To the Editor:
. . . To Michael Harrington our involvement in Vietnam is a tragedy so obvious he will not argue it [“Voting the Lesser Evil,” April] . . . With eloquence and in repetitive detail he attributes everything that is wrong in the country to the war, without offering proof or supporting documentation. . . .
I believe my credentials as a liberal are no less worthy than Mr. Harrington’s, yet I disagree with him on every point. I see no sign, for example, that our relations with Russia have worsened because of our intervention in Vietnam. If anything, I believe that intervention will help prevent World War III. To me, the parallel with Munich is exact. Nor can I accept Mr. Harrington’s thesis that but for the Vietnam war, huge sums of money would be readily made available to combat poverty. . . . I should say that the resistance to spending more money than we are already spending is not due to the war but rather to the fact that apart from urging the expenditure of huge sums, no one has as yet come up with a program that appears possible of accomplishment. . . .
I am not disturbed by the fact that Mr. Harrington holds views that I regard as false, even dangerous. What disturbs me is his tone of righteousness, which he shares with so many intellectuals, writers, and academicians who write in the same vein. . . . This is not the proper tone for a liberal, any more than the conduct of the war protesters is liberal conduct. Throwing rocks, bottles, bags of blood on opponents, breaking up their meetings, is disturbingly reminiscent of the days of the Brown-shirts. So, too, is the piling of thunderous assertion upon thunderous assertion, dire charge upon dire charge, relying not on reason to persuade, but on the voice of authority—insistent, repetitive, emotional.
Herman A. Gray
Shekomeko, New York
To the Editor:
. . . Speaking as a classical liberal rather than as a modern socio-liberal (who equates salvation with the increasing penetration of government into every facet of life) and also as a humanitarian, who recognizes that indulgent paternalism does more harm than good to mankind. . . . I should like to say that the first coalition this, or any other country, needs is one that is willing to admit that government can give nothing, material or spiritual, that it has not first taken from the body politic.
I agree with Michael Harrington that the Vietnam war is a horrendous mistake, and I am for getting out of there immediately, but I do hope the energies and monies and materials that can be diverted from destruction to construction can be more intelligently directed than toward such recent boondoggles as the “War on Poverty”. . . .
We need to apply our every resource to making this an even better country, but not to creating additional bureaucratic layers to smother the poor and insult the taxpayers even further.
Kinston, North Carolina
To the Editor:
Michael Harrington charges the New Left with lacking “serious political substance” and cites as illustration Carl Oglesby’s comment that American liberalism “bridges all the old contradictions and closes the wounds of America.” Harrington’s point is that by generalizing from the behavior of a few “corporate liberals” to those, including himself, he calls “reformers,” the New Left cuts itself off from organized labor, most Negroes, and the middle class.
Harrington’s article might have served as Oglesby’s Exhibit A. He argues (a) that “the American involvement in Vietnam constitutes the strongest right-wing force in our domestic political life”; (b) that there is no “political hope to push forward with social programs as long as the commitment to Vietnam continues”; (c) that “any strategy which seeks to mute the issue of Vietnam in order to forward the struggle against injustice within the United States is self-defeating”; and (d) that Johnson, having gotten us into the mess, is overcommitted to present policy and for this and various other reasons, cannot get us out. So far so good. Had Harrington stopped here, readers would have correctly concluded that a vote for Johnson or Humphrey, given their present Vietnam policy, could in no way be justified by their promises for domestic reform. But oddly enough, Harrington’s conclusion is just the opposite: because, he concludes, no third party or democratic dove can be elected (e.g., McCarthy) and since Nixon is the probable Republican choice, “I would vote for Johnson on the grounds that he is clearly to be preferred on domestic questions.” Thus, by Harrington’s logic we should embrace a politics which is “self-defeating” and constitutes “the strongest right-wing force in our domestic political life.” . . .
Harrington justifies his position by stressing the importance of maintaining an alliance with organized labor, Negroes, and the middle class (even if they support Johnson and the war) because they are “the only hope for progressive social change.” The question is how to exert influence on the decision-making of these groups without totally compromising your position (which would render influence meaningless) or totally isolating your position (which would prevent the exerting of influence). He admits that peace is the major issue and that “every issue is a function of the war”: yet he votes for the administration seemingly because those he seeks to influence mistakenly think LBJ can improve things at home without altering foreign involvements. But if on domestic issues coalitions with sympathetic groups is crucial, are they not even more crucial on this absolutely central issue of peace? Or will peace come about through some magic exerted by loyal John sonians? What the New Left has argued from the beginning is that the war will end only when a significant minority of Americans unite in withholding their support from any and every candidate who refuses to make peace: such a mass is difficult to organize and sustain but anything else is, in Harrington’s own words, “self-defeating.”
Harrington’s identification with administration supporters is as politically sterile as the deliberate isolation of certain extremist elements. Acknowledging that meaningful coalitions can be formed only after one has established an independent base of support, the New Left has set out to organize Negroes, laborers, and professionals around political alternatives which are more responsive to the needs of these groups than those which the Democratic party offers. One reason such groups have not been organized effectively in the past is because those who might design and lead such a new politics have, every four years, been quick to scurry into the ranks of the major parties. The Peace and Freedom Party, the Black Panther Party, and SDS are attempts to breed the kinds of political leadership that will not simply come when called by Washington but will fight with integrity for the programs their constituencies demand. Certainly the politics of the future will not win immediately; but this is no reason, as Harrington apparently feels, to cling desperagely to the “self-defeating” strategies of the past.
Mr. Harrington writes:
I am sorry that Mr. Gray does not like the vigor of my argument. I publicly opposed “throwing rocks . . .” and all the rest. I am flabbergasted, however, that Mr. Gray equates allegedly “thunderous assertions” in an article with such violence and even with Nazism. Such a Joe McCarthyite identification of advocacy, however strident, and criminal acts of anti-libertarianism would effectively annul the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Mr. Rider hopes that the monies freed by an end to the Vietnam tragedy will be more intelligently used than in the present “war” on poverty. So do I. He thinks that the current program is bad because it is a bureaucratic boondoggle. I believe its problems derive from the utter inadequacy of the funds and the consequent failure to provide a meaningful, decent job, or else a livable income, to every American.
Either Mr. Stark cannot read or else he distorts maliciously. In effect he charges that I idiotically draw the reactionary conclusion of voting for the Johnson administration from the correct premise that this same administration’s Vietnam policy has driven the entire country to the Right. In fact, I advocated support of Senator Eugene McCarthy, the man whom Mr. Stark’s favored Peace and Freedom Party was denouncing at the very moment that he was making peace in Vietnam an issue in the mainstream of American politics, and who did so much more for the cause than the counter-productive gesture-politics of many New Leftists. After Robert Kennedy declared, I supported him because he seemed to have the better possibility of uniting the white working class and the black poor and of thus bringing middle-class liberals and radicals into a genuine majority coalition.
After the tragic murder of Robert Kennedy, all the political arguments that led me to support his candidacy convinced me to back Eugene McCarthy. Kennedy lost his life in seeking a “new politics.” McCarthy is now the only man who can continue that struggle.
In my article, I further said that the issue of Vietnam is so crucial that I would reluctantly vote for a Republican dove as against Johnson. Finally, I argued that if the choice were Nixon-the-Hawk versus Johnson-the-Hawk I would vote for the latter because of his superior domestic record but “make it quite clear that this eventuality strikes me as a failure of the democratic system. . . .” Mr. Stark reduces these complexities to the simple untruth that I endorsed Johnson.
Finally, Mr. Stark says that the New Left has “set out to organize Negroes, laborers, and professionals. . . .” Fine. However, it hasn’t organized any Negroes but only concluded a few shaky alliances with Black Power groups which are almost as contemptuous of white New Leftists, particularly if they are Jewish, as they are of white liberals. The New Left has not, of course, enrolled any laborers. Moreover, where the working poor have taken the first steps toward controlling their own destiny—the grape strikers in California, the hospital workers in New York, the sanitation men in Memphis—the victory has been won with the active support of the trade-union movement. There are indeed college and graduate students and professionals who have been recruited to the New Left and many of them are, as I indicated in my original article, excellent and idealistic people following a bad tactic. I hope that they will come to realize that a really effective solidarity with the anguish of the Vietnamese demands that educated, privileged politicals cease isolating themselves contemptuously in purist organizations and reach out to the great mass of the American people.
To the Editor:
Daniel P. Moynihan’s “The Democrats, Kennedy & the Murder of Dr. King” [May] is a profoundly discouraging piece, indicating that Moynihan, and probably those members of the “liberal wing of the Democratic party” for whom he seems to speak, have learned very little from the national and international trauma from which this nation has suffered for the past three and a half years.
His gratuitous attack on the antiwar role of the New Left, for instance, consists of the same cold-war rhetoric which has infected this society since the end of the Second World War. He shows no more ability to comprehend why dissenters from the Vietnam War turned to despair and to the politics of despair than Dean Rusk shows in his statements about the origins of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Congratulating Americans for turning back the assault of youths who cry, “Hey, hey, LBJ: How many kids did you kill today?” he makes it seem a victory for good sense to have turned a deaf ear to their cries and to have ignored and scorned the convictions which motivate them.
Mr. Moynihan shows no interest at all in the larger questions raised by the dissenters on the Left, and positive scorn for what he considers their “savage assault on the central tenets of American foreign policy,” with which he, seemingly, is in complete agreement. Indeed, wishing away the entire moral question, he presents his own opposition to the war, and presumably that of those “liberals” for whom he speaks, as a dawning realization that, “To the very extent our objectives could be thought honorable, they probably could not be achieved.” Turning the tide of Asian revolutionary movements, evidently, meets his requirements for “honorable” though unattainable objectives, and he chooses to avoid discussing our presumably achievable though dishonorable objectives.
Mr. Moynihan clearly does not realize that this war differs from nearly all the major issues in the nations’s past, and consequently he is unwilling to recognize the necessity—a necessity faced boldly by the dissenters on college campuses and in the ranks of the New Left—to meet the war issue with forms of protest at times more extreme than those the country has become accustomed to witnessing in recent times. “We must hold on to the realization,” he informs us, “that reasoned and non-violent opposition to the course of American foreign policy did prevail. . . .” What he fails to say, however, is that “reasoned and non-violent opposition” on the part of his “liberals” was almost totally non-existent in the early years of Johnson’s policy of escalation. Perhaps they were waiting for the results to come in. . . .
Certainly they offered a minimum of support to those who recognized very early that honorable objectives requiring the suppression of native insurgents in a foreign country had no honor about them, and possessed instead only a blind, obsessive dedication to the outworn theories of a misunderstood age. Had the dissenters kept silent and relied on the “liberals” to act against this foreign policy, the stubborn roar of public opposition would have become an ineffective whisper and the administration could have justified any of its actions as possessing the approval of the public.
Mr. Moynihan’s essay goes on to pat American democracy on the back for weathering another storm and for again proving its vitality. As evidence, he cites President Johnson’s retirement, “as much as any event in our history . . . the work of the popular will.” Evidently, the popular will moves in strange ways, for coincidentally, the administration too has found this popular sentiment behind every policy it has undertaken, and no doubt if Johnson were to indicate his willingness to be drafted by the Democratic National Convention, or if Johnson and Rusk were to reescalate the conflict in Vietnam, popular opinion would be reported leading the way. . . . It is hopelessly naive to believe that the popular will has either made or unmade this war; if ever the system of American political democracy has shown itself to be a failure, it has been in the past several years when constitutional checks and balances were openly flaunted and when legitimate dissent was violently attacked in government, private life, and on the college campuses. Mr. Moynihan has little cause to rejoice on this account for his government’s performance.
Perhaps when the war is finally over, when complete amnesty is granted to the political exiles and full pardons obtained for the imprisoned servicemen, draft-card burners, and conscientious violators of the Selective Service laws, for those who made the hard moral decisions that most of the rest of us evaded on staunchly pragmatic grounds while we waited for the results to come in, perhaps then, after contemplating the horrors of death and destruction that we have been party to and fully repenting our actions, we can begin to rejoice a little in the basic decency we have shown by bringing this episode to a close and insuring that it is never reopened.
The first step, however, is to recognize that what we have done was based not merely on a basically sound though unattainable idea reflecting America’s sometimes misdirected but forgivable enthusiasm, as Moynihan would have it, but a deeply unsound, tragic doctrine reflecting America’s inability to understand the realities of the world situation in the middle of the 20th century. . . .
Les K. Adler
University of California
To the Editor:
Daniel P. Moynihan points with pride to . . . the “new economics” which has “nearly doubled the GNP since its adoption.”
He is referring, of course, to that mountain of machine-made trivia and mass-produced waste that, bearing no relation to rational human needs, seems to be buying us alive. Standing knee-deep in Mr. Moynihan’s “success” and inhaling its fumes make me sick with nostalgia for some of the failures of the old economics.
If our flatulent GNP is a measure of anything, it is a measure of the porcine proclivities of the largest middle class in man’s history, proclivities, incidentally, which our liberal economists and politicians dearly love catering to. . . .
The concerned and well meaning Moynihans, in or out of the power structure, could do much more for the preservation of our sanity . . . with a few more lessons in human ecology and a few less in con-man economics.
San Rafael, California
To the Editor:
. . . I agree with almost everything Daniel P. Moynihan wrote. I suppose I am one of those educated middle-class radicals he spoke of. I work for a state civil-rights agency—one of the best—I am in my forties and was raised in the liberal tradition. And I can barely articulate my sense of futility about what is to happen to us all.
I don’t think we are going to come out of it. I don’t think we really want to—enough. We are the victims of our own mythology and as fast as reality catches up with us we turn it into still another myth to play with and embellish and analyze. We older ones can afford to turn up our noses at LSD—we don’t need it, we have our own built-in turn-ons.
Every day I watch the myth-spinners, myself among them. The liberals have fashioned a world of language so chokingly complete that words have come to take the place of things. We use the militants, both black and white, to flagellate ourselves and we love it. Now that neighborhood people are getting into the act they, too, are learning the technique of how to look active while doing nothing. At first, hearing words like “dialogue” and “polarization” and “concern” coming from ghetto mouths is a bit disquieting, but then we feel pleased that they have paid us that greatest of compliments, that of imitation. . . .
I don’t know any answers. I don’t even know the questions any more. But a prediction I will make. The sleeping Goliath of the Right and the waking David of the Left will join and turn their combined strength against us and then we won’t have to do anything but die well with beautiful words on our lips.
Jean C. Burnett