Commentary Magazine

Vietnam & the 60's Generation: A Memoir

Generational conflict, scholars have remarked, is what Americans have in place of class struggle. The triumph of new men riding into power with new ideas has long been part of the script of American politics, responsible for many a reformist surge. In its most recent electoral manifestation, the generational theme fueled the Gary Hart campaign; the relatively youthful candidate whose advertising harked to the youthful idealism of the 1960's seemed, for a moment last spring, poised to ride the wave of the baby boom's impressive demographics all the way to the Presidency.

Those whom Hart sought to represent made up not just another new generation, but the largest and wealthiest generation ever to appear on the American political scene. They were the Vietnam generation, a category which can be stretched to take in not only the three million Americans who fought in the war but the vast legions who militantly opposed it, and the millions of others whose political attitudes were shaped by the conflict. When members of this generation were mere college students, it was said of them by a blue-ribbon commission that they were “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known”—this by way of explaining the violent disturbances on the nation's campuses and why a much discussed “generation gap” had grown between them and their elders.

The mere mention of these old catch phrases is enough to suggest why Hart failed to break through even after his campaign caught on. For 60's idealism now has a hollow ring; the assumptions underlying it have been mocked by the march of real events. One can surmise, even, that the 60's sensibility posed a dilemma for the Hart campaign itself: was it really good politics to associate the candidate, even tangentially, with that decade's revolutionary posturing?

At the heart of this question still lies the matter of Vietnam. The 60's spirit owed everything to the war, which became the source for conclusions not only about America's foreign policy but about the very essence of the nation itself. The parents of the Vietnam generation, depicted in one of the decade's notorious slogans as untrustworthy because they were over thirty, had been politically shaped, in varying degrees, by the Depression, the failure of isolationism, World War II, and Stalin's subjugation of Eastern Europe in its aftermath. For their children, Vietnam would become the single foreign-policy reference point. For a decade the war could inspire rage against all that America stood for; its supposed lessons still have the power to summon up an isolationist aversion to the use of American power under nearly every conceivable condition.

I was part of that generation whose first political passions were sparked by the question of what America was doing in Vietnam. While younger by a few years than those at the center of the protest movement, I did what I could to catch up by immersing myself in its literature and emulating its political attitudes. What now seems most striking about these attitudes is the extreme provincialism on which they were based. The generation that set out so defiantly to reject the political lessons that its parents had learned from Munich and the cold war developed a world view that skipped over the most salient aspects of 20th-century history. In its politics the protest generation was the insulated generation, insulated not only—as was frequently remarked at the time—from the realization that affluence was not granted to Americans by a law of nature, but insulated as well from any sense of how tragic political history had been in modern times. We were born into a world shaped by American power, a power we assumed to be invincible and eternal; our ignorance of the forces that power stood against was breathtaking. Our sensibilities thus comfortably cushioned, we assumed the responsibility for passing judgment on America's policies, and found them criminal.

My own awareness of what I would soon come to think of as America's criminality began in 1966, when I was only fourteen. I came upon Felix Greene's book Vietnam, Vietnam; he could not have found a more receptive reader than I. For if I was already “against the war”—and thought that President Johnson had conned us by promising no wider war in Asia—I was still very much an empty vessel, and wide open to an artfully made moralistic argument. Greene's skillful work ignited in me a rage against the American government, which did not completely subside until the last American soldiers were withdrawn from Vietnam.


One cannot go back to Greene's book without recognizing that it is a superb sample of its craft. Designed like an album with overwide pages to display its pictures to greatest effect, Greene's is a story told in photos which still shock: suffering Vietnamese women and children in their graceful peasant clothes; large, encumbered, seemingly invulnerable American soldiers shoving their way through the villages; an occasional American jet searing the sky overhead, leaving destruction in its wake. These photos are accompanied by a minimal text, a history just long enough to put them in context, to tell of the Vietnamese people's struggle for national self-determination.

For Greene hardly wastes his time refuting the American government's contention that North Vietnamese troops have penetrated into the South; nor does he argue that the conflict is a civil war. What is going on, Greene maintains, is simply a “war by the Vietnamese people against the military invasion of their country by the United States”—with the various governments in office in Saigon representing nothing more than a mask for American conquest. Now Greene's account does not go so far as to deny that there is a political side to the war; there are, he acknowledges, Communists among the Vietnamese that America is conquering. On page 32 and again on page 136 he comes right out and mentions them. The National Liberation Front (NLF), he writes, which is the vanguard of the struggle against the American invasion, contains among its leaders, “Buddhists, Catholics, businessmen, Communists, socialists, liberal intellectuals, and representatives of the peasant organizations and the mountain minority tribes.”

I absorbed all of this, noting the desire of the NLF to “promulgate all democratic freedoms” while some American general wanted to “bomb them back to the Stone Age” (General Curtis Le May's infamous remark and Greene's summation of the NLF's ten-point program adjoined each other). It probably would have made very little difference to me if I had recognized that Communists played a significant role in the Vietnamese people's struggle.

Presumably I knew that Ho Chi Minh was a Communist, though Greene manages to quote him several times (usually his poems) without so much as alluding to his ideological affiliation. What was important was that no less authoritative a figure than Dwight Eisenhower was cited as claiming that Ho Chi Minh would have won 80 percent of the Vietnamese vote if the country had been unified after the Geneva Convention of 1954. This was enough to legitimate Ho in my eyes; it would be impossible to count the number of times during the next four years that I triumphantly unleashed Eisenhower's quotation upon any of my friends or relatives so hapless or gullible as to believe that there were a significant number of Vietnamese who might have good reason for not wanting unification of their country under terms dictated by the NLF.

And none of them, no teacher, no relative, no fellow adolescent, ever retorted that it might not be so easy to campaign against candidate Ho Chi Minh in a place like North Vietnam. Such a response might have forced me to reflect on a question that I had never before considered: what kind of election could take place in an unfree society? Would the cutting edge of Eisenhower's remark have been dulled by knowledge of the vast number of executions and jailings that had accompanied North Vietnam's land-collectivization process? Would I have been caught short if it had been pointed out that Hitler's National Socialists got 33 percent of the German vote in November 1932—and, one short year later, after assuming control of the levers of state power and punishment, 88 percent?

Certainly one was unlikely to be exposed to this kind of argument at Exeter, the elite New England boarding school to which I was sent in 1966. For if the late 60's were troubled ones for that august institution, no issue caused the faculty, the students, and the administration less trouble than the Vietnam war. At no time during my four years there do I recall a faculty member making a case for American policy; it was all but impossible to find a student to argue with about the war.

It would be unfair to attribute the ubiquity of anti-war sentiment at Exeter to the simple desire to avoid military service; Exeter boys were assured of going to good colleges and the draft seemed terribly remote. Much of Exeter's reigning political spirit could be described as simply the feeling that America's leaders had taken leave of their senses in committing our country to warfare in faraway Vietnam, and it was this comparatively sensible feeling that underlay the great blossoming of (Eugene) McCarthy buttons on corduroy lapels everywhere during the winter of 1968.

But there was another side as well to the antiwar ethos at Exeter—one that cannot be so sweetly remembered. For it was not the case that all Exeter students were against the war; and there was a faction that resisted the concomitant notion that the President was some kind of mass murderer. These were generally tough kids from towns like Worcester, Massachusetts and Manchester, New Hampshire who came to Exeter not for four years but only one—after they had graduated from their local high schools. They were good at sports; without them Exeter could never have fielded a winning football or basketball team. Only the rarest of them was any good at taking tests or writing papers; for them a year at Exeter was a route to an athletic scholarship at an Ivy League college. A number of them probably had older brothers serving in Vietnam, and in any event they did not share our tremendous condescension toward those who thought America's struggle in Vietnam a decent one. And so it happened that one of the school's cleverer boys, in a widely noticed column in the school newspaper, created for them the name “kulaks.”


So nicely did this name, by its very ring, seem to capture the essence of these not very articulate youngsters, whose attitudes and haircuts were so out of touch with the age, as well as of the larger realm of beer-swilling, flag-waving white-ethnic middle America from which they came, that among the Academy's sophisticates it caught on immediately. Undoubtedly there were some of us who, if only by the accident of Russian ancestry, knew that the word “kulak” was a term for the 10 million landowning Russian peasants murdered by Stalin and not a simple neologism freshly conceived by the onomatopoetic sensibility of one of our cohorts. But adept as I had become at ridiculing the geopolitical and moral rationales behind America's foreign policy of containment, I had no idea of what a “kulak” was; nor, for that matter, did anyone else I knew.

For here was the gaping hole in Exeter's curriculum. Exeter boys, reminded with numbing regularity that they were the brightest slice of America's most intelligent and idealistic generation ever, were wonderfully instructed in America's problems. It was expected, I recall, that one would grapple with Eldridge Cleaver's Soul on Ice, Kenneth Keniston's Young Radicals, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X in religion (!) class. Who could deny that these were books of considerable relevance to the American experience? But we were at the same time being educated in splendid insulation from the notion that democratic societies had committed enemies; we learned next to nothing of the sorts of alternatives to bourgeois liberalism that the 20th century had to offer. I cannot say why: perhaps because of a sense that we were living in the era of “the end of ideology” (in Daniel Bell's phrase) so that learning something of the history of fascism and Communism was no longer “relevant”; or perhaps because the aftertaste left by the (Joseph) McCarthy era simply put it beyond the boundaries of good form to talk about Communism at all. The result was the same in any case. Exeter students learned nothing of what it meant to be a small farmer in Stalin's Russia or Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam. That it had been part of Communist policy to “liquidate as a class” the “kulaks” was something we had never heard spoken of. It was perfectly possible to graduate from the Academy with high honors and be altogether incapable of writing three factual paragraphs on the history of any Communist regime (or for that matter of any totalitarian regime whether of the Right or Left).

No axiom seemed more obvious to me at the age of eighteen than one which stated that the accumulation of more knowledge about society could only lead to a greater radical commitment. It was set in my mind that to be well read, to be an “intellectual,” was practically synonymous with despising what America had become. Still, I have never forgotten one of the first times that principle was contradicted. I was having dinner at the house of a friend. His father was Marshall Shulman, the well-known Sovietologist who would later take an important position in Jimmy Carter's State Department. I casually commented that if America was the most violent nation in the world, it was probably because we were a nation of immigrants—violent types who could not fit in even in their places of origin. To my great surprise, my friend's father all but leapt from the table in exasperation, before explaining with some emotion that a good many people had come to this country because they were the sort who could not live without liberty, or were themselves escaping violent oppression. It was the first time I had ever heard a man who wrote books speak with such open patriotism, or confront so brazenly a contention of New Left origin.

But if that was surprising, I was soon to receive a greater shock—this time from my own father. For although I knew little about the origins of America's immigrants, I had read a good deal about Vietnam, and not for a moment did it occur to me that someone arguing in support of Richard Nixon's policies could say something like “Why don't you go see for yourself?” Yet some days after Nixon's 1970 incursion into Cambodia, after Kent State, and after an attack by some construction workers on a peace march in the heart of New York City, that is exactly what my father said to me. It was late at night, and he and my stepmother were just returning from a party and wanted to go to bed, but I was sprawled in their way in the living room, and demanded that they stand and answer for Nixon's latest crimes. So for the umpteenth time we went into it: Diem's subversion of the Geneva agreements, the Vietnamese people's right to national unification, American capitalism's assault on the environment. Because of the late hour and the drinks consumed, the talk got nastier than usual; my father's offer of a round-trip ticket to Saigon may have headed off a shoving war in the living room. Without a moment's reflection, I accepted.


It should not be difficult to imagine the superficial attractions that steamy and sensuous city, which then throbbed to a Jimi Hendrix beat, had for a boy of eighteen just released from a New Hampshire boarding school. But Saigon had a deeper appeal as well. Within weeks of my arrival I fell in with a group of young American journalists and expatriates—men and women in their mid-twenties, all loosely associated with Dispatch News Service. Without much fuss from the Saigon authorities, I acquired press credentials of my own, and extended my visa.

The group around Dispatch had qualities shared by none of the reporters from the big mainstream press. It was not just that they were “against the war”—all the journalists were—nor was it that they made no effort to feign objectivity. Unlike the mainstream journalists they had considerable knowledge and appreciation of Vietnamese culture. Some of them had done stints in the Vietnamese countryside as teachers or agronomists with the various volunteer service agencies that proliferated parallel to the American war effort; others had learned to love Vietnam through the tragically necessary work of bringing wounded children back to the United States for treatment. They spoke the Vietnamese language, they knew something of its literature, they were familiar with the religious groups that flourished in the South and the spirit that infused them. Vietnamese friends from Saigon's dissident intellectual elite—that elusive “Third Force” that was not Communist but could supposedly make a deal with the Communists—came to visit us.

For me, exposure to this sort of sensibility laid a basis for formulating a more nuanced anti-war position. For what I had previously believed about the war was simply not tenable in the face of the evidence of my own senses. However hard it was to admire the Thieu government, it was impossible to maintain that the people of the South were crying out to Hanoi, or to the Vietcong, for deliverance. One heard too many stories like that of the American teacher in Hué whose students risked their lives to hide him while the North Vietnamese searched the city during the Tet offensive to believe that many Vietnamese in the South yearned only to be rid of the American yoke.

Once one admitted that most Vietnamese in the South feared the Communists, the anti-war position required new buttressing if it were to continue to command one's idealism. The answer we arrived at was to stress that any solution of the war worked out by the Vietnamese themselves was to be preferred to its continuation. We asserted that it was foolish to talk about Vietnam by reference to alien categories like Marxism or “freedom”; any Vietnamese solution arrived at after the Americans departed would ensure a better future for these people we had come to admire than prolonging the struggle. As this argument emanated from people drenched in Vietnamese poetry, it was for me utterly convincing; for it was clear not only that the war was exacting a terrible human cost, but that the huge American economic and cultural presence was also tearing apart what remained of Vietnam's traditional heritage. (Today, one can only retort that since 1975, rather more Vietnamese than we would have thought possible have plainly showed how much they care about the allegedly alien concept of freedom.)

Gradually it became clear to me that no one in this group was doing much actual journalism. Instead, the Dispatch people were making their contribution to the anti-war movement by acting as tour guides for prominent liberal Americans who came to Saigon to find the facts and deplore them. Not every figure prominent in the American antiwar movement was willing to go so far as to make a pilgrimage to Hanoi, there to visit kindergartens and hospitals and then enthusiastically report on their experience among (as Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd described the North Vietnamese after such a visit) “the gentlest people we had ever known.” There was public-relations utility in coming to Saigon as well, and those around the Dispatch circle played a part in informing liberal congressmen, clergy, or simple activists of the travails of Saigon's political prisoners, or even arranging for them to be teargassed or perhaps arrested by the Saigon police for exercising their right to demonstrate in the streets.


One of the most successful of these tours took place within a month of my arrival in the country. A delegation of some dozen American peace activists, led by Bishop Paul Moore and Rabbi Balfour Brickner, came to Saigon; somehow it was arranged that they would demonstrate with students from Saigon University who represented the putative “Third Force” position, in favor of American withdrawal and the formation of a “coalition” government which would make peace. We linked up with the students at the university and began to march up one of Saigon's central boulevards toward the presidential palace. To my astonishment (for perhaps at some level I did not really believe what I had been saying for years about the Thieu regime) the Saigon police did not take a tolerant view of our protest, and began lobbing teargas grenades at us before we even got our chants and slogans properly synchronized. Bishop Moore and I found shelter pressed against the side door of an adjacent building which belonged to some large American corporation. Comparing notes, we agreed that the gas seemed much more potent than the kind used by the American police. And while no one was in fact hurt in the demonstration, Bishop Moore later announced to the press that “It was one of the most brutal police actions I've seen” and that he was “horrified by their methods.” Some members of the delegation darkly warned that when they returned home they would tell stories about students being tortured.

In spite of an experience like this, as the year progressed I found that it rang false to go on upholding the position that the American and South Vietnamese side was lacking in all virtue. After all, in common with most journalists, I liked the American soldiers I knew. And outside of Saigon one was always grateful for their presence and also for the presence of South Vietnamese troops. There was, for instance, an island monastery in the Mekong River, where the monks had constructed out of papier-maché a relief map of reunified Vietnam the size of a small gymnasium floor, so they could walk back and forth on it. It was a favorite place for an overnight excursion, with a spiritual “peace-now” aura. But in venturing there or anywhere else in the country by motorcycle, I could not pretend that I did not feel better if South Vietnamese troops were at least in the vicinity.

Thus to my mother and stepfather—themselves longtime members of the “progressive” camp—I wrote home testifying to a certain political confusion; to hawks like my father I refused to cede any ground, and sent strident letters about America's aggression against “the noble and beautiful Vietnamese spirit.”

Cambodia, too, muddied the issues. Twice in 1971 I visited Phnom Penh. As I had read next to nothing about the country, my belief that its government was illegitimate was unencumbered by knowledge of the reasons why. Even then, as the city was filling with refugees, I was struck by its graceful boulevards and the jovial manner of its people. This appeal was enhanced by the lack of a large American presence, for there were no sleazy service industries catering to Americans. Having only the evidence of my own senses to go by, I felt myself completely on the side of those teenage Cambodian boys and girls who rode out to the front every day with their vintage French rifles to try to drive the Khmer Rouge and their Vietcong allies away from the river on which the city's food supply arrived. Writing home in words which must have amazed my resolutely anti-war mother, I expressed a wish that had not crossed my consciousness since the age of fourteen: couldn't the United States, I wondered, do something to help these people?

When I returned to New York and entered Columbia College in 1971, I found it easy enough to suppress that kind of thought, but I could not summon my old enthusiasm for the peace movement. I took part in Columbia's 1972 anti-war strike—the farcical replay of the 1968 uprising which had inspired me to attend Columbia in the first place. But now I demonstrated with diminished fervor, moved by something like habit and obligation to an old cause. Unable to chant “One side's right, one side's wrong, we're on the side of the Vietcong,” I trudged dutifully along the picket line outside the Asian Studies building and kept silent. The 1973 armistice, terminating America's active role in the hostilities, released me from all care about Vietnam, and in a stroke eliminated what had always loomed as the single impassable obstacle that stood in the way of considering America a decent country.


An old Asia hand and veteran journalist named Keyes Beech has recently recounted an incident that took place in 1979 on the Thai-Cambodia border. He was riding back toward Bangkok with a younger reporter to file a report on another Vietnamese “border violation” and his colleague surprised him by starting to denounce the Vietnamese Communists in strident terms. Beech asked the young man what had happened to the “flaming revolutionary” he had once known in Saigon, for his young friend had been one of the most blatantly anti-American members of the press corps. “Ah,” came the reply, “but that was before I had covered two socialist countries.”

In this vignette can be found all that I, my Exeter classmates, and my friends at Dispatch did not know about the Vietnam war throughout the period in which we were completely taken up with it and what it supposedly told us about America. That is to say, we knew nothing whatsoever about the Communist political tradition, and had no real sense of why the United States should try to stem its expansion. True, the Vietnamese Communists did not proclaim in advance that they would close the curtain on the “pluralist” National Liberation Front, or send one million of their people into jungle “reeducation zones,” or drive hundreds of thousands of their countrymen into the open sea; and, true, the Cambodian Communists did not announce their intention of killing one third of their own population. But we in the West had even less reason to be surprised at these occurrences than the people of Indochina. For the political methods, the rhetoric, and the intentions of Vietnamese Communism were of a piece with a political movement that has, in every instance since its first victory in 1917, revealed itself to be a scourge that knows no boundaries of space or time.

Yet during the 1960's, though real knowledge of this tradition was available in principle, our culture all but consigned it to oblivion. For reasons yet to be satisfactorily explained, a whole generation coming of age during the Vietnam era found it unchic, uncool, and irrelevant to contemplate the sheer awesome drama of the Communist wielding of power, the waves of human misery that it has caused, and the singular courage of the individuals who have suffered it, who have survived it, who have found ways to transcend it.

As for my own case, I learned more of what the Vietnam war was about in my final two years as a Columbia undergraduate than I had in all the previous years of obsessive preoccupation. What was responsible was no single revelatory event, but simply good books and good teachers. The starting point was Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. As often happens with people who are (or think of themselves as) on the Left, noticing that Communists behave like fascists is the first step toward anti-Communism. Arendt's classic exploration of the similarities of political technique used by fascist and Communist parties, and of the similar consequences for the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, was the first thing I had ever read about the Communist movement that made me recoil. Studying European history could only reinforce these lessons. Fritz Stern, Columbia's renowned historian of modern Germany, made vivid in his lectures how that nation's Communists and fascists together hammered at their common foe, Weimar's fragile democracy. By my junior year I was engrossed in writing a term paper on the Prague Spring of 1968.

This kind of thing provided a context for comprehending the images that flooded the television screen during the spring of 1975: terror-struck Vietnamese, now fleeing not the war but the advancing Communist armies. Saigon fell on the day of the final lecture in a course in American diplomatic history, and when the professor opened the floor to comments my own confused feelings about the war came pouring out. Not once, I said, in all the time I and my friends had expended in deploring the war, and deploring America for waging it, had I ever anticipated anything like the sadness I was feeling on that day. We, who had in so many small ways helped this day come to pass, had imagined that it would be a time for celebration; now it appeared that we had aided in bringing something terrible into being.


Unlike the South Vietnamese, however, or the Laotians, or the Cambodians now absorbing the lessons of Marxism-Leninism, and unlike the American soldiers who had tried to save them, by and large the 1960's protest generation emerged from all this history unscathed, and ready to start its own march upward through America's institutions. Its members now fill the airwaves, the editorial pages, and the halls of Congress with warnings that Vietnam teaches how we should never again try to halt the spread of Communism in the Third World. And while it is no longer rhetorically prudent (particularly if you are a Congressman and read the opinion polls) to proclaim that the use of American power against Communist expansion is imperialist, criminal, or fascist, it is quite all right to call it “counterproductive” and to invoke the futility of standing in the way of history. Yet the result is much the same—the Communists will have guns and the people resisting them will not.

It is noticeable that today the most dogged and consistent opponents of an anti-Communist foreign policy in the Third World are those whose political beliefs were shaped well before America withdrew from Vietnam—those who learned the “lessons” of Vietnam in the 1960's. In all but a few cases sensibilities thus formed have remained impervious to what has happened since 1975, in Indochina and elsewhere. Thus, Gary Hart, who has made an obvious effort to rethink the assumptions of McGovern-style liberalism, and who has even proclaimed that the unilateral-disarmament programs advocated by many peace groups would make nuclear war more likely, has also stuck resolutely to the view that the role of American power in the Third World should be diminished. For this is the sacred ground of his generational politics; and when one examines the speeches and voting records of the other young Democrats who entered Congress in the 1974 wave, one recognizes that it is their sacred ground as well.

That this view has now taken over mainstream opinion in the Democratic party is a development whose importance is difficult to overestimate. Those with a taste for historical irony will recall that one of the (not very good) reasons for which America's leaders originally committed troops to Vietnam was to demonstrate that the United States could contain Communist-inspired “wars of national liberation” under unfavorable circumstances in remote regions of the Third World just as surely as we could prevent outright military aggression in Europe. Today, one of America's two major parties routinely opposes granting even military assistance to governments or guerrilla forces resisting Communist expansion on the American continent itself. So it is, in the allegedly conservative climate of the 1980's, that the conscience of the party which once nominated John F. Kennedy can be more readily outraged by the use of American power against Communism in Grenada than by the Soviet killing fields in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, it is now clear that the 60's generation has largely failed to transmit its foreign-policy assumptions to the generation growing up behind it. Political pollsters found the most surprising result of the last presidential election to be the sharp swing of young voters to the Republicans (an increase of more than 20 percent over Reagan's score in 1980). But there has been no lack of straws in the wind pointing toward attitudinal shifts of this kind. At one level we have such indicators as the popularity of a patriotic movie like An Officer and a Gentleman; at another level there is the upsurge on campuses of student newspapers that delight in satirizing the liberal university establishments. Youthful idealism is no longer the monopoly of the Left; there are a great many talented young conservatives who are passing up careers in business and the professions to seek work in the realm of public policy and public opinion.


Such a climatic shift has many causes, of which a good number are surely domestic and internal. As for the external ones, no single world development since 1975 has had anything like the impact on American youth that Vietnam had on the generation of the 60's; yet it seems that just about every event in the international arena since 1975 has been expressly designed to undermine the political sensibility of that generation.

Those who have come of age since 1975 have grown up seeing something beyond the imagination of the insulated generation: what happens when American power is not there. They have seen not only what has happened to the people of Indochina, which could have been anticipated. In Ethiopia, they have seen the Cubans and Soviets install a brutal tyrant who would eventually give the world a particularly vivid demonstration of where food production and distribution rank in the Communist hierarchy of values. In Iran they have seen the Ayatollah Khomeini eviscerate the liberal assumption that deeply held anti-Western principles can coincide with an abiding concern for human rights. In Afghanistan, they have seen the Soviet Union, untroubled by outbreaks of conscience on the home front, undertake a leisurely textbook demonstration of how to destroy a people. And they have seen floods of refugees pouring out over every part of the globe, traveling in one direction only: away from those who proclaim themselves the sworn enemies of capitalism and bourgeois democracy.

It has been America's blessed fate to learn its political lessons at prices incomparably lower than those paid by other peoples. Our deepest instruction in global politics, in the nature of totalitarian mass movements, and in the fragility of free societies, has come to us through the suffering of others. This kind of learning-on-credit cannot go on indefinitely. Must we wait for America's enemies to seize more territory, in regions closer or more strategic to the United States than Indochina, before we can settle the issue of the Tightness of American engagement against Communist expansion in the Third World? For such events to shatter the foreign-policy assumptions of the 60's generation in so terrible a way would be, for the rest of us, the most pyrrhic of victories.

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.