“Well, what would you do?” Sooner or later the critic of US policy in Vietnam is faced with that question—a real crusher. Up to that point, he may have been winning the argument. His opponent may have conceded that it was a mistake to send American troops here in the first place, that there was no commitment under SEATO or any other “instrument” requiring it, that the war is horribly destructive, that pacification is not working, that Hanoi is not responding co-operatively to the bombing—in short, that everything that has been done up to the present instant has been wrong. But now resting comfortably on this mountain of errors, he looks down magnanimously on the critic and invites him to offer a solution. He is confident that the critic will be unable to come up with one. And in a sense he is right. If you say “Get Out”—the only sane answer—he pounces. “How?” And he sits back smiling. He has won. The tables are turned, and the critic is on the defensive. If he tries to outline a plan for rapid withdrawal, conscious that 464,000 troops, plus their civilian supporting services, cannot be pulled out overnight (and what about the “loyal” Vietnamese—should they be left behind or do we owe them an airlift to Taiwan?), the plan inevitably appears feeble and amateurish in comparison with the massed power and professionalism of the war actually being waged.

The fatal weakness in the thinking of most of Johnson’s critics is not to perceive that that question is a booby trap. In general, the more eminent they are, the more alacrity they show in popping up with “positive recommendations for policy,” “solutions,” proposals for gradual and prudent disengagement, lest anybody think they are just carping and have no better alternatives of their own. Take the painful example of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Bitter Heritage: “cogent, lucid, penetrating—tells us what really ought to be done about Vietnam” (John Gunther). It is cogent, lucid, penetrating until Schlesinger tells us what ought to be done in a wishful chapter entitled “The Middle Course,” urging a political solution while insisting on the need to keep applying force (in moderation) to get it, the pursuit of negotiations while “tapering off” the bombing (no cease-fire on the ground, he warns—too dangerous), a promise to the Viet Cong of a “say” in the future of Vietnam but not, it is implied, too much of a say, reliance on Oriental “consensual procedures” or the precedent of Laos to solve any little difficulties in the way of a coalition government—a chapter that anyone who agrees with Schlesinger’s negative arguments would like to snip out of the volume, working carefully with a razor blade so as to leave no traces before lending it to a less convinced friend. Presented with Schlesinger’s formula for meeting the Communist “threat,” the reader is likely to think that Johnson’s formula is better.

The same sinking feeling was produced by Richard Goodwin in The New Yorker, by J. K. Galbraith’s “moderate solution” (hailed by James Reston), by Senator Fulbright’s eight-point program, and, sad to say, by the Fulbright hearings taken as a whole. What emerges, when all the talk is over, is that none of these people really opposes the war. Or not enough to stop thinking in terms of “solutions,” all of which imply continuing the war by slightly different means until the Viet Cong or Hanoi (Schlesinger holds out the exciting possibility of an “exploitable split” between the Viet Cong and Hanoi) is ready to make peace.

Even a man like George Kennan, who evidently believes the war to be wrong and testified impressively against our policy before the Fulbright Committee, did not have an inner attorney to warn him to rest his case there. Instead, pressed by bullish senators to say what he would do in the President’s place (never mind what he would have done), Kennan fell back on the enclave strategy, making an easy target for the military, who can demonstrate without trouble how enclaves failed the French in their war, how Tito’s Partisans knew they had won when they finally maneuvered the Nazis into coastal enclaves, how in fact the last place you want to be when faced with guerrillas is holed up in an enclave. And Kennan himself must have known that he had lost a round in the fight for peace when he allowed himself to be cornered into offering inconsequent armchair recommendations, in the midst of the hostile terrain bristling with alert TV aerials, of US popular feeling.

These are the errors of an opposition that wants to be statesmanlike and responsible, in contrast to the “irresponsible” opposition that is burning its draft card or refusing to pay taxes. To make sure that it can be told apart from these undesirables, it behaves on occasion like a troop of Eagle Scouts. Think of the ludicrous message sent to North Vietnam by sixteen Congressional doves—an appeal to Ho to understand that they are a) an unrepresentative minority and b) loyal Americans whose speeches were not meant to be overheard and “misinterpreted” by Hanoi.


Or it can assume the voice of Johnson. A recent New York Post editorial sternly criticized the Ky government’s suspension of free speech (guaranteed by the new Constitution) and then continued: “We cannot heed the counsel of timid or misguided persons and withdraw. We dare not shrink from the duty democracy demands.” The truth is, the Post is too cowardly to call for withdrawal. For the respectable opposition, unilateral withdrawal has become steadily more unthinkable as United States intervention has widened. It was perfectly thinkable before 1961. It was even thinkable for Bobby Kennedy as late as September 1963, at a meeting of the National Security Council, when he asked whether now might be the time to get out. It is still thinkable, though not by the Kennedy men, who, out of power, dare not reason as they might have in the privacy of a president’s councils.

We could still, if we wished, take “French leave” of Vietnam, and how this should be done ought not to be the concern of those who oppose our presence there. When the French schoolteachers and intellectuals of the Committee of 121 insisted that France get out of Algeria, they did not supply De Gaulle with a ten-point program telling him how to do it. That was De Gaulle’s business. He was responsible, not they. As intellectuals, they confronted their government with an unequivocal moral demand, and far from identifying themselves with that government and thinking helpfully on its behalf, they disassociated themselves from it totally so long as it continued to make war in Algeria. The administrative problems of winding up the war were left to those who had been waging it, just as the political problem of reconciling the French electorate to a defeat was left in the hands of De Gaulle, a politician by profession.

OUR PAMPHLETEERS and polemicists, if they were resolute, would behave in the same way. Not: “We see your dilemma, Mr.President. It won’t be easy to stop this war, but here are a few ideas.” The country needs to understand that the war is wrong, and the sole job of the opposition should be to enforce that understanding and to turn it, whenever possible, into the language of action. It is clear that US senators and former ambassadors are not going to sit in at the Pentagon or hurl themselves at troop trains; nobody expects that of them and nobody seriously expects elected or appointed officials to practice tax refusal. But one could expect practical support for the young people who are resisting the draft from a few courageous officeholders and from private figures with a genuine sense of public responsibility.

Instead of hoping to avoid identification with unruly picketers and other actionists, Americans who are serious in opposing the war should be refusing to identify themselves with the US government, even a putative government that would change to a defensive “posture” and prepare, as they say, to sit the war out. The question is simple: Do I disapprove more of the sign that picket is carrying—and the beard he is wearing—or of the Vietnamese war? To judge by introspection, the answer is not pretty. For the middle-class, middle-aged “protester,” the war in Vietnam is easier to take than a sign that says “JOHNSON MURDERER.”

The war does not threaten our immediate well-being. It does not touch us in the consumer-habits that have given us literally our shape. Casualty figures, still low, seldom strike home outside rural and low-income groups—the silent part of society. The absence of sacrifices has had its effect on the opposition, which feels no need, on the whole, to turn away from its habitual standards and practices—what for? We have not withdrawn our sympathy from American power and from the way of life that is tied to it—a connection that is more evident to a low-grade GI in Vietnam than to most American intellectuals.

A sympathy, sneaking or otherwise, for American power is weakening the opposition’s case against Johnson. He acts as if he had a mournful obligation to go on with the war unless and until somebody finds him an honorable exit from it. There is no honorable exit from a shameful course of action, though there may be a lucky escape. But the mirage of an honorable exit—a “middle road”—remains the deceptive premise of the liberal opposition, which urges the mistrustful President to attempt it on a pure trial-and-error basis; you never know, it may work.


For example, “Stop the bombing to get negotiations”—meaning the bombing of the North; strangely, nothing is said about the much worse bombing of the South. But in reality no one knows, unless it is Ho Chi Minh, whether a cessation of bombing would bring negotiations or not and, if it did, what the terms of Ho would be. Stop if for six months and see, suggests Bobby Kennedy. “Don’t pin it down. Be vague,” others say. But how does this differ, except in duration, from one of Johnson’s famous bombing pauses, which failed, so he claimed, to produce any response? Moreover, if stopping the bombing is only a trick or maneuver to get negotiations (that is, to see the enemy’s cards), then Rusk and Joseph Alsop have equal rights to argue that talk of negotiations, put about by the friends of Hanoi, is only a trick to stop the bombing and give the North a chance to rebuild. And what if the bombing stops and Hanoi does not come to the conference table or comes with intransigent terms? Then the opposition, it would seem, is bound to agree to more and perhaps bigger bombing. Advocates of a failed hypothesis in wartime can only fall silent and listen to Big Brother.

To demand a halt to the bombing unconditionally, without qualifications, is quite another matter. The citizen who makes that demand cannot be “proved” wrong by subsequent developments, e.g., the obduracy of Hanoi or an increase in infiltration. Either it is morally wrong for the United States to bomb a small and virtually defenseless country or it is not, and a student picketing the Pentagon is just as great an expert in that realm, to say the least, as Dean Rusk or Joseph Alsop. Surely, in fact, the student who demands that the bombing stop speaks with a greater authority than the professor who urges it.

Not being a military specialist, I cannot plot the logistics of withdrawing 464,000 American boys from Vietnam, but I know that it can be done, if necessary, and Johnson knows it too. Everybody knows it. A defeat in battle on the order of Dien Bien Phu, if it happened, could provide Johnson’s generals with the opportunity to plan and execute a retreat. That is their job, and Johnson might even snatch honor from it. Look at Churchill and the heroic exploit of Dunkirk, which did not depend on prior negotiations with Hitler. But we cannot wait for a major defeat in battle to cover Johnson’s withdrawal with honor or even to save his face for him. Nor can we wait for a Soviet or a Chinese intervention, which might have the same effect (if not a quite different one) by precipitating a Cuban-style confrontation; the war could then terminate in a withdrawal of the big powers, leaving a wrecked Vietnam to the Vietnamese. That, no doubt, would be a “solution” acceptable to the men in power.

In politics, it seems, retreat is honorable if dictated by military considerations and shameful if even suggested for ethical reasons—as though, by some law of inertia, force could only yield to superior force or to some natural obstacle, such as unsuitable terrain or “General Winter,” whom Napoleon met in Russia. Thus the immense American superiority of arms in itself becomes an argument for staying in Vietnam; indeed, at this point, the only argument. The more troops and matériel committed to Vietnam, the more retreat appears to be cut off—not by an enemy, but by our own numbers. To call for withdrawal in the face of that commitment (the only real one we have made to Vietnam) is to seem to argue not against a policy, but against facts, which by their very nature are unanswerable. In private, a US spokesman may agree that the Americans cannot win in Vietnam. “But they can’t lose either,” he adds with a satisfied nod. Critics of US policy, when they go to Vietnam, are expected to be convinced by the fact of 464,000 troops, once it sinks in; and indeed what can you say to it? Johnson’s retort to his opponents has been to tersely add more facts, in the shape of men and arms. Their utility is not just to overwhelm the Viet Cong by sheer force of numbers, but to overwhelm domestic disbelief; if they cannot stop the VC, they can stop any talk of unilateral withdrawal. Under these circumstances, the idea that he subtract a few facts—de-escalation—is rejected by Johnson as illogical. The logic of numbers is the only one that convinces him of the rightness of the course he is bent on.

Meanwhile, the generals are sure they could win the war if they could only bomb the port of Haiphong and the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos. They blame politics for their failure to win it, and by politics is meant the existence of counter-forces in the theater: China, Russia, the Pathet Lao, and simply people, civilians, a weak counter-force, but still an obstacle to total warfare under present conditions. It used to be said that the balance of terror would give rise to a series of limited wars. Up to now, this has been true, so far as geographical scale goes, but the abstention from the use of atomic arms, in Vietnam, has not exactly worked to moderate the war.

ON THE CONTRARY, the military establishment, deprived for the time being of tactical atomic weapons (toys being kept in the closet) and held back from bombing the port of Haiphong and the Ho Chi Minh trail, has compensated for these limitations by developing other weapons and devices to the limit: antipersonnel bombs; a new, more adhesive napalm; a twenty-pound gadget, the E-63 manpack personnel detector, made by General Electric, replacing British-trained bloodhounds, to sniff out Viet Cong: a battery-powered blower that raises the temperature in a VC tunnel network to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit (loud-speakers, naturally, exhort the Viet Cong in the tunnels to surrender); improved tear gases; improved defoliants. The classic resistance offered by climate and terrain to armies of men, one of the ancient limitations on warfare, will doubtless be all but eliminated as new applications for patents pour into the US Patent Office. The jungle will be leafless and creeperless, and the mangrove swamps dried out; the weather will be controlled, making bombing possible on a 365-day-a-year basis, exclusive of Buddha’s birthday, Christmas, and Têt. The diseases of the jungle and tropical climates are already pretty well confined to the native population, thanks to pills and immunization. In other words, for an advanced nation, practically no obstacles remain to the exercise of force except “politics.”

US technology is bent on leaving nothing to chance in the Vietnamese struggle, on taking the risk out of war (for ourselves, of course, while increasing the risk for the enemy). Whatever cannot be controlled scientifically—shifts of wind, rain—is bypassed by radar and electronics. Troop performance is fairly well guaranteed by the Selective Service system and by rotation; the “human element,” represented by the Arvin, prone to desert or panic, is despised and feared. And if chance can be reduced to a minimum by the “miracle” of American technology, there is only one reality-check on American hubris: the danger of Chinese or Russian intervention, which computers in the Pentagon are steadily calculating, to take the risk out of that.

Yet the peculiar fact is that this has been a war of incredible blunders, on the American side; you never hear of blunders, though there must be some, on the part of the Viet Cong. Leaving aside the succession of political blunders, starting with the great Diem gamble and going right up to the Ky gamble (the current embarrassment of US officials), there has been a startling number of military blunders: government villages bombed, Cambodian villages bombed, a Strategic Hamlet gunned by a US helicopter on the day before the ambassador’s scheduled visit, US troops bombed and shelled by their own aircraft and artillery, “Friendlies” bombed and shelled, a Russian ship bombed in Haiphong harbor, overflights into China.

IN THE CASE of North Vietnam, blunder must be a misnomer for what has been done with regularity to villages, churches, hospitals, a model leper colony, schools. American opinion refuses to hear of a “deliberate bombing pattern” in North Vietnam, though there is plenty of testimony and photographic evidence of the destruction of populated centers. The administration insists that we are bombing military targets only, though it has finally conceded, after too many had been found, that we are using anti-personnel bombs in the North, without specifying how these inventions, designed to fragment a soft human body, were effective against bridges, power plants, and railway yards. Yet even those who are unconvinced by the administration’s regularly issued denials prefer to think that what is happening is the result of human or mechanical error—a possibility categorically excluded by the US Navy.

On the nuclear carrier Enterprise, a squadron of Intruder pilots in their airconditioned ready room assured journalists, myself included, that under no circumstances did they hit anything in the North but military targets. How did they know? Because they only bombed targets assigned to them, which had been carefully selected with the aid of computers working on aerial photographs. Besides, post-raid reconnaissance recorded on film the “impact” of every delivery; there was no chance of error. Did it never happen that, returning from a mission and having failed for some reason—flak or whatever—to reach their assigned targets, they jettisoned their bomb load on the countryside? Never. Always into the sea. What about those accounts of devastated villages and hamlets? Impossible. “Our aerial photographs would show it.” You could not shake their placid, stolid, almost uninterested conviction. Yet somebody’s cameras were lying. Those of the journalists and other witnesses who bring back ordinary photographs they have snapped in the North or the unmanned cameras of the US Navy?

Their faith in technology had put these men, in their own eyes, above suspicion. They would as soon have suspected the totals of an adding machine. Was it conceivable that in flying they kept their attention glued to their instrument panels and their radar screen, watching out for MIGS and SAMS, no more interested in what was below them, in both senses, than they were in our questions?

The same faith in technology commands the administration to go on with the war, in defiance of any evidence of failure, bringing to bear American inventiveness, not only in the field of weaponry, but also in the field of propaganda—loud-speakers, broadcasts from the air, cunning messages inserted literally between the lines of ornamented New Year’s calendars distributed free to the people—“We don’t make it too obvious.” The next step in this field would be subliminal suggestion, psychedelic bombardments in light and color to be pioneered by General Electric, free “trips” offered to the population by the Special Forces, with CIA backing—the regular Army would disapprove.

“Politics” gets in the way of technology. If the world could be cleansed of politics, including South Vietnamese politicians, victory might be in sight. Politics, domestic and international, is evidently the only deterrent recognized by the Americans to an all-out onslaught on the Vietnamese nation; it is the replacement of the inner voice of conscience, which nobody but a few draft-resisters can hear. Johnson, who keeps acting as if he were bowing to necessity, looks to “politics”—i.e., Hanoi—to release him, the prisoner of circumstance. He invites his enemy and his critics to “show him the way out.” At the same time he insists that “the door is always open,” which means, if anything, that the portals of peace will swing wide at the bidding of Ho Chi Minh but remain locked to him, beating and signaling from the inside. What he appears to be saying is that Ho Chi Minh is free whereas he and his advisers are not.

This hypocritical performance may, like most play-acting, have a certain psychological truth. Johnson and his advisers, like all Americans, are the conditioned subjects of the free-enterprise system, which despite some controls and government manipulation, appears to function automatically, requiring no consent on the part of those involved in it. A sense of compulsion, dictated by the laws of the market, permeates every nerve of the national life. Industry, for example, has been “compelled” to automate by the law of costcutting, which works in “free” capitalism with the same force as a theorem in geometry. And the necessity to automate is accepted throughout society without any question. The human damage involved, if seen close up, may elicit a sigh, as when a co-operative apartment building fires its old Negro elevator operators (“Been with us twenty years”) to put in self-service: “We had to you see. It was cheaper.” Or ask a successful author why he has changed from his old publisher, who was virtually his parent, to a new mass-market one. “I had to,” he explains, simply. “They offered me more money.”

A feeling of having no choice is becoming more and more widespread in American life, and particularly among successful people, who supposedly are free beings. On a concrete plane, the lack of choice is often a depressing reality. In national election years, you are free to choose between Johnson and Goldwater or Johnson and Romney or Reagan, which is the same as choosing between a Chevrolet and a Ford—there is a marginal difference in styling. Just as in American hotel rooms you can decide whether or not to turn on the air conditioner (that is your business), but you cannot open the window.

It is natural that in such a system the idea of freedom is associated with escape, whether through trips or “trips,” rather than with the exercise of one’s ordinary faculties. And at the same time one’s feeling of imprisonment is joined to a conviction of innocence. Johnson, perhaps genuinely, would like to get out of his “commitment” to the war in Vietnam, and the more deeply he involves himself in it, the more abused and innocent he feels, and the less he is inclined to take any steps to release himself, for to do so would be to confess that he is culpable or—the same thing—that he has been free at any time to do what he would now be doing.

Those of Johnson’s critics who, like Senator Fulbright, repudiate the thought of a “disorderly” retreat by implication favor an orderly retreat, with the panoply of negotiations, guarantees, and so on. I.e., a retreat assisted and facilitated by Hanoi. But that choice, very likely, is no longer open, thanks to Johnson himself. He would be very lucky, at this point, to get negotiations at the mere cost to him of ending the bombing of the North—a cost that to Ho or any rational person seems derisory, since, as our military spokesmen have complained, there are no targets in North Vietnam left to destroy, except the port of Haiphong, which Johnson, for his own reasons and not to please Ho, has spared up to now. Indeed, to have something of value to offer short of troop withdrawal, Johnson’s peculiar logic would lead him to start bombing the port of Haiphong in order to stop bombing it—exactly the chain of reasoning that sent our planes north back in February 1965, and has kept them pounding ever since.

THE OPPOSITION’S best hopes for an orderly retreat rest on the South Vietnamese, just as, probably, the administration’s fears do. Last September the notion that the September elections might put in a government that could negotiate a separate peace with the NLF was once again revived; some people banked on the return of General Minh as a coalition candidate. If he were permitted to return and if he were elected, with the support of the radical Buddhists and liberal groups in the Constitutional Assembly, that would have allowed the Americans to leave by invitation—a very attractive prospect. Now that Thieu and Ky have been duly elected, General Minh remaining in Thailand, a Vietnamese solution does not appear imminent, though there has been talk of a coalition between the radical Buddhists and the defeated civilian candidates, talk of a split between Thieu and Ky, of a split between Thieu-Ky and the US Embassy. Failing that, there are the American elections of 1968. The opposition prays for the nomination of a Romney or a Percy, who might beat Johnson and might end the war, as Eisenhower did in Korea. And it dreads the nomination of a Nixon or a Reagan, which would “compel” it to vote again for Johnson—a perfect illustration of American consumer choice.

These are all hopes for a Redeemer who will come from the outside to save us from our own actions: an Asian general, a Republican who does not fit into the party program or picture. In the same way, Johnson may be hoping for a Redeemer in the form of Kosygin to get him to the peace table. Or he may have a more far-reaching design: the eventual occupation of the North and the establishment of US bases next to the Chinese border. Yet if such a design exists, it must be in the back of the administration’s mind and be, itself, more a cunning hope than a businesslike calculation, a thought held in the pending file and marked “Cosmic”.

Actually, so far as is known, Johnson has not program for ending the war in the South. Asked what he would do, he, too, no doubt would be reduced to head-scratching. He has given a promise to withdraw American troops as soon as hostilities are over—a promise that evidently cannot be kept. The consequences of bilateral withdrawal would be nearly as “disastrous” as the consequences of unilateral withdrawal: the return of the Viet Cong. The Vietnamese know this, which makes them uncertain what to fear most. A new man in the White House who might decide to keep it? Or permanent colonial status?

“The Vietnamese must choose for themselves,” the Americans repeat, having done their best to deprive them of the power of choice during thirteen years of American military assistance that slowly turned into a full-scale American invasion—there is no other word for it. The Americans pretend that this was somehow forced on them; in reality, it was forced on the Vietnamese, as is clear from the low morale of their troops. “They just don’t want to fight,” American officers say with an air of puzzlement. If the Vietnamese want to be rid of the Americans, they must turn toward the NLF—a hard decision for some French-educated idealists, who, despite their experience with the American brand as an export product, still have hopes of democracy. Yet the brutality of the war is reconciling certain middle-class Saigon groups to making discreet overtures toward their class enemy; meanwhile, in the field, the Viet Cong forces have been increasing—which our spokesmen ascribe to “better recruiting methods.” In their turn, Americans concerned for the future of the Republic, rather than for the future of American power, are reduced to hoping that the Viet Cong can hold out in the face of the overwhelming facts marshaled against it—as though its often primitive and homemade weapons possessed a moral force of resistance denied to members of the Great Society.

The uselessness of our free institutions, pleasurable in themselves, to interpose any check on a war of this character, opposed, though not enough, by most so-called thinking persons, suggests that freedom in the United States is no longer a political value and is seen simply as the right to self-expression, as in the dance, psychodrama, beins, kinky sex, or baking ceramics. The truth is, only a minority is interested in the war in Vietnam, and debate about the subject is treated as a minority pastime, looked on by the majority with more or less tolerance. “The country can afford it,” is the attitude. Or: “It’s a free country,” which has come to mean “I’ve got mine, Jack. Everybody to his taste.” A little less tolerance might harden the opposition. If the opposition wants to make itself felt politically, it ought to be acting so as to provoke intolerance. It is hurt because the administration ignores it. There are various ways of obliging the administration—and more importantly the country—to take notice: some extremely radical, like the bonze’s way of self-immolation; some less so, ranging from tax refusal through the operation of underground railroads for protesting draftees, down to simple boycotts of key war industries; nobody who is against the war should be receiving dividends from the manufacture of napalm, for instance, which is calling to be outlawed.

Since the Revolution, this country has had no experience of foreign occupation and consequently of resistance movements; in that field, it lacks inspiration and inventiveness and is readily discouraged. But the professors and students who lost heart when the teachins failed to change US policy might study the example of the Abolitionists—the nearest thing to a resistance movement the Republic has had. Obviously no single plan of action can stop the war in Vietnam, and maybe a hundred plans concerted could not stop it. But if it can be stopped, it will be through initiatives taken by persons or groups of persons (whether they be Johnson or Ho or a Republican president or Big Minh or the readers of this paper) and not through cooked-up “solutions” handed to somebody else to act on, like inter-office memoranda. The “hard thinking” about this war needs to begin at home, with the critic asking himself what he can do against it, modestly or grandly, with friends or alone. From each according to his abilities, but to be in the town jail, as Thoreau knew, can relieve any sense of imaginary imprisonment.

Copyright 1967 by Mary McCarthy. Reprinted by permission from her book "Vietnam" (Harcourt, Brace & World).

This Issue

November 9, 1967