The American Amnesia

Nightmare: The Underside of the Nixon Years

by J. Anthony Lukas
Viking Press, 626 pp., $15.00

The Time of Illusion

by Jonathan Schell
Knopf, 392 pp., $10.00

According to St. Augustine—no better name to invoke when one is discussing political sin—“the seat of mind is in memory.” If Augustine was right, the nation is now mindless, and we shall have to find such comfort as we can in the hope that when mind goes, habit and instinct may still remain, assuring life if not direction.

Surely the most striking aspect of the present political scene is the absence of the recent past from it. There seems to be something like a tacit agreement among the presidential contenders, and between them and the public, that the record of recent events has no bearing on our present condition and future prospects. The closest Ford comes to touching the past is in vague allusions to some dragon called détente, which he will guard us against just as he will preserve our ethnic treasures here at home. Those fronts secured, we can move forward into the third century, which is to be the century of American Individualism. Ronald Reagan sounds like Teddy Roosevelt, all teeth and bluster, about to lead the Rough Riders in another charge, this time into the Panama Canal. Jimmy Carter overleaps the recent past by centuries, and assures us that America still stands in a covenant of nations with God. The people and their leaders agree: let’s forget the recent past and get on with the business of building a brighter future. That, of course, is exactly the advice Nixon gave the nation at the height of Watergate.

This silence is all the more remarkable when one remembers that among the events unspoken are a constitutional crisis greater than any since the Civil War, absolute proof that for years national law enforcement and intelligence agencies violated law and elementary decency here and abroad, and a desolating war in Southeast Asia. The constitutional crisis has been reduced to an exciting film entertainment about the thrills and triumphs of investigative reporting, and to something like court scandal based on dubious research methods and ethics. Behind the scenes, the war continues to exist in the same basic doctrines and inflated military budgets that produced and sustained it in the first place. Out front, it exists only in occasional stories about the affairs of Lieutenant Calley and the difficulties of adjustment experienced by the Vietnamese refugees.

As the Mayagüez incident showed, not even the most obvious “lessons” of Vietnam have been accepted. In that episode, President Ford replayed Vietnam in miniature. He unleashed force against a small Asian country without consultation outside the Executive. The force was vastly greater than any sensible appraisal of the situation would have recommended. The affair was misrepresented to the public and casualty lists were falsified. The president crowed that the encounter was a victory for America, proving once again that we would stand behind our word and use our arms to back our interests.

Not one of the major contenders in the presidential primaries was an outspoken opponent of the war in …

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