Commentary Magazine

Collective Guilt

To the Editor:

Norman Podhoretz [“Vietnam and Collective Guilt,” March] might be right when he argues that Robert J. Lifton is guilty of “shoddy thinking and unctuous moralizing.”. . . It appears to me, however, that Lifton is right in holding the American people responsible for the deeds of their government, whether or not they agree with the government’s policies. Only one who resists such policies with his entire being and ability is totally free from responsibility. This moral concept is implied in the First Commandment. Why were the Israelites commanded to offer the paschal sacrifice, to turn away the angel coming to slay the first-born? . . . Did not God send the plague to compel Pharaoh to let the Israelites go free? The answer is that the Israelites shared Pharaoh’s guilt by not resisting his course; and only a miracle and sacrifice could save them from the fate of the Egyptians! On the other hand, the Egyptians, even the slaves, shared Pharaoh’s punishment because they did not resist him completely.

The prophets reprimanded not only the princes and priests but also the people, often also victims, for injustice. In war we rain destruction on civilians, although they do not shape policy. . . .

Moral living is extremely difficult for the individual, but only in total moral responsibility is there hope for society. This teaching was emphasized by the prophets, and especially by Ezekiel.

(Rabbi) Nathan Barack
Congregation Beth El
Sheboygan, Wisconsin



To the Editor:

. . . I cannot justify the destruction wrought by U.S. involvement in Vietnam. I held this opinion when I supported the stated U.S. purpose in Southeast Asia and, obviously, when I opposed that purpose. I think it can be said that no one is happy about the destruction during war and at best it is justified as some sort of necessary evil. Yet in Vietnam the destruction and devastation reached horrific proportions. . . .

The guilt is ours. I share the guilt. You share the guilt along with 200 million other U.S. citizens. We divide the guilt equally among us and we each carry one-two-hundred-millionth of the burden. We are the people of the United States. As we share in its glory so we share in its sorrow, in its pride so in its guilt. . . . Whether or not one feels that U.S. involvement was justified, whether or not one feels the goals were achieved, one feels guilt at having brought this destruction to our planet. . . .

Why do we all share the guilt? As each of us pays taxes, celebrates the Fourth of July, so we are also responsible for our government. . . . This may seem an overextended use of the word “responsible.” Yet the extension of this word to its ultimate limit (replacing “government” with the human race”) is the goal of human progress. . . .

I believe that guilt played a large part in my involvement in the anti-war movement. I felt hounded every time I picked up a newspaper reporting new Vietnam casualties. For those who were against U.S. involvement even more than those who supported Nixon’s policies, the sense of guilt is there. The fact that the destruction was carried out in the name of the U.S. government (of the people, by the people, and for the people) does not incriminate Lieutenant Calley any more than myself or John Smith from Anytown, U.S.A. . . .

Every human being is fully accountable for all his actions, and as he or she claims membership in different groups, for the actions of those groups. We are all guilty “of complicity in what the American government has done there.”

One may refuse to accept the responsibility, but the victims are not so easily persuaded.

Reuven Levinson
Jerusalem, Israel



To the Editor:

While I thoroughly agree with Norman Podhoretz’s feelings on collective guilt, I think it’s time somebody said something for U.S. leaders who were responsible for the conduct of the Vietnam affair.

The same people who want to indict the American people for the monstrous crime of Vietnam have also told us that Vietnam was the greatest crime in history, with the possible exception of Hitlerism. In particular, they have accused us of bombing helpless, innocent bystanders last December in Hanoi, while the My Lai affair was paraded across the front pages as if nothing so criminal had ever happened before. We are also given to understand that the U.S. was criminal for coming to the aid of South Vietnam, which after all was merely undergoing a social “revolution” exactly like the American revolution. . . .

Well—there’s not much use getting into the question of whether the Vietcong were really the equivalent of Americans at Lexington and Concord, or whether there’s any difference between Communist revolutionaries and our ancestors in 1776. I think we can say that from previous examples of Communist takeovers, it was a legitimate mistake—if mistake it was—for us to suppose the Vietcong were acting like the Castro guerrillas, or the Nazi-sponsored groups in Czechoslovakia or the Polish corridor. . . .

But the subject of our monstrous criminality in Vietnam is less ambiguous. Most defenders of U.S. morality have made the mistake of citing examples of Communist atrocities, to which the legitimate answer is that two wrongs don’t make a right.

But we don’t really need Communist examples. We don’t even need examples from other nations. We can take them from our own country’s actions in World War II.

Of course, everybody has accused us of indescribable immorality for using the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nobody seems, however, to have noticed that before those bombs were dropped, we had visited virtually every large population center in Japan with incendiary bombs, killing a good many times as many people as the total who died in the atom bombings . . . (even if you count the delayed deaths from radiation, etc.). Some of the Tokyo raids produced death tolls quite comparable to Hiroshima, even in a single raid. . . .

But all the accusing and finger-pointing are at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . . . In the eulogies over Harry Truman, one writer in Newsweek argued that, after all, the atom-bombings weren’t Truman’s fault but that of his wicked military advisers!

This is about the level of moral philosophy on U.S. wars. We strain at gnats and gulp down legions of camels. It doesn’t speak much for our collective intellects that our “best and brightest” can’t produce anything better.

And what of Vietnam itself, for which a prominent jurist who had been at Nuremberg has demanded that U.S. leaders should be turned over to another Nuremberg tribunal? . . . Let us consider the December bombings of Hanoi, the subject of the latest outburst of breast-beating. According to Hanoi’s own figures, the B-52 bombings of Hanoi killed 1,318 people in twelve days.

This sort of statistic usually elicits remarks that we U.S. warriors are not only murderers, but singularly wasteful murderers, taking so many tons of bombs and so many millions of dollars to kill one innocent bystander in Hanoi. And it is true, we were much less wasteful in World War II, and a lot more deadly. In two nights of bombing in Hamburg and Dresden more than 200,000 died. . . .

In comparing those figures, suddenly a light dawns. Could it be that the object of bombing Hanoi was more than the killing of innocent bystanders? That perhaps somebody worked rather hard to see that as few innocent bystanders were killed as possible? . . .

So—before anyone else demands a new Nuremberg trial for our Vietnam leaders—let’s have an honest, reputable historian . . . undertake a thorough study of U.S. morality in World War II as compared with Vietnam. And if he has time, he might also add a few other comparisons, just in case some liberal theologian gets the idea that the U.S. is the only nation left . . . that commits atrocities in wartime. . . .

Alfred B. Mason
Bellport, New York



Norman Podhoretz writes:

The limits and extent of responsibility and guilt are very difficult and perhaps impossible to determine in the abstract. In the concrete case of Vietnam, however, I still cannot see in what meaningful sense any person who opposed American policies by word and deed can be held responsible for those policies, even assuming that they were as unambiguously immoral or criminal as is now so widely believed.




Two errors in the presentation of the statistical data in Milton Himmelfarb’s “The Jewish Vote (Again)” [June], require correction. The first is in the second table on p. 83, col. 2, “Changes in Democratic, Republican, and Neither Percentages (1972 minus 1968).” Read:

  Dem. Rep. Neither
Fairfax -20 +8 +12

The second is in the last table (p. 84, col. 1), which should be as follows:

  Rank by income Rank by Rise in Abstention
Great Neck Estates 1 7
South Beverlywood 2 6
Great Neck 3 3
Manhattan Beach 4 4.5
Sheepshead Bay 5 4.5
Fairfax 6 2
Brighton Beach 7 1

The Great Neck Estates (15th and 16th election districts of the 16th Assembly District) registration totals are 2,004 in 1968 and 2,177 in 1972.

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