Commentary Magazine


Waist Deep in the Big Muddy: Personal Reflections on 1968, by Richard H. Rovere

Facing Up to the Present

Waist Deep in the Big Muddy: Personal Reflections on 1968.
by Richard H. Rovere.
Atlantic-Little, Brown. 116 pp. $4.50.

Richard Rovere can write; he can think; he's sensitive; he's been around. And here he makes a brief, strenuous effort to face up to the Big New Mood that we are all compulsively preoccupied with, that none of us has adequately characterized—Vietnam, riots, the election, boredom, drugs and drop-outs, the hysteria of One More Federal Program, marches against this-and-that, youthful mish against aging mash. This book is no triumph. But it is the first of what is sure to become a deluge, and it is very interesting—mostly mood and implication, everything pregnant-with-meaning.

The ostensible subject is how Richard Rovere, certainly no “premature anti-Vietnamer,” came to oppose the war in Vietnam. His current effort will only put him back in touch with his constituency, however; it will not anoint him, in the Thoreau-Muste-Good-man tradition. It certainly is not, as the dust-jacket argues, “one of the most agonizing documents to appear in recent years.” I found it a different kind of reading.

The subject of the book, perhaps, also is: Does the United States really need, can it afford, much of a foreign policy? If this is the question, Rovere's answer is: No. The reasons for the answer are mostly—and eagerly—deferred to Unanswered History, both past and future.1 Pierced by the same intergenerational bullet as Mr. Rovere, I accept this absurd position.

_____________

It is utterly clear that Vietnam was one war too many for this country. The policy issues are now, therefore, substantially irrelevant. So many intelligent people have seen this, that slowpokes like Rovere and myself must take it as given—whether we join in Rovere's mea culpa, or write (or think) our own. But I am saddened to admit that I have no particular respect, no admiration for the fast-fellows who figured it all out before I did—and that seems to be Rovere's feeling too. The last time we went through this kind of experience, as I recall, was when it was overwhelmingly decided that Marxism was old-hat. But what I remember best was Harold Rosenberg's convincing exposition of the observable fact that the earliest mongers of that particular fashion were those who never understood Marxism in the first place. Small consolation, certainly. But, for those who take politics also as a metaphor of something more important, not insignificant.

_____________

If I thought what Rovere actually says in his book, his intellectual argument, was equal to his “waist-deep” feeling, I would have gotten to it sooner in this review. Anyway, I will get to it now.

“Some of us who were well beyond the age of consent in 1948 and 1950 must now square past and present,” he begins. His own effort commences with a chapter comparing Truman and Johnson, Korea and Vietnam. That, it seems to me, is a rather special view of the relevant “past” and “present” which must now be squared, if only because the current past/ present turnabout has much deeper roots than the issue of Communism in Asia. The true issue is—and has been since October 1917—what those in the socialist tradition, or naturally attracted to it, would do once that tradition had been taken over, in historical fact, by the future monstrously-arrived ahead of schedule. In the United States, the majority so disposed decided to support the American containment of Communism as a desperate, interim measure. (Meanwhile, like other Americans, we got rich.) Containment, and this special support of it, finally flopped in Vietnam. Naturally, those whose thought did not begin with October 1917 noticed the final flop ahead of time. It's much easier to understand the modern world in terms of The Bomb; and The Bomb, it turns out, provides an intellectual writ of greater jurisdiction than the Bolshevik Revolution ever did.

In his second chapter (of four), “The People We Have Become,” Rovere talks about the independent significance of “affluence as an agent of change.” I agree; and wholeheartedly when he points out that “this is the first war of the century of which it is true that opposition to it is not only widespread but fashionable.” Writing his book for him, I would have begun with this perception, and worked my way back, carefully, to the socialist tradition, its middlebrow fate in America, and so on. But he wrote it for himself, and he goes on to note the importance of television (and the violence of it); that “kookiness of every sort is alarmingly on the rise”; that “there is building up in this country a powerful sentiment not simply against the war in Vietnam but against war itself” (I personally lost twelve months on this idiotic point alone, in my own readjustment); that all this is—let's not kid ourselves—a return to isolationism; and that certainly this society is racist, but that there never has been one that wasn't. He is superbly himself, at his best, when in several choice lines he capsulates the issue of “wars of national liberation”—which Vietnam is, but not the last, since the Soviet Union will certainly continue to stoop to pick up this loose change: “From the Soviet point of view, they are irresistible. They cost next to nothing and drive us Americans out of our minds.”

_____________

“In 1948, when he was Secretary of State and putting in place the foundation stones of postwar American foreign policy, General Marshall was asked to describe his objective,” Chapter Three begins. Then ensues an insider-paragraph no one could summarize, ending with the following quotation from Marshall: “‘If we could just hold on for twenty or thirty years without starting a nuclear war . . . the world would be a different place.’” This is the heart of the book: the time has passed and the world is a different place.

Time. To do what? To survive, certainly: but we bought much more expensive time than that. We bought—or tried to buy—time in which America would become good enough to justify its ruling the world instead of Russia. Period. Now the new generation informs us that our rather abstract experiment bores them. QED. If we had tried harder to explain, if they had tried harder to understand, that: 1) somebody must rule; 2) American rule is better; and 3) Russian rule is worse than they imagine—so what? Clearly, they are not interested in any such subtleties. Scream them to the wind, as an ultimate devotion? No. Give in, and see what the rest of the discussion will be like.

“Marshall thought that the world would be a different place a generation later. The time has passed, and the world is so very different that the fathers cannot convince grown sons, young men born into that other world, that the place ever existed and that its terrors were real.” Right. “Communism is scarcely more binding ideologically than monarchy or democracy.” Wrong (it has extensive relevance, beyond monarchy and more than equal to democracy). Although he did not change his own view about military containment until 1965, Rovere identifies 1955 as the year in which the world changed enough to render our policy obsolete. In 1955 the balance of terror matured, the first summit meeting was held, etc.—but: “Just as it was becoming clear that Europe was out of danger, we began to conceive our mission to be a global one and our adversary to be an ideology.” That's neat; I don't know whether it's true, it might be. Anyway, the possibility of deténte was pursued with inadequate vigor on both sides, and the happenstantial mess of Vietnam occurred for no better reason than that a by-passed policy had not been changed nor the consequent priorities reshuffled. So, Rovere quite effectively informs us that “whatever moral and political judgments may be made on American policy in Vietnam, what one is compelled to say is that the war there is . . . monumentally irrelevant to what should be the priorities of policy in 1968.” Agreed, agreed.

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He does not discuss the details of the war in Vietnam: indeed, he does not tell us much about what is wrong with it—only about the used-up quality of the global policy that led us to it, and the fact that he has signed off. But he has a number of excellent observations and insights into it—for instance, on the domino theory: “Some dominos might fall in a certain way because we set them up that way.” In other words, an entire Asian policy is at stake—as to which Vietnam may well be only one flaw.

I was disappointed, however, that Rovere does not even mention, much less discuss, what I thought was one of the more serious aspects of the war, namely, that military containment relying on limited wars was being tested in its application to “wars of national liberation,” that the primary audience for such testing was the Soviet Union, and that the test is now a demonstrated flop. The point about Vietnam is that the war was not won within the required time. If we had won in Vietnam (as the British won in Malaya), we would have heard no more of it. We would simply have had to sit still and wait for the next one that could not be won. And I am bitterly convinced that this kind of sitting still is all that “we” should have expected to receive by buying historical time.

“These are the worst of American times,” Rovere concludes. And they will get worse, he feels, because scapegoating the Vietnam folly will bring about “a great purge” and “may be far worse than the McCarthy years.” It's possible, but I doubt it. That's an old horror: I think we are in for a new one. Vietnam as the End of Something will be, I think, that great occasion when the American people give up on infinity, turn inward, and observe themselves with delayed loathing. No help for it: it was due. We overconcentrated on making money; then we were equally foolish about what we might buy with it. Now, the whole thing must be thought through all over again, this time with previously-avoided pain present, and surely other unpleasantness as well.

We are a great society—or we are nothing any of us can bear to think of. A great society must entertain great projects. If we are not going to rule the world, then we must remake ourselves. Who (and what) will survive that effort?


Footnotes

1 Rovere's attitude toward the cold war revisionist historians, for example, is to say it isn't important whether the fears of the 40's were real or apparent. I think it's important; but neither am I prepared to engage in the detailed, abstract argument they are clamoring for.

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