To the Editor:
. . . Contrary to what James Nuechterlein [“Liberalism & Theodore H. White,” September 1982] and/or Theodore H. White maintain, liberalism in the 1980′s . . . is alive and well; it is more articulate and sharply defined, though chastened, than it has been for years. What did happen, I grant, is that an excess of misplaced guilt, dating from the mid-60′s, stampeded many adult liberals (who should have known better) into apologetic retreat as the New Left advanced; they are still sheepish captives, in the orbit of the Old Left and the pseudo-radicals who ironically have preempted the term “liberal.” Secondly, Vietnam was misinterpreted as a failure-cum-disgrace in itself, and—worse still—a judgment on the cold-war commitment in general. That misjudgment split and thinned the liberal ranks; it did drive the less informed and tough-minded liberals away, but it did not disaffect or demoralize the real ones. Thirdly, the world’s actual economic sufferings have shown the inadequacy of economic theory in general, and of many fine old liberal or New Deal economic policies in particular, so that suddenly the critiques of the “conservatives” appear pertinent to many genuine liberals. This is not because these liberals have turned conservative, but because their eyes are open and their minds are free. But none of these trends indicates a failure of liberalism.
Messrs. Nuechterlein and White might have seen this more clearly if they had not identified John Kennedy as a quintessential liberal. He never was. He represented neither liberalism’s compassionate Hubert Humphrey humanitarianism nor its gallant Adlai Stevenson anti-McCarthyism. He proved ultimately to be one of America’s greatest Presidents; but a judgment on him is no judgment on American liberalism at all.
Paul B. Johnson
James Nuechterlein writes:
Paul B. Johnson is free to define liberalism as he pleases. Perhaps he and his friends are, in some Platonic sense, the “real” liberals, though I am not sure from his description who or what would be included under that label. In any case, Mr. Johnson should understand that those who under the terms of his letter would be excluded from the ranks of “genuine” liberals constitute a majority of those who currently go by that name. His quarrel, I think, is less with me than with what those who call themselves liberals have been doing for the past fifteen years.