Doves & Hawks
To the Editor:
I enjoyed reading of John Updike’s feelings about the Vietnam era, and I admire him for having had the courage not to yield to the misguided current of opinion predominant, then and now, in his milieu [“On Not Being a Dove,” March]. . . .
It makes me a bit uncomfortable, however, that the clarity of Mr. Updike’s vision in 1966—when he favored U.S. intervention—has seemingly become somewhat clouded. . . . At the end of his essay, he speaks of the Vietnam episode as “the whole sorry thing.” Does the fact that our intervention did not have a happy outcome mean that it was morally flawed all along? What was immoral in my opinion was rather our failure to pursue the war vigorously enough to bring it to a quick end and thus preserve an independent South Vietnam.
Perhaps some of Mr. Updike’s ambiguity stems from his apparent perception that the reason for our being in Vietnam was that we had been challenged, and “credibility must be maintained.” That is quite valid. However, there was another perfectly good reason for our intervention, rooted in our obligations as a member of the United Nations. Collective security was supposed to be a basic principle of the UN; an attack on one country is an attack on all. The Security Council was supposed to deal with breaches of the peace, but the UN Charter (Article 51) specifically recognized the right of individual and collective self-defense. We, and some of our SEATO allies, were helping South Vietnam defend itself from external aggression. Not even the Hanoi regime bothers any longer to deny that the great majority of the troops who fought as “indigenous rebels” in South Vietnam were actually from the North. The idea that this was a “civil war,” and that Ho Chi Minh had some sacred right to “reunify” by force an “artificially divided nation,” was simply fatuous. I still do not understand why the U.S. government failed to use the UN Charter argument to greater effect during the war. . . .
J. Edgar Williams
Carrboro, North Carolina
To the Editor:
Being almost of one age with John Updike and almost of one birthplace—close enough for our Lititz High to have played his Shillington High in football during the war years—I was very moved by his essay. I am not sure, however, if I am also almost of one mind with him.
True, he says so very very well what I thought, felt, and experienced back in those years, being at odds with the peaceniks; and the reasons for his departure from the New Yorker were very like mine (though his departure as a writer was of course a good deal more significant than mine as a subscriber). But what he does not say is whether or not he eventually changed his voting habits. He recounts in great detail what he did during many election years, telling us, for example, that he voted for McGovern in 1972 and even telling us where he cast his vote (in Moscow, in absentia). But nothing is said about 1980 and 1984. Did he eventually see the light? I would like to know whether he is my political as well as geographical landsmann.
Even if Mr. Updike failed to vote for Ronald Reagan, he has my complete admiration for speaking out. Speaking out is not a popular thing to do among members of the Word Class (a term I use . . . because I cannot bring myself to call Dan Rather, or many a professor, for that matter, an intellectual). One loses friends if one speaks out these days. . . .
The academic world thrives on conformity to leftist notions. This is not because it is populated in the main by leftists, but because professors from the Center and the Right of the political spectrum won’t speak out, partly out of fear of losing friends. There are many non-leftist university officials (deans, provosts, presidents, and the like) who in private will tell you, or who in their heart of hearts know, that the various infringements on free speech in our universities are wrong, but who either say nothing or join in the nonsense. Otherwise they would not only suffer social snubs, they would be inundated with petitions, phone calls, and various forms of public reproach. . . .
The general run of professors is a spineless crowd that proved its cowardice during the Children’s Revolution of 1968 and has continued ever since to reaffirm its devotion to inaction on behalf of principle. The notion of courage has taken on a new and trivial meaning. When in 1980 I told a colleague I had voted for Reagan, his reaction was, “A lot of people seem to have voted for him. At least you have the courage to say so.” I had not known before then that it was a matter of courage to say whom you voted for in this great land of ours, and moreover in the university, that bastion of free speech, that marketplace of ideas, where the free interplay, etc. etc.
So I congratulate John Updike for his courage in speaking out, then and now. On the other hand, my colleagues consider me, I think, mostly a fool, not a man of courage, so perhaps my congratulations are not very flattering.
Richard L. Leed
Ithaca, New York
To the Editor:
John Updike has written a most eloquent work. The root causes of this “‘crazy’ time,” as Mr. Updike aptly dubs it, were complex, but a crucial factor was surely the nature of this war—a war in which, as he puts it, “an empire tried to carry out an ugly border action. . . .” Old imperial powers such as Great Britain could conduct “border actions,” but democratic America is especially ill-suited for such enterprises.
“Democracy fights in anger,” as George Kennan put it many years ago—not only before Vietnam but before Korea, and obviously with World War II in mind. A corollary to Kennan’s insight must surely be that “border actions”—wars waged indecisively for complicated geopolitical and strategic objectives—were bound to prove extremely troublesome.
“What was Vietnam but Korea again?” asks Mr. Updike. Korea was our other, now largely forgotten, “border action.” That period was also a “‘crazy’ time”—it was just “crazy” in a different way. The words “treason” and “traitor” (with reference to Truman and Secretary of State Dean Acheson) were heard then in the halls of Congress, and across the country, in many communities, the two were publicly vilified and even burned in effigy; demands for the President’s impeachment were not infrequent. When Truman left office in January 1953, he had an even lower approval rating in the polls than Richard Nixon had when he resigned in 1974.
In both Korea and Vietnam, the longer the “border action” went on the more virulent became the backlash at home. Protracted “border actions” are incompatible with the democratic temperament, with our impatience with unpleasant things, and with the American penchant for quick fixes.
What is most difficult to understand were the strategies of our policy-makers. With the Korean experience still in recent memory, they essentially did in Vietnam what they had done before—only it was worse the second time around (and not only because South Korea survived while South Vietnam did not). . . . How well our policymakers understood their Marxist adversaries is still very much an open question, but their understanding of their own people was obviously deficient.
James E. Salyers
To the Editor:
John Updike’s attempt to give a Christian justification for war cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. It is stretching it more than a bit to include the killing of government-defined enemies among the things that Jesus would have had his followers “render unto Caesar.” After all, didn’t the same Jesus teach his followers to “love your enemies, pray for your persecutors” (Matthew 5:44), and “offer no resistance to injury” (Matthew 5:39)?
It is also stretching it to use Jesus’ driving out of the moneychangers from the Temple as an argument for military killing.
The “sword” that Jesus brought was not a weapon of steel but a call for a faith and a way of life that would sharply divide those who accept the call from those who do not. . . .
To the Editor:
I found the article by John Updike very moving. It reflected my own feelings at the time almost exactly. Mr. Updike describes his refusal to watch films about the war—the shame and rage that he felt—and I recalled how I, in some of my own barbaric musings, had visualized Jane Fonda being hanged, drawn, and quartered. . . .
And yet in a sense the war was a manifestation of an idea that originated in the 19th century (though in fact it is still with us), the idea of Manifest Destiny. But Manifest Destiny is really just another way of saying vanity. . . .
Then again, there is a lot of luck involved in these adventures. Truman was lucky in Korea. . . . Johnson and Nixon were not lucky.
If our Manifest Destiny is to include the whole world, I think we will need a great deal of luck.
Edward H. Malone
Morehead City, North Carolina
John Updike writes:
The United States’ intervention in Vietnam is history, and I tried to recall my conflicted feelings and muddy opinions about it not in order to rehash arguments in a matter where, for better or worse, the decisions have all been made; my purpose was to explore myself, specifically my instincts and prejudices concerning power and pain, in the course of a slowly assembled autobiographical volume called Self-Consciousness. The chapter of this book, entitled “On Not Being a Dove,” of which COMMENTARY printed a considerable excerpt, follows chapters discussing my skin and my stuttering, and treats my own curious resistance to the peace movement and my hitherto-hidden conservative streak as another pathological topic. Unease is what I felt about presuming to hold any opinion, and unease is what I still feel.
In the light of the actual results of our intervention, I think most Americans could now agree that an ideally wise and prescient administration would have kept us out of Vietnam. Those who suggest, like J. Edgar Williams, that we should have vigorously prosecuted the war to a successful conclusion forget, I think, the real danger of superpower intervention from the other side, as well as the understandable distaste of many South Vietnamese for any government seemingly imposed upon them by a white Western nation. And in the light of today’s geopolitics one might even ask if the existence of a Communistic Vietnam with its stagnation and miseries has not done more for the cause of capitalism than would have our strenuous sustaining of another economically competitive, imperfectly democratic Asiatic client state like South Korea.
In answer to Richard L. Leed’s question, I voted twice against Ronald Reagan, while admiring his style and some of his policies; his ability to reverse or abandon a course while not surrendering an iota of abstract fervor demonstrated the touch of a true leader. And I did not, of course, abandon the New Yorker as a writer—I needed the magazine, and loved it—but only as a very occasional contributor to the editorials of “Notes and Comment.” I cannot feel my contributions were missed.
I am grateful to James E. Salyers for recalling the violent unpopularity of the Korean action; among the crucial differences, I would suggest that the nation, a mere five years after triumphing in the global bloodbath of World War II, still had a fighting habit, and that our Communist adversaries, not yet masters of surrogate guerrilla actions, aroused, with their overt aggressions, our democracy’s anger enough to last the three years needed to secure the status quo ante on the Korean peninsula.
In answer to Mr. Williams, I thought that the actual results—a Communist regime in Saigon, a waste of destruction and death throughout Vietnam, and a polarized and cynical populace at home—made the thing sorry, rather than a moral flaw in the attempt to keep Vietnam’s southern half in the “free-world” camp. But even a noble attempt must be realistically gauged and effectively pursued.
Harry Chisholm does not persuade me that Christianity is a pacifist religion, though it may be a shade less bloodthirsty than Islam. The Hebrew Bible and the history of Christian nations abound in wars heartily waged in God’s name, against so-called infidels and heretics. Religions are based, my sense of it is (and hence my quote from the Bhagavad-Gita), in a transcendent revaluation of the brutal and wearisome earthly facts, rather than in a revolutionary faith in the lasting value of replacing one government by another. The prominence of so many Christian clergy in the peace movement I took to signify more a witnessing of the inward “new order” than a reasoned belief that the old order, under which our nation has so remarkably prospered, had passed away.
And of Edward H. Malone I ask, “Why blame Jane Fonda?” She risked her popularity if not her life in what she perceived as a good and necessary cause, and, these two decades later, attacks on her do no honor, I think, to those hundreds of thousands of Americans who served in Vietnam under the terrible cloud of ambiguity, of ill-defined and diminishing purpose. Polk was very lucky, Mr. Malone might have added, in Mexico, in the much-deplored but swiftly achieved conquest that rounded off our national territory. Vietnam may have been the place where our Manifest Destiny ran out of prompt manifestations, but our withdrawal did not end, the years since indicate to me, America’s usefulness to the world, as a power player and, more pervasively, as an example of the human energy unleashed by a government that trusts people with most of the decisions that affect their lives.