America Now: A Failure of Nerve?
In recent months, a number of developments have occurred which seem enormously significant in their implications for the future of the United States in particular and of Western civilization in general.
Fifteen years ago, John F. Kennedy announced to the world that the United States would “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” At least partly in fulfillment of this promise, the United States among other things sent 500,000 men to Indochina with the stated objective of preventing a Communist takeover in the countries of the region. This year, in the wake of its traumatic experience of that war, the United States was reluctant even to send economic aid to forestall the coming to power of Communist regimes in Cambodia and Vietnam. And even where Europe is concerned, the United States—as the case of Portugal seems to suggest—has responded with comparative passivity.
Fifteen years ago, the United States would almost certainly have reacted with either the threat or the use of force to any action such as the OPEC cartel has taken in raising the price of oil. Today, the American reaction to what might legitimately be seen as a fundamental challenge to the security and economic well—being of the country has been relatively mild.
Fifteen years ago, the ruling elements of American society were convinced that the United States was on the whole a good society and a desirable model for others to follow. Today, we find evidence of an increasing disposition among the elites—political, cultural, and even commercial—to question the legitimacy of American civilization. Instead of stressing the virtues of an industrialized liberal democracy, as they were once so readily prepared to do, they now tend to dwell upon its failings and sometimes even to acquiesce in the most hostile descriptions of the country's character, its past record, and its future prospects.
What does all this mean? Is it an expression, as some think, of an adjustment to hopeful new international realities like détente and interdependence; or are we, as Solzhenitsyn and others believe, witnessing a resurgence of “the spirit of Munich”? Is the United States exhibiting a new maturity in its international behavior; or is the country suffering from a failure of nerve and a loss of political will?
COMMENTARY addressed these questions to a group of American intellectuals who hold varying political views, but who share a special interest in international affairs and the nature of the American role in the world at large. Their responses—thirty-five in all—appear below in alphabetical order.
Josiah Lee Auspitz: There is one—and only one—useful analogy between America's posture in the late 1930's and the country's current situation: the Executive branch again has a view of the international crisis that differs markedly from that dominant in the Congress and in the country as a whole. And since the Executive cannot seem to find the words to persuade the public of its perceptions, it must rely on events to make its case. This, as we know from the experience of Pearl Harbor, and later from that of the North Korean crossing of the 38th Parallel, is a costly way to gain a foreign—policy consensus. And as we have learned in the ten years since the Tonkin Gulf incident, the cost is immeasurably greater when events unfold so as to undermine any initial sense of resolve.
It is therefore a sensible precaution to discuss openly the considerations which divide the Executive from the leadership of other American institutions and from public opinion in general. The problem is obscured by using the metaphor of an integrated national personality, which is said to suffer “a failure of nerve” or to grow into “a new maturity” as a result of Vietnam. Such talk holds only when a foreign-policy consensus exists and when a unified elite ministers to it. It has little relevance to America's current schizoid condition, in which self-contempt and self-glorification coexist, in which periods of self-advertised impotence are followed by sprees of virile display, and in which the real dynamic in foreign policy is to be found not in any crisis of the national psyche but in tactical judgments by the Executive on whether to be direct or devious in pursuing its view of American interests.
The world view which prevails in the Executive branch is not difficult to fathom, though it is deemed unstatesmanlike to articulate it. Secretary of State Kissinger and the two Presidents he has served have given highest priority to tying the Russians up in knots. They have pursued a policy of calibrated isolation of the Soviet Union which departs significantly from the conceptual framework of the earlier policy of containment. Containment was always a modest way of describing preponderance. The United States sought to rebuild Germany, Italy, and Japan as loyal allies in a dominant coalition that would limit Communism to the areas seized after World War II. America had no hope of any major change in the nature of international Communism. Though it was willing to deal individually with deviationists like Tito, its basic policy toward Communism was one of quarantine and massive preparedness.
By contrast, the policy inaugurated with Richard Nixon's trip to Rumania in 1969 focuses not on Communism but on Soviet politics as the central problem. It seeks to oppose the Soviets firmly in all vital areas but at the same time to press with equal vigor accommodations in areas of mutual interest. The main threat to world peace, in this view, is not Communist ideology but the dynamic Soviet military establishment, which is beyond the control of its civilian (Communist party) leadership. America must isolate the Soviets diplomatically and deter them militarily to deprive their “hawks” of opportunities for mischief. At the same time, it must collaborate with them to give their “doves” proof of the positive advantages of moderation. Prolonged habituation to this pattern may in time shift the internal balance of power in the Soviet Union on issues of foreign policy. Until this happens, America must support a high level of both military spending and diplomatic maneuver—a combination poorly rendered by the term détente.
The long-term success of this policy—and it is, as Mr. Nixon used to remind us, designed for “a generation of peace”—depends in part on two external factors. First, the United States must hold the loyalty of Western Europe and Japan to preserve the residual advantages of preponderance. Second, it must hope that Russia and China stay at odds, for so long as the Soviet Union feels vulnerable in the Far East, its military planners will be loath to take risks elsewhere. If, on the other hand, Russia is able to neutralize or (as it proposed to us in 1969) to destroy Chinese power, it will find tempting opportunities in Europe and the Middle East, where its ability to deploy conventional forces exceeds our own.
Hence, in the Executive view, the U.S. needs a truly global foreign policy which, whatever its stated rationale, will aim to isolate the Soviet Union from even a tacit alliance with major centers in Europe and Asia. Such a policy demands extraordinary flexibility in the use of military, political, and economic incentives to influence the factional balance within Soviet politics and to maintain satisfactory relations with major European and Asian powers. And it dictates an interpretation of events that often mystifies even the better—informed segments of public opinion.
For example, when spokesmen for the Executive branch compare the oil-price rise to the crises of the Marshall Plan years, this seems a far-fetched simile, designed perhaps to establish a public-relations parallel between President Ford and Harry Truman. In point of fact, it proceeds from a more disturbing strategic perception: the appearance of American control over the flow and pricing of Arabian crude was essential to the economic leadership that cements the loyalty of Western Europe and Japan. A visible loss of American influence over oil, as our allies' response in 1973 made clear, undermines the unity of the West. Similarly, it is something more profound than a domino theory when the same spokesmen allude to dark consequences flowing from an American retreat from Asia. The Executive view is that this reduces American leverage in the pivotal conflict between China and Russia, as well as limiting our influence in the affairs of more friendly Asian nations. The Executive, in sum, is disciplined by a coherent and sophisticated view of American strategic interests, which it sees as seriously, but not irreparably, threatened by recent setbacks.
This is not, however, a view that can command sustained public support. For though it deals astutely with the main obstacle to world peace, it can be presented only as a set of strategic theories rather than as the deeply-rooted expression of a national ideal. It is thus precluded from appealing to a domestic constituency on any basis other than that of intellectual infallibility. And the pretension to omniscience will be implausible without frequent evidences of diplomatic success. Without a winning streak, the Executive's analysis will seem merely abstract and tendentious. Yet an unbroken string of tactical successes is contrary to the very conception of the policy. If the U.S. succeeds too well and visibly in isolating the Soviet Union, what incentives will the Russians have to play the game on moderate terms? A totally isolated power is a power with no stake in a stable international order. “Win a few, lose a few” is the necessary maxim of an intelligent policy of calibrated isolation. Well-recognized setbacks are essential to its operation.
Moreover, even if there were a unanimous acceptance of the new rules of the game—even if all our journalists, Senators, and Presidential aspirants were able to agree on the difference between a loss and a gambit—it is still doubtful whether the American people would be willing to make the sacrifices to sustain an ambitious balance-of-power politics for an entire generation. Americans, as is well known, do not enjoy the spectacle of raw Realpolitik. They prefer a politics of law, principle, public candor, and humane concern. Nearly every one of their innumerable religious denominations supports large overseas efforts in refugee relief, medical care, and economic uplift. Their deliberative assemblies dote on questions of law and procedure. Their Constitution sets certain taboos in the path of Machiavellian maneuver, and they have recently sacrificed an otherwise respected President for violating them. “It is not a country you are running,” an exasperated foreign diplomat told an American newspaper. “It is a church.”
Cognoscenti have told us for a generation that American “idealism” is a symptom of immaturity in world affairs. But to ignore or regret the realities of democratic politics constitutes a more disabling disease. One cannot create a lasting structure for foreign policy by treating a healthy and enduring trait of national political culture as if it were a sickness. If many Americans are animated by moralism and legalism, then American foreign policy must either find a way to harness these energies or be sabotaged by them. If America has the kind of government that requires a political constituency for foreign policy, it is folly to assume that one can conduct diplomacy as if domestic ideology did not exist. As a matter of simple prudence, there can be no effective American policy without the morality, legality, and ideology needed to hold a loyal constituency.
It is sad that such points must be argued anthropologically, as if to acquaint a colonial administration with a primitive culture. And it is unhealthy when the Executive branch must seize on foreign events to sway a public opinion that it cannot reach even with plausible arguments. The prognosis, however, is for more of the same. The only known remedy, aside from the dastardly attacks of foreign foes, is domestic political conflict. If the several viewpoints that have a legitimate bearing on foreign policy are forced into open political confrontation, they will have to come to terms with their own limitations and define their deepest commitments. In time—and the process requires that the different foreign-policy constituencies organize for the next election—America may have an even-tempered and reliable diplomacy that serves our vital interests without neglecting our better instincts. At the moment, the questions of foreign policy are needlessly posed as a choice between the two.
William Barrett: Some impressions of a European trip last year may have their point in this discussion.
An American tends always to see Europe against the background of that first and unique visit. My first had been at the end of the war, in 1944-45, and the Europe I saw was a continent in ruins, destitute, economically paralyzed. It didn't look as if it could ever prosper again. But capitalism worked wonders, and in the intervening years there had been those various national “miracles” of recovery that we hailed in the 50's. Yet whenever I returned I always saw this new and nervous prosperity against the background of the old specter. And this time I was back when the whole miraculous bubble, overinflated, seemed about to burst.
In Rome these memories became sharpest because it was the first European city the army had brought me to years ago, and because I was walking around with an Italian friend from the war. German tourists and hippies turned up wherever we went. Their hippies, it must be said, are more scrubbed and law-abiding than ours of the 60's. But my friend Franco confessed that during all these years he had never been able to feel quite right about Germans. For both of us they had been the enemy out there behind the guns. Now, amiable and festive, they surrounded us in cafés, and we were still a little uneasy about it. One slips back into one's generation easily, or perhaps one never leaves it. “Who won that war, anyway?” The question popped up spontaneously between us; we were joking, but only partly; caught up by memories, we were asking ourselves what the turmoil of our generation, including its war, amounted to.
At the moment, the Germans looked like victors. They were more affluent; their economy was doing better than anybody else's—their inflation rate was still less than two figures. I had recently had the experience, surprising and humiliating for an American, of discovering that he is carrying a second-rate currency. For his part, my friend was uncomfortable at the recent German loan of several billions to Italy, and more than a little annoyed that the loan had been made so that the Italians now would have enough money to buy German products. Together we began to concoct a game called Inflation, after the style of Monopoly, where the players—the various countries of the Common Market with the U.S. and USSR on the sidelines—made deals like this until the winner emerged as the one financing all the rest, though he thereby became the most heavily burdened and ran the danger of losing.
In France I had already encountered rumblings against this German economic supremacy. Germany had just vetoed a rise in agricultural prices in the Common Market. It had seemed a sensible and courageous act by Schmidt's government. Give a little here, give a little there, the inflation mounts, and the French farmers would soon be that much the worse off for their raise. But the French were furious, and were suggesting that the German economic superiority was due to their inveterate racial servility; they followed economic directives of their government as blindly as they had once obeyed Hitler's commands. (Translate: there were no disruptive unions in Germany clamoring for their slice of the pie.) Raymond Aron, no less, warned that Willy Brandt had been the last German statesman to feel guilty about Nazism, and thereafter the French must expect the newer German leaders to be more ruthless. Schmidt replied that Germany's success was due not to the “supposed character of its people but to the quality of its products.” And the Germans occasionally dropped remarks that they might become tired of carrying the rest of the Common Market on their backs.
As inflation worsens, you can expect that the tenuous political unity of the Western nations will become more strained.
But whatever these tensions, the Germans seemed to have emerged as ultimate victors from the war in which they suffered military defeat. So it appeared to us in Italy anyway. But I had not yet been to Germany.
One picture is worth ten thousand words; and this particular picture greeted me almost on my arrival: on the front page of the newspaper German troops were goose-stepping past a reviewing stand. Shades of the old Germany! When Germans goose-step, the rest of Europe had better take notice. But there was one very big difference now: the place in the photograph was East Berlin, and there on the reviewing stand stood Brezhnev beaming beside the East German head of state.
The accompanying editorial was as somber as the picture. “Brezhnev has much to celebrate this fall,” it led off. This was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the satellite states, and he had been going the rounds of each capital making sure they were all locked in tight. The Germans I talked with were almost all convinced that the satellite empire was now thoroughly pacified. There were not going to be any disturbances like the past in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or least of all in East Germany, which had now become the most solidly authoritarian state outside of Russia. “Who has Germany,” Lenin once said, “has Europe.” You may be sure that the Soviets have never ceased to be good Leninists on this point. The German papers spoke of the “cold détente” as successor to the cold war, and of the monolith of the Communist states as a single glacier pressing on the West. If you glance at the map, where Western Europe looks like a tiny projection from the great Eastern land-mass, the image doesn't seem inaccurate. The West Germans live continuously in the icy air of that glacier. Hardly the atmosphere for supposed victors.
What does the West have to hold against that monolith? Up to now there seemed to be two good arguments in favor of the Western democracies: economically they were far more productive; and they permitted personal liberty. When inflation presses past two figures, the first argument loses its force; and if this first argument goes, the second becomes pointless. In the face of acute economic hardship, there are simply not that many people interested in freedom.
Even now there is no doubt of the productivity of the Western system. In the midst of inflation the habits of “consumerism” are still evident. One tends to notice these more in Europe, perhaps because they seem more unexpected to us there, or because the Europeans, less used to them, display them more conspicuously. In an industrial city like Barcelona an American-style “drugstore,” full of novelties and gadgets, attracted crowds as if it were a carnival. In the south of France there were tangles of traffic in small towns that you could walk across in a few minutes. At Aries I cashed a check just before the noon closing of the bank. A short while later I saw the teller who had served me maneuvering his car into a drive at the back of his house. He could have walked to work in five minutes, but he felt compelled to use his car. “Europe, a continent without an idea,” I had written home as a comment on this materialistic absorption. The small convenient apartment, the two salaries of wife and husband, the paid vacation, and the car—these had been the trophies of their conquest and the articles of their faith. And while that faith was being undermined, to the East there loomed that other Europe that did indeed have an Idea, all too much of one.
Against this European background, and in a retrospective mood, what I seemed to be seeing now was the end of the whole Keynesian epoch. Keynes's chief practical idea had been to spur demand. The motor was stalled; well, then, open the throttle to get the motor started, and it could be counted on to perform efficiently again. It had indeed performed well, and altogether quite beyond Keynes's dreams, but for two reasons that had not entered into the original design: the destruction of the war had opened new and tremendous markets, and technological innovation had enabled capitalist production to exceed all previous forecasts. Yes, the engine had performed well; but the trouble was that it had been running all this time with the throttle out, and the motor was now in need of serious repairs. There had to be not only serious realignments in production but, what might be harder to come by, new patterns of consumption. Since planning from above couldn't be expected to accomplish these things, there was nothing else to do but take the full bruising impact of the recession—cushioning it by whatever community agencies we could summon—until these fundamental readjustments worked themselves out.
This would not be the course, however, that I felt politicians and most businessmen would embrace. They would want to rush to the old and easy panacea. Open the throttle again, let us have a recovery of sorts as quickly as we can, even if it means the same old race with inflation. And this indeed is what I've noticed since coming home. Only one economist, so far as I know, Milton Friedman, has declared that inflation is the primary evil and recession secondary.
From the 1950's on we had come to accept inflation as a built-in part of the economy. The price-wage-price spiral was taken as beneficent since it accompanied, and therefore in some mysterious way might even be the source of, a general rise in living standards. Nearly everybody—liberal economists and politicians, union leaders as well as insurance executives—conspired in this slow hara-kiri of the system. For this acceptance of inflation remained blind to the social processes that inflation sets going. Inflation nibbles away at the security of the moderate and solid middle class whose stability is presupposed for a liberal society. At the same time inflation raises great numbers of people to a level of consumption they only maintain precariously and who are therefore perpetually querulous against the system. Nobody gets fired up with enthusiasm for capitalism even when it is working well; and when it goes badly for you, it becomes the devil incarnate. Some kind of quick recovery now, but with the inflationary process unchecked, would give capitalism no more than another generation to survive.
I had talked over these ideas with a German friend, who lived for some years in the U.S., and remains a staunch but critical friend. His last remarks to me sum up one European attitude: “You can see now why we Europeans were dismayed at your Vietnam war. You took your eyes off Europe. That is our own self-concern speaking, you will say. Yes; but you were also taking your eyes off the problems that should have concerned you even then. You exported your inflation to Vietnam, as de Gaulle rightly said. The adventure took your eyes off the problems you would eventually have to face in your own economy.
“Europe—and I include Japan in that as an advanced industrial country—must be the center of your attention because when the chips are down, everything will turn on the solvency of capitalism. We may not like it, but the future of liberty turns on that solvency. Eventually some other economic system may provide liberty, but right now, in the present situation of the world, freedom would disappear if the Western world were to fall into economic chaos.
“And right now, too, Russia doesn't have to engage in any reckless adventures. It is, as you Americans say, sitting pretty. The Russians hold all the cards.
“And yet the irony of it—” He stopped, reached over to the newspaper and pointed out one item to me: a report of Russian negotiations for a grain deal with the United States. “That is a confession of their system's ineptness. They have some of the most fertile land in the world, and can't manage it efficiently enough for their own needs. And this is the regime against which the West now stands so powerless!”
Coming back from Germany, I stopped off at Ravenna. It was a good place for reflecting on my trip. This sleepy town had once been a capital of an empire through which the struggle for power between East and West had flowed. Gibbon had consecrated some of his most splendid pages to this city. And here too the great general Belisarius, one of the few heroes whom Gibbon really admired, had won his greatest victory, only to have it later wrested from his hands.
I had picked up an Italian magazine with a translated article on Winston Churchill by the British historian A. L. Rouse. Read amid the ghosts of Ravenna, with a cold wind blowing off the Adriatic, the article seemed to toll a bell for my whole generation and its war.
Here were the usual facts: how Churchill, after the failure of Gallipoli in World War I, would have disappeared from the pages of history entirely if chance or fate had not plucked him out to be the leader in World War II. Then he had gone on to win such a glittering success in arms that for a while he was on everybody's list of the great men of the century.
But in retrospect, what had been success and what failure in this life? Churchill had destroyed the Hitlerite menace only that in time Europe should pass de facto into the hands of the Russians. As with Belisarius, the fruits of conquest had passed out of his reach. Were Churchill alive now, he might very well judge that his whole life had been a greater failure even than it had seemed at the time when he was forced to quit the admiralty in disgrace after the disaster of Gallipoli.
Peter L. Berger: “Maturity” and “failure of nerve” are not quite antithetical terms. After all, the term maturity is derived from the life cycle of the individual, where it is often used as a euphemism for failing powers, if not incipient senility. With all due reservations about the applicability of biographical metaphors to the history of nations, there is some plausibility in applying the term to the United States in this less than edifying sense. It may well be that a querulously ailing Uncle Sam, almost two hundred years old, is ready to fill the gap left by the Sick Old Man on the Bosporus.
But, of course, this is not the sense in which the emerging new stance of the United States on the international scene is currently being called mature. The term is intended to convey a new realism in the face of intractable facts, a freedom from illusions, and even a new attitude of moral restraint and compassion—in sum, the laudable demise of the messianic arrogance of the “cold-war mentality.”
Upon closer scrutiny, neither the new realism nor the new morality is all that impressive. The illusions of what passed for realism at the time, say, of the growing American involvement in Indochina have become all too clear. There was the notion that the technological superiority of American military power was sufficient to cope with virtually any challenge, be it of the conventional or the insurgency type. There was singular blindness to the internal weaknesses of corrupt and ineffective regimes which, more by chance than design, had become allies of American imperial power. Generally, there was sorely lacking an understanding of both the material and the psychological limits of American power. This medley of illusionary interpretations of reality was obfuscated by a liberal rhetoric celebrating the defense of the “free world.” As the illusions were punctured, one by one, it is not surprising that the accompanying rhetoric also lost credibility. What is perhaps surprising, at least for those who retain a belief in the critical role of reason, is that the very same people who early saw through the old illusions are prone to subscribe to a brand-new set of ideas that are equally illusionary.
The unfolding catastrophe in Indochina in the spring of 1975 showed with increasing clarity how a new rhetoric, just as liberal in tone as the old, can blind its adherents to the reality of events. The collapse of American allies in one part of the world, it is maintained, is an event sui generis. Anyone who argues that American credibility in Southeast Asia is related to American credibility in any other part of the world is quickly labeled as a dupe of the “domino theory.” That theory, it seems, has been “discredited”; indeed, there are those who believe that the balance of power has also been “discredited,” so that the United States can cheerfully proceed to “reorder its priorities,” cut military aid and its own defense budget, without such actions having any effect on the aggressive impulses of other nations. The Israelis know better; there is no basis for thinking that the Russians are less astute. The new rhetoric further proclaims that the drastic reductions in American military support to South Vietnam (from $1.2 billion in the fiscal year ending in June 1974 to $700 million in the fiscal year ending in June 1975) had absolutely nothing to do with the defeat of the South Vietnamese army. That, supposedly, was caused by the inability of the Saigon regime to “to win the hearts and minds” of its population. Conversely, the conventional offensive by regular North Vietnamese troops, striking with a massive superiority in tanks and artillery, was perceived as a victorious application of Maoist principles of guerrilla warfare. In the face of daily depiction of events on the television screen, the new rhetoric is also able to explain why hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese took to desperate flight, away from their “liberators,” first toward the crumbling lines of Thieu's army and then out of the country. These people, it is said, were not running away from the Communists, but from the war; or, they were unreasonably afraid of what the Communists would do to them; or, they just succumbed to panic. But every one of these explanations rests on an almost heroic readiness to be deluded. There was no more war to run away from when the mass flight from the Central Highlands and the Northern provinces began—those territories were being given up without a fight. The same is true of the people who left in the last days before the fall of Saigon. These were people who had close, often firsthand, experience with Communist occupation; hundreds of thousands of people do not panic except for good reason—even if they are “ignorant peasants.”
If the illusion-free realism of the new rhetoric is less than impressive, so is its moral sensitivity. In that quality, too, there is a good deal of continuity between the old rhetoric and the new. The old rhetoric legitimated the systematic inhumanity of the war by the necessities of counter-insurgency tactics. It accepted the devastation of large areas of Vietnam in the free-fire zones, the “generation of refugees,” the uses of torture and assassination. The moral quality of this rhetoric was pithily summarized by the American officer who said that a certain town had to be destroyed in order to be saved. The new morality is perhaps best summed up by the formula, “letting the Vietnamese decide their own destiny,” applied to the violent imposition of Communist power upon people who, contrary to all expectations, continued to fight for more than two years after the withdrawal of American troops. To begin with there was little outrage when the Communist forces shelled civilians. Then we were treated to serene assurances that there were no grounds for fearing a bloodbath after a Communist victory in either South Vietnam or Cambodia. And finally there was little evidence of moral anguish over the abandonment to their enemies of tens of thousands of people who trusted in the protection of the United States.
The United States entered Indochina in pursuit of its perceived interests, and it left it in the same pursuit. The going was as callous as the coming. The weight of this observation is certainly not a post-mortem rehabilitation of the policies that led to the American involvement in Vietnam. Those policies were both mistaken and immoral (and I, for one, see no reason to regret my having protested them). But let there be no benign misunderstanding of what is happening now: The new maturity is simply the old Realpolitik—applied to changed circumstances and accompanied by a different rhetoric.
It is important to see that both rhetorics have been the product of the same social stratum—the soi-disant intelligentsia, who generally control what may be called the media-educational complex. There has been a marked shift in the ideological mood of this stratum over the last decade. This is not the place to explore that shift in detail. What is curious, though, is that with it has come a changed focus for the messianic propensities of this group. Broadly speaking, the focus has moved from the international to the domestic scene. The same people who exhort Americans to be mature in the face of allegedly intractable facts abroad (such as the spread of totalitarian regimes) advocate domestic programs that are frankly utopian. In other words, Americans are supposed to be mature abroad and youthfully radical at home. Now, one may have different views of the various projects for radical social change that currently seek to influence domestic policy. But, for the present argument, let it be stipulated that most of these projects, if realized, would really be as humanizing as they are, no doubt, intended to be. Stipulate, then, that all the dragons of the new liberal rhetoric have been slain. Imagine a society with “more equality,” freed of racial and sexual oppression, ecologically responsible, humane, tolerant of every form of diversity. And then place that imagined society in a world context shaped by a massive reduction in American power and influence, a world context dominated by a miscellany of aggressive and successful totalitarian regimes of whatever ideological coloration. The scenario is hardly persuasive: Utopias do not flourish in besieged fortresses. An America that has been defeated and isolated internationally will, in all likelihood, be dominated by an iron principle of necessità. In that event, all the humanizing visions of the new liberalism will turn out to have been another case of the owl of Minerva flying at dusk.
Intellectuals, of course, are not as important as they would like to be. On the other hand, especially in a modern society, they are important insofar as they produce and diffuse the “definitions of reality” by which the political process orients itself. What is badly needed in the contemporary American situation is a change in the orientation of the intellectual stratum (and that means its broad liberal center—the ideological adventures of Marxists and “old-time-religion” conservatives are, still, of very limited political significance in this country). Only two desiderata of orientation can be mentioned here. One is cognitive, the other moral. Both would entail a reversal of the mood that has generated the new rhetoric of illusionism and selective outrage.
The one desideratum is a shedding of delusional thinking about the realities of power in the world. Like it or not, this means an awareness of the importance of military power. One might hope, then, that there would be somewhat less enthusiasm for a stripping-down of the defense establishment, for generalized assaults on the intelligence apparatus, for the routine publication of government secrets. But, very crucially, this would involve a renewed awareness of the realities of tyranny in the world. To be sure, there was reprehensible intellectual confusion in the facile inclusion of unappetizing right-wing police states in the concept of the free world. The current blindness to the massive realities of Communist totalitarianism is thoroughly reprehensible, too (and never mind whether this totalitarianism is “monolithic” or not—the slave-labor camps of Maoist China are no less real because the Chinese are quarreling with the Russians). Perhaps a minimal cognitive readjustment one might hope for is an understanding of the basic difference between a dictatorship, which limits its repression to political opponents, and a totalitarian regime, which controls and mobilizes every sector of social life.
The most realistic scenarios for much of the world indicate a quantum jump in the incidence of tyranny. Some lucky countries will get the tyranny in lieu of misery (though one can never be sure of that, since such regimes rarely invite investigative reporters). Others will get tyranny on top of misery. The Gulag Archipelago is expanding. But one should not exaggerate. Even in Russia there has been a considerable modification of the inhumanity with which that system was operated in its Stalinist heyday. Much of the world, then, may look forward to slavery with a human face. It is clear that Americans are limited in their power to arrest this process. At the very least, they should not be asked to overlook it in the name of maturity.
The moral desideratum is a renewed appreciation of the human values embodied both in the American political creed and in the empirical institutions of American society. Put simply, there has been enough “alienation” between the intelligentsia and American patriotism (again, this refers to the liberal center—the pathological anti-Americanism of the Left is another topic). This would, in no way whatsoever, imply a renewed “celebration of America” in the style of the 1950's, or a turning away from a critical attitude to government or any other structure of the status quo. There are enormous moral resources in this society (many of them, incidentally, rooted in its religious institutions). They wait to be tapped. An intelligentsia prepared to affirm as well as to criticize America would be capable of playing an altogether different political role—and, quite possibly, a surprising one. Perhaps a minimal expectation might be for less selective expressions of moral outrage and for a recognition of the rare as well as precarious value of individual freedom.
Is such a metanoia likely? Probably not. As a rule, people learn nothing from events, especially not if they have a vested interest in previous interpretations of these events. Is such a metanoia possible? I hope so. For otherwise, before too long, we may discover that all the aspirations of liberalism, including freedom itself, will have been an episode in human history.
Norman Birnbaum: I find it rather difficult to recognize the world depicted in COMMENTARY's statement, the terms of which strike me as politically dubious, because historically incorrect. This nation is indeed apprehensive, beleaguered, and divided—but not by the forces or in the manner the statement asserts. The notion that our difficulties can be resolved by an accession of will is a sophisticated expression of an attitude which takes vulgar form in the policies of the present administration. Where authentic substance is lacking, a show of force will do. The episode of the recovery of the merchant ship seized by the Cambodians, with its combination of brutal sanctimoniousness, jingoistic cheapness, military inefficiency, and political ineptitude, has just ended as I write. We are fated to endure more (and worse) unless and until we undertake that national debate on the recent past which all those who were so grievously compromised by it urge us to forgo. I welcome COMMENTARY's statement. In a political situation in which so many of our leaders are reduced to pretense, even an ostensible defense of their position may contribute to its decomposition.
It is absurd to portray the “survival and the success of liberty” as identical with the fate of the pre-Communist regimes in Indochina. The dispatch of armed forces to Southeast Asia, in fact, facilitated the task of the Communists there. American intervention completed the legitimation of the Communists as leaders in the national struggle against foreign domination. Sihanouk's ouster gave the Khmer Rouge its chance, the destruction of Vietnamese culture profited the Vietcong. I do not know what John F. Kennedy would have thought of these policies as they developed. I am disquieted by the fact that many of us persist in wondering whether the foreign-policy apparatus he inherited did not, quite literally, kill him.
The statement refers to Portugal, in almost sibylline fashion. I suppose this has one of two meanings, or both. The first would concern a hypothetical move by Portugal toward military collaboration with the Soviet Union. There is as yet very little indication of this. The Soviet Union is not a world-revolutionary force; it seems remarkably content to work within the present geopolitical demarcations of zones of power. The trouble is that those who suffer these demarcations have little chance to object to great-power dealings at their expense (a point about which the Israelis, fortunately, are obdurate). The Portuguese leaders seem to be developing a neutralist strategy, connected with their not inaccurate perception of their country as undeveloped. They may not move toward the Soviet Union, unless they are pushed. We now come to the second meaning of Portugal.
American foreign policy has an important economic component: the defense of American markets, sources of raw material, and capital. It is quite true that official American foreign policy has accommodated to the very moderate reformism of Western European social democracy. But even in this connection, unofficial American foreign policy has been more stringent: the President of the West German Trade Union Confederation recently castigated American business in Germany for “colonialist” behavior in connection with its opposition to codetermination in German industry. In general, both sorts of Amercan foreign policy have identified the party of order with capitalism. Portugal is undergoing some sort of socialist revolution in which the Portuguese Communist party has an important role. Socialism, if seriously intended, is bad enough. Socialism with the Communist movement is unacceptable—in what Washington thinks of as its part of the world. The second meaning of Portugal, then, is the question of what is to be done about internal politics our government finds repugnant in Western and Southern Europe. For the moment, there is little apparent action—even if we may suspect that the CIA is not entirely quiescent. The Western Europeans, by their support for Soares and the socialists, have done something to restrain Cunhal's Stalinist Communist party. It is quite unclear what COMMENTARY would propose. The alternative of “destabilization” on the Chilean model has a number of disadvantages. Having supported the tyrannical and exploitative regime that preceded the revolution, we are in rather poor moral posture. Moreover, the Western Europeans might see in a reversal of the present Portuguese regime a threat to their own freedom of political choice. There are powerful Communist parties, after all, in France and Italy, influential ones in Greece and Spain.
Portugal poses, therefore, the question of the Communists in Western and Southern Europe. American policy until now has been rigid. Suppose a Communist-Socialist-Radical coalition were to win the French legislative elections, or the next Presidential election? Mitterand's program, it will be recalled, includes the nationalization of ITT-France—a casus belli? The Italian Communists may enter the government; are the Italian colonels to be mobilized against them? The Spanish Communists want a transition to parliamentary democracy in that country: is the United States to insist that only the Right can succeed Franco? (Both the Italian and Spanish parties, interestingly, have criticized the authoritarianism of the Portuguese party.) It is foolish to suppose that the United States can manipulate the total political process in these societies. It is unwise to underestimate our capacity for allying ourselves with the indigenous Right to gain short-term advantages. The Greek case suggests how illusory these may be.
The identification of an American national interest with the exclusion of the European Communist parties from government (and therefore with opposition to socialism) endows this country with an intractably reactionary policy. It guarantees the enmity of the unions, the working class, and of a considerable fraction of the intelligentsia. In the end, it may reduce our European policy to impotent posturing—and contribute to a rancorous isolationism and xenophobia already all too evident in the American public. It would be wiser to change by recognizing the national and democratic character of at least some elements in the Communist movements of Europe. If that is asking too much, it would be wiser to counsel that kind of restraint conservatives honor in theory, but almost never in practice.
With respect to the OPEC nations, I had thought that force had already been threatened. Secretary Kissinger has recently been quoted as warning the countries producing raw materials that they must not disrupt a world economic order by following the dictates of “ideology and national self-interest.” It would be interesting to know what dictates Kissinger supposes this country is following. In any event, the question of oil—whatever the original incidence of Arab politics—is now joined to the general question of world resource distribution. COMMENTARY attributes heroic powers of condensation to its symposium contributors in inviting them, in effect, to deal with this problem in passing. Viewed in immediate terms, the raw-materials producers are indeed responding to a weakening of the dominant world position of the U.S. However, does not the oil situation threaten Western Europe and Japan more than this country—and have not American oil companies profited enormously from the crisis? Viewed in somewhat more historical terms, the challenge to the security of this country is inherent in the colossal imbalance of productive capacity, cultural accumulation, and natural resources which separates the nations of the world. There is no long-term American design to participate in the righting of that imbalance, which would be the work of centuries. Why, however, has it not begun? Once again, foreshortened conceptions of the national interest dominate our politics. These constitute a danger COMMENTARY does not mention. A perfectly plausible argument for appeasing the Arabs can be made on short-term grounds. The only authentic argument in defense of an alliance with Israel is that Israel is a democratic society, that its survival entails infinitely precious human values (and lives). A world politics rooted in a new moral vision might make it easier to sustain Israel. I am aware of the tendentiousness, self-justification, and sheer ahistoricism of those Third World perspectives excoriated by Daniel P. Moynihan in his recent COMMENTARY essay.1 However, the prospect of the United States constituting itself the leader of the opposition to a new world economic order is frightening: we should be condemning our descendants to a losing role in a permanent global civil war. I fear that the American reaction to the energy crisis showed that we lack the capacity to fuse thought with politics. Even a profusion of professorial war games is no substitute for that.
The ruling elements of American society are indeed divided. There is no consensus among them, any more than there is in the body politic as a whole, as to our future. Different and conflicting American values point in different, often antithetical, directions. We may even question the existence of an American body politic. Our elites have lost much legitimacy. The political elite is compromised by the obvious futility of the war in Vietnam, by the Watergate scandal and the abuses of power discovered concomitantly with it. The political elite has to share with the economic elite responsibility for the decline of the economy. Surely, it is not a failure of nerve to question the efficacy of a political-economic system which generates such high levels of unemployment, such human waste. Our cultural elites are no better. Parts of them were involved, and were seen to be involved, in the genesis of the war in Vietnam. Many oppositional intellectuals discredited themselves, meanwhile, by supinely subscribing to every lunacy of the black and student movement. They cut themselves off from the persistent American tradition of dissent. The failure of a critical politics, however, does not mean that one is not needed. It means that a better one has to be found. I take some hope, not from fatuous exercises in national self-reassurance, but from the presence in Congress of newer elected representatives of intelligence and spirit. An anti-capitalist politics is possible if it can strike roots.
What does it all mean? The stability of the present international situation has been exaggerated. It could easily break down in a situation in which the intellectual and moral limitations of our President are, alas, evident. The chief preoccupation of our present Secretary of State is the salvaging of his reputation. His continuation in office, therefore, is in itself no small factor of instability. The equation of countries with persons, the characterization of politics as mature or immature, is not very helpful. I find our policies unintelligent and, above all, animated by the wrong principles. An identification of the national interest with the interests of international capitalism, an interpretation of world politics as a reflection of relationships of strength, a frenetic ethnocentrism, and a pervasive absence of generosity, impel us toward future disasters. It is time that this country stopped acting in ways which could have been prescribed for it by every pseudo-revolutionary charlatan with a simpleton's idea of history. One place to begin is with a thorough change in the personnel of the national-security bureaucracy.
That, however, presupposes a fundamental change in national leadership—in ideas as well as persons. 1976 may be too soon for that, although in another way, it may not be soon enough. I do find hope in some of the newer Representatives and Senators. They take the educative role of leadership in a democracy seriously. Above all, they act as if spiritually and substantially they are not on the take. How advanced, how secure, is our democracy? Like COMMENTARY, I would certainly stress the virtues of an industrialized liberal democracy which had fulfilled the promise of both industrialism and liberalism (material abundance and political and psychic autonomy). Our democracy can make no such claims. The productive apparatus is in part unused, in part produces the wrong things for the wrong people. Our idea of community is in fragments. The new pluralism, upon examination, is an intellectually impoverished Hobbesianism.
Our liberal institutions have failed to protect us against profound attacks on our freedom, not least the abuse of governmental power under cover of “national security.” American liberalism has become synonymous with two things. One is a market which functions poorly as a rational economic regulator and which is, basically, a mode of economic domination. The other is the unlimited right of powerful groups to seize advantages for themselves. We have no conception of distributive justice which is not either arithmetical or competitive, or both. We require a new conception of liberty, a qualitative notion of human plenitude, something other than an idea of random want satisfaction. Our culture claims to be the most advanced in the world, but our failure to develop a new politics, even to maintain our established political community, makes of us a nation of philosophical blowhards. Our deficient performance in the provision of public services, measured not by utopian standards but by Western European achievements, is a derivative of this fundamental failing. Our universities bear no small share of the responsibility for the inadequacy of our national ethos. Running desperately after reality in the effort to stay up to date, we professors are perpetually obsessed with last year's contemporaneity. A bit of old-fashioned detachment would help. Isn't thought supposed to anticipate, and shape, the human future? Into the vacuum, the new ethnicity has rushed. Of course: why should any self-respecting ethnic group give up a concrete existence for a hypothetical one?
Fifteen years ago, in February 1960, introducing a series of COMMENTARY essays by the late Paul Goodman (later to be published as Growing Up Absurd), Norman Podhoretz said:
The 50's, in short, undertook to demonstrate that the Protestant-liberal-bourgeois synthesis had not broken down—that, in fact, our civilization was proving itself capable of adapting to new circumstances without losing form or identity. . . . But in the past few years, the suspicion has begun to force itself into the minds of more and more people that the prosperity of the Eisenhower age is a deceptive sign of vigor and health. It is not merely a question of our inability to keep up with the Russians in the arms race—though this certainly shows lack of resolution even among those groups who might be expected to believe that a hydrogen war is preferable to a world dominated by the Communists. The boredom one senses on all sides, the torpor, the anxiety, the listlessness, somehow seem a deeper cause for alarm. . . .
Although industrial workers have won the struggle for unions, better wages, and decent conditions, their failure to push forward to the goal of “production for use” (a key term in syndicalist and socialist thought alike) has meant that the worker continues to be “alienated” from his labor and therefore to be cut off from a prime source of dignity and pride. The economy, moreover, scorning the ideal of use, has dedicated itself to the production of frippery, and this in turn has bred a huge class of promoters and salesmen whose job is to stimulate artificial needs in a consumer already badgered beyond endurance, and whose advertising methods have contributed immeasurably to the debasement of language and the wild growth of a general cynicism. . . .
We are the heirs of a tradition (going back to the philosophers of the Enlightenment) which commits us, whether we like it or not, to acting out the great adventure of modernity to the limit. But the pressures of the cold war have gradually transformed us into a society devoting all its energies to holding a defensive line not only against the very real threat of Soviet power but against the promise of our own future potentialities.
Mr. Podhoretz has changed his mind on many of these matters since 1960, but his essay rings as true to my ears now as then. The seething complacency of the Eisenhower epoch was succeeded by the inauthentic apocalypse of the 1960's. A sullen truce at the moment obliges us to expect new battles—but among whom, and for what? To describe this situation as a failure of nerve is to mistake symptom for cause. Our elites, having won an empire, promptly set about losing it. Nagging self-doubt is the only residual sign of competence they exhibit.
Zbigniew Brzezinski: The central question which confronts the United States—and which calls for a new foreign policy—is this: in what way can we cooperate effectively with other countries in a world that is now composed of some 150 sovereign states and that is experiencing in many areas a continuing social and political revolution? What kind of a posture should the United States have and what kind of an international system do we now need?
The post-World War II system was essentially Atlantic-centered and American-created. The international scene was dominated by a conflict between the First World (led largely by the United States) and a Second World (dominated by the Soviet Union), with the Third World often a neutral beneficiary of that conflict (of which India is the best example). Today we have a drastically different situation. We still have the First and Second Worlds (though neither is dominated to the same extent by the superpowers and they are at least in part accommodating to each other) while the Third World has split into a Third World of the nouveaux riches and a Fourth World of the international basket cases. The conflict today, alas for the United States, is increasingly between the First World (notably the United States) and the Third and Fourth Worlds, the latter two united by their quest for equity and for a warmer place in the sun. The increasingly neutral beneficiary of this conflict is the Soviet Union.
Our foreign-policy makers have not fully adjusted to these changes, with the Republican foreign policy of the last six years being essentially a tactical adaptation of the earlier postwar foreign policy, the primary emphasis being placed on relations among the traditional big powers. All of that has contributed to increased domestic confusion about the real goals and the underlying moral principles of American foreign policy.
The above condition has interacted with increasing domestic strains in the United States. These, in turn, have been accentuated by the new fad of pessimism within the style-setting circles of our society. It is fashionable today to be a pessimist, to decry American traditions, to condemn American practices, and to compete in exposing American misdeeds. I am in complete agreement with the editors of COMMENTARY who note that the present tendency is “to dwell upon [American] failings and sometimes even to acquiesce in the most hostile descriptions of the country's character, its past record, and its future prospects.” There is, indeed, something sick about the competition among our mass media to expose—and thus to nullify—American intelligence efforts to gain more precise knowledge of Soviet strategic hardware; there is certainly something reminiscent of the 1930's in the rash of film and television “documentaries” glorifying the totalitarian regimes of the Left; there is something highly destructive in the persisting campaign to link the Kennedy assassination with the CIA (but why not with Castro or the KGB?). All of that is part of a self-hate syndrome that has become very evident within those circles of our society which most directly set the tone of the written or the spoken words destined for mass consumption.
However, the proper response to this mood is not historical escapism, of which, I fear, COMMENTARY is also partially guilty. There is a nostalgic quality to the observation that “fifteen years ago the United States would almost certainly have reacted with either the threat or the use of force to any action such as the OPEC cartel has taken in raising the price of oil.” The fact of the matter is that we no longer live in a world in which military action in response to economic policies is morally warranted and politically feasible. Instead, we must recognize the fact that the contemporary world has not only become extraordinarily more complex but also fundamentally more in keeping with American values than was the case with the earlier version. We have moved from a world dominated by large colonialist and industrial advanced powers to a world of 150 sovereign states, and that is surely what Americans should welcome, even if many of these states in their domestic politics or in their external rhetoric do not fully measure up to our own standards.
In that new setting, we must be responsive both to the more traditional political problems and to the new planetary issues—in effect, a combination of “power realism” and of “planetary humanism.” Since we still live in a world in which some states possess enormous military power (and the Soviet Union is making enormous efforts to increase its power), we simply cannot abandon continued efforts to maintain military security on a scale capable not only of insuring American safety but also the safety and independence of our allies and friends, be they Western Europe, Japan, or Israel.
At the same time, we must also try to exercise whatever leverage we have in our possession, including food, to obtain greater cooperation from other major powers in dealing with the new global problems. Détente with the Soviet Union will become pointless (and primarily beneficial to the Soviet Union alone) if the Soviet Union is permitted to maintain a stance of self-centered egotism in respect to the new and increasingly urgent global problems. A major task of détente ought to be to obtain increased Soviet cooperation in dealing constructively with such issues as development, food, ecology, the future of the oceans, demography, and so forth.
With regard to more immediate issues, it would be much in the American interest and a constructive contribution to world order if the United States were to state openly what it envisages to be the basic principles and broad conditions of an eventual settlement in the Middle East. By articulating our vision of an ultimate settlement, we would compel the Israelis and Arabs to start talking about a settlement in more concrete and less emotional terms. Needless to say, what we propose will almost certainly not be fully satisfactory to either party, but that is not the point. Simply by outlining a settlement we will initiate a discussion bearing directly on a settlement, and that would be a giant step forward. Moreover, there is already a great deal of underlying consensus as to what that settlement ought to be, which needs to come to the surface.
Similarly, with respect to international economic issues, it behooves the United States to take the lead in inviting the newly rich developing countries to participate more fully and more responsibly in the shaping of new international arrangements. This will mean greater involvement of OPEC countries in both the control and capitalization of new recycling mechanisms, as well as larger voting rights for such states in institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is also desirable to encourage investment by the OPEC states in the United States, thereby creating more cooperative links with them and also indirectly generating more restraints against their unilateral action.
The above arguments are designed to outline, obviously in a highly condensed fashion, a policy of “cooperative activism” as an alternative to a posture of confrontation with two-thirds of mankind. Such confrontation would inevitably strengthen the present tendencies toward domestic isolationism, increased division, and historical pessimism. The necessary precondition for such a policy is a sense of confidence and optimism. In politics, pessimism tends to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, and pessimism is incompatible with the democratic system. The very notion of democracy involves confident and hopeful assumptions about the future of social change. Given the fact that our society has become increasingly subject to cultural influences emanating from the intellectual and mass-media communities, it behooves these circles more than any other group in society to reflect responsibly on the consequences of a pessimism that is ultimately nihilistic.
James Chace: Engaging in a debate over whether or not the United States is suffering from “a failure of nerve” or witnessing the beginning of “a new maturity” in international affairs is symptomatic of a new malaise let loose upon the land. The first problem with those who accuse America—and in particular her political elites—of a loss of political will prompts one to ask: political will to do what? When an angry adolescent cries out for more freedom, the parent is anxious to know what the freedom is for (knowing only too well what it is from). If the United States no longer possesses the will to act as the gendarme of the world, this could be said to represent a growing up to responsibility, a maturing knowledge of the limitation of our power, both military and economic, in a world that no longer conforms to the familiar lineaments of the postwar era. It is a new world we must cope with, and it is true that we are not yet ready to exclaim with joy to Prospero, “O brave new world that hath such people in it.”
Those who bemoan America's waning political will are often imprecise on what exactly this will is for. To take over the oil fields on the sandy shores of Saudi Arabia? If so, in whose name? Not for the United States, which is hardly dependent on Middle East oil. Not for Europe and Japan, whose policies are geared to avoid confrontation. If we are to become the guardians of raw materials, then indeed we must also be prepared to assert a hegemonic position over our allies and, in so doing, reduce them to the status of client-states. To follow out the logic, are we then to find ourselves not only fighting our “enemies” but also our “friends”? Then, indeed, we would witness an assertion of power far in excess of the predominant position enjoyed by the United States for much of the postwar era.
Again, in the case of Portugal—to cite a serious foreign-policy situation developing within an alliance expressly designed to counter Soviet power in Europe—will to do what? Are we expected to impose political liberalism on the Iberian peninsula? Apparently comfortable with an earlier mode of totalitarianism which was manifestly anti-Communist, we are sometimes urged to prevent the development of another form of authoritarianism, this one of the Left. But by what means? Gunboats on the Tagus? The CIA arming a new guerrilla army? Is this what our allies in the Atlantic Alliance desire? Or, in the Arab-Israeli imbroglio, should we cease to support President Sadat of Egypt and shift our full military, economic, and diplomatic weight to Israel, whose liberal, pluralistic society is more sympathetic to our own? If so, this would seem to imply that we preferred that Sadat pass from the scene. I think this is hardly the case. And so, those who complain over our lack of political will, while eloquent in their diagnosis, seem to have little in the way of cure, unless cure simply means taking what we want when we want it, an adolescent mode of behavior if you think about it.
No, what we are witnessing is not an American failure of nerve or of will, but rather the bewilderment of finding ourselves on somewhat uncharted waters with no clear seamarks or landmarks. That said, let me try to sketch out what this dimly perceived seascape may resemble. It is a world in which the two nations of Disraeli—the rich and the poor—can no longer be encompassed within a smaller, more manageable entity. For these two nations are now coexistent on a global scale. We call them euphemistically the developed and developing, or underdeveloped, worlds. But, in fact, the developed world—whether it be tiny Belgium or bursting Japan—is rich. The poor range from Brazil whose wealth is potential, to Iran whose pretensions are great, to Chad whose prospects for bourgeois enrichment are virtually hopeless. While it is true that some of those nations I have termed poor are marginal powers, to be poor in the last quarter of the 20th century means to lack the sophisticated infrastructure of the rich. To be poor does not mean having no dollars or gold or paper gold, but to lack physicists, journalists, teachers, technicians, poets, musicians, and, God save us, even psychiatrists and political scientists.
And what does all this mean? It means, for one thing, that the components of the Holy Grail of the post-Renaissance world have changed. Since the 18th century, the quest of Western civilization has been primarily for liberty. Western values were transmitted, even in a warped form, to the colonies of Africa and Latin America, though not by and large to Asia whose civilization had a heritage fully as developed as the West's. But also born in the 18th century of Montesquieu and Rousseau was the notion of equality. Unfortunately, absolute liberty and absolute equality (or what is now, in global terms, called equity) are mutually incompatible. To follow the former to its final end means anarchy; the endgame of the latter is totalitarian collectivity.
The response of the traditional party of liberty, and most preeminently the United States, to the demand by the poor, full of anger and hubris, for equity has recently seemed to be that of a politics of confrontation. The desire for equity is seen as unremitting hostility. Washington has talked of breaking the cartel of the oil-producing nations, that cartel which has been relatively successful in the demand of the poor for reparations, no matter how absurd the notion of reparations may seem; for who can repair the tragic history of nations by a simple payoff extracted by blackmailers? Yet should the response of America be to go into opposition to this bloc of the poor?
To oppose such a bloc—self-styled as the Group of 77, though in fact admitting near 100 nations within the framework of the United Nations—is to reinforce the very existence of this bloc. It is to accept the rhetoric of a group of nations who are “the poor,” but, ah, with such shadings of difference in their poverty. Among the poor are those nations who exert power by virtue of their dollars or their raw materials. Among the poor are those whose land can feed other poor nations of their bloc. Rather than fight this bloc on principle, then, would it not be a mature exercise of political statesmanship to seek to deal with smaller blocs within the greater whole on specific issues, as did the European Economic Community this year in its trade agreements with 46 African, Caribbean, and Pacific states, the so-called Lomé Convention?
The challenge of a wise foreign policy in a world where ambiguity rather than order is the prevailing climate, where the bipolar universe has given way not to a neoclassic balance of power, but to a randomness of power, where interdependence conflicts with independence, is to learn to cope with a new dialectic. Such a dialectic, like that between idealism and realism in the 19th century, surely manifests itself in the tension between freedom and equality. There is no way to predict the resolution of this conflict. Perhaps learning to live within it provides the only chart on which we can work to lay out the proper compass course. In any case, to recognize the problem in its proper perspective is to begin to deal with it on a mature level.
In discussing liberty and equality one should remember the third leg of this triangular course. This is, of course, fraternity, the azimuth that leads away from contestation. Perhaps the reason we shy away from this word, the capstone of modern revolution, is that we recall that the first recorded homicide in Western civilization was between brothers.
Midge Decter: One would to be a kind of soulless, frenzied ideologue, standing Hegel not on his head but on the very tips of his toes, not to recognize that at least some part of our present unnervedness is simply the fruit of our defeat in Vietnam. That defeat was a long time coming. No matter whether one was of the party who deplored it, the party who celebrated it, or the party who merely accepted it as a fact, one had been granted a space of several years in which to turn American failure over on one's tongue and get familiar with its taste. Now, defeat (and it is a tribute to something that one should feel impelled to remind on this point) is not good for people. And it is no better for nations than for individuals. It humiliates, raises doubts, heightens acrimony, increases recourse to tricksy euphemism, and stirs up all those lurking and treacherously seductive fantasies of escape. Most of all, it paralyzes, and once again does so no less to nations than to individuals.
Even those who preached us sermons about the great moral benefit that was to be bestowed upon our national character by a North Vietnamese victory—their point, I believe, being that we were to be disburdened of the heavy sin of arrogance—had by the end turned rather glum and sour. Under the best of circumstances, then, we might expect that for at least a while our policy would be bound to reflect some of that subservient envy of one's opponents and hatred of oneself that together are the hallmark of the defeated.
But, as COMMENTARY's questions suggest, these are not the best of circumstances. We appear to be in a state of retreat from our own power quite beyond the natural call of even so massive and costly a failure as we have experienced in Vietnam. Certainly we have not for some time now been behaving like the most powerful country on earth, defeated or not, nor even like the second most powerful. Indeed, the record, reviewed coldly, is quite astonishing. We have without a murmur permitted minor nations to break agreements with us. We have with no more than a murmur permitted the rulers of tiny and virtually unpopulated kingdoms—rulers, moreover, whose ascension to power in the first place was only at our pleasure—to threaten the economic extinction of our most cherished allies. We have accepted the denial of air space to our planes and the ejection of our troops and ships by countries whose own stability and prosperity have long depended on the existence of those very planes and ships and troops. We have negotiated with our enemies what appears to be an exchange of vast wealth from our side for little more than friendly words, or the absence of unfriendly ones, from theirs. And with at least an outward display of great equanimity, we presently contemplate the defection of two key allies in Europe, and God knows how many in Asia, to the enemy camp.
Meanwhile—perhaps a more telling sign of our blind retreat from power than any of the behavior described above—we praise those who benefit from our weakness for their restraint and sagacity. An admittedly small but nevertheless telling example of this was a recent column by James Reston, the dean of our official commentators, which expressed a certain satisfaction (could one believe one's eyes?) in the evidence that the Russians were not going to allow our final demise in Saigon to interfere with their pursuit of détente!
What, COMMENTARY asks, is the significance of this behavior? Does it mean that we have grown older and wiser, more prudent and indirect and wily in managing the national interest? (How odd, given the history of 20th-century Europe, that those who approve of this putative development should call it “Europeanization.”) Or does it mean that, like England in the 1930's, we are merely helping to prepare a world conflagration? An honest answer to this question, I fear, must involve the raking up of old, and admittedly tiresome, and—I suppose most people would say—by now scandalous issues. Because it seems to me that in the end one's answer depends quite plainly on whether or not one is an anti-Communist. Yes, I said anti-Communist.
Back in the 1950's, during the cold war, many of us intellectuals fell into a certain confusion about what it was that legitimated the United States' struggle with the Soviet Union. On the one hand, there was—the ideology of anti-Communism: of the defense, perhaps happily even the spread, of democracy and political liberty against totalitarianism. On the other hand, there was the more down-to-earth question of the national interest: of containing the spread of Soviet power for reasons of American well-being and security. Since either of these at the time would have resulted in much the same general foreign-policy posture, the two got intellectually entangled. As the discussion proceeded on through the decade, and especially as the main center of our concern, Western Europe, seemed once more to be stable and secure, the weight of that discussion little by little slid over to the side of the national interest. We were anti-Communists, to be sure, lovers of freedom and democracy, to a man. Moreover, we continued to support policies intended to spread democracy that had at the least little to do with our mere security and well-being and that at the most might actually have been disserving them. Still, on the whole we found it tougher-minded, more interesting, more self-respecting (and it sometimes put us in more appealing company), to be pursuing what seemed like practical and definable objectives than to be forever nagging, like so many naifs and doctrinaires, about the Bill of Rights and the values of Western civilization. In 1967, I recall, when COMMENTARY asked a group of former cold-war intellectuals if they felt that their political line in the 1950's bore any necessary connection to the Vietnam war, a number of them delivered a stern lesson on the need to distinguish between the ideological battle against Communism—which was, it turned out, of little account and in which, to be sure, they had never been simple-minded, rigid soldiers—and the wise and worldly containment of Russian expansion—which of course they had supported until it ceased to be necessary.2
I go through all this history because it had consequences for us, I think, and for this nation. If one views the world strictly from the standpoint of American security and even American well-being, there doesn't at this moment seem to be cause for any apocalyptic alarm. True, we may be busily aspiring to a minor status among the nations to which even our debacle in Southeast Asia does not entitle us. But after all, so what? No doubt there is always a spiritual price to be paid for a reduction in the national circumstance, but many societies have clearly survived the paying of it. True, we may be reducing our military posture to a point where we will be unable to respond to a large number of political moves against us, but our own immediate security is well assured by our nuclear arsenal already in being. Can we manage with the continued depredations of OPEC, and with the like manipulations of other needed resources that OPEC is bound to inspire? With some adjustment, we are told by those in a position to know, yes; neither the starvation nor the mass unemployment nor the instability that OPEC, unchecked, promises to wreak upon others need necessarily overtake us. Can we survive the Finlandizing of Europe? There is some reason to believe—and here we come upon a rather marked difference between our present situation and that of England at the time of Munich—that the more we allow the Russians to triumph in Europe at no cost, the more likely they are to leave us alone in our withdrawn condition behind our missiles. Can we survive the destruction of Israel? This appears, for Western man in any case, to be a question to which only God can finally give an answer, but in the narrow practical sense the answer is all too wretchedly self-evident.
“Wretchedly,” however, is the word. For if we could live this way, do we want to? The answer, as I said before, depends on whether one believes that democracy, welfare-capitalist democracy, with all that it implies of liberty, individualism, and the ideal of the progressive embourgeoisement of the whole human populace, is good and that Bolshevism in all its works and ways is bad. If America, because of a terrible mistake made in the name of the cold war, with all the bitterness and humiliation attendant thereto, ceases to continue that struggle (call it by whatever name you will), a vast proportion of the earth's surface will to one extent or another eventually be Bolshevized (call that by whatever name you will). On all sides, for fifteen years now, one's head has been turned by arguments, some clever, some crude, demonstrating that there is a deep complexity beneath this simple schema. But in the end, I am relieved and pained to find, the arguments are window dressing. There is no argument, there is only choice.
The joke here, it seems to me, is on the “tough-minded”: American policy post-World War II partook far more of that which the idealists claimed for it than of that which the so-called hard-headed realists did. The reconstruction of Europe, the strengthening of Israel, even the distribution of aid to so many less than lovable allies were policies carried out not merely in the national interest, but to keep alive and vitalize and strengthen and perpetuate a way men had found of living together and thinking about the world—our way. America's role post-World War II represented a true assumption of power and responsibility. Like all true assumptions of power and responsibility, it left those who took it on feeling far from well requited for their efforts. And like all true assumptions of power and responsibility, it kept them anxious but at the same time made them healthy.
Now, COMMENTARY says, the people into whose keeping has been given the social, economic, and political leadership of this society—let us call them the ruling elites, though “rule” does not exactly describe what an important number of them do—no longer have the conviction that the system, the civilization, is good and no longer wish to assume the responsibility of defending and cherishing it. They certainly do talk that way; I can't remember when I last heard a millionaire, or a successful journalist, or a well-heeled academic, or even a politician, of the so-called liberal persuasion, say a genuinely kind word about the system that made possible his own considerable elevation in it. But what I would say is that they are spoiled rotten and cosmically greedy. What ought to be the final object of their conviction, and a grateful conviction at that, they merely take for granted. And from that point outward, anything less than an uninterrupted flow of success, accompanied by an uninterrupted round of applause, they call evil. They have, blessed Americans, forgotten what evil is.
The spoiled, the enervated, the inordinately self-regarding will always forget, if given half a chance. Because it is so much easier to complain against the difficulties of freedom than to do anything about the sufferings of enslavement. Yet judging from the polls, and from just the sheer evidence of one's senses (and we have been so beset by lies and nonsense from those authorized to tell us about ourselves that one's own senses feel like a finely calibrated instrument for social measurement by comparison), there are millions of ordinary people in this country who know the difference between what is a decent human life and what is not and who value the fact that they seem to have achieved the former.
I would guess further that these millions of people are still willing to pay something, maybe even quite a lot, to see to it that they continue to have companions in the world, preferring—just because Americans are like that—not to live in a small and weak country in a mean and narrow world. Sooner or later the question will be put to them. One may pray that it will not be too late by then.
Edward Jay Epstein: Rather than searching for a change in the national psyche, it might be more productive to confront the unpleasant possibility that the recent disastrous failures of American policy abroad can be traced directly to the destruction of the one instrument capable of conducting a foreign policy, and that is the Presidency. It is true that President Kennedy announced to the world in his rhetoric that we would pay any price to “insure the survival and the success of liberty,” but it also is true that he disguised the American interventionary force in Vietnam as “advisers” when they were troops (which hardly shows that he commanded popular support in making that move); and in the invasion of Cuba in 1961 the American presence was concealed behind an “emigré front,” and even there Kennedy decided that the American people, or elites, would not tolerate the use of American air cover.
To be sure, President Kennedy had enough support among certain elites in the press to assure that the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others would not expose his surreptitious activities either in Cuba or in Vietnam (indeed, he called newspaper reporters “soldiers” in the battle against Communism). But even though the press may have been more cooperative in different eras of our history, and perhaps the notion of bipartisan support in Congress has greater meaning in times of crisis, the fact remains that the prevailing “spirit” among the American people has been to oppose a land war in Asia; if polls had been conducted, I'm sure that opposition to American troops being sent to South Vietnam would have turned out to be as great in 1963 as in 1973. Where the cunning of history played its decisive role was not in changing the American Zeitgeist, but in truncating the American Presidency with the Watergate scandal and the recriminations that followed.
Less than three years ago, it will be recalled, President Nixon, who won reelection by perhaps the most impressive majority in American history, was both an initiator and an instrument of American foreign policy. When French Premier Pompidou visited Moscow and asked for a minor accommodation with the Soviets, he was told by Brezhnev that while the request was satisfactory to him, he would have to clear it with President Nixon. Through a combination of luck, public relations, brinksmanship, shrewdness, and what one might call image-management, Nixon had succeeded in convincing the leaders in Moscow and Peking that he was the man to be reckoned with, and that, if ignored, he was capable of carrying out dire retributions. In its own way, the worldwide alert Nixon sounded when the Russians threatened to send troops into Egypt in 1973, was as impressive a bit of brinksmanship as anything his predecessors had done a decade before. It managed to embarrass the Soviets severely in the eyes of their Egyptian allies and, for the time being at least, to settle the power relations in the Middle East on a status-quo basis. Given Nixon's reputation for merciless retribution, it is not surprising that the dominoes in Southeast Asia (or the Middle East) did not start falling until after Watergate had destroyed his ability to act.
What changed in 1974? Not only had the President been driven from office, but his reputation—the credibility of the Presidency itself—had been tarnished, if not destroyed. A caretaker, with neither a popular mandate nor a political one, selected by his disgraced predecessor, had been installed in the office in his stead. As the divisions of Hanoi moved on Saigon (mainly through Cambodia, not from the North), it became clear that what President Ford lacked was not the fiery rhetoric of his predecessors, but the credibility that his predecessors had commanded in the minds of Hanoi, Peking, and Moscow. In short, the Communist powers no longer feared—and rightly so—any devastating retribution. The dominoes that fell, then, were not in Southeast Asia but in the United States. And Nixon was the first domino to go.
Even the resurgence of the muckraking press in the area of national-security matters and foreign affairs can be explained in terms of the weakening of the institution of the Presidency. The power of the Presidency rested heavily on confidentiality—the ability, that is, of the President to conceal whatever matters he wanted to from the American public in the name of national security and to shield the members of his staff with whom he consulted from Congressional scrutiny under the doctrine of Executive Privilege. The first casualty of Watergate was this confidentiality. No longer can the President, the Secretary of State, his national-security adviser, or even the director of the CIA, be sure that the documents they prepare will not be leaked to the press by members of the President's staff or by Congressional investigators who have penetrated their confidential relations with the President. Any attempt at reestablishing this confidentiality will no doubt be regarded as a cover-up or a return to the dark days of Nixon's “imperial Presidency.”
More importantly, the power of Executive action has been effectively destroyed. Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon had established their credentials as agents of an effective foreign policy in the eyes of the rest of the world through their ability to take a decisive, and often unpopular, Executive action without consulting Congress or the other elites of the country. Harry Truman was thus able to intervene in Korea, Dwight Eisenhower in Lebanon, Kennedy in Vietnam, Johnson in the Dominican Republic, and Nixon was able to mine the harbor at Haiphong and invade Cambodia. Without the threat of Executive action the President has no credibility. Clearly Congress isn't capable of taking unpopular action, and it is unlikely that the American public is ever going to support an intervention abroad that would cost American lives and fortune. Therefore, without the possibility of an unpopular Executive action by the President, it is unlikely that America is going to be able to intervene in far-off places—at least if history is any guide. Moreover, by demonstrating that a popularly-elected President could be removed for illegal acts—and almost any foreign intervention can be construed as an illegal act since the power to declare war is of course vested in Congress—the foes of an “imperial Presidency” have robbed it of the power to do grossly unpopular things.
In short, then, recent failures can be traced not to a change in the Zeitgeist of America or to a new spirit of appeasement, but more proximately to the destruction of the strong Presidency which we had from 1940 to 1972, and its replacement in the last few years with a caretaker government lacking both the power of Executive action and the capacity to keep its own secrets. Under such circumstances, it is not necessary to attribute the falling dominoes in Asia, the inevitable unrest in the Middle East, or even the inability of America to act in other parts of the world, to either a loss of political will on the part of the people or the elite, or to a new maturity. I think we simply have to see it as a change in the institutions of American government—a change brought about by the accidents of Watergate.
If the United States is consequently becoming a neutralist nation itself, this is not because it lacks political will—even though that may be the case—but because it lacks the means of acting in the international sphere. Neither the newspaper publishers nor the investigative reporters, the Congressional elites nor the Council on Foreign Relations, could have prevented the collapse of Southeast Asia. Only a President insulated from popular wrath by a four-year term, enjoying confidentiality and the protection of Executive Privilege, could have acted decisively in these circumstances—at least he could have before Watergate showed that he could be impeached for such actions. To face reality in the Middle East now means recognizing that the situation is quite different from 1973 when Nixon called the alert—could President Ford possibly challenge Russia by putting our planes in the air? I doubt that the President still has such means at his disposal. This has been the price of Watergate.
Richard A. Falk: In my view it is premature to inquire into such matters as “a failure of nerve” or “a loss of political will” on the part of the American people until one confronts the underlying issues of substance. In the absence of substantive analysis, phrases like “the legitimacy of American civilization” have a hollow ring. It is, after all, the embodiment of values in policy and behavior that is the test of a political order, not the mere invocation of self-righteous rhetoric. What disturbs me most about attitudes and behavior in the United States today is not the syndrome of passivity and defeatism implied in the questions posed by this symposium. Indeed, the primary basis of my concern is quite the opposite—namely, a continuing post-Vietnam disposition to side automatically with counterrevolutionary forces, and to substitute notions of force and intervention for diplomacy and humanism.
The difference between my interpretation of the Vietnam involvement and the one suggested in COMMENTARY's question provides a proper point of departure. John F. Kennedy's lofty rhetoric about “the survival and the success of liberty” must be juxtaposed against the actualities of napalm, free-fire zones, self-immolated Buddhist priests, body counts, pacification programs, tiger cages, protective-reaction strikes, Vietnamization, the “light at the end of the tunnel.” The reality of the war was not the pursuit of liberty, but the defense of corruption, repression, and colonialism. Under such circumstances, would it not have been best to leave the forces of Vietnamese self-determination free to work out their own solution to political control? And is this not the best approach for Portugal and Chile as well?
At this point, of course, the apologists for interventionary diplomacy raise now familiar issues. Why, they ask, should the forces of democratic liberalism withdraw from the scene and leave the future of a country to Communism? It is in this context that renunciation (or even a more passive non-use) of the interventionary option is alleged to take on the character of appeasement. Here, again, reliance on rhetoric is no substitute for analysis. It would be one thing if the “forces of democracy” sought to compete with the KGB in an East European Soviet satellite, but it is quite another to help reactionary forces prevail in Third World countries where outside intervention is at a minimum. The CIA's primary sphere of operation is quite distinct from that of the KGB, and, indeed, the CIA and KGB increasingly resemble duopolists who have agreed to split the market along geographical lines instead of competing for control. Isn't it slightly odd when toasts of friendship for Brezhnev and Mao are offered by the same political leaders who insist on implacable hostility toward Allende or Castro? The Chinese are at least partly correct in their interpretation of hegemonic superpower relations; alongside the persisting U.S.-Soviet rivalry there is evident an emerging pattern of cooperation in managing world politics, often at the expense of the weak and poor. This coordination of behavior cannot be attributed merely to a justifiable prudence with respect to nuclear weaponry, for Soviet and American outlooks are surprisgly congruent in relation to devising a new regime for the oceans, the proper role of the United Nations in settling armed conflict, and a host of other issues. In other words, the cold-war cover story is no longer credible as an explanation of American intervention in the Third World; the actual motivation has more to do with imperial considerations of prestige, control, and access to resources.
To put the point differently, official reactions to recent political events in Portugal are utterly inconsistent with our professed concern with “liberty.” Washington policy-makers had lived contentedly with Iberian fascists for decades, despite the cruelties these dictators have perpetrated on their own peoples. American hostility to the new regime in Portugal is connected with NATO and the future of American military bases in the Azores, especially their availability for non-NATO purposes such as refueling U.S. planes in the event of a new crisis in the Middle East. Let's at least admit that the policy debate really concerns these geopolitical issues, and stop pretending that it turns on the values of Western civilization or the survival of liberty. Without this elementary clarity there is not even the possibility of being a rational imperialist, for otherwise genuine issues of interest are camouflaged and thus subordinated to spurious issues of value. This line of thought was the basis for the “hard-headed” argument against American policy in Vietnam—namely, that by stressing values the official rhetoric obscured the absence of real American interests. It was the effort to return American policy to an interest calculus that constituted the original appeal of Henry Kissinger as over against, say, Walt Rostow. But imperialism, even if intelligently conceived, is still imperialism, and at odds with notions of democratic pluralism in world affairs.
The main trouble with such a Kissingerian calculus, however, is that in fact certain values do inhere in the American tradition and should be taken into account in shaping policy. These values have to do with notions of peacefulness and justice, as well as with maintaining “a decent respect for the opinions of others” and acknowledging the right of peoples to rise up against intolerable conditions of government. But these values lead away from the policies of the past fifteen years rather than toward their rehabilitation.
Why do we require military bases in the Azores? Why must we resist leftward political change whenever it threatens to occur? Why should we threaten force to offset the economic leverage of OPEC? Why should the United States, virtually alone among Western allies, insist upon such a possibility? It is hardly adequate to answer that those who do not join us are either decadent or have failed to learn the lesson of Munich. Only viable customers can continue to buy oil in quantity, and the OPEC countries realize this. At the same time, while the world's inequities have not at one stroke been diminished by the transfer of wealth resulting from quadrupled oil prices, these drastic price changes are facilitating a general move toward revising the terms of trade between raw-materials producers and consumers.
To oppose the excesses, yes, even the crimes, of the past fifteen years is not tantamount to embracing a foreign policy of isolationism, appeasement, or pacifism. These false contentions muddy the waters of actual choice. There are lines to be drawn in a world of conflict, danger, and desperation, but these lines need to be drawn as cooperatively and nonviolently as possible. It is the violence and unilateralism of America's world posture that are so objectionable to critics both at home and abroad. It is the notion that our leaders, with their CIA operatives and military bases and fancy hardware, can decide what is best for foreign societies and should spare no means (including domestic deceit) in pursuit of these ends. The “enemies” we have been fighting in the Third World, though they may not be liberal democrats, do not even remotely resemble Hitler; although it is perhaps useful to recall the consequences of Munich as an antidote to certain sentimental expectations with regard to Soviet-American relations, to use such symbolism in discussing Indochina or OPEC is to obfuscate any proper appreciation of the challenge being posed.
There is room for a new internationalism spearheaded by American leadership, but its character needs to be shaped not by Kissingerian canons of statecraft, but by the new urgencies of shared economic, ecological, and cultural destiny throughout the entire globe. Our communal destiny—now perhaps epitomized best in negative terms by the rape of the biosphere, by supertanker oil spills on the oceans, freons in the atmosphere, and pesticides on the land—requires a simultaneous search for equity and equilibrium in world politics. In a fundamental sense we should welcome the stridency of the Third World, if only because it is awakening us to the genuine urgencies of an increasingly interdependent and vulnerable world system in which desperate nations or even subnational groups possess terrifying leverage. To leave fundamental grievances unsatisfied in such a setting is not only indecent, it is complacent in the most profound sense of the word.
In this regard, the Palestinian quest for self-determination in the Middle East or the Indian test explosion of a nuclear device last May suggest the fragility of our present world order. Such fragility cannot be accommodated by toughness of the traditional kind. It requires, above all else, empathy and a genuine determination to eliminate gross forms of unfairness in the global distribution of wealth, prestige, influence, and legitimacy. Here, in truth, is where the Munich danger lies—not so much in failing to meet old-style military aggressors with effective defensive force, as in failing to deal effectively with the pretexts for aggression. Let us not erect Maginot Lines against the dangers of the past and in the process become ever more vulnerable to real menaces of the present and future. More “realistically,” military power doesn't work in a context of desperate politics, especially when its practitioners have the sense of legitimacy that arises from wide popular backing. To scream against the political use of the UN General Assembly by its Third World members is to scream against the world. It overlooks the moral credibility that Third World claims have in the eyes of most nations on such basic issues as a new international economic order, the anti-apartheid campaign, and the status of popular-liberation groups. Such a posture, therefore, and most tragically, diverts energies from where they are most needed—that is, in clearing a path of reconciliation before it is too late. If there is one lesson of American involvement in Vietnam, it is the tendency of the militarily strong to rely instinctively on force even when it has no capacity to shape the outcome of events. Had American policymakers sought a political settlement in Vietnam in the late 1960's, there would have been excellent prospects for power—sharing among all factions including third force elements. Even in 1973, the Paris agreements might have worked had we not gone along with Thieu's insistence on pursuing a military approach to the conflict. To wait too long before seeking reconciliation in a situation where the underlying relation of forces is unfavorable leads, in effect, to victory for the other side. It seems to me that this is the message, for example, that friends of Israel should be sending to the Middle East, rather than discredited stereotypes about the loss of nerve as gauged by foreign military bases or the size of the defense budget.
In other words, “civilization,” “liberalism,” and “liberty” are indeed central issues today, but they are not, if indeed they ever were, related to displays of “blood and iron.” America is weakened today because it has so flagrantly abandoned its own faith in human rights, self-determination, and the pursuit of a more peaceful international order. To regain our strength in the enlarged horizons of the present world requires the reaffirmation of these values in circumstances that no longer allow our “well-being” and “security” to be primarily associated with military prowess, let alone with a disposition to use it. Both on the narrow track of the Arab-Israeli conflict and on the wide track of North-South relations, America needs a new foreign policy that has learned from the mistakes of the past fifteen years and does not intend to repeat them.
Charles Frankel: If Americans are anxious and disoriented at the moment, it shouldn't surprise anyone. Business is bad, people are losing their jobs, everything costs more, the social and educational programs launched with so much noise a decade ago have turned out to be more talk than substance, and though the government doesn't seem to be doing anything, which is galling, one hesitates to press it to take action because, on the record, the government so often makes things worse. Since 1960 the country has gone through assassinations, fires in the cities, and countercultures in the home. It has gone through the long-drawn-out process of expelling a chief of state revealed as an unconscionable liar and the superintendent of a tawdry provincial conspiracy. It has lived through the administration of his predecessor, who removed himself from the scene recognizing that he had lost the people's trust. Add to this Vietnam—its cruelty, its cost, its shame, its obtuse persistence in folly, its shadowy rationale, and its final whimpering conclusion and bungled evacuation—and if the American people weren't in their present mood, one would have to suppose they were drugged.
But I take it that “a failure of nerve” means something more than a feeling of error, shock, or perplexity about what to do. I believe it was Gilbert Murray who first used the phrase, “failure of nerve,” and he used it to describe a Hellenistic civilization whose greatest achievements depended on the moral and intellectual legacy it had inherited from Athens but which thought that this legacy was poisoned at its source. “A failure of nerve” stands for the suspicion that where one has felt pride one ought to feel guilt, where one has felt most confident one ought to recognize that one has been most deluded; it expresses less a fear of failure than a fear of success, a feeling of the futility or repulsiveness of one's basic pursuits. Writ large as a judgment on a society, it expresses the view that the premises and purposes which have shaped that society's life—and its life at its best, its life particularly at its best—have been systematically wrong.
In this sense of the phrase, is the United States going through a failure of nerve? Yes, no, yes, maybe. Yes, of course. It goes through a failure of nerve quite regularly. It is failure-of-nerve prone. No, the broad population is worried and dissatisfied, but it doesn't think the United States is all washed up. Yes, many of the people who make it their business to take the country's pulse and pronounce on its future—the writers and readers of pieces like this, the professors, journalists, novelists, “the scribbling set”—are suffering from this malady; and many of the people who are telling them they are wrong—e.g., the President, the Secretary of State—are encouraging it and showing some of the symptoms themselves. Maybe. The outcome depends on a number of factors: the economy, the coming election, the emergence of political leadership, but most of all, I suspect, on whether intellectuals, Left, Right, and center, can break through certain deadly habits of mind.
When a man falls ill, it is important to know whether he is suffering from an ailment to which he is chronically prone. Otherwise its seriousness can be exaggerated even while its full dimensions are misunderstood. There is a sense in which a failure of nerve is part of the cost of Western civilization. The Jewish prophetic tradition, the Christian sense of sin, are profoundly anti-worldly: they expect that things as they exist will be inexcusably wrong. And the tradition of political commentary and criticism that goes back to Plato's reflections on the failure of Athenian democracy has fixed on the Western mind an inbred bias against the normal democratic business of patching, mending, bargaining, and compromise. Western civilization is deeply dualistic. It has long taken a divided view of itself, and that divided view is responsible at once for much of its dynamic quality and for its philosophies of alienation, for its idealisms and its cynicisms. American civilization has been stamped by this dualism from its beginning. The Puritan dilemma was how to sustain the vision of a New Jerusalem on these shores even while recognizing the wickedness of mankind and the gravitational pull of sin in all human institutions. From Jonathan Edwards through Emerson to people as different as John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr, this has been a constant theme of American intellectual life.
From this long-term point of view, the American self-image in 1975 isn't all that different from the one that prevailed in 1960 or 1955. Arnold Toynbee, the neo-Thomists, the Marxists and quasi-Marxists, were intellectual preoccupations twenty years ago. With very few exceptions American writers have had little good to say about business or technology, and not very much that has been sympathetic about science, law, or other rational departments of civilization in which the United States has a more than presentable record. And ever since America's full-scale entry into international affairs after World War II there has been an ambivalence of purpose. The country had made itself responsible for the survival and success of liberty, and Stalin's brutality and aggressiveness strengthened it in that design. But it expected of itself, too, that it would not sink to the methods of force and fraud which other great powers had used, and it never completely broke with its own reflex commitment to anti-colonialism and the self-determination of peoples. It wasn't a New Left, it wasn't a discouraged country, it wasn't a government with a doubtful mandate, that denounced the use of force in the Middle East in 1956. It was the administration of Eisenhower and Dulles.
Then how has America, and, more broadly, European civilization, survived this tendency to dig its critical claws into itself? Broadly, I think, for two reasons. Despite depressions and shattering wars, despite grievous social injustices and atrocities, there has been a steady growth of material well-being and an increasingly broad distribution of the fruits of that well-being. And the habits and practical morals of liberal democracy have gradually taken root—in some places in Europe only very superficially, but in other places, and not least in the United States, fairly deeply. The intellectuals, most of all, perhaps, the literary intellectuals, have been resistant. But the middle classes, and the people who aspire to be middle class, which includes most of the rest, have taken constitutionalism and democracy to their hearts.
On what do I base this judgment? A bit on the polls. More on impressions from many people I have met in places like Kansas City, San Francisco, Vermont, or Georgia. Most of all from the behavior of the vast majority of Americans over the last ten tortured years. At the fringes, Right and Left, there have been fearful excesses. But the reaction to these excesses, though passionate, has been restrained, almost unimaginably so. Further, the American electorate has tried to believe in its Presidents: it has been slow to say no to those it has chosen; but it has known when enough was enough, when constitutional processes had been subverted, and it has done what it could, within those processes, to strike back.
My impression today is that most Americans are distrustful of politicians and politics, that they are irritated by the government's presence where they think it isn't needed—e.g., in busing—and irritated by its absence where they think it is needed—e.g., in making jobs. But they don't doubt that American constitutionalism is a legitimate and decent way to organize the collective life, and they don't think that America's military or economic power, or its cultural position in the world, have been seriously eroded, or should be. In this perception, save perhaps for its normative features, they are at one, I also think, with the dominant perception elsewhere, not only in the West, but in China and the Soviet Union. What is to be feared, most of our friends elsewhere believe, is not the decline of American power in fact but the decline of American confidence. And that is the fear of most Americans who think about the matter at all.
The pulse-takers, unhappily, are doing what they can, consciously or unconsciously, to produce this crisis in confidence. They have a good deal going for them. Vietnam does not inspire confidence. But the opinions that are in vogue in intellectual circles go much beyond Vietnam. What they declare—worse, what they often do not declare but simply take for granted—is that liberty is a subterfuge for exploitation, that the process of negotiating and conciliating conflicting interests which is characteristic of democracy is an exercise in immorality, and that industrial civilization is bad for the growth of the human spirit. Most important of all, the ascendant style in the scribbling set is to make light of intellectual objectivity, to deny its possibility or its worth. Not for the first time, intellectuals are campaigning against intellect. Their disaffection is not with current policy, not even with the world as it exists—it is a disaffection with any world that could conceivably be brought into existence by humane means.
Nor do their adversaries help. Outraged by the excesses in the new egalitarianism, for example, the intellectual adversaries of the dominant vogue, many of them, attack equality as such. That, too, is a way of saying that the United States is wrong in its basic tendency and thrust. Similarly, pronouncements by Henry Kissinger and others, in the wake of the collapse of South Vietnam's notoriously corrupt army, lamenting American irresolution and unwillingness to stay the course, invite the electorate to confuse its praiseworthy capacity to learn from disagreeable experience with failure of courage and principle.
Is there a solution? Yes, but it is a long and difficult one, and it is never likely to be more than partial. The tension between the ideal and the actual, and between the humanistic tradition of cultural criticism and the facts and possibilities of democracy and industrialism, is a permanent—and desirable—feature of our society. But the utopianism and absolutism of the ideals employed for the criticism of society, let us hope, need not be. The intellectuals are heirs to philosophical and intellectual traditions which doom ideals to be shrieks in the dark, and which leave our actual institutions and policies unguided by workable principles. What has happened to morality?, the late Alexander M. Bickel was asked when Watergate was at its height. He said, We are being engulfed by it. He meant moral standards disengaged from any context of genuine human conflict or responsible choice.
A responsibility of intellectuals at the present moment is not to erode the distinction between what is and what ought to be, but to ask whether they can define what ought to be while ignoring history, contingency, and the particularities of human interests as they are. The democratic morality practiced by most Americans—though not always articulated by them—is at odds with the intellectuals' accredited moral posture. So long as the disparity is what it is, the intellectual voice of our society will be instructing Americans in chronic bad conscience, no matter what.
This doesn't say much about American foreign policy or what it should be. But that policy will be developed against the background of the American discussion of the shape and condition of the American soul. The specialists in this kind of enterprise need to reexamine the instruments they have been using to perform the diagnosis.
Rita E. Hauser: It is foolish to attempt an equation between yesterday's responses to problems facing the nation and today's dilemmas, as is presupposed by the terms of the COMMENTARY symposium. In the time frame of the fifteen years in issue here, political and economic structures of the world have altered—whether for better or worse, depending on the viewer—resulting in the end of the monopoly of American power. These changes necessarily dictate a new perception of the United States in 1975 and the role it should fulfill vis-à-vis other countries. Internal distress was the natural concomitant of America's contracted position in the world, and should not have come as a surprise.
Out of the reinvigoration of America following its entry into World War II and the heady flush derived from total victory, came a sense of great national purpose, almost of destiny: the United States, its beliefs, its interests, indeed its “way of life,” were ordained paramount in the world. Liberal values, democratic institutions, a free exchange of goods, capital, and persons would characterize international life. We had earlier witnessed a similar purposeful sense, although limited to our internal growth. The nation had experienced a manifest destiny, the conquest of a continent, based on an economic richness believed unlimited and bottomed on a conceived morality that justified all we were and did. A general consensus did exist on the bountiful and beautiful America and it permeated our history; indeed, some would say it made our history. Despite continued problems of inequality, racism, deprivation of many, spoliation of the land, on the whole we were a sure and blessed people, ready to offer to the world all that had made us great.
This sentiment of rightness about ourselves reached its peak in 1960, a moment at which American power in almost every respect was at its apex. Particularly after the Cuban missile crisis the sentiment was one of heady superiority. Robert Osgood could write as follows in reviewing the first two decades of the cold war: “The United States is now clearly the most powerful state in the world by any criterion; it is the only global power.” Yet by 1970, as confirmed in the SALT agreement two years later, the Soviet Union had achieved missile parity and its navy was on the way to outpacing American dominance of the seas. The United States seemed to believe in the 1960's that its power could be spent without limitation. Not readily perceived in those postwar years of American affirmation were needed constrictions on the use of our near total power, and the appreciated knowledge in high places that power wrongly applied erodes its own legitimacy. In addition to growing Soviet might, other counter-forces emerged to challenge our quasi-absolute power, some of which, ironically, we ourselves had nourished. The end result, surely felt as early as the mid-60's, was a challenge to that very sense of bounty and beauty which had characterized America for so long.
Vast power permitted the United States in the early postwar years to manage the world's affairs quite effectively, even in the face of a determined and resourceful opponent. The world was still divided into several power groups, and most of the other entities were satellites of one of these groups. The concept of a Third World independent force had not yet dawned. But from 1942 on, America had supported broad-scale and immediate decolonialization, an attractive proposition to a people generally free of colonies and hardly in need of assured sources of raw materials. Moreover, it sounded good to our ears to proclaim freedom everywhere. In so doing, however, we helped foster what has become a generally unstable, if not near anarchic, condition in much of the world outside the Communist bloc. Inevitably, this condition invited troublemaking by the contending power, the Soviet Union, in the affairs of a broad range of nations now unhinged from any particular external influence or interest. The end result was probably predictable: instead of husbanding our power for appropriate circumstances, such as the defense of Western Europe, we made of that newly independent Third World terrain a testing ground for our continued supremacy vis-à-vis the Soviets. Finally, folly of follies, we fought an impossible war over an unbelievably insignificant portion of former colonial territory against an enemy originally inspired not by Russia or China, but by our own rhetoric of freedom and self-determination. By so doing, we dissipated our talent, manpower, money, and, above all, faith in our unlimited power and the undaunted sense of the Tightness held about ourselves.
A further paradox: while abetting the breakup of colonial empires into a multitude of divergent states each of very limited power, in 1945 we also promulgated an international order premised on collective security, on parliamentary debate and rational voting characteristic of liberal democracies, on solemn treaty commitments which often only we took literally. We fancied that the emergent nations would look like us, believing in freedom and human dignity, and would agree to continue in a subordinated role to the developed world. To our chagrin, we found by the late 1960's that many of these newly emerging nations were anything but freedom-loving and were insistent in their view that we owed to them a recompense for the years of colonialism. Their own politics was driven by a desire for equality in fact, to match the equality of sovereignty they had attained with independence. Within short order—the fifteen years in issue here—they constituted collectively a formidable bloc opposing us diplomatically, politically, and, finally in the last years, with a real economic weapon.
Our allies in Europe, and Japan, saw the coming of this new, largely unmanageable world better or sooner than we, and hastened to adjust to it out of both necessity and weariness. They liked John F. Kennedy's words in 1960, for they meant a lesser burden for them to bear. They were unable or unwilling to play any significant role to insure liberty elsewhere, leaving the task to us. Their defense budgets were greatly reduced, their troops pulled back home from everywhere. Should it ever come to that point, most of our allies would probably seek accommodation with the Soviet Union rather than contest for independence. Glimpses of that picture were clearly discernible in their behavior in the October 1973 Middle East war. We have not been able to pull our friends into a united front against OPEC; the preliminary conference in Paris this past spring of oil-consuming nations failed miserably. Our allies will surely continue their policy of accommodation with the Third World nations possessing natural riches they need badly. We will not be able to weld them into a united bloc of consuming nations, to be led by us.
In light of these power changes and the dissipation of our own resources in Vietnam, the United States finds itself in 1975 in forced retreat from its postwar visions. John F. Kennedy's 1960 pronouncement would ring both faint and false today, for we would not as a nation pay any price to assure the success of liberty. Nor could we, as a matter of hard fact. Many of our postwar conceptions and constructions no longer hold up, although we continue vainly to breathe life into moribund institutions and ideals.
We are not living in another Munich era; history does not ever repeat itself. We are simply in a painful period of reevaluation, buffeted by events and without a clear concept of new directions. Intelligent voices should be directed not toward bemoaning a supposed loss of nerve, but determining what our basic policies should be.
If, as most believe, Russian intentions to dominate a major portion of the world have not altered, we are obliged to maintain military and economic strength sufficient to thwart any overt use of force by the Soviets outside their immediate sphere in Eastern Europe. This necessitates a continued heavy cost to the nation for adequate deterrence, even in the face of a severe recession. By necessity, we must maintain our defense umbrella over Western Europe and Japan, thus freeing some of their resources to pay an increased—I believe a permanently increased—bill for oil and other basic raw materials. Hopefully, we will not falter in our support of Israel, whose existence is essential to our vital concern for Western Europe's independence, and to whom we are committed by the deepest moral ties.
Betterment of relations with the Soviet Union should be pursued, but not at the price of basic American interests, including human values we cherish and have championed. Rapprochement with China is essential to quiet Soviet aggressiveness and, as we withdraw from an activist Asian policy, an end in itself as China's influence increases in that area.
As to the countries in the rest of the world—Africa, Asia, Latin America—we are not obliged to, nor can we, determine their way of life. Our policy toward them should be enlightened and premised on the values we hold dear, but distant; some will develop well, benefit from our trade and investment, and others will continue to fare poorly. We cannot alone alter those results. As to OPEC, our answer must be energy independence as rapidly as possible, and, if need be, the use of our own riches, particularly in food, to barter decent terms of trade for oil and other basic commodities. We cannot expect our allies to be as aggressive bargainers as we, for they do not have the same chips. But because we possess some major chips, we, in turn, should not cave in to Third World demands inimical to our interests.
This retrenchement abroad, this redefining of real areas of American interest, the need to foster greater economic independence, render nugatory the Kennedy injunction to bear any burden to assure the success of liberty anywhere on the globe. Our resort to threats or use of force necessarily will be limited; it must be hoped the occasions will be selected both with care and intelligence as to the interests in question. It is simply not necessary, or possible, that we threaten or use force to counter OPEC. Other weapons are at our disposal; it remains for us to marshal them with a sense of purpose.
At home, there is naturally a disposition to question the legitimacy of American life. The spirit of Tightness about ourselves was broken by the Vietnam war. In the wake of the civil-rights movements, egalitarianism has replaced elitism as the dominant philosophy in politics, in the professions, in education and other social institutions, with a concomitant diminution of high quality throughout. Local governments across the land, swollen by increased numbers of payrollees, are incompetent, broke, or both, and no one, I daresay, thinks Washington has the answers for our social ills. Cynicism does permeate much of the country. Freedom of choice has declined in the wake of growing government bureaucracy and an increased depersonalization of private institutions.
We are, in short, in a period, a long period, of pull-back, adjustment, reevaluation of basic premmises. Our golden age may well be over; we have not yet learned how to deal with declining power. Most of all, we do not know what we are about, what we want to be as a people and do as a nation, still strong and significant in the community of nations, but no longer all-powerful. Yet, unlike many other countries of power longer in decline than we (e.g., England, Italy, and France), America's underlying richness remains largely intact, a richness of resources, population, and spirit. The commitment to freedom is still very much alive, pecked at in many ways by the general bigness of all our institutions, but still there. The past cannot be called forth; the present offers singular problems, but when all is said, Americans still believe in a munificent future. The average American believes he will prosper, perhaps he believes that more than most intellectuals, and, I think, he has accepted with less difficulty than they the fact that America's power has declined these past fifteen years. If the polls are right, he understands that the world is too diverse for us to dominate, too chaotic for us to control, yet too fearsome to abandon altogether. The intellectual and political elites, or some of them at any rate, still spin out fantasy models in which we are always the spider in the web of the world.
These elites would better serve the nation by trying to redefine and articulate our basic foreign-policy premises, turning away from lamentation to a constructive analysis of America in its sober maturity, where dreams have been shattered and new ones are hard to come by. Our country ails and suffers, but still breathes with a healthy beat, remaining, despite all the problems, the home of free men and women. That dedication to freedom defined us two hundred years ago. It is still a worthy commitment; indeed, in my view, an indispensable one before which all other claims must bow. The litmus test for our elites, in taking up the task of formulating new policy, should still be the question asked long ago: is freedom enhanced or diminished by what we do today?
Stanley Hoffmann: The United States has not been exhibiting “a new maturity in its recent international behavior,” nor are we suffering from “a failure of nerve.” Our recent difficulties and defeats on the world stage are of very different sorts, and it would be sheer masochism to lump them together in order to pretend that “the spirit of Munich” is rising again. The old rationale that provided guidance to our foreign policy and insured Executive predominance in our political system is obsolete, and the new world in which we have to move is not at all the one for which we were being prepared. We have lost, not our will, nor our might, but our compass.
Our greatest debacle, Vietnam, testifies not to the general irrelevance of the cold-war rationale, but to its inapplicability to countries incapable of coalescing into genuine nations, in which Communism has captured the monopoly of effective nationalism, and is not a mere appendage of Moscow and Peking. Vietnam is the end of an era, the end of a policy that assumed that we were facing a single, omnipresent foe, and that we could stop or defeat him everywhere with the weapons which we knew best and had the most of: military force and massive injections of economic aid.
Henry Kissinger knew that the old policy would not work any more because it overtaxed the psychological and material resources of the U.S. But Nixon and he adopted the wrong timetable and the wrong method for liquidating the political and moral disaster of Vietnam. And the new rationale which they themselves proposed has turned out to be inadequate. They had hoped that the switch from confrontation to negotiation, from hostility to partly adversary relations with Moscow and Peking, would both help us preserve our position of predominance in much of the world (a position threatened by the strains which the Vietnam war had produced at home and abroad) and help dampen conflicts all over the world. Détente with Moscow and with Peking has had its blessings, and few people would deny it. But we have discovered that the relationships between the superpowers simply do not determine or control all the trends and events on this planet. It is a world of diversity. Many conflicts, while easily envenomed by the superpowers' competitive interventions, simply do not let themselves be “solved” by their fiats. The Third World attack on the postwar economic order, whose rules had been largely drawn up by the U.S., developed wholly apart from great—power diplomacy, and turned into a challenge of the U.S. and its allies, with Moscow and Peking as interested yet remote supporters of the challenge. Moreover, America's own attempt at regaining some freedom of maneuver, our leaders own insistence that confrontation was no longer the overriding imperative, unleashed, at home, all sorts of pressure groups that helped undermine the world economic order. Watergate inevitably led Congress to reassert its influence and thereby to react both against its own twenty-year-long submissiveness and against the abuses of “national security.”
It is not an accident that Henry Kissinger has stopped writing “state-of-the-world” reports in which his “conceptual breakthroughs” toward a “stable structure of peace” are complacently described. He has to do what he had been so critical of his predecessors for doing: coping with crises as they come. But if he has no adequate new “concept” or design, one cannot say that the opposition does any better. The first task now consists not in lamenting defeats or in brooding about credibility, but in identifying the new realities.
This is a world in which we face not only the continuing need to preserve an overall balance of military power against our main adversary—the Soviet Union—something we have done quite well, but also the far more complex problem of preserving what might be called the balance of influence against our multiple challengers. These are, occasionally, Communists, but even then, they are not necessarily mere tools of Moscow. Most frequently they are not Communists at all. This balance of influence varies from area to area, and rests only in part on our military strength. In much larger part, it depends on domestic political currents which we cannot hope to shape, and on economic trends that cannot be adequately mastered through reliance either on the use or threat of force or on mere transfers of money.
It is absolutely essential that we understand the following three points. First, there is a risk that this new world will turn out to be totally unmanageable. Not only does it remain riddled by inexpiable conflicts such as the Arab-Israeli one, but there is no assurance that nuclear interdependence, which has moderated world politics as long as nuclear weapons were primarily the preserve of the superpowers, will not become catastrophic if proliferation speeds up; the same risks are attached to the conventional arms races and sales all over the world. Traditional techniques for the management of the strategic and diplomatic “game of nations”—the balance of power, limited war, alliances, great-power diplomacy—are today either insufficient or too dangerous. Moreover, the management of economic interdependence in a world in which a very large number of players—states of all kinds and sizes, multinational corporations, international institutions, fragments of national bureaucracies—all try to manipulate one another's entanglements and to maximize their own assets, may well end up in sheer chaos. For the stakes of the contest are, in part, precisely the setting up of new rules for these complicated games, and the power at the disposal of the players is far less calculable and far more evanescent than traditional military might and war potential.
Second, the United States is not too well equipped to try to control the uncontrollable. To be sure, it is on or near the top of every hierarchy of power, it is the biggest player on each of the chessboards of international politics. But its very involvement in all of them (by contrast with the USSR, whose role in the world economy remains limited and diffident) also increases its vulnerability. The U.S., more than ever, is Gulliver tied, or the biggest fly on the flypaper. Moreover, insofar as the offensive mounted by many of the new players is a challenge to international economic inequality and an attack on the American ideal—a free world market actually kept open by U.S. predominance—the U.S. is ill-prepared for accommodation, given the mix of its convictions and of its interests.
And yet to declare war in return, and to count on one's might alone, is the surest way to reinforce the ideological solidarity of the challengers, whereas a declared willingness to deal with them on concrete issues would both expose the profound divergences of interests among them and allow the U.S. to exploit its greatest advantage: the need other nations have of its technological knowhow and of its resources. But the U.S. would have to learn to react, not as a corporate “free-enterprise” society, but as a state skillfully maneuvering with other states; not as a state whose enormous power allows it either to crush or ignore others, but as a partner in collective bargaining who aims at entangling his opponents in agreements which it would be too costly for them to break. And, in order to keep the balance of influence favorable to the U.S., we would have to learn not to interpret every sign of hostility abroad as an act of aggression to which we react with sanctions or subversion. Our national style and our international experience with grand crusades have not prepared us for a world in which our interest lies in, so to speak, disconnecting dominoes, discriminating among challenges, and allying ourselves with rather than opposing, defusing rather than defying, foreign nationalisms.
Involvement without control, bargains which only temporarily reduce uncertainty, the collective management of the world economy not through preordained harmony or thanks to a familiar consensus, but through tests of will and games of skill, accommodation with an international equalitarianism that seeks material equality and not merely equality under the law—all of these imperatives go against the American grain. We have oscillated between the kind of internationalism that allowed us to lead others toward a world remade in our image, and either an instinctive aggressive nationalism or a reflex of repudiation and retreat whenever the world frustrated our good intentions and our claims. Precisely because all these well-known modes of behavior are now inappropriate, the third point that must be made is the necessity to educate in depth not only the American public, or Congress, but also the splintered Executive, about these new realities. Otherwise, bureaucratic incoherence will compound worldwide unmanageability, and the pushes of ethnic, interest, and ideological groups at home will clash with the pull of external imperatives or constraints. It is not helpful to blame Congress for its scattered revolts against Executive mistakes or dissimulations, or to blame the public for its confusion. There is a vacuum of ideas, a void of leadership on top. “Nerve” without wisdom easily turns to hubris, “political will” requires both a road map and a sense of direction. The new realities, for all their complexity, leave enough room for American idealism, and provide ample opportunities to those Americans whose goal is the achievement of a truly pluralistic international system in which conflicts can be moderated, economic injustices diminished, diverse political and social systems accommodated, and the most serious barbarisms gradually eliminated. But “a new maturity” must entail an awareness of the fact that leadership does not mean control, and that we may well set an example without serving as a universal model.
Sidney Hook: In essence Solzhenitsyn is right about the mood of the West but wrong in the phrase he uses to characterize it. The West is not suffering from a resurgence of “the spirit of Munich” but from a malaise that is far graver—from a will to illusion about Communist doctrines and practices, and the foreign policy based on them. After all, although “the spirit of Munich” turned out to be a preface to disaster, it was rooted in a mixture of hope and ignorance. The hope was that world peace could be preserved on the basis of solemn treaty obligations of a totalitarian power that had publicly renounced further aggrandizement. The ignorance flowed from the belief that the speeches of Hitler and other Nazi spokesmen were better indications of Hitler's intent than the Nazi ideology, the intra-party programmatic declarations, and the terroristic practices already observable within Germany itself. It is idle to deny that the Munich agreements won almost universal acclaim among the leading opinion-makers of the West, including progressives and liberals. They held no brief for the Nazis, but they were convinced that war had been avoided by the choice of the genuinely lesser evil, and that Hitler would be sobered by the responsibilities of his victory.
What was an understandable error at a time when the full horror of totalitarian regimes had not been revealed, and the duplicitous strategy of their foreign policy not yet exposed in a score of broken treaties, cannot now be considered in the same way. No responsible political person can be that naive today. Something deeper is at work in the psyche of the West—something more akin to the state of mind that prevailed at the fall of France when almost all groups hated the Nazis but hated each other more intensely than they did the enemy. Differences over domestic policies were exacerbated to a point where national safety and international alliances to further the national interest were disregarded. (An outsider observing the political warfare between the American administration and its critics since the advent of détente could hardly avoid the inference that they felt more hostile to and more threatened by each other than by Brezhnev or Mao.)
When I say that the states of mind are akin, I do not mean to overlook the profound differences that time-span and national traits and traditions make. But the upshot, as far as setting barriers to the march of Communist totalitarianism is concerned, is much the same. There has been an erosion in the belief in freedom and a decline in the willingness to defend it in our press, our public media, and our educational institutions. This has been accompanied by a resolute unwillingness to come to terms with what Communism means in the daily life of those who live under it, to understand its growing strength in Western Europe and its potential for the demoralization of NATO, and the transformation of the Third World and the UN into agencies of anti-Americanism. Without such an understanding and a variety of initiatives based on it, the policy of détente can only result in psychologically disarming the American people and ultimately even weakening their national security. A détente does not require the rosy rhetoric of the summit meetings Nixon engaged in with the Soviet and Chinese leaders whose controlled press with unabated violence pilloried the United States at every opportunity. Nor does a détente with Russia and China imply that they have become like other nations and that the diplomatic mode and idiom that obtains between the U.S. and other nations now holds for them too. A détente could be a legitimate tactic in the strategy of defense if it were based on a realistic assessment of Communist strength, weakness, and intentions.
The plain fact is that the way the policy of détente has been pursued by the United States has led to the consolidation of Communist power without any compensating advantages for the United States. The principle of reciprocity has been disregarded. The behavior of the Soviet Union with respect to Israel, its incitement of the Arab nations to take a more active role in the fighting in October 1973, the resupply by both Russia and China of the North Vietnamese in violation of the Paris accords, should have made clear that the Communist states are still pursuing the cold war with impunity. The popular mood in the United States can only encourage them to continue it.
The invasion of South Korea by North Korea followed Secretary Acheson's needless and unfortunate statement that South Korea was outside the sphere of our national interest and the withdrawal of our troops. At the present time why should North Korea not be tempted to try it again, especially in view of the limitation placed upon the freedom of action of the American Executive and the call of the leader of the majority party in the Senate to withdraw American troops? In 1949 Stalin risked the blockade of Berlin because he knew that the State Department had vetoed General Clay's contingency plan to arm military trains from the West—an attack upon which by Soviet troops would have been an act of war. At the present time if the Russians, through their East German manikins, closed their fists around West Berlin, would the American Congress regard that as an act of war?
The only reason that neither action is likely is not fear of what the United States would do, but the fear of Communist China and Russia of each other. It is the Sino-Soviet rift that prevents the full exploitation of the current paralysis of American will by the Communists. Currently they fear each other more than they fear the U.S. If that rift is ever healed, the United States may find itself standing alone, for, with the possible exception of Great Britain, the countries of Western Europe will capitulate, not out of enthusiasm for Communism but out of neutralism. In that event, the hands on the clock of nuclear war will approach very near to midnight. Neither in the controlled press of the Communist worlds nor over their controlled television and radio facilities will readers and listeners hear the outcry: “Better free than dead” or “Neither red nor dead.” But in the press of the United States and over all the network systems, there will be an impassioned chorus of voices proclaiming: “Better red than dead!” The likelihood of American capitulation in such circumstances under some temporary face-saving formula cannot be excluded. This is a scenario no more improbable than the possibility a few years ago that the American Congress would refuse even humanitarian aid to citizens of Vietnam who had put their lives on the line in part at least because of assurances of American support authorized at one time by an American Congress. That this action was subsequently reversed does not alter its significance.
When John F. Kennedy announced in his inaugural that the United States “would pay any price . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” he surely could not have meant that the United States would pay that price to defend liberty anywhere in the world. For neither in the administration of Eisenhower nor in his own brief period in office did the United States move to confront Communist takeovers or repression of libertarian movements except when the Soviet Union moved to install nuclear weapons in Cuba—a direct threat to the security of the United States. When there is a clear-cut danger to the freedom of citizens of other countries, the United States cannot act in disregard of sensible, logistical considerations or its national interests. The involvement of the United States in South Vietnam was not required for the security of the United States. The disastrous error was a consequence of our fancied obligation to France whom we should have pressured, as we did Holland after World War II, to liberate its Asian colonies. Once involved, however, we incurred obligations that we could not honorably disregard, if only to make credible our reliability as an ally in a common cause elsewhere. The withdrawal of American troops and the Vietnamization of the war were legitimate steps toward necessary disengagement. The fateful and final blunder was the declaration that the United States would discontinue sending military supplies to South Vietnam while the Kremlin and Peking kept pouring supplies into North Vietnam. This was a signal to the North Vietnamese to launch their final massive attack and broke both the morale and the back of South Vietnamese resistance.
South Vietnam was a lost cause and nothing that was politically and militarily feasible at the last moment could have saved it. But it was the way we cut off our pledged aid and the timing that gratuitously contributed to the debacle, to the bitterness, and to the doubt of the United States. The bitterness is widespread in Asia; the doubt in Europe. States of mind are political realities, too. Of course, the U.S. is not materially or militarily any weaker now than before the inglorious end in Vietnam. But the doubts in Europe are not of the strength of the United States but of its will to use that strength if it is threatened. Why, then, shouldn't those who doubt, even if their doubts are unjustifiable from our point of view, seek some accommodation with the Soviet Union whose tenacity of purpose they do not doubt? Europe still puts “peace in our time” first. Only the will to use American power in defense of freedom can preserve peace. If a nation of heroes like the Finns can live in the Soviet shadow, may not less heroic European nations, who interpret the American détente as a one-sided abandonment of the cold war, find easy rationalizations to accept, in the beginning, a milder form of Finlandization? And if they do, will it not be the beginning of the end?
More than a century ago John Stuart Mill formulated the basic principles that should guide intelligent liberal judgment when issues of intervention or nonintervention in the affairs of other nations arise. With little emendation they still seem to me to be valid:
To go to war for an idea, if the war is aggressive, not defensive, is as criminal as to go to war for territory or revenue; for it is as little justifiable to force our ideas on other people, as to compel them to submit to our will in any other respect.
The doctrine of nonintervention, to be a legitimate principle of morality [in foreign policy] must be accepted by all governments. The despots must consent to be bound by it as well as free states. Unless they do, the profession of it by free countries comes but to this miserable issue, that the wrong side may help the wrong but the right must not help the right. Intervention to enforce nonintervention is always rightful, always moral, if not always prudent.
Since a foreign policy should be based on the national interest, the claims of prudence must always be considered. The condemnation of American involvement in South Vietnam could be justified on such prudential grounds, but what is so disheartening is the accompanying moral indifference to the fate of human beings, who have given every evidence of profound opposition to Communism, now being engulfed by its terroristic regime.
This indifference to basic moral issues is apparent in the current denigration of American society by influential elements among our elites. All historical perspective has been lost. The inescapable disparity between American ideals and realities, particularly as we raise our sights to improve social, economic, and educational conditions, has resulted in a failure to realize how much progress has been made in the last generation and how far we could go if the same rate of progress were to continue. Its continuation is threatened, among other factors, by certain elites who are beneficiaries of its largesse and tolerance and who sedulously cultivate the view that there is little difference between the “repressions” of American society and those of Communist society. As Daniel P. Moynihan recently said of them, they are much more impressed by the absence of flies in countries like China than by the absence of freedom.
For reasons hard to explain, there has been a lack of adequate publicity concerning the domestic-policy proposals of that group in American society which more than any other has steadfastly refused to accept the illusions of détente with the enemies of human freedom as a guide to our foreign policy. I refer to the organized-labor movement—the AFL-CIO—which has fought for human freedom all along the line, at home and abroad. One may disagree with the details of its foreign and domestic policy. But overall it still represents the best hope for the immediate future.
The mood of the nation cannot be reversed overnight. Those who are not resigned to the defeat of freedom must engage themselves on a broad educational and political front. We can rely on the totalitarian powers to bring home even to backward Congressmen that the cold war is not over, and that it is still being relentlessly waged against the United States. What we must strive for is to revive the faith that it can be won in the West without Munichs or nuclear holocausts.
Townsend Hoopes: The question posed is whether, in the wake of our traumatic experience in Vietnam, the recent manifestations of an American turning from the extreme militancy that characterized U.S. foreign policy in the 1950's and 1960's are the expression of a mature adjustment to new international realities, or whether they reflect instead “a failure of nerve” and “a loss of political will.”
My own considered view is that a majority of the American people have been ready since the mid-1960's for a more proportioned, more tolerant, less ambitious, and less reflexive foreign policy, and that this impulse has accurately reflected the right and wise course for the country. But the impulse was persistently foiled by a combination of events and a collective cold-war demonology in the Executive branch that grossly misperceived the meaning of unpleasant change in the outer world. If Eisenhower, for example, had not been fatefully tripped by the U-2 shoot-down in the Urals on May 1, 1960, it is possible (unlikely, but possible) that he would have succeeded in his very serious effort to find a basic accommodation with Khrushchev and the USSR, by cutting through the tendentious underbrush of preconditions with which John Foster Dulles (by then dead) had hedged the American approach to coexistence. If so, it is quite possible that Kennedy might have come to power in a rather different public atmosphere, and might have been a President devoted from the outset to nurturing an embryonic détente. But Eisenhower's failed “voyage for peace” shattered public hopes and once more drew taut the lines of the cold war. Thus, only in 1963 did Kennedy gradually perceive the sterile futility of the strategic arms race and the truth that American “advisers” were fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia because official Washington had misperceived Ho Chi Minh as a proxy for China and China in turn as a proxy for Russia. Just a few months before his life was ended, Kennedy told Kenneth O'Donnell that he was determined to take the country out of Vietnam, but had to be reelected first.
Looking back to 1960, one must acknowledge the vast reservoirs of resistance to atomic test-ban treaties and to any proposals related to a scaling down of American ambitions and commitments. A kind of messianic logic was operating in U.S. foreign policy, driven and sustained by the self-generating momentum of a radically new factor in American life—the vast military-diplomatic-intelligence apparatus developed during the 1950's. The existence of the apparatus constituted a pressure on Presidents for activism, as well as a seductive reassurance that American force could be applied in a wide range of situations with relative ease and impunity. Given the dynamics of that situation, we should probably have foreseen that only a large, painful, and disastrous setback would jolt public opinion enough to set in motion a searching reappraisal of the ends and means of American foreign policy.
Even so, we seem to have been, since Kennedy, singularly unlucky in our Presidents (and our Secretaries of State) with regard to foreign affairs. Johnson was out of his depth, simplistic, and inclined to see issues in the frontier terms of cowboys and Indians. Nixon, to his credit, moved us to a formal détente with the USSR and China, but never moved himself to a coherent reappraisal or reformulation of U.S. interests and purposes in a world he had thereby made safer for at least the superpowers. Against the logic of his own larger strategy, he continued to wage savage war for anti-Communist objectives in Indochina, including the cruel and unnecessary assault on Cambodia, which led directly to that innocent country's destruction. And he never hesitated to use subversive means to prevent or undo in foreign countries (like Chile) any strong impulses to change that he and his Secretary of State deemed unwelcome to American interests. Ford appears thus far as a somewhat benign, cardboard Nixon, directed in foreign affairs by the increasingly demonic Kissinger.
There is not much evidence that U.S. policy under Nixon and Kissinger-Ford has transcended a reflexive anti-Communism. Even after (one could say, especially after) the needlessly slow, four-year troop withdrawal from Vietnam, a serious American push to implement the political aspects of the Paris accords of January 1973 was a course of action heavily endowed with strategic logic. It would have reflected reality and reinforced détente; it would have constituted the first real step toward a reduction of excessive American commitments; and Nixon, fresh from a sweeping electoral triumph, could have laid genuine claim to the mantle of statesman by an act of wisdom that world opinion awaited and expected. Readiness to accept a separate coalition government in the South, so long as it was not hostile, had been an element of Hanoi's negotiating posture since 1968. Moreover, on the down side, an effort to achieve political compromise via coalition would have been a prudent hedge against the worst consequences—humiliation, recrimination, and human tragedy—of total military defeat for our client, Thieu. Such an ending could hardly have been excluded from American calculations; indeed, it was the widely accepted reality that, in the absence of a large expeditionary force, neither Thieu nor any other representative of the American-made structure in Saigon could hold back for very long the deep-running tides of revolutionary change represented most prominently by the government in Hanoi.
But whether trapped by the idée fixe that dire domestic political consequences still awaited the American President who “lost” Vietnam, or by an emotional inability to face the truth that American power cannot prevail everywhere, neither Nixon nor Kissinger-Ford ever wavered from the old course. After the accords, the goal of U.S. policy in Vietnam became simply to sustain a permanent stalemate by other means. And it is worth pondering that, if Nixon had not been dismissed from office, he might well have sent bombers over Quangtri province in March 1975 no matter what the legal strictures imposed by Congress. To what end? To salvage his own distorted version of American “credibility” that was tied as by an umbilical cord to Kissinger's distorted version of “linkage.” For these two subjective reasons, it became an official American imperative that Vietnamese (and, if necessary, Americans) go on killing and dying ad infinitum. It seemed an act of lunacy totally at odds with strategic détente and U.S. interests, yet under the squalid cover of a bogus “peace with honor,” Washington encouraged the war's continuation.
Now, once more, in the wake of the final collapse in Vietnam, the forces of reason and proportion are gathering again in support of an earnest search for a new American stance in international affairs, an altered posture which better comports with carefully considered American interests in the wider world and which at the same time avoids the disastrous excesses that have flowed from the premise of an imperative global anti-Communism. And after a decade of detour through frightful bogs of learning, it would seem that a more reasoned and moderate approach ought at last to prevail. For given the varied and complex components of effective power these days, it is plain that no one nation can impose its pattern on the world. Even if we retained the will, we are no longer in position to direct world traffic or chart the future for half of mankind. We possess ample power and influence to protect and advance our legitimate national interests, but first we must define those interests with some respect for precision, and in a world grown more insistent in its demands for broader participation, a world far less disposed to regard American society as a relevant model for the future. Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard has well stated the admonition we ought to carry with us as we study the profound gestation around us. If we persist, he has said, in seeing “a declaration of war on us” in the efforts of other nations to shape their own societies and alter the economic order to their advantage, then we shall soon reach “the apex of egocentrism and diplomatic suicide.”
All of this ought to be clear enough. The time has come, indeed is long overdue, for a genuine reassessment of U.S. foreign policy. But once again the obstacles to reappraisal lie less in events than in the present leaders of the Executive branch. For them the lesson of Vietnam is that the country must be brought back to that pitch of insecurity and anger that will permit them to pursue old anti-Communist passions by a routine resort to military and paramilitary means. Kissinger pays lip service to the need for “reducing excessive commitments,” but continues to disparage specific efforts and is in fact busily increasing international tensions. On April 17, and ignoring the fact that Thieu had received $3.4 billion in American military hardware and supplies during the twenty-eight months following the cease-fire agreements in Paris, he said: “We shall not forget who supplied the arms which North Vietnam used to make a mockery of its signature on the Paris accords.” On May 11, in one of those orotund statements devoid of meaning, he said: “The willingness of the Soviet Union to exploit strategic opportunities . . . constitutes a heavy mortgage on détente.” The piece of impatient gunboat diplomacy involving the freighter Mayagüez is only the latest episode in Kissinger's unfolding effort to “restore American unity.”
Kissinger once seemed to have perspective and wisdom; time and testing have shown him to be essentially a very skillful balance-of-power gymnast with a developed but abstract sense of diplomatic “realities” and a marked capacity for deceit, but little understanding of the American character. It has been said before, and it is true: there is something un-American about Henry Kissinger; he is too totally egocentric and Machiavellian; he does not sit comfortably on the American stomach. And, sad to say, his diplomatic triumphs are increasingly seen as either bogus or ephemeral.
The present American turning to a search for a more reasoned and proportioned foreign policy is a distinct sign of health and maturity; whether this impulse can gather the strength and coherence needed to prevail against determined and self-centered bureaucratic resistance is the question now before the country.
Irving Howe: It looks as if we shall have to quarrel, for even though the COMMENTARY statement tries bravely to strike a stance of impartiality, it takes no great powers of insight to grasp where the hearts of the editors lie. The overwhelming stress of the recent political articles in this magazine, not least of all Robert W. Tucker's weird scenarios for invading the Arab oil-rich countries, makes it clear that we are confronting a political-intellectual trend, articulated in public by writers like Daniel P. Moynihan, Norman Podhoretz, and Walter Laqueur, and focused on such propositions as: the American national will has been seriously damaged as a result of recent failures to assume responsibility, there is a major danger of retreating into isolationism, and the “intellectuals,” a conveniently loose category, are retreating from internationalism, from concern with democracy abroad, etc.
I disagree. I find it troubling that the most influential and respected American Jewish journal in the United States should in the last few years have veered so sharply to the Right in its politics. Saying this I don't, however, want to associate myself with those who feel it is “bad for the Jews” that COMMENTARY, or any other magazine, takes a conservative position: Jews have as much right as anyone else to be wrong, and I will fight to the death (well, almost) for that right. But the wrong doesn't make me happy.
What is most notable about the COMMENTARY statement and Mr. Moynihan's recent dark ruminations is the assumption that most of what has gone wrong and needs stringent correction is the response of “liberals” and “intellectuals” allegedly unaware that the struggle against Communism remains urgent for people who care about liberty (but which struggle? that of the Portuguese socialist leader Mario Soares or that of the Greek military junta? that of a Michael Harrington or that of a William Buckley?).
Rarely do we find any acknowledgment from the political writers of what might be called the New Right-Center, ranging from the Hudson Institute “experts” to the Lovestone-Social-Democratic officialdom, that a major reason for the present situation is the abysmal political record of the United States over the past two decades. If the prospects for democracy in the world today seem far dimmer than they did a quarter of a century ago, it isn't after all the New Politics or intellectuals who have created this situation—whatever their faults or foolishness, these people never had the power to set policy. The responsibility rests on the ruling elite, on the people who held office and made decisions, from Johnson through Kennedy, from Rusk through Henry Kissinger.
Yes, President Kennedy said that the U.S. would act to “assure the survival and the success of liberty.” It is good to quote that, but I find it astonishing that COMMENTARY doesn't proceed to ask: has the U.S. in fact done anything of the sort? Consider the record since Kennedy made his statement: the catastrophic intervention, morally insupportable and politically feckless, in behalf of a corrupt authoritarian regime in South Vietnam; the shameful act of dragging Cambodia into the war, and the comic-tragic improvisation of the Lon Nol puppetry as “our ally”; the all-but-open support of the Greek military junta; the systematic hostility toward and undermining of the democratically-elected Allende regime in Chile and our at least complicit role in its overthrow by a gang of hard-fisted generals; the continued support, ranging from tacit to blunt, of dictatorships in Spain and Brazil; the propping-up of the Park dictatorships in South Korea (where it appears we may again have a chance to fight for “the survival and success of”—liberty?); and the deep complicity in maintaining the antediluvian Salazar dictatorship in Portugal.
Does this strike COMMENTARY as a fulfillment of President Kennedy's pledge?
And at home: a squalid degeneration of the democratic polity—Watergate, the CIA revelations, the IRS scandal, and more. Surely it ought to come as no cause for surprise or indignation that our elites have begun to question the “legitimacy” of American civilization in its present embodiment—and the non-elites too. They would have to be morally and politically anesthetized, either through smugness or ideology, not to feel troubled, not to ask questions, not to reach up to hold their noses against the smell of stinking fish. That, in the present world situation, this can encourage the counter-authoritarianism of Maoism and Castroism and military-Communist alliances, that it weakens confidence in democracy among the youth—of course! That is part of the price we pay for our failures.
I am not one of those who think that U.S. foreign policy is “ineluctably” reactionary and imperialist, though there are obviously strong pressures from within our social and economic institutions driving the country in that direction. There have been strong positive achievements since World War II: the Marshall Plan which helped revive democracy in Western Europe, the support of Titoist Yugoslavia which helped nurture some dissidence in the Communist world, and for some of us, most important of all, aid to Israel. (Though with regard to the last, one ought to note that it is not so much the remarks of a McGovern, fatuous as these have been, which endanger the continuation of U.S. aid to Israel as the policies of a Kissinger, subtle as these may have been.)
Increasingly, the positive achievements of U.S. foreign policy come to seem exceptions to a bleak and rigid system of support for rotten and rotting authoritarian regimes, given our blessing and our blood, to say nothing of our money, if only they are anti-Communist—regimes that in hard fact don't even help for very long to stop Communism since through their internal repressions and failures to respond to the legitimate demands of their people, they simply prepare the ground for a takeover by the very Communists or Communists allied with a “Left” military whom they are supposed to thwart. Come to think of it, what is going to be the likely result of the Chilean officers' coup but the coming to power, sooner or later, not of an Allende-type socialism (which, with all its mistakes, largely preserved democratic rights) but of a leftist authoritarianism?
The COMMENTARY statement mentions Portugal as an instance of American passivity, but it fails to specify what a desirable “active” policy might be. (In supporting Salazar we weren't so passive. . . .) What would COMMENTARY have the U.S. do? Another invasion? Unleash the dimwits of the CIA and the blunderers working for Jay Lovestone? Or will Mr. Tucker come up with another plan for military intervention, taking into account, as is only proper for a geopolitical strategist, the differences between treeless Arabia and wooded Portugal?
U.S. policy is deeply disliked and distrusted throughout the world for many reasons, and some of those are bad ones; but surely one reason is the evident chasm between its proclaimed values and its actual practice, its evident lack of serious concern for “the survival and the success of liberty.”
I don't mean to suggest, of course, that such a concern would guarantee success—in the world as it is, nothing guarantees success. But at least a consistent policy of supporting democracy and social reform would give coherence, dignity, meaning to our policy: it would lend it a sense of historical purpose. When Kissinger becomes indignant about the violations of democracy in Portugal, who can take him seriously, who can avoid cynical responses upon remembering his restraint, let us call it, with regard to the conduct of the military junta in Chile and now again in South Korea?
There is indeed a significant relationship between American power and the future of democracy, though not a relationship that can be adequately described in a few sentences. Suffice it to say here, however, that there are situations in which the presence or exertion of American power seems to be a necessary precondition for the “survival and the success of liberty,” but only rarely is it a sufficient condition—and all too often in recent years it has been an active impediment to that end. For the survival and the success of liberty, there must be a genuine liberal policy, a genuine commitment to democratic freedom and social reform, as well as some historical patience with and understanding of the ways and mores of other peoples.
In this still bipolar world it is a tragedy that those of us who care most passionately about democratic freedom and social reform—the socialists, the liberals, the real socialists and the real liberals—have too often to depend upon the presence or exertion of American power as a counterweight to the military force of authoritarianism. Too often it turns out that the rhetoric of the United States is in utter contradiction to its practice, and too often the half-allies of the American establishment, whose power the true democrats must hope to enlist in behalf of freedom, are quite prepared to accept the destruction of freedom. Nevertheless, that is the relationship, the dialectic, if you wish, that cannot be escaped. If, in consequence, the political writers who these days set the tone for COMMENTARY really want to help the cause of freedom, then let them turn away just a little from their incessant polemics against the “intellectuals” and “liberals” whom they see as undermining the will to oppose Communism and instead offer some criticism of those trends in American policy, those forces of power and opinion, which have in fact brought us to the present unhappy situation.
Herman Kahn: The United States is now undergoing a very unpleasant and demoralizing experience. Many who believe that this country has suffered from an “arrogance of power” are hoping that this will be a maturing and educational process. Many even hope that there will also be a period of reconciliation and good will, both internally and externally, now that the “divisive,” “attention-diverting,” and “priority-distorting” Vietnam war is over. Surely a chastened and regenerated America should now be prepared to deal with its real problems and interests in a mature and realistic fashion—or will be after November 1976.
My own guess—depending, of course, on what one means by “mature and realistic”—is that most of these hopes and expectations will be disappointed. The issue is complex. One person's “maturity” or “realism” is another one's apathy, weariness, rationalization of failure or defeat, narrow-minded selfishness, partisan politics, appeasement, cowardice, decadence, or at least an excessive reaction to disappointment and disillusionment. Or there can be room for honest disagreement.
Because the recent events in Vietnam precipitated the discussion, let me start with them. Let me also single out for attention an important part of the U.S. establishment, a group that I will call (for want of a better name) upper-middle-class progressives. This group includes an overwhelming portion of the “high-culture” and the educational and media establishments. It is usually supremely self-confident in its basic attitudes and opinions, especially those which are so basic they are unnoticed—it is of course sophisticated enough to recognize the confusing complexity of the world, but often it ignores this complexity in judging groups it does not agree with. I myself think of this group, at least in the late 60's and early 70's, as immaturely illusioned and self-indulgent, irresolute in defining and defending its values against criticism or other attacks from the Left and its own young, but, at the same time, almost totally unaware of how blind and committed it was in following its class interests versus those of many other groups in our society. (I understand, of course, that few in this group will recognize this description.)
One way to make plausible the thesis that this group is not open-minded and flexible is to note how little it understands the views of its critics or others who hold a different perspective. For example, many in this group often argued that those who intervened in South Vietnam thought of Communism as a monolithic entity (an assertion always put forth with a stance of superior virtue and knowledge). Actually I know of no one in the Kennedy or Johnson administrations who thought of Communism as a monolithic entity. But there were many who believed the plausible proposition that Communism could be a threat, even if bitterly divided against itself. Some even had enough knowledge of history to understand that this was a common situation. For example, Christianity was perhaps most dangerous to the Muslim world (or such an expanding and proselytizing force generally) when it was bitterly divided against itself, i.e., divided between warring Protestants and Catholics, who, however, often cooperated in the struggle against the Muslims, and were always prone to do so. In fact, the decisive Christian triumph over the Muslims occurred more or less simultaneously with the peak of this internal rivalry. In any case, intense internal divisions are often a sign of vitality and dynamism in ideologies and religions, a manifestation of care and concern.
Many in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations also understood that a strong North Vietnam, leading a newly unified Indochina with a population of 50 million people (a situation very likely to exist soon even if it is disguised by a façade of national independence in the states concerned) would be a quite effective barrier against Chinese expansion. Some of them also understood that the threat of this new, highly ideological, highly nationalistic, and very high-morale state could possibly be contained by introducing a restraining Chinese and Soviet influence in Thailand and perhaps in other areas in Southeast Asia as well—if it could be contained at all by likely available counterforces.
Surely it is a sign of a wise and mature individual (and who wants maturity if it is not associated with wisdom?) that he has a breadth of perspective and knowledge so that he can at least understand and communicate with those of other views. While many in the current administration would agree that the “best and the brightest” were largely incompetent and ignorant of the issues, I do not believe that David Halberstam (who coined the phrase) was much better informed. He certainly believed that any attempt at counter-insurgency in South Vietnam would drop us into a bottomless pit, and yet by the end of 1969 the insurgency was largely suppressed. The Saigon government had effective control and gave effective protection to better than 95 per cent of the population. The areas under Vietcong control were largely held by regular North Vietnamese troops, were empty jungle, or were close to the sanctuary areas—often all three.
This was made quite clear during the March 1972 attack and also in the attack this year. Both were classical invasions across frontiers. In neither case did any fifth column of local insurgents play a decisive role. Furthermore, the strength of both attacks rested less on the superiority of highly motivated troops than on their modern equipment and the military advantages of sanctuary and tactical initiative.
None of this is to suggest that South Vietnam can be completely absolved of responsibility for its own defeat. But it should also be realized that any highly totalitarian and ideological country like North Vietnam will have less corruption and greater discipline, and, at least on the surface, will display greater morale and unity than an obviously diverse, fragmented, pluralistic, and barely authoritarian country like South Vietnam. (To argue that South Vietnam was an efficient police state with all opposition muzzled is a parody of the facts and an abuse of the English language, even though South Vietnam certainly was making efforts in that direction and already violated U.S. democratic norms. But in comparison with North Vietnam, it was a European parliamentary democracy. It should be noted that Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia had similar advantages over all their opponents—both worthy and unworthy.)
In the two years following the Paris accords and the removal of U.S. troops, most liberal observers either expected the almost immediate fall of South Vietnam or were waiting for the other shoe to drop “in the next three months or so.” But eight three-month periods passed without the second shoe's dropping. Some of these liberals were beginning to wonder—perhaps there was no second shoe? Most refused to note the elapsed time or to remember their confident expectations. Finally they heaved a sigh of relief and, to quote the New York Times, “A blessed silence” descended on South Vietnam: the insurgents had won their “inevitable victory.” Such liberals didn't notice that there were very few Southern insurgents involved and that, in the interim period, the Soviets had given the North Vietnamese 500 to 1,000 modern tanks, 500 to 1,000 heavy (130mm) artillery pieces, and twelve regiments of highly modern portable air-defense systems, plus virtually unlimited munitions for all of the above. (Actually, some of this had been given before the Paris agreements.)
It's true that $100 billion of American resources were wasted in various incompetent and irrelevant operations, but almost all of these occurred before the Paris agreements, and were undertaken by the United States or at its instigation. The Vietnamese insufficiency and corruption, great as it was, played only a minor role in this waste in comparison with the American role. But with the signing of the Paris agreements and victory in sight, or even in hand, we suddenly turned niggardly. In effect we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory—or anyway of stalemate. The Americans who negotiated the Paris agreements understood that they were unlikely to end the conflict in Vietnam. These officials assumed instead that we would support our side to the tune of about $1 billion a year for as long as the Soviets and Chinese supported the other side. The competition would be regulated so as to give our side a fair chance. Further, we would be willing to raise the level of our support if the other side sharply increased its own support, and we would react violently if North Vietnam violated the agreements in a starkly provocative manner.
In other words, we felt the Paris accords were going to create something like the Arab-Israeli situation in which neither side was likely to yield, but in which a reasonable balance and stability might well be maintained, more or less indefinitely, or until evolutionary changes had occurred. The U.S. government really believed the signing of the Paris accords to be an honorable act and a real advance for both the Americans and the South Vietnamese. Of course, critics pointed out, perfectly correctly, that the same arrangements could have been achieved in early 1969 without having to undergo three more years of fighting. What the critics did not realize was that a successful Vietnamization program had been carried out during these three years—so successful that in March 1972 it survived, initially without much U.S. support, a much greater test than had ever been envisaged (an attack of 600 modern tanks, hundreds of Strella missiles, a plethora of heavy artillery and ammunition, etc.). As far as I know, only one South Vietnamese division performed badly (the newly formed 3rd, which retreated in confusion and opened the road to Hué). All the others performed adequately—some barely so, others magnificently.
Thus the Paris accords, which could have represented defeat in early 1969, should have been recognized in 1973 as a ratification of near victory by the U.S. and South Vietnam—at least if we had lived up to our side of the bargain. This was recognized by the North Vietnamese, and it took the Christmas bombing to get them to accept the contract. It is clear that the U.S. government made a commitment—both publicly and privately. There was little or no acceptance by the U.S. government of the widely-held concept (held by many who criticized the negotiations) that the basic intention was solely to recover our prisoners, remove our troops, cut our other losses and obligations, and create a pause that would make the final fall of South Vietnam respectable. The cease-fire arrangements were not a “transparent fraud.”
If this had been so, there would have been no necessity for the Christmas bombing and the North Vietnamese would have been delighted to accept the accords; instead Hanoi had to be bombed into such acceptance. Presumably this commitment by the U.S. was for a more or less indefinite duration under all reasonable circumstances. No commitment, of course, can run for the rest of history nor can any commitment be absolute. But one can fairly characterize our subsequent behavior as disgraceful, even though the double blows of Watergate and the recession explain a good deal of it.
It is interesting that a New York Times editorial noticed that a classic invasion across frontiers was occurring in 1975 and initially recommended suitable U.S. support. Unfortunately, Thieu gave his retreat order and the South Vietnamese army, as has been true of many armies in history, was unable to execute it successfully. A retreat in the face of a superior enemy has always been one of the most difficult military operations to carry out, particularly by troops who are only partially effective. This initial failure made the South Vietnamese again appear unworthy.
Why were these troops only partially effective when they had done so well in the March 1972 attack? They probably did lack good leadership and high morale to some extent. But the other side was not only extremely well-armed and supplied and given a present of sanctuary and tactical initiative; our side lacked ammunition and much of its equipment was out of service, mostly because of undersupply and problems with maintenance and spare parts. This was partly caused by American niggardliness, partly by South Vietnamese inability to rise to the occasion and modify their U.S. training and supply and maintenance. Also their morale had gone down to some extent because of Congressional actions which had been reported across the length and breadth of Vietnam. But perhaps most important of all, the main South Vietnamese asset, their superior capability in terms of logistics and reserves, had been neutralized or overwhelmed because of violations of the Paris accords by the North Vietnamese. Hanoi, in effect, built a four-lane paved highway down the Ho Chi Minh trail, stockpiled an incredible amount of equipment and ammunition in (open, almost unprotected) depots in Laos and Cambodia, and increased the number of military effectives by more than 50 per cent—all in stark violation of the Paris accords. If we had denounced the Paris accords, as we should have when-the Canadians quit the Control Commission, the South Vietnamese might have been able to do something about these violations. However, it is a sign of our new “maturity” and “realism” that we do not go off “half-cocked” at such violations of solemn agreements, including agreements in which our allies depend upon compliance by the other side and on our promised support in case of violation. But let me turn now to domestic issues.
It is a remarkable fact that in October 1968, according to a Gallup poll, about 85 per cent of the American people with an opinion admired George Wallace for dealing with the serious issues of American politics; furthermore, they did not believe any other candidate was doing so. In commenting on this, Eric Hoffer said: “There is something sick about a country in which only a Southern racist cracker is dealing with the issues.” As far as the literate and prestige universities and media (and upper-middle-class progressives generally) were concerned, I believe that they misformulated, misunderstood, and misinterpreted many issues which were well-formulated and understood by the overwhelming majority of middle-class Americans, both black and white.
These included: the fact that much of the hostility to busing (shown by whites and blacks) was less racist than a traditional American preference for neighborhood schools and an intense unwillingness to bus children long distances to bad schools; that there has been a genuine erosion and degeneration of our school systems; that higher school taxes have been closely correlated with an acceleration of these trends; that the phrase “law and order” denoted a genuine concern with an increased incidence of crime and was not used as a code word for racist attitudes; indeed, that there was almost no measurable backlash (i.e., increased hostility against Negroes) except perhaps among liberal groups in New York City, including some Jews; that the ownership of guns is deeply embedded in the American hunting culture (which is itself a wholesome and even desirable culture); and, finally, that there has been, under the effective leadership of the upper-middle-class progressives, a toleration and even encouragement of a catastrophic erosion of American values, mores, and public and private behavior.
It should be noted, though, that during a short period after the elections of 1966, 1968, and 1970, many of the above issues seemed to be better formulated and understood by the press; but this knowledge, almost forcibly acquired because of the voters' actual and objective behavior, soon disappeared under the influence of prejudice.
What I am saying here is that there were and are an appalling ignorance and self-serving bigotry in the beliefs and attitudes of a good many of the established elites in America—a degree of ignorance and self-serving bigotry which I find difficult to associate with the word “mature” and even less with the phrase “mature and wise.” I would also argue that the near contempt in which so many of these people hold Gerald Ford is misplaced. I believe the President started out well and is rapidly developing—i.e., to some extent the “office makes the man.” Indeed, he is showing signs of evolving into a kind of Harry Truman, particularly in his handling of current economic, energy, and political issues. Thus, he has displayed both maturity and wisdom in putting more emphasis on inflation than on recession (being more conscious of the likelihood of overstimulation of the economy than understimulation). He has had the courage to continue the monetary policies started by his predecessor in mid-1974—and has demonstrated the patience and stoicism required to make such policies work in the face of criticism which is often unreasonable and extreme. Many of his critics know that it takes patience (approximately eighteen months) for such policies to be reasonably well-implemented, and that there is no practical way to stop or even temper sharply the inflation without labor and business undergoing a great deal of suffering and risk (much of the rest of society has been insulated from these). This was known when the new policies were initiated. Yet when they began to work and the need came for such patience and stoicism, there was an almost overwhelming outcry charging Ford with pursuing a “do-nothing policy.” Now, one could argue that the policy was too risky and tried to do too much too soon (i.e., it risked creating a depression). But it is not possible for an honest and knowledgeable person to call it a “do-nothing policy.” This would be like saying that a strict reducing diet requires no discipline, fortitude, or foresight.
It now appears to me that there is likely to be a populist backlash or counter-reformation against the leadership (and acts—both of omission and commission) of upper-middle-class progressives, that if we get “a new maturity” it will largely represent a repudiation of much of the elitist and academic ferment of the late 60's and early 70's, that if it is led by a “Trumanized” Gerald Ford, it will probably be a mature and wise movement, but that it could easily take a quite different and perhaps nasty turn.
Penn Kemble: America's foreign-policy failures are the result more of our divisions than of our exhaustion. The conflicts that have cost us most were those waged on our own university campuses, in our editorial offices, and in our political campaigns—not those that were waged in the jungles and rice paddies of Indochina. And there is no convincing evidence that our own conflicts are over—even though tranquility has been declared for Cambodia and North Vietnam. The most likely prospect before us is that we will continue to flounder, unless those who favor a renewal of American strength and purpose reach out in new ways to mobilize a political majority in support of their policies.
The ordinary American has usually left foreign policy to the experts. His present disillusion might better be understood as a confusion and frustration caused by the conflicts within the foreign-policy elite than as a deep and permanent opposition to “entangling alliances” or military spending.
In a most insightful article in a recent issue of Foreign Policy, William Schneider recounts an interview he had with a white-working-class woman in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1968:
The Vietnam war, she complained, was started by a “bunch of Harvard professors who ran the State Department.” These men were squandering the blood and money of people like herself in a pointless foreign involvement. What about the Harvard students who were, at the time, sacrificing their own blood to stop the war? “It's disgusting,” she replied. “They're worse than the professors.”
Schneider demonstrates that while elite opinion—that of the college-educated—supported the Vietnam war until 1968, it swung sharply against the war between 1968 and 1971. There is a simple explanation which some might give for this momentous shift in the most important sector of foreign-policy opinion: the 1968 Tet offensive caused the educated to realize that the costs of the U.S. commitment in Vietnam would outweigh whatever good might come of it. This “single-cause” explanation for the shift in opinion about Vietnam serves as a foundation of an important perspective on the politics of American foreign policy. It can be summarized, roughly, as follows:
- Vietnam was the wrong war at the wrong time, etc.
- The end of the Vietnam war will remove the cause of the divisions within America's elite which have so weakened the country's influence in the world.
- It is now possible to achieve a new consensus among American opinion leaders, not unlike the liberal internationalist consensus that prevailed before the Vietnam war. If we avoid recriminations, those who overreacted to Vietnam by becoming neo-isolationists or “revisionists” and those who became “professors with machine-guns” can reunite behind more mature, discriminating applications of America's power.
There is no reason not to join in wishing that this will happen. But can it? Some thoughtful and responsible men seem to believe it can. (For example, Senator Jackson's Presidential campaign now appears to many to have adopted this premise.) But there is a danger in assuming that it will happen—like other promised peace dividends, this one also may elude us. The view that the reaction against the foreign-policy activism of the 1950's and 60's was a simple and natural reaction against the war in Vietnam, and soon will evaporate, is probably too optimistic on two counts. First, it overlooks the special character of the movement which became the vehicle for antiwar, neo-isolationist, and “revisionist” ideas in this country; and, second, it assumes that the circumstances we faced in Vietnam were altogether unique, and that no comparable predicaments will soon again embroil us.
While the Tet offensive certainly contributed to the shift in elite opinion that occurred in 1968, that year also saw the rise of the New Politics movement, the McCarthy candidacy, and the collapse of the liberal internationalist consensus embodied in the Johnson administration.
In retrospect, was not the explosion that shattered American politics in that year more impressive than the shock that rattled South Vietnam—although what happened here supposedly was only an echo of what was happening there? Is it not possible that the Vietnam war merely triggered the release of a new force in American political and cultural life, which until then had been dormant or restrained?
If there is such a force, it has not yet been aptly named, let alone carefully analyzed. It has been called the conscience constituency, the new class, the counterculture, the mediacracy, the radic-libs—none of which has been a telling enough description to gain wide and lasting usage. Its failures to create or to dominate any important economic or government institution in the country might argue that it is more properly thought of as a mood, and not a “force.” But the pervasive and powerful influence it has exerted on our intellectual life and on the media suggests that there is more to this phenomenon than mere feelings and ideas. There are already strong signs that it may survive the Vietnam war. Its greatest victory, the McGovern nomination of 1972, came well after the American presence in Vietnam had become relatively insignificant. And its hold on the Democratic party was reconfirmed, to the surprise of skeptics, at last December's party conference in Kansas City. One senses that there are many other issues awaiting us—Korea, Thailand, the Middle East, the defense budget, the CIA, as well as a variety of domestic issues—with which this force can stir public discontent and maintain its foothold in national affairs. As a matter of prudence, if nothing else, we should assume that this force has become a more-or-less permanent fixture of our public life.
It does not follow, of course, that those who hope to revive a democratic internationalism in this country should assume a posture of sectarian hostility toward this new force, and certainly not toward all those who in recent times have been drawn into its influence. There are surely many individuals who were attracted to the new radicalism during the Vietnam era who today must find themselves repelled by it. The Jewish community, for example, should be a source of many refugees.
But if this new force maintains its influence in the culture, it will be hard to re-establish a satisfactory consensus—akin to that which prevailed in the 1950's and 60's—about American foreign policy. Those who are fearful about American weakness in world affairs therefore must devise their own broad political strategy—or must limit themselves to pleading anxiously with their intellectual opposition.
The New Politics movement, the New Left, and the anti-war movement took their opposition to the U.S. policies of the Vietnam era to the people. Indeed, they sought and found support even in some of the more illiberal and privileged sectors of American life. Those liberals who would counter them should be equally bold in their search for public support—and they will not have to violate any sound liberal principles to find it.
There are at least three potential sources of such support which deserve more thorough cultivation. The chief of these is the labor movement. AFL-CIO President George Meany has views on foreign affairs which are well known. But many writers, academics, and others in the foreign-policy community who agree with his views often seem to believe that Meany's critics are right: he speaks only for himself, and not for a wider range of labor and popular opinion. Meany, no doubt, is unusually sophisticated and concerned about international affairs. But the views he expresses are well rooted in the experiences and outlook of labor leaders at other levels, and in those of much of labor's rank and file.
Those who are worried about the world situation and who agree with many of the AFL-CIO's positions tend to overlook the depth and complexity of the labor movement. We are satisfied to know and work with a handful of top leaders, and then only on the international issues which are of chief concern to us—not those which most concern them. There must be a greater effort made to involve younger and lower-level labor leaders in a dialogue about world affairs, and intellectuals need to come to grips with labor's concerns about international trade, the operations of multinational corporations, the sale of American technology abroad, and related matters. To belittle these concerns as the product of an ignorant or narrow self-interest on labor's part is to belittle some major economic issues which are bound to break out into politics at large before too long. It is also to deny the possibilities of ever gaining vigorous support for a larger foreign-policy approach from those in labor who are motivated more by their own institutional interests than by somewhat abstract intellectual convictions.
Economic issues may well be at the hub of the foreign-policy debate during the coming Presidential campaign—even if only by implication. The opportunity to relate American weakness abroad to the oil-price increase—which will probably cost us more than Vietnam ever did—was never properly exploited. The cost of weakness deserves the same kind of dramatization that the anti-war movement has given to the costs of “arrogance.” What other raw-materials cartels will follow OPEC's example, and what tribute will they exact? To what extent will unfriendly powers use military and diplomatic pressures to force neutral countries, or even our own allies, to buy their export products, rather than ours? Even if we were able to retreat toward a “fortress America,” there might be high costs to pay. As Sir Robert Thompson has argued, the dangers that are incurred by American retreat may in the long run require large increases in our defense budget.
There is a second group—a current of public opinion rather than a well-defined constituency like labor—to which liberal internationalists should direct some attention, and economic considerations such as those above will be of great concern to it. These are the so-called “populists” or “alienated voters.” Appeals by New Politics and anti-war liberals to this element have failed—in good part, one suspects, because of its continuing sense of patriotism and, in the South, its strong tradition of support for the military. Now that race is a less divisive issue than it was in the 1960's, liberal internationalists can better afford to drop their stand-offishness toward this current of opinion. A strong international policy and a vigorously liberal domestic economic program should today appeal to this group. It should be remembered, too, that the voters affected by this mood are not condemned to sterile isolation if they are ignored by responsible liberal leaders. Both George Wallace and Ronald Reagan show dismaying strength in the political polls, and conservative strategists are excited over the prospects of parlaying Wallace's Democratic strength and the evident potency of Republican conservatism into a major impact on the 1976 elections.
The third group to which liberal internationalists might well direct greater attention is the military and defense sector itself. Here, too, we have been too embarrassed to be discriminating, and to draw on possible sources of support. Opinion polls show that, although we are not a militaristic nation, the military enjoys wide popular support. The University of Michigan's Institute for Survey Research, for instance, recently found that, despite the Vietnam experience, the public gives the military the highest rating of any American institution, ahead of both churches and educational institutions. (It is also noteworthy that other polls show anti-militarism now to be strongest among the well-educated.)
Even if we did not face a special need to build support for a strong American role abroad, liberal internationalists would be wise to break free of prejudice and hostility toward the so-called “military-industrial complex.” While there are no doubt Colonel Blimps and MacArthurite martinets present in the armed forces, there are also honorable public servants. They bear the risks and burdens of preparing for, maneuvering to avoid, or actually conducting future wars. If present trends continue, they face a good deal of sacrifice and little reward.
There are also, no doubt, irresponsible profiteers in the defense industries—and liberals have a special responsibility to expose and curb them. But it is no more fair to assume that all those who advocate a strong defense are serving their own narrow self-interests at public expense than it is to assume that venal selfishness is the essential motive of all those who favor greater domestic social spending. Such an assumption is especially dangerous now that the political and military balance has become shaky in many important areas, and the Soviet Union has embarked upon a massive arms build-up.
Those who opposed the American commitment in Vietnam might keep in mind that it was initially opposed by many defense professionals. Yet it had vigorous support from a number of civilian technocrats whose rise was spurred by Eisenhower's warnings about the power of the military-industrial complex. The “whiz-kids” eventually melted away, leaving others behind to face the problems the war created. One of the few hopeful signs in recent months has been the reluctance of the Democratic Congress to make the defense community a scapegoat for, our failure in Vietnam—despite the hectoring of many in the anti-war movement.
The views and interests of the defense community deserve consideration from responsible liberals not only because they are an important constituency with expertise in an important field. If the military and defense community is excluded from liberal and mainstream contacts, it too will eventually be forced to find its outlet on the Right. (This is not to suggest that the military should be urged to become directly engaged in politics. We are not speaking here of politics in the narrow, electoral sense. We are speaking rather of a wider dialogue about public policy from which partisan political opinions are drawn.)
In sum, there is reason for suspecting that the anti-Vietnam war movement was, in truth, far more than that—it was in some important respects a movement seeking power and influence for a distinctive new force in American society. This force will probably continue to oppose a strong American role abroad. Those who would counteract its influence would be wise to reach out to other potential sources of popular support, and not to wait for the hawks to nest with the doves “now that our long national nightmare is over.”
If this assessment should prove wrong, little will be lost by following the course proposed. If it should prove to be correct, at least some political groundwork will have been laid for defending democracy and preserving peace in the dangerous times ahead.
Irving Kristol: Someone, paraphasing Oscar Wilde, is once supposed to have said that the United States was the only nation in history to have passed directly from adolescence to decadence, without ever having achieved maturity. This witticism, though perceptive, was a bit wide of the mark. It would be more accurate to say that we are a nation which, for at least a century now, has been largely adolescent in foreign affairs, ever more decadent in domestic affairs—with intermittent lapses into maturity in both.
A mature conception of international affairs does, indeed, seem to run against the American grain. The history of American foreign policy during the past decades can be fairly described as a compound of shallow utopianism, absurd legalism, academic Machiavellianism, and occasional flashes of common sense.
Shallow utopianism: this begins with the commitment of FDR to “unconditional surrender” as our “war aim” in World War II. Unconditional surrender is always just about the worst of all possible war aims. It makes wars longer and bloodier than they need be and the victors always discover that they have created troublesome power vacuums which they then have to rush to fill up. Our involvement in Southeast Asia flows directly from the fact that we insisted on the dismantling of Japan as a great power and its conversion into a “peace-loving” nation. Japanese pacifism may yet turn out to be more costly to us than Japanese militarism ever was.
Our commitment to “unconditional surrender” in World War II arose in part out of utopian democratic enthusiasm which assumed that only American nationalism was good, because so pure in motive, while all other nationalisms were bad. It also arose out of a utopian belief that, once the Axis powers were “destroyed,” the Allies and the Russians could then collaborate on making an international body like the United Nations an effective guarantor of perpetual peace. It is not too much to say that there was an implicit but profound assumption that “foreign policy” would then be abolished altogether, and replaced by “the rule of law.” This has always been a secret hope of the American democracy, because foreign policy is inherently so problematic—i.e., frequently requiring disagreeable compromises of values and interests. It is a hope that finds expression today in the views of such as Senator Fulbright and other Senators and Congressmen too numerous to mention.
Absurd legalism: Nothing better illustrates this particular impulse than our casual and mindless commitment to a definition of “aggression” as the movement of the troops of one country over the boundaries of another—a definition now embodied in UN resolutions and American law. In the entire history of international law and international relations, no such simple-minded definition was ever proposed or contemplated. It has always been realized that there are circumstances when a nation may justly initiate military action against another. Because we have decided to ignore such circumstantial considerations, American foreign policy constantly finds itself being tied into moralistic and legalistic knots. A Middle East settlement might well have been reached in 1956 had not John Foster Dulles frustrated the Anglo-French-Israeli occupation of the Suez Canal. At the very least, with the Canal under the control of Western powers, there would be no OPEC today.
An almost infinite number of other legalistic absurdities can be found in the shelf-full of UN resolutions—on “human rights,” “self-determination,” “the abolition of poverty and hunger,” etc., etc.—we have automatically and unthinkingly subscribed to. Other nations, of course, pay no attention to them and never had any intent to do so. We, in contrast, are very solemn about them and are constantly exposing ourselves to—indeed, are constantly encouraging—a barrage of criticism and self-criticism.
Academic Machiavellianism: I am thinking here mainly of the “strategic thinking” that governed our intervention in Vietnam and which still governs our nuclear strategy. As concerns Vietnam, it is clear in retrospect that the “hawks” were right and the “doves” were right: either we should have intervened massively at an early date, striking directly at North Vietnam, or we should not have intervened at all. Wrong were all those who had ingenious, computerized strategies derived from “game theory” which encouraged us to believe that a graduated escalation of hostilities would, at some point, achieve a disequilibrium of costs and benefits to the enemy that would cause him to accept a cease-fire. As concerns our nuclear strategy, we are still committed to a theory of “nuclear deterrence” which implies that we will defend Europe either by fighting a limited nuclear war on its territory—something our NATO allies surely would not tolerate—or by launching a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union—something which American public opinion surely would not tolerate. It is, in effect, an ingenious game of bluff and counter-bluff we are engaged in. It cannot possibly end well.
Occasional flashes of common sense: One can pick and choose here from the historical record, according to one's predilections and best judgment. The only general point to be made is that American foreign policy, over these past three decades, has not been entirely disastrous or self-defeating. Our practice has frequently been much better than our theory.
So where does that leave the American democracy today? I should say it leaves us with two problems. One is the problem of America. The other is the problem of democracy.
The problem of America, most visible in the vagaries of our foreign policy, arises from the millenarian visions which have enchanted this nation from its original settlement. The United States is indeed an “exceptional” nation in many important respects, and Americans have a right to be proud of those historic distinctions which have made us unlike other nations. But the United States does not have a unique providential status or mission, and it has to make its way in a world which gives its aspirations no preferred consideration.
I must quickly emphasize that, in the area of foreign policy, this does not mean the vulgar substitution of expediency for principle. Such a notion of Realpolitik is itself just another academic fantasy. No nation can for long sustain a foreign policy that fails to reflect its basic values. Any such effort at consistent cynicism in foreign policy would only end by making the citizenry cynical about the values themselves, and would cast a pall of illegitimacy over the entire political system. So American foreign policy dares not weaken its commitment to liberal-democratic values, and to its fundamental purpose of defending and securely establishing these values throughout the world, and to the largest possible degree. But, at the same time, it must be realized that this is no simple task, that compromises of all kinds are inevitable, and that having fine values does not spare you from the necessity of having sometimes to do disagreeable things—like defending regimes which only half-heartedly support your values. I can think of no circumstances, however, where failing to help those who do share our values can have any consequence other than the discrediting of those values themselves.
Obviously, however, for any kind of “mature” foreign policy to exist, Americans must also continue to have faith in the ideals the nation is supposed to represent, and in the nation as an incarnation of these ideals. It is clearly the case that such a faith is much less spontaneous and virile today than it used to be. A hundred years ago, all schoolchildren learned from their textbooks and teachers that America was a land where the ideals of the Founders had been largely realized. Today they learn either that ours is a land where these ideals have been compromised and betrayed, or that the ideals themselves were never much more than hypocritical subterfuges on the part of various vested interests and ruling elites. “Decadence” is a fair term to apply to the prevalence of such a spirit of impiety.
I have not much to add to the analyses by various scholars as to how our culture has gradually assumed an adversary posture toward traditional American ideals and institutions. But I would like to underscore the banality of the political dynamics at work, as distinct from the cultural. All the classical political philosophers—Aristotle through Montesquieu—understood that the basic threat to a self-governing republic was the mobilization of organized greed (usually in the name of “equality”) by ambitious and unscrupulous politicians (i.e., demagogues). American politics today has become not much more than such a contest in the skills of demagoguery. Thus, one hears it said in the most matter-of-fact way that the first obligation of a politician is to see that he gets himself reelected, and that the proper question for a politician to ask himself is: “What can I promise them now?” People who look at American politics in this way pride themselves on their “realism.” They are blithely unaware of the fact that theirs is a debased vision of politics in a democracy, and that the degree to which the reality approximates this vision merely testifies to the degradation of democratic politics itself.
Fortunately, the reality is not yet identical with that debased vision. Though scholars and journalists seem convinced that American politics is utterly and properly cynical and manipulative, a great many Americans (perhaps a majority) prefer to think otherwise. We are not yet a thoroughly corrupt people, and there still exists a large reservoir of sobriety, self-discipline, even a willingness to sacrifice for the common good. A political leader who discovers a way to tap this reservoir may yet halt the seemingly inevitable “progress” from adolescence to decadence.
Kermit Lansner: Between the time the invitation to this symposium arrived and the time I write this, America's Vietnam involvement came apart with stunning speed. The American presence in Indochina is finished. If anyone really wanted to have the experience of living through the total collapse of a foreign policy, here it is. In this context, how hollow the old Kennedy periods which are quoted in COMMENTARY's statement. Whatever the other reasons—and there were many—so much of Vietnam can be explained by an infatuation with the rhetoric that produced: “We will pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Well, that is just what we did, and it came to nothing.
The real mistake for the United States would be to look back with nostalgia on the militant optimism and the romantic muscle-flexing embodied in that quotation. If it did nothing else, the Vietnam war drained the romance out of American power. One will remember the tragic confusion of the helicopter evacuation of Vietnam, not the heroism of Hill 400.
Between the time of Kennedy's call and the fall of Saigon there were also the 1960's at home. Even now we have yet to come to terms with that extraordinary decade in which the institutions of American life were turned upside-down and a strange cast of characters—many our own children—peopled the stage.
Was all this a shadow play, as ephemeral as the events of May in Paris in 1968 turned out to be? Or are the effects still percolating through the national psyche, just as the experience of the Depression or the war against the Nazis marked so many of those who are now worrying about America's loss of political will? I suspect that we will be feeling the repercussions of those years in both domestic and international politics. The 1974 election was a first sign.
COMMENTARY speaks of the scorn, the contempt for American civilization that we see in so many quarters today. But this is not exactly new, and, after all, there is a certain justification for taking a cynical view of a society which could serve up the debilitating trauma of Vietnam, Watergate, and a depression in one short decade, not to speak of assassinations, the burning of cities, and the attack on the universities—all of which shattered the public spirit. Societies have been damned for less, whatever their excuses.
What is new is that those who condemn the United States have nowhere else to look. China simply won't fill the bill. There is no other place, no other political or social order, no other large visible ideal that can become a second country for the disaffected here. There may be an idea here and there that can be taken up. Europe is not completely sterile. But I think we have a sense that whatever creative force there is will have to be found right here at' home.
COMMENTARY also suggests that the reluctance to use military power against the OPEC countries—or at least to contemplate its use seriously—is a sign of the loss of political will. It is hard to agree. The use of force is always a possibility, but I would think that every other approach would have to be exhausted before it could even be contemplated. Only the first few feeble steps have been taken in this direction. No one denies that the rise in the price of oil is a threat to the comfort, and even the well-being, of the nation. But it would be hard to argue that it now threatens our basic security. There is a tremendous give in the fabric of American society which has never even been tested by the energy crisis.
I have no programmatic objection to the use of force. It has always been part of the landscape and will continue to be. But I worry that we do not know how to handle it, or how to limit its use. And I am deeply worried about nuclear weapons. People forget. They forget what these weapons are and what they can do, and what a unique force they are in the history of destruction. And they also forget that they are there to be used as they were twice in this country's more innocent days when we did not lack for political will. Some might say that making a link between a surgical strike on the Persian Gulf and nuclear war is laying it on a bit thick. I don't think so.
So when COMMENTARY finally speaks of “a failure of nerve” in the international behavior of the United States, there is some doubt as to what is meant. I admit to a fondness for old-fashioned philosophy of history. There is a majestic rhythm to the accounts of the rise and fall of nations and ideas that is so different from the quick-step tempo of journalism in which I have spent so much of my life. If I remember, the “failure of nerve” was a term used to describe the turning inward in the ancient world toward such private philosophies as Epicureanism and Stoicism. The flashing confidence of the Greeks in the face of nature and society—gave way to more personal concerns. The nerve that failed was the nerve of reason and intelligence at work in the world, looking hard at reality and confident that it could be managed on a human scale.
In that sense there is a failure of nerve throughout our society—and in the way we handle international affairs as well. The nation is turning inward, more than a casual look might reveal. What has also happened is that there is a dwindling conviction that intelligence, morally applied, can cope with all those hard, complex problems around us. Perhaps we were too confident before, too inattentive to the fact that we were creating a whole new set of problems as we solved a few. But now we are in the soup.
For example, the United States—not to speak of that amorphous nonentity known as the world community—seems unable to handle the unprecedented complexities of international economic life. The problems seem to evade the net the technicians cast. We are beset by conflicting diagnoses and conflicting prescriptions. And beyond that there is simply no agreement about how economic activity can be managed so that it will help the growing numbers who think they have some claim on its bounty.
Abroad, these people are largely in the underdeveloped countries (or whatever they are called this week) and helping them cope with their problems will be a long, grueling, and spiritually unrewarding affair. Once it was different. Americans roamed the world bringing advice, money, and aid, and great bureaucratic careers were made in the process. Now, the ideas these countries have of their self-interest are apt to differ radically from what the United States thinks, and there is no way to cut through this tangle of misunderstanding in one clean stroke. It will have to be unraveled bit by bit. The work will be undramatic, frustrating, and probably thankless, but one has to think that reason and intelligence, honestly used, will go some distance in working things out.
I bring up both economics and the less-developed world not because they are the fields where the great dramas of international life will take place, but because they are apt to be the model for what much of international relations will be in the future. Environment, trade, the oceans, development, nuclear control. None of these is susceptible to the grand gesture. Even if détente turns out to be one of those passing phases in the ideological and power struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union, it nevertheless draws both sides into a continual discussion in which it is impossible to dissemble real interests all the time. Indeed, if the conflct between Russia and America could be formalized in the tedium of the negotiating table, this might be the most encouraging result to have come out of the Kissinger years.
The real failure of nerve would be to turn away from all this gritty business: either to a neo-isolationism or in favor of the grandstand play, the quick success, which could just as easily be a failure if things go wrong.
Quite simply, I do not agree with the either/ or way of asking the question about the nation's foreign affairs. We are not showing “a new maturity” of behavior. Nor are we showing “a loss of political will.” We have simply reached the end of a long, exhausting journey and the nation is dog tired. For more than a decade this country has had a leadership which was often aberrant (to put it charitably) and it now has one that is thoroughly mediocre. Tactically the United States is now in a weak condition, and I hope that the country will not be called on to make any fundamental decisions for some time.
What we are waiting for is a new leadership, or at least a leadership with some new ideas; and these must be in some kind of rough harmony with what the body politic will approve. The public was cut adrift from its traditional certainties by the unexpected, and often unexplained or overexplained, behavior of its leaders and it must be set on course again. This is why the 1976 election will turn out to be so important.
One more comment. When I speak of reason and intelligence I am not denigrating commitment, belief, or even faith. In the most crucial matters they should go hand in hand. I also realize that I have not mentioned the Arab-Israel issue at all in these remarks, although I suspect that the editors quite properly had it very much in mind in proposing this symposium. I am, and continue to be, a hard-liner on the question of Israel's security, but I don't see how this one case can be used as a touchstone for American resolve everywhere else in the world.
Christopher Lasch: There is unfortunately not much evidence that the ruling elements of American society are suffering from “a failure of nerve,” any more than there is reason to think they are suffering from “maturity.” The symposium's questions confuse failure with passivity. If our leaders have failed, they have, in part, their own hyperactivity to blame. If they have failed to prevent the spread of Communism, it is not because they lack the “political will” to make this the cardinal objective of American foreign policy. If they have failed to prevent the gradual erosion of American world power, it is not because they are afraid to use forceful measures in its defense. On the contrary, they have always had far too much confidence in force. Finding themselves at the end of World War II in command of unprecedented means of destruction, they imagined that they could impose their will everywhere at all times. Having learned otherwise, they blame the inevitable failure of their own policies on Congress, on a revival of isolationism, and on popular passivity and “failure of nerve.” COMMENTARY's questions echo this complaint.
The United States government continued to pour money into Vietnam and to give all sorts of secret assurances to General Thieu long after it was obvious, to every minimally intelligent observer, that the Thieu regime was incompetent and corrupt and that continuation of the war could end only in a complete victory for the Communists. From the beginning, it was clear to anyone with an elementary understanding of politics that the only hope of averting a Communist victory was to encourage the South Vietnamese to form a political coalition in which the Communists would be represented but not overwhelmingly dominant. But American policy-makers rejected a political solution as a humiliating defeat and clung to the hope of a military solution, with the result that they have now suffered the humiliating defeat they dreaded. Instead of blaming the stupidity of their own policy, they deplore the country's loss of political will.
All over the world American policy has been, and still is, to support dictators (for lack of alternatives) against democratic, socialist, Communist, or nationalist movements. This policy has been supported by incessant interventionism—in Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Greece, and Italy, to list only the better-documented cases. American intervention is of course not always public and overt, but it is far from “passive.” The CIA has conspired against Castro, against Allende, and against the Left in Italy and Greece, and it can be counted on to conspire against the Left in Portugal as well. COMMENTARY should rest more easily; the CIA has proven itself eternally vigilant in defense of liberty, and even if its escapades do not always succeed, neither do they invariably fail.
In the good old days, according to COMMENTARY, the United States would have used force or the threat of force against the cartel of oil-producing nations. Kissinger has in fact invoked the threat of force; presumably what the question means is that his threats are no longer, as they say, credible. Yet even the intrepid John F. Kennedy might have found the delicacy of the present situation difficult to deal with. In the first place, it is hard to see how force can be applied against the leading members of the oil cartel without risking the replacement of existing regimes by regimes even more unfriendly to American interests. In the second place, it is not clear that the rising price of oil is unanimously perceived, in higher circles, as a threat to American “security and economic well-being.” After all, it has not hurt the oil companies, and since ten of the top twenty corporations, according to the most recent Fortune survey, are engaged in selling oil, it may not be necessary to invoke a loss of political will in order to explain why American reactions to this particular “challenge” have not been more forceful. Representatives of the oil industry, incidentally, do not look with favor on military threats against the oil cartel. “The day of gun-boat diplomacy,” says one of them, “is gone.” COMMENTARY, on the other hand, seems to be calling for its revival.
The oil embargo dramatizes a general fact of contemporary life. Neither the United States nor any other great power can any longer play the controlling role in world politics. The postwar alliances have disintegrated, the world is no longer divided into Soviet and Western blocs, and the so-called Third World has split into Fourth and even Fifth worlds as a few of the undeveloped nations enjoy the new prosperity based on oil and others sink to various levels of poverty and hunger. The persisting strength of nationalism as a rallying cry in struggles against colonialism, the resurgence of racial and ethnic particularism, economic troubles in the advanced countries, their vulnerability to various forms of blackmail by smaller powers, and the inability of any of the great powers to offer a convincing model of social and economic transformation, have all contributed to this fragmentation of the global polity. It is not American influence alone that is declining, but the influence of the great powers in general.
Although the waning of American influence is rooted in deep and irreversible historical changes, American mistakes have undoubtedly contributed to the erosion of the nation's international position. Wiser leaders would have understood the limits of American power in the first place. Already by the mid-50's the belief that Soviet-American rivalry would continue to be the overriding fact of international life was outmoded. So was the corollary assumption that all nations would inevitably be drawn into the Soviet or
American orbit—the assumption on which the whole containment policy was based. At that time, a few critics of American foreign policy began to call for “disengagement” and détente. But it took most officials another twenty years to see the force of these arguments, by which time a great deal of additional ground had been lost by their misguided readiness to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” to stop Communism. Like COMMENTARY, American leaders worried obsessively about whether American “nerve” and “will” were equal to the requirements of world leadership and believed that it was necessary to test their own nerve and will in the face of every “challenge.” The rest of the world would have been more impressed by a little wisdom and restraint, based on a recognition that the age of great-power domination was over in any event.
Now that the consequences if not the causes of American folly are becoming unmistakable, the makers of opinion engage in what passes for soul-searching. Daniel P. Moynihan, writing in COMMENTARY and seconded by Fortune, argues that in their eagerness to win popularity in the Third World, Americans have been too modest about their accomplishments and too quick to acquiesce in unflattering accounts of their faults. COMMENTARY takes the same position when it deplores the tendency to question the legitimacy of American civilization, as if renewed protestations of its legitimacy would make the American way of life any more attractive as a “model for others to follow.” It is not just that American and Western civilization in general are too compromised by colonialism to serve as a model for the nations they formerly ruled. Those nations have not shown much greater eagerness to follow the Soviet or Chinese models, which might have been expected to prove more attractive. “Models” in general seem to have lost much of their appeal, and it will take more than positive thinking to restore it.
Seymour Martin Lipset: Western society is facing an internal crisis of morale linked to the emergence of a classic intelligentsia. The concept of an intelligentsia, which emerged in Czarist Russia and Central Europe in the mid-19th century, referred to a stratum of educated oppositionists. To be classified as a member of the intelligentsia, it was not sufficient to be well-educated, to be professionally employed. The intelligentsia was a political category comprising members of the elite who opposed the regimes of their own societies. As educated cosmopolitans, they viewed their own nations as backward and politically reactionary, in contrast to the culturally and politically advanced societies of the West.
During the 20th century, an intelligentsia also arose in the underdeveloped or colonial worlds. The educated elite of these countries, many of whom had studied in universities in metropolitan societies, also viewed the traditional cultures and dominant economic strata of their own nations as backward. They looked forward to catching up with the sophisticated West through revolutionary changes.
In such countries, radical movements organized around equalitarian and populist ideologies drew a large part of their sustenance from economically privileged elements. Many of the economically deprived either were apolitical or supported traditionalist movements, often identified with the prevailing religious institutions. Thus, the elite of Eastern Europe was—and in many contemporary Third World nations is—sharply divided, between a radical intelligentsia and the more conservative privileged economic strata.
Until recently the intelligentsia phenomenon was missing from culturally and economically developed nations. In such countries, college students, the scions of the affluent classes, were preponderantly conservative or right-wing. In the United States, opinion polls up to the 1950's suggested that the large majority of the well-educated and of college students were Republicans. In Europe, students backed the bourgeois parties or, in periods of crisis, rightist movements.
This situation, however, clearly changed in the years following World War II. An intelligentsia began to appear, based on the uníversity-educated, which resembles in its alienated outlook the intelligentsia of pre-1917 Eastern Europe. Clearly the phenomenon is no longer limited to less developed nations.
Although the Vietnam war was a catalytic issue around which the intelligentsia could rally, in Europe as in America, the New Politics and the New Left had begun to emerge as a political force during the preceding decade. In the United States, the middle-class, suburban-based, reform-Democratic movement began with the Stevenson campaigns in the 50's and had important centers of power in states such as California, Illinois, and New York by the end of the decade. In Britain, an explicitly New Left movement, rejecting both traditional social democracy and the pro-Russian Communist movement, developed about the same time. In both countries, peace movements focusing on the atom bomb and attacking modern science and technology were running well-publicized mass demonstrations in the late 50's.
The new intelligentsia is an outgrowth of conditions in post-industrial society which made a mass phenomenon of the educated class, the producers of knowledge and culture and their followers in the upper rungs of the tertiary sector of the economy, those involved in communications, in the application of. scientific technology, in welfare-related activities. The values of intellectualdom look for more than increased productivity as a justification for bureaucratic and hierarchically organized institutions. In many countries the educated young, inside and outside the university, together with many in the intellectualized elites, reject traditional values. As Daniel Bell has aptly put it, the “new class, which dominates the media and the culture [has developed] values centered on ‘personal freedom,’ [which] are profoundly anti-bourgeois.” Lionel Trilling emphasized the same characteristic when he wrote in 1965 that “any historian of the modern age will take virtually for granted the adversary intention, the actual subversive intention that characterizes modern writing.”
The modern tension between political power and intellectual life in America clearly did not begin with Vietnam and antagonism to Lyndon Johnson. In 1959, Henry Kissinger, in an article on “The Policy-maker and the Intellectual,” severely criticized the adversary propensities of intellectuals toward those engaged in policy-making. As he noted, for “intellectuals outside the administration machine . . . protest has too often become an end in itself.” Many have forgotten the difficulties which John F. Kennedy had with the intellectual community which despaired of him as a candidate whose record revealed no great reformist passions. For large numbers of intellectuals in 1960, the choice between Kennedy and Nixon meant no choice. Ronald Berman, in an account of intellectual life in the 1960's, commented: “In looking over the now-ancient journals of 1960 we can see how bitter the intellectuals were over the choice of candidates and philosophies, how sure they were that the ages of McKinley, Coolidge, and Eisenhower had put their unequivocal stamp on American culture.”
During the thousand days of his administration, Kennedy continued to meet with rebuffs from the intellectuals. Nine months after Kennedy took office, James Reston noted that the new regime was being described as “the third Eisenhower administration,” that the intellectuals were “disenchanted by the absence of new policies, the preoccupation with political results, the compromises over education.” In an article published in November 1963, just before the assassination, Joseph Kraft also pointed to the “harsh criticisms” of the administration emanating from the intellectual community. Ironically, Kennedy's tragic death brought about the rapprochement he so strongly desired, one curiously prophesied before he took office by James MacGregor Burns, who after noting Kennedy's lack of appeal to the intellectual elite, stated: “If he should die tomorrow in a plane crash, he would become at once a liberal martyr, for the liberal publicists of the land would rush to construct a hero.”
The impression that the core of the intellectual and the communications world is hostile to the managerial components of society has been sustained by a variety of opinion surveys. These show that among those employed in such work, the more socially critical, the ones who most strongly reject the status quo, are most likely to come from the most successful. Research by Everett Ladd and myself indicates that the most influential within the university world, those who are in the most prestigious universities, who have achieved the most as scholars, are most disposed to a critical Weltanschauung. Charles Kadushin's survey of the 110 most influential intellectuals, as judged by their peers, reveals that they are to the Left of the elite academics, i.e., to the most socially critical among the professoriate. Similar findings have been reported with respect to the media. The more prestigious the newspaper or broadcast medium, the more socially critical its editors, culture critics, and reporters. A survey of the opinions of 500 leaders of American life conducted in 1971-72, found that those in the media—publishers, editors, television executives, and columnists—were the most “anti-establishmentarian” of all groups interviewed. Solid majorities of the “media leaders” supported the youth rebellion and expressed a lack of confidence in the country's major social and political institutions.
The preference of the intellectual elite for antinomian, socially critical, and countercultural values also finds a mass base. As myriad studies have demonstrated, anti-system politics and countercultural styles of life have appealed disproportionately to the affluent students in the more academically selective institutions and in the liberal arts, as distinct from less well-to-do students in more vocationally-oriented schools and subjects. Within government and industry, opinion surveys indicate that professionals, now “more beholden to their outside [academic] discipline . . . than to the particular company they are working for,” have taken over the views of the intellectual community, while conservative views are found mainly among those in “line executive capacities.” Louis Harris reports that on a variety of issues bearing on changing moral attitudes, equality, and foreign policy, “the burgeoning professional group, now a majority of those in the $15,000 and up group,” is much more likely to support change-related positions than the line executives, or those with incomes under $5,000 a year, the most conservative of all.
Comparable patterns have been reported in other countries. The British Marxist, E. J. Hobsbawm, notes a sharp increase in the numbers of intellectually-oriented professions who tend to be on the Left in Western countries. In tandem with American findings, he reports that in France in 1968, the general strike was supported by “the research-and-development types, the laboratory and design departments and the communicators. . . .” Comparative research in a number of European countries by the University of Michigan political scientist, Ron Inglehart, locates a “post-industrial Left” among intellectuals, those employed in the knowledge-related and opinion-forming occupations, and the better-educated young; they “emphasize individual self-expression and achieving a more participant, less hierarchical society . . . if necessary at the cost of further economic expansion,” as distinct from the “industrial Left” which emphasizes “economic and physical security.” The latter tends to be supported by “lower-income groups.” In Denmark, an opinion study indicates that fully 14 per cent of the “upper class” back parties to the Left of the Social Democrats, mainly reflecting New Left values, while only 2 per cent vote for the working-class-based Social Democrats. The sizable New Left wings of the French and German socialists also find their support among the intelligentsia.
The great “calm” which has descended on the campuses here and in Europe does not reflect the reemergence of a conservative student or faculty population. Recent national surveys of American students by Yankelovich and Gallup indicate a continued high level of political and social alienation, of rejection of dominant institutions. Marshall Meyer, who compared the attitudes of Harvard students in May 1974 with those expressed in an opinion poll taken in May 1969, right after the occupation of the administration building, the “bust,” and the general strike, reports almost identical sets of socially critical anti-establishment sentiments. Gallup finds few identified Republicans among undergraduates, about 15 per cent, while at Harvard, the institution whose graduates have traditionally occupied a larger number of leadership positions than those of any other university, less than 10 per cent back the GOP. Most Harvard students today place themselves on the Left to a greater or lesser degree, although more as New Politics liberals than as radicals; and so too do a majority of college senniors nationally. The proportion in both populations who describe their politics as “far Left” is about the same as for the Republicans. This is a far different picture from that reported of Harvard and national-student opinion before World War II. And obviously the American elite in future years will be drawn from these undergraduates, who are good prospects for the ranks of the intelligentsia. A 1975 national survey of opinions of college faculty conducted by Everett Ladd and myself indicates a professoriate highly critical of American political and economic institutions.
In stressing the extent to which the increasing numbers and influence of intellectuals and the intelligentsia have helped to undermine the legitimacy of Western society and produced a divided, uneasy governing class, I do not deny the special contribution of the Vietnam war and Watergate to the decline in self-confidence. Clearly, the confusion among the American elite, and the loss of faith among the public, are much greater than would have been the case had these events not occurred. Yet the evidence is clear that comparable, if not as extensive, challenges have come from similar strata in other Western countries without benefit of Vietnam and Watergate. The rise of a mass intelligentsia, or a highly educated oppositionist stratum, may be the fulfillment of Joseph Schumpeter's prophecy that capitalism would be brought down by the intellectuals for whom the justification of economic efficiency would not be enough, who would gnaw away at the competitive society for its lack of moral virtue. As he put it, the “intellectual group cannot help nibbling . . . and the criticism of persons and of current events will, in a situation in which nothing is sacrosanct, fatally issue in criticism of classes and institutions.” Intellectuals, as Karl Mannheim noted, find it difficult to live in a world “utterly without any transcendent element, either in the form of a Utopia or an ideology.”
Those who defend the system on non-idealistic grounds of pragmatic efficiency are unable to counter the intellectual critiques. John Maynard Keynes spoke to this issue when he concluded that “the power of the vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. . . . Soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.”
Faced with attacks on their legitimacy from intellectuals backed by the growing massive intelligentsia, many in the governing elite exhibit a failure of nerve. The fundamental tensions, the contradictions within the Western system, come increasingly from within the elite itself—from its intellectual and communications leaders, supported by large segments of its student children. If in Hegelian terms the basic contradiction of capitalism has been its dependence on an ever-growing working class brought together in large factories, the main contradiction of post-industrial society may be its reliance on trained intelligence, on research and innovation, which requires it to bring together large numbers of intellectuals on great campuses in and around intellectual communities located at the centers of communication and influence.
Edward N. Luttwak: Even the most determined Leninist would be hard put to find respectable materialist reasons for the present weakness of the Western world. By every imaginable index, the economic superiority of the West is vast. If we compare the American economy with the Russian, even in this year of depression, the Gross National Product of the United States is almost twice as large; if we compare the combined national product of Western Europe and Japan with that of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European clients, we find the first no less than two-and-a-half times as large. And as between the Western economies and those of the Third World and China, there is literally no valid term of comparison.
It is sometimes suggested that economic power should no longer be measured through the GNP at all, but rather in terms of the control of raw materials. Many of the theorists who have been proclaiming the obsolescence of military power as the basic currency of world politics and the advent of “economic power” began by comparing GNP's and then quietly substituted the pre-modern notion that economic power derives from the accidental ownership of desirable raw materials rather than from the sum total of human talent, discipline, and past investment that together defines the limits of a nation's productive capacity. The oil crisis has lent a measure of plausibility to the idea, but closer scrutiny reveals it as utterly invalid. Raw materials are a territorial asset; as such their control depends on military power, which in turn reflects a nation's productive capacity, or in other words, economic power in its broad and only valid sense. The oil-price crisis cannot be the cause of a decline in Western power precisely because it is the salient symptom of a decline in authority: without the prior weakening of America's perceived ability to punish enemies and support friends, the oil cartel would never have dared to do what it did.
Since other raw materials are not as generally useful as oil, nor their output so concentrated, what goes for oil goes for the rest, only more so. If the West lacks the authority to deter attacks upon its vital economic interests, then the control of raw materials can be used as a weapon against it; if the West could recover its authority, then the raw-materials producers could have no great leverage over its economic life. In other words, if we look to raw-materials supply as an explanation of Western decline, we are confusing cause with symptom.
A slightly more plausible explanation for the present weakness of the West is the undoubted decline in American and Western military power as compared to the Soviet Union and, even more, the rest of the world. Seemingly unencumbered by demands for an improvement in living standards still by and large dismal, the Soviet Union, with half the productive capacity, has been able to allocate more resources than the United States to its military establishment. The salient trend, however, is not the rising profile of Russian military power, but rather the relative decline in the American. This is revealed most glaringly in the Middle East where the growth in local military power since the early 1960's has been spectacular. Nor is the Middle East all that much of a special case. The growth in Third World military power has seemingly proceeded with much more regularity than its economic growth. India, for example, even while extending the begging bowl, has built up a military establishment of a million men with almost 2,000 battle tanks, more than 700 combat aircraft, and much else besides, including a plutonium bomb or two. It seems that India and much of the rest of the Third World have no hesitation in defining their national priorities in a manner calculated to enhance their military power at the expense of the most elemental of social needs. All this may help to explain the first causes of the decline in the authority of the United States on the world scene, since the underlying base of military power has undoubtedly declined sharply in relative terms.
But at a deeper level nothing is explained. Why has the interplay of domestic politics manifest in Congress resulted in a steadily diminishing allocation of resources to the common defense? With all the signs and consequences of military weakness plain for all to see, why is Congress still acting to cut the defense budget still further? (Congressional restraint in the wake of the fall of South Vietnam did not go so far as to offset fully the prior effects of inflation.) At present, to be sure, with the economy in an unfamiliar counter-Keynesian predicament, the control of inflation requires limits on government expenditure even in a severe recession. For the very first time social and military outlays are genuine alternatives. But the circumstances of 1975 merely added a short-lived impulse (which has the backing of mass opinion) to the long-standing pressure of much of the country's intellectual elite for more disarmament and less armament.
Why does much of the country's intellectual and opinion-making elite believe that what is needed in these disordered times is a further weakening of American power and therefore American authority? It may seem that the answer is simple, indeed obvious: the long, unsuccessful, morally suspect, and deeply frustrating war in Vietnam has supposedly engendered a reaction against all activism overseas and against its instruments, the military establishment and the intelligence agencies. This explanation has an almost compelling plausibility until the field of view is broadened to include Europe and its intellectual elites. It is then revealed as utterly inadequate. Neither the Danes nor the Dutch fought in Vietnam for a decade, neither the British nor the Belgians lost 50,000 dead in remote strife, and yet we find among them exactly the same elite attitudes toward national power and military force.
Indeed, in many ways the attitudes of the intellectual elite in the United States are directly imitative of those of the European intelligentsia, many of whom have long been in opposition to the purposes of government—and to mass opinion. In some cases, the imitation is both overt and mechanical (one thinks of I. F. Stone), but much more often common intellectual attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic reflect a common logic of opposition to one's own nation and therefore to all its agencies of power, and especially the military. This logic could be seen emerging by stages in the recent debate on the use of force against the oil cartel. What made Robert W. Tucker's “Oil: The Issue of American Intervention” in the January issue of COMMENTARY the cause célébre of 1975 was not Tucker's discussion of the option of force, but rather his obvious concern with the preservation of Western wealth and Western power. And the debate was not fundamentally about the legitimacy of force, but rather the legitimacy of the material bases of Western civilization.
Whatever else we may have learned, from the technicalities of capital transfers to the vulnerability of petroleum-extraction facilities to sabotage, the great lesson of the debate was that a good many of the journalistic academics and academic journalists who form the country's opinion-making elite no longer view the protection of American and/or Western interests as legitimate. Rarely overtly declared, this position was implicit in the writing of those who answered Tucker by insisting on American profligacy in using raw materials, by pointing to the past “exploitation” of the oil producers, and by raising the entire issue of international inequality in wealth and welfare. Where there was no pretense of elegant expression, there was much talk of “gas-guzzling” American automobiles, of scarce oil-based fertilizer squandered on American golf courses, and so on.
It may seem that the refusal of these elite voices to countenance the protection of Western interests merely reflects the belated realization that the principles of equality of results apply beyond the artificial barrier of state frontiers. But the renunciatory position of much of the intellectual elite is not limited to economic issues, and it is not generally based on the principle of equal consumption for all. For those who support the current Third World demand for the creation of a “new economic world order,” based on massive redistribution regardless of productivity, are also the ones who challenge the need to protect Western political interests vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and its lesser competitors. And the sentiments or principles that may be evoked to justify redistribution are wholly out of place in the political and security sphere. Even it by elaborate arguments the large-scale transfer of Western wealth to rich oil producers can be portrayed as a stage toward eventual redistribution, no argument, however elaborate, can justify on the same basis acceptance of the Soviet Union's continuing drive to expand its power, or the imperialism of Hanoi. And yet these are the obvious consequences of elite attitudes toward national power.
We find the same people arguing that American strategic power is already grossly excessive, and that Soviet demands in the Strategic-Arms-Limitation Talks are proper; that the forces of NATO should be reduced, unilaterally if need be; that the agencies of American national power are corrupt and corrupting; and of course that the economic demands of the Third World are justified. By an unfailing logic followed implicitly even when explicitly denied, we find that everywhere and in all dimensions of international life, the common denominator of these intellectual views is hostility to the West, its interests, and its conduct.
In fact, exactly the same people who oppose the instruments and purposes of American power are also doing their level best to arrest economic growth and to inhibit America's capacity to produce. The contradiction between the extreme environmentalist position (which has become so common that it no longer even seems so extreme) and human welfare at home as well as altruism overseas is direct and inescapable. Faced with a choice between a further avenue of negation, this time of Western economic power, and the well-being of the common man—ostensibly the central concern of these altruistic elites of ours—we find a decisive majority choosing the former, with spectacular results.
To a far greater extent than anyone could have imagined when the explosive growth of the environmental movement began in 1969, new legal restrictions are constricting very severely the productive capacity of the United States while the attempt is made to reverse in a very few years the total environmental effects of industrialization. Owing to legislation passed with the nearly total support of the intellectual elites, hundreds of industrial plants have been shut down, thousands of non-elite workers have been thrown out of work, and agricultural output has been greatly restricted. DDT, undoubtedly the greatest life-giving discovery of the century, is now a dirty word in exactly the same circles where the words Pentagon and CIA are dirty words. We have witnessed the systematic creation and very successful propagation of a whole set of new principles of impotence. The same chorus tells us that we cannot and should not break the oil cartel, that we cannot build more nuclear plants because they are dangerous, that we cannot mine more coal because it ravages the earth, that we cannot delay the introduction of gas-wasting catalytic converters and smoke scrubbers because of air pollution, and lately, that we cannot drill for offshore oil because it would devastate the tidelands. At the same time, unemployment at home and the reduced ability of this country to feed the hungry abroad are violently deplored, as if these were not the inescapable consequences of these core attitudes.
The class-interest motivation that David Caute found among the Stalinist fellow-travelers certainly no longer applies. Even the infinite capacity for self-delusion that enabled writers and artists in the 1930's to imagine that they would be better off in a Stalinist world than in their own, could not nowadays motivate the Western intellectual elites. For the anti-Western nations on the contemporary scene do not bother to simulate any special concern for the intellectual or the artist; neither Algeria nor China nor any of the anti-Western regimes in between has made a sustained effort to emulate the ostensible solicitude that sufficed to attract the support of so many artists and intellectuals for Stalin's Russia.
We are left, then, with self-destructiveness as an explanation. The dark and irrational motive forces of self-destruction are inherently refractory to analysis. Alienation, once the recondite anxiety of the few, has certainly become as common as the common cold, and it certainly has corrosive political effects. Those of the Western intellectual elites who are motivated by the impulse of self-hatred perhaps see the hostile forces now converging upon the West as some sort of solution to the predicament of their own alienation. Hence the peculiarly aggressive Kulturpessimismus, the willful demoralization, and the eager attention given to every trace of weakness in Western society. Vast theses so baldly stated cannot be pressed beyond tentative suggestion. But even if basic causes remain in doubt, there is no uncertainty in respect of consequences. No civilization can hope to endure for very long when much of its intellectual elite, far from contributing to its further progress, is eager to see it destroyed.
Hans J. Morgenthau: In the Indochina debacle, the United States has not just suffered a military and political defeat as it is the fate of nations to suffer from time to time, the kind of defeat it suffered in the war of 1812. In that faraway and self-chosen place, the American conception of its identity has faced a challenge and failed to meet it. Having to absorb a defeat that touches the very core of its being, a healthy society would have to come to terms with a number of basic questions. What accounts for this defeat—the accidents of parties, leadership, bad luck; or something more fundamental—the quality of our society, the discord between our perception of reality and that reality itself? When Spain in 1898 was faced with questions such as these, it brought forth the “Generation of 1898,” a group of brilliant and devoted historians, writers, and poets, who searched the soul of Spain for an answer; they did not find it, and if what they did remained literature, at least they searched. It behooves us at least to search.
Two impulses drew America to Vietnam: to contain Communism within the limits it had reached in 1954, and the conviction that America armed with good intentions and an unmatched quantity of material power was bound to succeed. These two impulses were projected into a Manichean world where good and evil were clearly identified and the triumph of the former was assured by the very nature of the world perceived. “The light at the end of the tunnel” was to be real; for it symbolized the promise of ultimate success. If the hour of success was delayed and the enemy “kept coming,” it could only be because of the obstructions the peace movement, the secular equivalent of the heretics, temporarily put in the path of victory.
The definite failure of the policy derived from these premises has been met by three reactions: a call for national unity to face new issues confronting us; a call for a more rational commitment of force the next time around; and a reexamination of the policies that led to disaster.
The first reaction is essentially not a reaction at all, but an evasion, and it is no accident that the President has been its principal spokesman. It denies by implication that we ought to reexamine our notions about the world and our policies with regard to it, and that we have anything to learn from our failure. “No recriminations” is a call for national unity. It is also a call for national forgetfulness, for collective intellectual lassitude. Vietnam was just one of those things, best to be forgotten, an accidental and non-repetitive exception to the natural order of success. Let us carry on in the accustomed ways, and everything will turn out all right.
The second reaction is primarily represented by the Secretary of State. He argues that if only President Nixon had been able to act more forcefully during the last phase of his Presidency, defeat would have been turned into victory and the ultimate debacle been avoided. In other words, it was not the use of force as such that was at fault, but its inappropriate use and, more particularly, its weakness.
The most widespread and popular reaction to the war concerns its conduct and its overall justification on strategic and tactical grounds. We should not have gone into Vietnam at all—so the argument runs—or if we did, we should have pursued this or that strategy or tactics rather than the ones we did. That line of argument is particularly popular with former supporters of the war, who understandably tend to make a disagreement concerning the conduct of the war appear as having been an argument against the war itself.
The public at large has reacted to these diverse analyses, some implausible or patently self-serving, with remarkable apathy. There have been no recriminations, no outcries of despair, no acts of reassessment. The American public, which had just witnessed the halo of the Presidency recovered in tatters from the gutter of fraud and corruption, appears to have suffered ignominious defeat in war in a state of unreacting numbness. What this passivity portends for the future of American democracy and the American people cannot be ascertained at this moment in history. Only history itself can answer the questions COMMENTARY poses. None of the answers these questions suggest is at present foreclosed. But while it is impossible to answer COMMENTARY's questions, it is possible to give an answer to three questions it does not pose but which bear upon the future of American democracy, and of America.
The apathy with which the American people have received the catastrophe of Vietnam is but a particular manifestation of a general retreat from politics. For a number of reasons, with which I have dealt elsewhere, large masses of the American electorate have lost faith in their ability to influence the decisions of the government through their use of the democratic processes. The controversies over the Vietnam war have shown with particular poignancy the futility and the risks of opposing the government in a course of action it is resolved to pursue. They have also shown the impossibility for the electorate to pass judgment on the actions of the government at all insofar as the government conceals its actions from the public. The result of this breakdown of democratic controls has been, on the one hand, the radicalization of a small minority which proposes to destroy the system that has so spectacularly failed, and, on the other, the political apathy of a large and growing segment of the electorate which refuses to be concerned with issues it cannot do anything about. That disorder will be remedied, and this vacuum will be filled, either by a virtually permanent bureaucracy or by a Presidential authoritarianism, both exempt from democratic control. The beginnings of both developments can already be clearly seen.
In a healthy democracy, a ruling elite as guilty of political ignorance, military misjudgments, and moral outrages as the one that got us into, and kept us in, the Vietnam war, would have been replaced by one which would at least have had a clean record. Yet the very same people who mismanaged our affairs abroad and deceived us at home continue to govern us. Since what these people believed and did was not the result of some isolated accidents but the organic outgrowth of their philosophies and perceived interests, it cannot be expected that they will govern us in the future more successfully and honestly than they did in the past. In other words, the failure of certain ruling individuals perpetuated in power indefinitely is tantamount to a crisis of the system.
Short of a popular revolution, which for reasons discussed elsewhere must be discounted, only the President can make an end to such a system of misgovernment. Yet that system has in good measure been created by, and has been the extension of the personalities of, two recent Presidents, Johnson and Nixon. Furthermore, such a system will yield only to the strongest and most astutely applied Presidential power. Yet both the recent abuses of Presidential power, calling forth a popular reaction against Presidential power as such, and the inability of the present incumbent to use it astutely, strengthen the staying power of the present ruling elite.
Thus the definite answers to the questions posed can only be given in retrospect by history. As concerns the present and the future, one can only repeat the obvious: the American system of government stands and falls with the character and ability of the President. It has fallen with the stewardship of three Presidents, in different ways inadequate for the office. It will rise again, performing its tasks at home and abroad, only if it can put at the helm again a President who is capable of harnessing the enormous potential power of America to tasks that express its interests, are commensurate with that power, and pass muster by its moral values.
Zygmunt Nagorski, Jr.: It is disturbingly easy to indict the United States. All the ingredients are available. As one of the two major superpowers—the mightiest and best equipped, militarily and technologically—we keep floundering. Our longest, most ill-advised, and most internally divisive war has just been lost. Our efforts to act as a catalyst for peace in the Middle East have been abortive. Our policy toward America's traditional allies continues to vacillate according to the ups and downs of détente. Even in our traditional back yard—Latin America—we have not been sympathetic to forces attempting to break with a stagnant past and enter a new period of social progress and political experimentation.
Throughout the world, in fact, the United States has come to be identified with repressive governments. Somehow, with our frail, human memories, we tend to blur America's past, which is actually one of glory, vision, and political creativity. Some writers and commentators, in attempting to be original or different, or both, have begun to view the post-World War II world with a fresh eye, one characterized by self-accusation and condemnation. In addition, our motives are being questioned and our integrity doubted.
Within American society our values continue to erode. Young people who only a few years ago spent their summers in Mississippi fighting for a cause, have joined the very system they tried to reform. Others who marched for peace have settled into comfortable jobs. Escapist books sell well. Religious defectors try mystic cults and listen to would-be prophets.
So today, it is easy, comfortable, almost fashionable, to write, strikingly and convincingly, finis to the era of history known as American civilization. Yet it is neither the end nor the upheaval of one civilization leaving the stage while another waits in the wings. Large, untapped political forces remain. Resolutions buried under the debris of Watergate and Vietnam still exist in the minds of people whose voices haven't been heard, whose views haven't been aired, whose political activities have gone unnoticed. The American political entity awaits rediscovery.
What makes me think it is still there? The vitality and flexibility of the system. Behind this is a reservoir of wisdom and involvement, two ingredients which American leaders in the last decade or so have failed to recognize.
A sampling of American public opinion about the standing of the United States abroad reinforces this conclusion. In December 1974 a survey was conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. This was at a time when recession had begun to pinch and the Vietnam situation to disintegrate, when the Middle East was the scene of shuttle diplomacy, and Europe was looking in vain for leadership from across the Atlantic. The survey was revealing. The necessity of a growing economic interdependence was both understood and considered important. As the survey indicated, the American people were prepared to make some sacrifices, including reducing their energy consumption, if the reduction would help underdeveloped countries or America's allies to resist the oil embargo. Two-thirds of those polled wanted the United States to continue to play an active role in the world. Economic strength, as an ingredient of U.S. leadership abroad, ranked first, and moral leadership second. When a choice was suggested between defense and domestic priorities, 42 per cent preferred cutting the defense budget rather than domestic needs. In case of attack on a friendly nation, those surveyed were divided; they weren't sure. Regarding Canada, 77 per cent would respond with U.S. troops; in Western Europe, only 39 per cent favored the direct involvement of the U.S.; a bare 27 per cent would favor sending American troops should Israel face defeat by the Arabs. Conversely, 21 per cent favored military intervention as a response to another oil embargo.
What does this survey tell us? It tells a lot, in terms of the vitality of the nation, in spite of Vietnam, in spite of the economic stress, in spite of the flabbiness of the internal social structure. It is true that America is fat, self-centered, and self-contained; and it is true that the young are cynical and the old are disillusioned. Yet there is hope. Proper leadership could tap the reservoir of national will and produce a counterforce capable of stopping the deterioration predicted by the prophets of gloom and doom.
The CCFR survey also points to the popular need, almost a hunger, for a sense of purpose. It does not have to be a national purpose; it could be the goal of creating a link between the welfare of the American people and that of the Third World, the concept of interdependence spelled out in a need to make sacrifices at home in order to bring about a better world. In such a world there would be more jobs, more productivity, and a more equitable distribution of income—which, in turn, would permit stability for the haves and a better chance of stability for the have-nots. The fact that many Americans indicated a willingness to reduce their fuel consumption is evidence of their sensitivity, as well as their long-term thinking. What is needed, therefore, is an administration that will translate these aims into practical, political terms. Appeals for voluntary restrictions have not worked. What is needed—what many are asking for—is a federal initiative that would convert the aims mentioned above into law.
Fuel consumption, however, is just one small issue among those affecting the economic health of the United States. The restoration of this health must be achieved before the U.S. can resume its leadership abroad. All of the events of the last three decades have been linked to the economic welfare of America. World War II descended on Washington after dynamic federal initiatives had helped pull the country out of a depression. The major postwar involvement—the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan—saw, in the sharing of American resources and productive capacity, a brighter political future, both at home and abroad.
But the current situation is without precedent. We have lost a limited war fought on the other side of the globe. American diplomacy has shifted from a policy of expressing a consensus to one of unilateral decisions by the Secretary of State. As a result, America's influence with its friends and its foes has suffered considerably. At home we see our currency debased, our prices soaring, our ranks of unemployed growing. Meanwhile, our feeling of individual helplessness frustrates and angers us.
In order to rebuild American prestige and leadership, there must be a challenge at home, which if properly met will help create a domestic base for U.S. foreign policy. The challenge will require some drastic measures. It may well call for a significant reduction of our level of consumption, in order to share and thus to lead. At the same time, it may call for more productivity without the benefits of built-in incentives in terms of higher remuneration; for a concept of profit sharing and a more active workers' role in the direct corporate decision-making process. It may command all the resources of the government to persuade U.S. industries, in a friendly but decisive way, to go easy on profits and to go higher on growth.
Inevitably there will be social and economic conflicts between private enterprise and the federal government. This is a risk worth taking. Without it, chances of adaptations to the new and very real issue of our dependency on others—big and small alike—would be very slim indeed.
The risk is worth taking because the country (as the survey cited above indicates) is ready. It is unwilling, however, to go it alone, to bury itself in a new isolationism. There is an unspoken belief in America that the present concept of leadership is going to be with us for some time to come. Therefore, there is an as-yet-unspoken sign of a new maturity in our international behavior. Vietnam's fate provides a tragic example of a void created by American withdrawal being filled by the Communists; to many Americans, this represents a retrogression. Millions of Vietnamese refugees, like their predecessors in France in the 1940's, have chosen death, misery, and exile rather than accept the new political reality.
What does this mean, specifically? It means that a healthy United States must remain strong and alert; to do this, it will have to maintain a sizable defense force. It means that the U.S. may wish to continue its earlier programs of economic sharing on a larger scale—not in the form of assistance, but of joint ventures in which capital, production, technology, and human creativity are at the disposal of all the partners in the venture. It means a policy oriented much more toward the Third World, less in political than in social and economic terms. It may also mean a shift from the policies of the Kissinger period to a multi-polar, multinational policy after he leaves.
America has learned that its global power is limited. It has learned the painful lesson of its limitations at home, where the system of checks and balances prevented the President from continuing a war which many considered hopeless and has blocked a major commercial agreement between the United States and the Soviet Union over the almost forgotten issue of human rights.
There is neither “a failure of nerve” nor “a loss of political will” in the United States. The country is acting as if a powerful anesthetic had been injected into the body politic of the republic. It has been numbed by assassination, the corruption of the highest offices of the land, the inability to bring peace to the outside world, and a sudden realization that its economic welfare no longer depends solely on the ingenuity and genius of its own people. But the numbness is gradually receding. Strong leadership pointing in new directions for American society could help bring about a miracle—a miracle of self-denial, followed by the resurrection of a new, better, more enlightened America. Its essence will be to ride the wave of history and be a part of the social and political change that is now in the making. America is capable of going forward, providing there are enough leaders who can point the direction and make it part of Americas historical process.
Robert Nisbet: My hope is that the ending of our participation in Vietnam, with all the attendant horrors and humiliations, is the ending also, for once and all, of the current of Wilsonianism that has intermittently, and with dismal result, flowed through American history since about 1917. Kennedy's 1960 pledge “to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty” was pure Wilson, right out of the original mold. So, I regret to say, were the two acts taken by Kennedy's White House in 1963, before his assassination, which, above any others, got us thoroughly committed in military intensity in Vietnam. Inasmuch as there is already a tendency to conceal these two acts in sponge-like statements about “the thirty years' war,” about a chain of causation going back at least to Truman and forward, most certainly, to Johnson and Nixon, and about the whole spirit of the “cold war,” I would like to be explicit here.
The first of Kennedy's acts was that of sending 16,000 uniformed, armed troops to Vietnam under a four-star general, and this without authorization by Congress, as replacement for the few hundred civilian-clad military advisers who had been there for years, as indeed such advisers had been present in half-a-hundred places in the world since World War II. It is hard for 16,000 uniformed troops to become lost in the crowd, and it is a great deal easier to send them there than to bring them back, as every professional military man knows. For sheer reckless impulsiveness, that act by Kennedy's White House has few equals in our history.
But the second Kennedy decision was even more deadly in long-range consequence, even more Wilsonian in inspiration. I refer to the decision to aid and abet the deposing of Diem in 1963. This, especially when followed by the tragic and unforeseeable murder of Diem by Vietnam enemies, could not have helped but commit the United States to at least moral responsibility for all succeeding governments. Now for the first time a reluctant Congress, a reluctant military, and a reluctant American public began to feel the sense of irreversible commitment. All else that followed, including the escalation of the war under Johnson—also a worshipper at the Wilson shrine, as indeed was Nixon—seems to me of relatively minor significance, at least in terms of policy and strategy.
I am not recriminating; only analyzing. It is, it seems to me, terribly important that in the years ahead those awful mstakes not be made again. But if they are not to be made, the spirit of Woodrow Wilson has got to be purged from the American body politic. The essence of this spirit is the arrogance, not to say sheer stupidity, that is contained in Kennedy's Wilsonian “to pay any price, to bear any burden. . . .” What it means is that the price of America's military assistance is our right to meddle, in whatever political and moral degree, in the internal workings of the governments and social orders we undertake, for reasons of our national interest and containment of Communist aggressions, to assist on the world scene. It is a fatuous and ultimately suicidal spirit.
Wilson, who converted World War I from a Western war of national interests into a world crusade, epitomized by his preposterous Fourteen Points, proved to be a far more revolutionary figure than Lenin. After all, the advances of Leninism in Eastern Europe and Asia after World War I would not have been possible had the Wilsonian dogma of national self-determination and the Wilsonian spirit of political moralism, on a cosmic scale, not provided a broad avenue in advance. What Wilson did in World War I was done again in World War II by his spiritual heir, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who also, this time to the dismay of Churchill and de Gaulle instead of Lloyd George and Clemenceau, converted a war of national powers in Europe into a global crusade under the banner of the Four Freedoms. Once again an avenue was built that made Communist revolutionary advance easy.
The fatal flaw of Wilsonianism, with its endemic and epidemic political righteousness, its insistence upon trying all governments and other institutions by the hopeless criteria of Fourteen Points or Four Freedoms, or some equally Jacobinist nonsense, is that it can only erode, weaken, or destroy existing structures. It cannot, by its nature, build new ones—not durable ones, at least; only pseudo-structures like the League of Nations (which would have been no better had Wilson had his way with Henry Cabot Lodge) or the United Nations. The real work of building or rebuilding is invariably left to those who detest freedom and who do not shrink from the uses of force, repression, persecution, and terror. Could one find a better illustration of that right now than either Cambodia or South Vietnam?
I am inclined to think that the most fertile contexts of Wilsonianism right now are in the offices of newspaper editors and television-network anchormen. How scathing their denunciations of the Diems! But how generally nearsighted they become when they look to a Hanoi. That spirit spreads quickly, of course, to reporters in the field. It is not easy to forget David Halberstam and his Saigon associates in the early 1960's and their relentless dispatches excoriating Diem, bleeding for the Buddhists, and beseeching America, through whatever means, to rescue South Vietnam from Diem, to make it the lovely reflection of a Washington D.C., a New York, or a Los Angeles. Those dispatches, as we know, had a great deal to do with agitating the Rostows, Bundys, McNamaras, Rusks, and, yes, even that fearless young Pentagon intellectual of 1961, Daniel Ellsberg. The fact that, once the going got tough, the Halberstams, joined by their editors, commenced a moralistic exodus, one also joined in due time by a good many of “the best and the brightest” in the White House, should not be too much held against them. It has really always been that way in the history of intellectuals in the West.
What lies ahead? I tend to be moderately optimistic despite the twilight age of institutions we live in throughout the West. If somehow present forces of rampant bureaucratization in the areas of health, environment, education, and, above all, equalitarianism can only be restrained, if a spirit of localism, social initiative, and voluntary association in American society can reduce the load presently falling on the federal government, thus permitting government to do more effectively the things it is uniquely fitted for, we shall be greatly advantaged. After all, we do have a huge GNP, our fundamental economic institutions are strong, our wealth and political power still impressive on the world scene. I am also disposed to think that we do have an effective fighting force—quite apart from the whole of our supreme missiles armament—and that its record in Vietnam was not at all bad if we but remember that, thanks largely to the uninhibited, unrestrained presence of the American media, the American soldier was forced much of the time to fight with one arm tied behind his back. (Next time, if there is one, we must declare the war officially, thus making certain the media are in it with us!)
The horrifying conditions as I write which we know to be present in Cambodia will surely have, for a time at least, a moderating effect upon American intellectual tendency to try a Hanoi in a different court from a Saigon. I take encouragement too from the fact that no renascent isolationism appears to exist in the American mind, no spirit of Munich, not if the most recent Gallup poll on the subject has any validity. There is substantial evidence that Americans are still, in large number, willing to give aid to Israel and other countries with which we have friendly relationships—Japan, the Philippines, etc.
True, there is no manifest desire, so far as I can see, to repeat the Kennedy follies of 1963: direct use of troops ten thousand miles away, meddling in the internal affairs of a government on our side in resistance to Communist aggression. But for that indication of liberation from Wilsonianism, we—and also our allies, Israel, Japan, the Philippines, et al.—an only be grateful.
Michael Novak: Hans J. Morgenthau has criticized America s foreign-policy elite for its recent strategic errors, Daniel P. Moynihan for its failure of nerve. The present foreign-policy confusions of this elite are in great measure due, however, to classic weaknesses in high Protestant theology in America, and they are therefore likely to recur. To call for “new perspectives” without changing ancient presuppositions is self-defeating.
Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote an important essay on the great world responsibilities about to fall upon the shoulders of the Anglo-Saxon peoples. Full of hope—for what political tradition is its superior?—he nevertheless warned that each culture has its own weakness, usually embedded in the heart of its strength; and that the classic vice of Anglo-American culture is its propensity for cant. For various reasons, the radium of Niebuhr's analysis failed to burn the cancer out. His work, despite its vast merits, left our elites unready to learn from the disasters of the last twenty years—ready, indeed, to learn precisely the wrong lessons.
High Protestant theology is deeply embedded in the public language of Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, John Foster Dulles, the Rockefeller brothers, the great majority of the members of the Council on Foreign Relations, the vast majority of the upper reaches of the staffs of the State Department, the CIA, and the multinational corporations. This upper-class Protestant establishment has retained its hold more unbrokenly on the nation's foreign policy than on any other field in American life. It has characteristic ways of viewing the world, the meaning of America, and its own destined role in history.
No one would deny the great moral and political contributions of this establishment and its religious-secular traditions to American institutions. Among the elites of history, ours is far from being one of the worst. Societies invariably have elites, and we in the United States might well have had an elite less open, intelligent, democratic, and morally serious than the one we've had. There are many less liberal aspirants to power in the land.
Still, almost since the nation's founding, the hold of this elite upon the nation's self-understanding and upon its central cultural institutions—upon the Ivy League schools, upon the most influential organs of communication, and upon the highest political symbols of the land—has prevented the nation from obtaining a true image of itself. Our elite has for generations had a free ideological ride. Its own harsh business practices and cruel power politics were effectively masked from public gaze. The serious human vices on which the nation was built—the expropriation of the Indian; one of the cruelest systems of slavery in recorded history; the grim aggrandizement of frontier territories and of international resources—were rationalized away in such fashion that the phrase, “America is a good nation,” could be invested with less ironic belief and sentiment than it deserved.
Even Lincoln's hint about an “almost chosen” people was seldom translated into a harsh recognition that the American people—and the American elite—has in every generation been evil as well as good, avaricious as well as compassionate, deceitful as well as candid, often mediocre (Buchanan, Coolidge, Harding, the gray corporation presidents of the “Fortune 500”) as well as occasionally brilliant. Even Lincoln's cautious, humbling, reconciling wisdom was not taken as descriptive of our fallibility, but as proof of America's saintly wisdom. That we are a nation like all the others, that the new world might be as morally flawed as the old, that the weight of human flesh pulled as heavily upon our bones as upon any others—these quite sensible prognostications of common sense did not chasten the extraordinary self-confidence, sense of mission, and moral self-image of our elites. When they admitted their faults, it was not in order to see themselves as brothers and sisters in sin with all other humans on this planet, but, rather, to stir themselves again to moral superiority.
As a consequence, the decisive rupture of the major Protestant ideology of this land, which began with the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, with the black revolution, and with the lionization of the nations of the Third and Fourth Worlds, injured the nation's Protestant elite at the very core of its self-confidence. Accustomed to seeing itself as uniquely democratic, procedurally proper, morally good, and unchallengeably powerful, it was not prepared for the shock of accurate, mature self-discovery. Accustomed to welcoming accusations of guilt and wrongdoing as stimuli to still further self-improvement, this elite was not prepared for the total unmasking which was to tear off generations of moral pretense in a single decade. Its youngest heirs could no longer bear to be identified with it. For the first time in our history, the elite became morally suspect even to itself. Nothing else has so contributed to its embarrassingly visible loss of nerve. Ironically, one of the tasks facing the rest of us is to help restore the nerve of this elite.
Besides the traditional foreign-policy elite, however, there is an even more influential American foreign-policy elite: the upwardly mobile foreign correspondents of American newsweeklies and television, and the commentators. These are the few men and women who do most to make America known to the world, and the world to American public opinion. Increasingly, these correspondents have become, since World War II, a caste apart: well-paid; borne up by the power of the institutions they serve; marked by ambition. Their tours of duty are brief. Their careers depend upon distinguishing themselves from those they cover. The product of universities, sometimes of elite universities, they transparently view themselves as smarter than and morally superior to the generals, ambassadors, and foreign officials they interview. Supported by their networks, agencies, papers, chains, or wire services—bureaucrats themselves—they sneer at “petty bureaucrats” in other places. (The lonely free-lancer in foreign lands has none of their clout, perquisites, or ready identification.)
In this elite, too, a special theology is visible: the theology of ressentiment. Not themselves actors, not themselves heroes, doomed by their profession to be reflectors of the deeds of others, their shortest road to superiority is cynicism with respect to the reputations, aspirations, and accepted wisdom of others. They know that they cannot be successfully challenged, save by their peers, for after all they are the correspondents on the spot. Officials there cannot successfully quarrel with them. Academic specialists, at a great distance, can scarcely challenge them, save by in-adequate and undignified polemic. Without cultural background, as ignorant of native languages as the worst ambassadors they pillory, untrained and unpracticed in international economics, military affairs, or international politics, the journalists have vastly expanded power, if not to act, at least to skewer those who act or try to act.
There is a second part to this journalistic theology: an almost childlike expectation that the world should be better, more rational, more dedicated than it is. Reporters used to have a reputation as hardened cynics; in the television age, affluent and privileged, they seem to favor moral outrage, hopes for justice, and betterment. They serve the role in the conscience of the elite the liberal clergy once provided: mixing fact, gravity, and encouragement to be more moral.
It is one thing for the army to test its junior officers “in the field” and “under fire”; strategy, after all, is made by seasoned officers outside the heat. It is another for the media to feed the world the deliverances of temporary correspondents. AH around the world, American reporters have acquired a novel reputation. An official of Bangladesh describes “American reporters who became instant experts and who, during interviews, would offer advice in sneering voices.” From the Philippines, one hears of “American reporters who do not have the skills to report.” Foreign governments now know that American reporters are slanted toward reporting what goes wrong. Intelligent foreigners do not believe the American press. Many marvel at its innocence.
The governing story from abroad, especially in Asia, seems always to be contempt for the sins of freedom and admiration for the discipline of terror. What they would never accept in their own lives, many admire in reporting: the purpose, sense of mission, and discipline of totalitarian regimes. The corruption, confusion, and teeming multiplicity of freer societies seem to shock their puritan sensibilities. The notion that the United States could be allied to governments at once non-democratic and, at the same time, wallowing in lack of discipline, offends them. And so they debunk free societies and praise “disciplined” societies, where their profession would be the first to be dissolved. Whence springs this suicidal impulse? Why this double standard? Imagine, for example, if a dictatorship or military junta had emptied the cities of Greece or Chile with the thoroughness of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, driving some three million persons at gunpoint from their homes, herding hospital patients, the elderly, the wounded, children, women, into open countryside without supplies or any shelter, and in the expectation that as many as half might die. Would Sydney Schanberg, in reporting from the scene, have pleaded there as he did in his New York Times stories on Cambodia, for “understanding,” or suggested that such herding of refugees was not “cruel” but only “ideological” in intent, a “new beginning,” a “hard necessity”? Would Anthony Lewis have applauded such double-think as he applauded Schanberg? So many reporters use one standard for Communist regimes, another standard for non-Communist regimes. They seem to have a guilty conscience about their position in a capitalist and free society, and to be attracted to those who show a puritan rigor in avoiding soft beds even while they drive millions to unfreedom and death.
Public prestige is a very large part of relations between societies that hardly know each other. A free press within a nation, in which citizens have an opportunity to act on what they learn, is not identical to a free press that is the public link between nations. When persons or cultures are well-known to each other, hostility and candor can be borne; when they are virtual strangers, communication best proceeds through rather elaborate rituals of courtesy, tacitness, and compliment.
In this respect, the press has not yet developed codes to go with its vast new power over foreign policy. In many parts of the world, the judgment of one or two correspondents, magnified on television (or in the journals that guide television), has at times more public power than the Presidency, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or the Pentagon, or all together. This is a systemic weakness of colossal and almost universally tragic proportions.
But the few foreign correspondents at any one place upon the planet would not have such excessive power if our chief national elite were not so much in thrall to “good copy,” “good ink”—if the rules of social standing and social power and celebrity had not changed dramatically since 1945. Until the power of television had become almost universally entrenched, power elites could let the public be damned. Since the Kennedy era, power is not enough; celebrity is sought. Power is no longer merely economic; there is power—and money—in visibility, charisma, decency, virtue, outspokenness, rebellion. Thus, major figures who in another age would have cared not a fig for the opinion of Peoria, Brooklyn, or the Bronx fall over themselves to go as public as possible, and to be seen to stand on the “young” and “revolutionary” and “anti-establishment” side of everything that comes along. So eager was “culture” to join “counterculture” that The Greening of America appeared in the New Yorker, and John D. Rockefeller III celebrated the “revolution” of the young. The itch to appear to be moral, as the major organs of the press define moral, has provided a massive flight from dignity and common sense.
How could this “yellowing” of America have come about? Elites do not lose their starch in a single shower; years of drizzles soften them. By its “theology,” I do not mean anything so formal as ecclesiastical creeds or theological textbooks. No sophisticated person of the elite, except in his memoirs or at moments of high public crisis, would willingly utter a theological expression; religion is a private matter. What I mean is a vision of the world and of one's own place within it. And here, surely, for the graduates of Choate, Milton, Groton, of Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, a remarkable theology has had a decisive influence.
Compare They Died With Their Boots On (Erroll Flynn, 1942) to Little Big Horn (Dustin Hoffman, 1969). Compare Uncle Tom's Cabin to Soul on Ice. Compare the OSS of 1941-45 to the CIA of 1975. Compare “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” to “Peace now!” Compare the Philippine campaign of 1898 to Vietnam in 1975. There would not today be such devastating revisionism if the earlier ideology had been less complacent. The fathers were not more moral than the sons. Yet the celebration of the Bicentennial everywhere revives the old illusions; our elites seem everywhere unable to recognize the evils and deficiencies of their supposedly heroic fathers.
The confidence of America's Protestant elite was based upon a false and self-deceiving sense of virtue. On this basis, this elite asserted itself over the pervasive isolationism of the lower, evangelical Protestantism of the South and the Middle West. On this basis, this elite imposed as much of its image upon the world as its power allowed. “The Arrogance of Power,” Senator Fulbright called it; but it used to be thought of as responsibility, stewardship, duty, mission. “The imperial Presidency,” guilt and self-doubt whisper now; Teddy Roosevelt would have shouted it as a boast.
The old theology was partly Calvinist and partly Darwinian. Power was confused with virtue. On the one hand, it appeared, the strongest were the morally most fit. On the other hand, power must be held in stewardship, and each generation of the elite was taught that it must legitimate its power by being on the side of the moral issues of its time. This confusion between morality and power has always been the Achilles heel of America's elite. The modern media have found it. Our elite cannot tolerate being made to feel guilty. It must not only be moral. It must be seen to be moral. And since beliefs in moral progress have taken root (the old Calvinism of “life is a jungle” having died, even in the Wall Street Journal), it is especially important for our present elders to be esteemed by their children. The elders no longer tutor the young in “the hard facts of life,” the young teach the elders moral dreams.
According to the classic but deficient American theology, power and virtue were as one. A “blue ribbon” panel meant upper-class morality. “Sterling,” as a qualifier of character, was, as well, a family name. No rival elite, at home or abroad, was for generations able to challenge this illusion. No one who has ever dealt with Yankee traders believes our elite has been a “soft touch.” Even our great national acts of generosity—the Marshall Plan, the rehabilitation of Japan—were acts of intelligent self-interest, through which our elites did not grow poorer in wealth or power. But this American elite never had to face, in full public clarity, the power politics, the economic blackmail, the sheer force, the duplicity, and the other elements of Realpolitik that were always necessary and always present in every exercise of American power, foreign and domestic. Few other Americans, and few among the world's nations in conflict with us, were in a position to challenge its raw power or to unmask the falsehood in its public moral posture.
Thus our foreign-policy elite has lacked for almost the whole of its history an accurate theology by which it might correctly understand its own behavior and be absolved of the normal amounts of human guilt.
The dangers the rest of us face while our foreign-policy elite recovers its composure are twofold, and so are the opportunities. On the one hand, the elite may go on trying to pretend that it is young, moral, revolutionary, and even “anti-establishment.” But everything we know about human behavior suggests that soon people will grab hold of themselves, call nonsense nonsense, and get on with the task of practical but imperfect accomplishment. Surely, a revulsion against the moral pretenses of the press is setting in; the sight of correspondents sitting in circles and giving wisdom is inherently revolting. On the other hand, the elite may overreact; angered and resentful, many might return to a hidebound, classical conservatism, precipitating not only an economic and social but also an international reaction. One remembers the generals of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, like dinosaurs that yet may show their face again.
The opportunities are also twofold. First, perhaps at last we may gain an accurate national self-understanding. We are a human nation, like all the others before us. We carry many guilts, and we have manifold faults. We are not now, and have never been, innocent. On the other hand, in the history of the world, no nation has aimed at, or achieved, so large a relative share of liberty, equality, and justice, for ourselves and others. No other nation stands, as we do, between an almost universal blanket of gray tyranny and the possibilities of liberty. Many of our optimists do not understand that such possibilities of liberty include possibilities of corruption and evil. Many Americans have been spoiled by America's liberties; they expect the human race to be innocent, and are dismayed by conflict, violence, sloth, and greed. This theology of innocence is in the worst and most naive of American traditions. Now is the opportunity to end it.
The second opportunity is more complex. The nation needs to face directly the problems of national survival. It is not plain that forty years from now there will exist a free, independent, and democratic United States of America, or that there will exist upon this planet free, independent, and democratic allies. We are not a perfect nation, not a purely moral nation, not an innocent nation. In our maturity, it should be enough that, whatever our sins, we do what we can to increase, at least by a little, the number of people on this planet who live in liberty, with whatever measure of justice and equality we can attain. It will be sufficient to have modest hopes. The universal outlook is far from sanguine.
William Phillips: In foreign affairs, I feel the failure has been one of intelligence rather than of will, though will is eroded by stupidity. As for the domestic scene, I think it is marked by confusion, frustration, and self-indulgence of the kind usually found in civilizations on the decline.
But it is not easy to answer the questions posed by COMMENTARY, because they are more complex than their usual formulations. In fact, it is difficult to disentangle oneself from the stereotyped positions that have dominated our thinking, both conservative and radical, neither of which holds any monopoly on political nonsense.
Never has the political situation been so muddled. Obviously it is too complicated for a quick analysis; but my own feeling is that it has its roots in the perversion of Communist and socialist ideals by the Soviet Union and the parties it controls. Thus not only has the Left been split, but this warped situation has produced a backlash against any kind of Marxist or socialist views. The result has been an unnatural polarization, one that has been divisive without being productive. Much of the Left, for example, has tended to play down the lack of freedom in the Communist countries, while the Right, and many anti-Communists, have mostly minimized America's political and economic injustices. Hence the possibility of a sane and independent liberalism or radicalism has been squeezed out, as people are forced to choose between two opposing half-truths.
I think, therefore, it might help to clarify the issues if we look briefly at the two polarized stances. Essentially, the fashionable radical view is that there is no national interest; that, instead, the country is dominated by power groups; that far from promoting democracy abroad, we are supporting reactionary regimes when it suits our purposes; that the spread of Communism poses no threat; that the domino theory is wrong; and that, besides, Communist regimes are better than the ones they displace in many parts of the world. As for the Middle East, most radicals tend to see the Arabs as a progressive, nationalistic force, at least in relation to Israel. And on the question of radicals' feelings about their own country, there is a good deal of ambiguity and hedging on whether bourgeois American democracy with all its failings is better than Communist dictatorship. Obviously there is some truth in this radical picture, but also enough falsification to create a distorted idea of the political actualities of today and thus add to the general confusion and paralysis. But I do not believe that even those foolish radicals or liberals who hold some vulgarized version of these views are responsible for the crisis in which America finds itself, except insofar as they deter more intelligent analyses of the situation. I know that many conservatives tend to blame the Left for our plight, but that seems to me an inflation of the Left's power—and a deflation of other forces, like business, corrupt politicians, Middle America, etc. Today, when the New Left is dead, and the drift even among liberals is to the Right, it is difficult to find a scapegoat for the fix the Nixons and Fords have gotten us into.
The dominant conservative outlook is just the opposite. It assumes a common national interest, a common purpose in maintaining and spreading democracy throughout the world, and a common dedication to justice and freedom. Conservatives regard the nation as though it were a unified whole, like a person, whose actions depend on its health, wisdom, and will. And when the nation finds itself in a crisis or fails to act properly in its own interests, then the failure is ascribed to moral or psychological flaws. Above all, it might be said that conservatives believe in their own rhetoric: they believe, that is, in their democratic, anti-Communist slogans, which makes it all the harder to understand why America failed so miserably in Vietnam. Hence the question of what went wrong is reduced in the minds of conservative spokesmen like Reagan or Goldwater or Buckley to a failure of will—which, ironically, is the kind of application of psychoanalysis to society they would normally condemn.
Admittedly, such an explanation does sound plausible if you ask simply why the most powerful nation in the world was not able to contain—or destroy—the North Vietnamese or the Cambodian Communists: why, in short, we did not use all our fire-power at once. Perhaps American firepower could have pulverized all of North Vietnam, if America were ready to disregard world opinion. But such restraint could be taken as a sign of moral flabbiness only if the gauge of moral fiber is the willingness to wage all-out war anywhere in the world and on every occasion.
But as the anti-Communist Left knows, the issue of Communist expansion cannot be resolved by transforming a political question into a military one. And Vietnam was but one of the places where the American government has exhibited a degree of political ignorance of the strengths and appeals of Communism usually reserved for experts. Only the official anti-Communists, the generals and the politicians, were unaware that Vietnam was a political battlefield, with all the natural advantages, including intelligence, initiative, and a cause to support, on the side of the Communists, and that all Thieu and the South Vietnamese government had to offer against a movement that combined terror with hope was a corrupt status quo. But we all know this.
It is time to recognize that official anti-Communism has little to do with democracy or freedom or justice, nor does it have much to do with anti-Communism. Internally, it is a slogan for domestic consumption, and externally it is a vague formula for indicating America's interest in maintaining the existing balance of power. It is probably impossible to define American policy, which is in a constant state of improvisation, but it might be said to be a combination of prevailing ideologies and a shifting consensus of business interests. What I am suggesting, therefore, is that regardless of the merits of an “anti-Communist” policy, American anti-Communism is more of a slogan than a policy. It is limited to circumstances where ready-made conservative regimes can be supported and where there are no other conflicting interests. Where there are opposing considerations, anti-Communism is abandoned in the name of anti-Communism—as in détente.
Hence the persistent confusion. We need hardly be reminded how often Marxism is not distinguished from official Communism, or that democratic socialists are lumped with Russian-allied Communists, and that Soviet expansion is confused with indigenous radicalism. There was never, for example, more than rhetorical support for Dubceck's Czechoslovakia—the closest any nation has ever come to realizing the idea of “socialism with a human face.”
But to get back to the question of “a failure of nerve,” I do think that insofar as one can speak at all of a national interest and a national will, America does seem unable to act as though it were aware of and capable of solving its problems either at home or abroad. As I have suggested, this may be due partly to the ineptitude of the Republicans, who have been officiating over our decline. But there are also deeper factors, like the fiasco of Vietnam, which was bound to leave the country in a state of shock and paralysis, and the economic tailspin with which the government seems unable to cope. It is not surprising that there should be widespread disaffection and an isolationist mood, which are being interpreted as “a failure of will.”
There has been a tendency to blame this decline in the national morale on the liberals and radicals, on the assumption that they dominate the culture and that the culture of the country affects its politics. It is true that culture is not only influenced by, but in turn influences, politics. But the intellectual and radical culture, which, no doubt, is infected by the general malaise, is only a marginal part of the entire culture. The foolishness of a good deal of radicalism in politics and in the arts and the excesses of the liberating movements, for example, themselves reflect the instability and the lack of standards of the mass culture, the culture of the media and the market.
When we talk of the failings of the culture, what most of us actually are referring to are its anti-intellectualism, its manufacture of celebrities, its faddism, its rapid turnover of movements and figures, its fake cultural democracy, its fashionable populism, its confusion of money with art and thought, its psychological permissiveness, its substitution of guilt for action, its creation of a mass taste and then its flooding of the market to satisfy that taste, its contempt for history, ideas, and intellectual authority, and, above all, the prevailing notion that self-gratification is the highest human ideal. These are malignancies of the culture that, I take it, intellectuals of all shades of political opinion abhor—all intellectuals, that is, who are more concerned with ideas than with ideologies, or with fashion. And if too many artists and intellectuals are also swept by the cultural tide, it is because only madmen and geniuses can buck the culture, and there are too many of the former and too few of the latter.
In my opinion, it is these retrograde attitudes posing as advanced thinking that mark the decline of the culture. And their effect on politics is much more corrosive than either conservatives or radicals are willing to recognize. For in an anarchic atmosphere that celebrates the pleasure principle and mocks traditional criteria, not only will we be flooded with all sorts of absurd movements and flashy works in the arts, but politics becomes a bewildering array of old and new clichés, old and new stereotypes, old and new postures.
How can you have an intelligent politics in an intellectual climate dominated by the frantic search for novelty and marketability?
(My comment was written before the rescue of the Mayagüez, but it is interesting to note that the operation has been taken as an affirmation of America's manhood, though it points up once again that our government is at its best when its political mind is not being taxed.)
Harold Rosenberg: Apparently, COMMENTARY in formulating its statement for this inquest was troubled by the prospect of the fall of South Vietnam and Cambodia and the failure of Washington to take steps to prevent it. The United States, says the COMMENTARY statement, “was reluctant even to send economic aid to forestall the coming to power of Communist regimes.” The absence in the statement of any mention that this “reluctance” was owing to a conviction, based on years of bitter experience, that economic aid alone, or even economic aid plus military aid, could not save the Thieu regime has the effect of translating a problem of political history into one of national morale—a procedure characteristic of patriotic drum-beaters. The choice offered is either to persist in irrational and self-harming behavior or merit the accusation of “failure of nerve.” Yet given the actual development of events in Vietnam, “failure of nerve” and “loss of political will” describe the condition of those who advocated pouring in more money and men rather than of people who had the courage to declare, “Stop! We've had it.” For example, in continuing to insist that we should have wiped out all of Vietnam with nuclear bombs if necessary for “victory”—anything less was a “no—win policy”—Goldwater demonstrates that he never had any political will to lose. Endowed only with the blind stubbornness of a fanatic, he has will but no politics. Like COMMENTARY, he is worried about the present “failure of nerve” (not his, of course, but the country's). “I don't know,” he said in a television interview in April, “if we can regain the CLOUT we need to hold our place in the world.” It was the spread of this uneasiness about “our comparative passivity” (COMMENTARY) that was responsible for the too-rapid and violent reaction to the seizure of the Mayagüez and the consequent acceleration of trouble for the United States in Laos.
The problem for America today is not that its policy-makers may hesitate too long before dropping bombs, but that the nation will fail to become conscious of why the plentiful bombs it did drop failed to produce the expected. results. I am not at all disturbed by any present hesitations in Washington, so long as the particular hesitation is the effect of a sincere indecision and not a ruse to coerce a potential victim of American policy, such as Cyprus or Israel. One must not forget for a single moment that the Nixonian stables have by no means been cleaned out, and that until they are, and a new outlook and new personages take charge of the nation's policies, every action is inescapably shrouded in the suspicion that there is more in it than meets the eye. Suspicion! Just this morning Senator Byrd urged recognition of the fact that the huge support for Governor Wallace represents the widespread distrust of their government by millions of Americans. Doesn't Henry Kissinger keep insisting on the old Nixon principle of Executive “confidentiality,” according to which only he and his boss are privileged to know what is being done in our name—a notion so repulsive that only those can accept it who, as COMMENTARY puts it, “question the legitimacy of American civilization.”
This is a good place to emphasize that it was the Nixon people who took the lead in consolidating doubts concerning the “legitimacy” of freedom. As against the White House” radicals, such as Patrick Buchanan, who at the Senate Watergate hearings had the effrontery to justify “dirty tricks” on the grounds that Nixon and his henchmen represented a minority and thus couldn't hope to remain in power under normal American political procedures—as against this subversive gang, we, democrats, individualists, libertarians, civil-rights advocates, are all conservatives. At most we want to change America into what it has always claimed to be. But those fellows off on the Right are pressing for a complete overthrow. They have taken a vow to destroy the system that threatens to produce another FDR, a new New Deal. As put by a Nixon appointee in the Justice Department whose specialty was drafting legislation designed to cut into individual rights: “The Constitution is an 18th-century document. Today, it is up for grabs.”
The so-called détente has only one virtue: it marks the end of the disastrous policy that sprang out of the anti-Communist hysteria of the postwar period. According to this policy, all the problems in the world were to be solved by “containing” and ultimately “rolling back” the “tide of world Communism.” As Senator Fulbright pointed out during the Dominican counterrevolution, sponsored by us against the democratic-socialist Juan Bosch, any fool or scoundrel could rise high in the Washington policy-making apparatus by showing he was more anti-Communist than the next guy. Needless to say, in this mentally-diseased environment anyone leaning toward democracy and freedom was bound to be denounced as “soft on Communisn.”
“Fifteen years ago,” declares the COMMENTARY statement, “the United States would almost certainly have reacted with either the threat or the use of force to any action such as the OPEC cartel has taken in raising the price of oil.” Permit me to doubt this. Indeed, the statement indicates, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of the basis of American behavior during this period. The U.S. has reacted unequivocally and with force only to threats of Communism. To instigate action against OPEC, it would have been necessary to establish that the union of the oil producers is a Communist plot. When has the United States government protected its citizens against cartels? Pepper? Coffee? Sugar?
American foreign policy has to an increasing degree been poised upon a moral and intellectual vacuum, and has been administered by types who believe that such a vacuum can be bridged by ad-hoc contrivances and publicity-inspired slogans. Maybe Kennedy had something in mind when he said we'd go all out for liberty, but it is not at all certain that the idea meant anything to the brightest and best that followed him. With them the free individual has been a propaganda ploy with which to counter Communist propaganda about “the people.” The penalty for consistently violating one's tradition is loss of confidence in its effectiveness. To be allied with tyrants for decades wears away the foundations of belief in freedom. By now, persons in the highest places have improvised so many distortions of the idea of free government that they simply don't know what they're talking about—a similar erosion of meaning exists in the Soviet Union through perversion of Marxist axioms. “Freedom is not a system,” I wrote in a COMMENTARY symposium eight years ago, “and, as we are discovering in Vietnam, it cannot be introduced by system builders.”
To return to the Washington vacuum, when Thieu in his speech of resignation attacked the United States for having sold him down the river (with tons of family baggage and tens of millions in gold as consolation), who promptly agreed that we had violated a sacred obligation to let Thieu continue to rob us and the people of South Vietnam indefinitely, and that it was the U.S. Congress that was responsible for losing the war? None other than Gerald Ford, President of the United States. Can there be a more basic attack on “the legitimacy of American civilization”? If the standards of that civilization were being supported by the American government, Thieu would have been locked up years ago.
The détente so far has been badly managed on our part. From the first, apart from the merits of détente itself, it was an instrument of Nixon's image-building as a world statesman—and the central ruse in his desperate attempt to raise himself above Watergate on wings of wax. As Nixon's chief operative in the field of globally-publicized “friendship” meetings and flimsy peace pacts, Kissinger is fatally compromised. Yet we are still depending on him to realize the Nixon myth of a world-embracing peace system. This system is to take precedence over all regional interests, for example, the interests of Israel. Anyone who stands in the way of Henry Kissinger, Peace Messiah, will be guilty of causing the next war, and is thus an enemy of mankind. The Jews are, of course, singularly vulnerable to being presented in this light, since everyone knows that they have been a “stiff-necked” folk (“lacking flexibility” in current Washington jargon) since biblical days.
For “a new maturity in international behavior” we need to get rid of the star system in diplomacy—the “cult of personality” which we plagiarized from the Russians, along with secret-police assassinations, infiltrations of cultural organizations, and so on—and which we have carried to a “higher” level through our more pervasive media. Political issues, both foreign and domestic, must cease to center on leaders and be decided on the basis of principle. To take a most pressing instance, it is a matter of life and death for Israel to continue to resist being forced to entrust its destiny to Uncle Henry's negotiations with Uncle Leonid. A solution cooked up for popular applause by Henry (Leonid has less need of it) cannot fail to undergo an erosion similar to that of the Paris peace pact by which South Vietnam was done in. Since the Arabs are implacably resolved to eliminate the State of Israel, a suspension of the conflict between them and Israel depends not on miracle men, who are here today and gone tomorrow, but on opportunities offered by historical change. As of today, no solution in that region will solve anything but will simply weaken or strengthen one or the other of the parties. Israel (and the United States, too) needs to develop Negative Capability, the talent for remaining indefinitely in uncertainty and doubt, “without any irritable reaching” for answers.
In sum, it is time to liberate ourselves from the totalitarian frame of mind generated by Communist/anti-Communist ideology and enforced by the incessant clacking of media public-relations in its build-up of heroes.
Eugene V. Rostow: I cannot fully accept the judgments implied in the questions COMMENTARY has posed. I am certain that in their large majorities both the people of the United States and their leaders are entirely ready “to pay any price, bear any burden, and meet any hardship” to assure the safety and well-being of the nation, and that they continue to regard the social order and its value system as good. And I am by no means convinced that the United States would have used force fifteen years ago against the increase in the price of oil brought about by OPEC. It is a long, long time since we asserted the right to use force internationally against the exercise of “sovereignty” by a foreign nation to our economic detriment.
The problem, I should contend, is not one of will or faith but of perception and understanding.
In his inaugural, President Kennedy proclaimed our willingness “to pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship” in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty anywhere. He spoke at a time when the doctrine of collective security dominated American and Western thought about the foreign policy of the United States and its allies. In the realm of foreign policy, after Korea and Vietnam, this is the heart of the problem: does the safety of the United States require our full participation in systems of collective security to enforce the rules of the Charter of the United Nations against aggression? Or can the security of the nation be guaranteed by less strenuous means?
I do not deny that the climate of opinion is different today from that which prevailed at Kennedy's inauguration in 1961. Voices which are consciously or unconsciously “Left” in some meaningful sense are louder and more numerous than at any time since the 30's. And profound changes in the code of social morality have taken place, or have been brought about—changes whose effects on the outlook of the nation may turn out to be very serious indeed in the long run.
On the other side of the equation, the pressures of Soviet policy, backed by its growing military establishment, are far greater than they were in 1961.
I should say that the many-faceted phenomenon evoked by COMMENTARY's questions was not caused by “a failure of nerve” or “a loss of political will,” but that it represents something quite different: a renewal of uncertainty about what on earth our foreign policy is for, and what methods should be used to carry out its purposes. What course should the nation follow in world affairs? Should we return to the universality of Wilson, Litvinov, and Kennedy, who believed that peace is indivisible, and that the peace-loving nations should band together and oppose any aggression? Should we adopt the views of the virtuous descendants of Cobden, Bright, and Gladstone, who think that the United States should assist only foreign nations they consider democratic, free from corruption, and genuinely devoted to the cause of social progress, even against aggression? Should we return, after the tragedy of Vietnam, to the prescriptions of Senators Borah, Mansfield, and Fulbright, who argue against entangling alliances, and say we should fight only as the Soviet landing craft approach Long Island? Should policy be based on the current opinions of George Kennan, who would make sure that the Ruhr and a few other important industrial areas are kept out of Soviet hands, but that otherwise we should relax and let China and the Soviet Union quarrel, and perhaps fight, to determine which one should rule the rest of the world in the name of the True Faith? Or should America embrace the doctrines of the innocent and not-so-innocent advocates of revolution, who argue that the influence of the United States in world affairs should be on the side of the Castros, the Nassers, and the Sukarnos of this world, and that we should recover from the “anti-Communist neurosis” of the Truman period?
Many Americans are quite legitimately wondering if there isn't some better way to protect the safety of the nation than by the methods of collective security applied, however imperfectly, in Europe, the Middle East, Korea, and Vietnam since 1947. Some, of course, go much further. For them, it is obvious that there must be a better way than that of collective security to protect the safety of the nation, even if they can't define it. Over and over again, they repeat “No more Koreas” and “No more Vietnams,” and say, and no doubt believe, that they really would use nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union (as Bertrand Russell once urged) to resolve a situation of peripheral crisis.
I should contend that the paralysis of American opinion for the moment—and I quite agree that it is a paralysis comparable in every way to the paralysis of the Western nations during the 30's—reflects another round in a prolonged Jungian struggle between our collective unconscious and the facts of life. That struggle is the most important problem of our foreign policy. It is not too much to say that the entire shape of the future, for us and for many other nations, depends upon its prompt and healthy resolution.
Every American mind contains a beautiful vision—the vision of 19th-century America, isolated and aloof, without entangling alliances, and entirely neutral in the various conflicts of world power politics. To the American mind, that vision really defines the role the nation should play in world affairs—unsullied and aloof, protected from danger by its republican virtue, and our two broad oceans. That vision has special attractions when alternative policies produce as much grief as Korea and Vietnam.
Of course the vision is and always was a myth. The Founding Fathers understood the game of European power politics, and played it extremely well. Without French help, the nation would never have been born. No one suspected that the Bourbon king helped the American Revolution because he was a secret republican. And without a British counterweight to French pressure, the United States would never have survived the great convulsion of the Napoleonic wars. But between 1825 or so—when the turmoil of the war had subsided—and 1914, the United States never had to have a foreign policy at all. We lived as Sweden lives now, the beneficiary of a system of security conducted by others. We were protected by the system of order launched at the Congress of Vienna, and conducted by the Concert of Europe. We took no part in its affairs. Like the Swedes nowadays, we often complained about how badly the British, the French, the Prussians, the Austrians, and the Russians were leading the orchestra. And we did not even bother to understand what was happening.
As a result, we never developed an accepted national vocabulary for thinking or talking about foreign-policy problems. Most of the time, most of our political leaders talked utter nonsense about foreign affairs. Reading their speeches, one would suppose that the political life of the society of nations was a Sunday school whose chief concern was to award medals to the good children and demerits to the naughty ones.
The shortcomings of the political process were not overcome by the educational system. Much more like their British than their Continental counterparts, the American schools, colleges, and universities rarely sought to instruct their students about the problems of peace and war. The elective principle which dominated our curricula after the time of President Eliot of Harvard made things worse. Many emerged from our best colleges and universities completely naive—totally without disciplined training in the realities of world affairs. Diplomatic and military history, even when they were well taught, as happened occasionally, were advanced courses for specialists. Their outlook never became part of the furniture in the minds of generally educated men or women.
Some of the results are disconcerting. The phrase “balance of power,” for example, is frowned upon in ordinary American conversations, speeches, and books about foreign affairs. Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt had spoken against the idea, and proclaimed something they thought much better as the governing concept of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Yet the principle of the balance of power is the dominant theme of our domestic social order. When thinking about our own social problems, every American accepts the idea of the balance of power instinctively as the beginning of wisdom, and the first principle of our public policy in every realm. It is what federalism and the separation of powers are all about—a wide dispersal of power among rival institutions in order to make certain that no individual, no group, and no branch of government could ever accumulate enough power to control the system. The same notion dominates our law for the organization of the economy—the antitrust laws, for example, our banking laws, and many other branches of our law. The triumph of our constitutional and political system during the Watergate crisis illustrates the notion of the balance of power at work. So, equally, does China's decision in 1971 to turn to the United States for protection against what it perceived to be an overriding Soviet threat. But how many well-informed Americans are aware of that fact?
With some justice, Correlli Barnett attributes the collapse of British power to the inadequate curriculum and the vapid teaching of British schools. The schools and universities simply failed to train citizens to understand the interests of the nation, and what was required to protect them. Everything Barnett says about Britain could be said even more strongly about us. Our schools and universities are even more shapeless and confused than those of Britain, and the teaching generally worse.
Since 1967 or 1968, our public dialogue about the ends and means of foreign policy has been a moral and an intellectual disgrace. Truth, and the discipline of responsible democratic discourse, were the worst casualties of Vietnam.
Reacting against the tragedy of the prolonged and inconclusive war in Indochina, the American people said, “Win or get out”—a sensible and practical position the government was unable to heed. But Congressmen, newspapermen, and intellectuals transformed the problem by ignoring it. In his innumerable speeches on the subject, Nixon never mentioned the SEATO Treaty, and the many decisions of four Presidents and the Congress interpreting and applying it, as the basis for policy in Indochina. Instead, Nixon made hundreds of speeches claiming that his problem in Indochina was to remove 500,000 American troops sent there by the Democrats, and to recover our prisoners of war—with “honor.” If that had been the problem, the North Vietnamese, as Dean Rusk has remarked, would have carried our bags to the boat long, long ago. And many Congressmen, Senators, journalists, and professors were only too willing to join Nixon in ignoring the treaty, and the combined actions of the Presidency and the Congress under it. On that footing, they were able to condemn the war as if various Presidents alone had authorized it, and authorized it, furthermore, by “stealth.”
As we have discovered in the last few months, however, an American treaty is not so easy to exorcise. We may deceive ourselves on the subject, for shabby reasons of domestic politics. But for our friends and our adversaries around the world, American treaties and other commitments are the only cement of the world political system. If they cease to radiate genuine deterrent power, the dogs of war will indeed slip their traces.
It is therefore of cardinal importance, in the shadow of Watergate, that we face the unpleasant facts at every level with the most scrupulous concern and sobriety. In a world which is becoming smaller, more interdependent, and more dangerous with every passing day, is there any alternative to Litvinov's principle that “peace is indivisible,” and its corollary that the safety of the United States and many other nations requires their collective action to enforce the rules against aggression of the Charter of the United Nations? I do not believe that there is an alternative. For me, the choice is between chaos, and then war, or a renewal of our determination to reestablish collective security. Whether my views are correct is not important. What is important is that we face the question, and resolve it by sustained, courteous, serious, and above all responsible democratic debate.
Paul Seabury: A current adage, after America's defeat in Indochina, is that we should “put Vietnam behind us.” The nation will be better off with “no recriminations.” Yet almost any effort to comprehend what has happened germinates some seeds of recrimination. Even the word “defeat” to many will suggest recrimination against those who insist the outcome to be otherwise.
But I use the word deliberately. In nearly all parts of the world the word is out that America has been beaten. A three-column headline in West Germany's chief moderate weekly, Die Zeit, puts it this way: “Noch ist Amerika nicht Bankrott” (Still, America is not bankrupt). The Economist of London speaks of “The Fading of America.” Careful not to push Soviet luck in détente too far, Pravda reports the defeat with oblique euphemisms. But we know who is being referred to when losers are called “forces of imperialist reaction.”
Those abroad who fear the decay of American influence in the world, furthermore, do not detach this portentous episode from other aspects of their contemporary existence. No rug is large enough to sweep it under. There have been more reversals for the free world in the past few years than this one. Founder and once leader of the United Nations, the United States now finds itself leader of a tiny band of beleaguered and outvoted states. The tenfold OPEC oil-price rise, and the October war oil embargo, despite the massive damage these have wrought in the West in terms of depression, inflation, and derangement of terms of trade, went almost unreprimanded. The swing of politics in Latin and Mediterranean Europe now is in the direction of neutralist or Communist combinations. By whatever objective standards the U.S.-USSR strategic balance is measured, it swings away from America and its traditional allies.
And, yes, Virginia, there is a domino theory! What many mocked even a few months ago as a foolish alarmist slogan, mocks us now in the world of facts. Meanwhile, in the Middle East, peacemaking again has failed. The era of negotiations which Nixon said was to follow an era of confrontation has proved short. The paper on which one of its most important pacts was written blows along dry and dusty streets. Few bothered to mention these scraps of paper when the Communist offensive opened this spring, much less to protest the violation of them. The essence of the Paris agreements lay in America's capacity to enforce them; before the end, that capacity was put in chains by domestic American writ. No wonder there are so many who prefer now to think as little as possible about what has transpired.
“The death of democracy,” Robert Hutchins once wrote, “is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.” What witness to the strange events internal to America in the past two years can fail to marvel at the contrast between our vigilant attention to real and supposed threats to liberty at home, and our growing indifference to external ones? Portugal, a NATO ally, is ransacked by a Moscow-dominated Communist party, while American moralists ransack U.S. intelligence services for evidence of covert actions and covert capabilities. If for the time being America moralizes itself into a state of paralysis, there is no sign that others are following its lead. The “illusion of American omnipotence,” whatever it was, gives way to a mood of purist self-denunciation. We are full of much of what not to do.
The best thing going for America in the world has been its well-deserved reputation as a dynamic, free, and open society. The next best thing, recently, has been its asserted willingness to stand up for other free societies. The latter flowed from the former. But now that the latter is a matter of such little import to most Americans, we might at least notice that the geographic zone in which such qualities of freedom are officially tolerated is getting smaller. However much comfort we take from the bitter rivalry within the Communist world (comforting now, since it divides rather than concerts the thrust of the offensive against us), we ought to remember that, in regard to Marxist-Leninist fundamentals, the enemy is us.
As Vietnam shows, the Sino-Soviet rivalry is expressed in part as a contest to outbid each other's bid for leadership of “anti-imperialist” forces. The assistance each provided to Hanoi and the Vietcong, so that they might launch their final invasion, might well be in part an expression of their hostility to each other. But it was we who were defeated, and the Republic of Vietnam no longer exists.
What about détente now?
As the Soviet theoretician Sobelev now points out: “It is essential to stress once more that the policy of peaceful coexistence is a specific and highly effective form of the class antagonism and historic rivalry between world socialism and world capitalism. . . . The Communist parties of many countries are of the opinion that under the conditions of the cold war it was difficult to imagine the overthrow of the fascist regimes in Portugal and Greece, the rallying of the left-wing forces in a number of countries, the shift to the Left of the axis of political life in France and Italy, and so forth. . . .” In the light of such considerations, what is to be made of James Reston's observation (New York Times, May 2) that “Moscow has not allowed the Communist capture of Saigon to interfere with its policy of détente with the United States”?
If détente is seen in Moscow as an occasion for intensifying the ideological and revolutionary offensive against us, while at the same time permitting us to provide them with credits, loans, and technological assistance, and permitting us to recognize (via the European Security Conference) the legitimacy of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, then there is an all-too-simple explanation of current Soviet behavior.
The “lesson” of Vietnam long will be debated by Americans. But one element of it must be admitted before an honest discussion can take place. That war, now lost, was an aspect of a larger global contest; in that contest, since the 1950's, the United States and the democracies have been on the defensive. While we renounce wars of liberation directed at the Communist world, we must remind ourselves that this has been a renunciation unreciprocated. So, now that Vietnam is “over,” we see that the theater of conflict merely has shifted to different terrain.
Where to begin again? No formula for United States foreign policy can make any sense unless we bring ourselves again to admit that to live in a free world today is to live in a beleaguered world. The sack of Phnom Penh was not the sack of Paris or New York. But in it we witness once more the fact that aggressive force can be an effective and terrifying legislator. The inferences to be drawn from this are not pleasing. But, then, they never have been. We might ask whether some of our old homilies need repolishing.
Ronald Steel: Relax COMMENTARY. Just because the United States has not bombed or invaded anyone this week does not mean that Western civilization is tottering on the brink of ruin.
Surely you know that all those noble words of John F. Kennedy, which apparently still make a few breasts beat in double time, never meant anything more than that we would leave the Russians alone in their empire if they would refrain from encroaching upon ours. It was a realistic bargain, and it was honored where it most mattered—in Europe. The Third World, on the other hand, was up for grabs, and this is where the major confrontations occurred.
Thus as part of the global power game, we tried to set up an anti-Communist bastion in Southeast Asia, and the Russians persisted in their ancient efforts—inherited from the Czars—to gain a foothold in the Middle East.
Vietnam, clearly, was a cold-war gambit that should have been written off years ago when it became obvious that the costs were out of all proportion to any conceivable benefit. Even Congress finally woke up to the inevitable, which is why—despite COMMENTARY's evident regret—it balked at dumping any more lives and money into a hole.
The elementary rule of playing power politics is that you win some and lose some, but that you should never confuse knights and bishops with pawns. That was part of the tragedy of Vietnam. We went into it casually because it seemed like an easy way to score a few points against “international Communism,” and got locked into it because no President was ever willing to take the blame for the unavoidable defeat.
It is not surprising that there should be frustration at the way it turned out: Henry Kissinger's Nobel Prize-winning “settlement” degenerated into the ignominious collapse of our clients, and their headlong flight out of the country with whatever gold hoards they could carry. Even mistakes of the magnitude of Vietnam, we had hoped, could be camouflaged better than that.
But the “decent interval” was not long enough to relieve our embarrassment, or at least cover Kissinger's term in office, and so there is disgruntlement in high places over American “credibility,” and the specter of our old friend, the “pitiful, helpless giant,” is once again being conjured.
Some of this frustration is understandable, considering how we came to take for granted a state of affairs that was as unnatural as it was flattering to our pride. It was not very long ago, after all, that governments were openly assembled and dismantled at Washington's command, with the details being taken care of by the CIA station chief on the spot. It used to be that we could decide all by ourselves how much other countries could charge for their raw materials, how much they would be allowed to produce, and with whom they could trade. It was, as Henry Luce told us, the American century, and we believed it.
This was all very gratifying. Not only did it feed our self-importance to be the sole defender of the “free world,” but it also could be justified in the name of a higher morality. The necessary effort to limit Soviet expansion in Europe was transformed into a global drive for influence in which the most noble ends were cited to justify means which were often no better than those we were combating.
So long as the stakes for this contest with the Russians seemed to be the mastery of the world, the American people were willing to “pay any price, bear any burden” that their leaders demanded of them. But if Vietnam accomplished nothing else for us, it made it clear that these were not the stakes. How could the world be divided between “us” and “them” when the players changed sides with dizzying speed, and some refused to play at all?
Thus as the cold war has unraveled, our control over both allies and adversaries has sharply diminished. The client regimes we nurtured have either collapsed, as in Indochina, or are using their new-found muscle against us, as in Iran. The cozy commodity arrangements we worked out with our comprador agents are no longer being honored now that they have discovered other customers with even harder cash. To add insult to injury, little “rinky dink” countries, as they say, have the effrontery to seize our spy and munitions ships.
It is embarrassing to see our $150 billion investment in the Saigon generals written off as a capital loss, the Arab sheiks we nurtured at our universities no longer giving away their oil at bargain rates, the Greeks telling us to find somewhere else to park our battleships, and the young officers who ruled Portugal flirting with a radical brand of socialism that is unreceptive to our military bases and our multinational corporations.
This is an irritating state of affairs, and there are many who would like to set it right the way that imperial powers have always tried to set things right: a kick in the rear for the upstarts, and a warning that next time we will not be so lenient.
As with the French in Algeria and the British Tories at Suez, there is the irresistible urge to believe that if only we pull out the big stick (that is, overcome our “loss of political will'), things will fall back into their natural order again. The natural order in this case being acquiescent allies, intimidated adversaries, and cowed furnishers of the cut-rate raw materials we have been consuming in such abundance.
Are the Portuguese majors making dubious friends? Send an armada into Lisbon harbor. Are the Arabs asking more for their oil than we would like to pay? Send the marines to the Persian Gulf.
It is all so simple. And in any case, what is the point in harboring the world's most powerful, and most expensive, military machine if it cannot be unleashed against those who are incapable of hitting us back? And why not justify it by bringing out of mothballs all those familiar cold-war slogans? What could be a more worthy cause than the defense of Western civilization? Particularly if it means knocking down these pesky upstarts who want us to pay more for the good things of life, or to leave them alone altogether?
The problem is that the fate of Western civilization is not what is at stake, but the ability of the United States to maintain its postwar imperial privileges. Curiously, it is not the American people—usually berated for their emotionalism and lack of sophistication—who are most disturbed by this, but rather those who traffic in the realm of ideas. It is in learned journals such as this one that there is the most feverish despair over the decay of military virtues.
In the harsh adjustment to reality now taking place, it is not the “ruling elements” who are suffering “a failure of nerve,” but merely some intellectuals who are experiencing painful withdrawal symptoms at the erosion of America's imperial role. The danger is that in their moaning over the loss of imperial status and their search for a scapegoat, they may actually succeed in stimulating the right-wing backlash that has so far been strikingly absent.
Why these intellectuals should find the loss of imperial prerogatives so distressing is an interesting question. But it is not one of foreign policy. Apparently having identified their own status in society with the power of a state that has dominated the international arena, they are apprehensive over a changing order. Thus the pushiness of dissatisfied minorities at home becomes equated with the demands of emerging nations. The difference is that the latter cannot be so easily put in their place by policies of “benign neglect”—particularly if they have a monopoly of oil.
We have been experiencing many kinds of failure, but nerve is hardly one of them. It is not going to be easy to adjust to a world where the United States has to make its way as one nation, albeit an extremely powerful one, among many. But the task is hardly going to be made easier by interpreting the breakdown of the cold-war world as a problem of national cowardice.
Fritz Stern: I find it impossible to say whether American foreign policy in the last few weeks or months bespeaks “a new maturity” or a collective “failure of nerve.” Our improvised reactions may prove to have been neither, or perhaps a mixture of both.
I do agree with the implicit proposition of the symposium: the will and morale of a nation fashion and often determine its foreign policy. It would be hard to imagine that our will and morale have not been affected by the tragedy of Vietnam.
Above all, I agree with the explicit contention that the world has fundamentally changed in the last fifteen years. These changes make it impossible for the United States simply to rouse itself from its Vietnam nightmare and resume its role of the early 1960's, a role that in retrospect was marked by a certain innocence and a beguiling optimism. The recognition that America cannot automatically assume its old place may foster a new maturity—or produce a failure of nerve, by contagion from the rest of the world or by sheer exasperation with the new, uncertain challenge. It may well be that the great and spontaneous outburst of grief at Kennedy's death, felt all over the world, encompassed an intuitive sense that after Dallas, the American dream would never be the same, that America's magic would fade.
As the world changed in the 1960's, America became preoccupied with its internal crisis and its seven-year war—and the two reinforced each other, and the level of violence escalated at home and abroad. If one is to understand why America today may not have the same degree of coherence and confidence in the pursuit of its foreign policy as it had earlier, one must remember the upheavals of the last decade: the violence of the racial conflict, the several assassinations, the rebellious disenchantment with America. We have recovered some of our poise, but it is instructive to remember that late in 1969 Richard Hofstadter wrote: “The nation seems to slouch onward into its uncertain future like some huge inarticulate beast, too much attainted by wounds and ailments to be robust, but too strong and resourceful to succumb.”
Vietnam came to epitomize the travail of this country and its terrible divisions. The government became mesmerized by that war, heedless of its terrible cost to the Vietnamese and to ourselves; it became ever more contemptuous of its critics at home, ever more conspiratorial, determined to pursue a disastrous foreign policy in the face of mounting opposition at home. That rough harmony between state and society—which Europeans so admired in us—broke over, if not entirely because of, Vietnam. From 1965 on, the government relied on sheer power abroad and, increasingly, on concealment and surveillance at home. In the Nixon years, the exigencies of an unpopular war combined with the impulses of a flawed President who in his monstrous fear of enemies produced and pursued them.
In its foreign policy and in its self-perception, America has always had a curious blend of power and idealism, of combining brute strength with the vision of a universal good. That blend characterized our role in the two world wars; it helped forge our successful policy in the first twenty years after World War II.
The union of power and idealism seemed to collapse in the Vietnam war, and the opposition to the war, made frantic by the seeming callousness of the government, lost all sight of the realities of power, lost sight of the fact that there were sworn enemies of freedom in the world—and that these enemies of freedom sent their tanks into Prague and their dissidents into psychological torture camps. In some ways the horror of Vietnam was that it weakened freedom everywhere, at the very time the United States was invoking the defense of freedom as its goal in Indochina.
One of the lasting liabilities of Vietnam—and not a negligible one—is the bankruptcy of rhetoric that has resulted from the war. Kennedy once said that Churchill had mobilized the English language for the cause of freedom; during the Vietnam conflict, our language was debased. The false and sanctimonious invocation of ideals—freedom and democracy—has made it difficult to have recourse to these ideals which once united us. (Not that the radical chic with its cries of fascism and genocide was any more discriminate in its rhetoric.) But you cannot lead a nation or a world mutely—least of all, at a time of unprecedented and insidious complexity. The prevailing “revolutionary apathy” of the young is related to the abuse of trust and the exhaustion of language.
It would be hard to think of a historical parallel to the kind of shocks that America has suffered from Dallas to Watergate to the end of Vietnam. The response to these shocks has not been altogether disheartening—and some of our friends abroad have been more impressed by the energy of our outrage and the health of our institutions in dealing with a constitutional crisis than we have been ourselves.
It is impossible to suppose that a nation could go through these traumas and not emerge somewhat uncertain about its self, its purpose, and its policies. There are lessons to be learned from Vietnam, which as a nation we may try to draw on the run, if at all. I am not certain that it is necessarily healthy to pretend that Vietnam did not occur, to close ranks without gradually trying to understand historically what divided us in the first place. The nation's business will not wait until the historians' verdicts are in. Worse, the country may not wish to learn the complicated lessons of Vietnam and it may be content with a new set of simple and misleading guidelines disguised as analogies. The false analogy with Munich drove us ever deeper into the Vietnam morass; are we now to be saddled with the equally fallacious argument that Vietnam proved that American involvement anywhere in the world is wrong? Reasoning by historical analogy perhaps comes easiest to the unhistorical, to those unencumbered by specific knowledge that would inhibit senseless comparisons. We must play a world-historical role while being a singularly unhistorical nation, of which Hofstadter once said: “I sometimes think that all American experience is a series of disjunctive situations whose chief connecting link is that each generation repeats the belief of its predecessor that there is nothing to be learned from the past.”
As we emerge from our particular nightmare, we find that the world has become more complicated and less amenable to control than it had been in the early 1960's; we also find that our chief allies, Western Europe and Japan, are not as strong or as self-confident as they had been earlier. They too have been through political and psychological shocks, exacerbated by the present crises of inflation and energy. The malaise of Britain—which once led the Western world in its economic development and its political humanity—is a case in point, and there is no certainty that Britain's predicament today may not also possess a paradigmatic quality.
The power of America is unimpaired, but the use of that power is burdened by the legacy of Vietnam, by the ambiguity of physical power in the present world, by the competing influences on the shaping of our foreign policy, and by the realization that our foreign policy must have domestic backing. America no longer commands the more or less automatic allegiance even of its allies, and it is no longer the accepted model of the future—not even to its own youth. At the present, much of the world seems to strive after some new combination of nationalism-cum-primitive state socialism: the right of each nation to beggar its neighbor and its people. The present direction of popular aspirations is at odds with American postwar aspirations and practices.
Given all these changes within America and the world, it is not surprising that America should display caution in its foreign relations and that it should be anxiously, perhaps unreasonably, concerned lest its allies or its foes should think our commitments less credible than before. No doubt, some of our allies are relieved that our preoccupation with Vietnam is over; some may feel or affect to feel worries about America that would justify the pursuit of a nationalist or a neutralist line. Our relations with Western Europe and Japan, so long taken for granted and hence so often and so culpably neglected, need to be bolstered, not by rhetoric or by symbolic summitry, but by hard thought and by common programs on complicated issues. We will find our allies worried, weakened, suspiciously recalcitrant—and ever tempted to go it alone, confident that, despite their doubts about America, in the last resort America would shield them. The unglamorous business of re-cementing old ties must become one of the top priorities of the nation.
It is too early to tell how this nation will confront the new crises. It needs above all unceasing education, not by slogans or sneers, but by discourse that is lucid and probing. Perhaps we need a new national debate on foreign policy, dominated neither by the verities of the cold war (or of simplistic revisionists) nor by the system-builders from the social sciences. In the 1950's we careened to success, in the 1960's to disaster; what we need for the 1970's and beyond is what is hardest to achieve and what our media so far have done so little to provide: a new understanding which would help us to meet and occasionally to master events so that in dealing with the present we may recover some of our confidence and hope for the future.
Edmund Stillman: I am sorry to say that if, as seems to be the case, there is a reaction in the United States against the aims and methods of American foreign policy as defined and pursued by our academic and bureaucratic elite since the early 1950's (and if simultaneously, and far more troubling, there is a related and seemingly wholesale rejection of inherited American values) the rebuke to the elite at least is deserved. No elite can continue to command popular respect when the view of the world it puts forward is manifestly flawed—manifestly at variance with observable reality, manifestly weighed down with delusional rhetoric. The privileges and respect this elite once enjoyed in America are now seen to have been undeserved.
If this seems harsh, it is worth remembering that defeat is harsh. And the American foreign-policy elite has been defeated—defeated by enemies, yes, in Vietnam and Cambodia, but far more significantly defeated by the complexities of the world about it. It does not understand that world and what makes it move.
American foreign policy has been sadly in need of revision for over twenty years, because American foreign policy, while in my opinion brilliantly conceived in the earliest days of containment, has progressively diverged from reality. As I see it, it was once the American purpose to fill the vacuum of power in the postwar world, while simultaneously rebuilding the social and economic structures of Western Europe and Japan, presumably in anticipation of an eventual American withdrawal from forward positions. I do not recall at any time in the early postwar debate on American involvement or non-involvement in world affairs (the so-called “Great Debate” in which the Truman administration and its Republican allies like Senator Vandenberg confronted non-interventionists like Senator Taft) that an unlimited American commitment was ever contemplated—unlimited either in time or in scale. Nor were the interventionists on the policy-planning staff of the Truman administration so deluded as to think that our responsibilities were equally great everywhere on earth.
Our first commitment in those days was to defend, pending the restoration of local stability and power, two great industrial agglomerations—Western Europe and Japan—in order to prevent their passing under Soviet hegemony. While the Truman containment policy may have (unfortunately for the future) been tricked out in the language of universalism, physically we intervened in Western Europe in a region of the globe related to us, and thus politically and culturally knowable. In Japan where we also intervened, though in an alien environment, we were again in something like our element—in a foreign culture certainly, but in an advanced technological society and one, in any case, easily defensible by sea power.
The Truman administration did not intervene on the mainland in the obscure convulsions of Sinic Asia. A sense of prudence kept it out of the Chinese Civil War, and it played a role only by proxy through the intermediary of the French colonialists in Indochina. It did no more in Asia until the Korean war. There, in turning back a perfectly comprehensible overt attack across the 38th Parallel, the Truman administration did in the later stages, by allowing itself to become entangled in questions like the fate of the Chinese POW's, unfortunately involve the United States in a dispiriting, protracted war. The result was to open the Truman administration to the rhetorical charges of “no-win” policies and “insufficient anti-Communist fervor” mounted by the McCarthyite Republican Right. Thereafter, the American common man, frustrated by his inability, the first in history, to erase his opponents, responded to noisy but empty Dullesite calls for “forward policies” and “rollback”—I might add in marginal areas unlikely to provoke a real confrontation with the Soviets.
A doctrine of universal and promiscuous interventionism was the result. As a mode of diplomacy such interventionism and the proliferation of purposeless commitments unfortunately also well-served the bureaucratic class interests of the foreign-policy elite. When John F. Kennedy spoke of America paying any price to defend freedom in any part of the world and as an American President elected by the American people boasted that he was a Berliner, he gave perfect expression to the doctrine. Nations looking for trouble will find it. The result was Vietnam.
I do not accept a narrow Marxist-materialist explanation of later postwar American foreign policy, but there can be little doubt that this megalomaniacal expansion of the American political role in the world served, first, the needs of expanding American industrial and financial ownership abroad, and, second, narrow personal and class interests of a State Department-Defense Department-Treasury Department-University-Foundation “club” for whom the pursuit of an active and interventionist American foreign policy became an end in itself. (To a remarkable degree the early postwar foreign-policy establishment derived from junior members of Woodrow Wilson's entourage at the debacle of Versailles. Suffering through the isolationist years of the 1920's and 1930's and seemingly vindicated by the events of World War II, they emerged into power determined to apply the “lessons” of recent history. Alas, in the postwar world they, like the generals, were prepared to fight the last war over again. Stalin was not Hitler; still less was Ho Chi Minh a Stalin. As a sociological matter, most of the founders of this establishment were members of what might be called a Wasp patriciate; but they were not bigots. In the academic-philanthropic world place was quickly made for a Georgia cracker's son like Dean Rusk and an immigrant Jew like Henry Kissinger. In fact, this very openness to “talent,” this willingness to recruit from below, stifled criticism and foreclosed serious debate.)
No doubt even in democracies government policy must be made by elites. But the trouble with this club was that it was always made up of intellectuals manqué—men who hardly understood the world beyond America, whatever their pretensions to internationalism and sophistication may have been. Where they sensed the inadequacy of their knowledge of the world abroad—and it was seldom—they had recourse to two remedies: first, as dispensers of great largesse in the world—military, developmental, philanthropic—they quickly developed a band of foreign “advisers” who served as sycophantic and parasitic vendors of acceptable opinion to that American elite when it felt in need of reassurance; and second, they could have recourse to an old American dream, repeatedly at work in our university studies of the social sciences, that somehow the complex and to Americans hardly knowable external world could be reduced to quantifiable information and manipulate technique—hence the proliferation of theories of “systems analysis,” “behavioral foreign-policy theory,” “escalation management,” “crisis-management,” etc. All of this of course was intellectual rubbish—rubbish which only sheer American firepower and wealth for years prevented from exposure as perilously close to fraud.
Some years ago in COMMENTARY (“America after Vietnam,” October 1971) I described the complex intellectual and emotional origins of this elite's ideology of interventionism; I also described the likely consequences to the nation at large of failure in Vietnam. I have little to change in this analysis today—except that, writing now, I should be less inclined to grant the fundamental good will and honesty of that establishment (certainly I should stress, a good deal more, the degree to which it became corrupt). The disillusionment, disorientation, and apathy of the population at large are pretty much as predicted.
What shall we do now?
As I have said, even in a democracy, the analysis of issues and the posing of choices is the business of elites. The majority then decides—and should be heard when it decides. (I hope no serious person will see in America's foreign-policy failures a need for less democracy and more discipline imposed on the people. It is not the people who have failed, but their leaders—through five administrations, Republican, Democratic, and Republican again. In Indochina the people gave $300 billion, 65,000 dead from all causes, and over 200,000 wounded. The leaders could not read a map: they thought Munich was in Southeast Asia.)
I suggest our establishment might begin to ponder the following propositions:
First, while the United States, like it or not, is implicated in the world, to be implicated in the world is not to be universally responsible or universally committed. Freedom is divisible. Some places are worthy of defense. Some are not. Some are capable of being defended. Some are not. And some places are not free, were not free, and quite possibly never will be free.
Secondly, evil will always be with us. It is not the business of the United States to expunge political evil everywhere—even if we knew with certainty how to define political evil and political good. It is our business, however, to seek to be ourselves a “good” polity, whatever that may be.
It follows, thirdly, that the function of American foreign policy is to protect America—to create and preserve an environment in which a creative and humane society according to an American genius can grow. It is not to establish the Peaceable Kingdom. It is not to play at being Romans. It is not to provide America with the historical justification of America.
Fourthly, America being America, this foreign policy will be most successful if pragmatic, according to our domestic political successes, rather than ideological. But pragmatism does not mean cynicism. America being America, it is hard to see any American policy devoid of a certain moralizing, universalizing bent. In that case, I recommend among us a reborn taste for generosity of style and simplicity and honesty of action—above all honesty with ourselves. The trouble with American foreign policy since the passing of the Truman years is that is has been both dishonest and ineffective. It has been in the hands of mean-spirited men who have believed too often that routine lying is the essence of diplomacy. But men like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon (and their minions, who were and are legion) hardly ever fooled the enemy. They did, however, fool us and above all . . . themselves.
There is no question that the American nation is tired, that it no longer looks for, or will even accept, foreign adventures. I see no cause for alarm in this domestic trend. The people are rebuking their leaders—and showing themselves to be wiser than those pretentious men who wasted the national substance. (I am not merely talking about money, though no one should dream for a moment that the worldwide fever of inflation, far from subsided yet, does not derive in large measure from the economic policies of the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon administrations in covertly pursuing the war in Indochina. Nevertheless, I am far more concerned with the waste of lives, idealism, honor, and the habit of popular trust of government which the adventures in Vietnam and Cambodia caused.)
I am, however, badly worried by the simple exhaustion of America—after the squandering of intellectual talents and emotional vigor over the last two decades and more. All the while we have been posturing before the world, our domestic realities have been growing shabby. I am not merely talking about the decay of the inner city, the spoliation of nature, and the hundred other popular (and possibly frivolous and diversionary) causes which the country, rebuked abroad, seeks to embrace by way of solace. The grave fact is that America in hard material terms—technological terms, economic terms—is a declining power. Its dollar is not undervalued abroad. The low regard for the dollar in Zurich and Frankfurt and Tokyo is the nearly exact evaluation that foreigners put on the American society's ability to produce and compete abroad and earn the things it wishes to consume at home.
America has lost more than morale in the last two or three decades. It has lost genuine qualities. Even its military skills are fading. (If anyone doubts that, it might be worth studying the real events surrounding the evacuation of Phnom Penh and Saigon and the botched rescue of the steamer Mayagüez.)
It is as stark as this: America today is like Britain in the 1950's. It is the inner strength of the country that is going, its productivity, social cohesion, seriousness. Just as for Britain, there are practical choices to be made in America—on the inner front. Ultimately the choices reduce themselves to one: up or down. But make no mistake. Just as for Britain, there is a way down.
Diana Trilling: The dramatic antitheses offered as premises for this discussion seem to me to achieve their vividness at some cost in historical precision.
I am not at all confident that fifteen years ago the OPEC action on the price of oil would have been met with force or its threat. The only time that I can recall in recent decades when Americans readily countenanced the use of military threat as an instrument of political pressure was in the Cuban missile crisis, and that was in response to an overt military undertaking directed against us in which Soviet missile sites were installed a short eighty miles off our own coast.
I also question whether fifteen years ago “the ruling elements of American society were convinced that the United States was on the whole a good society and a desirable model for others to follow.” If among the ruling elements of our society we include—as surely we must—intellectuals and other opinion-formers, few of them who consider themselves liberal held this conviction at that time. A striking thing about President Kennedy and Robert Kennedy was that they could appear to dissent from the American national ideal even while they fully subscribed to it—which is why they were so seductive of intellectuals.
As to Kennedy's statement that the United States “would pay any price . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” probably no President would venture such a pronouncement today but, here again, to remind us of Kennedy's bold rhetoric without remarking the existence fifteen years ago of a body of opinion opposed to such a view is to suggest a consensus which didn't in fact obtain. Even in 1960 the idea that America had the right to set itself up as the guardian of liberty throughout the world was regarded with abhorrence by many influential members of the intellectual community.
I stress the historical point because I think it is important to keep it in mind that the attitudes prevalent in our society, to which this symposium asks us to address ourselves, are not new. They have been in the making throughout the century and had an early significant manifestation in the 30's when our best-educated classes first began in large numbers to embrace the belief that American democracy fell short of our proper expectations, especially vis-à-vis Communism. Robbed of the old authority of religion, with reason their sole guide, it was no doubt inevitable for people of good will in this century to look toward secular salvation; in politics, as Daniel P. Moynihan reminds us in “The United States in Opposition,” this proposed the socialist ideal and the discreditation of capitalism. The United States never had a political advance guard as organized, as theoretically formulated, and as established as the English Fabians, but throughout the 30's and into the 40's American intellectuals were substantially divided between Communist fellow-travelers, conscious or unconscious, and Rooseveltian progressives, with considerable intermarriage between the two groups. Roosevelt himself could join to his courageous and enlightened programs of social reform within our own country the bland blind refusal to be worried by Communism, a tolerance which at the end of the war deprived millions of East Europeans of their lives or their freedom.
Since the 40's the explicit Communist prefererence no longer informs our progressive thought and even the democratic-socialist possibility has lost virtually the whole of its appeal to our political imaginations. What has remained to us is only our dissatisfaction with our own democracy or perhaps with all democracy; that is, with all government of our own contrivance and in our own control—this plus, of course, a notable residue of tenderness toward those countries which have rid themselves of the profit system, no matter what price they pay for the change. In the 50's and 60's the Communist bias was replaced by what might be called a liberal neutralism which, like all neutralisms, represented a weighty anti-Americanism. In our present decade this un-neutral neutralism yields to an extreme of American self-denigration and guilt which chiefly centers in the Vietnam situation and Watergate. According to the progressive opinion of our present period, our Vietnam involvement was not a mistake in strategy which inexorably developed into a political and moral catastrophe; even in its inception it is thought to be definitive of American greed and corruption, an aspect, so to speak, of what would become Watergate—and it is worth noting that opponents of the war found it perfectly suitable to demonstrate under Vietcong flags. And the disaster of Watergate has been made to underscore our disqualification for leadership or even for respect in the world, particularly as measured against the Communist nations.
The weakness we now suddenly discover in America's stance in international affairs is thus not a sudden inexplicable phenomenon. It has been well prepared for through many years of democratic self-doubt. What makes for the acute anxiety of our present period is the fact that while we have been nourishing ourselves on dubiety and adverse self-judgment, the Communist countries have been building their alliances where they can be most damaging to us, and the Arab nations have been coming to a new fierce perception of their strength.
There are others who will be contributing to this discussion who have far more knowledge and skill than I have to apply to the specific problems we now confront in the world. I will be much surprised if they tell us that we can expect a reversal of the present course of world events and a rousing improvement in the democratic prospect. Yet a shift in power or alignment is always conceivable, depending upon accidents of history or alterations in attitude. At any rate, without an alteration in American cultural attitude which would effect a change in political view, we live without hope.
This alteration requires, first of all, a reduction in the political-social superego—it is appropriate, I think, to borrow the terminology of psychoanalysis since, together with Marxism, the Freudian deterministic science was so closely attendant on the loss of the authority of religion and so influential in impelling us toward an ideal of personal and social perfectibility. Even before Watergate our liberal progress in this country was matched by a constantly mounting moral exigency and by an inability to accede in our inadequate humanity. But since the carnival of righteousness which was Watergate, our self-questioning and scrupulosity push us beyond limit.
A current television advertisement for Lifebuoy soap has the slogan: “It isn't enough to be clean, you gotta smell clean.” Just so in our moral-political life, it isn't enough to be clean, we must smell clean. I am not suggesting that ours is a political immaculacy which puts us beyond suspicion: we are as foul as most—and better than some. But politics is nothing if not the disposition, manipulation, and augmentation of power, and if we keep on moralizing the processes of power we are likely to end up as ineffectual as we are sweet-smelling. Between a sensible vigilance, such as is required by the simple knowledge that power invites corruption, and our present too-ardent pursuit of virtue which persuades us that we have no need either of defense budgets or intelligence officers because were we sufficiently pure in heart we would have no enemies to guard against or spy upon, the difference is crucial. The former protects the health of the polity, the latter impedes its vital functions in the world of political reality.
During the necessary task of ridding ourselves of Nixon's ugly connivings and dangerous usurpations of prerogative, there were no voices, or certainly none that I heard, which, while encouraging us in this undertaking, warned us of the psychic-moral consequences to the polity of our indulging in so much conspicuous display of high-minded censoriousness. There was no one to tell us that although, like our departure from Vietnam, the Watergate investigation was obligatory, it was an obligation to be discharged in the utmost gravity, in a spirit of tragic acceptance rather than of gleeful moral triumph. The reason for this deficiency is plain enough: ours is a progressive culture in which it is believed that to concern ourselves with such trivia as devising the best possible circumstances for withdrawal from Vietnam or to adumbrate psychological and social considerations to our distaste for Nixon is to give comfort to the enemies of the good.
As clearly as in the old Westerns our political culture makes its division between the good guys and the bad guys, the cadres of decency and of darkness, the choices we are permitted and those we are forbidden. Indeed, perhaps in nothing so much as in our either/or approach to politics are we constrained by the disabling simplifications of neurosis.
And if I may say so, I submit in evidence even the way in which this symposium, conceived for purposes of free discussion, attests to our continuously-felt impulse to polarization. Behind the firm symmetry of its premises there lies what to me is a pair of awful alternatives, not entirely explicit but easily made so: either we concur in the abdicatory attitudes which have been building up in this country or, divesting ourselves of our passivity, rejecting the spirit of Munich, we stand ready once more to invoke military action, once again to assert our conviction that the United States is the best possible model for the world to follow, once more to close our eyes to our shortcomings and instead pin our attention on our accomplishments.
I find these alternatives unacceptable; I have no taste for either side of such an opposition. I do not concur in the abdication of American power. I see the existence of nations as the existence of power-entities and I believe that America as a whole, in which I include liberal America, must regain and freshly demonstrate its confidence in its democratic purpose. But this does not mean that I acquiesce in the idea that the way out of passivity is by ready threat of force—never were statesmanship, diplomatic ingenuity (call it cunning), economic shrewdness, and daring demanded as they are today when they are in such disastrously short supply. Nor does it mean that I invite the rest of the world to admire and emulate my own country; I have no such mission to the heathen. The fact that with our remarkable resources we have been so little successful in solving our own problems puts a considerable brake on any desire I may have to put America forward as a shining example.
Robert W. Tucker: what is the implicit logic of the statement to which we are asked to respond? Is it not that a marked change in American foreign policy has occurred and that this change must be attributed largely to a marked change in the outlook of American elites? If the legitimacy of American civilization is broadly questioned today by the elites, then the legitimacy of American interests abroad—and, of course, the use of American power in defense of those interests—must also be questioned. The suggestion is conveyed that a new isolationism has taken hold—however disguised it may be as a new internationalism of interdependence, etc.—the roots of which are ultimately moral and spiritual.
In part, there is surely a simpler and less controversial explanation of recent American foreign policy. It may be summed up in one word: Watergate. However one characterizes the outlook of the elites today, this outlook cannot be very different from what it was only two years ago. Yet in the winter of 1973, with Nixon triumphant, it would not have occurred to many to characterize American foreign policy as passive and defensive. At home, Nixon had not only turned back challenges to the powers he inherited, but had added still further to the already impressive powers passed on to him by his predecessors. On more than one occasion he did so in open defiance of his adversaries, particularly in Congress. Then came Watergate, a badly weakened President (and Presidency), and an ascending Congress. The effects on foreign policy of this sudden shift have been considerable and are likely to be felt until 1977. Whether the Executive power in foreign relations will once again acquire the dimensions it possessed in the recent past remains an open question. That this power will be substantially reasserted seems not unlikely. If it is successfully reasserted, the past two years may appear in retrospect as little more than an interregnum.
There are of course deeper trends that have marked American foreign policy in the present period and that cannot be accounted for simply in institutional terms. The often quoted speech of John F. Kennedy is perhaps as indicative as any statement could be of the change that has occurred in American foreign policy since the period of the classic cold war. The Kennedy administration represented the high point of what may be termed “liberal internationalism.” In its grand formulation, liberal internationalism had as its guiding purpose the creation and maintenance, primarily through American leadership and power, of a stable world order that would insure the triumph of liberal-capitalist values.
Liberal internationalism inspired the Marshall Plan. But it also inspired the intervention in Vietnam. It is no more legitimate to find in Vietnam the perversion of liberal internationalism, as liberal critics of the war have done, than to find in Vietnam the quintessential expression of liberal internationalism, as radical critics of the war have done. If the Marshall Plan and the intervention in Vietnam represented two very different sides of the coin of liberal internationalism, as they represented two very different sides of containment, they were still two sides of the same coin. Both sides were implicit in our postwar policy, and both were implicit in the most striking expression of this policy—the Truman Doctrine. (Indeed, the Kennedy statement is, on this view, little more than a variation on one essential theme of the Truman Doctrine.) The very disparate consequences of this policy were due to the very disparate circumstances in which the same basic policy was applied.
Should we decry the waning of an outlook and policy that led to Vietnam? There is no easy answer to this question, since the same outlook and policy, as already noted, also led to consequences we cannot but approve. Liberal internationalism by the 1960's expressed the triumph of an expansionist and imperial interest, an interest that could no longer be plausibly represented in conventional security terms and that, given the circumstances in which it was now applied, could be vindicated only by resort to costly and odious means. The domestic reaction to, and debate over, Vietnam pointed to the conclusion that this interest could not be sustained, at least by the methods which sustained it in the 1960's. The Nixon-Kissinger innovation consisted primarily in the attempt to preserve the substance of this interest while largely abandoning the outlook that had heretofore informed it and while promising that it could be preserved by different and less painful means. Events of the past year or so have put that innovation to the test, and though the results are still incomplete, the tentative verdict does not suggest that the test has been successfully met. In the vast arc that ranges from the Western Mediterranean to North Asia, American authority and influence have markedly declined. Elsewhere, the same decline is also apparent.
Does it matter? Several years ago a negative response would have seemed to me apparent. But that response was predicated largely on the expectation that Western Europe and Japan would increasingly play the political role their economic power allows them to play. This expectation has not materialized and shows little sign of doing so. The security of Western Europe and Japan remains as dependent today on American power as in earlier years. It may even be argued that this dependence has, if anything, increased. This is due not only to the relative growth in military power of the Soviet Union. It is also due to the increasing conflicts of interest that have come to characterize North-South relationships. Whereas the United States still retains the ability to reduce very markedly dependencies on imports from the developing countries, the same cannot be said of the nations of Western Europe and Japan. In the absence of the means and the will to enforce the order of the past, the latter nations will remain vulnerable to disruptive pricing policies and other measures taken by the new states, measures which may ultimately threaten social and political instability in Western Europe and Japan. Were this prospect to materialize, could we reasonably expect the Soviet Union to act with restraint and to refrain from taking advantage of opportunities offered? There is little in the record of Russian behavior to suggest that we could. And even in the absence of the Soviet Union, there would still remain the problem of insuring an orderly distribution of the world product and the promise of orderly growth.
These considerations point to the continued need of American power in the world, despite the excesses to which that power was put in the past decade. Yet the need and the legitimacy of this power is insistently questioned at home and abroad. At home, it is questioned, however inarticulately, by a public that has increasingly shifted its priorities to domestic concerns and that is apparently no longer deterred from doing so by the fear of Communist expansion. That fear could once again be revived, but it would require very clear and unmistakable developments to do so, and these do not appear likely in the near future. In the absence of such events, the public will only support—or tolerate—a foreign policy that does not place onerous demands upon it.
It may be argued that it is not the public's outlook but the outlook of elites that must prove decisive for understanding contemporary developments and for projecting the future courses of American foreign policy. Even if this is true, there is no longer a consensus among elites over American policy. Or, one may say, to the extent that there is a consensus today, it is a negative one and centers around the critical issue of American power and the narrow limits within which its threat or use may now be sanctioned. In some measure, it is appropriate to find this change toward the use of American power in a skepticism over the interests and purposes for which power would be employed. That skepticism may in turn be rooted in a skepticism over the worth of American society and its values. To radical elites, and even to some liberal elites, America has become and remains a repressive force in the world and, so long as it retains its present institutions and values, American power is bound to be used for regressive ends. This version of a new isolationism must be distinguished, though, from another variant of a new isolationism which finds in a policy holding out the constant prospect of military intervention a grave threat to America's institutions and well-being. The anti-interventionist bias of the latter variant of a new isolationism does not—at least, need not—reflect a disenchantment with America. It may question whether most of the world either can or wishes to emulate the American example. I would certainly raise that question. But then so did Dean Acheson.
In the main, it would seem, the present anti-interventionist disposition of the regnant liberal elites may be traced to the Vietnam experience, to the conviction that military power has lost most of its former utility (and its legitimacy, save in the most restrictively defined circumstances), and to the belief that almost all conflicts of interest may—indeed, must—be resolved by the politics of pacific interdependence. One may seriously question, as I do, the faith currently placed in interdependence. One may even argue that at some point its pursuit becomes the functional equivalent of a new form of isolationism that masquerades in the guise of a new internationalism. However misplaced, this faith need have no apparent roots in a disenchantment with American society. Nor should it be seen as a rejection of American interests in the world, but as a new prescription for retaining those interests. The question is whether it will work, and if not, as I believe not, what interests will be sacrificed before there is a return to more traditional methods.
It seems excessive to characterize current expectations of a new and benign international order that will dispense with the methods of the old as a resurgence of “the spirit of Munich.” Yet it must be admitted that recent developments have revealed an unwillingness bordering on an inability to accept the truism that any international order ultimately rests upon the ability and willingness of the principal beneficiaries of order to maintain and employ such power as is necessary to preserve their interests. One can only hope the truism will be rediscovered before the price paid for ignoring it has become too apparent.
1 “The United States in Opposition,” March 1975.
2 “Liberal Anti-Communism Revisited,” September 1967.