Vietnam and American Politics
Few events pose a dilemma of deeper concern to America’s liberal community than the forthcoming Presidential election. In an attempt to air the issues involved, COMMENTARY has inaugurated this department—to run regularly until October—as an ongoing forum in which differing opinions will be voiced concerning the options available to the responsible liberal voter. “Vietnam and American Politics,” by Theodore Draper, the eminent political historian and critic, is the first in this series of statements; we invite letters and comments from our readers on the points raised by Mr. Draper, as well as those to be discussed by subsequent contributors.
What is an opponent of U.S. policy in Vietnam to do in the 1968 Presidential election?
The reader will note that this question does not ask whether one should or should not be an opponent of the American war in Vietnam. I have already stated my view of the war at length—that it is a political debacle, a military folly, and a moral disgrace. Nothing that has happened in the past few months has made me change my mind. On the contrary, it has become clearer than ever that the Johnson administration is determined to come out of this war with something that it can claim to be a military “victory” or at least a setback for the Vietnamese Communists, no matter how much of South and North Vietnam must be destroyed in the process. It has become a war to save American pride and prestige, not to save the Vietnamese people from Communism or from anything else. As long as the only thing that stands between the Vietnamese people and Communism is a huge American army of occupation, the United States is only buying time in South Vietnam at an exorbitant cost. The conditions which breed anti-Americanism are being burned into the Vietnamese consciousness more and more deeply, and as matters stand now, the Communists will be the long-term beneficiaries of this partly manifest, partly subterranean, but always spreading anti-Americanism.
It has become a commonplace that it is hard to say anything new about the war itself. This may be true, but it is no reason for not remembering or reiterating some old things about the war. President Johnson would like to wage the Vietnamese side of this Presidential campaign by getting the electorate to vote on a very simple question: Do you wish to lose or win the Vietnamese war? But the problem is not so simple. Where to draw the line between not losing and winning? After a country has invested so much in a war, it cannot justify the expenditure without having something to show for it. The promising overture by North Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Duy Trinh on January 28, 1967, when he said that unconditional cessation of the bombing and “all other acts of war” against North Vietnam “could” bring about U.S.-North Vietnam negotiations, was brushed aside by the Johnson administration because it then believed or professed to believe that North Vietnam was on the verge of military collapse. White House special assistants and consultants spoke confidently of victory that was only weeks away. This was the real motive behind the hard line taken by the President in the exchange of messages with Ho Chi Minh in February 1967 and the sharp military escalation later that month and the next. We do not know enough to be sure whether the White House was deceiving itself, deceiving others, or both. We know that the hardest fighting and longest American casualty lists were yet to come. In January 1968, the North Vietnamese changed their negotiating position from “could” to “will,” and again, almost predictably, the same counter-moves were made. Propaganda out of the Pentagon and the White House filled the newspapers with stories that North Vietnam and the Vietcong were “hurting” so much that only “disunity” in the United States caused them to go on fighting in the hope of salvaging in the United States what they had already lost in Vietnam. And, in his State of the Union message on January 18, President Johnson again took a hard line. He demanded prior assurances that talks would be “productive.” He did not say productive of what. One can only assume that he meant productive of previously stated U.S. war aims, which often go as far as the assurance of “peace” in all Southeast Asia.
There has been much less real change in the Johnson administration’s view of how to end the war than has sometimes appeared. The changes have been tactical rather than substantive. In 1965 and 1966, General Maxwell D. Taylor and former Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, two of the foremost architects of U.S. policy in Vietnam, openly derided the need to negotiate a peaceful settlement. They preferred to believe that the enemy’s forces would simply “peter out” or “fade away.” This perspective implied the application of enough military pressure to induce the enemy to give up unilaterally, and if the existing pressure was not enough, it had to be increased to an ever higher level. In 1965, Secretary Rusk referred scornfully to UN Secretary-General U Thant’s efforts as “something called ‘negotiation,’” and complained that it lacked a mysterious “crucial element.” Later he implied that the missing element was “some private contact” which would demonstrate in advance that the settlement would be “satisfactory.” Still later that year, he said that his “antennae” were waiting for a “key signal,” which was none other than the “crucial element” and the “private contact” to assure satisfaction.
In his letter to Ho Chi Minh of February 8, 1967, President Johnson demanded, in effect, that North Vietnam should “fade out” of South Vietnam in exchange for U.S. cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam. And on January 18, 1968, Mr. Johnson substituted the word “productive” for Mr. Rusk’s old term “satisfactory.”1 The prior condition which the Johnson administration has always demanded for negotiations would make them little more than a formality to ratify a previous assurance by the enemy that it would somehow “peter out” or “fade away.” This is the political reality; the rest is public relations.
The past weighs heavily on the Vietnam problem but, if the Johnson administration has its way, it will be blotted out or distorted beyond recognition. One way to blot it out or at least to blot out that portion for which the present administration must accept specific responsibility was tried out by Under Secretary of State Nicholas Katzenbach in Oklahoma City on January 19:
The decision to fight in Vietnam was the product of many decisions of many people over many years. Right or wrong—and I happen to think it was right—it is now too late to look for a nicer or nearer battlefield.
History and circumstances have given us Vietnam as the battlefield and that is where we must make the decision which may well determine the future shape of Asia and our role in the future of Asia.
If we must blame “many decisions of many people over many years” and “history and circumstances” for the fighting in Vietnam, the role of Lyndon B. Johnson in making that decision will be gently lost in the muddle and shuffle. Mr. Katzenbach is not the first one to shift the responsibility from Mr. Johnson to others. In March 1966, the State Department issued a document entitled “The Legality of United States Participation in the Defense of Vietnam” which detailed the steps taken by former Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy but did not even mention President Johnson’s name. Mr. Katzenbach is not quite that crude. He does not want us to blame Mr. Johnson for anything because he does not want to blame anyone.
This may be politics at its craftiest but it is history for the gullible. Lyndon Johnson came into office in November 1963. In a message of December 31, 1963, to General Duong Van Minh, then the strong man of South Vietnam, he stated their joint objective as “victory,” a term not used by his predecessors. The “decision to fight” in South Vietnam was made by Johnson and Johnson alone. It may have been the “product” of many decisions of many people over many years. But “product” here means little more than that previous decisions had led part of the way to this one. But was the decision to send almost half a million troops to fight in South Vietnam inherent in those previous decisions? Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy both disclaimed any intention to take over the fight from the South Vietnamese. So casehardened and knowledgable a political figure as Senator Richard B. Russell has several times acknowledged publicly that we should never have gone in to fight. It cannot be argued, therefore, that the decision to fight was clearly and obviously inherent in previous decisions. On the contrary, it represented a qualitative leap unlike any of the previous quantitative accretions.
The behest that it is “too late” to question the advisability of this battlefield or how far we should continue to get drawn into it is designed to stifle debate on the war. Why waste time discussing something that is “too late”? Why expend energy questioning what “history and circumstances,” not politicians in office, have given us? The trouble is that we cannot vote against “history and circumstances” but we can vote against politicians in office. Even if it is “too late” to undo what Lyndon Johnson and his entourage have done, it is not yet “too late” to approve or disapprove of them. We may have to live with what they have done, but we do not have to live with them.
When it is not possible to unload the whole responsibility on “history and circumstances,” the next best thing is to distort them. One of the worst offenders in this respect has been President Johnson. Since this is a serious charge, the reader has a right to demand documentation.
On December 19 of last year, the President was interviewed by three television reporters. One of them, Ray Scherer of NBC, asked him:
Mr. President, much has been made of your 1964 campaign statement about not sending American boys to fight in an Asian war. As you look back on that now, was that a pledge, a hope, or was it simply a statement of principle in a larger context?
Mr. Johnson replied:
It was one of many statements, if you will look back upon it, as part of a policy, namely, our policy then and now was to keep our hand out for negotiations and for discussions, and for peace, and our guard up that would support the South Vietnamese to keep them from being enveloped.
We made clear that the South Vietnamese ought to pledge every resource they had, that we would never supplant them. But we would supplement them to the extent that it was necessary.
We did not plan to go into Asia and to fight an Asian war that Asians ought to be fighting for themselves. But if Asians were fighting for themselves and were using all the resources that they had in South Vietnam, there was no pledge, no commitment, and no implication that we would not supplement them and support them as we are doing, and as we agreed to do many years before in the SEATO Treaty, and as we had agreed to do in the Gulf of Tonkin resolution before that statement.
This was Mr. Johnson’s answer in full. Is it possible that he really believed in what he said? The campaign statements to which he referred were made in 1964. In that year, about the last thing our policy looked forward to was negotiations and discussions with the Vietcong or with North Vietnam. For at least the first half of 1964, the administration was still so optimistic of victory that it saw no need for negotiations or discuscussions. In March of that year, Secretary of Defense McNamara came back from South Vietnam with the good news that the then head of the military junta, General Nguyen Khanh, was just the man to defeat the Communists because he had the basic political, economic, and psychological qualifications to assure victory. It was not until that summer that some U.S. officials began to lose confidence in General Khanh and to wonder aloud whether we might not have to intervene in force to save his regime. In any event, such leading U.S. spokesmen as General Taylor and former Ambassador Lodge, as we have seen, poohpoohed negotiations or discussions all through 1965 and 1966 and expected the enemy to “peter out” or “fade away.” In the summer of 1964, Secretary of State Rusk gave the total enemy force as consisting of no more than 30,000 “hard-core” Vietcong and 60,000 “sort of part-time help or casual help,” with no North Vietnamese troops whatever. As Secretary McNamara and other administration officials later admitted, the South Vietnamese forces in the latter half of 1964 were collapsing from internal disintegration far more than from external pressure.
Thus the United States stepped up the war in early 1965, from bombing North Vietnam to sending tens and then hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to South Vietnam, for exactly the opposite reason given by President Johnson. The “Asians” in South Vietnam were not fighting for themselves and not using all their resources. It is also not true that Mr. Johnson “made clear” in the campaign of 1964 that we would supplement them, but not supplant them, with our own troops if they used up all of their own resources in their own defense. As Mr. Johnson put it in August and September 1964, we intended neither to supplement nor to supplant them. This is what he said in New York on August 12, 1964:
Some others are eager to enlarge the conflict. They call upon us to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do. They ask us to take reckless action which might risk the lives of millions and engulf much of Asia and certainly threaten the peace of the entire world. Moreover, such action would offer no solution at all to the real problem of Vietnam.
And on August 29, 1964, he said in Texas:
I have had advice to load our planes with bombs and to drop them on certain areas that I think would enlarge the war and escalate the war, and result in our committing a good many American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land. And for that reason, I haven’t chosen to enlarge the war.
It is perfectly clear from these and other statements that Mr. Johnson did not think and did not say in 1964 that the “Asian boys” were doing all they should have been doing, that the Asians were using all their resources and, therefore, it was necessary for us merely to “supplement” them. In fact, the reasons given by Mr. Johnson in 1964 for not enlarging or escalating the war had little or nothing to do with whether the South Vietnamese were using all their resources and needed supplementation by us. To send American boys to do the job Asian boys should be doing, he said, was “reckless” because it might risk the lives of millions, engulf much of Asia, and certainly threaten world peace. In August 1964, the State and Defense Departments jointly issued a pamphlet entitled Viet Nam: The Struggle for Freedom which disapproved of using American combat units in what it still considered to be a guerrilla war and because they would give substance to the Communist charge that the United States was conducting “a ‘white man’s war’ against Asians.” These reasons were much larger and more fundamental than the version recently given by President Johnson to Mr. Scherer, and they have by no means lost their cogency.
Above all, can the President really believe that American troops have merely supplemented and not supplanted South Vietnamese forces in the main fighting? He must remember that the decision to increase the American troops to about 500,000 by the end of 1967 in order to enable them to take over “offensive” military operations, leaving the rear-guard “pacification” program to the South Vietnamese, was confirmed at the Manila Conference of October 1966. A UPI report published November 18, 1966, quoted the then South Vietnamese Defense Minister as saying that “the entire Vietnamese army will switch to a pacification role in 1967 and leave major fighting to American troops.” As for the SEATO Treaty and the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, there was nothing in either of them which obliged us to take over the main fighting from the Vietnamese; this was a policy decision which might or might not have been made whether or not the treaty or the resolution ever existed.2
What are we to make of President Johnson’s assurance in this television interview that we made clear to the South Vietnamese “we would never supplant them”? Never? But we have supplanted them, in the blinding refulgence of worldwide publicity, for over a year. One might almost suspect the mechanism of repression at work.
I have gone into the recent statements of Under Secretary Katzenbach and President Johnson in some detail because they indicate the problem of the forthcoming election.
That problem is how to make the record of the Johnson administration in the Vietnam war the overshadowing issue of the election. There are two sides which would not like this to happen—the Johnson administration and some of its most bitter enemies.
Mr. Johnson and his epigones have already given away their natural reluctance to stand on their record of the past five years. Whenever they refer to that record, as I have noted, they either diffuse the responsibility for the crucial decisions so broadly that this administration cannot be held accountable or they brazenly invent a record that never existed in order to escape an accounting.
The administration would infinitely prefer to make the election hinge on the future instead of the past. The great virtue of the future is that we know very little about it, and the besetting sin of the past is that we know too much about it. But what the future of our Vietnam policy should be is not altogether clear.
We are sometimes offered what may be called a “minimum program.” The New York Times of December 20, 1967 published a statement by fourteen distinguished authorities on Asia in which they set forth a supposedly “moderate” position. However this may be, they stated the case as if it were a matter of accepting “a Communist victory in Vietnam,” of “American withdrawal from Vietnam under conditions of Communist victory,” of “our unconditional surrender.” It is hard to see how the Communists could have been so close to victory if, as the administration told us, they had suffered such staggering losses that they would have collapsed if they could not count on “disunity” in the United States, an allegation to which the statement also partially subscribes.
On that assumption, it might have been more realistic to maintain that the issue was whether or not the Communists would accept “an American victory in Vietnam,” a “Communist withdrawal from Vietnam under conditions of American victory,” and “their unconditional surrender.”
This statement did nothing to clarify the situation because it basically rested on the Johnson administration’s contradictory propositions—the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were in such a parlous state that they were dependent on U.S. public opinion to save themselves from defeat, and the American forces were in such a parlous state that they had to save themselves from an outright Communist victory and their own unconditional surrender. These eminent authorities had as little authority as anyone else to believe in either, let alone in both, of these propositions. By giving a “moderate” version of the administration’s own confusing line, they missed an opportunity to subject it to a hard, truly independent reappraisal and thus save the American people from some unpleasant future surprises.
Ever since President Johnson used the term “victory” in his message of December 31, 1963, to General Duong Van Minh, it has not been considered good form to use it in official U.S. statements. But it has always lurked just underneath the surface of the approved euphemisms, and in fact, the objective of an “American victory” goes farther than the avoidance of a “Communist victory.” For the latter might be achieved by something less than an American victory just as, from the Communist point of view, the latter might be avoided by something less than a Communist victory. It is relatively easy for each side to claim that it is fighting to avert the other’s total victory; the hard problem is to reach a settlement based on neither side’s victory.
But an American victory in South Vietnam is not the most extreme expression of what the Johnson administration is fighting for. The Vietnamese war has been so lengthy and costly that it cannot be justified on the basis of poor little Vietnam alone. Thus it has been made the decisive battle which may, as Under Secretary Katzenbach put it, “determine the future shape of Asia and our role in the future of Asia.” This can only mean that the Vietnam war belongs to a much larger effort on the part of the United States to determine the “future shape” of Asia and its own role in that future.
Official spokesmen usually stop here. But the more ardent, uninhibited, unofficial supporters of the Vietnam war go a good deal farther and spell out what may be called the “maximum program.” For example, Great Britain’s recent decision to withdraw its forces from Malaysia and Singapore brought forth these reflections from C. L. Sulzberger in the New York Times of January 19: “The United States now becomes the only naval and air power in the Far East, as totally dominant in diplomatic calculations for free Asia vis-à-vis China as it was, a generation ago, in diplomatic calculations for free Europe vis-à-vis Russia. We must now build up Asia itself, especially Japan, as we initially built up Europe.” Three days later, Mr. Sulzberger predicted that U.S. foreign policy would take an “Asia-first” direction. He also called on the United States, perhaps with Soviet assistance, to stimulate the “embourgeoisement and preoccupation with peace” of Communist China, as we had once allegedly done for Soviet Russia.
Mr. Sulzberger’s specific recommendations may not appeal to all those who agree with him in principle. It is hard to know why we have to build up Japan any more; we have passed that stage there; Japan has already gone into the next stage of rearming in preparation for a major bid in the next decade to regain some of its old influence. Nor is it altogether clear why we should claim any particular credit for Russia’s “embourgeoisement” or even why anyone should imagine that Russia has been so preoccupied with peace, unless the profligate Russian arms handouts to Egypt, North Vietnam, and elsewhere may be taken as evidence of this curious preoccupation. Nevertheless, the bourgeoisification of China suggests how long it will take and how much it will cost to realize Mr. Sulzberger’s dream in all or most of Asia. I confess that it is hard for me to take much of Mr. Sulzberger’s reasoning seriously, but the basic idea is not original with him and cannot be ignored because it comes in many guises. In the “maximum program,” the Vietnam war is justified, wherever it may lead, because it betokens that the United States has committed itself, in Under Secretary Katzenbach’s words, to determining the future shape of Asia and our role in the future of Asia.
If this school of thought prevails, the United States will be in the grip of a second “Manifest Destiny” period. It will fatally produce more Vietnam-type wars, more crises of the sort that has blown up over the “intelligence ship” off the North Korean coast, more rationalizations for arms buildups and a bloated diplomatic and intelligence bureaucracy dependent on crises for their raison d’être. It is admittedly hard for a great power like the United States to come down from its preeminent and ubiquitous role in the 1950’s—not from interventionism everywhere to isolationism everywhere but to a far more limited and discriminating appreciation of what it can and should do.
The “maximum program” would use Asia to make up for the slack that has developed in Europe. As an election issue, however, we will hear mostly of the “minimum program” of merely averting a crashing Communist victory in Vietnam and somewhat less of the more dashing prospect of scoring a full-fledged American victory. No politician in his right mind with a will to win can be expected to campaign on the “maximum program.” But then, Lyndon Johnson ran away with the Presidency in 1964 by turning in horror from the “advice to load our planes with bombs and drop them on certain areas that I think would enlarge the war and escalate the war, and result in our committing a good many American boys to fighting a war that I think ought to be fought by the boys of Asia to help protect their own land.” If the reader has become tired of having these words thrown at him, the danger is even more acute than I think it is. For if we can learn nothing from the last election because we have become bored with it, we are almost certainly going to have a slightly revised version of it in 1968.
Dissent or resistance? This seems to have become the choice before opponents of the Vietnam war or at least those who have not already made up their minds that the time for dissent has passed and only some form of “resistance” remains. Dissent is apparently taken to mean writing and speaking against the war; resistance means “direct action” such as non-compliance with the draft and tax refusal. Those who believe in resistance may also differ over the advisability of violent or non-violent tactics. For advocates of the latter, resistance evokes the long and honorable tradition of “civil disobedience.”
There is also, I think, another distinction to be made between dissent and resistance. It may provide a larger basis for judging the utility or effectiveness of both. The essential difference is in the attitude to the American people. This more than anything else may well determine where, when, and how to draw the line between dissent and resistance.
Two tendencies that oppose the American war effort tend to ignore or write off public opinion in the United States. One is represented by those who believe, not without reason, that the pro-war forces are so strong and the masses of American people so apathetic that a sane person can only hope to save his own soul. This personal salvation may require an act of resistance, whatever its broader political consequences may be. The important thing here is to show where one stands, to free oneself from the guilt of the war, to act out a form of protest that is most uncompromising morally however effective or ineffective it may be politically. This is, to my mind, a thoroughly tenable and even admirable position as long as the same person does not imagine that he is necessarily saving anyone else’s soul or even making it easier to save other souls. It is the politics of gesture, not to be confused with the gestures we are accustomed to in politics. It is essentially a private act, even if it is committed publicly. It may have public repercussions but they are at best secondary and would make little difference if they did not exist.
The other tendency for which American public opinion hardly matters is the revolutionary. Inasmuch as no one can seriously envisage an American revolution, this tendency lives vicariously—in China, in Cuba, in Vietnam, in the “underdeveloped” world. It is not anti-war; it is pro-war—the war of the Vietcong and North Vietnam. It is not against victory; it is for victory—of the Vietcong and North Vietnam. It has reversed the old Marxist view that socialism must come first in the most advanced industrialized countries; they have now been sent to the end of the line. In the U.S. the ruling class is power-mad, the middle class diseased, the proletariat corrupted. The struggle is no longer between classes but between nations, rich and poor, white and colored, or at least the latter is the latest incarnation of the class struggle.
These two tendencies have monopolized the “resistance.” They are now prepared to take extreme actions and to provoke extreme reactions. They also share a contempt for the third group—those who have limited themselves to political “dissent.” This group has to operate more or less within the system, whereas the other two feel compelled to operate outside the system. The opposition to the Vietnam war has thus been made up of three disparate parts which partly feed each other and partly frustrate each other. It is fair to say that there is more opposition to the war now than there has ever been, and also that the opposition has never been so divided and adrift. Before another step forward can be taken, the problem may be to find out what is wrong or at least to clear the air.
At the heart of the problem, I believe, is what objective any particular activity or group sets out to serve. Is it to sway as large a portion of the American people as possible and find the means by which they can express themselves in ways most acceptable to them? Is it to bring the war to a halt by disruptive sallies, tax refusal, draft evasion, and the like, which will somehow increase the cost of the war beyond the country’s capacity? Is it to satisfy individual consciences on a collective scale? Is it to assist the Vietnamese Communists to establish their rule in South Vietnam?
The trouble is that these objectives cannot coexist peacefully together or can do so only in part. The most contradictory are the first and the last. It is not merely a political fantasy to appeal to the American people for peace on the one hand and to advocate a Communist victory on the other. It is also politically self-defeating. It equates peace with victory—but substitutes a Communist victory for an American victory. It therefore actually strengthens those who believe that the Vietnam war must end with the total victory of one side or the other. This may prove to be true, but only because both sides want it to be true, not because it is beyond human ingenuity to find a face-saving formula to end the war, whatever the ultimate fate of Vietnam may be (no settlement is going to be good for all time here or anywhere else). For this reason, Lyndon Johnson would like nothing better than to face an opposition committed to the Communist cause. It saves him the trouble of proving all his premises; it merely comes to a different conclusion.
The devotees of permanent revolution are not interested only in the Vietnamese revolution; they also have a stake in their kind of revolution in the United States. We need not stop to argue whether the United States is ripe or ready for revolution. The point here is that the tieup of peace in Vietnam with a revolutionary perspective infinitely complicates the issue as far as ordinary people are concerned. It forces them to accept or reject a peace program, unsatisfactory as it must be to both extremes, not for itself but as an adjunct to something much larger and more fundamental—the revolution. Faced with the choice of accepting both or none at all, most people, if not almost all, will decide to reject peace if it also means revolution. This is so obvious that it is not unknown for revolutionary movements to organize nominally independent “peace fronts” in order to seem to keep the two questions separate. The old-fashioned leagues against war and Fascism, however, were somewhat more realistic. The Communist elements in them did not come out for a Soviet victory; they maintained a semblance of sweet reasonableness. The most recently anointed revolutionists flaunt their pro-Vietcong banners in what is ostensibly a peace demonstration. The organizers of such demonstrations who cannot bring themselves to exclude the peace-by-Vietcong-victory contingent might just as logically include a peace-by-American-victory contingent.
Curiously, no one seems to question the peaceful motives of the revolutionists, but they have bestowed on themselves the right to question everyone else’s motives. It is not enough to be for peace in Vietnam; one must have the correct motives and even use the authorized terminology. Anyone who says or writes “American” without following it immediately with “imperialism” cannot be trusted; in fact, he is probably a CIA agent or at least on the mailing list of the former Congress for Cultural Freedom.
Dissent and resistance, as currently interpreted, have, it seems to me, a much closer relationship. Dissent is merely the right to criticize, and we are in a much more precarious state than I think we are if it is necessary to defend it. But resistance, which is little more than the 19th century’s “civil disobedience,” as long as it takes the form of draft-or tax refusal and the like, also has an honored and enduring American tradition. When Thoreau was jailed for refusing to pay his poll-tax, an aunt paid it for him and succeeded in getting Thoreau released—much to his dismay. But Thoreau’s protest depended not so much on how long he stayed in jail as on the demonstration that a man who was not naturally a lawbreaker and jail-inmate was willing to break the law and go to jail to wake up the nation to the full enormity of its government’s pro-slavery policy at the time of the Mexican War. When men like Dr. Benjamin Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., and others, demand that they should be judged as if they had broken the law, they are also calling on their fellow-citizens to think again if men such as themselves can bring themselves to court jail to protest against this government’s pro-war policy.
Those who are thinking mainly of the practical effect of their refusal to obey the draft or pay taxes are probably going to be disappointed. A government which spends about twenty-five billion dollars a year on the Vietnam war will not be deterred by what these methods can do to “increase the cost of American aggression.” Resistance may be quite limited in its practical effect, but it may have much greater repercussions politically. It is, at its best, a kind of dissent dramatized by the price that dissenters may be willing to pay for their principles.
This means that whatever the form of resistance may be, it should not be viewed as an end in itself. It must ultimately be judged by its effect on the masses of ordinary Americans, on, if you will, “public opinion” or the “electorate.” Otherwise, it remains a purely private act to satisfy a personal conscience. The latter may be worth doing for its own sake, but one should not regard a private conscience as if it were a public referendum. Those who wish to act publicly must take into account the effect on the public, and some aspects of the resistance marches and demonstrations may, from this perspective, do more harm than good. At least, they need to be looked at in terms of some larger objective to justify themselves. Those who do not care whether or not they are losing touch with the American people as a whole cannot complain if the American people lose touch with them. They may, at best, succeed in saving their own souls; they may, at worst, fall into some kind of political surrealism or nihilism. But they should not deceive themselves into thinking they are forming a serious political movement.
No doubt it is hard to equilibrate principles and politics. It is never harder than in wartime. And Lyndon Johnson is determined not to make it any easier for those who wish to dissent in the American tradition. The President and Vice-President have paid lip-service to the right to dissent. But they have also tried to stifle dissent by blaming “disunity” for North Vietnam’s quixotic refusal to capitulate or, as they prefer to put it, “come to the conference table.” This can only mean that dissenters, not the Johnson administration’s repeated miscalculations, should be blamed for increasing American casualties and war costs. Even the statement of December 20, 1967 by the fourteen American authorities on Asia, edged into this delicate area with a watered-down version of the administration’s doubletalk. The real danger is not that dissent in the United States is Hanoi’s last hope of avoiding defeat; this is one more in a long series of costly under-estimations of Hanoi’s will and ability to fight back. The real danger is what this slightly devious crackdown on dissent will do to American political traditions and the present system. For whatever the administration may say about the right to dissent, it cannot go on identifying dissent with disunity and disunity with Hanoi’s only reason for fighting on without objectively implying that there is something treasonable about dissenting. It seems impossible for any nation to fight a war without a “stab-in-the-back” legend to provide an alibi for defeat or frustration, and the Vietnam war will not apparently be an exception to the rule. If dissent should become politically unsafe in the United States, some of it may be discouraged but more of it will be driven to find expression by more extreme means. The greatest damage the Vietnam war may well do is to the United States, not so much as a great power than as a free power.
As we approach the 1968 elections, all these problems will surely become more painful and perplexing. The choices of action or inaction are already clear enough, I think, to bear discussion.
But first, I should like to bring out into the open a basic premise of my own. It is this: the Vietnam war should be the overshadowing issue of the election. Of course there are other important domestic issues, especially those related to the Negro revolt and urban deterioration. But the Vietnam war is, I believe, in a class by itself.
It is one thing for a nation to wrestle with its own problems; it is another thing to devastate another nation. A war cannot be put on the same moral or even practical plane as a domestic predicament; the destruction and brutalization of war debases the best of causes, let alone one which was originally justified as helping the Vietnamese to help themselves and has become one of “national interest” no matter what it does to the Vietnamese. No one expects to work out our current domestic problems in less than years or even decades; the Vietnam war cannot wait that long. We can put the Vietnam war first and still deal in good time with our domestic problems; we cannot put domestic issues first and deal with the war in good time.
In fact, we can no longer deal with our domestic problems apart from the Vietnam war. The war is costing so much, it so devours the national energy, it is so divisive, that it is smothering everything else anyway. President Johnson may say that we have the resources for both winning the war and meeting our domestic obligations, but his budget belies his words. I have noticed that those liberals who call on us to support President Johnson by giving priority to domestic issues have been notably quiet about the war or have even given it their backing. If they opposed the war or felt more strongly about it, I doubt whether they would subordinate it to domestic affairs. Others may not wish to make the Vietnam war the decisive issue of the campaign, but they may recognize that it cannot be subordinated to any other. For them, too, the election may hinge on the war, if only as a relative rather than as an absolute factor.
The election poses no problems for two of the opposition tendencies—the revolutionary and the resistance. The first needs no explanation; it has a built-in aversion for the electoral process—unless, of course, the Communists and their satellite parties get 99.8 per cent of the vote against no opposition, as happened in North Vietnam in 1960. The second tendency, however, is more complicated. Some or all of it has been driven into “direct action” because it has not found a meaningful outlet in the present system as managed by Lyndon B. Johnson. It would apparently take the election seriously if it could be assured of an opportunity to choose between sufficiently distinguishable candidates and policies.
Unfortunately, the alternative to the election may not be much more “meaningful” than the election itself. If ending the war depends on those who resist the draft, the end could be just as far away—or farther—than any conceivable change of policy brought about by a perceptible shift in public opinion or electoral returns. It should also not be disregarded that resistance methods make it easier for the administration to change the subject—from that of opposing the war to that of breaking the law. If enough people were prepared to break the law to end the war, this would not be a serious drawback. But if that many people were prepared to end the war, it might not be neccessary to break the law.
I respect those who, for the best of motives, have decided in the tradition of Thoreau not to pay their taxes as a way of protesting against the war. I cannot, however, respect their judgment if they think it will effectively bring the war-machine grinding to a halt for lack of funds. Even more important is the question of what the personal act means publicly.
The so-called resistance has a tendency to turn inward. The slogan “from dissent to resistance” implies that dissent has failed to move the people at large and, therefore, those willing to take the risk of resistance must do the job all by themselves. Words having failed, “action” must take over, as if words were not a form of action and as if the only actions which could do much good in the present circumstances were not the kind that speak louder than words. If “action” merely represents a desperate resort to force, pitting the “force” of the resistance against the force of the state, it may make martyrs but it has little chance of achieving its purpose, which is, after all, stopping the war. The only objective it will almost certainly achieve is that of turning a portion of the opposition into a morally self-satisfied but ultimately impotent cult, as all movements which separate themselves from the masses of ordinary people turn into. Whatever the act of resistance, it is not as important as the attitude that informs and guides it. Is the intent to move or to bypass the people, common and uncommon? This is a different kind of test than that of legality or illegality or of how “costly” it may be to the government. It is not, I think, a test which all resistance actions have passed.
The difference in attitude also derives from different views of the problem. For some on both sides of the issue, the Vietnam war has taken on an apocalyptic quality. It is regarded as if it were the first or last war of its kind, as if the fate of humanity were going to be determined here and now, as if no other nation had committed such a sin and had recovered from it, and as if no other nation today were capable of it. The United States has already had a long and checkered career in these matters, and the struggle to make it live up to its own ideals will probably never end. Some have lived through four wars, many through three, all of them different, in which the United States played different roles. When history is foreshortened, and Vietnam is made to represent the single, ultimate evil, there is a tendency to want to do too much too quickly, even if all we succeed in doing is too little too late. But if, in historical perspective, we face the larger problem of the United States’ place in a changed world, a problem which the Vietnam war has brought to an acute and bloodstained stage but which will manifest itself beyond the war, however it may end, we must gird ourselves for a longer struggle. In that struggle, the final word may well be said not by those who are at present dissenting, resisting, or revolutionizing but by the slower and more determining shift of public opinion and popular pressure. Those who think that the final word should already have been said yesterday will, of course, not be persuaded of this course. But those for whom tomorrow always comes, bringing with it new forces and new opportunities, will go on dissenting and dissenting and dissenting as long as this is one of the relatively few countries in which it is still possible to dissent and dissent and dissent, especially in wartime.
From this point of view, the next Presidential election does not pose an easy problem. Those who expect too much from it are doomed to disappointment, and those who expect too little will get nothing out of it.
There is not on the horizon anything resembling a clear-cut confrontation of opposing views on the war. On the Republican side, no one seems to take Governor George Romney very seriously, want him very much, or know what he would do if by some chance he were nominated and elected. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, who is waiting for his foes in the party to beg him to run, has far broader appeal. He was last on record with a vigorous pro-war position, but he has managed to retain his potential as a candidate by not repeating it and, indeed, by not saying anything at all on the subject for about three years. No doubt Mr. Rockefeller will call on his fellow-citizens to rise to the highest moral standards the next time he runs for office.
On the Democratic side, Senator Robert F. Kennedy has pledged himself not to oppose Mr. Johnson “under any foreseeable circumstances.” Presumably this means that Mr. Kennedy might change his mind in some unforeseeable circumstance, such as a decision by Mr. Johnson not to run. Since this would remove the problem, we need not seek the solution. Senator Eugene McCarthy has pledged himself to oppose Mr. Johnson under the all too foreseeable circumstances, which is to say that he does not stand a chance. Nevertheless, Mr. McCarthy has spoken out more clearly than any other would-be candidate against the Vietnam policy, even though he has not passed the purity test of the most high-minded resistance. Instead of lamenting that there are not enough McCarthys in American politics today, it prefers to complain that the one we have does not go far enough. The question it might ask itself is: How can a sufficiently broad, popular, anti-war movement be built, if everyone must be to the Left of Eugene McCarthy?
This brief survey apparently leaves us with Lyndon B. Johnson for the Democrats and Richard M. Nixon or Ronald Reagan for the Republicans. Since Nixon and Reagan have staked out for themselves more or less the same political ground, we may for the sake of simplification reduce the Republican option on the right to Nixon, to whom some observers have already conceded the nomination.
If Nixon needed any help to get the Republican nomination, we may be sure that Johnson would be glad to oblige. For it cannot be doubted that Nixon is Johnson’s favorite Republican opponent. A Nixon candidacy would at one stroke save Johnson the trouble of explaining, over and over again, how he came to supply American boys to do the job that Asian boys should do, to take reckless action which might risk the lives of millions and engulf much of Asia and certainly threaten the peace of the entire world. For every such unguarded statement by Johnson, there must be a dozen by Nixon. The latter could make the famous problem of Johnson’s “credibility” vanish as if by magic. Indeed, Nixon might very well enable Johnson to reproduce the conditions of his 1964 triumph. Nixon would make the perfect stand-in for the former Republican candidate, Barry Gold-water, who was guilty, according to Johnson, of having dispensed his wisdom prematurely.3 The Pueblo affair has already given us an idea of how history might be made to repeat itself. Nixon could think of nothing better than to criticize the Johnson administration for having committed an “incredible blunder,” which may be true but hardly befit the Vice President of the administration which was responsible for the incredible U-2 incident. What Lyndon Johnson needs, then, is a Republican candidate who would make him again look like a “moderate” or the “lesser evil,” especially in foreign policy. If he did not have a Nixon, he would have to invent him.
What worked in 1964 might conceivably work in 1968, but it can never again carry conviction. It would merely represent a more dangerous debasement of the entire electoral process. It is a harsh fact that the technique of Johnson’s victory in 1964 has cast an ominous shadow over the 1968 election. If Johnson could defeat Goldwater by persuading a majority of the electorate that he would not bomb North Vietnam or send American boys to fight in South Vietnam, and then in a matter of weeks after the election order the bombing and send the boys, there is nothing he can say in the next election that can make any difference. Whenever he tries to explain his actions, he merely succeeds, as we have seen, in making a bad situation worse. It is, indeed, a national misfortune that a President seeking reelection should have put himself in such an invidious position.
If Johnson and Nixon should run, then, the 1968 election will not be one of the more inspiring manifestations of the American political process. It will surely encourage every variety of political revulsion and cynicism, and many voters will see no reason for bothering to go to the polls. As long as Johnson can control the Democratic and someone like Nixon the Republican nomination, it is hard to see how the election can lend itself to anything of a very positive nature.
But there may be another way to look at the problem.
Elections in any event rarely settle anything positively. As far as I can see, the only thing that can be demonstrated in this election is this: a man who leads his country and his party into a misadventure on the scale of the Vietnam war will not be reelected President of the United States. If the 1968 election demonstrated nothing else, it would still be highly significant historically. From this view, personalities are not so important. Whoever Mr. Johnson’s successor may be, he would not be able to disregard the fact that he owed his good fortune to the repudiation of the Johnson administration rather than to his own peculiar virtues. The American political system, for better or worse, does not enable us to vote for a candidate of our own choosing. It would be far better, of course, if the opposition party did not nominate Johnson’s favorite Republican candidate and, thereby, presented the voters with a real choice. But that seems almost too much to hope for and, for my purpose, does not matter so much. As matters stand now, we can only seek a way of extracting as much benefit as possible from the given circumstances.
It may be argued that voting for anyone against Lyndon Johnson may be like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. This is a risk which must be taken unless we wish to remain in the frying pan. American politicians of both parties are not so different that there is any good way of knowing which one will prove to be the frying pan and which one the fire. The only ones Governor Reagan has disappointed in California are those who took his campaign speeches seriously. The main thing in the 1968 election, I venture to suggest, is to get away from what a politican says and to vote against what a politician has done. This may not be all that we should want to do, but it is the least that we can do, and it will be a more effective warning to the winner, whoever he may be, than anything else we can do. If we do it, without spreading illusions, openly and consciously, making our reasons clear, the point will not be lost on anyone. The normal voting strength of the two major parties is, moreover, close enough to get it across effectively and leave no one in doubt that Johnson’s defeat was brought about by those who voted against his Vietnam policy and had no other way to vote against it. The election will serve a historically useful purpose if enough people are determined to demonstrate one thing—that no President who leads the nation into such a morass can be reelected. That lesson will not be lost on any known American politician.
1 Secretary of Defense-designate Clark Clifford subsequently told the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Vietnam could continue “to transport the normal amount of goods, munitions, men to South Vietnam” in return for a cessation of the bombing which would lead to prompt and productive talks. Mr. Clifford and administration spokesmen somewhat spoiled the effect of this concession by insisting that it was merely a clarification of the U.S. position. Unfortunately, anyone old enough to read can see for himself that President Johnson's message to Ho Chi Minh of February 8, 1967, had demanded assurance that “infiltration [by North Vietnam in South Vietnam by land and by sea has stopped.” One wonders what might have happened if he had written instead that “normal infiltration in South Vietnam by land and by sea might continue.” Possibly nothing, but the other side would surely have recognized that the United States really wanted to negotiate itself out of the war short of an enemy capitulation or its own humiliation. The Clifford “clarification” was at least one year late and, coming on the eve of a major enemy offensive, could hardly influence immediate events. Moreover, it has no bearing on what “productive” talks are supposed to produce. The term “normal” could be infinitely troublesome. Still, this “clarification” may hold out some hope in the future if it represents a genuine desire to find a negotiating position acceptable to both sides.
2 Before leaving Mr. Johnson's 1964 statements, it may be well to point out that in his speech of August 29, which I have cited, he admitted that bombing North Vietnam and sending American boys to fight would “enlarge the war and escalate the war.” Yet after doing these very things, the Johnson line changed to the dogged claim that they did not represent “escalation,” that they were merely more of the same thing, and “escalation” even became a forbidden word. This linguistic squeamishness would be no more than an amusing foible if it were not another example of a deliberate and persistent effort to distort the record and pretend that we have not done what we have plainly done and what President Johnson would have called it if Mr. Goldwater had done it.
3 “Some of our people—Mr. Nixon, Mr. Rockefeller, Mr. Scranton, and Mr. Gold-water—have all, at some time or other, suggested the possible wisdom of going north in Vietnam.” A few sentences later, Mr. Johnson made clear that he included “dropping bombs around” as one way of “going north” (Manchester, New Hampshire, September 28, 1964).