Commentary Magazine

Hanoi, by Mary McCarthy; Trip to Hanoi, by Susan Sontag

Sentimental Journeys

by Mary McCarthy.
Harcourt, Brace & World. 134 pp. $2.45.

Trip to Hanoi.
by Susan Sontag.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 91 pp. $1.45.

For at least four years the intellectual community poured out a steady stream of reasoned and informed criticism of the Vietnam war without seeming to have any appreciable effect on events. Consequently, as the war continued, more and more of its critics went over to the available kinds of activism. Some felt it necessary to risk arrest by declaring themselves ready to break the law, or by actually breaking it in legally complicated ways like signing petitions supporting draft-resistance, or withholding telephone or income taxes. Meanwhile, the same need to engage in action rather than thought has led in the case of some writers against the war to written deeds that may be considered the equivalents of the more active forms of protest. In such writings, even as events themselves have seemed to be drawing toward a cease-fire, many emotionally drained dissenters show that they have begun to doubt the efficacy and place of reason at the present moment in history.

Two critics who have announced that they have had enough of reasoning against the war in Vietnam are Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag. For Mary McCarthy argument is uncalled for because, “in my opinion the Americans do not have a side in this war.” For Susan Sontag there was never any question of adding to “the already eloquent opposition to the war”; she traveled to North Vietnam not to research a case but to express her “solidarity” with the North Vietnamese. Both she and Mary McCarthy attempt not to argue against the war but to bear witness against the United States.

Yet if they do not purport to offer political analysis they nevertheless do share a theory about the American action in Vietnam. It is that just as the Germans were lulled into acquiescence in their government's genocide by the euphemisms of the “Final Solution,” the American people were led into and kept behind the Vietnam war by the false language of the American government. The abuse of language that has characterized the American action in Vietnam, furthermore, is seen by both of these writers to express the moral degeneracy of the capitalist-imperialist system in general and the bankruptcy of American civilization in particular. Indeed, so horrified are both Miss McCarthy and Miss Sontag by the United States that each eventually announces a preference for the Communist world. Miss Sontag, of course, prefers it only for others: “Though I believe incorporation into such a society will greatly improve the lives of most people in the world (and therefore support the advent of such societies), I imagine it will in many ways impoverish mine.” Miss McCarthy, however, though she imagines herself a critic of any society she would live in, writes that if “world Communism comes to power”:

Never mind. Some sort of life will continue, as Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn, Sinyavski, Daniel have discovered, and I would rather be on their letterhead, if they would allow me, than on that of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom. . . .

Miss McCarthy emphasized the American abuse of language in the first paragraph of her earlier Vietnam:1 “Napalm has become ‘Incinderjell,’ which makes it sound like Jello,” she tells us, “And defoliants are referred to as weed-killers—something you use in your driveway.” She goes on to expose the American fondness for self-deceiving, operational terminology like “constructed,” “reconstructed,” “consolidated,” and “real New Life” hamlets, and the false expertise of terms like “infrastructure,” which is used to refer to the Vietcong's organization.

But though she is especially offended by the euphemisms of American officials she eventually slides over from criticism of their terminologies into ridicule of their pronunciation and usage. As the Americans talk she records with disdain their concern for “the aspirations of the people,” and their characterizations of their Vietnamese allies as “very sound men,” or “one of the finest men and officers” they have ever known. And she observes of the Americans' “diction” that it “is peppery with oxymoron (‘When peace breaks out,’ ‘Then the commodities started to hit the beach’), like a college president's address to an alumni dinner.”

Ostensibly, such language as she records is offered as an index to American behavior in Vietnam, especially to the pacification effort. Thus a press officer's jargon is presumed to expose the culpable absurdity of his role, so that when he speaks of “the prommlms of failure,” Miss McCarthy ironically advises the reader to “read ‘problems of failure.’ ” And similarly, she witheringly quotes without comment the language of an officer who has pampered an orphaned child:

A casualty of war,” that general repeated solemnly. “A casualty of war.


Significantly, one of the five sections in Miss McCarthy's Hanoi is titled, “Language.” Here she takes up the problem of the similarity of North Vietnamese rhetoric to the Stalinist dishonesties against which, along with other intellectuals of the anti-Communist Left, she had always vehemently set herself. When she encounters an example of this rhetoric—a heavy-handed attempt by a functionary to prevent her from detecting any hint of anti-Chinese sentiment in him by using an obviously anti-Chinese term that he thinks is a euphemism—she writes:

I did not blame him, really. I blamed the United States. If we had not been bombing his country, Mr. Van might be a free, or at least a freer, spirit, instead of an axious chaperon fearful that his charges might draw an “improper” conclusion.

The glaring difficulty with this placing of blame is that elsewhere Miss McCarthy attributes the superior virtues of the North Vietnamese to the same bombing. No matter. She doesn't mean to excuse or argue, but to praise the one side and excoriate the other.

Thus she concludes that it is really the Americans who have adopted the old Stalinist language, while “the North Vietnamese, in their stiff phraseology, persist in speaking quite plainly.” In other words, not only is it our fault that they must resort to dishonest rhetoric, but they don't do so at all. And not only is that rhetoric really “plain” talk, but it is poetic license as well. “It has occurred to me,” Miss McCarthy writes,

that the set phrases of North Vietnamese diction are really Homeric epithets. Compare “the insolent wooers,” “the long-haired Achaeans,” “cloud-gathering Zeus,” “the hateful Furies” with “the American aggressors,” “the American imperialists,” “the war of destruction,” “the air pirates.”

But here Miss McCarthy writes as though she had not read her own previous book. For surely the set phrases of the North Vietnamese deserve comparison as well with the operational terminology of the Americans. Yet where she has an excessive irritability with the slightest bêtises of language in the South, she shows a determined championship of the worst vulgarities of language in the North.

At the end of Hanoi Miss McCarthy says that she came to feel that those virtues as a person and a writer which she had always cultivated and prided herself upon—fair-mindedness, disinterestedness, objectivity—had come to seem to her like mere “fossil remains.” In face of the exigencies of the Vietnamese, “the license to criticize was just another capitalist luxury, a waste product of the system.”


Susan Sontag's Trip to Hanoi, though it is full of reservations where Miss McCarthy has certainties, applies the same double standard to the United States and to North Vietnam. The spectacle of her own intellectual gymnastics in doing so does give Miss Sontag enough pause so that she asks the question: “Can North Vietnam really be such an exceptional place?” And though other moral supporters of North Vietnam have answered this by attributing the country's putative wonders to the effects of the bombing, she realizes that this will not do; yet she concludes: “I do know that North Vietnam, while definitely no Shangri-La, is a truly remarkable country; that the North Vietnamese is an extraordinary human being. . . .” On the evidence of her book, Miss Sontag arrives at this conclusion not on the basis of her experience, which she is honest enough to report as having been in many respects disturbing and disappointing, but as a logical consequence of her stated first premise: namely, that it was her duty not to criticize but to support the North Vietnamese.

She has conceived the problem of how to do so as if it were a problem in literary criticism. The North Vietnamese seem shallow, and her visit a “two-dimensional fairy-tale . . . in which I do not believe,” so that “I somehow was unable to make the full intellectual and emotional connections that my political and moral solidarity with Vietnam implied.” Yet, as with so many of the literary works that she has praised even though they have admittedly bored and disgusted her, Miss Sontag has decided beforehand that the Vietnamese are “admirable,” and so knowing that virtue must exist under the veil, she is able to interpret seemingly unfavorable signs as the very proofs of its existence.

To perform this act, she too has had consciously to reject the complexities of critical thinking. (And she too believes that she was unfortunately unable to accomplish the sloughing-off entirely.) Yet, realizing what it is that she has rejected, and realizing too that “some of what I've written evokes the very cliché of the Western left-wing intellectual idealizing an agrarian revolution,” she decides that “I can only avow that, armed with these very self-suspicions, I found, through direct experience, North Vietnam to be a place which, in many respects, deserves to be idealized.”

Trip to Hanoi, then, is Susan Sontag's idealized version of North Vietnam, a country in which “the North Vietnamese genuinely love and admire their leaders,” and in which any disturbing features need only to be thought about properly to be explained. Everything is as thinking makes it so.

Significantly, in view of the theory about language that she shares with Mary McCarthy, Susan Son-tag tells us that she overcame her initial reluctance to think in such terms about North Vietnam as a result of what she calls “linguistic decisions.” Through these, she too was able first to overcome her distaste for crude propaganda (“Much of the discourse we would dismiss as propagandistic or manipulative,” she explains, “possesses a depth for the Vietnamese to which we would be insensitive”), and then to achieve a final, delicious surrender in which she is able “to pronounce the words ‘capitalism’ and ‘imperialism’ again. . . . That I've begun to use some elements of Marxist or neo-Marxist language again seems almost a miracle, an unexpected remission of historical muteness, a new chance to address problems that I'd renounced ever understanding.”


The intellectual consequences of not simply opposing the United States over Vietnam, but committing oneself to supporting North Vietnamese Communism seem to me more damaging to the anti-war cause than these two well-intentioned writers may suspect. For when one adopts crude terminology, the distortions it causes in one's work will always tend to make readers reject that work—for the same reasons that one rejects the made-to-order art of socialist realism even when one is in sympathy with its subject. Thus when, in Mary McCarthy's books, a corrupt, Americanized South Vietnam and its people is contrasted with a utopian, inspiriting North; when down to the smallest details, even the appointments in hotel rooms, the North is shown to be superior to the South—cleaner, healthier, in better taste—it becomes impossible for the most sympathetic reader, if he has the slightest sensitivity to the truth, not to mistrust the reality of what is being described. And with good reason, as it turns out.

One of the characters in South Vietnam to whom Miss McCarthy gives extended treatment is a certain Major Be, head of a school for training anti-Communist cadres, or guerrillas. He is presented as one of “the Vietnamese counterparts of the American political scientists who have stamped their vocabulary and their habits of thought on this loony trial of strength in the Asian arena.” Major Be, “his slant-eyes gleaming,” is gradually revealed to be a doctrinaire, stern, self-denying revolutionary—a fascist, in short. (“As someone has put it,” Miss McCarthy writes, “revolutionary slogans minus a revolution equals fascism.”) But when it turns out that Major Be is a North Vietnamese who had fought against the French with the Viet Minh (precursors of the Vietcong) under General Giap (of Dienbienphu and Khe San), Miss McCarthy sees no need to qualify her judgment of him. It does not, for example, occur to her in the light of his background that Major Be might more reasonably be taken as a product of the mind of North Vietnam than as a reflector of the thinking of American political scientists. Nor, in her book on North Vietnam, when she is told that Nguyen Cao Ky as a little boy in a youth demonstration was the child who yelled loudest, “No one loves Uncle Ho more than the children,” does it occur to her that the totalitarianism she sees in the adult Ky might have been learned in the North—and not just the geographical north, but in a youth squadron of Ho Chi Minh's: a mass of identically smiling children. If she read about such children in something like Orwell's 1984, she would probably respond with horror; when she actually sees them in North Vietnam, however, she can only see happy kids throwing flowers at her.

Having made up her mind before confronting the facts, Miss McCarthy not surprisingly pays the price that her instinct as a novelist should have warned her would be the consequence. A novelist uses language to establish a character's origins and class, never to indicate his moral stature or his relative good or evil in the design of things. Available young girls in novels often mistake their ideal suitor because of his secondary characteristics, like his speech, but the novelist's art sorts out for the reader before the end of the book the difference between the aesthetic and the ethical. The novelist, that is to say, uses his sensibility to record impressions, his intelligence to assess their significance. In contrast, Miss McCarthy, in the little tea-drinking scene in which she draws out Major Be, and in the tea-drinking ceremonies in North Vietnam (at which the participants' slant-eyes do not gleam), is not rendering with the novelist's eye. For her principle of selectivity is not to discover that which gives life to her characters but that which will prove her thesis about them. And when the latter is what you are looking for, it will of course always seem to be there.


Noam Chomsky well expresses the despair that has led to the distrust of intelligence felt in these books when he writes that he feels it to be a desecration and an insult to the Vietnamese people for him coolly to go on discussing the issues of the war. But what is accomplished by sacrificing one's objectivity in accordance with this feeling, and speaking with extreme diffidence and piety about the North Vietnamese? Very little, it seems to me. In the cases of Miss McCarthy and Miss Sontag the main result of abandoning reason has been a solipsistic withdrawal into personal feelings that can be of use neither in changing the minds of those who still support the war, nor in informing those already opposed to it.


1 Harcourt, Brace & World (1967), 106 pp., $1.95.

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