A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam

In early May, The New York Review asked some of its contributors to write on the meaning of the Vietnam war and its ending. They were asked to consider the questions of the responsibility for the war; its effect on American life, politics, and culture, and the US position in the world; and the prospects of recovery from it—or any other questions they felt to be important.

—The Editors

Sheldon S. Wolin

“The lessons of the past in Vietnam,” the President said recently, “have already been learned—learned by Presidents, learned by Congress, learned by the American people—and we should have our focus on the future….” The past, he declared, should be left to the historians. For then, presumably, after events have lost their preternatural shape and passions have cooled, when no one cares any longer, perspective is possible once more. Not long ago, Watergate evoked the same advice, even the same words. Then, too, we were advised to “put the past behind us,” to cease our recriminations, and to concentrate on the urgent matters of the day. Then as now, when the nation has been transfixed by events of extraordinary peril and significance, our leaders have all but told us that, as a people, we lack the maturity to reflect upon the meaning of great events. They have invited us, instead, to emulate the landlord who walks away from his profitless investment, leaving only the memorial of a tax write-off. Then as now, we have had urged upon us a politics of oblivion, a mass drinking ritual by which we drown memory in the sweet waters of Lethe and find in forgetfulness the healing balm for “our” wounds.

In one respect the President is right. Political common sense tells us what Freud confirms, that it is unhealthy to pick endlessly at bygone failures and to indulge an “abnormal attachment to the past.” Practical statesmen have to deal with the world as it is and as it is becoming, not as it was. But if the politics of oblivion is necessary for the politician, is it the right course for the citizen?

Among our crimes oblivion has been set;

But ’tis our king’s perfection to forget.

The question which Dryden’s couplet suggests is: does the rationale still hold for allowing kings their perfection so that they may “get on” with the nation’s problems? Until recently the rationale for not burdening politicians with the past has been a faith in their power and ability to master events, to deal creatively (“new” deals) with problems, and to set new directions (“new” frontiers) for society. Now Vietnam and the current depression have combined with recent experience of Watergate, ecological warnings, the chaos of welfare programs, the bankruptcy of cities, racial violence, and persistent unemployment to signify a new and awesome fact of our national existence that the politics of oblivion seeks to hide from us. The fact is that the options of the politician have been drastically narrowed and there is little of significance…

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