According to St. Augustine—no better name to invoke when one is discussing political sin—“the seat of mind is in memory.” If Augustine was right, the nation is now mindless, and we shall have to find such comfort as we can in the hope that when mind goes, habit and instinct may still remain, assuring life if not direction.
Surely the most striking aspect of the present political scene is the absence of the recent past from it. There seems to be something like a tacit agreement among the presidential contenders, and between them and the public, that the record of recent events has no bearing on our present condition and future prospects. The closest Ford comes to touching the past is in vague allusions to some dragon called détente, which he will guard us against just as he will preserve our ethnic treasures here at home. Those fronts secured, we can move forward into the third century, which is to be the century of American Individualism. Ronald Reagan sounds like Teddy Roosevelt, all teeth and bluster, about to lead the Rough Riders in another charge, this time into the Panama Canal. Jimmy Carter overleaps the recent past by centuries, and assures us that America still stands in a covenant of nations with God. The people and their leaders agree: let’s forget the recent past and get on with the business of building a brighter future. That, of course, is exactly the advice Nixon gave the nation at the height of Watergate.
This silence is all the more remarkable when one remembers that among the events unspoken are a constitutional crisis greater than any since the Civil War, absolute proof that for years national law enforcement and intelligence agencies violated law and elementary decency here and abroad, and a desolating war in Southeast Asia. The constitutional crisis has been reduced to an exciting film entertainment about the thrills and triumphs of investigative reporting, and to something like court scandal based on dubious research methods and ethics. Behind the scenes, the war continues to exist in the same basic doctrines and inflated military budgets that produced and sustained it in the first place. Out front, it exists only in occasional stories about the affairs of Lieutenant Calley and the difficulties of adjustment experienced by the Vietnamese refugees.
As the Mayagüez incident showed, not even the most obvious “lessons” of Vietnam have been accepted. In that episode, President Ford replayed Vietnam in miniature. He unleashed force against a small Asian country without consultation outside the Executive. The force was vastly greater than any sensible appraisal of the situation would have recommended. The affair was misrepresented to the public and casualty lists were falsified. The president crowed that the encounter was a victory for America, proving once again that we would stand behind our word and use our arms to back our interests.
Not one of the major contenders in the presidential primaries was an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam. The meaning of the war is not discussed. The military budget booms. The Trident program has been launched (ten submarines planned, each capable of virtually destroying a continent). President Ford has proposed a plan for reorganizing the “intelligence community” which amounts to a method for making it easier for that community to do what it has always done. The same kind of doublethink that characterized foreign policy during Vietnam still prevails: then, we withdrew ground troops while secretly bombing Cambodia, and mined Haiphong harbor against Soviet ships while secretly arranging grain deals with the Soviet Union; now, we pour money into the hands of rightist foreign politicians and make huge arms sales to a dozen despots while mouthing the slogans of peace and democracy.
Apparently, nothing has changed and nothing is remembered. Public discussion in this presidential year has virtually nothing to do with recent public reality. It appears that the political parties and electoral politics are no longer a force for memory, even as they long ago ceased being a force for change. They have joined Congress as vestigial organs—likely to flare up and cause a little trouble now and then, but with no vital function to perform in the body politic.
Given this decay of public life, is it possible now to write about Watergate-And-All-That and hope to have some good effect on national politics? Has that whole convulsive decade which produced and culminated in the abuses of the Nixon presidency been so thoroughly repressed as to be inaccessible to ordinary methods of public recollection? That is an interesting problem in political psychology, and a question of some significance for the future.
Woodward and Bernstein’s book The Final Days solves the problem neatly, albeit in the most likely way. They have shown, with the help of a national news magazine, that there is still a lot of interest in politics as a spectator sport, and a lot of money to be made in selling tickets to the game. Their book has presented the image of the Nixon presidency that is most likely to remain fixed in the public mind: a befuddled and desperate Nixon beseeching a frightened Kissinger to kneel with him in prayer, all else having failed. Let us hope that this vignette will be enough for Nixon haters and Nixon lovers alike: no more need either to bury or to praise that Caesar. And The Final Days, in reducing Watergate to personality and entertainment, will relieve many of having to think more deeply about the special brand of elective Caesarism that is now the dominant feature of national politics in this country.
Woodward and Bernstein’s melodrama will also reduce the impact of Anthony Lukas’s Nightmare. That is regrettable, for Lukas has written a solid, comprehensive, and excellent contemporary history not just of the Watergate events but of the systematic abuse of power during the Nixon presidency which Watergate exposed and typified.
The problem with writing a contemporary history of Watergate is not the scarcity of facts but their abundance. Congress and the press got off to a late start in exposing the crimes and abuses of the Nixon presidency, but what they lost in time they made up for in zeal. There are now carloads of data—and much of it contradictory, based on obscure sources, issued for selfish motives by persons of doubtful reliability. The problem is not one of discovery, but one of sifting, assessing, and connecting the available evidence. On the whole, Lukas has done a workmanlike job. He has not added much to our knowledge of the abuse of power in the Nixon presidency but he has brought a great many facts together and strung them on a lively narrative line.
In Lukas’s version—and he is surely correct—the Watergate story began long before the bungled break-in of June 17, 1972. It began in the earliest days of Nixon’s first term, with the small, tentative, first steps toward the building of a secret and illegal spy apparatus: “investigative support for the White House,” John Ehrlichman called it. That small seed, planted in the soil of hate and weakness, cultivated by the self-righteous lackeys of a president who needed assurance the way an aging actor needs applause, soon blossomed into the “enemies list” and wiretaps of May 1969. By the midterm election season of 1970-1971, the blossom was in full flower. Watergate and the cover-up were of a piece with all that had gone before.
Lukas covers all this familiar ground thoroughly. In addition, he explores with particular care some of the darker regions of the terrain: the Howard Hughes-CIA-White House links; the sale of influence and office for money; the full sweep of the Plumbers’ activities; the misuse of federal agencies and money to reward friends and punish enemies.
The book is as long on facts as it is short on analysis. Nightmare is all foreground: personality, event, episode. In so far as Lukas offers an explanation of the forces that pushed these men, he centers on their fear of losing and their resentment of those for whom winning seemed easy. Not really tough, but just mean, resentful, and opportunistic, these men were driven by their fear of losing to the point where they became the sleaziest, clumsiest pack of losers in American history. Nixon swept into office by a huge margin, and still saw himself weak, hated, standing virtually alone in a world of enemies. H.R. (Bob) Haldeman, all righteousness and rectitude, wheedled and cajoled Nixon for a pardon on Nixon’s last day in office, and suggested the deed might be sweetened by issuing at the same time a blanket pardon to all draft resisters and evaders.
John Dean, who saw politics as “just like selling Wheaties,” ended up selling out his own boss. Tom Huston, that Jeffersonian Democrat, reduces Dostoevsky to banality, in his maxim that “everything is valid, everything is permitted” if one’s object is the defense of liberty. Charles Colson, whose heroes were John Wayne and General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, and whose personal motto was the Green Berets’ “When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow,” lied and bullied as long as he could, and then turned tail and ran as fast as the rest of them. Of the whole pack, only John Mitchell emerged with any personal dignity.
Well, it’s all there in the 626 pages of Nightmare. If you need it, read it.
The last ten years or so have surely been the most bewildering in American history. During that time the nation seemed to become a stranger to itself—unsure of its own purposes, divided and angry, its projects and hopes reduced to confusion. Nothing seemed to come out right, and nobody really knew why, though lots of people had lots of theories, ranging from the terminal crisis of capitalism to the hair styles of the young. Disaster followed upon disaster, each adding to the confusion of the one before it. The movement for racial justice ended in bitterness. The program to end poverty ended with the poor still poor. The New Left fell apart and the “cultural revolution” dissipated. The parties splintered. Lyndon Johnson left office bewildered and saddened. Thousands of people met violence and jail in protests against a war that the nation did not want but could not end. Nixon swept into office promising peace and unity, and immediately expanded the war abroad and opened hostilities against the opponents of the war at home. Congress lost all ability to shape events while more and more power was concentrated in the small circle of men around the president.
The Watergate disclosures revealed that for years the Executive had systematically deceived the public and had carried on a secret war against the other branches of government. The true thoughts and the spoken words of the men in power seemed to have nothing to do with each other. Nor did their words make sense of their deeds. Nor were the words and deeds of one “point in time” intelligibly connected with the words and deeds of other points in time. As one phase of the crisis opened onto the next—without warning, without apparent connection—the bewilderment deepened. We seemed to be the victims of a senseless fate, carried along by forces we could not name toward an end we could not see.
Even now, when much is known that was then obscure, the feeling is widespread that the events of those years still defy understanding. In fair part, that is due to the fact that the information necessary to an understanding has appeared in bits and pieces, often long separated in time from the relevant events, and frequently couched in obscure phrasings. This, added to deliberate deception, concealment, and manipulation, has made it supremely difficult to assemble the fragments into a coherent whole.
That is the first job of interpretation—to make the fragmentary record whole, so that memory and mind might have a coherent experience to work on. After that, one can move forward to the second task of interpretation—to compose a theory, or at least some systematic thoughts, on the nature and causes of the basic and enduring crisis of our time, of which the Nixon administration was a part.
These are the tasks Jonathan Schell takes up in The Time of Illusion. He completes both admirably. Schell’s book offers the most coherent reading we have of the Nixon years. The “record” of those years actually consists of four parts. First, the administration’s own presentation of itself to the public. This part of the record was systematically manipulated to show the administration in the best light—defender of peace, protector of law and liberty—and its enemies in the worst light. It had little to do with truth. Second, there was the record as presented on television and in the press. This record was fuller than the first one, but it was largely reflexive—dependent upon the first record—for the administration has enormous power to set the agenda of the mass media. Next, there were the events themselves—troop withdrawals, judicial nominations, legislative proposals, and the like. But events do not come to us bearing their own meanings. They must be interpreted, and this is done largely by the first two records, with all their distortions and partialities. Finally, there is the record of the administration’s secret thoughts and covert activities, which became public only as the administration itself was coming to an end.
Schell has assembled these disparate records into a coherent composition—a thing that was impossible during the life of the regime itself. He has brought together the underground and the surface streams of American history during the Nixon years, connected discrete particles of information from a variety of sources and times, and established the chronology of words and deeds. The result is a work of great force. Reading this book is like “seeing” for the first time events which, when they happened, struck one as absurd and bizarre. This book brings order to whirl.
But to find a pattern is still not necessarily to have a meaning. What is the key to the pattern? What are the causes and origins of the political disorders of the recent period? In addressing this question, Schell makes his boldest and most thoughtful proposals.
By the end of 1968, when Nixon was elected to the presidency, the war in Vietnam was already dominating American political life. Whatever it touched—and it touched nearly everything—withered. But if the war was at the bottom of our disorders and defeats, what was at the root of the war? Certainly the North Vietnamese did not want to fight us. No Vietnamese force, north or south, posed any threat to the United States. Nor was the American public screaming for war. On the contrary, public support for the war was already so weak in 1964 that Goldwater, who called for “victory” in Vietnam, was smashingly defeated by Johnson, who promised to send no troops abroad. By 1968, uncertain support had turned into resolute opposition. Both Nixon and Humphrey promised withdrawal and peace. And still the war grew. American policymakers decided to continue and to enlarge that war, even if doing so meant warring against its own citizenry. Why?
The war was fought, Schell answers, in order to show that America was willing and able to fight. Its importance, according to a memo prepared by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1962, lay in “the psychological impact that a firm position by the United States will have on the countries of the world….” The United States was in Vietnam, said President Johnson in 1965, because we have “a promise to keep,” and because to withdraw would shake “confidence in the value of an American commitment and in the value of America’s word.” “We are involved,” said Secretary of State Rusk in 1967, “because the nation’s word has been given that we would be involved.” The war had to be fought to show the countries of the world that the United States has power and that Americans have the “will and character,” as President Nixon put it, to use that power. Vietnam was a test case of our will to use our power in world affairs and to stand behind our word when the going got tough. If we failed that test, we would lose “credibility.”
The doctrine of credibility, for which American policymakers were willing to commit horrors, was in its turn a deduction from a strategic theory designed to deal with the ultimate horrors—nuclear destruction and domination of the world by totalitarian communism. The theory, whose principal architects were Professor Henry Kissinger (Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, 1957) and General Maxwell Taylor (The Uncertain Trumpet, 1960), was an effort to deal with the central paradox of strategy in the nuclear age: the possession of great power—enough power to annihilate mankind—tended to weaken rather than strengthen the capacity for action. As Kissinger put it, “the dilemma of the nuclear period can…be defined as follows: the enormity of modern weapons makes the thought of war repugnant, but the refusal to run any risks would amount to giving the Soviet rulers a blank check.” Great power produced great impotence.
The strategy of “massive retaliation,” which prevailed throughout the 1950s, required the US to rush to the brink of nuclear war at each occasion of perceived threat to its interests, and then hope that the foe would be sufficiently frightened to draw back and comply with our wishes. Exactly that strategy was employed in the Cuban Missile Crisis. But, Kissinger argued, in the end that strategy not only entailed the possibility of a miscalculation at the brink, but it also lacked “credibility,” for the communists were not likely to believe that we would be “willing to commit suicide to prevent encroachments, which do not, each in itself, seem to threaten our existence directly but which may be steps on the road to our ultimate destruction.” We needed a policy that would steer a middle course between death by nuclear suicide and death by “creeping aggression,” as Taylor called it.
That policy was found, of course, in the “strategy of limited war.” This new strategy would free us from the twin threats of paralysis and holocaust. It would give us room to maneuver and provide the means to stop communism from taking over the world. Above all, action in limited wars would give us opportunities, in Taylor’s words, to demonstrate to friend and foe alike “that we have the will and determination to use our retaliatory power without compunction if we are attacked.” In other words, willingness to fight limited wars would demonstrate our credibility.
With that, the circle of theory was complete, and ready for testing in Vietnam.
I opened this review by noting that we have largely agreed to forget the recent past. Now, obviously, not all the past is helpful in finding a path through the present. Some even argue that our conditions are so new that the past offers no counsel at all. Surely, we are still thinking politically in categories drawn largely from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—to our endless confusion. In any case, memory is always selective.
But the peril of blocking out the recent past—Vietnam, and the Johnson-Kissinger-Nixon years—is exactly that that past is our present and our most probable future. The burden of nuclear weapons is ours. The shadow of nuclear destruction falls over our world. The dilemma which the theory of deterrence, limited warfare, and credibility attempted to cope with remains our dilemma. What we saw in Vietnam and in recent American political life, as Schell points out, is the failure of our most serious and intellectually coherent effort to come to terms with the realities of world politics in the nuclear age. Whatever might be said about the shortcomings of the Kissinger-Taylor conceptions, they are surely less reckless and more intelligent than the Dulles strategy of brinksmanship and massive retaliation which they replaced. Indeed, one of the current dangers is that we might conclude after Vietnam (just as we concluded after that earlier protracted, unpopular, and costly war in Korea) that the simplest way is the best way: better a terrible end than endless terror.
Hence, it is important that we try to salvage from the recent past whatever can be learned from it. Jonathan Schell turns to that task in the superb concluding section of his book. Drawing largely on him, and accepting the risks of brevity and oversimplification, I want to suggest what some of those lessons might be.
—We did not stumble into the war in Vietnam. On the contrary, that war was, as Schell says, “a theorists’ war par excellence.” The quagmire metaphor, still popular as a way of talking about our involvement there, blurs the amount of forethought, planning, and theoretical reasoning that lay behind the war. In Vietnam, abstractions from the books of professors and generals came to life.
—The conception of the war’s origins and nature most popular on the left—that it was a racist and imperialist war—also obfuscates more than it clarifies.
—Foreign policy in the nuclear age has to be, to an unprecedented degree, theory-guided. The basic fact is that our condition is unprecedented, and the accumulated experience and lore of centuries of statecraft is of little help in that condition. Talleyrand, even Metternich (pace Kissinger), would be as much at sea now as Lyndon Johnson was.
—Still, theories are implemented by individuals, so the variables of intelligence, virtue, and basic commitments matter as much as they always did. Johnson, for example, believed in the deterrence-limited war-credibility theory as much as Nixon did, and left office convinced that he was right and the nation wrong. But, given his political faith, there were limits beyond which he would not go in pursuit of the “right,” and those limits stopped short of the corruption of democratic processes and the ruin of the constitutional system.
—While action now must be guided by theories to an unprecedented degree, theories are always implemented under local, particular conditions and within a specific atmosphere of assumptions and convictions. The limited war theory was formulated in very abstract and general terms, almost global ones. But it was applied in Vietnam—a particular place, with particular ways and conditions. The particularities turned out to be far more important than the theorists had ever imagined they could be.
Similarly, the atmosphere of opinion at the time in the United States made it easy to assimilate Vietnam to a general category of event important in the theory, namely, an aggressive move under the direction of the monolithic force called World Communism. But the war in Vietnam was really at bottom a local event, rather than an instance of the global encounter between the “forces of freedom” and the “forces of totalitarianism.” Hence, it was an utterly wrong place to test the theory. We fought the wrong war in the wrong place for the wrong reasons, because we made a disastrous mistake in moving from general categories to particular situations. Given the increasing number and prominence of “scientifically” trained persons in high policy posts, such mistakes are likely to grow in frequency, for social scientists are trained to reason generally and abstractly. They reason about the “logic” of action, the “laws” of human behavior, the “structures” of situations, the “typology” of motivation, and lose the feel for local textures.
—Under the strategic theory of the Vietnam years, the main purpose of policy was to achieve an image or reputation—to appear so formidable or resolute that you would never be required to prove your willingness to use all the power at your command, for the actual use of that power could mean extinction of both yourself and your opponent. Policy making became image making. But images are inherently obscure and fleeting. It is difficult to ascertain a state of mind (such as resoluteness, or willingness to sacrifice). In addition, the image one is trying to project concerns a future time: one tries to show by actions in the present what one will be willing to do in the future, under certain conditions. But those conditions can never be precisely stated. And present conduct is no sure indicator, either to yourself or to others, of future conduct. Hence, it is almost impossible to be sure that you are projecting the image you really want to project, or that your viewer is perceiving the image you want to project.
There is, then, an inherent expansiveness or dynamism in action taken for psychological objectives that is not present in action taken for tangible, almost material objectives. What this suggests is that “limited wars” fought for the purpose of establishing credibility are hard to keep limited. Consider the “escalation” of the war in Vietnam. This dynamism was not thought through by the architects of the theory of limited war.
—Action taken for psychological objectives (e.g., credibility) inherently contains an element of theatricality, and can easily slide into pure theater. Policymakers come to think of action—even military action—in theatrical terms, and lose their feeling for the real costs. Policymakers’ and spectators’ senses of reality become attenuated. Even death seems unreal. Image and substance become independent of each other. Public policy becomes public relations.
—A war fought for symbolic ends is very difficult to explain and justify to the citizenry. Officials easily employ concealment and evasion, and retreat into isolation. Government and public get out of touch with each other. Furthermore, when the symbolic end sought is an image of national toughness or determination, then any domestic opposition or criticism threatens that image, thereby threatening—in the eyes of the government—the national defense. Under these conditions, opponents at home seem even more deadly than the enemy abroad. Feeling beleaguered on all fronts, seeing enemies everywhere, officials fear loss of authority and strive for more and more power, even at the expense of constitutional processes. The government becomes enclosed in a private reality, and wrapped in a mood of paranoia and impotence. That was exactly the mentality of the Nixon administration. And that mentality drove it to the near-destruction of the Indochinese peninsula and the American constitutional order.
It is clear now that the strategic doctrine which has guided our policies during recent years is a catastrophic failure. It is equally clear that this nation is not facing up to that failure. The costs of that evasion might well exceed even the costs of the recent catastrophe, for every one of the realities—and, above all, the reality of nuclear weapons—underlying the ruinous experiences of the Vietnam years is still present. As Schell says in the final lines of his excellent book, the questions raised by those realities are unprecedented, boundless, unanswered, and “wholly and lastingly ours.” Seen in that light, the mindlessness and triviality of public discussion in this presidential year appear as a sin against humanity.
June 24, 1976