What is the purpose of this book? Six hundred and eighty-eight pages of “colorful” narrative that seem to have been breathlessly dictated to a recording device and, except for the portions that appeared in magazines, never to have been touched by an editorial pencil wielded by the author or anybody else. One keeps asking oneself to what end all these excited words were assembled, what they add to the already replete literature on the US and Vietnam. The book is now a fantastic best seller, yet the author cannot have aimed simply at the market. He is too sincere, too “concerned,” and who could have foreseen that the time was right for a huge “backgrounder” on our Vietnam involvement, studded, like a ham, with anecdotes and gossip about historic decisions and high-status personalities, syrupy with compassionate insights into the gamesmanship of power?
In fact the book’s success is a mystery to this reader, who was unable to stay awake for more than a few paragraphs at a go without ferocious application of will power, tea, coffee, drinks of water, propping open of eyelids, pinches, strolls about the room. I attribute my stupefied boredom partly to Halberstam’s prose, which combines a fluency of cliché with deafness to idiom and grammatical incomprehensibility. Yet I have read many dull and badly written books about Vietnam with no particular effort. If Halberstam’s was such a grind to get through, there must be other reasons. A soft, spineless construction: nuggets of research stuck together with a repellent sweetish glue serving as connective? Still, unavoidably, the narrative moves ahead (since events did), though the persistent regular insertion of biographical flashbacks, like the occurrence of nuts and raisins in some rather doughy hermits, makes the plot thicken more perhaps than was necessary.
But even if the slowness of pace, especially on familiar ground, may cause one impatience, that is not the basic problem—one could skip. The basic problem lies in that question of purpose, which keeps arising: the crying lack of any discernible intention. The author has an air of having something on his mind, some weighty portentous burden (having to do, somehow, with the shaping of US foreign policy and the selection of personnel), but whatever it is, or was, he is unable to convey to the reader, who comes out of the experience with no clearer notions than he had before on the cause and prevention of Vietnams. And the bewildered demand “Why is he writing this book? What is he trying to say?” may become, in the course of pages, “Why, for God’s sake, am I reading it?”
Despite the tone of concern and civic commitment, the book has less to contribute to the public interest (compare the Pentagon Papers) than to consumer appetites for unauthorized prowls down the corridors of power. If Halberstam has any message to impart, it is the anguished cry “Can we not learn from history?” But the historian cannot learn much from him, since he virtuously declines to give his sources, pleading the right of journalists not to identify their informants. This means that a great deal here is unverifiable. And though one may rely on his general good faith in reporting, his use of language does not inspire trust. For example, he is free with the word “lie,” as applied to McNamara and others, but one starts wondering what he means by that and did they lie, really, when on page 408 one reads that Adlai Stevenson “had stood and lied at the UN about things that he did not know,” and again on page 410, “It was better for Stevenson to go before, the United Nations and lie.” But Stevenson, as is semi-plain from the context, was not lying; he was innocently repeating the lies that had been told him.
Books addressed to the public interest are essentially remedial, conducive, it is hoped, to action, for which information and argument are necessary. But Halberstam is concerned with the reader, as opposed to the citizen. He is writing for an audience primed for suspenseful happenings, not doers but listeners, with breath duly bated—an apolitical state. I cannot think who will be benefited by The Best and the Brightest, who corrected or instructed, and if the book fails to hold the reader’s attention, as it so dismally did in my case, another reason may be that the pieties of the avowed purpose, the sighing and deploring, the reiterated “Why?” “Why?” (“What was it about these men, their attitudes, the country, its institutions, and above all the era which had allowed this tragedy to take place?”) dampened my vulgar eagerness to learn Mrs. McNamara’s nickname (“Marg”) or what author John Marquand’s author son said to “Lydie” Katzenbach on the Vineyard that spoiled her whole summer.
The Best and the Brightest (Bishop Heber had a better ear; shouldn’t it be The Brightest and the Best?) belongs at heart to the genre of popular historical fiction, as the writing shows: “Long afterward…the older man [Robert Lovett] would remember…,” “The great banking-houses,” “That cold December day,” “In the great drawing-rooms of Georgetown,” “In the great clubs of Washington and New York,” “after the assassination and all the pain,” “the great chambers of Europe,” “He [Chester Bowles] seemed behind the times; a few long years [sic] it would seem that he was ahead of them,” “Perhaps, just perhaps, it need not have been that way.”
There are many effects suggestive of leaves fluttering from a calendar in an old movie to indicate the passage of time, and the author is infatuated with a tense I can only describe as the Future Past, as in “the older man would remember.” See “Luce’s…conscience would bother him,” “Those years would show,” “These stories would surface,” “At a dinner party after the Bay of Pigs Bundy would tell friends…,” “The very process of choice would mark what the Administration was,” “the power and prestige that the McNamara years would bring,” “Years later he would sit in Saigon bars…,” “He would write of the early Philippine experience…,” “his very entry into the Vietnam war would catalyze them and give them muscle previously missing,” “But the Saigon years would not be happy ones.” Never “Bundy told friends,” “The stories surfaced.”
The tone is autumnal, soughing, with many “was to be”s, as well as the uncountable “would”s (certainly up in the thousands), signifying a future already plangent when it has not yet happened. And the “might have been”s, rarer but always present by wistful suggestion, chime in with their own melancholy: if only Kennedy had made Bowles his Secretary of State, if only Johnson had listened to George Ball, if only Harriman had been given more power, if only the reliable old China hands had not been languishing in exile…. Yet the “if only” music is quite out of key with the dominant Future Past, which persuades the listener that nothing could have been otherwise, since fate had written its tale in advance, foreseeing with Halberstam in a series of flash-forwards that what would be would be.
That awful tense, seeming to endow the author with prophetic powers, implies that this is a book of revelations. Actually there are few disclosures of the ordinary kind, that is of facts not generally known. I learned that Kennedy was a very good golfer, much better than Eisenhower, but kept it dark (no doubt fearing a confusion of “images”), that he used an “auto pen” to mimic his signature on letters (whereas Johnson didn’t), that behind a locked door in a bathroom he asked Michael Forrestal if he couldn’t persuade Harriman to use a hearing aid, that David Bruce’s wife cried when Kennedy was nominated in 1960, which helped lose her husband the Secretaryship of State when “it hung in the balance,” that Kennedy was appalled by photos showing what napalm had done to people and did not like defoliation either but finally approved the limited use of both, that aboard the Honey Fitz, where a party was going on, he turned red with anger as he read Senator Mansfield’s private and pessimistic report on his 1962 visit to Vietnam (“Do you expect me to take this at face value?”), that Johnson enjoyed reading FBI files and pretended to drink bourbon when he really drank scotch, that he was loath to start bombing North Vietnam during the Christmas season….
On Rostow: that he proposed putting sugar in the Cuban oil refineries during the missile crisis (taking the thought over from General Lansdale, who in 1954 had gone around Hanoi putting sugar in the gas tanks of trucks), that he gave a party at his home in Cambridge for “Joyce Carey [sic], the famous English novelist,” that he played the guitar….
I had not known that General Westmoreland sometimes are breakfast in his underwear to keep the press in his uniform. I think I had never heard of General Bill Depuy, an “intellectual” and the coinventor, with Westmoreland, of the search-and-destroy strategy. I had forgotten, if I ever knew, the details of the Paul Kattenburg story (gloomy in 1963 about Vietnam to the point of suggesting withdrawal, this rising official paid for his accuracy by having his career blasted), of the Lewis Sarris story (essentially the same: wrote a “devastating” study; was passed over repeatedly for promotion), of the David Nes story (same, though what happened to him finally is not told). Add the Colonel Dan Porter story (“brutally frank report” suppressed in 1963; he quits the Army), the story of his superior, one-star General York (pessimistic report suppressed in 1963; whether or not he left the Army unclear).
There is nothing surprising in these personal histories; the opposite would be news, on the man-bites-dog principle: a case of somebody being promoted in Washington or Saigon for telling the truth. But they are useful as reminders of a governmental pattern applied to Vietnam up until March, 1968, when Clark Clifford, at Defense, listened to the dark assessments of his subordinates and then secured Johnson’s attention while managing to keep his job. We knew from the Pentagon Papers that CIA estimates of the Vietnam picture were generally quite accurate, but Halberstam, I think, is the first to disclose that early in 1965, while to bomb or not to bomb was still the question, two CIA intelligence estimates of the over-all situation in Vietnam were sent to Washington from the Saigon embassy with the negative paragraphs deleted: those paragraphs warned that bombing would bring escalation of the war effort from both Hanoi and the Viet Cong.
Such acts of censorship, as anybody familiar with the literature can imagine, had no doubt become almost routine, capable of scandalizing no one. Nor would receipt of the deleted paragraphs have made the slightest difference. Reading this nth confirmation of a sad record, we nod, as we do when we are told of the scaling down of Colonel William Crossen’s report on the enemy’s capacity for reinforcement. That was the way the big ball was bouncing. But it was a surprise to learn that in the spring of 1963, “Buddhists were told by government troops to disburse [sic].” Likewise that under Kennedy, “High officials were inveighed to study Mao and Lin Piao.”
There is a nice new, though not novel, anecdote about Nixon. Back in 1967, on a visit to Saigon, he met an old friend, General Lansdale, then a civilian charged with running the Vietnamese elections that year. Lansdale hoped to have them honest—a notion that did not appeal much to the Embassy, so he turned to Nixon for support. “‘Oh sure, honest, yes, honest, that’s right,’ Nixon said, ‘so long as you win!’ With that he winked, drove his elbow into Lansdale’s arm, and slapped his own knee.” But, to be fair to Nixon, it must be added that Halberstam, following his practice, gives no source. Did Landsdale tell, and is Halberstam protecting him, or was a third person present whose identity has to be concealed? Maybe it is just a Saigon legend.
There are piquant details about the operations of the Bundy brothers (McGeorge, it appears, while teaching government at Harvard was recruiting for the CIA), about the ambiguous and indeed mysterious attitudes of John McNaughton, McNamara’s deputy, who came out so well in the Pentagon Papers. There are facts about the early lives, marriages, and social habits of the Kennedy-Johnson bureaucracy. And did you know that Joe McCarthy got the idea, in germ, for his communist hunt from Father Walsh, the head of Georgetown University’s foreign service school? Or that when the Truman government, in 1950, agreed to give military aid to the French in Indochina, it was a trade-off for French agreement to the Schuman Plan, setting up the Coal-and-Steel Institute? This allowed the West Germans, regarded as a potential bulwark against communism, to increase their coal and steel production. There is a good portrait of General Ridgway and a to me amazing and unintentionally Proustian picture of the CIA as having been “the profession of the upper-class élite.” But the only important contribution to our knowledge (or suspicions) relates to Johnson and is more of a subtraction than an addition.
First on the Tonkin Bay incident. Without Congress’ knowledge, Johnson had authorized covert activities against North Vietnam, which included provocative forays in the Tonkin Bay area and bore the code name 34A. As Halberstam tells it, Johnson, though generally aware of the South Vietnamese PT boats’ mission, had no information at all as to what was going on when the Maddox was fired on. Later, when it was all over, he indicated that he had a shrewd guess that there had been some funny work: “For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.” But if he was only guessing, the Tonkin Bay incident cannot have been manufactured by him to get his resolution through Congress, i.e., to receive a blank check for continuing the war as it suited him. This is much less than many war critics had suspected.
Johnson was quick to use the incident, which seemed handcrafted to his purposes, but if he did not contrive it, who did? McNamara and Bundy? The Joint Chiefs? The Navy on its own? CINCPAC? Or did Hanoi inadvertently help him out? Those covert operations were almost calculated to produce retaliatory action from the North Vietnamese. But Halberstam does not ask a single one of the natural questions that arise. He passes swiftly over the incident, as though the details possessed no intrinsic interest, to take up the sequel: the Goldwater campaign.
But the fact that Johnson, innocent of complicity in the episode or not, immediately authorized bombing of the North Vietnamese PT bases and the oil depot at Vinh puts a strange complexion on the subsequent image Halberstam offers us of Johnson as he contemplates Operation Rolling Thunder, the prolonged bombing campaign begun in February, 1965. Halberstam asks us to believe that all through the previous fall and early winter, Johnson was reluctant, undecided, listening to George Ball with one ear and the hawks with the other, “fighting a civil war within himself.” He did not make up his mind to bomb till some time in January and still held off for a few weeks.
If so, we have to see Johnson in a softer light, absolved of bad faith toward the electorate, which had voted for him that November as the peace candidate: Vietnam was the sacrifice he slowly and unwillingly extorted from himself for the sake of his domestic policy—the Great Society, which otherwise he could not have pushed through Congress. Acting against his instincts, tragically torn, a man “in a trap,” “on a tobogganslide,” he was a victim, and his advisers, to a lesser extent, were victims too, “cornered by bad policies on Asia which they had not so much authored as refused to challenge…. And so now they bombed.” In so far as all this represents an effort at understanding, it is a new approach to Vietnam and seems intended to replace earlier and leftist “simplifications” in which conscious planning and wicked deception were assigned to the principals.
Yet this kind of understanding, while it allows for the mixture of motives and the conflicts present, no doubt, in everybody, does not do more here, at best, than elicit sympathy for the actors as they looked to themselves, rather than as history may look at them. History, for Halberstam, is cruel, ironic destiny (the adverb “ironically” is much abused by him, made to work overtime in the most inappropriate conditions); nobody controls events unless it is the military, who seem to be a supraforce, like destiny itself.
Johnson and Rusk are the chief beneficiaries of this approach. Rusk is revealed as a narrow but intelligent and conscientious man performing his duty despite original reservations about the policy; he is given the prime virtue of loyalty, which Johnson, a fellow Southerner, valued greatly. Of Johnson, we are told that he arrived at the bombing and the later commitment of troops by a long road of “fateful decisions” whose fatality at each milestone eluded him. His duplicity with Congress, with the press, was an ingrained character trait of the eternal “loner,” rather than the instrument of a well-laid policy. His craftiness and concealment sprang from his acute sensitiveness to public relations, so that the public, or his sense of it, dictated his actions. He was sincere when he said that he did not want to send American boys to die for Asian boys, just as, from the bottom of his heart, he had never wanted to bomb.
So Halberstam presents him, “this great elemental man,” racked by insecurity, miserably wishing to draw back from decisions that the rest of us thought he was leading us into. If this seems hard to credit, in view of our knowledge, confirmed by Halberstam, that the bombing program was already, so to speak, on Johnson’s desk, waiting only for his signature and for final target selection (do we hit the dikes or not?), it gains a little plausibility from the very practice of contingency planning. If all options are regarded as under diligent study, a president, reviewing them on a daily or weekly basis, may continue in the illusion that he has not decided among them; although in reality certain ones have been excluded, they still are on file under “Possible Action Alternatives.”
It is quite likely that Johnson up to almost the last minute hoped he would not have to bomb, in the sense that an armed robber hopes that the bank teller will hand over the money and not “oblige” him to shoot him. He must often have wished that the VC would fade away and not “force” him to bomb those little people in the North, just as, dismissing all forecasts to the contrary, he then hoped that the bombing would work, so that he would not be “obliged” to send troops. But in law the possession of a gun (rather than a toy pistol) by a robber is taken as prima facie evidence of an intent to murder, and if people are killed during a holdup, he cannot successfully plead lack of premeditation on the theory that using the gun was only an alternative that he held in reserve. The detailed preparations for bombing, the pinpointing of targets declare Johnson’s inner readiness to commit the crime, and if it is true that he hesitated, letting himself be influenced by George Ball’s contention that the bombing would be nonproductive, this would be on a par with that same bank robber hesitating to do the job on hearing from a confederate that experience showed that only petty cash was kept in the drawer.
Johnson’s vacillation was probably 90 percent imaginary, a by-product of bureaucratic paper work; the study of memos evidently induces the contented executive feeling that all avenues leading to a way out have been explored. There was only one way, ever, out of Vietnam, which was out, but we find no suggestion in Halberstam that withdrawal figured as a serious alternative to Operation Rolling Thunder. The choice was among different means of continuing the war. Reference to a “conference table” solution, in so far as it was sincere, was pure reverie—the wishful thought that Hanoi could be brought by negotiations to surrender its objectives and stop inciting the VC to rebel—but mainly it served as a pretext for piously intensifying the war as the sole means of getting Hanoi to sit down and talk. All this is well known, and there would be no need for insisting on it if Halberstam’s picture of an anguished president locked in combat with his conscience did not require some comparison with reality. A man divided in his soul between dispatching combat troops, increasing Special Forces, and trying out one of three bombing “scenarios” is scarcely a figure of Greek tragedy.
Yet Halberstam’s design necessitates a big central figure (“There were many Johnsons: this complicated, difficult, sensitive man”), “terrible decisions,” and the incessant manufacture of suspense: Rubicons being crossed, traps closing, doors shutting forever. I do not know how many “turning points” are reached in the narrative or how many “crossroads.” His determination to view Vietnam as an American tragedy means that the outcome is ineluctable, foreordained (cf. the “would”s and “were to be”s), and that all those Rubicons should be invisible to the participants; nobody ever says, “Well, the die is cast.” Since, like the spectator of a Greek tragedy, the reader knows anyway what the end is going to be, suspense must be created artistically and inner conflict heightened where little may have existed in real life.
Were Halberstam Shakespeare or Sophocles (an idea that sometimes seems not far from his mind), the real-life dimensions of his figures, the prosaic nature of the “mighty” conflict would hardly be an issue: Richard III is not made absurd by historians’ agreement that in reality he was quite a decent monarch, any more than King Lear would be diminished by greater knowledge of the political structure of the Britain of his time. But, first of all, Vietnam is too disagreeably close to us, one would guess, to serve as source material for tragic art, even in the hands of a gifted dramatic poet (there is something distasteful in the very notion of approaching it as an American tragedy, whose protagonist is a great suffering Texan), and second, Halberstam’s incapacity to write English brings the question of art to the forefront (“He did not shirk from the test of wills,” “It was not just humiliation on Vietnam which was vested upon Humphrey,” inter hundreds of alia), where it certainly ought not to be, and finally, given his want of art, the reader is tempted to find ludicrous the whole “tragic,” compassionate premise and ask whether these were really the brightest who now are laid so low.
The moment comes when one wants Halberstam to put up or shut up: enough “turning points” and “cross-roads,” were those decisions ineluctable or not? His tragic muse tells him they were, given “the men, the attitudes, the era,” and so on, but we also hear a weak, liberal voice from the prompting box that shrills no, there were other choices: if only Harriman…if only Chester Bowles…George Ball…Kattenburg…John Paton Davies…. It would be more convincing if we did not have George Ball’s feeble though strongly worded counterproposals to Johnson—Pentagon Papers, Document 103. The idea of progressive, clear-seeing men who might have directed the policy otherwise than the way it went does not have much plausibility outside these overwrought pages: one has only to reflect on Ball’s “Compromise Solution” (which proposes that we “continue bombing in the North but avoid the Hanoi-Haiphong area,” etc.) to have doubts about his role as unhappy Good Counselor, Kent to Johnson’s Lear.
The inflationary tendency of Halberstam’s prose affects not just the principal figures but every supernumerary, every prop and piece of scenery: the “great drawing rooms of Georgetown.” Kennedy’s “education had been superb.” Bill Bundy is “a deeply educated man.” The Kennedy team were “all men of towering accomplishment.” The swanked-up villain of the piece is the “Eastern élite,” defined as the people who knew the right people, in short the New Frontiersmen, with their supposedly awesome social and academic connections.
An earlier example of the type is Acheson, and the first chapters have a populist flavor, as Halberstam tries to establish a relation between a certain arrogant mentality, blue blood, and old finance capital, all of which, together with the legacy of the British Empire, are meant to account for the cold war. Since the thought cannot be stretched to cover less well-tailored men in government who were anti-communist zealots without having gone to Groton, Choate, or St. Paul’s, it is soon dropped by the author, leaving us, after the assassination, with only the Bundy brothers as impeccable models of what he has been talking about. If a clear idea can be imputed to the text, though, it is that an elitist strain in our democracy, represented by the “patrician” Bundy brothers, once implanted in Washington and crossed with the “Can-do” mentality represented by McNamara, bred the monster of Vietnam.
It is easy to agree about the odiousness of the Bundy brothers and even to think that, without them, our Vietnam policy might have been less egregiously self-assured, but harder to be impressed, as Halberstam clearly is, by their social and cerebral endowments, and this goes for the whole New Frontier. A minor embarrassment of the book is watching the author show his eager familiarity with the right forks and spoons of the “prestigious” Washington upper bureaucracy, which he accepts at its own valuation and that of the local society page. More important and equally irritating is the assertion that an aristocracy of brains came to Washington with the Kennedys—a notion that was part of the Kennedy advertising and just as believable as the old “Men of Distinction” ads.
A comparison with the New Deal is useful. Without claiming that the best brains of the country functioned as Roosevelt advisers, one can say that some good and independent minds did: Frankfurter, Berle, Tugwell…. Kennedy’s academic advisers, with the exception of Galbraith (who was also exceptional in giving some sensible advice), far from being “men of towering accomplishment,” were mostly pale fish out of university think tanks. Whatever their actual field of knowledge, they were considered to be adepts of political science—a pseudo discipline of “ruthless” thinking about political “realities” that had developed in the universities under cold-war pressure. There were no political scientists, as such, in Roosevelt’s appanage.
Rostow (Economic History), who lasted longest, and McGeorge Bundy (Government) were typical, in their different ways, of this new genre of theoretic intellectual all too delighted to be called to the capital to practice. The atmosphere of a court, which continued through Johnson and was unlike anything in Roosevelt’s or Truman’s time, probably owed a good deal to the presence of these charlatans, regarded as wizards—Bundy, the surgeon, cutting through “to the bone of an issue,” a genius at paper work and administration, Rostow, more the general physician, constantly handing out murderous prescriptions and, in Johnson’s reign, on night call.
What came to Washington was not brains and birth but packaged ideology, a form of overweening stupidity generated in university departments of Political Science and Government, where the “honed-down intelligence” of a stick like McGeorge Bundy could be viewed with awe. The fact that Arthur Schlesinger, a simple historian with the normal amount of brains, remained in the group but not of it, a luckily lesser light in “that glittering constellation,” was due not so much to personal modesty as to lack of pretensions to owning a brain that functioned like an implement. The gross stupidities and overconfidence of the Kennedy-Johnson advisers, not to mention their moral insensitivity, issued from a faith in the factuality of the social sciences, which is not by any means the religion of an elite. The use of computers and input from the “scientists” of the Rand Corporation no doubt reinforced this faith.
In my opinion, Halberstam also inflates the baleful importance of the military. It is true that generals always ask for more, more men, more hardware, and that if you give them an inch they will take a yard, but, aside from a few “intellectuals” like General Maxwell Taylor and the earlier-mentioned General Bill Depuy, they do not seem to have done much more than their job required, which was to look ahead, foresee future needs, and make recommendations to provide for them. This ability to see the next step is just what was lacking in the civilians, if we can accept Halberstam’s quagmire metaphor and believe that they floundered ahead with no idea of where they were going.
On the whole, the generals perceived the logic of the Vietnam commitment quite clearly: if you were going to stay there, you would need more men, more hardware, you would have to bomb the North, and the sooner the better, mine Haiphong harbor and not hesitate to hit the dikes. Given the aim, they were right; maybe, given the aim, General Curtis LeMay was right: if victory was what was wanted, Hanoi should have been bombed back to the Stone Age. It was the only way. There was never any indication from the civilians that victory was not what was wanted. Compromise was excluded, linked to “surrender,” “humiliation,” and it may well be that this war could not and cannot be resolved by compromise, as Nixon’s government has shown by precipitately backing away from the Kissinger formula when a settlement was ready for signature.
Of course the generals were frequently blind to political considerations (the risk of bringing China into the war, the risk of frightening the electorate, of alienating world opinion), but politics was not their job, and anyway, as Nixon found out, the political fallout from invading Cambodia was so slight that he was encouraged to go ahead, as we have just seen, with some of the generals’other pet projects, e.g., the “carpet “bombing” of Hanoi and Haiphong. It is true that the generals were guilty of crazily optimistic forecasts, from the field, of how near victory was, yet these were what Washington was asking for. One wonders why McNamara was so “elated” on hearing from General Harkins in Honolulu in April, 1963, that it might all be over by Christmas. Had he got such an estimate at Ford, he would immediately have demanded supporting facts and figures.
It is amazing and to me inexplicable to find McNamara, in Vietnam, failing to use the same criteria of judgment he had applied with such severity at Ford. Why did he always swallow the military’s fudged statistics? Halberstam’s explanation (that he did not want to poach on the military’s territory) is inadequate: statistics were his territory, and he knew how to spot discrepancies. If he thought that what was good for Ford was bad for the country, this meant that somehow, as a cost-efficiency expert, he knew that his country could not bear the expense of the truth. The Vietnam policy required false figures to sustain it, and he was loyal.
The same could be said of the military. In any case, the rosiness of the generals’ reports from the field was continually being contradicted by their demands for more, which ought to have been a warning to the Administration of what its policy implied. Already, in mid 1962, the military was asking Kennedy for napalm, defoliants, jets, and free-fire zones (to dump unused bombs in). This was a prophetic clarification of the true nature of the war. Had Kennedy listened to the generals, rather than to his experts, who were still selling him the doctrine of “limited wars” and the famous counterinsurgency, he might have seen that it was time to get out while he could. Yet among high Administration figures, only Bobby Kennedy finally drew the obvious inference and in a National Security Council meeting the next year suggested that withdrawal should be considered.
The Administration, however, was unwilling to admit, even to itself, an ends-means relation taken for granted by the military. Though the military pushed for the appropriate means to bring about the end, it was not they who had set the goal in the first place and continued to reaffirm it at every public opportunity. They are certainly guilty of war crimes, both technical violations of the Geneva Convention and moral violation of the laws of humanity: they encouraged and covered up atrocities, knowingly permitted the torture of prisoners and civilians, engaged in area bombing, and freely used antipersonnel projectiles in inhabited regions containing no military targets.
These were crimes they committed in the exercise of their professional capacities Johnson more sympathetic and the story more dramatic, as the trap slowly closes on him and he yields once again to the steady, relentless pressure from the professional warmakers.
But why did we get into Vietnam and why are we still there, when military pressure has evidently abated? It cannot be the Army, Air Force, and the Navy that are so eager now to stay in Thailand, Guam, and the Gulf of Tonkin. The Bundy brothers and Rostow have long since departed from Washington, and no “Eastern élite” is determining policy. Actually what we are doing in Vietnam is a mystery, though in the early stages it seemed to require no explanation: we were there to contain communism, the way we had in Greece and Korea, even if we did not wish to fully repeat the latter experience. In fact, a successful action is never examined in terms of what caused it; the result is seen as the cause. Or, as Halberstam, who has his shrewd insights, puts it when describing some of the early misgivings and how they were mastered: “Why challenge your goals if you are achieving them?” Once the conduct of the war became problematical, questions began to be asked about the worth of the enterprise. Finally, the worth being doubted, causes were sought, and the history of the involvement was traced, as though in the historical sequence lay buried the explanation.
This is Halberstam’s view, when he is seeking to write straight history rather than “for color.” In the objective mood, he attributes our involvement to a chain of causality: the cold war and the “loss” of China, then Senator Joe McCarthy and the demoralization of the foreign service, and, behind these linked happenings, the passing of the British Empire, which left the US as the most powerful nation in the world and hence the guarantor of international stability, i.e., of the status quo as it existed at the end of World War II. None of this is new, but that does not mean it is false. Perhaps there were those particular multiple causes, foremost among them the cold war, from which the others derived, since without it the disintegration of the British Empire would not necessarily have made the US put on the uniform of world policeman, nor would the “loss” of China have given rise to panic. Yet Halberstam seems satisfied to talk of “demonology” in connection with cold-war attitudes, as if that summed up the subject. This line is fashionable among younger people today, but it ignores the historical reality of Stalin.
If you ignore the reality of Stalin, it is easy to be smug in retrospect about the source of US errors. But to have feared the advance of Stalinism, for Europe or for Asia, was not irrational or immoral, even though some of the steps taken against it were. One can cite our China policy, for instance, as misguided from the point of view of our own national interest: it would have been wiser to accept the fact of Mao and the People’s Republic since it was already evident and had been pointed out many times by Trotsky and others that Stalin feared nothing more than a plurality of revolutions. But we were not sufficiently astute to perceive this realistic possibility, being blinded by moral considerations which were not at that time wholly hypocritical: recognition of Red China looked to most like further accommodation to Stalinism, and those who argued for it (leaving out fellow travelers) did so neither in moral nor in radical terms but in terms of trimming one’s sails to the prevailing winds.
Until the Twentieth Congress, the cold war, in one form or another, if not in all the forms it took, had some legitimacy, and to talk of the Free World was not sheer hysteria. Halberstam writes as though Soviet totalitarianism had been a figment of Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunting imagination, and it is like looking for a needle in a haystack to try to find Stalin’s name in the text. The index has it listed nine times, yet, strangely, I fail to see it on three of the pages cited: pages 387, 389, 390.
Still there is no doubt that the cold war and plain anti-communism (which are not the same) played a big part in getting us into Vietnam. But the cold war does not account for our persistence there. Anti-communism continues to provide the moral screen, but on the practical plane nobody in power believes any longer that our purpose there is to counter a “world communist threat.” Some other explanation must be sought.
The North Vietnamese ascribe it to US imperialism, and this explanation is summarily rejected by nearly all Americans, including most of the war’s critics. Halberstam does not even mention the possibility that imperialist interests might be one of the motives. Certainly the pursuit of imperialist goals, in the traditional sense of a quest for raw materials and natural resources to be exploited with the use of coolie labor, is not involved here: we are not after their rice and we have destroyed, by bombing and defoliation, most of their rubber plantations. Even if offshore oil should be found in large quantities, as some American prospectuses have indicated, this would not be an adequate inducement; nor would the exploitation of Cam Ranh Bay as a vacation area by real-estate developers (a perfectly plausible American “vision”) pay off the cost of the war.
Yet, in a larger sense, I believe that our investments and markets are at stake in Vietnam. Vietnam has been fastened on as a symbol of the right of US capital to flow freely throughout the globe and return home. The fact that American investments in Vietnam are negligible and likely to remain so, even if the oil can be successfully dredged or a Mekong Valley Power Authority developed, does not make us insensitive to the revolutionary challenge represented by the Viet Cong. Vietnam is not Chile or Bolivia, yet the defiance of the American will on the part of a “backward” nation cannot be overlooked. The shot heard round the world. That a revolutionary has no country is just as real to capitalists, large and small, as it was to whoever first said it. A Viet Cong “takeover,” if it is allowed to happen, deals a blow to the American way of life and free-enterprise mystique, not only because the revolutionary spirit is contagious and may be carried like Asian flu to the Philippines, South America, Africa, but because the very concept of a self-elected alternative to the American pattern is injurious.
Had South Vietnam “gone communist” overnight, against its will, through a coup d’état, it might count for us today less than Albania. Because Albania did not have a choice. The South Vietnamese had a choice, and that shocks. In our eyes, states that have no choice, like Poland, are regarded as reclaimable morally and perhaps even practically in some vaguely imagined circumstance. We are told how Poles love Americans, how they even loved Nixon when he was there, and this fact—or belief—instead of making us anguish over them, pray for their liberation, quite reconciles us to their fate.
A Hungarian friend recently said to me that there was something almost metaphysical in the American deadlock with Vietnam. I think that is true. Our reluctance to leave cannot be accounted for by the sequence of causality that brought us there and it goes beyond simple unwillingness on the part of a series of chief executives to be the “first American president to preside over a defeat.” The metaphysical element grows out of our quite material attachment to our beloved system of production and consumption, and truly is a mystery, in the religious sense, as peculiar as the doctrine of the Trinity to those not initiated. That must be why no argument on the matter has ever been listened to and why the refusal to admit that this was a civil war has been so adamant, for the idea that the enemy could be within our ally was unthinkable: nobody in his right mind, while getting American aid, could choose communism. It also helps explain the savage cruelty of the means used by men who imagined they were decent.
This is not the place to pursue these reflections, which rest on the gloomy sense that Vietnam was unavoidable. If this “Vietnam” had been averted, another would have come along. Even assuming that this one will somehow be terminated, I fear that peace on whatever terms will be only an intermission in a series of confrontations, which the Americans will be unwise, from their point of view, to postpone too long, lest they lose their technological superiority. Indeed, this technological superiority was surely the other and final reason for our willingness to get into Vietnam and stay there. We knew we had the “muscle” (a favorite Halberstam word), and this gave us confidence, even though the nuclear option, the most bulging part of that muscle, had to be kept under wraps.
The technological gap between us and the North Vietnamese constituted, we thought, an advantage which obliged us not to quit. Despite the “unfair” handicap of not being allowed to use tactical atomic arms, we could still display, as if in an exhibition hall, a whole range of advanced weaponry, as well as “people sensors,” computer systems, sophisticated radar—only missing was McNamara’s projected electronic barrier. The manufacture and maintenance of all this puerile and costly junk is as much a feature of the American way of life as Wheaties, the breakfast food of champions, or shopping malls, and the lack of consumer appreciation by the North Vietnamese and the VC of this aspect of our high standard of living, their stubbornness before the evidence of our overwhelming industrial capacity, added another mysterious obstacle to the understanding between peoples that our intervention was bent on establishing.
Some of this can be read between the lines of Halberstam’s chronicle. Between the lines there is room for thought. But the lines themselves with their flashy “styling” and shoddy workmanship are a continual distraction and sad reminder of the low standards now accepted in all branches of US production as the natural corollary of high output. For me the necessity of checking against other sources (among them my own memory) imposed by this manifestly colored and unedited narrative made the book even more tedious than it might have been had I consented to read it as a fiction “based on” history. I felt like Ralph Nader, testing and weighing sentences and paragraphs, a state of mind that in the field of book manufacture few, I realize, will find sympathetic.
Nevertheless, to show what I mean, I shall give a small concluding example. Halberstam makes much of “the way high-level military destroyed dissenters” and cites very fully the cases of Kattenburg, Sarris, Colonel Dan Porter, and others who were broken by the treatment or else simply quit. All true, I am sure. But it occurred to me finally to wonder what had happened to the one-star General York whose story Halberstam drops at the point where it illustrates his theme. So I looked him up in the 1968-69 Who’s Who and found (“York, Robert Howard, army officer”) that he is serving—or was four years ago—as Commanding General of the XVIII Airborne at Fort Bragg, with the rank of lieutenant-general. In other words, he not only had not been destroyed but had had a promotion.
This inspired me to look up David Nes, the State Department dissenter whose story also breaks off at a point where one would have imagined that he had been ignored, downgraded, by-passed, driven into premature retirement. But no; it turns out that from 1965 on he was serving as Minister in the US Embassy in Cairo, a grade higher than Deputy Chief-of-Mission, which was his post in Saigon when he angered General Harkins by making pessimistic reports. In fact, unless I misread Who’s Who, he had already been raised to the rank of Minister in Saigon (where he served till 1965) at a time when Halberstam places him back in Washington being given “the strong feeling that no one wanted to touch anyone who had angered the military, that if the military turned on you, you were dead.” It is true that when my Who’s Who went to press he had not reached the rank of Ambassador, although he was fifty-one or two years old. In career terms, which in my view interest Halberstam excessively, how dead is “dead”?
January 25, 1973