vietnamization” would not work should have surprised nobody; it was a public relations slogan to excuse the evacuation of American troops who, ridden by drugs, corruption, desertions, and plain rebellion, could no longer be left there. What came as a surprise was the way Thieu himself, without even consulting his protectors in Washington, managed to accelerate the disintegration of his government to such an extent that the victors were unable to fight and conquer; what they found, when they could make contact with an enemy who fled more rapidly than they could persecute him, was not an army in retreat but a rout of a mob of soldiers and civilians on a rampage of gigantic proportions.

The point is that this defeat in Southeast Asia occurred almost simultaneously with the ruin of the foreign policy of the United States—the disaster in Cyprus and possible loss of two former allies, Turkey and Greece, the coup in Portugal and its uncertain consequences, the debacle in the Middle East, the rise to prominence of the Arab states. It coincided in addition with our manifold domestic troubles: inflation, devaluation of currency, the plight of our cities, the climbing rate of unemployment and of crime. Add to this the aftermath of Watergate, which I think is by no means behind us, trouble with NATO, the near bankruptcy of Italy and England, the conflict with India, and the uncertainties of détente, especially in view of the proliferation of nuclear arms, and compare it for a moment with our position at the end of the Second World War, and you will agree that among the many unprecedented events of this century the swift decline in power of the United States should be given due consideration.

We may very well stand at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other. For contemporaries entangled, as we are, in the inexorable demands of daily life, the dividing lines between eras may be hardly visible when they are crossed; only after people have stumbled over them do the lines grow into walls which irretrievably shut up the past.

At such moments in history when the writing on the wall becomes too frightening, most people flee to the reassurance of day-to-day life with its unchanging, pressing demands. And this temptation today is all the stronger since any long-range view of history is not very encouraging either: the American institutions of liberty, founded two hundred years ago, have survived longer than any comparable glorious historical period. These highlights of man’s historical record have rightfully become the paradigmatic models of our tradition of political thought; but we should not forget that, chronologically speaking, they were always exceptions. As such they survive splendidly in thought to illuminate the thinking and doing of men in darker times. No one knows the future, and all we can say with certainty at this rather solemn moment is: no matter how it will end, these two hundred years of liberty, with all its ups and downs, have earned their “due meed of glory” (Herodotus).

It is precisely because people are aware of the fearful distance that separates us from our extraordinary beginnings and the extraordinary qualities of the founders themselves that so many embark upon a search for the roots, the “deeper causes” of what happened. It is in the nature of roots and “deeper causes” that they are hidden by the appearances in broad daylight of the phenomena which they are supposed to have caused. There exists a plethora of theories about the “deeper” cause for the outbreak of the First or Second World War based not on the melancholy wisdom of hindsight but on the speculations, grown into convictions, about the nature and fate of capitalism or socialism, of the industrial or postindustrial age, the role of science and technology, and so on. But such theories are even more severely limited by the implied demands of the audience to which they are addressed. They must be plausible, that is, they must contain statements that most reasonable men at the particular time can accept; they cannot require an acceptance of the unbelievable.

I think that most people who have watched the frantic, panic-stricken end of the Vietnam war thought that what they saw on their television screens was “unbelievable,” as indeed it was. It is this aspect of reality, which cannot be anticipated by either hope or fear, that we celebrate when Fortuna smiles and that we curse when misfortune strikes. All speculation about deeper causes returns from the shock of reality to what seems plausible and can be explained by what reasonable men think is possible. Those who challenge these plausibilities, the bearers of bad tidings, who insist on “telling it as it is,” have never been welcomed and often not been tolerated at all. If it is in the nature of appearances to hide “deeper” causes, it is in the nature of speculation about such hidden causes to hide and to make us forget the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are.

This natural human tendency has grown to gigantic proportions during the last decade when our whole political scene was ruled by the habits and prescriptions of what is euphemistically called public relations, that is, by the “wisdom” of Madison Avenue. It is the wisdom of the functionaries of a consumer society who advertise its goods to a public, the larger part of which spends much more time in consuming its wares than it takes to produce them. Madison Avenue’s function is to help to distribute the merchandise, and its interest is focused less and less on the needs of the consumer and more and more on the need of the merchandise to be consumed in larger and larger quantities. If abundance and superabundance were the original goals of Marx’s dream of a classless society, then we live the reality of the socialist and communist dream, except that this dream has been realized beyond our wildest fantasies through the advancement of technology, whose provisionally last stage is automation: the noble dream has changed into something closely resembling a nightmare.

Those who wish to speculate about the “deeper” cause underlying the factual change of an early producer society into a consumer society that could keep going only by changing into a huge waste economy would do well to turn to Lewis Mumford’s recent reflections in The New Yorker. For it is indeed only too true that the “premise underlying this whole age,” its capitalist as well as its socialist development, has been “the doctrine of Progress.” “Progress,” Mumford says, “was a tractor that laid its own roadbed and left no permanent imprint of its own tracks, nor did it move toward an imaginable and humanly desirable destination. ‘The going is the goal,’ ” but not because there was an inherent beauty or meaningfulness in the “going.” Rather, to stop going, to stop wasting, to stop consuming more and more, quicker and quicker, to say at any given moment, enough is enough, would spell immediate doom.

This “progress,” accompanied by the incessant noise of the advertisement agencies, went on at the expense of the world we live in, and of the objects themselves, with their built-in obsolescence, which we no longer use but abuse, misuse, and throw away. The recent sudden awakening to the threats to our environment is the first ray of hope in this development, although nobody, as far as I can see, has yet found a means to stop this runaway economy without causing a really major breakdown.

Much more decisive, however, than these social and economic consequences is the fact that Madison Avenue tactics under the name of public relations have been permitted to invade our political life. The Pentagon Papers not only presented in detail “the picture of the world’s greatest superpower killing or seriously injuring a thousand noncombatants a week, while trying to pound a tiny backward nation into submission on an issue whose merits are hotly disputed”—a picture which in Robert McNamara’s carefully measured words was certainly “not a pretty one.” They also proved beyond doubt and in tedious repetition that this enterprise was exclusively guided by the needs of a superpower to create for itself an image which would convince the world that it was indeed “the mightiest power on earth.”

The ultimate aim of this terribly destructive war, which Johnson let loose in 1965, was neither power nor profit, nor even anything so real as influence in Asia to serve particular tangible interests for the sake of which prestige, an appropriate image, was needed and purposefully used. For the ultimate aim, all “options” were but short-term interchangeable means, until finally, when all signs pointed to defeat, this whole outfit strained its remarkable intellectual resources on finding ways and means to avoid admitting defeat and to keep the images of the “mightiest power on earth” intact.

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