On Not Being a Dove
In the summer of 1966 on Martha’s Vineyard, where the mail was rendered sticky and soft by the damp salt air, as if permeated by a melting island unreality, I received a questionnaire from some British editors asking—in the manner of a book compiled, thirty years before, of opinions oh the Spanish Civil War—“Are you for, or against, the intervention of the United States in Vietnam?” and “How, in your opinion, should the conflict in Vietnam be resolved?” Had the questions arrived on the mainland, where I had so much else to do, I would probably have left them unanswered: but in the mood of islanded leisure and seclusion that I had come to afford I sat down at my makeshift desk and typed out, with some irritation, this response:
Like most Americans I am uncomfortable about our military adventure in South Vietnam; but in honesty I wonder how much of the discomfort has to do with its high cost, in lives and money, and how much with its moral legitimacy. I do not believe that the Vietcong and Ho Chi Minh have a moral edge over us, nor do I believe that great powers can always avoid using their power. I am for our intervention if it does some good—specifically, if it enables the people of South Vietnam to seek their own political future. It is absurd to suggest that a village in the grip of guerrillas has freely chosen, or that we owe it to history to bow before a wave of the future engineered by terrorists. The crying need is for genuine elections whereby the South Vietnamese can express their will. If their will is for Communism, we should pick up our chips and leave. Until such a will is expressed, and as long as no willingness to negotiate is shown by the other side, I do not see that we can abdicate our burdensome position in South Vietnam.
My discomfort increased when the New York Times, in a story covering the publication of Authors Take Sides on Vietnam in England, gave my impromptu response a prominence it never hoped to have. I wrote this letter to the editor:
I discover myself named, in the Times of September 18, as the lone American writer “unequivocally for” the United States intervention in Vietnam. How could anyone not be at least equivocal about an action so costly, so cruel in its details, so indecisive in its results? My statement, given in answer to an English questionnaire in August of 1966, says, “I am for our intervention if it does some good—specifically, if it enables the people of South Vietnam to seek their own political future.” In the year that has passed, reasons accumulate to doubt that it is doing enough good. The bombing of the North seems futile as well as brutal and should be stopped. Our massive military presence may be crushing the South Vietnamese initiative it is supposed to encourage. The abundance of terror and coercion on all sides, as far as an American newspaper reader can tell, severely diminishes the significance of that trusted instrument, popular election. No doubt the history of our involvement in this land includes unscrupulousness and stupidity; no doubt the Vietcong feeds upon actual discontent and injustice. I suspect the point is approaching, as for Spain in 1939, when peace at any price, even under a tyranny, is preferable to a continuing struggle. These—presented with consciousness of ignorance, by one too old for military service, and whose sons are too young—are my present feelings: these, plus the, I think, general dismay at the huge waste of material resources, the growing cost in lives, and the unaccountable influence of our party politics upon decisions vindicated in human blood.
I differ, perhaps, from my unanimously dovish confrères in crediting the Johnson administration with good faith and some good sense. Anyone not a rigorous pacifist must at least consider the argument that this war, evil as it is, is the lesser of available evils, intended to forestall worse wars. I am not sure that this is true, but I assume that this is the reasoning of those who prosecute it, rather than the maintenance of business prosperity or the President’s crazed stubbornness. I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the President, even when not lifted to the paranoid heights of MacBird; even the best of the negative accounts of our operations in South Vietnam, such as Mary McCarthy’s vivid reports or Jonathan Schell’s account of the destruction of Ben Sue, too much rely upon satirical descriptions of American officers and the grotesqueries of cultural superimposition. The protest seems too reflexive, too Pop; I find the statements, printed with mine, of Jules Feiffer and Norman Mailer, frivolous. Like W.H. Auden, I would hope, the sooner the better, for a “negotiated peace, to which the Vietcong will have to be a party,” and, like him, feel that it is foolish to canvass writers upon political issues. Not only do our views, as he says, “have no more authority than those of any reasonably well-educated citizen,” but in my own case at least I feel my professional need for freedom of speech and expression prejudices me toward a government whose constitution guarantees it. I recognize that what to me is essential may well be, to a peasant on the verge of starvation, an abstract luxury.
My letter, long as it seems, actually went on for another page, which the Times cut, and in which I said, my wheels beginning to spin, that “I would enjoy being released from the responsibility of having an opinion on the Vietnam involvement” and “indeed, I would be glad to be freed of all the duties of living in a powerful modern state—while continuing to accept, of course, the benefits,” but that “I cannot pretend to believe, though it would be convenient to do so, that our unilateral withdrawal from South Vietnam would serve the national interest or the cause of peace.” I even had a concrete proposal:
My one concrete proposal would be that President Johnson decline to run in 1968. That as a last service he terminate his life of valued service to the country, including five years in its highest office. Then, under a new President, of either party, insofar as our role in South Vietnam is the inevitable product of our world position, it will continue; insofar as it is the special result of self-perpetuating mistakes of the present leadership, it should cease.
To dip into Authors Take Sides on Vietnam is to inhale the poisonous vapors of a murky and quarrelsome time. The responses by Mailer and Feiffer that I found frivolous run, in part, “The truth is, maybe we need a war. It may be the last of the tonics. From Lydia Pinkham to Vietnam in sixty years, or bust” (Mailer), and “The solution to the problem is so simple I’m amazed it hasn’t occurred to anyone else. Lyndon Johnson should go on nationwide TV and say to the American people, ‘Ah have goofed’” (Feiffer). I did not notice, twenty years ago, this gem of a cheering thought by James Purdy: “Vietnam is atrocious for the dead and maimed innocent, but it’s probably sadder to be a live American with only the Madison Avenue glibbers for a homeland and a God.”
The Times to the contrary, I was not the only non-dove: James Michener, an old Asia hand, gave a lengthy geopolitical explanation, ranging from Thailand to Australia, as to why “I am driven by experience of the past and concern for the future to support my government’s stand in Vietnam,” and Marianne Moore in typical cadence responded, “It is short-sightedly irresponsible, I think, to permit Communist domination and acquiesce in the crushing of the weak by the strong. Can negotiation be imposed by force? Winston Churchill thought appeasement solved nothing.” W.H. Auden wrote, sensibly as always:
It goes without saying that war is an atrocious corrupting business, but it is dishonest of those who demand the immediate withdrawal of all American troops to pretend that their motives are purely humanitarian. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that it would be better if the Communists won. My answer to your question is, I suppose, that I believe a negotiated peace, to which the Vietcong will have to be a party, to be possible, but not yet, and that, therefore, American troops, alas, must stay in Vietnam until it is.
There was a great deal of discussion, in those pages from 1966, of the global threat posed by China, and of the Vietcong: who could have foreseen that the Vietcong, what was left of it after the Tet offensive, would be brusquely ignored by the North Vietnamese in their successful conquest of the South, or that China would become an uneasy friend of the United States and an enemy of the consolidated, militant Vietnamese nation?
My apologetic letter to the Times—blaming myself, as contritely as a victim of the Red Guards, for caring about freedom of speech—ended my public pronouncements on Vietnam. My usefulness as a sometime editorialist in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” came to an end some months later, with a brief “Notes and Comment” on President Johnson’s surprise announcement in late March of 1968 that—just as I had proposed—he would not run again. My little piece praised his decision as
a victory of imagination, for in one stroke he has added credibility to his search for peace, heightened the dignity of his office for the remainder of his term, and compelled the United States to take its electoral process seriously. The political stage, without him, seems rather thinly populated; and in the matter of Vietnam, the real alternatives may be more confining than we had imagined. Yet fresh opportunity and option have been created, and we can only be grateful for this unexpected gift.
In a last-minute discussion, over the telephone, with the editor concerned, the part of the penultimate sentence following the semicolon was cut. “We can’t go saying he might have been right after all” was the argument; I acquiesced—after all, these anonymous pieces spoke for the magazine, not me—and henceforth left “Notes and Comment” to other, more leftish, hands.
It pained and embarrassed me to be out of step with my magazine and literary colleagues, with the bronzed and almost universally “antiwar” summer denizens of Martha’s Vineyard (including Feiffer and the fiery Lillian Hellman), and with many of my dearest friends back home in Ipswich, including my wife. How had I come to such an awkward pass? In politics, my instinct had always been merely to stay out of harm’s way. My home town of Shillington, Pennsylvania, was peaceably shared by both parties, and by honorable double inheritance I was a Democrat: my father, raised as a Republican, had become a Roosevelt Democrat when thrown out of work at the outset of the Depression, and my grandfather Hoyer was a kind of Jacksonian Democrat, rooted deep in the dark soil of old Pennsylvania politics, with its passion over tariffs and agrarianism. In his comfortable orotund manner Pop Hoyer would speak of the “business interests” and the “financiers” that occupied the sinister urban territory—steamy, malodorous Philadelphia and unspeakable New York—beyond Berks County’s rural idyll. Nearby Reading had a Socialist mayor when I was a boy, and its society was pretty much divided between those who owned the factories and those who worked in them. The mill owners, in their Wyomissing mansions and behind their iron fences in Heidelberg Township, were legendary figures, inaccessible ogres of wealth in my small-town boy’s sense of things, scarcely less grand and remote than Pittsburgh multimillionaires like the Andrews, Carnegie and Mellon, whose names meant as reverently much to my father as those of rock stars do to a contemporary teenager. Elsewhere, in the miles of tight row houses that composed the bulk of Reading and its suburbs, lived the rest of us—“the people.”
I was comfortable with being a Democrat. In my piping stammering voice I defended Roosevelt and Eleanor and Henry Wallace against my Republican peers at the elementary school, much as I competed in recess-time soccer tussles of the A’s against the B’s, or enlisted in the Philadelphia Avenue troops in mock-battles against the Second Streeters. A war was going on, and political differences, however shrill, were submerged in our common identity as young Americans doing our bit to withstand and defeat Hitler and Mussolini and Hirohito. The Republican party was understood to be that of the rich, or those small businessmen who, like our local barber Artie Hoyer, somehow identified with the rich; whereas the Democratic party was that of the common man, of the unrich. When I went to Harvard, my being a Democrat fit nicely into the liberal strain of establishment and undergraduate thinking: I sat in the Lowell House common room amidst a sardonic crowd loudly watching Nixon’s televised Checkers speech (that strained piety! that lugubrious appeal to Pat’s “good Republican cloth coat”!) and with my Unitarian, tennis-sneakered, pony-tailed girlfriend carried placards for Stevenson in front of a Cambridge polling place in 1952. There was a small scarcely noticed difference, however, between the Harvard-Radcliffe Democrats and myself which was to emerge in the Vietnam years: they, Unitarian or Episcopalian or Jewish, supported Roosevelt and Truman and Stevenson out of enlightenment, de haut en bas, whereas in my heart of hearts, I, however veneered with an education and button-down shirts, was de bas. They, secure in the upper-middle class, were Democrats out of human sympathy and humanitarian largesse, because this was the party that helped the poor. Our family had simply been poor, and voted Democrat out of crude self-interest.
I first voted, pulling the Democrat lever, in New York City, in 1956; naively I thought Stevenson might actually beat Ike this second time around. In 1960, transposed to Massachusetts, I was happy to vote with most of my fellow Bay Staters for our young native son, Jack Kennedy. And in 1964 I went to considerable trouble to vote inside the Soviet Union, casting at the American embassy in Moscow my absentee ballot for Lyndon Johnson and against that warmonger Barry Goldwater; my peaceloving Russian hosts were as relieved as I at the Johnson landslide. One source of my sense of grievance against the peace movement when it came was that I hadn’t voted for any of its figures—not for Abbie Hoffman or Father Daniel Berrigan or Reverend William Sloane Coffin or Jonathan Schell or Lillian Hellman or Joan Baez or Jane Fonda or Jerry Rubin or Doctor Spock or Eugene McCarthy. I had voted for Lyndon Johnson, and thus had earned my American right not to make a political decision for another four years. If he and his advisers (transferred intact, most of them, from Kennedy’s Camelot) had somehow got us into this mess, they would somehow get us out, and it was a citizen’s plain duty to hold his breath and hope for the best, not parade around full of pious unction and crocodile tears and power hunger and supercilious rage.
The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment; Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas. These privileged members of a privileged nation believed that their pleasant position could be maintained without anything visibly ugly happening in the world. They were full of aesthetic disdain for their own defenders, the business-suited hirelings drearily pondering geopolitics and its bloody necessities down in Washington. The protesters were spitting on the cops who were trying to keep their property—the USA and its many amenities—intact. A common report in this riotous era was of slum-dwellers throwing rocks and bottles at the firemen come to put out fires; the peace marchers, the upper-middle-class housewives pushing baby carriages along in candlelit processions, seemed to me to be behaving identically, without the excuse of being slum-dwellers.
It was hard to explain my indignation, even to myself. The peace movement’s predecessor and progenitor, the civil-rights movement, had posed no emotional problem. I had been proud, really, of my wife’s going off to march in Selma, coming back with sore feet and a slight tan and stories of transracial sexual overtures (rebuffed, I was assured). Feverish with a cold, I marched with her in a large, singing, well-meaning crowd from Roxbury to the Boston Common one raw damp day, braving pneumonia in the process, and we were charter members of the local Fair Housing Committee, founded on the rumor that a black family had been finagled out of an Ipswich house they were on the verge of buying. I went to meetings and contributed to the NAACP and even lent a black we slightly knew some money that he never repaid—I was all for people getting a break, if the expense to me wasn’t inordinate.
By my mid-thirties, cunningly combining diligence and daring, I had arrived at a lifestyle we might call genteel bohemian: nice old house (broad floorboards, big fireplaces) rather diffidently furnished (Danish modern always coming unglued, Design Research sofa in need of cleaning, five-and-dime kitchenware, a smattering of auction antiques), walls occupied by semi-abstract canvases painted by the Mrs. and pine bookshelves hammered together by the Mr., scruffy backyard (uninhibited forsythia hedge, a rope swing hung from a dying elm, bare spots in the rough shape of a baseball diamond), four dusty but healthy children with Sunday bests at the backs of their closets, two cars, one of them a convertible, and, for dinner, lots of rice casseroles and California wine. To me, this was prosperity.
At moments of suburban relaxation, in our circle of semi-bohemian homes, we smoked pot, wore dashikis and love beads, and frugged ourselves into a lather while the Beatles and Janis Joplin sang away on the hi-fi set. I was happy enough to lick the sugar of the counterculture; it was the pill of antiwar, anti-administration, “anti-imperialist” protest that I found oddly bitter. I was, perhaps, the most Vietnam-minded person I knew. Those who deplored the war fit what protesting they could into their suburban schedules and otherwise dismissed it with a gesture of automatic distaste; the technocrats of our acquaintance, the electronic engineers and stockbrokers and economics professors, tended to see the involvement as an administrative blunder, to which they could attach no passion. But I—I whose stock in trade as an American author included an intuition into the mass consciousness and an identification with our national fortunes—felt obliged to defend Johnson and Rusk and Rostow, and then Nixon and Kissinger, as they maneuvered, with many a solemn bluff and thunderous air raid, our quagmirish involvement and long extrication. My face would become hot, my voice high and tense and wildly stuttery; I could feel my heart race in a kind of panic whenever the subject came up, and my excitement threatened to suffocate me.
Of all the contending parties with which it might have been possible to sympathize—the Vietcong in their tunnels, fighting off bombers with punji stakes; the North Vietnamese and the old Vietminh, condemned to fight war after war; Ho Chi Minh, with his innocent, lifted-eyebrows expression and saintly white goatee; the napalmed children; the defoliated trees and poisoned rice paddies; the self-immolating Buddhist monks; the American soldiers, derided and mocked at home and surrounded by inscrutable, implacably hostile villagers in Vietnam—I felt compelled to identify with the American administrations and to a lesser extent with those South Vietnamese, from Diem and Ky and Thieu down to the village chiefs buried alive and otherwise gruesomely assassinated, who were trying to run a non-Communist country. Gorge-deep principles of fairness and order were at issue; it greatly distressed me, for example—it wasn’t fair—that American liberals could so blithely disown what was clearly a typically and historically liberal cause, foreign intervention against a Communist bully. Carl Oglesby, addressing the SDS at a Washington rally in 1965, said it clearly:
The original commitment in Vietnam was made by President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer the war—those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons and tally the dead: Bundy, McNamara, Lodge, Goldberg, and the President himself. They are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.
I was a liberal. Democrats, not Republicans, got us into wars, to make the world a better place, a place more like America. If we approved of Roosevelt’s nudging us toward World War II, and of Truman’s bouncing us into Korea one impetuous Sunday, why were we turning up our noses at Vietnam? What was Vietnam but Korea again, Korea without an overt invasion, without a UN resolution, and without a Syngman Rhee, but all the more honorable a cause for its added difficulties? Were the people in the State Department utterly stupid to think we shouldn’t let Southeast Asia go down the drain? Were we really secure enough—high and mighty and smug enough—to become a pacifist nation? “You don’t get something for nothing,” my father, a schoolteacher, would frequently say. If there was one lesson my upbringing had instilled it was our earthly insecurity: a Depression, a disease, a swindler smarter than we can come along and take everything from us. My father was a patriot: he had been ready in 1918 to board a troop ship in World War I; he had been Uncle Sam in the victory parade after World War II; when McCarthyism had imposed a loyalty oath on public-school teachers in Pennsylvania, he had taken it without demur. I must have questioned him about it, for I remember his saying mildly that he had no trouble swearing that he was loyal to the United States. He was loyal, and so was I. I would rather live under Diem (or Ky, or Thieu) than under Ho Chi Minh and his enforcers, and assumed that most South Vietnamese would. Those who would not, let them move North. But the foot traffic, one could not help noticing in these Communist/non-Communist partitions, was South, or West, away from Communism. Why was that? And so on.
I wanted to keep quiet, but could not. Something about it all made me very sore. I spoke up, blushing and hating my disruption of a post-liberal socioeconomic-cultural harmony I was pleased to be a part of. I recall the puzzled expression on the face of my Vineyard acquaintance Philip Roth (on the dizzying verge of publishing Portnoy’s Complaint) as I argued on, defending poor Johnson and his pitiful ineffective war machine. In my mind I was beset, defending an underdog, my back to the wall in a world of rabid anti-establishment militants. At one point Roth, in the calm and courteous tone of one who had been through many psychiatric sessions, pointed out to me that I was the most aggressive person in the room. It gave me pause. On reflection, it seemed possibly true. Why was I so vehement and agitated an undove? I did not just have a few cool reservations about the antiwar movement; I felt hot. I was emotionally involved. “Defending Vietnam”—the vernacular opposite of being “antiwar”—I was defending myself.
My wife of those years offered an interesting idea: that Johnson was a former schoolteacher and I identified him with my father, whose inability to maintain classroom order had been a central trauma of my growing up in Shillington, a childish cause for fear and pity. For three years, from seventh grade to ninth, I had been one of my father’s students and had been torn by the wish to be a loyal son and the itch to be a popularity-seeking cutup. In my anxious dreams about him—naked but for a barrel, pelted and hooted on the steps of the town hall—things had “gotten away” from him, much as the country had gotten away from Johnson. The protest movement, which had begun in the solemn 50′s-ish pronouncements of the Port Huron Statement and the orderly civil-rights strategies, by the time of the ’67 Washington march and the ’68 convention had become a Yippieish carnival of mischievous voodoo and street theater and, finally, a nightmare of anarchy, of window-smashing and cop-bopping and drug-tripping and shouting down. The shouting-down part of it, the totalitarian intolerance and savagery epitomized by the Weathermen,1 but to some extent adopted by student radicals everywhere, especially alarmed me. Authority to these young people was Amerika, a bloodstained bugaboo to be crushed at any cost. To me, authority was the Shillington High School faculty, my father and his kindly and friendly, rather wan and punctilious colleagues, with whose problems and perspective I had had every opportunity to empathize. I had overheard their plaintive, patient conversations in the hall when the thundering hordes of unruly students had left; I was allowed to visit the boiler room, and see the male teachers at ease in their shirtsleeves, smoking and joking while the janitors lounged at their workbench and the great boilers roared and chugged down another giant gulp of pea coal. Authority to me was Woody Coldren, the superintendent of the Lutheran Sunday School and eventually town burgess, loudly leading us children in the singing of carols on Christmas morning in front of the blank screen of the Shillington movie theater. It was the three town cops, in their comically different sizes. Such were the village elders whom I visualized tortured and executed by the Vietcong, to show us peasants that the only possible social order was theirs.
Yet there was another side to it. Hadn’t “the system,” in losing my grandfather his money and my father his job, let us down just as I was being born? My mother, who had walked out of a classroom where she had been stationed as a student teacher, had with this gesture rejected the place the system offered her, and in her eccentricity—her private revolution—showed me the gravitational pull of other systems, more far-fetched possibilities. The town authorities, and all the hard-working churchgoing burghers of Shilling-ton, struck me as unenviable and not to be emulated. At heart I scorned them. Who would want to be a Thirty-second-degree Mason, or the top Oddfellow? Who, by extension, would want to be President of the United States? And my Harvard education, acquired in the mauve afternoon of modernism, amid Eliotic shades of irony and fastidious ennui, strengthened my impression that political concern was vapid and played small part in the civilized life. That, perhaps, was what angered me most about Vietnam; it made it impossible to ignore politics, to cultivate serenely my garden of private life and printed artifact. These butterfingered Washington fat cats in their three-hundred-dollar suits had dropped us all into a mess of blood and shame and frustration and embarrassment, and here I was, stuck with defending them.
Was I conservative? I hadn’t thought so, but I did come from what I could begin to see was a conservative part of the country. Conservative in dress, in mores, in attitudes. The Germans of Berks County didn’t move on, like the typical Scots-Irish frontier-seeking American. They stayed put, farming the same valleys and being buried in the same graveyards, one generation after another. Before the Germans came to Southeastern Pennsylvania, there had been the Quakers, and these, too, were conservative, thrifty, accumulative, suspicious of all but inner revolutions. The cautious spirit of Ben Franklin’s maxims still lived in the air. A penny saved is a penny earned; willful waste makes woeful want; a fool and his money are soon parted: my grandfather quoted these often, as inherited wisdom to be passed on. My father’s bitter economic experience supplied some darker maxims. Another day, another dollar. Dog eat dog. You don’t get something for nothing. I had been reared in the static, defensive world of the Depression, to which the world war added a coloring of embattlement and patriotic pride.
At the height of the Vietnam troubles, in the late 60′s, my wife and children in loving exasperation gave me for Christmas a large American flag. I was, as an American Protestant, the beneficiary of a number of revolts—Luther’s, which dumped the Pope; Cromwell’s, which dumped the monarchy; and Sam Adams’s, which dumped the British—and saw no need for any more. I was, furthermore, a Christian, and Christ said, “Render under Caesar those things which are Caesar’s.” I was, by upbringing, a Lutheran, and Luther had told the “murdering and thieving hordes” (“die räuberishchen und mörderischen Rotten”) of rebellious peasants to cease their radical turmoil and submit to their Christian princes. Faith alone, faith without any false support of works, justified the Lutheran believer and distinguished him from the Catholic and Calvinist believer. In all varieties of Christian faith resides a certain contempt for the world and for attempts to locate salvation and perfection here. The world is fallen, and in a fallen world animals, men, and nations make space for themselves through a willingness to fight. Christ beat up the money-changers in the temple, and came not to bring peace, he distinctly said, but a sword.
My thoughts ran as follows. Peace depends upon the threat of violence. The threat cannot always be idle. Privately and in the aggregate, we walk through life with chips on our shoulder, and when the chip is knocked off, we must fight. “You must fight,” none other than a Russian had told me, in late 1964, in the Soviet Union, concerning Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh had knocked off our shoulder the chip that Dulles and Eisenhower and the SEATO treaty had placed there. We had tried to subvert the North, we had tried to train and arm ARVN so it could defend the South, and neither had worked. We had to fight, though it meant pitting ourselves, with our white faces, against the other guy’s nationalism, halfway around the world, and picking up all the bad checks the French had scattered about in a century of conspicuously ruthless colonialism. It was all very well for civilized little countries like Sweden and Canada to tut-tut in the shade of our nuclear umbrella and welcome our deserters and draft evaders, but the United States had nobody to hide behind. Credibility must be maintained. Power is a dirty business, but who ever said it wasn’t? In the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna told Arjuna, “Therefore you must fight. . . . Freedom from activity is never achieved by abstaining from action. . . . The world is imprisoned in its own activity, except when actions are performed as worship of God.” The Vietnam war—or any war—is “wrong,” but in the sense that existence itself is wrong. To be alive is to be a killer; and though the Jains try to hide this by wearing gauze masks to avoid inhaling insects, and the antiabortionists by picketing hospitals, and peace activists by lying down in front of ammunition trains, there is really no hiding what every meal we eat juicily demonstrates. Peace is not something we are entitled to but an illusory respite we earn. On both the personal and national level, islands of truce created by balances of terror and potential violence are the best we can hope for. Pacifism is a luxury a generous country can allow a small minority of its members, but the pacifism invoked in the anti-Vietnam protest was hypocritical and spurious. Under the banner of a peace movement, rather, war was being waged by a privileged few upon the administration and the American majority that had elected it.
All I wanted from the doves around me was the admission that we had been led into the Vietnam mire plausible step by step, that the mire was U.S., us. A dark Augustinian idea lurked within my tangled position: a plea that Vietnam—this wretched unfashionable war led by clumsy Presidents from the West and fought by the nineteen-year-old sons of the poor—could not be disowned by a favored enlightened few hiding behind college deferments, fleeing to chaste cool countries, snootily pouring pig blood into draft files, writing unctuous peacenik Notes and Comments, and otherwise pretending that our great nation hadn’t had bloody hands from the start, that every generation didn’t have its war, that bloody hands didn’t go with having hands at all. A plea, in short, for the doctrine of Original Sin and its obscure consolations. “In Adam’s Fall/We sinned all,” began that seminal American text, the New England Primer. New England had moved beyond this, and took a quite silly pride, I thought, in its haughty old disavowal of the Mexican-American War.
Two other factors, it occurred to me at the time, inhibited me from taking the handy dove position. I had been to Russia, and I had not served in Korea, which had been my generation’s war to fight. I had hid out at Harvard, and then had not even gone into the peacetime army. I felt guilty at being 4-F, all the more guilty for being glad at the time, and hustling ahead with my career in those two years that I should have spent in barracks and canteens and the kind of boring clerical work that Philip Roth in his fiction has inflicted on Zuckerman. I would never know what I had missed, and read Roth’s fictional versions of his army tour with envious interest. If Roth in person said, as he did, that the generals and presidential advisers knew no more about Vietnam and its alleged strategic importance than we did, he had earned the privilege of dissent, it seemed to me, in a way I hadn’t. He had paid his dues. If Norman Mailer wanted to march in Washington and be briefly jailed and then write a funny, inflated, shrewd, skewed, pop-apocalyptic account of it, he, too, had earned the right, risking his life in the South Pacific against the fanatic Japanese while I, for my heroic part, was flattening tin cans in my grandfather’s chicken house. If Kurt Vonnegut, having survived capture by the Germans and the Allies’ firebombing of Dresden, wanted to fulminate in his woolly way against the powers that be, more power to him; he had paid a fair price for his skepticism and indignation. I had paid no such price; in fact, I had had a fine peaceful time being an American male in the middle of the 20th century. Defending the war (or, rather, disputing the attackers of it) was perhaps my odd way of serving, of showing loyalty to a country that had kept its hackneyed promises—life, liberty, pursuit of happiness—to me. When asked, in 1964, to go to the Soviet Union for a month as part of a cultural-exchange program, I consented partly because this would constitute a small patriotic service, a wearing abroad, at last, of my country’s colors.
The month was an eye-opener: I liked the warmhearted, boisterous, mischievous, many-layered Russians, not only my celebrated contemporaries and literary peers (who shouldered a burden of fame and expectation and watchfulness far greater than any my own nation imposed on its living writers) but the party officials with their gold teeth and steel smiles and iron stomachs and the shy students reaching out with Oxford-accented English and the insolent languid sloe-eyed shopgirls behind their piles of fur and amber and the utterly bald barber who tapped the top of my skull and grunted out the English words “This haircut”—meaning one I had had in Ipswich, six weeks before—“no good.” I was thirty-two and showed a stamina and capacity for alcohol and blarney that surprised me, and a gift (my submissive Lutheran heritage, again) for “going along” with things. I had gone along at Shillington High School, I had gone along at Harvard, I could go along here. The Russian system, the few gears of it that engaged me, gave me no pain; the most oppressed people I saw were the tiny, grandmotherly attendants in the opera-house checkrooms, literally tottering as they hauled back and forth mountains of ponderous winter coats. Any system, in place, has a certain logic of inertia and quotidian practicality arguing for it; my Soviet escorts and hosts, being at home, were more appealing than the embassy Americans, who in their pinstripes and horn rims had the absurdity of interlopers. I did what I was asked to do, and dutifully tried to be a good guest of the Soviet state.
And yet I came away from that month, and the two subsequent weeks in the Eastern-bloc countries Bulgaria, Rumania, and Czechoslovakia, with a hardened antipathy to Communism. The difference between our empires was not, as many were beginning to say, and were to say louder and louder during the impending Vietnam years, six of one and a half-dozen of the other. It was more like eleven of one and one of the other. Ours was the distinctly better mousetrap.
What made me think so? Was it the glittering display of luxury goods and all the spandy-new runway equipment in the Zurich airport? After my weeks of quaint Communist drabness, Swiss efficiency and prosperity looked like a science-fiction movie. Or was it the little leaks of fear that would show while I was in Communist countries, the spurts of steam betraying the underlying pressure—suddenly impassive expressions, quick lapses into French to evade the eavesdropping walls, a burst of real, scurrying terror from my escort when it appeared I had lost my passport? I had never before been in countries where people were afraid of their own government—where everything, in a sense, every motion of the mind and heart and pen, was politics. And there was something bullyingly egocentric about my admirable Soviet friends, a preoccupation with their own tortured situations that shut out all light from beyond. They were like residents of a planet so heavy that even their gazes were sucked back into its dark center. Arthur Miller, no reactionary, said it best when, a few years later, he and I and some other Americans riding the cultural-exchange bandwagon had entertained, in New York or Connecticut, several visiting Soviet colleagues. The encounter was handsomely catered, the dialogue was loud and lively, the will toward friendship was earnest and in its way intoxicating, but upon our ebullient guests’ departure Miller looked at me and said sighingly, “Jesus, don’t they make you glad you’re an American?”
I was glad, and resented having my native land, with its treasure of natural resources and enlightened institutions and hopeful immigrant peoples, being described as Amerika. The peace movement’s branding our government with a swastika seemed to me insanely blasphemous and itself totalitarian. The United States of my pre-pubescent years had been many-sidedly, all-involvingly at war, and I saw no atrocity in its continuing to possess an army and a military-industrial complex. Our soldiers in Vietnam seemed no more misplaced than our heroes in the island-hopping campaign against the Japanese. In any case, it wasn’t for me, a dermatological 4-F, to condemn a war other men were—if not enthusiastically, then stoically and stubbornly—fighting, and that our elected officials and their advisers found, from one administration to the next, essential to the national honor. In Sunday school, I had been much impressed by the passage where Peter denies Christ three times before the cock crows. My undovishness, like my battered and vestigial but unsurrendered Christianity, constituted a refusal to give up, to deny and disown, my deepest and most fruitful self, my Shillington self—dimes for war stamps, nickels for the Sunday-school collection, and grown-ups maintaining order so that I might be free to play with my cartoons and Big Little Books. I was grateful to be exempted from the dirty, dreary business of maintaining the overarching order, and felt that a silent non-protest was the least I in gratitude owed those who were not exempted.
And yet . . . wasn’t there simply something of the high-school show-off, the impish contrarian “getting attention,” in my refusal to take the unexceptionable position that neither God nor good reasons for our being in Vietnam existed? My religious and Vietnamese options were clearly allied; both made me feel vulnerable, excited, apologetic, and angry, and both were, in my adopted social milieu, rather original. Among the repulsions of atheism for me has been its drastic uninterestingness as an intellectual position. Where was the ingenuity, the ambiguity, the humanity (in the Harvard sense) of saying that the universe just happened to happen and that when we’re dead we’re dead? Where, indeed, was the intellectual interest of saying that Johnson and Nixon were simply dreadful Presidents? Truth had to have more nooks and crannies, more qualifications, than that.
I found the peace movement intrusive. The 60′s were a palmy time, professionally, for me. The New Yorker accepted most of what I sent down to it, and toward the end of the decade a book of mine made a million dollars. My success was based, I felt, on a certain calculated modesty, on my cultivated fondness going back to childhood for exploring corners—the space beneath the Shillington dining table, where the nap of the rug was still thick; the back stairs, where the vacuum cleaner and rubber galoshes lived; the cave the wicker armchairs made when turned upside down against the rain on the porch. I had left heavily trafficked literary turfs to others and stayed in my corner of New England to give its domestic news. Now along came this movement wanting to gouge us all out of our corners, to force us into the open and make us stare at our bloody hands, and confront the rapacious motives underneath the tricolor slogans, and question our favored-nation status under God. There are two ways to live happily with a government: to accept or to snub it, to identify with it and rejoice in its policies, or to ignore it as an unworthy brawl that has nothing to do with one’s self. I could do neither.
My earliest sociological thought about myself had been that I was fortunate to be a boy and an American. Now the world was being told that American males—especially white, Protestant males who had done well under “the system”—were the root of evil. Law-abiding conformity had become the opposite of a refuge. The Vietnam era was no sunny picnic for me; I remember it as a sticky, strident, conflicting time, a time with a bloody televised background of shame. Hawk, dove, soldier, draft evader, and even middle-class householder were caught in a web of contradictions as an empire tried to carry out an ugly border action under the full glare of television. The soap opera of the nightly news and the clamor of a college generation that had not been raised to be cannon fodder (raised, rather, on the demand feeding condoned by Dr. Spock and the six-minute attention span instilled by television) permitted no one to look away.
My disposition to take contrary positions and to seek for nuances within the normal ill-suited me for the national debate; I found the country so distressing in its civil fury that I took my family to London for the school year of 1968-69. For the second presidential election in a row, I cast my ballot abroad, in an American embassy. I voted, of course, for the Democrat, the shrill and embattled Hubert Humphrey. To my relief, he lost: Vietnam was no longer a Democrat’s war, and belonged to the jowly, tricky Nixon I had hooted at in the Lowell House common room. I felt sorry for him, and knew just why he had to keep bluffing and bombing, but had no trouble voting in 1972, as the ghosts of my grandfather and recently dead father looked on, for the Democrat, the implausible rabbit-mouthed McGovern. I was in Africa, in January of 1973, when word came that Nixon and Kissinger had at last disentangled us, on shabby terms, from Vietnam; I was sitting on a stage in Nairobi and a black professor sardonically asked me from the audience what I thought of the great American victory. I said, spontaneously and truthfully, that our getting out felt like a victory to me. The Americans in the audience applauded. We were all tired to death of it; even the protest had worn out its welcome, and was no longer fashionable. We could begin to breathe again.
Now the involvement slowly settles into the historical past. War movies are made about Vietnam that sound more and more like other war movies, and there is even (so I read) going to be an attempt to do for it what M*A*S*H did for the unlovely, initially unassuming Korean conflict. In an unforeseeable way, as the vets and evaders age together, and Maya Yang Lin’s superb black-marble V-shaped memorial—decked out with personal memorials like a Shinto shrine, a calm and polished Hades of names that takes us below the ground and up again—consolidates its place on the Washington Mall and the national self-image, the years 1965-72 melt into a dreamlike “crazy” time when grunts fragged officers and cops bopped hippies, when brutalized soldiers painted peace signs on their helmets and the daughters of Wall Street lawyers committed murders and robberies in the name of social justice, a baroque time of long-haired hardhats and alliterating Agnewisms, of Joplin and OM and homemade bombs, a time costumed in buckskin and sandals and camouflage khaki and dashikis and saffron robes and miniskirts right up to the crotch, a darkly happy in-between time after the Pill and IUD had freed sex from fear of pregnancy and before AIDS hobbled it with the fear of death, a time when pot and rock ruled in Danang as well as San Francisco, a time luxurious in the many directions of its craziness, since the war and the counterculture and the moon shots were all fueled by an overflowing prosperity no longer with us—a historical time, after all, that in the long run will hold us united as the Civil War opponents are united in the silvery-gray precision of the daguerreotypes they posed for. What with Woodstock and Barbarella and The Joy of Sex and the choral nudity in Hair, there was a consciously retrieved Edenic innocence, a Blakeian triumph of the youthful human animal, along with napalm and defoliation. The Vietnam intervention almost shrinks to the big bad trip in an era of trips (“If you remember the 60′s,” Robin Williams has quipped, “you weren’t there”), but it discomfited me so much that I have avoided all of the movies about it, from the The Deer Hunter to Platoon, lest they revive my sense of shame, of a lethal stickiness, of a hot face and stammering tongue and a strange underdog rage about the whole sorry thing.
1 For years I carried in my wallet, like a fortune-cookie slip somehow more than amusing, a statement from the underground Weathermen: “We are against everything that’s good and decent in honky America. We will loot, burn, and destroy. We are the incubation of your mother’s nightmare.”