Like a Conquered Province
This is a time when we ask, “What must a man do?” and nobody knows the answer. Every day our war against Vietnam gets worse. The readers of this journal know perfectly well that more than 10,000 American men have been killed there, that the casualty rates are rising fast, that we are doing our best to destroy South Vietnam by uprooting provinces, defoliating forests, poisoning rice paddies, bombing with napalm and with the ingenious new multiple canisters that seem to be so effective against villagers. It is said (Wall Street Journal, June 27, 1967) that we have killed 200,000 “Reds” so far; I don’t know if that includes women and children. In North Vietnam, our enormous bombing attacks destroy and redestroy the few “targets” available. The fact that villages are also destroyed made a few headlines when Harrison Salisbury reported it, and then it was forgotten. The excuses our government has offered for all these onslaughts have been exposed again and again as lies. Our government’s claims that it seeks peace have been exposed as lies. These exposures seem to do no good. The truth does no good. Thus, when Noam Chomsky rigorously accomplished what he said was the responsibility of intellectuals, “to speak the truth and to expose lies,” about Vietnam, in The New York Review, February 23, 1967, his truths and his exposures brought only the response, “But what must we really do?” To do the job of the intellectual no longer seems like doing anything.
Very honorably Chomsky replied that he was worried about this too, and that even for him his responsibility as an intellectual was not fulfilled by seeking out the truth and telling it. He said he was refusing to pay half his taxes. This is admirable, if maybe difficult to manage for most of us under the tax-with-holding system; and there can be no doubt that this action, along with his speaking out, will answer for him satisfactorily the question he asks, “On what page of history do we find our proper place?” As we all know, many American intellectuals have acted honorably in opposing our war against Vietnam, and they deserve to be enrolled on the right side, when it is all over some day. But this has no effect on the events that are making history. What must a man do? Is it the responsibility of intellectuals to try to speak more loudly, to reach larger audiences, to hope to have some direct effect on the public sentiment? Dwight Macdonald, returning to politics after all these years, has summarized the work of the intellectuals on Vietnam, a good part of it from these pages, for the audience of the July Esquire, and with his usual dash and clarity has recorded his personal disgust with our war. But he too seems to feel that saying this is not enough. He ends with the parable of the pacifist Quaker who stood by during a pirate raid until at last he took up…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue — that’s 10 digital issues plus six months of full archive access plus the NYR App for just $10.