The Politics of Lying: Government Deception, Secrecy, and Power
The Crippled Giant: American Foreign Policy and Its Domestic Consequences
Political Prisoners in America
Watergate and all those attendant usurpations, subversions, and corruptions for which the word has become both a symbol and a short cut, is neither a “deplorable incident”—to use Mr. Nixon’s revealing phrase—nor a historical sport. It is a major crisis, constitutional, political, and moral, one that challenges our governmental system. Public attention is, and will long remain, focussed on what happened, but already the interest of publicists and scholars is shifting to the more troublesome question of why it happened. That is really the subject of these three books—all of them written before the Watergate scandal broke, but all in a sense anticipating the psychological and moral problems that Watergate has raised.
The roots of our current malaise go back to the paranoia about communism—first Soviet, then Chinese—that obsessed Americans after 1947. So deep and pervasive was this paranoia that—like the Southern commitment to slavery before the Civil War and to white supremacy after the war—in time it came to dominate our lives and our thoughts, to color our views of politics, economy, education, science, and morality. As in the worlds of Kafka and Orwell, it justified adopting the tactics of the enemy in order to defeat him—just what the Nixon Administration has been doing for the past four years, just what that half-baked “Jeffersonian liberal” Mr. Thomas Huston achieved when he sold Mr. Nixon a vast scheme of repression in order to avert repression. In both the McCarthy and Watergate eras it has justified undermining the Constitution and the Bill of Rights in order, presumably, to save them.
Inevitably Watergate (perhaps we should find a different name, like Nixonism) conjures up and reflects McCarthyism. But something new has been added; indeed much has been added that makes it more dangerous, more corrupt, and more subversive than that earlier foray against sanity and decency. For war has been added—a ten-years’ war which benumbed the American conscience and blunted the American political intelligence.
The cold war itself was largely a product of deductive and a priori reasoning, and therfore a self-delusion, and so, too, in added measure, was the ten-year war against Vietnam. The doctrinaire state of mind lends itself eagerly to paranoia, for real dangers are nothing compared to those our imagination can conjure up. It was almost inevitable that the psychology which imagined the domino theory and envisioned a million Chinese landing (after a good healthy swim) on the shores of California should see in every student demonstration, every sit-down at an airport or a napalm factory, every revelation of government chicanery or of overruns in naval contracts a threat to the survival of the republic. For if the threat of communism is so importunate as to justify the longest war in which we have ever been engaged, the satanic arsenal of weapons used against friends and enemies indiscriminately, the use of napalm the My Lai and other massacres, the violations of international law and of the laws of war, the destruction of a whole nation, then…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.