Indochina & the American Conscience
Indochina has been a touchstone of moral anguish for large numbers of Americans who have never set foot in that part of the world. I am one of them. Indochina and its torments came to my attention primarily by means of modern communications media, especially television, as was the case with the overwhelming majority of other Americans. It was television images that aroused my moral outrage and led me to become a vocal opponent of the Vietnam war, and a few years later it was other television images that compelled me to face the question of whether that opposition may not have been a moral failure of terrifying proportions. These other images appeared on the screen in early 1975, at the beginning of the last North Vietnamese offensive that soon afterward resulted in the fall of Saigon. Danang was about to be taken, and tens of thousands of refugees were leaving by land and sea. On the CBS evening news Walter Cronkite observed that some particularly cruel pictures were about to be seen and that parents might want to send their children out of the room. Then the pictures came on. A ship full of refugees had arrived somewhere on the coast. Piles of corpses were on the beach, mostly of children who had died of hunger and thirst. A woman was carrying her dead child in her arms. The question was inescapable: is this what those of us who had opposed the war helped bring about? The question has lost none of its sharpness in the intervening years, as one horror after another has been inflicted on the peoples of Indochina by the “liberators” given a free hand by the American withdrawal.
I do not share the penchant for confessions of guilt that is so widespread among Western intellectuals. All the same, if I had to conclude today that I was morally wrong in opposing American policy in Indochina in the late 1960’s, I would feel constrained to say so publicly. It seems to me that it is a matter of, as it were, political hygiene that one must not walk away in silence from positions stated at the top of one’s voice in the past. Let it be stated at the outset that, after much thought, I have found myself unable to conclude that my opposition to this particular war was morally wrong. On the contrary, this opposition resulted from some fundamental moral impulses that I could only repudiate by denying my understanding of what it means to be human. To say this, however, is the beginning rather than the end of a process of moral and political reflection. My opposition to the war was very unoriginal in its motives and presuppositions. Precisely for this reason there may be some usefulness in reflecting about it publicly, all the more so since the so-called “lessons of Vietnam” continue to affect the future as they serve to reinterpret the past.
There is a set of facts that must serve as the empirical background of this process of reflection. There is the fact, first of all, that the anti-war movement was a primary causal factor in the American withdrawal from Indochina. Henry Kissinger’s memoirs provide a full and persuasive account of how every action of the American government from 1968 on was influenced by the growing power of the anti-war movement over domestic public opinion, so that, as Kissinger puts it, the United States was negotiating with itself more than with its adversary in Indochina. This situation was exploited at each turn by Hanoi. It is probably idle to speculate on the course the war might have taken in the absence of the anti-war movement. But it is clear that the growing presence of the anti-war movement contributed crucially to the decision to withdraw American forces from Vietnam, to settle on the terms finally offered by Hanoi in late 1972, and to curtail military assistance to the friendly regimes in Indochina in the wake of the American withdrawal. Analysts will undoubtedly continue to differ on the contribution of other factors, including the internal weaknesses of those regimes. No honest analyst can, however, deny that the anti-war movement made an important contribution. It follows, I think, that anyone who participated in the anti-war movement in any public form must ask himself about his own responsibility for these events.
Responsibility is not the same as guilt. An individual is not guilty of actions performed by others and neither intended nor foreseen by himself; nor can these actions in retrospect invalidate his own motives. Yet, foreseen or not, one’s own actions have consequences, and one cannot escape responsibility for these consequences by protesting the purity of one’s erstwhile motives or by restating the obvious truth that no man can look into the future.
That is why this particular moral reflection must take into account the consequences of the American withdrawal from Indochina. By now, these consequences have assumed a lucid clarity. Contrary to what most members (including myself) of the anti-war movement expected, the peoples of Indochina have, since 1975, been subjected to suffering far worse than anything that was inflicted upon them by the United States and its allies. The terror imposed on South Vietnam by its conquerors has been vastly worse than anything perpetrated by the old Saigon regime, both in quantity and quality. There were no boat people trying to escape from Thieu. Of Vietnam it can at least be said with some assurance that fewer people have died by violence there since 1975 than during the years of active warfare; indeed, very few governments, however terroristic, kill as many people in times of peace as they do when they are waging war. The Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia has been an exception to this generalization, to the point where its genocidal record will occupy a unique place of horror in the annals of inhumanity. As far as the peoples of Indochina are concerned, the consequences of Hanoi’s victory have been a human catastrophe of monumental dimensions.
To be sure, there are individuals in America who continue to deny these facts—as there are individuals who deny the facts of the Holocaust. Such individuals are outside the boundaries of rational discourse. There are also those who manage to convince themselves that the crimes of America’s adversaries are the consequence of American actions and thus ultimately America’s fault—a line of argument which, if not exactly outside the boundaries of rational discourse, is morally analogous to blaming Winston Churchill for the Holocaust on the ground that the Nazis would not have become so nasty if they had not been thwarted. I cannot judge how many Americans coming out of the anti-war movement employ these strategies to evade facing the question of their own responsibility. I am grateful that, evidently, there are many who reject such evasions.
But the consequences of the American withdrawal from Indochina are not limited to that unhappy region. The facts here are less lucid, less unambiguous, but I believe that an objective analysis of the world situation yields the conclusion that the international balance of power has been greatly altered by the defeat of the United States in Indochina. American power has dramatically declined, politically as well as militarily, and the major beneficiary of this decline has been the Soviet Union. Another of its consequences has been a higher degree of instability and unpredictability in the international system, particularly in regions no longer under American and not yet under Soviet influence. These developments are far from over. Still, a world situation in which totalitarianism has grown stronger and in which peace is more precarious hardly represents a turn for the better. At least indirectly, the anti-war movement contributed to that turn.
Finally, on the domestic scene, the anti-war movement was the centerpiece of the ideological and cultural constellation we now know as “the late 60’s.” This constellation has changed and its more lurid manifestations have disappeared, at least for the moment. But it also has had lasting effects. While not all of these, in my view, are regrettable, some are most regrettable indeed, and they happen to be the ones most directly linked to the anti-war movement. The late 60’s have given new legitimacy to totalitarian ideologies of the “Left” variety, and these have become institutionalized in broad areas of the culture. Under the mantle of the present administration there has been a massive influx into the federal government of people who, while hardly “leftist” in any doctrinaire sense, are deeply convinced that American power is one of the most vexing problems in the contemporary world, and who are almost instinctively disposed to give the benefit of the doubt to the enemies rather than the friends of the United States. Even more broadly, the late 60’s have left as their legacy a widespread malaise about the basic social, political, and cultural institutions of this country, a feeling that America is a “sick society,” to be cured (if at all) by this or that radical transformation. These developments have not contributed to the social and political health of the country; indeed, they can be subsumed under the category of decadence.
The facts about Indochina apart, I am well aware that honest Observers will disagree with me on some of the preceding assessments. I state them here, without being able to argue them in detail, because I consider them to be consequences that must be included in my own reflection on the moral “lessons of Vietnam.” Before I proceed with this, however, it is necessary to describe the character of my own opposition to the war. I do so without any notion that my case is in itself interesting or important. On the contrary, it is precisely because I was very typical of a broad “centrist” constituency within the anti-war camp that a delineation of my position is worth the effort.
This position was “simplistic” in that it was based on outrage over the cruelties of the war rather than on a political analysis of why the American course was wrong. (Needless to say, the charge of being “simplistic” was frequently made to me and others like me by ideologues within the movement; I always agreed with the description, without feeling faulted thereby.) Indeed, I was not even quite sure, except toward the end of the American involvement, that it had been a political mistake. The point, I thought, was arguable either way; what concerned me was not American mistakes but American crimes. Nor did I oppose the war out of any Marxist or marxisant view of the world. Such a view never had the slightest intellectual or emotional attraction for me, and I was somewhat atypical to the extent that my participation in the anti-war movement (which, in any case, was always cautious) did not in the least “radicalize” my political thinking—if anything, it made me define myself more sharply than before as standing “Right of Center.”
Thus my opposition to the war had nothing to do with the general critique of American imperialism that became so fashionable in those years. On the contrary: I was never troubled by the fact of American intervention as such nor by the fact that American actions in Vietnam were those of an imperial power. As an Austrian by origin, I could never forget that it had been American military intervention which saved Europe from Hitler, and that American imperial power had continued to shield the continent of my birth against Stalin and his heirs. No powerful nation ever avoids getting its hands dirty, but, in comparison with others, the United States had in my view exercised its imperial power with impressive moral restraint. Further, I had no illusions about the Hanoi regime and its allied revolutionary movements. The human record of the regime in North Vietnam was odious and its conduct of the war in the South was atrocious. I did not admire the Communists in Indochina and I had no expectation that their victory would improve the lot of anyone except their own cadres (and least of all the lot of the poor). Finally, I was not greatly troubled by the fact that the Saigon regime was corrupt and undemocratic. I knew that most Third World governments are both corrupt and undemocratic, and I realized that the chances for changing this in the midst of a savage war were slim. What troubled me about the Saigon regime was the same thing that troubled me about American conduct in the war—the exceptional cruelty of the methods of warfare and of the repressive apparatus. The atrocities stemming from these methods, I thought, were not isolated or accidental but systematic and intrinsic to the war. Free-fire zones, napalm bombing of villages, the “generation of refugees,” defoliation and kindred destructions of the countryside, the torture of prisoners, the assassination of political suspects—all these were endemic to this war, and I found it morally intolerable that my country should be engaged in them.
In a paper I wrote in 1969, after making most of the points just enumerated, I went on:
I have never been in or even near Vietnam. But I vividly remember a bright summer day a few years ago. I was reading a newspaper in an outdoor café in Switzerland, immersed in the sense of orderly well-being which that country is so peculiarly adept in producing and quite at peace with myself. Then my eye fell on a picture in the newspaper. It showed a group of South Vietnamese soldiers torturing a Vietcong prisoner by holding his head under water. I instinctively started to turn the page to get rid of the picture, then stopped myself as I noticed a figure in what looked like an American officer’s uniform standing on the edge of the group. It suddenly became important to determine whether it was, in fact, an American. I remember holding the paper close to my eyes, so that I could make out the insignia on the uniform or the racial features of the face. The picture was too blurred. Then I realized that it didn’t really matter. I knew that these things were being done and that Americans stood by, both physically (as, possibly, in this instance) and in the sense of complicity. I did not for a moment feel guilty—I was not doing this, I had not been asked, I had not given my assent. But to the extent that all of this was being done in my name, I was responsible for dissociating myself from it. And to the extent that I had any possibilities, however limited, of influencing the course of events, I had an obligation to make use of them. This reaction had nothing to do with ideology or even with politics as such. It was an immediate and irresistible conviction that this horror must stop.
This was not an account of a conversion experience; it was one of many such incidents. And I tried all along to relate my moral reactions to my political understanding of the situation. But it was this outrage that originated and sustained my opposition to the war. I believe that very similar sentiments motivated a large number of other Americans during the years of American military involvement.
I am not prepared to repudiate this moral response now. I am not ashamed of it, and neither should anyone else be who felt the same way. For this reason, and despite the disastrous consequences to which my own and many others’ morally motivated actions contributed, I cannot now indulge in confessions of guilt. Neither the United States government nor the anti-war movement is guilty of the Cambodian genocide and the other horrors that have followed the American withdrawal from Indochina; the moral onus for these horrors belongs to those who have perpetrated them, and nowhere else. Yet a simple reaffirmation of my own moral motivations, or those of at any rate the centrist segment of the anti-war movement, is not enough. This would be making things too easy for oneself. Rather, I believe, one must go on to reflect on two matters that are distinct from but related to the moral validity of the anti-war position. First, one must ask what we know now that we did not know then; second, one must ask what moral lessons are to be learned for the future. It seems to me that only in confronting these questions can I, or anyone who took my position during the war, claim to be morally responsible.
As I have already indicated, my opposition to the war stemmed from outrage over the methods by which it was conducted by the United States and its South Vietnamese allies. My information on these methods (as, indeed, on most other aspects of the events in Indochina) came almost entirely from the major American news media, supplemented by some European reports and by the propagandistic output of the anti-war movement itself (of which, however, I tended to be wary from the beginning, preferring what I believed to be unbiased sources). This information, I thought, demonstrated that the war was being fought in such a way as to inflict systematic cruelties on the civilian population to such an extent that the term “war crimes” became appropriate. My view on this did not change throughout the period of American military involvement.
It would be a relief if I could now say unambiguously, on the basis of more recent information, that this conclusion was correct—and, indeed, it would be a relief if the opposite statement could be made without ambiguity. But I cannot honestly say either the one or the other. The most careful reassessment of these charges which has thus far been made is by Guenter Lewy in his book, America in Vietnam. Lewy’s conclusions are not extreme, but he clearly finds that the reports of American and South Vietnamese atrocities were greatly exaggerated, that there was very little that would justify the term “war crimes” under international law, and that in all likelihood the American military effort in Vietnam was no more cruel than military methods used in earlier wars of the United States. I do not find Lewy’s conclusion compelling, mainly because it is based overwhelmingly on American military sources; though he subjected these sources to a judicious critique, it seems to me that they contain a built-in bias. On some points (for example, on the use of napalm) I do find Lewy’s argument persuasive, but not enough to justify my saying now that I was completely misinformed at the time.
On the other hand, if Lewy’s sources arc biased, one thing I know now that I did not know then is that the sources in the major news media on which I relied were biased as well. It is now clear that, roughly from 1967 on, there was a strong anti-war feeling behind major American reporting from Indochina. This has been carefully documented in the case of the Tet offensive of 1968 (a severe defeat for the Communists that was reported and interpreted as a defeat for the United States), and it is safe to assume that the same bias operated in the reporting of alleged American and South Vietnamese atrocities. Not that a deliberate effort to mislead was necessarily going on; there was the systematically distortive fact that American reporters could roam around with relative ease in the American-held areas while they were obviously barred from the areas held by the Communists. As a result, American and South Vietnamese cruelties loomed large in the reporting, while the intrinsically cruel methods and atrocities of the other side went largely unreported. Some of this was evident to me during the war (I never, for example, gave credence to the term “genocide” applied to American actions); it is more evident now. Nevertheless, I continue to believe that the war was marked by a distinctive brutality which cannot be subsumed under some general statement that “all war is hell.” The war in Indochina had a very special “hellishness” flowing in large measure from its character as a war of counterinsurgency. This fact poses both moral and political questions of great difficulty, but they do not change my presuppositions about this particular war.
Throughout the period of American military engagement in Indochina, I believed that American policy was unclear and shifting, especially as regards the purpose of the war. Was it a war to stop the expansion of Chinese Communist power, or to test the possibility of counterinsurgency measures in general? In other words, was American intervention dictated by geopolitical considerations specific to Southeast Asia, or did Indochina become an arbitrary testing ground for counterinsurgency doctrine? Was it American policy to preserve any non-Communist government in South Vietnam or the particular government in Saigon at the time? Just what did “victory” or “defeat” mean in this war? In sum, what were the American war aims?
These may seem to be political rather than moral questions, but they have an important moral dimension that is best brought out by reference to classical “just war” theory. One of the important criteria of a “just war” is that there be a reasonable chance of success; otherwise, the sacrifices imposed by the war are wanton. Since it was very unclear what an American “success” in Indochina would look like, it was difficult to argue in justification of the war.
This problem was aggravated by the vacillations and deceptions of American government pronouncements on the war, and it was at the core of the sentiment of absurdity felt by increasing numbers of Americans. In the case of my own opposition, it was an important element until the beginning of the withdrawal policy. At least from 1968 on (both in the last period of the Johnson administration and after Nixon’s inauguration) it seemed evident to me that the policy was to disengage in such a way as to leave a viable non-Communist government in the South. I agreed with this policy, and for that reason (along with my mounting disillusion with the anti-war movement) my opposition became more muted.
In this connection, it is important to stress certain facts that, evident then, have become even more amply evident by now. It is not true that the United States settled in 1973 on terms that could have been obtained in 1969. Only in the fall of 1972 did the North Vietnamese drop their demand that, prior to American withdrawal and a freeing of American prisoners of war, the United States overthrow the Thieu government and replace it with a “coalition” regime that would guarantee Communist dominance. I believed then that this was an unacceptable demand, and I believe the same now. Whether the 1973 settlement did indeed give the South Vietnamese a fair chance to survive in a non-Communist society is a question that will never be answered. That fair chance, if it ever existed, assumed a continuing American commitment to maintain the terms of the settlement—an assumption that was shattered by the destruction of the Nixon administration and the refusal of Congress to maintain an adequate level of military aid to the Saigon government (not to mention the Cambodian government).
Nor is it true that the defeat of South Vietnam demonstrates the impossibility of withstanding an insurgency that has won the “hearts and minds” of a people. As to the “hearts and minds” of the people of South Vietnam, the direction of the refugee streams tells its own story. As to the invincibility of insurgencies, South Vietnam was not taken over by the tattered remnants of the Vietcong, but by conventional North Vietnamese forces, with armor and artillery pouring across the (ironically named) Demilitarized Zone.
There was another perception related to American war aims that should be mentioned because it was important for me and many others in the anti-war camp—the perception that American policy in Indochina was an exercise in hubris (Senator Fulbright’s by now proverbial “arrogance of power”). In the wake of the demoralization of recent years, this perception is actually difficult to reconstruct, but I think it was quite accurate in the early and middle 1960’s. This was indeed a period during which “the best and the brightest” of America’s intellectual and political elites looked upon the world as the marble chessboard of their geopolitical games. Vietnam just happened to be one of these games and when it slipped from their control, most of these people swiftly dissociated themselves from the enterprise. Some even became vociferously self-righteous critics of the policies they had been instrumental in inaugurating. It was an undignified spectacle, and it was fully matched by the hubris that rapidly developed within the anti-war movement itself. Perhaps it is a matter of taste whether one is more offended by the arrogance of technocrats or ideologues. The fact remains that the beginnings of American involvement in Indochina were rooted in the hubris of academic and political experiments with the lives and futures of people barely understood by the American policy-makers.
My view of the South Vietnamese regime was also quite typical of people in the anti-war camp (and, indeed, of general public opinion in this country). I perceived that regime as undemocratic, corrupt, brutal, and lacking in popular support. As already mentioned, I was not quite so typical in being more troubled by its brutality than by its other unattractive features—I believed that democracy and “clean government” as understood in, say, Minnesota, were unlikely possibilities in Southeast Asia, and it was not at all clear to me even then that the Communists had more popular support than the Saigon authorities; I assumed that relative fear rather than relative popularity was the decisive issue in a guerrilla war. I recall an incident in the national committee of Clergy and Laymen Concerned about Vietnam (CALCAV), with which I was then associated (I dissociated myself when that organization turned from a straightforward anti-war group into a sort of Maoist chaplaincy to the religious community). We heard a report from Michael Novak, who had just returned from a trip to Vietnam. He told us that the Vietcong were both feared and hated in the countryside. Except for me, hardly anyone at the meeting was willing to give credence to this. The “hearts and minds” argument was spurious at all stages of the war, and I, for one, knew it.
But as to the undemocratic, corrupt, and brutal character of the Saigon regime, nothing that I have learned since has forced me to change my view. Possibly, as Lewy argues, the brutalities of that regime were also exaggerated in the American media; his detailed treatment of the so-called “tiger cages” is instructive in that respect. But I cannot see that any of the more recent information compels a radical revision of the perception that the regime systematically employed inhuman methods in dealing with all forms of real and imagined opposition. I cannot judge whether other policies might have given a better chance to “Third Force” elements (that is, the non-Communist opposition). Be that as it may, two facts are clear. The first is that the Communist forces were even more brutal than the South Vietnamese during the war, and the governments they established after the war, both in South Vietnam and in Cambodia, were vastly more inhuman than the ones they replaced. And the second is that the Communist victory in South Vietnam was achieved by conventional military superiority, not through some irresistible upsurge of popular discontent. In fairness, it must be added that the sudden and unexpected collapse of the South Vietnamese army at the end of the war can arguably be linked to the corruption of the regime it served. Even at that point, however, the stream of refugees never moved toward the Communist-held areas, but always away from them, despite the fact that in moving in this direction the refugees were moving with the war. It was not the war but the “liberation” that vast numbers of people (the majority of them simple peasants) were desperately seeking to escape from. And, of course, they knew why.
The anti-war movement was split at all times between those who admired the Hanoi regime and the Vietcong as harbingers of social justice and humanity, and those who had a more realistic view of the matter. I cannot estimate the relative size of these two groups, but I always belonged to the latter one. North Vietnam was in my eyes a standard totalitarian regime, led by fanatical ideologues who had murdered tens of thousands of people in the early 1950’s and who controlled their society by standard Stalinist methods. This view was correct then; needless to say, it is correct today. The glowing accounts of how the Communists had eradicated misery and starvation—accounts brought back to the American anti-war movement by assorted envoys to Hanoi, ranging from devoted Marxists to starry-eyed Christians—were, of course, of the same accuracy as similar reports by pilgrims to the Soviet Union and China (not to mention Cuba, Albania, and Mozambique). I had no part in any of this, and I will not delve further here into this fascinating area of political psychopathology. It is relevant to a reassessment of the anti-war movement only to the extent that the same people, with the same endless credulity, are still with us today, so that their mis-perceptions then are predictive of comparable mis-perceptions now or in the future.
Of greater significance for the reassessment at issue here is what I, along with many others, believed about the probable consequences of an American withdrawal from Indochina. Though it embarrasses me, I will quote a paragraph from an article I wrote in spring 1967:
It seems to me, then, that there is a simple conclusion to the moral argument, quite apart from the complexity of the political issues: There is no excuse for methods of warfare that are in themselves a crime. And if a war cannot be fought except with these methods, then this war must be stopped—regardless of political costs. To arrive at this conclusion need not involve any simplistic illusions about the political complexities. It also need not involve any optimistic expectations. All sorts of dire results might well follow a reduction or a withdrawal of the American engagement in Vietnam. Morally speaking, however, it is safe to assume that none of these could be worse than what is taking place right now.
Well, it was not safe to assume—neither morally speaking nor politically speaking. I was wrong, and so were all those who thought as I did. Two ideas were involved here, both negative, both denials of positions held by those who supported the war—the “bloodbath theory” and the “domino theory.” Supporters of the war predicted that a Communist victory would lead to a bloodbath and that it was the responsibility of the United States to prevent it, quite apart from other war aims. So far as Cambodia is concerned, the bloodbath that in fact has taken place there (and is still taking place) goes beyond even the most nightmarish fantasies of the staunchest “hawks.” Nothing that has happened in Vietnam, to be sure, comes close to the Cambodian horror—to the point where, for once, I am prepared to believe Hanoi’s propaganda that the Cambodians welcomed the Vietnamese invasion, as the desperate peasants of Stalin’s Russia initially welcomed the invading German troops, before the Nazis revealed their full bestiality, and as the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe greeted Stalin’s armies as liberators. Such are the cruel ironies of history. But to acknowledge that there are atrocities beyond atrocities is not much to say in vindication of the government imposed by Hanoi on the South.
I remember some of the early American reporting from Saigon, after its fall to the North Vietnamese forces. Many of these reports recalled the predictions of the bloodbath theory and pointed out that nothing like that was taking place. These reports were, I think, both honest and accurate: no bloodbath was taking place—then. By analogy, no correspondent reporting from Poland in 1939, say a few weeks after the German occupation, would have seen signs of the “Final Solution.” The screws of totalitarian control usually turn slowly and even genocidal designs take time to be realized (in this too the Khmer Rouge are an exception). What the Communists did in South Vietnam is by now very clear: slowly, systematically, a merciless system of totalitarian control was extended through every segment of the society. With this, inevitably, went the setting up of a Vietnamese version of the Gulag Archipelago, with the familiar machinery of terror. I do not have the figures of how many human beings have perished under this terror, either directly by execution and torture, or indirectly by hunger and exhaustion in the “reeducation camps” and the “new economic zones.” Consequently, one may still argue for Vietnam (which one cannot over Cambodia) whether the term “bloodbath” is precise or adequate. The genocidal assault on the Chinese minority in Vietnam, leading to the unspeakable horrors of the boat people, is perhaps also not correctly describable as a “bloodbath,” though the moral difference between killing people directly or driving them into the sea to die is not clear to me.
The “bloodbath theory,” then, has been broadly validated. How about the “domino theory”? It has certainly been validated for the whole of Indochina. Cambodia and Laos fell to the Communists in the wake of the fall of South Vietnam, as predicted; and, contrary to some fashionable opinions, this outcome is not the result of America’s “extending the war” (it was Hanoi that extended the war to those two unhappy countries, prior to any American actions there) but was part of Hanoi’s drive for hegemony in Indochina all along. In the rest of Southeast Asia the theory has not been validated. The ASEAN countries (Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore) continue to survive as non-Communist states, and though they are all afraid of Hanoi, they are not ruled by it. However, as stated above, I believe that the massive shift in the world balance of power since 1975 must be ascribed, in large measure, to the American defeat in Indochina. If so, then Southeast Asia is not the only testing ground of the theory. Thailand may not be a “domino,” at least not yet; but Angola may be, and Afghanistan, and Iran, and perhaps even Nicaragua. Future validation or falsification of the domino theory will depend upon the degree to which American world power disintegrates further.
Finally, a relevant issue was my own perception of the character and prospects of the anti-war movement, a perception that once again was very widespread, indeed predominant, among “centrist” opponents of the war. At least initially, I perceived the anti-war movement as a deeply moving and admirable upsurge of human decency, and this perception allowed me to have amicable sentiments toward Marxists and other ideologues within the movement because of what I thought to be a shared moral outrage at the inhumanities of the war. I further thought that, because of this shared morality, the anti-war movement embodied a high promise for the future of America. This hope was then caught in the phrase, “the constituency of conscience.”
For me, at any rate, this view of the anti-war movement changed drastically during the course of its existence. At first, until 1968, I considered myself a “Right-of-Center” member of the movement; after 1968, I opposed the war despite the anti-war movement, which I had come to see as profoundly destructive in some of its central impulses. In a number of places, including CALCAV and a variety of university groups that I could observe at close range, I saw the movement taken over for their own purposes by people who were not interested in stopping the war but in defeating and humiliating America. Put simply, while at first I thought that anti-Americanism was a regrettable fringe phenomenon in the movement, after the spring madness of 1968 I concluded that anti-Americanism was at its core. I vividly recall a meeting of the CALCAV national committee about that time. The question was raised by someone whether the unfurling of Vietcong flags at demonstrations might not be counterproductive (no one, as far as I remember, questioned whether it was moral). In the discussion I suggested that anti-war demonstrations in this country should take place amid oceans of American flags. Most of the individuals there looked at me with blank incomprehension; whatever their tactical notions about the uses of Vietcong flags, it was taken for granted by them that the American flag was the symbol of oppression and inhumanity, and its use in an anti-war demonstration would be morally unthinkable whatever the tactical considerations.
In my own thinking, the anti-war movement now makes sense in a much broader sociological context, that of the rise of the “New Class.” It was part of a much broader ideological constellation, including the counterculture and a miscellany of other movements, which heralded the advent of this class on the center stage of American culture. This fact is morally ambiguous (I have found some elements in the ideology of the New Class morally attractive, others repellent, and some merely a matter of taste), and this is not the place to develop the sociological implications. What I now know, though, is this: the anti-war movement was not simply an upsurge of humanitarian sensibility. Some of its uglier features, notably the hatred of America (not just of this or that American policy), were intrinsic rather than peripheral. And the hope for a new “constituency of conscience” was a naive illusion that embarrasses me in retrospect. Indeed, the fragmentation of this constituency in the face of the post-1975 realities of Indochina reveals more clearly than anything else the brittle character of what seemed then to be a moral consensus.
The purpose of the present considerations is not some abstract examination of conscience devoid of political implications. While I believe that moral judgments are different from political ones (so that, in the 1960’s, the judgment that American actions in Vietnam constituted a crime was very different from the judgment that these actions were a mistake), I also believe that morality applied to politics must have an actual or potential relation to practice. The debate over the political lessons of Vietnam, in terms of what were and what were not the mistakes of American policies in Indochina, will continue for years to come. What concerns me here are the moral lessons of Vietnam. For myself, these lessons are few but far-reaching. They are contained in the following four propositions.
1. There is a moral difference between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. In terms of political theory, this difference was enunciated in the work of Hannah Arendt. It is essentially a simple one: an authoritarian regime is one that suppresses all political opposition; a totalitarian regime is one that seeks to integrate every institution within a society in an all-pervasive political structure. To be sure, both types of regime are non-democratic, but to subsume them under that negative quality is to obfuscate the profound difference between them. Authoritarian regimes are nothing new in human history; on the contrary, they are part of what the Dutch historian Jan Romein has called the “common human pattern.” Totalitarianism is an innovation of this century, made possible by the vast expansion in the power of the state as a result of modern technology. No one who has ever lived under a totalitarian regime is likely to overlook the difference at issue. In an authoritarian society the individual knows that he will get into trouble if he engages in oppositional political activity, but if he keeps his mouth shut on political matters there are broad areas of life in which he can live without constant government interference—in the family, in religious institutions, at work, even in a variety of non-political social and cultural associations. In a totalitarian society, keeping one’s mouth shut about politics is not enough. The arm of government reaches into every sector of the individual’s life, integrating and controlling him, and what is demanded of him is continuous participation in the program designed by the political structure for the whole of society. Thus the violations of human liberties by an authoritarian regime are always ancillary to the purpose of stifling political opposition, ipso facto sporadic and less than all-embracing. The totalitarian regime, by contrast, is by its very nature an ongoing assault on every human impulse of freedom. This does not mean that totalitarianism is a night in which all cats are gray. There are differences among totalitarian regimes in the degree and quality of repressive terror: Hungary is not Albania; the Soviet Union today is not what it was at the time of Stalin’s purges; and so on. But the fundamental difference between the two socio-political types still obtains.
I suppose that the persistent incapacity of even American professors to grasp a difference understood by every taxi driver in Prague is due not only to their sheltered condition but to the old American proclivity, expressed powerfully (and with disastrous historical consequences) by “Wilsonianism,” to view the world through narrow ethnocentric spectacles: everything that is not American-style democracy is an undifferentiated evil. But for many American professors, whose enthusiasm for the American political system is restrained, this failure of perception has another important ideological function: it hides the fact that totalitarianism today is limited to socialist societies, while the non-socialist world, a mix of authoritarian, democratic, and semi-democratic governments, does not contain a single totalitarian regime. This fact flies in the face of the socialist dream that haunts the intellectual imagination of the West, and there is a strong ideological interest in suppressing it. Thus South Korea is mentioned in the same breath as North Korea, both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan are characterized as non-democratic regimes, and so on. The perception of North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the war was flawed decisively by the same failure of vision. The transformation of Saigon into Ho Chi Minh City now offers a crystal-clear illustration of the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism, both in terms of political science and political morality.
The same confusion mars current American policy on human rights. This policy, as has been pointed out by various critics, not only favors the adversaries over the friends of the United States by the way it has been applied. More fundamentally, its mechanical criteria fail to discriminate between the sporadic violations of human rights by authoritarian governments and the intrinsic, systemic assault on human rights of a totalitarian society. It seems to me that learning the difference should be one of the foremost lessons of Vietnam.
Morally speaking, authoritarian regimes should be given a benefit of doubt that must be denied to totalitarianism. This does not mean that the crimes of authoritarian regimes should not be protested by Americans, or that the moral quality of a regime should not be a consideration in United States foreign policy. It has been demonstrated a number of times that American pressure, prudently exerted, can serve to humanize regimes within the American sphere of influence, and I for one would deplore the abandonment of this possibility by a new Realpolitik. This is not the place to go into the difficult problem of how hard national interests can be modified by moral considerations in the foreign policy of this country (the most important question here, I think, is how the moral concern is to be institutionalized, and I believe that doing it within the existing structures of the federal government was an error). But as morally concerned American citizens engage in actions with foreign-policy implications, they should be aware of the constant danger that their actions may destabilize bad regimes in favor of vastly worse ones. Minimally, this means that actions should be designed to favor humanizing modifications of authoritarian regimes rather than supplanting these regimes by totalitarian ones. If a sober political assessment of a particular situation leads to the conclusion that this is not possible, the morally indicated course may well be to remain silent.
2. American citizens should not enter into political alliances with those who support totalitarianism. There are practical political reasons for this injunction, already taught by the Popular Front experiences of an earlier period. But in the present context the proposition is intended as a moral one: these alliances fatally flaw the very moral purpose for which they are undertaken in the first place. I want to emphasize that the proposition pertains to American citizens engaged in actions such as those of the anti-war movement rather than to the foreign policy of the American government. In the real world, friendly dealings, even alliances, with totalitarian regimes may be unavoidable. Thus the developing relationship with the People’s Republic of China has been, I believe, a wise purpose of American foreign policy, and would have been that even if the Chinese regime had remained unaltered after Mao’s death (leaving aside here the question of whether the return to greater sanity since then on the part of the Peking regime may or may not have been causally affected by the new American relationship). Thus too the wartime alliance between the Western powers and Stalin’s Russia was not only strategically but morally justified by the purpose of defeating Hitler’s Germany. But such moves of national policy are a very different matter, politically as well as morally, from alliances with Maoists and Stalinists within domestic movements of protest or advocacy.
Let me emphasize as strongly as I can that this proposition is by no means a rephrasing of the old Popular Front slogan into “pas d’amis à gauche.” Fortunately, the line between totalitarians and anti-totalitarians does not follow the “Left” / “Right” divide; if it did, the world would be an even more nightmarish place than it is already. There is today, as there has been in the past, a vigorous democratic Left. It includes not only social democrats but sundry varieties of “humanist Marxists,” some even members of Communist parties, and while someone like myself will always disagree with these people on their notions of socialism and on the socioeconomic requirements of freedom, they are indispensable allies in most efforts to humanize the international scene. My proposition does not refer to them. It refers to a different group, which has become all too visible in America (its presence in Europe has been of longer duration and is today more prominent) precisely since the late 1960’s and at least in part because of its association with the anti-war movement. These are the people for whom the appellation “socialist” suffices to legitimate every revolutionary cause and every regime, no matter how brutal. These are the ones who either deny or justify the human horrors imposed by the “socialists” with whom they identify; I am not sure whether the denial or the justification is more repugnant. They cannot be argued with, they will not learn, and most of them will never change. They constitute the vanguard of the Gulag Archipelago. And anyone who cares about humanity should avoid even the slightest association with them.
They were all too prominent in the anti-war movement. To this day they will defend the Hanoi regime regardless of its atrocities and it is not morality but the gyrations of Indochinese politics that have now forced them to choose between the Vietnamese and the Khmer Rouge versions of “socialist revolution” (most of them, predictably, have chosen the former). The moral credibility of the anti-war movement was irreparably harmed by their prominent role in it.
The practical implications of this insight are simple and immediate: no alliances with those who protest violations of human rights in Chile while remaining silent on Cuba, or with those for whom South Africa is the worst evil in the world while the likes of Idi Amin or the “Emperor” Bokassa are (at most) regrettable side effects of the “liberation process,” or with those who criticize South Korea as if Kim Il Sung did not exist, and certainly not with those whose “anti-Zionism” is a thin cover for an international anti-Semitism not seen since the destruction of Nazism. After Franco’s death a sound political maxim circulated in Spain (it was meant to apply to Stalinists as well as to Falangists): if you want to build a democracy, work with democrats. Mutatis mutandis, the maxim applies to the sort of moral outrage that animated centrists in the anti-war movement: if you are concerned with human rights, work with those who care about humanity.
3. On balance, American power is a force for good in the world. This is not a proposition of mindless nationalism, or an expression of faith in the “manifest destiny” of the American republic, or a statement implying that every exercise of American power should be uncritically applauded. Rather, it is a very sober proposition, based on the empirical realities of the contemporary world. My Central European origins maintained these realities in my consciousness even at the height of my own anti-war involvement; every time I visited my hometown of Vienna during those years I was conscious of the fact that the nearest Russian troops were some thirty miles away and that there was nothing to keep them from advancing except the long shadow of American power. The events that have followed the collapse of American power in Indochina should have educated people without the doubtful benefits of a Central European background in the moral status of the so-called American “empire”—or what is left of it.
To be sure, the “free world” that survives behind the now-battered shield of American power contains much that is morally deplorable, as indeed does the domestic society of the United States. Nothing is further from my mind than the suggestion that all criticism of these political and social evils should be muted because of the international role of this country. But it is a far cry from criticizing the shortcomings of a reality of which one basically approves to working, deliberately or unintentionally, toward the destruction of that reality. American power protects far more that is good than evil, and not only in Central Europe, and the empirically plausible alternatives to the American-maintained world system are almost invariably worse. It is perhaps not too much to hope that the unfolding drama of Iran will bring this lesson home to many Americans. The tragic drama of Indochina since 1975 should have taught the same lesson.
As in the case of American citizens protesting the inhumanities of authoritarian regimes friendly to the United States, Americans opposing this or that policy of their own government should be much more careful in the future to express their opposition in such a way as not to provide aid to the purposes of those who would destroy American power. Here too Henry Kissinger’s memoirs provide a deeply disturbing insight into the role of the domestic opposition in frustrating the efforts of the American government to terminate the war on terms short of abject surrender. I realize very well that this is not an easy position and I have no readily applicable rule for drawing the line between responsible and irresponsible opposition. But perhaps an analogy might be helpful. I think that a strong moral argument could have been made against the strategic bombing of civilian populations in Germany and Japan during World War II. In the event, there was no “constituency of conscience” in America that protested this military strategy, and Dresden and Hiroshima have only in retrospect come to be perceived as symbols of moral shame. Yet it is possible to imagine a protest at that time which, while condemning these particular actions, would not have called for a termination of the American war effort against the Axis. It does not require an impossible exercise of the imagination to see, in retrospect, how the anti-war movement could have protested particular actions of the United States and its allies in Vietnam (such as the avoidable cruelties of various counterinsurgency measures) without giving vital assistance to Hanoi in its drive toward total victory.
Closely related to the perception of the moral status of American power is the perception of the moral quality of American society itself. The more strident denunciations of “Amerika” have happily diminished in recent years, but there continues to be a widespread idea, especially in the college-educated upper-middle class, that this is a profoundly “sick” or destructive society, and this idea undermines national self-confidence and will. It is an idea that is both empirically and morally grotesque. It is very difficult in the contemporary world to find a more humanly decent society than that of the United States, and the plausible cases are almost without exception societies that are politically and sociologically close to America. Whatever may be one’s criticism of one or another aspect of social change in this country, what other country can one name where the last two decades have shown comparable strides toward a more decent society? Suffice it to name the monumental political, legal, and social efforts to protect civil liberties, to right the injustices of racial discrimination, to push back poverty, to improve the status of women, and to achieve a better life for the handicapped. Have all these efforts been completely successful? Of course not. Have there been unfortunate side-effects of some of these efforts? Of course there have. But to see the society in which these veritable explosions of human decency have taken place as peculiarly “sick” is more than a failure of perception. It is a symptom of moral dementia.
No less is at issue here than a reaffirmation of American patriotism, which has been severely shaken since the mid-1960’s. Again, such a reaffirmation of patriotism is both politically and morally urgent. American society, despite its faults, is one of which its citizens have much reason to be proud. The same goes for the extension of this society’s power onto the world scene. If the experiences of the American involvement in Indochina have sobered patriotism and given it a critical edge, so much the better. A regaining of America’s patriotic instincts would be all the healthier for that.
4. The political world rarely if ever affords the luxury of morally pure actions. For many historical reasons, all well known, this is a particularly hard lesson for Americans to learn. That is why the political attitudes of Americans recurringly alternate between those of the amoral technocrat and the self-righteous ideologue; both attitudes are evasions of the moral ambiguities of acting in the real world of power. In my own thinking about political and social ethics I have never been able to get very far away from the Lutheran doctrine of the two kingdoms, with its realization that politics will always remain in the kingdom of “God’s left hand,” which is not and cannot be the kingdom of grace. But one does not have to be a Lutheran to understand that acting politically means getting one’s hands dirty. Nor is it all that difficult to see that, again and again, the refusal to exercise political power because of this fact has led to the victory of those who have no such scruples. Max Weber’s distinction between an “ethic of pure motives” and an “ethic of responsibility” continues to be relevant to anyone seeking to be both politically effective and morally sensitive. The distinction was widely lost within the anti-war movement, and this led to predictably irresponsible actions. Those years witnessed a wild eruption in America of what another German sociologist, Arnold Gehlen, has aptly called “hyper-morality.” It is an attitude with almost invariably catastrophic consequences.
Anyone who would act with moral purity in the political arena is constrained to imagine utopian choices in the place of the real options available to him. It will now always remain a moot question whether the “Third Force” groupings, on which the centrists in the anti-war movement pinned such high hopes, ever had a real chance in Vietnam. Perhaps they did. Or perhaps those who refused to settle for Thieu had to get Ho Chi Minh. At the very least, however, the experience of Vietnam should teach greater care in the condemnation of this or that political option on the grounds of moral purity. Those who condemned the Shah brought about Khomeini. Those who condemn Pinochet may get Castro. To say this in no way implies a moral vindication of either the Shah or Pinochet. It does imply a recognition that politics almost always imposes a morality of choosing the lesser evil. In identifying the lesser evil, most of the time, it is necessary to keep the difference between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes in mind as well as the moral status of American power.
It would be gratifying if this essay could end on an uplifting note: if only we learn these lessons, all will go well with us and America will regain the elan of an earlier period, and American power will once again be exercised in the world with good effect. I regret that I find myself unable to end on such a note. It is quite possible that it is too late for the lessons of Vietnam to be either learned or effectively applied. The rupture in American self-confidence, the sheer decadence of the important American elites, and the by now institutionalized paralysis of the American capacity to act with power on the international scene may simply have gone too far to be reversed. Moreover, the shift in the world balance of power resulting from the American defeat in Indochina may be irreversible even if there should occur a regeneration of American spirit and will. It is difficult to derive much hope from a sober assessment of current international developments. What lies ahead may be a long, long age of darkness. American society may itself be swallowed up in that darkness, and the Western experiment with freedom may turn out to have been a very brief episode in human history.
But we do not know this for certain. Not yet, anyway. The “ethic of responsibility” bids us act while we can; it prohibits abdication until that should become the only alternative. Even then, I would add, it is better to see clearly than to be caught in illusion. That is why the American crisis of conscience over Indochina calls for clarification, even if the practical fruits of such clarification may by now be meager.