American scholars are increasingly asking themselves the question that German scholars have been asking for the past quarter century: how to explain the catastrophe? For while the American involvement in Southeast Asia, examined in Richard Barnet’s perspicacious book, is materially catastrophic chiefly for Asians, morally it is a catastrophe for the American people analogous to that which so profoundly disturbed thoughtful and historical-minded Germans like Meinecke or Gerhard Ritter or Theodor Litt.
A basic difference in the inquiry is that while the German conscience could not find expression until after the ultimate defeat—a form of catharsis not very helpful to the victims of the Nazi terror—the American conscience, thanks to the still surviving freedoms of inquiry and of criticism, thanks to the New York Times, thanks to congressmen like Senator Gravel, and to civil servants’ like Daniel Ellsberg and investigators like Richard Barnet, and to universities which still shelter dissident scholars, prospectively rather than retrospectively may be effective in mitigating the ravages of American policies. It is perhaps a measure of the iniquity of this war that the upsurge of conscience against it is more pervasive and more vigorous than in any previous wars, even misguided wars like those with Mexico, Spain, and the Philippines. That is, however, small comfort to the victims of American terror.
No other war in which we have ever been engaged, except possibly the Civil War, poses so many or such difficult problems to the historian as does our ten-year war in Southeast Asia. With all the others the causes have seemed comprehensible, the conduct unexceptionable, the objectives plausible. The Vietnam war alone seems to be the product of willful folly, hysteria, and paranoia, lacking in logic, purpose, or objective, and waged with insensate fury against victims with whom we had no quarrel and who are incapable of doing us any physical or even any philosophical harm, waged for its own sake, or for the sake of “honor” which we have already forfeited or of “victory” forever elusive. What dramatizes and magnifies the demented quality of the war is that it is even now being fought with mounting fury after whatever rationale it ever pretended to have—that of “containing” China—has been officially abandoned.
The psychological and moral questions which this war poses will probably never be fully answered. Why did the United States transfer the cold war from the Soviet Union to China? Events of the past year demonstrate that there never was any logic—except domestic political logic—behind this: we could just as readily have accepted communist China in 1952 as in 1972. Why did American statesmen ever suppose that we had either the right or the competence to be an Asian power? We would, after all, think any Chinese statesman who thought that China should be an American power bereft of his senses. If we were prepared to fight an ideological war in Asia, why did we pick on Laos and Vietnam as our enemies, instead of China itself? If our purpose is to establish an outpost of freedom and democracy in Asia, why do we support one of the most ruthless dictators and one of the most corrupt and reactionary regimes in Asia, and why, for that matter, did we rally to the support of a totalitarian Pakistan rather than a democratic India?
Why have we grown increasingly callous to crimes against humanity which we ourselves outlawed at Nuremberg and Tokyo, and why are we indifferent to the destruction of a small country by pouring on her the equivalent of two Hiroshimas every month? Why have we persisted in a war which President Johnson by his cessation of bombing and President Nixon by his rapprochement with China have acknowledged to be pointless? And how does it happen that after popular disillusionment with the war persuaded one President to retire and another to come into office with a promise to “end the war,” we are dropping more bombs on North and South Vietnam than ever before?
If the war violates the logic of politics and of morals, it violates just as flagrantly the logic of our history and, if we may use the term, of our character. Perhaps, to be sure, we have deceived ourselves about our character all along: doubtless the American Indians would say this, and American blacks as well. But there is an almost perverse inconsistency in the spectacle of a people about to rededicate themselves with great fanfare to the “principles of seventy-six” devoting themselves so contumaciously to making a shambles of those principles.
Traditionally the United States has been committed to the principle of negotiation rather than the resort to force in international disputes: we did, after all, arrange the first international negotiating commission at the time of the Jay Treaty, and we were chiefly instrumental in setting up the Hague Tribunal. But in our relations with Vietnam we have ignored the provisions of the United Nations Charter and a series of overtures from U Thant, refused to submit our dispute to outside arbitration, and frustrated all meaningful negotiation by insisting that we negotiate on terms palpably unacceptable to North Vietnam because based on the premise that we have defeated it.
Traditionally we have avoided involvement in the internal affairs of Asia—a policy confirmed by the futility of our long championship of Chiang Kai-shek. Instead of taking heed of our own experience, and of the experience of the French in Vietnam, we have permitted ourselves to be drawn into a conflict in many ways the most costly in our history, certainly the most frustrating, the most divisive, and the most indefensible morally, and one from which we seem incapable of extricating ourselves.
We had ourselves been the first colony to throw off the yoke of colonialism, and the first nation to get rid of colonies altogether (we called them States instead), and outside our own hemisphere we boasted a long record of hostility to imperialism and colonialism—a hostility which Franklin Roosevelt concentrated heavily on European colonies and empires in Asia. Yet we allowed ourselves to act first as surrogate for French colonialism in Vietnam and then took over completely from the French, and we have tried to create all along the periphery of China a system of satellites or puppet states analogous to that of the puppet states which the Soviet maintains along her western borders—among them South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and South Vietnam. If Mr. Nixon is re-elected will he invite representatives from these states to participate in our bicentennial celebrations as the Russians invite representatives from their puppet states to participate in celebrations of the triumph of communist ideology?
We had traditionally supported revolution—in Latin America, in Greece, Italy, Hungary, even in Ireland, though not in Russia—that was probably the turning point. Now we associate revolution with communism and oppose it, unless it is reactionary or military: thus we supported Balaguer in Santo Domingo, Chiang Kai-shek in China, Franco in Spain, Salazar and Caetano in Portugal, Colonel Armas in Guatemala, the Colonels in Greece and the Generals in Brazil and, of course, Thieu in Vietnam. The nation which fought the first revolution and which carried through a peaceful domestic revolution has become the leading opponent of revolution throughout the globe.
We had a record going back to the Civil War of trying to mitigate the ravages of war by the establishment of humane standards for civilians, and at Nuremberg we undertook to outlaw as crimes against humanity such acts as indiscriminate bombing of nonmilitary objectives, mistreatment of prisoners, and reprisals against whole communities for the alleged misdeeds of individuals. We are now bombing rural hamlets and villages indiscriminately (that is the meaning of a “free fire” zone), dropping napalm and “daisy-cutter” bombs whose only use is the killing or maiming of civilians, using defoliates and herbicides to destroy the ecology, and destroying Vietnam with an overkill prohibited by the laws of war which we ourselves prescribed. We had established the principle of accountability for “aggressive war” and for crimes against humanity at the German and Japanese war trials, convicted over 500,000 Nazis of crimes, hanged a score of them, and sentenced 720 Japanese officers to death. But so far the only war criminal to be brought to accountability in this war, for activities which cover the span of lawlessness from the destruction of villages to the massacre of civilians, is a lieutenant whose punishment is hardly that meted out to General Yamashita or to Karl Franck, hanged for the massacre at Lidice.
We had written into our Constitution the principle of the supremacy of the civilian over the military authority. The constitutional provision still stands, but has been in large part circumvented by the willing acquiescence of two successive commanders-in-chief in the exercise of independent authority by the Pentagon and the CIA in areas heretofore thought to be the domain of civil authority. Much of the emergence of military power has been the consequence of drift rather than of calculation. When Washington became President, the United States Army consisted of fewer than 1,000 men and officers. Now ours is the largest and most powerful military establishment in the world. It absorbs almost half the budget, it maintains its own foreign affairs policy, it even instigates wars and supports revolutions without the knowledge of the Congress to whom, presumably, is assigned the authority to declare war. There has been no formal repudiation of the principle of the supremacy of the civilian over the military, but we delude ourselves if we think the principle means what the Founding Fathers supposed it to mean.
The generation that made the nation thought secrecy in government one of the instruments of Old World tyranny and committed itself to the principle that a democracy cannot function unless the people are permitted to know what their government is up to. Now almost everything that the Pentagon and the CIA do is shrouded in secrecy. Not only are the American people not permitted to know what they are up to but even the Congress and, one suspects, the President (witness the “unauthorized” bombing of the North last fall and winter) are kept in darkness.
Even more serious is the practice of evasion, distortion, and duplicity, which is, by now, the almost official policy of the government from the White House down through the whole executive department and military establishment—a policy whose dimensions and character are documented in those Pentagon Papers whose full publication the government is even now resisting. Certainly the most conspicuous feature of the Vietnam landscape today is not the millions of craters which make the land look like the surface of the moon but the fog of deception and lies that hangs over it.
The Nixon Administration did not formulate this violent departure from and repudiation of tradition. Still it has eagerly welcomed it: welcomed, that is, the rejection of the pragmatic approach to politics and the eager embrace of absolutes. When William James said, “Damn the Absolute,” he spoke for most of his countrymen. Through most of our history the axiom “Theory may mislead us, experience must be our guide” has been controlling. The one major departure from it, the state sovereignty theories of the antebellum South, led to disaster. But much of the cold war, and the entire logic of the Vietnam war, is the product of abstractions and of absolutes, from the early theories about Chinese infiltration or the domino theory, or American commitment, to the current abstractions of “Vietnamization,” of “peace,” and of “honor.”
How are we to explain this almost convulsive break with what we considered to be our most familiar habits and our most deeply held convictions? Have the pressures of the cold war—a war which eventually encompassed most of the globe and thus for the first time gave us an opportunity to feel paranoid—worked fundamental changes in the American character in the past quarter century, or have those ingredients of interest and emotion and character which led us into the cold war in the first place and then persuaded us to plunge into the quagmire of the Vietnam war been latent in our character all along?
Mr. Barnet draws on both these explanations, but relies chiefly on the first. War, he submits, is a social institution and cannot be understood outside the social structure of which it is an integral part. This is a somewhat circular argument, but perhaps none the worse for that: a particular social culture nourished war, and war in turn transforms the social culture. Certainly the American culture since 1940 is in considerable part a product of World War II and, even more, of the responsibilities and opportunities created by that war, of the unique position assigned by circumstances to the United States, of changes in technology and in the structural relations of the military with the economic interests that emerged out of the war. The postwar culture was, in turn, the setting of the cold war and of its almost Strangelovian by-product, the war in Vietnam.
It was, increasingly, not only a war economy that flourished after 1945 but a war psychology. War had taken command—the fear of war, the prospects of war, the requirements of war, in the end the ardor for war. We had always thought of ourselves as the most successful of nations; now war required that we be Number One in a very hard sense, not only as against any other nation but as against any combination of nations. Fear of war (which was quickly institutionalized into the cold war) required that we build up alliances everywhere—NATO, SEATO, CENTO, OAS (it was a kind of compulsive busyness)—and that we insist that neutrals be either with us or against us.
War psychology in turn justified extending the subversive activities of the CIA into scores of countries. It required hundreds of bases around the globe—eventually some 400 major bases and almost 2,000 minor installations. With these we might have echoed Horace Walpole’s boast after the peace of 1763, “Throw away your Greek and Roman books, histories of little peoples.” War made insatiable demands on the economy, on the budget, and on the intelligence establishment. War required ever tighter “security” measures, for who knew what enemies might be lurking at home? War pleaded the cause of military, not civilian, needs, and chose for the highest positions military, not civilian, leaders. The psychology of war, a development which Mr. Barnet brings out in sobering detail—even more than its material requirements—shifted the center of gravity from the State Department to the Pentagon; perhaps from the Congress to the Pentagon, possibly from the White House to the Pentagon.
To take care of all of this there emerged a new security bureaucracy, made up for the most part of the most distinguished men, recruited from the most distinguished universities, the most successful law firms, the richest banks, the most powerful corporations. They had, too, for the most part, impeccable social credentials. If not all of them were Dean Achesons, that great gentleman was their ideal and their model, and every President except Franklin Roosevelt—who was an even greater swell than Acheson, and who was not bemused by social pretensions—was duly impressed by him. For all their education and their sophistication, their high sense of personal integrity and personal honor, these security bureaucrats adopted uncritically the war psychology and lent their great talents not to devising ways of reducing tensions and avoiding war, but to ways of exacerbating tensions and preparing for war and—when it didn’t come fast enough—making war. With so much going for war, it inevitably came, and thus the security managers were triumphantly vindicated in their apprehensions and their prophecies.
Those who prepared for war, and then embraced it, were not conscious warmongers; they were leaders of a bureaucracy which operated impersonally and almost mechanically, and which, in the end, had a life of its own. That is the way we are now fighting our ten-year war, impersonally and mechanically. For in this Alice-in-Wonderland bureaucratic world you achieve peace through war, order through chaos, security through violence, the reign of law through lawlessness; you preserve honor by dishonorable acts, and in the end you save Vietnam by destroying her.
Roots of War is an enlarged, modernized version of the thesis which E.A. Ross propounded in his brilliant but neglected book Sin and Society back in 1907: that the most immoral acts are committed not by hardened criminals but by impeccable gentlemen who preside affably over great corporations, and who sin impersonally and at a great remove in time, in space—and in law—from the consequences of their crimes. Neither the iniquity nor the lawlessness of their conduct ever obtrudes upon them—the bribing of fire inspectors or the selling of adulterated goods or habit-forming drugs, sending children down into the mine-shafts, condemning girls to work twelve hours a day in sweatshops, bribing policemen, corrupting legislators, profiting from war.
“Those responsible for these crimes never think of themselves as criminals,” Ross said, “nor are they ever punished, even by public disapproval. On the contrary they sit on the boards of foundations and accept honorary degrees from universities, they are welcomed into the best clubs and the most fashionable churches.” “Those who plan do not kill,” writes Mr. Barnet, “and those who kill do not plan,” so all can have peace of mind. There was something of this in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to be sure, but never before in history has a nation been systematically destroyed as Vietnam is now being destroyed, by high-minded gentlemen animated more by sorrow than by anger as they direct their computerized technology to deliver their surgical strikes. “Upon their gentlemanly presence,” as Ross wrote, “the eventual blood and tears do not obtrude themselves.”
And if the ultimate verdict on the security bureaucracy is that they debased the moral standards and tarnished the honor of their country by their crimes, the immediate verdict must surely be that they did not even achieve the ends they sought. As Barnet writes,
The generation in which the United States spent 1,500 billion dollars on armaments witnessed a sharp increase in threats to national security, an erosion of United States military and political power, and serious cracks in the United States corporate economy itself. The very longevity of the national security managers has helped to compound and finally to enshrine their failures. There was no room in the official orthodoxy even to contemplate the changes in the political organization of the planet that are needed for survival, and no interest in trying to bring them about.
On all this what Woodrow Wilson said to Frank Cobb on the eve of the First World War is still valid: “What does it mean to go to war? It means an attempt to reconstruct a peacetime civilization with war standards, and at the end of the war there will be no bystanders with sufficient peace standards left to work with. There will be only war standards.”
The second major interest which nourishes the roots of war, and war itself, as Mr. Barnet contends, is economic—a new version, this, of that nineteenth-century cliché, economic imperialism. Classical mercantilism had dictated expansion and empire and war where that was necessary for reasons of state. Originally, mercantilists like Colbert, Frederick the Great, or Hamilton regarded the profit of trading companies or of individuals as incidental to the national purpose. Now mercantilism has come full circle. Where business expansion, colonies, alliances were designed to strengthen the state, now the state is required to build armaments, maintain enormous armies, make alliances, subvert governments, launch overseas ventures, be prepared for wars and on occasion fight them in order to sustain the economy and to support those great corporate enterprises that dominate the economy.
It is a familiar story, this partnership of government and business in the conduct of foreign policy. But certainly the alliance is more intimate now than it was in the days when Henry Demarest Lloyd wrote Wealth Against Commonwealth and David Graham Phillips exposed The Treason of the Senate and Bryan thundered vainly against Wall Street—more intimate because more pervasive, more sophisticated, and more profitable.
The military-industrial complex of Eisenhower’s last public speech has become a military-industrial-labor complex. It has enlisted not only likely senators like Henry Jackson but less likely ones like Hubert Humphrey; it has even enlisted George Meany himself, whose zeal for the war may not be wholly disinterested. More, it has made an alliance with universities and research institutes, which are thus more and more dependent on the military for financing, and whose ultimate by-products may be beneficial to man but whose immediate products often are not. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the astuteness of American capitalism—an astuteness far less overwhelming in the economic than in the political arena—is that it has learned how to make everybody profit from war except its victims, and later generations.
But do Americans really profit from war and preparation for war? Surely profit is an illusion here, as victory in war is an illusion. For the cost of war and of preparation for war is far higher than the thousand billion or so dollars which we have spent in the last thirty years. It includes the tangible burdens like payment on the debt which is saddled on future generations—Nixon’s business-minded administration has managed to add some seventy-five billions to that debt in three years—or the increased cost of everything, or the ceaseless waste of the natural resources of the entire globe. It includes impalpable but ultimately more costly things like the waste of talent and of labor on the work of destruction rather than their application to the work of construction; it includes the distraction of the best minds of this and other nations from the tasks of true statesmanship, and the steady deterioration in the quality of life for the majority of the American people, not to mention the Vietnamese; it includes forcing other nations to follow the American example of distraction and waste in sheer self-defense: just think what the American strategy in the Far East has cost China in the past twenty years. Mr. Barnet relegates this point, oddly enough, to a footnote:
The most crucial intellectual and political task of the 1970s is the development of an alternative vision of a world economy, based on the values of just distribution of economic and political power, and the priority of human growth over economic growth.
In that distant past before World War II an open alliance between the White House, the regulatory commissions, government bureaucracy, corporate capitalism, and the press would have been politically dangerous if not fatal. Now such a network of alliances is regarded as inevitable and, on the whole, benevolent: something that opportunists as far apart otherwise as Mr. Nixon and Mr. Meany are counting on this November. How has it happened that this generation of Americans is prepared to accept what earlier generations found reprehensible?
This is the subject of the third section of Mr. Barnet’s book, which addresses itself to the story of the manipulation of public opinion.
It is a chilling story, for it makes clear that even in a country where all channels of communication are technically open, and where the press is as “free” as it is anywhere else in the world, and where the Academy and the scientific community are strong and independent, government is still able to control the flow of news and to withhold or distort facts and to manipulate public opinion.
The philosophy of the information managers is much the same as the philosophy of the war managers; as Barnet convincingly argues, they are parts of the same bureaucratic machine, and almost interchangeable parts. And just as the war is never presented to the American people as a real war, but as a crusade, or a rescue operation for the embattled South Vietnamese, or resistance to aggression, or honoring a commitment, or perhaps as a useful exercise in technological warfare, so the information bureaucracy does not concern itself with the real United States, the real government, the real economy, the real inflation or the real crime rate, but always with an image of these things, concocted by Madison Avenue experts and as phony as most of their advertising claims.
Government itself has come to be increasingly a public relations job, with great issues of foreign and domestic policy packaged and sold by fanfare and catchwords much as cereals and detergents are sold. No administration in our history has so blatantly revealed its contempt for the intelligence of the American people as this one has by its manipulation of the news, its corruption of the language, and its unabashed propaganda.
No wonder the information bureaucracy hates a free press or an uncontrolled television, for these threaten the packaged image which the information experts have concocted by presenting, instead, the real thing. Happily—from their point of view—they have vast resources with which to defend themselves, and the people, against the perils of truth.
Never before in our own history has government employed so many methods for manipulating and distorting the truth as during the past decade, not even during the First and Second World Wars. The position of the past two administrations is well expressed by General Maxwell Taylor: “A citizen should know those things he needs to know to be a good citizen and to discharge his functions.” Who decides what he needs to know and how he is to discharge his functions General Taylor did not say. It is not indeed clear what such assorted news managers as Nixon, Mitchell, Kleindienst, Laird, and others of their ilk think the citizen needs to know, but it is clear by now what they think he does not need to know: what is in the Pentagon Papers.
How does government go about its work of evasion, suppression, deception, and manipulation of news? It is of course immensely powerful and rich, and it can hire all the news managers it needs. The President himself can always command the media and can always be sure that whatever he says will be heard or read in millions of homes and will be accorded the respect that ordinarily attaches to Presidential statements rather than that which it deserves. For notwithstanding the long record of duplicity, so strong is the traditional confidence in the President that even Johnson and Nixon are given the benefit of the doubt. The information bureaucracy commands almost limitless funds: the Pentagon alone, Barnet observes, spends some four billion dollars a year on news, propaganda, and, doubtless, secrecy.
For the first time in our history we have an administration that lies systematically and almost automatically: it lies about the origins of the war, lies about casualties, lies about the treatment of the POWs, lies about bombings, lies about North Vietnamese “aggression,” lies about the nature of the blockade (publicly it excluded only military supplies, but actually it excludes food), lies about the nature of American “withdrawal,” and—from the famous day when L.B. Johnson called Diem “the Churchill of Asia” to the latest tribute to Thieu’s “struggle for freedom”—lies about the client state on whose behalf we are presumably fighting the war.
Secrecy is, no doubt, the easiest way to manage the news and to make sure that public opinion does not go astray, and secrecy is now fundamental not only to the conduct of the war but to the conduct of foreign and even of domestic affairs. Secrecy—as the Pentagon Papers make clear—has presided over almost the whole of our intervention in Southeast Asia from the Fifties on: over the prolonged war in Laos, over the nature of our support to the French, of our support to—and abandonment of—the miserable Diem, over the Tonkin Bay caper—a put-up job if there ever was one—over our invasion of Cambodia and the rationale for it, over the peace overtures and negotiations, and over their breakdown, too. Nor is secrecy confined to the war in Vietnam. As Mr. Barnet observes, it beclouds our commitments to Greece, Spain, and Brazil, and conceals from all but the most pertinacious the long-range plans for the training of mercenary armies in Southeast Asia or for our own weaponry.
And along with secrecy goes deceit. No other administration in our history has practiced deception, duplicity, chicanery, and mendacity as has the Nixon Administration. Where totalitarian regimes invented the technique of the Big Lie, this Administration has developed a more effective technique, that of lies so innumerable that no one can keep up with them, so insolent that they confound refutation, and so shameless that in time they benumb the moral sensibilities of the American people.
Corruption reveals itself first in language. As Thucydides said in that memorable paragraph on the extravagances of revolutionary zeal, “What used to be described as a thoughtless act of aggression was now regarded as the courage one would expect to find in a party member; to think of the future…was merely one way of saying one was a coward. Fanatical enthusiasm was the mark of a real man…anyone who held violent opinions could always be trusted and…to plot successfully was a sign of intelligence.”
Corruption of language is a special form of deception which this Administration, through its Madison Avenue mercenaries, has brought to a high point of perfection. Bombing is “protective reaction,” precision bombing is “surgical strikes,” concentration camps are “pacification centers” or “refugee camps,” just like our “relocation” camps for the Nisei in World War II. Bombs dropped outside the target area are “incontinent ordnance,” and those dropped on one of your own villages are excused as “friendly fire”; a bombed house becomes automatically a “military structure” and a lowly sampan sunk on the waterfront a “waterborne logistic craft.” How sobering that fifteen years before 1984 our own government should invent a doublethink as dishonest as that imagined by Orwell.
Even more dangerous than secrecy and deception (happily there will always be Ellsbergs and Andersons to uncover them) is the deliberate effort of the Administration to intimidate the press and the television networks—intimidation by the McCarthy-like slurs and innuendoes of Agnew, intimidation by suits against the New York Times and Daniel Ellsberg for their part in making the Pentagon Papers available to the public (how illuminating that in the Ellsberg trial the government wanted to eliminate jurors who had read the New York Times!), intimidation by the misuse of grand juries to go on hunting expeditions against all who have been involved in crusades against the Vietnam war or who were involved in the exploitation of the Pentagon Papers. There is a special irony in such suits for they are, of course, financed by the public, who is thus permitted to pay for the privilege of being kept in the dark about its own government. Never before in our history, it is safe to say, has government so audaciously violated the spirit of the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press.
For all this we are paying a high price on the domestic scene: loss of faith in the integrity of our government; loss of confidence in the ability of the press and television to retain their independence; erosion of the guarantees of the Bill of Rights and of the habit of taking those rights for granted; and worst of all, perhaps, denial of that access to information which the Founding Fathers rightly thought essential to the operations of a democratic society. And on the international scene, too, secrecy and duplicity lead to a loss of confidence in the United States by other peoples and governments. What confidence can foreign chancellories put in our declarations of policy after the revelations of duplicity in the India-Pakistan war? President Nixon never tires of ringing the changes on the tired argument that if we fail to live up to our “commitments” to South Vietnam, we will forfeit the confidence of other nations who rely on us. We do not in fact have “commitments” that require us to intervene in the affairs of Vietnam. If we do, so have Britain and France, for both are signatories of the SEATO treaty, but neither reads that agreement as requiring military intervention. What do they make of an argument of “honor” which is itself rooted in deception?
Most of this, Mr. Barnet argues, is a product of the generation after Pearl Harbor, a generation that saw profound changes in the structure of the American government and economy and, by implication, in the American character itself. The argument is plausible and the evidence persuasive, for if wars do not themselves dramatically change the character of a society they do accelerate changes that are in the making: that seems to have been true from the Peloponnesian War to the American Civil War. And yet if we ask of this tragic chapter of our history through which we are now passing not so much what happened as why things happened the way they did, we shall have to look deeper into the American past than Mr. Barnet has been able to do within the confines of this book. For if the immediate explanation of the Vietnam involvement is to be found in the structural changes of government and economy, and in the follies, vanities, errors, and presumptions of the new ruling elite, the roots go down into the deep subsoil of American history and culture.
It seems like a far cry from Jefferson and Tom Paine to L.B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, and indeed it is. But it is to Jefferson and Paine—as spokesmen and as symbols—that we turn for a formulation of those myths which, in vulgarized and perverted form, have presided over that misuse of power which Mr. Barnet documents. The relevant myths—there are of course others—are the myth of American innocence, the myth of American destiny, and the myth of moral superiority.
The myth of New World innocence and Old World depravity was born out of the struggle for independence and for nationalism, and runs like a golden thread through much of our history and our literature, with the gold getting more and more tarnished. What is taught is that Americans were chosen by Providence to conduct a great experiment designed to show what man might be if free from the tyrannies of the past—that is of Old World—despotism and class and war, poverty and ignorance and superstition. Carried to its logical extreme it appeared to free America from the tyranny of history as well. “We have it in our power to begin the world anew,” wrote Tom Paine exultantly. “A new era for politics is struck, a new method of thinking hath arisen.” So, too, said Jefferson:
If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudices,…a thousand years would not place them in that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.
All this implied that we were no longer subject to the laws or the lessons of the past; that we could bestride History like a colossus, or direct its current our way. It was Jefferson who elaborated this philosophy most consciously: because we were a chosen people it was up to us to show what man was capable of when truly free, up to us to raise the standards to which all peoples and nations might ultimately aspire. Thus the sense (or the myth) of mission was inextricably fused with the sense of innocence. But how different the sense of mission and of destiny in Jefferson were from that which we find in our current leaders. Never for a moment did Jefferson allow his pride in America to betray him into the demented notion that Providence had somehow made it our responsibility to impose the American pattern of life on less fortunate peoples.
No, to Jefferson and his generation American power was to reveal itself in the moral sphere, not in the political or the military. Our duty was not to impose our way of life on others but to present to the world the spectacle of peace and prosperity, freedom and justice, virtue and happiness, confident that eventually all other nations would rally to the American standard. This was the theme of the last letter he wrote, just a few days before his death on July 4, 1826: that America “will be to the world a signal for arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.” Not American power but American virtue was to spread her influence about the globe.
The myths of innocence and of destiny implied the myth of superiority, which has, however, its special, its moving, and its tragic history. The notion itself can be traced to the “sifted grain” theory of the Puritans; it was strengthened by the teachings of the Enlightenment and by independence, and it was ratified by the incontestable success of the American experiment throughout most of the nineteenth century: after all, twenty-five million immigrants were a pretty convincing demonstration.
Already most Americans assumed that their government was more just, their society more enlightened, their morals more elevated than any others. All of this conveniently ignored slavery, and Americans early learned what they have now developed almost to a science—to ignore what might disturb the symmetry of their arguments or ruffle the surface of their self-esteem. Thus Mr. Nixon never ceases to assure us that “we are a peace-loving people.”
Consciousness of moral superiority led inevitably to a double standard, for if our hearts were pure, our motives disinterested, and our purposes noble, what we did (however it might look to the uninitiated observer) could not be judged by the standards that history applied to the misdeeds of the corrupt nations of the Old World or—now—of Asia. As William Vaughn Moody put it in his desperate protest against that Philippine war which was a kind of dry run for the Vietnam war:
Lies, lies, it cannot be! The wars we wage
Are noble, and our battles still are won
By justice for us….
We have not sold our loftiest heritage,
The proud republic hath not stooped to cheat
And scramble in the market-place of war,
Her forehead weareth yet its sol- emn star….
Just what Mr. Nixon says every day, but, unlike Moody, he has conned himself into believing it, and what is worse, he has conned most of the American people into believing it, and into accepting unquestioningly the double standard. When the Soviet Union intervenes in Czechoslovakia, that is naked aggression, but when we land 22,000 marines in Santo Domingo, that is peace-keeping. When communist countries carry on clandestine activities abroad, that is part of an “international conspiracy,” but when the CIA operates clandestinely in sixty foreign countries, that is a legitimate function of our foreign policy. When Russia establishes a missile base in Cuba (on the invitation of Cuba), that is an act of war which must be met with all the force at our command, but when we build the largest airbase in the world in Thailand, that is part of our ceaseless search for peace.
When China equips the armies of North Vietnam, that is a dangerous intervention in a foreign war, but when we provide South Vietnam with the largest active air force, the largest active fleet, the best equipment and weaponry in the world, and half a million soldiers besides, that is living up to our commitments. When North Vietnam refuses to surrender her POWs—something we have never done during a war—that is a sing of barbarism, but when we stand by while our puppet armies torture and cage and kill prisoners, that is a nice refusal to interfere in the conduct of a sovereign state.
When Germans wiped out defenseless villages as a reprisal for sniping, or committed savage massacres, we condemned these as war crimes and punished them with death, but when we wipe out defenseless villages with “incontinent ordnance,” or engage in massacres as brutal as that at Lidice, these are mistakes or aberrations that do not mar the record of our benevolence. When, last spring, North Vietnam launched an invasion of the South, that was “aggression” of the most reckless character, but our bombings deep into North Vietnam, which had been going on for months in clear violation of whatever “understandings” we had arrived at, were merely “protective reaction.” And so on ad infinitum.
Only a people infatuated with their own virtue, their superiority to other peoples, and their exemption from the ordinary laws of nations and the familiar standards of ethics, could so uncritically embrace a double standard of morality and so unabashedly proclaim the superiority of their own standard.
President Nixon, like his predecessor, is determined that he shall not go down in history as the man who presided over the first American “defeat.” It is, alas, too late for such arguments, for nothing can alter the fact that we have already been defeated, not, to be sure, on the field of battle, but in the eyes of history. We can of course destroy Vietnam, and we are indeed doing so, but to call such insensate destruction victory is to fall back on the logic of Humpty Dumpty: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.” The very concept of “victory” is meaningless, and Mr. Nixon perhaps suspects this, for he speaks in euphemisms such as “peace without dishonor,” as if we had not already piled up enough dishonor to last us for a thousand years.
Our concept of “honor,” like our concept of “victory” or our concept of “peace,” is all part of a pattern of synthetic politics and synthetic morals appropriate to a war fought with impersonal technology over issues that no one can explain, supported by arguments that are spurious and by rhetoric that is canting and unctuous. Indeed nothing about the conduct of this war is genuine or honest or real except the death and devastation we are pouring onto Vietnam: that is real.
This is not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally. Americans are of course spoiled by the habit of victory, and they have come to think of victory in war as guaranteed by the laws that regulate the cosmic system. An odd conviction, this, especially to men like L. B. Johnson or Dean Rusk or General Westmoreland or Strom Thurmond or Governor Wallace, for they cannot be unfamiliar with what is still called the Lost Cause or unaware that even the most fanatical Confederate flag-waving Dixiecrat would not really have it otherwise.
We honor now those Southerners who stood by the Union when it was attacked by the Confederacy, just as we honor those Germans who rejected Hitler and his monstrous wars and were martyrs to the cause of freedom and humanity. Why do we find it so hard to accept this elementary lesson of history, that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the truest patriots? And of those who resist, often at the cost of their lives and their fortunes but not of their honor, may we not say what Pericles said in that noblest of all speeches, that they are fortunate in “knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, and they do not idly stand aside from the enemy’s onset.”
October 5, 1972