The French thought they had rid themselves of the Vietnam war in 1954 at Geneva, the US in 1973 at Paris, and now, six years after the end of the war, the horror of Indochina continues. The social transformations of the Indochinese societies turn out to be nearly as cruel and bloody as the war that ended in 1974. This fourth war—after the French, American, and civil wars—is different in the kinds of blackmail, extortion, and expulsion taking place inside Indochina while a cut-off of food to Vietnam is being urged by some European nations.
This war, too, has obviously evoked a different alignment of political forces and intellectual opinion. All the Moscow-line Communists from Ulan-Bator to Paris unreservedly support Vietnam—Humanité insisting, for example, that French working-class municipalities will not welcome Vietnam refugees—while for China, Vietnam is now in the enemy camp. As for the international intelligentsia, to the extent it exists, it seems clear that most noncommunist leftists and liberals who opposed the Vietnam war have broken with the cause—or at least with the methods—of Hanoi.
Thus, in the small but still significant world of French intellectual politics, the most striking recent event was the hand-shake exchanged between Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron at a press conference where they joined in calling on the French government to save Indochinese refugees. In fact Sartre and Aron had both signed an appeal last November by which a diverse group of intellectuals and politicians sought funds for a boat to pick up refugees stranded at sea. But ten years ago it would have seemed impossible that Sartre and Aron would appear together on the same platform for the same cause—and quite unthinkable that the cause would concern Indochina. On Vietnam, more than on any other question, Sartre would have been expected to repeat the statement he made about Aron in 1950: “An anticommunist is a dog.”
During the student rising in 1968 Sartre remarked to a friend, “My dream is to see Aron naked, undressed by students in the middle of a lecture hall.” Yet in June there he was, sitting next to his old schoolmate at the Ecole Normale, his old adversary—Sartre, the enemy of all institutions, refuser of the Nobel prize. And together they went to call on Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the bourgeois politician par excellence, asking him to save and admit to France many thousands more refugees from Vietnam.
Still, to talk of “rapprochement” between Sartre and Aron, as Aron told us, “would be an exaggeration. Evolution on his part, yes. There was a time when Sartre thought that in the name of the revolution all violence was good, and even necessary—as in the famous preface to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. For myself, I do not believe that compromise is always of more value than struggle—Algerian independence could not have been won except by violence. What I detest, in dealing with such a situation, is not the choice of violent means over accommodation; it…
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.