The New Isolationism
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz’s article, “Making the World Safe for Communism” [April], is as important as Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” Its message—to use a term which is becoming obsolete—is intensely patriotic, and the patriotism is that of a citizen of the world. . . . His apocalyptic article is all the more impressive, in that the author at no point loses his cool. Yet Mr. Podhoretz’s diagnosis should send shivers down the spine of every perceptive reader, for his article is not a fantasy about the future like 1984. The dateline is now, and even now may be too late. Yet better the awareness of a cataclysm in progress than a fool’s paradise. . . .
Many a skeptic considers the quarter of a century of American preponderance an adolescent aberration. “The American Empire lasted twenty-five years,” said Gore Vidal a year ago at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, visibly relieved by the fact that it was over. He suggested the dismantling of the American military establishment, with the exception of some 300,000 technicians to man the country’s ballistic-missile installations. Since this would have slashed some 80 per cent of the defense budget, a large part of the audience applauded wildly. It did not occur to anybody to ask what this green light for Soviet expansion would mean for what remains of the free world. . . .
There exists a frightening nationwide trend of self-deception. Wishful thinking and sour grapes made Congress “save Angola from a drawn-out civil war.” How do the slogans and arguments which accompanied Congress’s denial of funds for Angola stand up in the light of the present?
Half a year later, there is not the slightest hint that Angola may become a Soviet counterpart to America’s Vietnam, as was said at the time. The Soviets have not “fallen on their face in Angola” as was widely predicted, nor did they in strategic Somalia where they are firmly entrenched. American support for the pro-Western factions may indeed have coincided with South African interests, but it also coincided with the interests of Angola’s neighbors, Zambia and Zaire, . . . and with three-quarters of black (as opposed to Arab) Africa which until the collapse of the pro-Western factions refused to recognize the MPLA. As for the national interests of the U.S., a world power is not a presidential candidate who can sit out a primary. Soviet help came first, but the problem in Angola was—and is—the Cubans. Their emergence as the Caribbean pawns of a Eurasian empire enabled the USSR to fight the Angolan war by proxy and introduced a completely new dimension into the Soviet-American competition, the importance of which was totally ignored by the lawmakers.
Mr. Podhoretz is brilliant, merciless, and realistic in his analysis, which makes the hopeful note on which he ends all the more abrupt and surprising. The concluding two pages seem to belie the tight logic of the first nine. . . . I believe like him that it is less a question of power than of will. But is the U.S. “in brute terms of military capacity . . . still the most powerful country of the world”? For quite some time America’s statesmen have stopped making this claim, the President used it lately once, and only under duress, in reply to Ronald Reagan. . . . There are, of course, various ways to define military power. Since there exists a nuclear stalemate, “military capacity” should be measured in the potential for conventional warfare. Two years ago, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt warned that the Soviet navy had outdistanced its American counterpart, and it is well known that during the Yom Kippur War the U.S. airlift almost depleted the American arsenals in certain weapons. At the time it was also asserted that the USSR produced as many tanks in one month as the U.S. in a year. . . . Since the Soviet army pays its draftees only a fraction of what the U.S. pays its expensive mercenaries, the USSR is able to spend tens of billions of dollars more yearly than the U.S. for weapons, widening the gap from year to year.
Mr. Podhoretz sees grounds for hope in the fact that Henry Kissinger has lately switched in certain issues from his “Chamberlain” posture to a “Churchillian” stance. The President, too, has switched from détente to “peace through strength.” But do a few words, in an election year, mean anything? What was the reaction in Congress to the “Churchillian” threats against Cuba? . . .
America’s economic and technological capacities could be used as leverage against Soviet expansionism and assorted mischief, but it would require a strong and truly independent President to carry out such policies. Today it is not the fellow-travelers of old, but capitalist America, the corporations and the wheat barons, who resist the interference of politics in their business dealings with the USSR.
Mr. Podhoretz writes off the elites due to their “Finlandization from within,” and pins his hopes on the masses who responded enthusiastically to Daniel P. Moynihan’s gutsy performance at the UN. But the presidential primaries are not very encouraging in this respect. . . . There seems to be no awareness at all that the next four years may constitute America’s Rubicon—the outcome of the election may well depend on the quality of a smile. . . . What role will Mr. Podhoretz’s brilliant and stirring analysis play in this fateful upcoming election? Is it the destiny of the clairvoyant intellectual to remain a prophet crying in the wilderness?
Benno Weiser Varon
To the Editor:
I have read and reread Norman Podhoretz’s article with interest and gratification. It . . . may become a turning point in American political thinking.
In the course of my frequent visits to the U.S. I have sensed a creeping mood of Findlandization, accompanied by an outpouring of rhetoric on social justice, equality, and other public virtues, all of which cannot cover up a downgrading of liberty as the supreme human value. By alerting public opinion to the short-sightedness of the conservative isolationists on the one hand and to the mythological world in which the liberals have found refuge on the other, the article will, I am sure, make many thoughtful and rational Americans reconsider their position vis-à-vis the outside world as it is, and not as it is conceived in the liberal cosmology. . . .
Tel Aviv, Israel
To the Editor:
. . . The purpose of this letter is to tell you how much I enjoyed Norman Podhoretz’s article in the April issue. It is a brilliantly conceived, marvelously well-reasoned essay. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
For the title alone of Norman Podhoretz’s article, . . . he must certainly have guaranteed himself a place in the world to come. COMMENTARY will undoubtedly be deluged by letters of protest from outraged leftists and liberals against what they will see as sacrilege committed upon their most cherished beliefs by Mr. Podhoretz’s essay on the new isolationism. We therefore want you to know that at least a few of us out here in the provinces, the farthest reaches of the disapora, applaud your courage in dissenting (as Lionel Trilling used to say) from the conformity of dissent. . . .
Robert J. Loewenberg
University of Washington
To the Editor:
. . . It is surely no accident that Norman Podhoretz’s article was promptly and enthusiastically embraced by William F. Buckley, Jr., who patronizingly presented him in his widely syndicated column as “the lesson for today” while making sure to point out that he, Buckley, was “five years” ahead in the same endeavor. . . .
Mr. Podhoretz recommends a familiar scenario: suppression at home and reckless adventurism abroad, including interference in the internal affairs of other countries whenever and wherever we, or our unaccountable CIA, deem it advisable, all in the name of the anti-Communism of old, and with an amazing replication of the attitudes and stances of the 50′s. We must be wary of those who are “soft on Communism” and forgive the sins of those who can be relied upon to fight “Communists and their sympathizers, real and alleged, inside the government and out.” The Podhoretz-Buckley-COMMENTARY-National Review alliance will rally us to fight the Communist enemy, and we are not to worry excessively about our personal and political liberties here at home, or about pro-Communist . . . casualties abroad. . . .
The fact is that Mr. Podhoretz’s piece does a grave disservice to the cause of democracy in general and to the Jewish people in particular (when repression comes, are we not always among the first victims?) by encouraging the forces of reaction both at home and abroad. While failing to advance a single viable suggestion for a policy of extending democracy and opposing Communist spread, he offers the best of ammunition to those who would destroy democracy wherever it exists.
New York City
To the Editor:
I found myself in agreement with the first part of Norman Podhoretz’s article in which he attacks many Democratic liberals for becoming isolationists but not with his attempt to place the Republicans and particularly Henry Kissinger in the same camp. . . .
It seems to me that Mr. Podhoretz is neglecting the facts of life. The Democrats control Congress-after the 1974 elections by a nearly 2-1 majority. With the isolationist wing in control, how else could Kissinger operate in the real world but make the best deals he could and ask for as much help from Congress as he could get? (He didn’t get any at all on Portugal or Angola.)
The Democrats should face up to their isolationist policy in relation to the Soviet Union and the CIA, but it seems to me unfair to include the Republicans in this camp. . . . I’m a registered Democrat but I don’t like the way the Democratic party has been acting in foreign affairs.
Why not call for a change in the Democratic foreign-policy position . . . and for a strong bipartisan foreign policy like the kind we had under FDR?
Walter J. Schloss
New York City
To the Editor:
I must disagree with Norman Podhoretz’s view that the present mood in the United States represents a trend toward isolationism. . . . Though I sympathize with his quest for a rational explanation of the causes of our apparent national malaise, there are several facets of the situation he either understates or ignores.
Twenty-five years ago the United States showed the same tragic “lack of wisdom” which he mentions in his article and for which we are still paying today, but for which the liberals cannot be blamed. I am referring to Washington’s unfortunate intransigence in judging the developments in China at the end of World War II, or rather misjudging them. Mr. Podhoretz sloughs this off with a brief aside . . . [but] unless we fully grasp the magnitude of our mistaken policy in the late 40′s we will continue to lash out blindly and senselessly at scapegoats, be they liberals or conservatives, to suit our arguments, and still not arrive at the true reason for the present malaise.
I am not an apologist for the behavior of the Chinese Communists, who have committed their share of crimes. I am familiar with their ruthless demographic policies in Tibet and Inner Mongolia, for example. [Nonetheless,] the progress in the economic and foreign-policy spheres in China since the Chinese . . . Communists took over simply could not have been achieved by any of the governments we have seen in China in this century.
Our experts . . . had told us in the years immediately following World War II that the Communists seemed to possess some of the means needed for the solution of the chaos which reigned in China. At least they felt that the Communists could not be ignored or shunted aside. Yet these American diplomats were not only ignored but maligned and persecuted and only recently have we half-heartedly rehabilitated them. The China policy we adopted was not the work of liberals . . . but of the China lobby . . . unwilling to differentiate among the Communists; a group which saw only black or white—a monolithic free world faced by a similarly monolithic Communist world. . . . For this short-sightedness, we paid with a war in Korea (started with the cooperation of the Russians, not the Chinese) and a war in Vietnam, a country—even if Communist—with a historical distrust of the Chinese. In the latter instance we undermined the resilience, if not the stability, of the various Southeast Asian societies who had over the centuries learned in their own way to withstand the pressure of whoever ruled China. We thus created the very dominoes we were afraid would fall and which now have fallen and will continue to fall. What is even worse, we wasted a good deal of our strength, which was and is needed to oppose Soviet imperialism. None of the above was the work of the liberals. . . .
Nor can the liberals be blamed for the situation in the Middle East and OPEC. Here the United States government had the opportunity to show its mettle, but unfortunately our government chose an attitude toward the Persian Gulf potentates which was both disgraceful and harmful to our national interests. And needlessly so. To whom would the feudal government of Saudi Arabia and the oppressive government of Iran turn if we were to withhold our support? . . .
Another instance where Washington preferred an unnecessary show of weakness and surrender for which no liberal can be blamed is the Arab boycott. This insidious attempt by the Arabs to divide us could have been nipped in the bud by a clear and strong statement from Washington that it is illegal for any American individual or business firm to cooperate with the boycott. The Arab countries, those that have money and wish to progress, cannot do without American know-how whatever “other arrangements” they claim they will make. By its failure to stand firm against the boycott . . . Washington, not the liberals, has contributed to diminishing our stature in the world. . . .
Yes, it is ironic that we are asked by some Communist countries and their sympathizers in others to protect them from Soviet domination. . . . But what does that prove? That intervention in Portugal and Angola would have been right? Had we done so, as events have shown, we would again have been acting from a “lack of wisdom.” . . . If these Communists want protection against Soviet domination, let them develop their own strategies and means. For all we know they may yet come to join us on the side of liberty and democracy, but that decision must be theirs alone. As far as the United States is concerned . . . we must first learn and digest the lessons of the past three decades. (Kissinger is still working on the 19th century.) We must regain our strength and try to recapture the spirit and goals on which this nation was founded. . . .
Walter A. Sheldon
Lido Beach, New York
To the Editor:
In Norman Podhoretz’s excellent article . . . he outlines clearly how general misunderstanding of the significance of the Indochina war has led both liberals and conservatives for opposite reasons into a kind of mirror-image isolationism. As he notes, the American failure in Vietnam “is an argument not against [our] purposes but against the lack of wisdom with which they were in that instance pursued.” In other words, our failure reflected the inadequacies of our means and strategy, not the immorality of our ends or the strength of our will.
Why then do we persist on both the liberal and conservative sides in refusing to examine what went wrong and why? The deafening national silence on the subject portends ill for the future. We have been bruised and like humans we try to bury our hurts, but . . . emotional and spiritual wounds need air to heal. Burying them in the subconscious risks internal festering and later eruption in unexpected directions, one of which is clearly outlined in Mr. Podhoretz’s article.
On the one hand, as he indicates, liberals feel a sense of guilt because it was liberals who led the United States into the Vietnam war. But rather than seeking to isolate the specific errors made, they tend to seek a kind of class atonement by denouncing the whole post-World War II international philosophy of the United States—which they largely designed. Conservatives, on the other hand, tend to focus on the final revulsion of the American people against the war as evidence of our presumed lack of will. Actually, there is no sound reason for liberals to reject everything they have stood for in order to avoid uncovering a few specific non-malicious, although devastating, errors. Indeed, not only the liberals but the whole country would be far healthier with a comprehensive airing and analysis of this most ambiguous of wars. To fail to conduct such an analysis is to deny ourselves the one advantage to be extracted from the experience—the lessons of history. . . . In a sense Vietnam is for liberals what Watergate has been for conservatives, except for one principal difference. In the case of Watergate, the truth finally did emerge, the errors and misdeeds were exposed, and those responsible were identified. This process was a bitter one for conservatives since it happened to an administration with which they were emotionally linked. But in the process of exposure, there was a parallel process of cauterization. Unfortunately, in the case of Vietnam, the actual errors have not been adequately exposed nor those responsible adequately identified. Thus Vietnam remains a buried wound. . . .
By way of illustration, it is not difficult to point to a few such errors which did contribute to the disaster in Vietnam. To begin with, we failed to distinguish clearly between that part of the war which was an aggression from North Vietnam and that part which was genuine internal insurgency, and as a result, we committed our forces in ways that were not effective against aggression but involved us in the insurgency aspects of the war in which we had no business.
Secondly, we failed to distinguish clearly between limited war, such as occurred in Korea where we had a direct, open confrontation with the enemy, and guerrilla war which is entirely different.
Thirdly, we sought to isolate South Vietnam through the neutralization of Laos under the Geneva Accords of 1962. This was an early attempt at détente through negotiation between Communist and non-Communist powers, great and small. It was a worthwhile attempt, but when it became obvious, as it did almost immediately, that the Communist side had no intention of implementing the agreement, we erred in not acting effectively either to force implementation of the agreement or to take effective action to protect South Vietnam.
Fourthly, we acted on the basis of fond but unrealistic hopes rather than on the basis of an empirical analysis of the Soviet role.
Finally, in the Laos agreements we confused neutrality with the concept of coalition of Communist and non-Communist parties. Neutrality is sometimes possible and indeed a genuinely neutral nation can sometimes perform a useful buffer role. There is no history more dismal than that of “coalitions” between Communist and non-Communist political parties.
If explored fully, these and many other serious points could lead to a national understanding of what happened in Vietnam. Such an exploration would lead to a recognition of the fact that what went wrong in Vietnam consisted of some errors of judgment on the part of some people. It did not, however, consist of the moral bankruptcy of the whole United States government and the American people and our policy since World War II. Were the real lesson to be clearly drawn, both liberals and conservatives could be disabused of what Mr. Podhoretz has called the “isolationist lesson that we can no longer do anything to make the world safe for democracy—anything either to check the spread of Communism or ‘to assure the survival and the success of liberty.’”
Norman B. Hannah
American Consul General
Consulate General of the United States of America
To the Editor:
I hasten to congratulate Norman Podhoretz on his definitive analysis of the U.S. posture in the world today. . . . He has put it all together with precision and clarity.
Mr. Podhoretz may take heart from knowing that many of his readers welcome his courage in standing his ground against those who “see a CIA agent under every bed” very much in the way Ed Murrow once stood his ground against the followers of Joe McCarthy who saw a Communist under every bed.
Jamesburg, New Jersey
To the Editor:
“That the American military intervention in Vietnam ended in failure,” Mr. Podhoretz writes, “. . . is an argument not against [our] purposes, but against the lack of wisdom with which they were in that instance pursued.” But he is being less than realistic . . . for that is simply not how the Vietnam war is taught, or more significantly, how it is remembered. . . . The war . . . is now perceived as the most corrupt and rapacious event in our history. As a result of it . . . there has been obliterated in our society any sense of moral justification for being where we were and doing what we were doing. The generation of Daniel P. Moynihan, for example, grew up in an era when American liberty was seen as threatened. . . . But when this generation relinquishes its authority it will be replaced by a group that has been marred by the social tremors of the Vietnam debacle. . . .
What will happen when this group become makers of policy? Mr. Podhoretz overlooks this question when he concludes what is otherwise an excellent analysis with the assumption that our moral authority, or what formerly had been associated with that authority, can be revived. “Making the world safe for democracy” is an idea of noble design, but because of current social thinking it may well be impossible. . . .
John J. Cox
Floral Park, New York
To the Editor:
. . . The basic strategy the U.S. should formulate and implement centers on containment of Soviet expansionism. There is only one country today that poses a threat, acute or latent, to the U.S.—the Soviet Union.
It has been said that the critics of one-sided détente undermine Soviet “moderates” and play into the hands of the Kremlin militarists. This is nonsense. During the so called détente, the USSR has made more gains—politically and diplomatically—than in all the years from 1948-69. What more could the militarists have achieved? . . .
Détente, therefore, must clearly be reconceptualized in such a way as to help minimize Soviet adventurism. It may be difficult, if not impossible, for the U.S. to try to persuade key West European countries and Japan to adopt a common policy that would deny the USSR Western technology should the Soviets continue to fish in troubled waters, but attempts to agree on such a policy should receive the highest priority. The U.S. alone cannot run an effective embargo. The continued presence of U.S. troops in Europe, and commercial agreements with Japan, are potent bargaining weapons—if used with circumspection yet with firmness.
The U.S., concurrently, must try to normalize its relations with Communist China even further. In terms of arresting Soviet expansionism, it is not relevant whether or not one personally countenances China’s form of government. The system, in a modified form, is likely to survive Mao’s death, and the U.S. has to address realities. China will not be a genuine superpower for decades to come, but competition between the Soviet Union and China in Asia and parts of Africa is another possible deterrent to Soviet hegemony. . . .
We must realize too that American democracy is not exportable; we have found out that it did not take hold in lands with different national traits, customs, and aspirations We are not abdicating as champions of democracy when we restrain our penchant for ramming our interpretation of how a country should be governed down the throat of unreceptive, even resentful, audiences.
There are scores of countries, most of them, in fact, which cannot make meaningful economic progress without a tinge of authoritarianism. Even we, in America, who often equate efficiency with potential loss of freedom, increasingly complain about inefficiency in government. In most of the developing countries, even a quasi-democratic form of government carries in its wake inefficiency, corruption, and an unlimited spoils system. In such countries, to talk about “freedom of choice” is a travesty, since a handful of people rule over apathetic masses. Hence the advent of military and one-party regimes—ostensibly to weed out corruption, but, in reality, to join the game of musical chairs.
Yet in some countries, the military has made modest progress. Again, no matter how unpalatable a strongman rule may be to us personally, who are we to advocate that the people of, let us say, Panama (which has a Left-leaning military regime) take back the Arias family and other latifundistas who had milked the people for decades? Or that Brazil should choose another João Goulart who led it to economic and political chaos?
It may not be desirable, but it happens to be true—at least for now—that our ability to influence the form of government a country chooses is severely restricted. As we have our hands full coping with our prime adversary, the Soviet Union, is it in our national interest to antagonize other countries by lambasting their system of government? . . .
While the U.S. must be flexible as to the form of government in countries of only marginal strategic importance to us, it must stand firm about the inadvisability of Communist participation in NATO governments. . . . Suffice it to say that while “national” Communism may be “acceptable,” albeit unwelcome, in Yugoslavia, it is fraught with too many perils in countries supposedly offering a common defensive front to Soviet imperialism. . . .
Milan B. Skacel
North Bergen, New Jersey
To the Editor:
The quotation Norman Podhoretz attributes to Trotsky—“A curse on all Bolsheviks, they bring a dryness and a hardness into life”—was, I believe, a little different in the original. According to Isaac Deutscher in The Prophet Armed, Trotsky is supposed to have remarked to his Marxist wife, Sokolovskaya, “A curse upon all of you who want to bring dryness and hardness into all the relations of life.”
Albert L. Weeks
New York City
To the Editor:
I found Norman Podhoretz’s article extremely well-reasoned and thought-provoking, but unfortunately, I cannot agree with his optimistic conclusion.
Since he wrote it, Senator Henry Jackson, the only Democratic aspirant who proposed to take a hard line against Russia and, by implication, to restore America’s power, has been repudiated at the polls. Thus, we will now have to choose between President Ford, who is at least partly to blame for the fix we are in, and Jimmy Carter, a charismatic individual who has no firm opinions on any subject. . . .
Just who will get America moving again?
Frederick I. Grun
To the Editor:
. . . Norman Podhoretz may or may not be justified in despairing about the future: he is certainly correct about the post-Vietnam erosion of American will to take on the Soviet Union today. . . .
It is unfortunate for Henry Kissinger that he is serving as Secretary of State at a time when the American public is suffering, one hopes only temporarily, from political exhaustion. His Moscow counterpart has no such handicap.
Basically, the Ford-Kissinger policy is, in Kissinger’s words, designed to prevent Soviet expansion but also to build a pattern of relations in which the Soviet Union “will always confront penalties for aggression and also acquire growing incentives for restraint.” This is a policy difficult to explain to an apathetic public, but also one which any administration would find essential to adopt today. In an age of possible thermonuclear extinction, the search for peace is a moral imperative. Without it, nothing else will be of enduring value.
Ever since our withdrawal from Vietnam, Congress has done its best to restrict the Ford administration’s room for maneuvering on foreign policy, smugly overlooking the fact that both the House and the Senate approved the Vietnam operation for years, and voted the funds necessary to keep it going. More recently, Congress has pursued the imprudent policy of preventing the administration from operating, either covertly or in any other way, in what Kissinger has termed the “gray zone” between peace and war, thereby making it difficult for the Chief Executive to deal with “wars of national liberation” sponsored by either the Soviets or the Chinese in regional areas where American interests are directly or indirectly involved. Clipping the administration’s diplomatic wings has become a pastime for critics from both the political Left and Right, including the presidential hopefuls.
It has not been helpful to Kissinger that we, as a people, have so strong an inclination for straightforwardness that we become impatient with diplomacy, whose essential attributes are, necessarily, ambiguity and compromise. However, we should remember that the alternative to diplomacy is war or a retreat to isolationism.
Fortunately, we have in Kissinger a man amply endowed with a, theoretical understanding of foreign policy, and the demonstrated practical ability to conduct it. . . . At this critical time, our political leaders should broadly support his diplomatic efforts, instead of making him a whipping boy for their many frustrations. . . .
Let’s be clear as to the facts. The Ford-Kissinger policy is not based on the premise that we can trust the Soviet Union. Rather, it is based on the assumption that with an equilibrium of strength—political, economic, and military—Soviet expansionism can be prevented without the two superpowers sliding into a dangerous situation that might terminate in a military confrontation. This is a workable policy to the extent that Congress and the critics allow Secretary Kissinger maneuverability. . . .
It is time for all of us to recognize that those who are unjustly attacking Secretary Kissinger are seriously undermining the diplomatic strength of the United States, that our President and his chief advisers are men of competence and integrity, that we have to live with some of our problems because they are either insoluble or are of the type that can be resolved only gradually, and, finally, that self-flagellation is no substitute for political rationalism.
Ernest T. Clough
Big Rapids, Michigan
To the Editor:
. . . The basic idea contained in . . . Norman Podhoretz’s article is that liberals are “unaware of the extent of Soviet ambitions” and are cohabiting with conservatives in a sort of fantasy world. In this dream world, liberals and conservatives are said to imagine that Americans can blithely ignore the authoritarian and expansionist nature of the Soviet state and pursue a “business as usual” non-policy. It is then pointed out that this isolationism is, in truth, a withdrawal from reality whose expression in actual policy could have the result of the ultimate loss of our fundamental rights. Mr. Podhoretz argues persuasively that withdrawal to our own shores would present us with a situation of being a democratic island in an authoritarian world, a situation which could not last long.
But who seriously argues that we should do this? I am no political scientist and it is possible that isolationist policies have been proposed in publications which I do not read, but such proposals have not been prominent in the national debate. While Mr. Podhoretz raises many valid and thoughtful points, he does not do justice to the other point of view.
For example, . . . many of us opposed the American actions in Vietnam on several grounds, the most compelling of which were that it was obvious that neither Soviet nor Chinese expansionism was involved (except insofar as American policies drove the Vietnamese toward the Soviets) and that Americans were doing things to the people who lived in that part of the world which Americans, of all people, should never do to anybody under any circumstances, ever. The repellent element in our policy was not only that we did these things, but also that we did them for no sensible reason, because in no sense was American national security ever involved.
Despite the impression given by Mr. Podhoretz, it is questionable whether American democratic ideals . . . have had any but a sporadic and minor place in American foreign policy since World War II. Rather than favoring something (democratic ideals), the major policy trend has been against something (Communism). Probably the reason for such a strong emphasis on negation has to do with the protection of our economic interests. However, to millions of people the promises by Communism of equal justice and the end of economic hardship make the Soviet system appear to be an attractive alternative to an America which appears to have forgotten its own ideals and seems to operate on the international scene in an exploitative and, at times, cruel manner. . . . We see the Soviets to be exploitative and cruel, but they, at least, present to concerned Third World inhabitants a promise of the end of economic privation, social disorganization, and injustice which American foreign policy does not.
Consider, for example, the situation of Italy. For years it has been common knowledge that Italian society has been locked into a morass of worsening corruption and social injustice which has been aided and abetted by the rigid and narrow mentality of the ruling Christian Democratic elite. The Communists are widely regarded as offering the only chance of reform. . . . What should American policy be in this situation? Can we come to anything but grief by subversion of the Italian political process for no purpose other than to prolong this injustice? Is there any way here that we could align ourselves in favor of social justice and human rights? In the extreme case of having to accept Italian Communism as the only viable force toward social progress, can we at least attempt to influence it in the direction of human rights and in opposition to Soviet national power? Certainly American policy should oppose Communism, but wedding our policy to the fate of unjust and obsolete right-wing governments is practically suicidal. . . .
It would seem to be only fair for Mr. Podhoretz . . . to have pointed out that the situation of American versus Soviet power is more complex than that of opposed military powers, and that those who advocate the exploitation of trends toward nationalist Communisms where democratic alternatives do not exist are not advocating isolationism. We should formulate a policy directed toward opposing the expansion of foreign powers whose expansionism threatens us, but a more flexible policy toward powers which do not threaten us. We should support human rights and democratic systems where they exist or can be developed, but where this alternative does not exist we should attempt to coopt the authoritarian progressive movements from the Soviets. None of this is isolation or de facto capitulation. . . .
[Dr.] Ronald Abramson
Tufts University School of Medicine
To the Editor:
. . . Norman Podhoretz’s article is not convincing . . . because he doesn’t prove that Vietnam, Angola, Portugal, and Communism in Italy are much of a threat to our survival. Then, too, he doesn’t give any hard thought to what he would have done in each of these places.
I wish he had turned his usual cool eye to these questions of strategy and brought them down to earth. . . . Mr. Podhoretz’s view of Communism, if held by most of our citizens, would harm us more than the present practices of Communist power; the resultant increase in fear and suspicion would paralyze us by a kind of psychological nerve gas. . . . What is the reason for this hysteria? . . . George Orwell gives the answer in his “Second Thoughts on James Burnham”:
. . . The English intelligentsia in 1940, on the whole, were more defeatist than the mass of the people. . . . Their morale was worse because their imaginations were stronger. . . . Such a manner of thinking is bound to lead to mistaken prophecies. . . .
James C. White
Minneapolis College of Art and Design
To the Editor:
Norman Podhoretz provides a vital, much-needed analysis . . . yet some additional points need making. . . .
U. S. domestic travail does indeed sap the national will in very specific ways. The Wall Street Journal notes, for example, that our poor receive ever greater transfer funds. Though the Journal does not say it, a birthrate approaching Asian, African, and South American numbers is the cause. . . . Until the entire arsenal of Western technology, science, and art are brought to bear on the problem of population explosion . . . the West will indeed be endangered. The danger is real, all the more so because it is largely unidentified in the media.
To the Editor:
Congratulations on an excellent article. . . . There should follow an essay on how the elites became guilty and unconfident in their . . . leadership role. . . .
The college professors—not a terribly self-confident group to begin with, beleaguered with teaching and writing duties—didn’t want trouble. But relatively small groups of anti-war protesters were able to turn them around precisely by “making trouble.” I think fear of verbal and physical violence was a factor in the conversion of many on the campuses, as was also the fact that Americans cannot abide being disliked by anyone. . . .
Norman Podhoretz writes:
Let me say, first of all, how grateful I am for the generosity with which so many of these letters treat “Making the World Safe for Communism” and how gratified I have been by the thoughtfulness of the response in general. I had, frankly, expected that there would be much name-calling and much vituperative misrepresentation of my argument, but very little of that kind of thing has turned up either in the letters I have received (of which the ones printed above are a representative sample) or the published comments I have seen. This in itself can be taken as a sign that things may not be quite as bad as Mr. Varon, Mr. Cox, and Mr. Grun all fear. A year or two ago an article as outspokenly anti-Communist as mine would almost certainly have been greeted with many more letters like Mr. Rangell’s accusing me in effect of calling for a new McCarthyism, or like Mr. White’s accusing me of hysteria and paranoia, or like Dr. Abramson’s accusing me of failing to place sufficient emphasis on the sins and crimes of the United States. Today, however, it is evidently becoming possible to raise the issue of Communism without being shouted down or merely vilified and dismissed by McCarthyites of the Left.
If this were all, it would be much too thin a reed on which to lean, but there are other encouraging signs, some of them quite substantial. Unlike Mr. Varon, Mr. Schloss, and Mr. Grun, who see no hope in the presidential primaries, I think that the debate over defense and détente (in which both parties have been engaged) has uncovered and furthered a new realism about Soviet expansionism. Thus, while there has been much argument over whether or not the United States is falling behind in military power, there has been almost no effort to deny the facts of a build-up on the Soviet side. And so far as the American role in the world is concerned, Mr. Grun and Mr. Schloss might take a measure of comfort from the following report by Stephen S. Rosenfeld in the Washington Post (June 18):
Sen. Henry Jackson may have lost the battle for the Democratic presidential nomination but—to judge by the foreign and defense chapters of the Democratic platform worked out in Washington this week—he has largely won the policy war. . . . To a striking degree, the international affairs sections in the platform reflect the particular combination of toughness and idealism of Scoop Jackson, his political ally Daniel P. Moynihan, the Jackson-oriented Coalition for a Democratic Majority, and some of the contributors to COMMENTARY magazine. . . . The result is a document that firmly . . . asserts the principle that the linchpin of American policy is the survival of freedom around the world.
And Rosenfeld goes on to speak of a “value constituency” in foreign affairs which “is not limited to Democrats” or to conservatives. Indeed, he says, “the politicians of both parties are Jacksonians in foreign affairs.”
I would not wish to encourage complacency on this point, but it may just be that the isolationist tide has begun to recede. Certainly there is a growing willingness in the United States to recognize the existence of an international threat. What we have not achieved as yet is any great degree of clarity about the precise nature of the threat. Is it, as Mr. Sheldon and Mr. Skacel and many other people argue, mainly or entirely Soviet imperialism; or is it—as I tried to say in my article—Communism in general? If it is Soviet imperialism, then obviously the policy I called “saving Communism from the Russians” becomes plausible. We should help build up Communist China and we should extend our friendship to the Communist parties of other countries to the point even of sponsoring any national Communist movement which declares or even hints at independence of Moscow.
There is of course a case to be made for such a policy on grounds of Realpolitik. In fact, it is exactly the same case which used to be made for supporting right-wing regimes whose help we needed, or thought we needed, to contain Soviet expansionism. As such, it is open—although few of its advocates seem to realize this—to the same objections on moral grounds that were and are advanced against American support for right-wing regimes which trample on human rights. I will not here repeat what I said in my article about the curse which Communism, whether controlled by Moscow or not, has brought to every people which has been forced to live under it (though I recommend to Mr. Sheldon, who thinks the Communists have done well in certain respects in China, the three-part series in Worldview, May-June-July 1976, by Miriam and Ivan D. London). Nor will I rehearse my reasons for being skeptical of the democratic pretensions of Communist parties which have not yet achieved power (on this point, see Walter Laqueur’s article on p. 25 below). But I would urge Dr. Abramson, who is not an isolationist, to take another look at what I tried to say about the dangers of “Finlandization from within” if he still wishes to know why allying ourselves with Communist regimes is even less desirable than allying ourselves with nonprogressive” regimes if our objective is—as he and I agree it should be—to make the world as safe for democracy as we prudently and possibly can.