In the past six years the United States has resorted to some form of military force in three major crises—in…
In the past six years the United States has resorted to some form of military force in three major crises—in Cuba, in the Dominican Republic, and in Vietnam. They are sufficiently different to make it foolhardy to lump them together. Nevertheless, in one respect, they resemble each other too closely and uncomfortably to be regarded as totally unrelated or dissimilar.
What was there in each of these crises that made necessary the use of military force, if only by proxy, on the part of the United States? If we look at the development of each one, does a pattern emerge and suggest that they have something fundamental in common? And if we can detect a pattern, what does it tell us about where we are heading and what we may find on the way?
The more I have struggled with these questions, the more I have come to believe that there is such a pattern, and that it has brought us to the point of armed force as the key instrument of policy no less than three times in only six years. If I am right, this pattern implies that we have been living with an American crisis, or more exactly an ever more acute and costly crisis in American foreign policy, of which the Cuban, the Dominican, and the Vietnam cases have been three incarnations. If countries so far apart and so different can bring forth essentially the same problem, that problem must be as much in us as in them.
This American crisis can be simply stated, though its manifestations are far more difficult and complicated to trace. Roughly, the main instrumentalities of a country's foreign policy are political, economic, and military. It is, of course, not possible to seal them off from each other, as if they existed in isolation or alone. Nevertheless, they can surely be distinguished from each other; they may be used in different combinations and in different degrees.
At the present time, for example, the United States and France use all three instrumentalities. But the relatively modest economic and military means at President de Gaulle's disposal constrains French influence to be largely political. Our chief methods of persuasion, on the contrary, have increasingly become economic and military, and at crucial moments, almost exclusively military.
This pattern of American policy has come about as a result of one political failure and frustration after another. A weaker power might have suffered them in silence or in angry self-recrimination. But the United States is too rich and powerful to take a political setback without seeking some other way to break the deadlock. It is able, if it wishes, to transmute the political problem into an economic or, as a last resort, a military operation.
It is from this point of view that I wish to call attention to some aspects of the Cuban and Dominican crises as an introduction to a more extended consideration of how we got so deeply enmeshed in the Vietnam war.
The transmutation from the political to the military may be followed from beginning to end in the case of Cuba.
The political problem arose on March 10, 1952, the day Fulgencio Batista overthrew a duly elected, constitutional government in the midst of an election campaign he was sure to lose. The United States soon recognized Batista's regime, and the following year sent to Havana an ambassador whose enthusiasm for the new order struck even Batista as somewhat excessive. For almost four years, the State Department under John Foster Dulles supported Batista unwaveringly and thereby dismayed all elements of the democratic opposition which was seeking some peaceful way to return to constitutionalism.
In 1957, a change of ambassadors gave the State Department a second chance to deal with the political problem. The new ambassador was instructed to make the U.S. position more nearly neutral in internal Cuban politics. But, after a brave start, he was more impressed by the growing threat of Fidel Castro's forces than by the dangers attendant on humoring Batista. As a result, no real change took place in American policy. It was still tied to Batista on the ground that any move which might weaken him would play into the hands of Castro and/or the Communists. Until 1958, there was plenty of non-Castro and anti-Castro opposition to Batista but it was never able to make much headway against Batista's police and American discouragement.
As one democratic group after another met with disaster or disappointment, Castro picked up the pieces. His preeminence dated from 1958 or 1957 at the earliest. In effect, the United States had had at least five or six years to head him off, and could have done so easily, if it had not put all its eggs in Batista's political basket.
In the pinch, Batista left everyone, including the United States, in the lurch. When he fled at the end of 1958, he was still far superior to Castro in military force. His regime broke down for political and social far more than for military reasons; his own henchmen would no longer fight for him and not a few of them in high places sold out to Castro; and he betrayed most of them by taking flight without warning.
Until 1959, then, the Cuban problem was primarily political. It took the form of that crucial political question: Which side are you on? All the economic and military aid we gave Batista's regime counted as nothing compared with the answer we gave to this question.
When Castro took over Havana in January of that year, a new American policy had to be erected on a foundation of total political bankruptcy. Fear, failure, and guilt haunted the first confused, hesitant American overtures to the new Cuban regime. At this point, American policymakers could think of nothing better than to trade economics for politics. I am inclined to believe that the Eisenhower administration would have been glad to buy itself out of its embarrassment. But Castro refused to let it off so easily. Though Castroite circles spread the tale that Washington officials had rudely turned down Castro's requests for economic and financial aid, the truth was far more “revolutionary”—not only was Castro unwilling to accept anything which implied continued Cuban economic dependence on the United States, but he was determined to break the economic ties which had bound Cuba to the United States.
Once the economic bait had slipped off the hook, the Eisenhower administration went on fatally to the next and last option—military action. As early as April 1959, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon advocated training Cuban exile forces to overthrow Castro, and this step was actually taken by the Eisenhower administration in March 1960, though no concrete plan was made or adopted at that time. President John F. Kennedy inherited this exile force in 1961, and its very existence tipped the balance in the debate over whether to use it or not, It is sometimes forgotten, however, that Kennedy's thinking on the Cuban problem before he took office was not very different from that of his predecessor or his Presidential opponent.
The Bay of Pigs adventure was a military failure. But even a military victory would not have changed the fundamental fact that it was made necessary by, and was intended to recoup, the losses sustained by ten years of political failure.
This was the real meaning of the Bay of Pigs, though it has been obscured by the fruitless debate over who or what was most responsible for the military fiasco. It would have been far more profitable if the debate had been less over why military victory evaded us than why we needed it at all. The United States had possessed such overwhelming political and economic influence in Cuba for so many years that a resort to force could only mean an admission of political insolvency.
The “missiles crisis” in October the following year did not change the Cuban problem in any essential. President Kennedy carefully staged the showdown with the Soviet Union as a military confrontation of a limited character. The removal of Soviet missiles in Cuba did not represent an advance by the United States so much as a retreat by the Soviet Union. All the United States demanded and succeeded in re-establishing was the status quo ante. This operation was far more military than political, though it was not without U.S.-Soviet political repercussions.
In terms of the Cuban problem, however, the “missiles crisis” had an unexpected denouement. The prestige gained by Mr. Kennedy in October 1962 actually enabled him to execute a political retreat in Cuban policy in the spring of 1963. The existing instrument of U.S. policy, the Cuban Revolutionary Council, headed by Dr. José Miró Cardona, was abandoned, and a sizable corps of Cuban exiles was unceremoniously removed from the CIA's payroll. Not a few of these victims came to me in that period with their tales of woe. They were bitter and humiliated for two reasons—that they had taken the checks, and that they were no longer getting them. The demobilization of the Council signified that four more years of political bankruptcy in our Cuban policy had come to an end.
Ironically, this was the best thing that could have happened. Our fortunes immediately improved by permitting Castro to make mistakes without being able to blame them altogether on us.
The same political-military pattern can easily be discerned in the Dominican Republic.
The Dominican instrument of U.S. policy, Donald Reid Cabral, was another beneficiary of a military coup. The constitutional government of Juan Bosch was overthrown in September 1963; Reid, more a businessman than a politician, assumed the leadership of the new regime that December and headed the provisional government for the sixteen months before the revolt of April 1965.
In these months, more U.S. money was poured into the Dominican Republic than ever before. But it availed little because Reid was beset politically from two sides—the Right which wanted to replace him, and the Left which wanted to replace the Right. By January 1965, three months before the revolt, any reader of the Dominican press would or should have known that Reid was virtually finished. The reason was not so much what was taking place on the Left as what was happening on the Right. The traditional right-wing politicians saw no reason why he, a relatively late interloper in Dominican politics, without a party or a cause, should be the sole beneficiary of U.S. largesse and support. When Reid intimated in December 1964 that he did not intend to give up power by staying out of the elections scheduled for June 1965, as tradition demanded, the right wing unleashed a furious political offensive against him personally and against the U.S. embassy for backing him. The pro-Bosch military conspiracy was able to get rid of Reid so easily because he had previously been deserted by the Right and had been left suspended in a political vacuum.
Thus, in the months before the revolt, the same decisive political question was posed in the Dominican Republic: Which side are you on? The answer, given clearly and loftily by the U.S. Ambassador, W. Tapley Bennett, Jr., and his Washington superiors was: Donald Reid Cabral. Not that they were unaware of the deteriorating situation. But Washington's remedy for the disease was even more tangible support for Reid Cabral. As usual, this took an economic form; the last half of another $10,000,000 loan from the Bank for International Development was announced in the Dominican press two days before the revolt.
The bankruptcy of this policy was revealed at 10 A.M. on April 25, the morning after the revolt. Reid Cabral appealed to the United States and to the Dominican military to support him—in vain. Neither wished the revolt to succeed, but neither was willing to fight for Reid Cabral. When Reid Cabral was tossed aside, the United States had no political alternative to take his place. All that remained was military action, by the Dominican armed forces or by the United States.
We now know that the Dominican Air Force decided to fight by 3 P.M. on April 25. The first air attack was carried out an hour and a half later. But before the Dominican military leaders made up their minds, they asked the U.S. embassy what they could expect from the United States. The U.S. Chargé d'Affaires, William B. Connett, Jr., who handled the exchange in the absence of Ambassador Bennett, told the Dominican military to go ahead with their plans. In effect, the United States first tried to stifle the revolt through the Dominican armed forces. But three days later, the Dominican military had to admit failure because, as Colonel Pedro Bartolomé Benoit, head of the first military junta, later explained, planes were not enough to put down the revolt and “we did not have the troops.”1 Inasmuch as the Dominican armed forces and national police numbered about forty thousand, this was quite a confession to make of the real reason for U.S. military intervention on April 28. The Dominican and U.S. military actions were two sides of the same coin, two stages in the same process.
The point I am trying to make has little to do with the question that is still hotly debated—whether the Dominican Republic was actually threatened by a Communist takeover in the first week of the revolt. Even if the fifty-three to seventy-seven Communists on the State Department's various lists could have “taken over and really seized” the country, as President Johnson claimed, the deeper problem is this: How could such a takeover have come about so quickly and easily after sixteen months of Reid Cabral's U.S.-backed regime? Why did this regime fall apart, with no one willing to defend it, even before the fighting had broken out? Why did the United States invest so heavily in a political house of cards?
Much, or even most, of the controversy about the Cuban and Dominican crises tends to be confined to their terminal stages, when immediate, hasty, drastic decisions had to be made under stress of seemingly imminent disaster. Such decisions belong to the closing-the-barn-door-after-the-political-horse-has-been-stolen department. The problem that concerns us here antedates these decisions and, therefore, requires a larger historical perspective. That is why I have gone back to 1952 in Cuba and to 1963 in the Dominican Republic in order to see how we made the transition from the political to the military. And I have recalled these cases because they have a direct bearing on the present war in Vietnam.
From this point of view, the Vietnam war is only the Cuban and Dominican crises writ large.
In 1954, when the French faced defeat, President Eisenhower declared that he “could conceive of no greater tragedy than for the United States to become involved in an all-out war in Indochina,” of which Vietnam was then a part. How did we get so far that, toward the end of 1966, the same man could advocate “putting in the kind of military strength we need to win,” not excluding the possibility of nuclear weapons?2
In 1963, two months before his assassination, President John F. Kennedy said: “In the final analysis, it is their war. They are the ones to win it or lose it. We can help them, we can give them equipment, we can send our men out there as advisers, but they have to win it—the people of Vietnam—against the Communists.” How did it become, three years later, “our” war which we must win at all costs?
In March 1964, Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara said that “the large indigenous support that the Vietcong receives means that solutions must be as political and economic as military. Indeed, there can be no such thing as a purely ‘military’ solution to the war in South Vietnam.” Less than three years later, why are we heading in the direction of a purely “military solution”?
In 1964 also, President Lyndon B. Johnson protested: “We don't want to get tied down in a land war in Asia.” And more: “We are not about to send American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves.” Only two years later, we were getting tied down in a land war in Asia, and we were sending American boys nine or ten thousand miles away to do what Asian boys should have been doing. How? And why?
When the course of our increasing absorption into the Vietnam struggle from 1954 to the present is studied, the central fact that emerges is this: political failure paved the way for every step on the road to full-scale military engagement. An examination of five turning points—October 1954, December 1961, November 1963, February 1965, and October 1966—makes this clear.
The first Vietnamese instrument of U.S. policy was the late Ngo Dinh Diem. He took office just before the Geneva Agreements of 1954 brought to an end the war waged by the Vietnamese Communists under Ho Chi Minh against French colonial rule. Diem, a long-time exile, had not taken part in this struggle, but he had spent some time in the United States before the French collapse, making friends in high places and impressing a variety of Americans, official and unofficial, that he was a man of nationalist political ideals and progressive social convictions. Of all the things former President Eisenhower has regretted putting down on paper, the list may well be topped by the admission in his memoirs that all knowledgeable persons agreed that “had elections been held as of the time of the fighting, possibly 80 per cent of the population would have voted for the Communist Ho Chi Minh as their leader rather than Chief of State Bao Dai,” under whom Diem first served.3
It is still important to keep in mind how the war ended in 1954 because it helps to explain the Communists' bitterness and doggedness today. Ho Chi Minh made far-reaching concessions in 1954, possibly under Soviet pressure, as Professor P. J. Honey asserts. Ho's victory over the French was decisive, but he agreed to take over only half the country, undoubtedly in the expectation that the South, then in seeming chaos, would soon fall of its own accord into his hands. One of the Geneva agreements, agreed to by all those present but signed by none, provided for general elections to unify the country in July 1956. Though there is reason to believe that no one, including the Communists, took this commitment very seriously, it gave the new regime in South Vietnam a breathing spell of two years. In short, the Communists have been fighting since 1954 to win back what they and everyone else thought they had already won. They had hardly intended to have Diem, who had contributed nothing to the victory, reap its fruits. In 1954, Ho Chi Minh snatched compromise out of the jaws of victory; today, the United States is afraid that he will snatch victory out of the jaws of compromise. In any case, this odd background makes Vietnam unique in Communist bids for power. It is hard to imagine the same chain of events elsewhere.
From the American side, a portentous decision was made in 1954. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was unhappy about the French willingness to negotiate with Ho Chi Minh and get out of Indochina. When he could not dissuade the French, or persuade the British, the Eisenhower administration was compelled to face the crucial question: What was all of Indochina, let alone its Vietnamese part, worth? Full-scale U.S. ground and air intervention to take over where the French left off was carefully considered in 1954. An Army team of experts was sent to Indochina to study all the ramifications of a major intervention. The need for eight infantry divisions, plus about thirty-five engineer battalions, was projected. Everything that is happening today was foreseen then, as Lt. Gen. James M. Gavin made clear at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Hearings last February.4
The chief opposition to any large-scale U.S. intervention in Vietnam in 1954 came, it appears, from two professional soldiers, General Matthew B. Ridgway, then the Army's Chief of Staff, and General James M. Gavin, its Chief of Plans and Development. Together with the British, whose leaders were less inhibited about challenging American foreign policy than they are today, they persuaded President Eisenhower that we could hold on to Indochina but that it was not worth the price we would have to pay for it. And both generals were substantially of the same view twelve years later. The moral of this story is twofold: distinguished and honorable U.S. generals have differed on the strategic value of Vietnam; and generals once held us back from plunging into the conflict on a large scale. This should warn us that our official view of the importance of Vietnam may be as different tomorrow as it was yesterday.
The American solution in 1954 was a compromise between extremes—one demanding full military intervention, the other complete abstention. To the question of which side it was on, the Eisenhower administration answered unequivocally—Diem's. It backed up this political commitment with a maximum of economic aid and a minimum of military assistance, at least in manpower. The American gamble was held down by the implicit understanding that the United States was willing to help Diem's regime only if it proved capable of helping itself. In October 1954, President Eisenhower sent President Diem a letter in which he explicitly stated the conditional nature of this support.5 It was a policy of limited liability and, in principle, it set the pattern until 1965.
We might be better off today if our political leaders had been as clairvoyant about our own problems as they were about the French. I have already cited former President Eisenhower's well-known dictum about Ho Chi Minh's chances in a 1954 election. The sentence in his memoirs immediately preceding has attracted much less attention but may be far more meaningful for the present. It reads: “I am convinced that the French could not win the war because the internal political situation in Vienam, weak and confused, badly weakened their military position.”
This is no less true of the United States, with the addition of something else for which the French were not strong enough: our military position has been strengthened every time the internal political situation in Vietnam has weakened.
This general rule can best be seen in operation during the seven years that separated the first and second turning-points in American policy.
When Ngo Dinh Diem took over the shell of an administration and an economy left by the French in 1954, he was not expected to be able to fulfill the conditions posed by President Eisenhower's offer of aid. In fact, Diem was not expected to stay in power very long—perhaps a few months. He seemed to have little or nothing to work with on the Vietnamese side, and the French, still there, were soon out to get rid of him. But with American economic and political support, Diem surprised everyone. He cracked down successfully on the politically-minded sects and their private armies in the spring of 1955; he eliminated the French puppet chief of state, Bao Dai, and made himself an all-powerful President in October of that year; the French pulled out completely by July 1956. In two years, Diem seemed to have performed a minor miracle by consolidating his power around himself, his family, and his Catholic co-religionists.
In these two years, when he was weakest, Diem had least trouble with the Communists. Two reasons appear to account for this truce-like atmosphere. Ho Chi Minh had no more faith than anyone else in Diem's chances of survival, and despite their own cynicism about it, the anonymously promised general election in July 1956 may have sufficiently intrigued the Communist leaders to give them a reason for adopting a “wait and see” attitude in the South. Moreover, Ho Chi Minh was just then consolidating his own rule in the North. His methods in 1954-56 were every bit as ruthless and brutal as any used in China or Soviet Russia at their worst. At least fifty thousand and possibly one hundred thousand peasants were physically exterminated in the North Vietnamese “land reform” of those years. A virtual peasant rebellion broke out in one Northern province in November 1956.6 This upheaval gave Ho Chi Minh more than enough to do in the North, but it indicates what would have happened in the South if Ho had been given the opportunity to get his 80 per cent majority there.
Diem, then, treated the Communists just as roughly as they would have treated everyone else. From the outset, he made clear that he did not intend to honor the Geneva Agreements, especially the one providing for general elections. By July 1955, he initiated a “Campaign for Denunciation of Communist Subversion.” In effect, Diem beat the Communists to the punch; he caught them off balance and forced them on the defensive. Opinions differ as to whether he provoked them first or vice versa, but all agree that he hurt them at first far more than they could hurt him.
Even the State Department's White Paper of February 1965, a highly tendentious document, tends to confirm this view. After the Geneva Agreements of 1954, it relates, the Communists adopted a strategy of “all means short of open violence” to weaken Diem's regime. Diem's anti-Communist campaign in the South was so successful that “morale in the Communist organization in the South dropped sharply” and “defections were numerous.” For this reason, the Communist cadres in the South had to be “rebuilt, reorganized and expanded” after 1956. The appreciable increase of Communist terror in the South is dated from 1958.7
The Communist version agrees that Diem had the Communists at bay in 1955-59. The Australian Communist journalist, Wilfred G. Burchett, was told that the Communist line in the South until the end of 1959 was exclusively for “a legal, political, non-violent form of struggle.” It allegedly changed at that time to permit “the use of arms in self-defense only” because the Communists were “faced with the wholesale wiping out of all former resistance cadres.” The local Communists interpreted “self-defense” rather freely as an authorization to launch small-scale attacks for the purpose of seizing arms, and the first such attack was carried out by about 260 men with only 170 weapons early in 1960.8 This version neglects to mention the epidemic of Communist terrorism before 1959 which cost several hundred lives. But isolated terrorist attacks were symptoms of Communist desperation rather than of any massive threat. An apparently well-informed pro-Communist source gives the autumn of 1957 as the beginning of the campaign of terrorism, mainly against village chiefs, and 1960 for the first “really military assaults.”9
But Diem was too successful for his own good. If he had cracked down only on the Communists, he would not have had to worry too much. The Communists, however, made up only a small part of those caught in Diem's dragnet. By 1956, Diem was well on his way to creating a police state which silenced, exiled, imprisoned or put to death all rivals and critics indiscriminately. His repression atomized and pulverized the Vietnamese society which he had just succeeded in giving some semblance of unity. The Communists picked up allies as quickly as he made enemies. An able and sensitive observer, Robert Shaplen, says that the popularity of Diem's regime “began to wane seriously” as early as 1957.10 By November 1960, a sizable segment of his own army made a first, almost successful attempt to overthrow him. Since the Communists also went over to organized guerrilla warfare in 1960, Diem's regime was beset on all sides at once. At this time, however, the Communists were still far from being his main concern. The guerrillas' strength, according to Bernard B. Fall, that indefatigable student who refuses to be hoodwinked by either side, was estimated in 1959 at only three thousand. And even if we accept the figures in the State Department's White Paper of February 1965, only 1,800 to 2,700 men were infiltrated from the North in 1959-60. Burchett's account makes clear that the Communists had hardly succeeded in getting their military actions started in 1960.
And yet, no sooner had John F. Kennedy been sworn into office than the highest Washington officials were spreading the word among themselves that Diem's regime was on the point of collapse. Kennedy's first appointment as ambassador to South Vietnam, Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., was sent off to Saigon in April 1961 with this news ringing in his ears. According to John Mecklin, the American Public Affairs Officer in Saigon in 1962-64, Nolting was told in Washington before he left for his post that “it would be a miracle if South Vietnam lasted three months longer.”11 Secretary of Defense McNamara gave a more restrained version in March 1964 of the situation which had forced President Kennedy's hand three years earlier: “When President Diem appealed to President Kennedy at the end of 1961, the South Vietnamese were quite plainly losing their fight against the Communists, and we promptly agreed to increase our assistance.12
That Diem, who had had the Communists on the run from at least 1955 to almost the end of the decade, should have faced defeat at their hands by early 1961 is inexplicable in terms of the Communists' own strength. It is understandable only in terms of the inner degeneration of Diem's regime and its suicidal estrangement from other non-Communist forces in South Vietnam. The fatal disease was political, not military.
The problem before Kennedy in 1961 was, in essence, the problem that had faced Eisenhower in 1954. What should the United States do to stave off a complete collapse in Vietnam? The most detailed and candid account of Kennedy's decision appears in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.'s chronicle, A Thousand Days. It is a veritable case history of how the military submerged the political in action, if not always in intention and thinking.
Kennedy came to the Vietnam problem, as he did to other problems, without a consistent position behind him. Professor Schlesinger cites the speech which Kennedy made in the Senate in April 1954 against U.S. military assistance to the French or unilateral intervention to bolster a regime which the “great masses” of Vietnamese did not support. Theodore C. Sorensen even cites the same passage as the “key” to the late President's decision in 1961. But an ardent interventionist, Professor Frank N. Trager, has dug up another Kennedy speech from June 1956 that might have been made by another man. By this time, Diem seemed to have consolidated his rule, and Senator Kennedy hailed it as our “offspring” which we could not afford to permit to fail. Schlesinger and Sorensen do not mention the second speech, and Trager does not mention the first one. The difference in emphasis may be defended on the ground that the situation in South Vietnam had changed markedly in two years, but even so, the conclusion is inescapable that Kennedy was too pessimistic in 1954 and too optimistic in 1956. The ease with which Kennedy can be quoted against Kennedy suggests the dangers and difficulties of evaluating a statesman whose style is considered more important than his substance.
In his first months in office, Kennedy had to make up his mind whether Diem had failed and, if so, what to do about it. As Schlesinger tells the story, his advisers lined up in two camps, the “political” and the “military.” Those who put a political effort in Vietnam as the first consideration saw no hope short of a “change of leadership” in Saigon, which meant dropping Diem in favor of some other South Vietnamese leader. Among those explicitly urging this course were John Kenneth Galbraith, then ambassador to India, and implicitly W. Averell Harriman, appointed Assistant Secretary of State for the Far East in 1961, and the writer Theodore H. White. Schlesinger refers to a “Harriman group” in the State Department which questioned subordinating the political to the military. Vice President Johnson went to Saigon in May 1961 and advised in favor of more Vietnamese troop-training by American forces but against the commitment of American troops in combat. He seems to have occupied a middle ground, defined by Schlesinger as “the reorientation of the military effort along with programs of political and economic reform.”
But the main weight of the pressure on Kennedy inside the government fell over on the military side. A special mission to South Vietnam headed by General Maxwell D. Taylor and Walt W. Rostow of the State Department recommended sending a relatively small American military task force with combat capabilities. Except for the so-called Harriman group, the State Department in the person of Secretary Dean Rusk “was well satisfied with military predominance in the formation of United States policy toward Vietnam.” General Taylor has revealed that both the introduction of American ground forces and American bombing of Northern military targets were under consideration at least since November 1961, when he presented his report. Sorensen goes so far as to say that “all” of Kennedy's principal advisers on Vietnam favored the commitment of American combat troops.13
Finally, Kennedy did more or less at the end of 1961 what Eisenhower had done at the end of 1954. He decided, as General Taylor later put it at the Vietnam hearings, to change the number but not the “quality” of our military advisers. He ruled out combat missions but gradually increased the number of “advisers” from about eight hundred to about seventeen thousand. Schlesinger quotes Kennedy in one of his most appealing, astute, and antic moods, turning down the advice of those who wanted an American combat commitment: “It's like taking a drink. The effect wears off, and you have to take another.” And, Kennedy also confided to Schlesinger, the war in Vietnam could only be won if it was their war, not ours.
Yet Schlesinger admits that Kennedy's decision at the end of 1961 “was to place the main emphasis on the military effort.” This emphasis required renewed and intensified political support of the Diem regime. The new American ambassador, Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., and the new American military commander in Saigon, General Paul Harkins, made Diem's cause their own. Nolting established a relationship with Ngo Dinh Diem similar to that of Ambassador Arthur Gardner with Fulgencio Batista in Cuba in 1953-57 or of Ambassador W. Tapley Bennett, Jr., with Donald Reid Cabral in the Dominican Republic in 1964 and part of 1965. Thus there was an unmistakable political side to the military decision. For some reason, Kennedy's military decision, which was halfhearted, has come in for far more attention than its political counterpart, which was not. Ambassador Nolting represented a door-die, wholehearted political gamble on the durability and reformability of Diem's regime.
Why did Kennedy do it? Why did Kennedy, as John Mecklin put it, act the way Eisenhower had acted, only “more so”?14 The answer given by former President Kennedy's intimates and biographers is most revealing. Both Schlesinger and Sorensen plead in his defense that past American policy had virtually given Kennedy no other alternative. Kennedy, writes Schlesinger, “had no choice now but to work within the situation he had inherited,” and Dulles's policy in South Vietnam had “left us in 1961 no alternative but to continue the effort of 1954.” Sorensen strikes the same note.15 In exculpation, they emphasize that Kennedy's military contribution was still limited. But the principle they accept would make it difficult for a President to refuse to go from a low-level to a high-level limit and, if necessary, to an unlimited effort. Moreover, they neglect to pay enough attention to the fact that, while his military investment in the Diem regime was then limited, he threw in a practically unlimited political bonus in the persons of Ambassador Nolting and General Harkins, and the latter may have been by far the more important of the two.
It is, of course, a truism that no policy is made in vacuo and that the past weighs heavily on every important Presidential decision. But if Professor Schlesinger is right that President Kennedy's options were so limited, even in 1961, when we had only about eight hundred non-combat military personnel on the scene, the implications are truly frightening. One gets the impression from these memoirs and memorials of Kennedy's associates that they are writing of a man who did what he did not want to do, what he knew or felt he should not do, and what he had little faith would come out right in the end. There is nothing so devastating about our entire Vietnam policy as the sense of fatality, and this is the best argument that Kennedy's friends have been able to muster in his behalf. I rather think that the former President would not have given himself such an easy way out, any more than he did in the Bay of Pigs case.16 Inasmuch as some of his former aides experienced a partial change of heart in 1966, it is hard to see how, if the former President's options were so limited in 1961 without American combat troops in South Vietnam, they can think the present President can have any options with about 400,000 combat troops there.
The third turning-point, in November 1963, came about primarily because John F. Kennedy lost his political gamble on Ngo Dinh Diem.
Diem's regime benefited at first from the increased American military and political support. The military approach seemed to be paying off. Our policy in 1962, writes Professor Schlesinger, was “dominated by those who saw Vietnam as primarily a military problem and who believed that its solution required unconditional support of Diem.” When Diem's durability proved to be an illusion, there was nothing to fall back on. Diem's power was based on the demoralization of South Vietnamese political life, and he succeeded so well that we are still living with the political wasteland that he left, not without our cooperation.
What supporting Ngo Dinh Diem unconditionally after 1961 meant has been most intimately described by John Mecklin, whose official duties brought him into contact with the highest officials on both sides. He and other observers agree that we were not even supporting a government; we were supporting a slightly pixilated family's fief. The awesome or awful threesome of this family—Ngo Dinh Diem, his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, and the latter's wife, Mme. Ngo Dinh Nhu—are most often described in psychiatric terms. Mecklin's bizarre account of their habitual behavior belongs in a textbook of mental pathology. He gently diagnoses the three of them as victims of “blank-wall irrationality.” Mecklin relates whimsically that he once had a dream “about an American diplomatic mission that gradually discovered it had been dealing for years with a government of madmen.” But when he awoke, he asked himself whether he had been dreaming after all. Shaplen refers to the condition of Nhu, generally considered the power behind the throne, as “seemingly paranoid.” Even Professor Trager, always inclined to give the Diem regime the benefit of a doubt, finds it necessary to acknowledge that Ngo Dinh Nhu was “at the end, perhaps crazed.”17
The fall of Diem was not the work of the Communists. It was not the result of an imminent military collapse. Secretary McNamara went to South Vietnam in late September 1963 and on his return reported that the military situation was so favorable a thousand American troops could be withdrawn by the end of the year and “the major part of the United States military task can be completed by the end of 1965.” General Harkins was quoted on November 1 as saying that “victory” was just “months away” and the reduction of American “advisers” could begin at any time. On that same day, Diem's own generals carried out the coup which resulted in his and his brother's assassination. Whether the United States directly connived in the coup is a matter of dispute; but that the United States prepared the way for the coup, knew of it in advance, and did nothing to discourage it, is not.18
In any event, Ngo Dinh Diem fell the way Fulgencio Batista had fallen and Donald Reid Cabral would fall. No one cared; no one moved; no one grieved—except possibly those American officials who had staked their reputations and careers on him. When he heard of the deaths of Diem and Nhu, Schlesinger tells us, President Kennedy no doubt “realized that Vietnam was his great failure in foreign policy.” Mecklin remarks that the Diem-Nhu raids on the Buddhist pagodas in August 1963, which precipitated the coup, “were an act of political bankruptcy, confession of a catastrophic failure of leadership.”19
It does not really matter what one thinks of the Diem regime, whether it was worth overthrowing or preserving. If Diem deserved his fate, American policy in South Vietnam for at least eight years under two Presidents could not have been more misbegotten and misdirected. If the United States should have opposed the anti-Diem coup, the implicit encouragement given to the plotters was no less wrongheaded. Either way, Diem's downfall represented the political bankruptcy and catastrophic failure not only of his own policy but that of the United States. Kennedy's decision in 1963 not to block Diem's overthrow was the most deadly criticism of Kennedy's decision in 1961 to back Diem to the hilt. The most persuasive argument against Diem's downfall has been that there was nothing better to put in his place. If this is true, it merely indicates how well Diem and his family had done their work of political devastation. In the last few months of Diem's regime, it was hard to tell whether he was more anti-American than the Americans were anti-Diem. The ghastly tragedy was not without the overtones of a macabre farce.
No one could blame the Communists for this contretemps. Even Secretary McNamara explained Diem's collapse in political terms: “But this progress [in 1962] was interrupted in 1963 by the political crises arising from troubles between the government and the Buddhists, students, and other non-Communist oppositionists. President Diem lost the confidence and loyalty of his people; there were accusations of maladministration and injustice” (my italics, T.D.).20
In the last stage of the Diem regime, the threat of Communist despotism mattered far less than the reality of Diem's despotism. The most scathing indictment of the political failure was probably pronounced by the responsible and experienced Australian correspondent, Denis Warner, who wrote that “the tyranny the West allied with in Saigon was in many ways worse than the tyranny it was fighting against.”21
The eight lost years of Ngo Dinh Diem were, then, the Vietnamese equivalent of Batista's seven years in Cuba and Reid Cabral's sixteen months in the Dominican Republic.
The fourth turning-point, in February 1965, brings us to the transition from the primarily political to the primarily military phase of this war.
Once more, a deceptive temporary political improvement seemed to take place after the November 1963 coup. First a government dominated by General Duong Van Minh, better known as “Big Minh,” came in, and then, in January 1964, it was overthrown by a military junta headed by General Nguyen Khanh. By this time, the agony of making the final American decisions had been handed on to Lyndon B. Johnson.
The leading American officials had especially “high hopes” in General Khanh, as Secretary McNamara in one of his most illuminating and ill-fated speeches in March of that year expressed it. General Khanh, said Secretary McNamara, was just the man to defeat the Communists. McNamara credited Khanh with a demonstrated grasp of the basic political, economic, and psychological elements to assure victory.
In 1964, therefore, the American line was still basically political or politico-economic. In that same March speech, Secretary McNamara held that North Vietnamese support was a “critical factor” in the strength of the Southern Vietcong. But, he went on, “the large indigenous support that the Vietcong receives means that solutions must be as political and economic as military. Indeed, there can be no such thing as a purely ‘military’ solution to the war in South Vietnam.”
Five months later, in August, the State and Defense Departments issued a pamphlet which discounted the use of American combat units in a guerrilla war of the Vietnamese type “in which knowledge of terrain, language, and local customs is especially important.” The pamphlet also warned that American combat units would provide “ammunition for Communist propaganda which falsely proclaims that the United States is conducting a ‘white man's war’ against Asians.”22
At this late date, then, American policy was still ostensibly anchored to the Eisenhower-Kennedy principle of limited commitment and limited liability. All the right things were said on the eve of doing just the opposite.
What caused this abrupt and seemingly unanticipated change of policy at the beginning of 1965 in favor of sending massive American combat units to wage an increasingly “white man's war”?
The official American explanation, given in the State Department's White Paper of February 1965 and in Secretary Rusk's testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in February 1966, is that the change in American policy was caused by the movement into the South of the North Vietnamese 325th Division at the end of 1964. The White Paper charged that at least 4,400 and possibly as many as 7,400 came in from the North in the entire year of 1964. It did not explain how, of this rather modest total, more than a small fraction could have been identified with this division in the first weeks of 1965.
In any event, the military escalation of the North was made the basic rationale for the American military escalation, which took the form of a decision in February 1965 to bomb North Vietnamese military targets and, at about the same time, another decision to commit American combat troops on a larger scale.23
This rationale has not been, even on factual grounds, very persuasive. For one thing, the Northern 325th was a “vanishing” division which was not visible for months after it was supposed to have moved into the South in such force that it had precipitated a historic change in American policy. A special subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services headed by Representative Otis G. Pike (Dem., N.Y.), visited South Vietnam in June 1965, long after the 325th had allegedly transformed the character of the war. Its report did not even mention North Vietnamese units or military action in the south; it was written wholly in terms of what was still referred to as a “guerrilla war.” Bernard B. Fall happened to visit South Vietnam in late 1965. “As of the time I left a few days ago,” he wrote in an article published in October, “no Intelligence officer was ready to swear that the 325th as a unit had joined the battle in South Vietnam.” A bipartisan group of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, headed by Senator Mike Mansfield, visited South Vietnam at the end of 1965. It reported that North Vietnamese regular soldiers made up only 14,000 of the estimated 230,000 enemy force in December 1965, a year after the celebrated incursion of the Northern 325th Division. This report accepted the official version that North Vietnam regular army troops had begun to enter the South about the end of 1964, but it did not mention this division at all and, in any case, the numbers cited put the whole matter in a different perspective. On June 16, 1966, Senator Mansfield made an even more astounding revelation. “When the sharp increase in the American military effort began in early 1965,” he declared, “it was estimated that only about 400 North Vietnamese soldiers were among the enemy forces in the South which totaled 140,000 at that time.” A reporter for the Scripps-Howard newspapers went to the Defense Department and received confirmation of these figures.24
It would have been a sorry moment in American history if so few North Vietnamese troops could have panicked Washington into making such a far-reaching change of course. The truth was bad enough, but not that bad. The Mansfield report came much closer by putting the emphasis where it belonged—South Vietnamese weakness rather than North Vietnamese strength. “In short,” the report stated grimly, “a total collapse of the Saigon government's authority appeared imminent in the early months of 1965.” And it linked the need for large-scale American combat forces to this threatened collapse, which it did not attribute to the infiltration of a few hundred North Vietnamese regulars. More recently, Secretary McNamara has revealed how menacing the outlook was in the first half of 1965. The United States, he said, put over 100,000 men into the South in about 120 days to prevent a “disaster” to the South Vietnamese armed forces. The latter, according to him, were being overpowered and destroyed by the Vietcong and Northern army infiltrators in the summer of 1965. The U.S. intervened in force, he declared, because the enemy had been “approaching possible victory.”25
From the more disingenuous State Department version, it would appear that the 325th North Vietnamese Division began to appear in the South in “November, December , January ,” as Secretary Rusk put it at the Senate Committee hearings, and this single factor caused the United States to change its tactics and policy the following month. If we recall that, according to Senator Mansfield, the North Vietnamese soldiers in the South numbered only about four hundred at the beginning of 1965, this rationalization obviously belongs in the theater of the absurd. Unfortunately, Senator Mansfield's figure was not widely reported in the press, and he delicately refrained from suggesting that there might be any incongruity between this figure and the State Department's thesis.26 A reader of the State Department's post-1964 literature on Vietnam hardly knows whether to be amused or insulted.
The crisis in 1965 in South Vietnam was far more intimately related to South Vietnamese disintegration than to North Vietnamese infiltration. General Khanh, whom Secretary McNamara had praised so highly in March 1964, turned out to be another illusion. At the Senate Committee hearings, General Taylor, the American Ambassador in Saigon from June 1964 to July 1965, the very period leading to the vast American buildup, was asked whether the present regime of Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky was more stable than its predecessors had been. Taylor replied: “Almost anything would be an improvement over what I saw while I was Ambassador.” John Mecklin explained the South Vietnamese “malaise” of 1965 in these terms: “The nation was desperately weary of war, its people verging on such despair that they would soon accept anything to get it over with.” Bernard B. Fall attributed the trouble to the fact that Diem's successors evolved a policy which he called “Diemism without Diem.” Premier Nguyen Cao Ky recently described his predecessors in these terms: “Every Prime Minister or even Minister said: ‘I'm here for two months, so money, money, and if necessary I'll go abroad.’”27
In effect, the South Vietnamese crisis of 1965 was essentially a reprise of the 1963 crisis, not a totally new phenomenon as argued by the State Department. The qualitative change came after the American decision to bomb North Vietnam and pour troops into South Vietnam. In 1966, the American force numbered 205,000 in February, 300,000 in September, and was rising to 400,000 by the end of the year. In June 1966, according to Senator Mansfield, there were in the neighborhood of 30,000 North Vietnamese regulars out of a total enemy force of 250,000.28 As in the case of the Dominican Republic, where the State Department tried to play the numbers game with its lists of Dominican Communists, the numbers game of North Vietnamese army regulars has also backfired, thanks mainly to the integrity of a courageous Senator.
For our purposes, however, it is less important to determine whether North Vietnam provoked the United States to intervene in force than to find out what the enlarged American military role in 1965 signified in terms of the problem we are examining—the supersession of political by military instrumentalities in the conduct of American foreign policy.
The alleged North Vietnamese army incursion at the end of 1964 provided the President and the State Department with a rationalization for proclaiming a fundamental change in the character of the war. Until 1965, the official American line still considered it a predominantly “civil war.” In that year, according to the policymakers in Washington, it became a “foreign aggression.” The “foreigners” in this case were the North Vietnamese who were apparently invading a “foreign” country, South Vietnam.
As long as American policy regarded the struggle as primarily a “civil war,” the American line emphasized that the political instrumentality was at least as important as the military and that, as Secretary McNamara put it in March 1964, “there can be no such thing as a purely ‘military’ solution to the war in South Vietnam.” But, as a corollary of the theory of “foreign aggression,” the priorities assigned to the political and military instrumentalities were reversed. Suddenly, almost overnight, American policy shifted into its military phase, and all the blame was heaped on a few hundred or at most a few thousand North Vietnamese army regulars. American and South Vietnamese officials continued to pay lip service to political and social reforms but they came to be regarded as the indefinitely postponed by-product rather than the indispensable precondition of military “victory.”
By coincidence, of course, all the political and social gimmicks which had been advertised to save South Vietnam from Communist seduction had exhausted themselves by 1965. The “strategic hamlet” program launched in March 1962 had died with Diem by November 1963. In the South, where 2 per cent of the landowners had owned 45 per cent of the land, “land reform” had given the peasants little land and less reform. “Counter-insurgency,” “pacification,” and all the other well-meaning slogans had bogged down in the South Vietnamese inability or unwillingness to give them meaningful implementation. The House Committee on Armed Services group, under Representative Pike, which made a survey on the spot in June 1965, observed that “rural reconstruction” had been “no great success.” The Senate Foreign Relations group, under Senator Mansfield, which investigated the situation at the end of 1965, reported that the so-called pacification or civic-action program had been permitted in large measure to “lapse” after Diem's fall. To this day, “pacification” is considered second in importance only to the military effort but the former has lagged far behind and has admittedly failed to make any serious progress.
Just as the decay and downfall of Ngo Dinh Diem's regime in 1963 caused a crisis of conscience on the part of American correspondents in Saigon, so the political and social failure after 1965 has resulted in some equally troubled soul-searching. Three of the most thoughtful attempts to probe beneath the surface of events provide the necessary background for understanding the new war strategy that came out of the Manila Conference last October.
In Newsweek of September 12, 1966, Everett G. Martin, the bureau chief in Saigon, tried to get at the “crucial error” in our Vietnam policy. The chief problem, as he saw it, was nothing less than the failure, at this late date, to make the Vietnamese people feel that it was their war. This is how he expressed it: “And it is indeed true that although the U.S. has put heavy emphasis on the need to win the support of peasants living in areas contested by the Vietcong, we have yet to convince even those Vietnamese dwelling in the most secure areas of the country that there is a cause worth fighting for.” In the same unrelenting fashion, he added that the Vietnamese in the South “seem to be able to maintain an almost total impassivity,” that “most Vietnamese appear to be so many stoic islands, as immune to the war as they are to the monsoon rains,” that the American soldier on leave in major Vietnamese cities carries away the overriding impression “of a people abnormally detached from the brutal reality he knows in the battlefield.” He noted that Vietnamese soldiers had no incentive to fight aggressively as a result of the “callous unconcern” for their welfare, but that perhaps even more disturbing was “the fact that the greatest indifference to the war effort is found among Vietnam's young people.” Relations between the Americans and the South Vietnamese had “degenerated into a kind of ill-defined antagonism,” reminiscent of the late Diem period. One American official commented on the growing American cynicism: “You don't find any idealists around any more. They have either given up and gone home, or they are just serving out their time.”
For Martin, the “root of the problem” appeared to be largely political. He was chiefly impressed by the fact that “while Americans have democratic institutions to defend, the Vietnamese have none.” The remedy, he thought, was the encouragement of democracy on a local scale, in the provinces, where the Vietnamese people could learn what it means to make their wishes known through a local council and see them respected by Saigon-appointed officials. Vietnam had once had a local election system which had made the village, in Bernard B. Fall's words, “the real cradle of a Jeffersonian type of representative government in the country.”29 Not even the French had tampered with this traditional village democracy. But, in June 1956, Ngo Dinh Diem had arbitrarily abolished this entire system in favor of personal appointees who soon became the targets of Communist terrorists. “Diemism without Diem” had changed nothing in this respect. “We Americans,” Martin lamented, “have wasted all the years since the revolution against Diem by not fostering local democracy in areas that were secure. Instead, we have allowed the Vietnamese corps commanders and their subordinates to become further entrenched as local war lords.”
A more social analysis of the problem was made by Neil Sheehan in the New York Times Magazine of October 9, 1966. Sheehan had served two tours of duty in South Vietnam since 1962, first for the United Press International and more recently for the New York Times. He agreed with Martin that Americans came to work in South Vietnam with enthusiasm and good intentions but extended experience made them leave the country victims of “the cynicism that pervades Vietnamese life.” No exception to this rule, he sought to account for the monotonous miscarriage of desperately-need reforms, such as rent reduction and land distribution, urged by the Americans. This is what he found:
All of these measures have been sabotaged because the regimes were and are composed of men who are members of, or who are allied with, mandarin families that held title to properties they have no intention of renouncing. While there are some patriotic and decent individuals among them, most of the men who rule Saigon have, like the Bourbons, learned nothing and forgotten nothing. They seek to retain what privileges they have and to regain those they have lost.
It is not easy for Americans to read, and it could not have been easy for an American to write—in 1966:
In Vietnam, only the Communists represent revolution and social change, for better or worse according to a man's politics. The Communist party is the one truly national organization that permeates both North and South Vietnam. The men who lead the party today, Ho Chi Minh and the other members of the Politburo in Hanoi, directed the struggle for independence from France and in the process captured much of the deeply felt nationalism of the Vietnamese people. Perhaps because of this, the Communists, despite their brutality and deceit, remain the only Vietnamese capable of rallying millions of their countrymen to sacrifice and hardship in the name of the nation and the only group not dependent on foreign bayonets for survival.
Still, even Mr. Sheehan could see no way other than to continue to prosecute the war. But he did not conceal his deepest misgivings:
We shall, I am afraid, have to put up with our Vietnamese mandarin allies. We shall not be able to reform them and it is unlikely that we shall be able to find any other Vietnamese willing to cooperate with us. . . .
But I simply cannot help worrying that, in the process of waging this war, we are corrupting ourselves. I wonder . . . whether the United States or any nation has the right to inflict this suffering and degradation on another people for its own ends.
Not a few American journalists have lived up to the highest ideals of their calling in the Cuban, Dominican, and Vietnam crises. But the unflinching honesty and moral passion of Sheehan's article almost puts it in a class by itself. Lest the reader think that I have chosen unduly critical or “liberal” views of the war, I invite his attention to a later and equally candid report in an unimpeachably conservative publication. According to Marvin L. Stone in the U.S. News & World Report of December 5, 1966, the political situation in South Vietnam at the end of 1966 was worse than ever:
The political fabric of the country is still shedding. Social progress is held in tight rein. After all these years, the war against the guerrillas in the countryside has not yet really begun.
Stone, who has visited South Vietnam many times since the French pulled out ten years ago, found that “there is less effective presence in the villages now than there was three years ago.” Corruption is worse than it was under the late Ngo Dinh Diem. Domestic output has been going down steadily. The guerrillas' success in the past year “has been almost astonishing.” The peasants are suffering more than before at the hands of both Communist extortionists and extortionate landowners. Of the “mandarin families” in South Vietnam, Stone writes:
Not only is government security lacking, but Saigon's land-reform program, so vital to the aspirations of peasants, has never really been put in motion. In the secure areas, tenant farmers—that means 70 per cent of all farmers in the Delta—still are forced to pay up to 50 per cent and more of their rice crops to absentee landlords who have no obligation in return. A law on the books since 1955 sets the limit at 25 per cent.
Americans here insist that no progress will be made so long as the men at the top in Saigon are members of mandarin families, or allied with families which have vested interests in land that they have no intention of relinquishing.
These commentaries on the latest phase of the war tell us more about the meaning of the Manila Conference of October 1966 than anything that came out of the conference itself. This conference will probably symbolize the fifth turning-point of American policy in the war, though the major decisions were made in Washington just before or just afterward. When all the oratory, propaganda, and pharisaism are forgotten, only the hard, stark military decisions that coincided with the meeting will be remembered. A month after the conference, it was made known that the number of American troops in South Vietnam would be increased by at least another 100,000 in 1967 for a total of nearly 500,000. Of even greater significance, however, is the new “strategy” which this enlarged force is supposed to carry out. In brief, the Americans are going to take over the “aggressive” or “offensive” military operations, and the South Vietnamese troops will be used mainly for rear-guard protective and “pacification” purposes. As far as most of the fighting is concerned, then, just what the State and Defense Department pamphlet warned against only two years ago is now contemplated—the United States is preparing to conduct “a ‘white man's war’ against Asians.”30
Some notion of how top American officials assess the present and future was vouchsafed by “our mandarin,” Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge.31 As of November 1966, he said, we were faced with three different kinds of enemy forces: the North Vietnamese army regulars (“approximately 50,000,” according to the U.S. Commander, General William C. Westmoreland), the Southern-recruited but sometimes Northern-led Vietcong military units (generally estimated at about 100,000), and highly-trained “guerrilla terrorist” groups working in the villages (put at “over 150,000” by Mr. Lodge). After finding some comfort in such blessings as the absence of an actual famine in the South, Mr. Lodge went on to admit that five things had changed little or not at all—the mileage of roads open to all kinds of traffic, the percentage of population living under secure conditions, the percentage of population under Vietcong domination, the daily toll of Communist terrorism, and the rate of Vietcong military recruitment. In effect, the great American effort since 1965 has mainly succeeded in averting an utter collapse in South Vietnam; the new stage of the war is but the beginning of the end—if there is an end on this path.
Mr. Lodge's idea of the end is not very clear, but the end is surely not very near. After we have beaten the army of North Vietnam, of which only a small part has been committed to action, and the organized military units of the Vietcong, he tells us, then we will first be able to get at what he calls “the real cancer”—the civilian guerrillas, over 150,000 strong, in the villages. Only the destruction of the latter force, he says, would be regarded as “decisive” by the enemy. Once that is accomplished, he hazards, the end will probably take the form of a fadeaway. “When it comes to fading away,” he declared, “I think there is a good chance that this is what the enemy will do when he makes up his mind that the jig is up.”32
The American line has changed so often, however, that even Ambassador Lodge seems to lose track of it. After a terrorist attack in Saigon the following month, Mr. Lodge commented that the 150,000 terrorists could not be successfully dealt with “until we've rebuilt the whole political, social, and economic structure in this country”—no small order. The ambassador had apparently forgotten that the line had changed and that social change was now supposed to depend on “security,” not vice versa. It may also come as something of a shock to their mandarins to learn that our mandarin thinks it is necessary to reconstruct their entire political, social, and economic system as a precondition for getting an effective “police function.”33
Only time will tell whether this course will be any more successful in its own terms than previous plans, strategies, and predictions. But one thing is already certain—the next stage of the war is going to be infinitely more destructive both to South and North Vietnam. The main American military pressure is not going to come from the increased numbers of ground troops. General Westmoreland knows that enemy troops fear most of all “B-52s, tactical air, artillery, and armor, in that order.”34 In the next phase of the war, they are going to get above all more B-52s, tactical air, artillery, and armor. General Earle G. Wheeler, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, called it “a dirty, little war” in 1963. Making it bigger will not make it any cleaner. U.N. Secretary-General U Thant called it one of the “most barbarous in history” last April. It is not, we may be sure, going to become any more civilized.
From the point of view which has been my chief concern, the new phase means more than anything else the total militarization of the war. The political and economic instrumentalities, once considered more important than the military, have been abandoned until the enemy has been forced to “fade away” by the application of overwhelming military power. This is the only interpretation that the drastic decision to remove the South Vietnamese troops from “major fighting” can have. It represents official recognition that the South Vietnamese common soldier cannot any longer be trusted to fight for “mandarin families,” which, as Neil Sheehan put it, “seek to retain what privileges they have and to regain those they have lost.” The deeper roots of this political and social “malaise” were touched on in the Martin, Sheehan, and Stone articles, and that is why they have such a close bearing on the most recent military decisions. The substitution of American for South Vietnamese troops corresponds to the substitution of the American for the Dominican military on April 28, 1965. This is the pattern which, in such different circumstances, has repeated itself clear across the globe.
One can only shudder at what the new strategy is going to do to our “allies”—the people of South Vietnam. But the time has also come to worry about what this war has been doing to us.
One price we are paying takes the form of a peculiarly noxious virus which has entered our political bloodstream. It has been impossible for the Johnson administration to present all the twists and turns of its policy in a rational and consistent way. Yet, in a democracy such as ours, a President cannot disavow the intention of getting tied down in a land war in Asia or of sending American boys to do what Asian boys should be doing in 1964 and then proceed to take these very steps in 1965 and 1966 without making an intellectual effort to justify his actions. The intellects making this effort have produced a squirming mass of contradictions, evasions, half-truths, and worse. One can only hope, for our sake, that they do not believe their own political fantasies.
The escalation of force has required an escalation of theory. As long as our military intervention was limited, we could make do with aims and objectives that were also quite limited. But half a million men and billions of dollars a year cannot be justified on the basis of defending poor, little South Vietnam alone. The more we invest in it, we are assured, the more we will get out of it. By now, we are supposedly defending nothing less than all Southeast Asia and even India in the Vietnamese rice paddies and humble villages. A victory over the Vietnam Communists, we are told, is a victory over the Communists in half-a-dozen or more nearby countries who will not dare to challenge our power if we prove successful in Vietnam. This war is virtually being made into that favorite of American wars—the war to end all (“national-liberation”) wars.
This is what I mean by escalation of theory. It has the apparent merit of bringing the cost and the return into somewhat better balance, of giving us more for our money and our men. But it has little more to commend it.
From one point of view, the Vietnamese Communists cannot any longer “lose” this war any more than we can “lose” it. For in this kind of war, the concept of “victory” is far more elusive than that of “defeat.” In fact, neither word may be applicable to the peculiar Vietnam situation. The more realistic approach may be that each side is trying to prevent the other from winning too much and itself from losing too much. The war makes much more sense in negative than in positive terms. For the United States, it is important that the Communists should not win power in the South, and for the Communists it is important that their power should not be broken. Both sides are far more perspicacious and adamant about what they cannot surrender than about what they hope to achieve.
In this kind of tug-of-war, the price becomes all-important. The price the Vietnamese Communists have already extorted from the United States and vice versa is already a kind of “victory.” The Vietnamese experience is going to make the United States think twice before getting into another such “quagmire,” as David Halberstam has called it, and the Communists of similar countries will think twice before asking their forces to take such punishment in return for an immediate bid for power. But that is about all we can be sure of—that the price will be a deterrent on both sides next time.
The idea that the frustration of a Communist bid for power in South Vietnam will be some kind of decisive setback for Communism in Southeast Asia or even the world is, however, a political fairy tale. It fails to take into account that no Communist bid for power which forces the United States to pay such a high price for “victory,” whatever that means, can be said to have been “defeated,” whatever that also means in this instance. If the Communists of other impoverished, diminutive Southeast Asian countries could be sure of making us spend so much blood and treasure on frustrating them, we might well be faced with an epidemic of such wars. In this sense, the Vietnamese war, however it may end, has been more an encouragement than a discouragement to other wars of “national liberation.”
We are also told that, since the Vietnamese war is part of a “Sino-Soviet world conspiracy,” a “victory” in this war is a victory over that whole conspiracy. If this premise were true, the inordinate expenditure of men and money on a relatively tiny, marginal outpost of this conspiracy would be strategic lunacy. We can afford the luxury of engaging ourselves so heavily in Vietnam precisely because the Communist world is no longer monolithic and centrally-directed. If we need half a million or more men in Vietnam despite the Sino-Soviet conflict, one wonders how many we would need if Soviet Russia, Communist China, and their partisans were pulling together in Vietnam.
Fortunately, the Communists became disillusioned with their own “domino theory” about forty-five years ago. After October 1917, the Bolshevik leaders expected their revolution to set off a falling-dominoes effect in Western Europe. In the next six years or so, they found that national conditions in each country were far more important than their theory of world revolution had led them to expect. In order for a domino theory now to operate in Asia, it would be necessary to assume that the conditions in at least several countries resemble those in Vietnam of the past twenty years. It would be necessary to have a number of Communist parties which had inaugurated the equivalent of an armed struggle against French colonial rule as far back as 1945, had inflicted a total of 172,000 casualties on the French armed forces in the next nine years, had compelled a far larger French army to capitulate in July 1954, had again taken up arms in South Vietnam five or six years later, had driven the United States into intervening in force to stave off a South Vietnamese defeat in 1965, and into withdrawing the South Vietnamese forces from the front lines in 1966. None of this would have been possible if the Vietnamese Communists had not been able to identify themselves with the long-time aspirations of Vietnam nationalism and to convince a large part of the younger generation that they represented their interests better than anyone else. And it would also be necessary to posit that other Communist parties face the same kind of weak, corrupt, self-centered reactionary regimes the Vietnamese Communists have been fortunate enough to find against them.
As far as I know, no other Southeast Asian Communist party comes near to fulfilling these specifications. But if many more should happen to do so, the Vietnamese Communists have come so close to victory on so many occasions that their example will embolden the others, not deter them. In any case, I am willing to hazard the view that there is not enough money and manpower in the United States to prevent the South Asian dominoes from falling, whatever happens in Vietnam, if the Vietnamese conditions are so widespread. In the end, the political, social, and economic conditions in each country will determine the outcome far more than American political, economic, and military power.
It should also not escape notice that two can play at the “domino theory” just as two can play with the Munich analogy. If we cannot afford to give up Vietnam because the other anti-Communist dominoes in the region will fall, the Communists can tell themselves the same thing because the pro-Communist dominoes will fall. Recently, Jean-Paul Sartre's organ, Les Temps Modernes, created a stir in the Communist world by demanding that the entire “Socialist camp” should fix “exact limits whose violation will unleash direct reprisals” and should meet American escalation in Vietnam with “counter-escalation.” It suggested that Soviet artillerymen could easily hit the air-naval bases and installations of the American Seventh Fleet located on Formosa, Okinawa, the Philippines, and the Gulf of Tonkin. And, among other “parallels” arguing for such action, it gave “the capitulations that preceded and followed the Munich Agreements.”35 These abstract theories and historical analogies are both dubious and double-edged; they will never bring us closer to any kind of peace in Vietnam.
In the American escalation of theory, it has become more and more popular to say that we are really fighting China in Vietnam. It is even held that there is no use asking old Ho Chi Minh to sit down at the table; the only one we could consider negotiating with is old Mao Tse-tung. But since the latter is now in the grip of some mania, we are told to wait until we can address ourselves to his successors.36
First, North Vietnam was substituted for the Southern-based Vietcong as the “real enemy.” Now Communist China is being substituted for North Vietnam as the “real enemy.” Or North Vietnam and Communist China are linked together as if the former were only an instrument or puppet of the latter. The trouble with this theory is that Soviet Russia and East Europe, not Communist China, are providing North Vietnam with most of the wherewithal to run its economy and arm its troops. At the Senate Committee's Vietnam hearings, Dean Rusk tried to get around this awkward circumstance by delivering himself of the view that the “instrument of aggression” is Hanoi but the “doctrine” of aggression “is from Peking.”37 Thus, it appears, Soviet Russia is not the real enemy in North Vietnam because it is merely providing most of the matériel, but Communist China is the true foe because it has made North Vietnam a gift of its “doctrine.” And to think that the insatiable Chinese are not even grateful to us for giving them North Vietnam at bargain rates!
Yet Professor P. J. Honey, who has studied the subject more carefully than anyone else, warns us against such easy oversimplifications. He reminds us that two thousand years of Vietnamese-Chinese relations have left the Vietnamese with feelings toward the Chinese “not unlike those of the Irish for the English of Oliver Cromwell's day.” Though the Vietnamese have learned to respect and fear the Chinese, they dislike them even more, which is why, Professor Honey explains, “Communist campaigns stressing the ‘historical friendship’ between the peoples of Vietnam and China had to be abandoned hurriedly when they encountered so much ridicule in North Vietnam.” In the years 1954-56, the Vietnamese Communists slavishly followed the Chinese in their land reform and other policies, but this proved to be the worst mistake ever made by the North Vietnamese and led to disenchantment with the Chinese model. “The end of the North Vietnamese-Chinese honeymoon dates from 1957,” Professor Honey writes, “and it is interesting to note that Ho Chi Minh made no attempt to imitate such Chinese policies as the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the creation of communes.”
Why Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues should be incapable of creating their own doctrine is hard to understand. Ho was a leading Communist before Mao, with far more international experience in the 1920's and 1930's. The Vietnamese Communists have over twenty years of their own armed struggle to draw lessons and legends from. They were largely dependent on the Chinese for aid in the anti-French phase, but have received much more from Soviet and East European aid programs recently. It is believed that the North Vietnamese top leadership contains pro-Soviet and pro-Chinese factions or at least tendencies, but after a period of trying to avoid taking sides, the dominant wing under Ho, Professor Honey believes, “swung to the Soviet side in early September 1960.” Since then, Ho Chi Minh has continued to maneuver between the two great Communist powers, without ever giving up the historic Vietnamese policy which, as Professor Honey puts it, consists of paying “lip service to Chinese pretensions provided they [the Vietnamese] themselves retained the reins of power in Vietnam.”38
There is nothing in ancient or recent history that warrants writing off the North Vietnamese Communists as puppets or satellites of the Chinese. The patent on guerrilla warfare is not owned by the Chinese, and even a common doctrine does not necessarily make North Vietnam subject to Chinese control, any more than a common doctrinal heritage has prevented the Sino-Soviet imbroglio. The mistake seems to stem from a continued reluctance to come to terms with the centrifugal forces in the Communist world. Not so long ago, Fidel Castro was also classified as a Maoist disciple because on some points—revolutionary violence and guerrilla warfare—the Cuban and Chinese doctrines coincided. But this did not prevent Castro from assailing the Chinese leadership early last year in terms more abusive than any the Soviets have ever employed. The present Communist world is full of intersecting lines of tactics and doctrine that can be correlated in different ways, depending on which lines one chooses to correlate. The idea that Ho Chi Minh had to get his “doctrine of aggression” from Mao Tse-tung flatters Dean Rusk as little as it does Ho Chi Minh.
In any case, there is something hallucinatory about the theory that Communist China is the real enemy in Vietnam or that the Vietnamese war is but the preliminary stage of a showdown with China. If there is any truth in either of these propositions, future historians will surely account our Sisyphean labors in Vietnam as one of the greatest aberrations of modern times. The day a war with China materializes, Vietnam will become a remote, inconvenient sideshow from which most of our troops would have to be pulled out in a hurry. The Mekong Valley is about two thousand miles from the industrial and military heartland of Northeast China. The notion that we are weakening, frightening, or deterring China by killing Vietnamese, as if this were a case of mistaken identity, defies all logic and experience. The only thing we are conceivably proving is that if we can bog down in South Vietnam, it should not be too difficult to bog us down in the endless expanses of mainland China.
Yet China is one of the great imponderables in this contest of men, arms, and wills. We may drift, drive, or get dragged into a clash with Communist China. But if this unimaginably horrible calamity should occur, it will make the present Vietnam war less rather than more meaningful. It is madness or frivolity to justify the present war in terms of an infinitely more dubious and appalling war. There is no greater folly in the theoretical apologetics of our Vietnam policy than the premise that the Vietnam war cannot be settled on the basis of internal Vietnam interests, at least as far as we are concerned, without settling the fate of the entire region, let alone that of Communist China. A de-escalation of theory is needed as urgently as a de-escalation of force.
One contradiction in official American thinking is perhaps the most flagrant. American policy is now virtually committed to the permanent partition of Vietnam into two independent states. This policy is, in fact, implied by the line of “foreign aggression,” which the Johnson administration adopted in 1965. The previous line of “civil war” did not mean that North Vietnam had watched the struggle in the South with folded arms; there is little doubt that the Communist parties of North and South Vietnam are closely linked, if they are not thinly-camouflaged parts of the same organization; Southern cadres were trained and equipped in the North long before 1965. The qualitative change allegedly came about because the North sent in some of its own regular troops in 1965. Apart from the question whether the North Vietnam action was not retaliatory and even somewhat reluctant, the change in North Vietnamese tactics seems to be a rather inadequate ground on which to make such a far-reaching determination of the future relations between North and South Vietnam. If North Vietnam was guilty of a “foreign aggression,” it was a “foreign” country, something that no Vietnamese, including the Southern Premier, Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky, seems ready to accept. For the State Department, the theory of “foreign aggression” meant that the Vietnam war might conceivably be settled on the basis of spheres of influence—the South as a client-state of the United States and the North as a client-state of Communist China, assuming that the North Vietnamese would accept that role.
The advocates of Vietnamese partition point to the German and Korean precedents as arguments in favor of this “solution.” The three cases are so different that analogies are again dangerous. One cannot possibly compare a prostrate, defeated Germany with a Vietnam that has struggled for over twenty years to recover its national identity. Moreover, the partition of Germany may well be the single most ominous time-bomb in European politics; the recurrent resort to partition as the easy way out is mainly symptomatic of the endemic disease of American foreign policy—that it tends to pay for the present with the future.
But if we were serious about the two Vietnams, the least we could do is to make sure that South Vietnam has an authentically Southern leadership. Premier Ky and his immediate entourage happen to be North Vietnamese. He and those close to him fought in the French armed forces to perpetuate French colonial rule. The symbol of our independent South Vietnamese state is, therefore, a Northern air-force officer, who fought against Vietnamese independence, and is on record with a somewhat ambiguous remark in praise of Adolf Hitler. The latest political crisis in South Vietnam turns on the dissatisfaction of Southern cabinet members with the domination of the Northerners. According to Denis Warner, the Ky regime is being shaken by a “revival of Southern regionalism” (in its own country!); the Northerners are more determined to prosecute the war to the end, even if it means invading North Vietnam, while the Southerners “are more concerned with exploring the paths to peace.”39 Since Premier Ky and his Northerners could not stay in power any more than Ngo Dinh Diem stayed if the United States did not back them, this is certainly an odd way to promote Southern separatism.
Then there is the little matter of the Geneva Agreements. For ten years after 1955, when Diem disowned them, they did not constitute a problem because they were not considered a basis of negotiation by either the South Vietnam regime or the United States. But in 1965, the United States changed its position and offered to negotiate on the basis of the Geneva Agreements. Unfortunately, the final agreement explicitly stated that “the military demarcation line is provisional and should not in any way be interpreted as constituting a political or territorial boundary.” Though this agreement went unsigned, it is the only one that has much relevance to the present day. No one has bothered to explain how it is possible to negotiate on the basis of the Geneva Agreements and take the position that the de facto partition of the country has become de jure. Moreover, the specter of permanent partition has reproduced in a new form one of the chief factors that enabled the Communists to defeat the French; the field of integral, all-Vietnam nationalistic unity has been surrendered to the Communists without a battle.
Why have we permitted ourselves to become enmeshed in these multiple confusions and contradictions? Is it because South Vietnam itself is such a vital American interest to defend at all costs? Until recently, no one ever thought so. In 1954, as we have seen, former President Eisenhower decided against an all-out effort and limited himself to an aid program which was not given much chance of success. He made this aid so provisional and conditional that he gave himself room, in another crisis, to do anything or nothing. Yet, twelve years later, it must be repeated, the same man is even willing to entertain the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
The change in Mr. Eisenhower, which roughly corresponds to the change in American policy, cannot be understood in terms of Vietnam alone. It can more nearly be understood in terms of what we have done in Vietnam. As a result of one miscalculation after another, we have gradually been drawn into making an enormous, disproportionate military and political investment in Vietnam. This investment, not the vital interests of the United States in Vietnam, has cast a spell on us. The same thing would happen if we should decide to put 400,000 troops in Mauretania or even Ruritania. Once American resources and prestige are committed on such a profligate scale, the “commitment” develops a life of its own and, as the saying goes, good money must be thrown after bad.
This, to my mind, is nothing to be scoffed or sneered at. It is serious business for a great power to back into a cockpit so far away and so little understood, fling thousands after thousands of men and billions after billions of dollars into it—and then have second thoughts about the wisdom of having gambled so much for so little. The temptation is almost overpowering to magnify the importance of the game, to try to retrieve one's fortunes with one more raise of the ante, to be prisoners of an ever-changing present because looking back at the past is too painful and peering into the future is too unpromising. Above all, there is need for some reassurance that we possess some infallible power to come out right and on top in the end.
That power is now nothing else than—power. From the President down, leading officials have spread the glad tidings that power has given us global responsibilities which seem to be functions not of our infinite wisdom or boundless altruism but mainly of our incomparable power. In his speech at Johns Hopkins in April 1965, for example, President Johnson exhorted that we have the power and now the opportunity, for the first time in centuries, to make nations stop struggling with each other. That is such a large order that the struggle to end all struggles may also be the end of mankind. Not inappropriately, the former Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs, and present U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO, published a book last year with the title, The Obligations of Power. In it, he argues that the United States must be “so very much involved, in so many ugly grudge fights, in so many places” simply because it is so large and powerful. He bids us “get accustomed to our own power, and to the implications of its global availability.” He berates us for still being “unaccustomed to our power, still doubters of our own prowess.” He comforts us with the thought that we do not have to be the world's policeman if we and other nations can build an international peacekeeping machinery. But no such machinery exists, and its future is more than doubtful. Thus this comfort proves to be cold indeed; we are really being told that we must now be, and probably continue to be, the “world's policeman.”40
The prevailing official orthodoxy that power will pull us through has now begun to seep through via journalistic channels. One of the transmission belts for this view put the case this way:
The central factor in this new picture is power. The cocktail-party philosophers who declare that. “there is no military solution” and speak of a struggle “for the hearts and minds of men” cover only a small corner of the truth. The idea of military solutions for political problems went out with the Second World War and no one in Vietnam thinks in these terms. But military success—seizing and exploiting the initiative, harrying and punishing the enemy—is an indispensable condition of political success. With security, everything is possible. Without security, nothing is possible.41
Not so long ago, leading American officials spoke very much the same language as the cocktail-party philosophers above. Secretary of Defense McNamara came close to using their very words. The notion that military success is an indispensable condition of political success begs the question. For is not political success also the indispensable condition of military success? Less than three years ago, the latter proposition was considered the enlightened assumption of American policy. There was even a time when politics was given precedence over power; then power and politics were linked together, each as unproductive without the other; now power has become the precondition of politics which has been retired to some kind of limbo until we have achieved “military success.”
The beauty and charm of the new power line is that it postpones serious political reform in Vietnam for the duration of the war. For over a decade, American officials and advisers have been pulling and tugging and hauling to get South Vietnamese regimes to make some meaningful reforms, especially in the sphere of land tenure. The thinking was that it was necessary to win over the peasantry to isolate the guerrillas, and that only serious reforms could win over the peasantry. It now turns out that all this effort was misdirected because it came before rather than after the “military success.” The latest wisdom from the embassy in Saigon unwittingly condemns all the fine projects and programs that used to pass for wisdom. Our mandarins cannot have it both ways.
If “security” were all that mattered, former President Ngo Dinh Diem might have made a “political success” of it because he had tight control of the country for quite a few years. And if their mandarins behind Premier Ky ever get that much “security” again, they are hardly likely to do any more or any better. It is naive to imagine that a military regime will celebrate its “military success” by making far-reaching political concessions and basic economic reforms. With security, everything may be possible—but only if there is the right political program, pressure, and will. The last thing that will shake the status quo in South Vietnam is a feeling of “security” by the powers that be.
We have, in truth, resorted to power because our politics have failed. Since no politician can afford to admit this, we must pretend that we are resorting to power in order to make our politics succeed.
The hallmark of the Johnson administration's foreign policy has been its willingness to use and abuse naked military power. In both the Dominican Republic and Vietnam, Mr. Johnson made the critical decisions at about the same time—the first months of 1965. I am quite willing to believe that he sent troops to both lands as a last resort. But the deeper question remains: Why did we have to resort to the last?
As I have indicated, the problem goes far beyond the present administration. The pattern of military intervention on the heels of political failure has run through three very different administrations in three very different countries. One of former President Kennedy's aides has ventured the opinion that he would have done the same thing as President Johnson has done in Vietnam. If so, this only confirms my convictions that the problem goes far deeper than the personal character of any one President. Still, I am not altogether persuaded that Mr. Kennedy would have acted in quite the same way or gone to the same lengths. He did, after all, draw a line barring the use of American combat troops in the Bay of Pigs adventure, and he refused to cross that line despite enormous pressure on him to do so. It is hard to imagine Lyndon Johnson accepting a setback with such restraint and assuming full responsibility for it himself. At least Mr. Kennedy would perhaps have spared us the intellectual gimcrackery and crass pietism that accompany Mr. Johnson's worst excesses.
I am not, by any means, trying to belittle the importance of power in the conduct of foreign policy. On the contrary, I was one of those who warned against the dangerous implications in the line which began to come out of the Soviet Union in 1960 at the height of Nikita Khrushchev's reign. In brief, the Soviet leadership proclaimed that the world had entered a “new stage” in which the “balance of forces,” politically, economically, and militarily, had changed in favor of the Soviet system. When this doctrine became the leitmotif of Soviet propaganda the following year, I wrote an article for COMMENTARY (November 1961) in which I urged that it was necessary for the West to “find a way to demonstrate that the Soviets are wrong about their ‘balance of forces.’” I have not changed my mind in the least about the need at that time, and President Kennedy did find a way to prove the Soviets wrong with the “missiles crisis” in October 1962.
Now we have gone so far that we are flaunting our power dangerously. Our policymakers and their intellectual factotums have come perilously close to making themselves believe that the only thing that stands in the way of Communist takeovers all over Asia, Africa, and Latin America is American power. From this premise, it is a short step to basing our policy on our own forces instead of on the domestic forces at work in each country. In each of the three crises which necessitated some form of military intervention in the past six years, the manipulation or even the understanding of the domestic forces at work in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Vietnam was not exactly our strong point. In another famous case, however, we inadvertently permitted the domestic forces in the country to work themselves out more freely. To our astonishment, Communism suffered its greatest defeat in postwar history.
About six months before the abortive Communist coup in Indonesia, the word went out that Indonesia could not be saved from the Communists. “Our government was fully resigned to the potential domination of Indonesia by a Communist party close to Peking, since armed invasion seemed the only way to prevent it,” Richard N. Goodwin, the former Assistant to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, has testified.42 This resignation to Communist victory was the luckiest thing that has happened to us in recent years. If we had been foolhardy enough to contemplate armed intervention in Indonesia to frustrate the Communists, we would have injected ourselves in Indonesian domestic politics in such a way that we might have ruined everything. Instead, we decided to cut our losses; we did not know what to do, so we did nothing; we closed down our agencies and pulled out our agents. And, lo and behold, the Communists made one misstep, and they are still paying for it. The only credit we can take for our good fortune is that we did nothing to spoil it.
I am not trying to suggest that the best thing we can do everywhere is to do nothing. I am trying to suggest that we cannot and do not have to do everything. Indonesia is a vastly more important part of Southeast Asia than Vietnam, and yet we were resigned not so long ago to its loss to the Communists. Incidentally, it would be fascinating to find out why we could have resigned ourselves to Communist domination in Indonesia but cannot resign ourselves, under any circumstances, to Communist domination in Vietnam.
Indeed, we might have faced the same prospect in Chile but for the electoral victory of Dr. Eduardo Frei. There is no greater likelihood that we could have saved Chile from Communism through military power than that we could have saved Indonesia. Clearly, with all the military power at the disposal of the United States, military intervention is simply not feasible in the larger and more important countries of Asia and Latin America, no matter how close they may come to being taken over by the Communists. In countries of even middling status, we must willy-nilly resign ourselves to the working-out of their domestic political forces.
The war in Vietnam is therefore not a typical situation: it can at best be reproduced only in certain countries at certain times. It is being made to bear too great a load of significance and meaning in order to justify its cost. In countries which do not lend themselves to military intervention, the political instrumentality will continue to make or break us. In countries which for some reason permit military intervention, the political question must still remain uppermost because military “victory” can only be built on a foundation of political defeat.
This is the crux of the matter. When President Johnson fixes visitors with a steely eye and asks them in effect, “What would you do to get the Communists to give us an honorable peace in Vietnam?” he is not posing as crushing a question as he seems to think it is. If a patient who has dissipated for years comes to a doctor for an instant cure, the failure to get one may be the fault of the patient, not the doctor. And if the patient also specifies that the cure must be “honorable,” any unpleasant diagnosis or course of treatment may not be acceptable to him. In diplomacy, in any case, “honor” is hard to negotiate. It is usually waved as a banner to start a war, not to end one by some means short of victory.
Still, one man has repeatedly given Mr. Johnson an answer to his question. He is U Thant, Secretary-General of the United Nations. After the fall of the Diem regime in November 1963, U Thant implicitly suggested to the United States the formation of a coalition government in Saigon to take in non-Communist Vietnamese political exiles who believed in the country's neutralization as the way out of the war. U Thant subsequently made known his view that “there was a very good possibility in 1963 of arriving at a satisfactory political solution” (my italics, T.D.). This advice was not accepted because the generals who succeeded Ngo Dinh Diem and the new Johnson administration set their sights on “victory,” as President Johnson indicated in his message to General Duong Van Minh on New Year's Day, 1964. Two years later, the American position changed, at least publicly, to accept the neutralization of any country in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, if it so wanted.
In September of 1964, U Thant made a determined effort to arrange private conversations between the United States and North Vietnam to end the war. The latter agreed, through the Russians, to a meeting. But repeated efforts by U Thant to get an acceptance from the United States failed. Apparently with the encouragement of the late Adlai Stevenson, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., U Thant went so far as to get the approval of Burma to hold a secret meeting there. The Burmese head of state, Ne Win, replied positively on January 18, 1965; the entire plan was vetoed by Washington ten days later. For his pains, U Thant later read in the newspapers that the President's Press Secretary had denied he had ever made any proposal; the denial was so clumsy that the word “meaningful” was subsequently inserted before “proposal” to avoid an outright misrepresentation. The official reason for the rejection given to U Thant by Adlai Stevenson apparently made two points—the United States could not enter into discussions with the Hanoi regime without the presence of the Saigon government, and such talks would risk ruining the morale of the Saigon government. Instead of giving U Thant a chance in January, President Johnson decided to expand the war in February. Again, on March 8, 1965, it has been reported, U Thant proposed a preliminary conference on Vietnam to include the United States, Soviet Russia, Great Britain, France, Communist China, and both Vietnams. The proposal was brushed off by Washington within twenty-four hours.
After again exploring all avenues toward a possible peace for over a year, U Thant privately communicated the result of his search to the United States late in 1965 and made his recommendations public in March and July 1966. In brief, U Thant made known that he had reason to believe that peace negotiations could be initiated on the basis of three points: the cessation of American bombing of North Vietnam; a scaling-down of military activities on both sides in South Vietnam, leading to a ceasefire; and the willingness by all parties to enter into discussions that would include the Vietcong as well as the North Vietnam regime. Again the Secretary-General found that Washington was not interested.43 Significantly, two Frenchmen with the closest connections in Hanoi, the correspondent of Agence France Presse, Jean Raffaelli, and the former French delegate to North Vietnam, Jean Sainteny, believe that the Communist side would accept U Thant's three-point program as a basis of negotiation.44
Is there anything inherently “dishonorable” in U Thant's three points? I do not think so. If there is, Washington should not have urged U Thant to remain as Secretary-General. We cannot expect any quid pro quo for a cessation of the bombing of North Vietnam because North Vietnam is not bombing South Vietnam, let alone railroad lines and oil storage depots in the vicinity of Washington, D.C. The second point entails a military atmosphere conducive to serious negotiations. As for the third point, which is controversial mainly for its inclusion of the Vietcong, President Johnson has said that the representation of the Vietcong would not be an “insurmountable problem.” For my part, U Thant's proposals not only are not excessive or unreasonable; they are, in view of all the circumstances, the minimal conditions for serious negotiations. If we seriously wanted peace without victory, we would grab at them. The repeated rebuffs to U Thant's efforts will be counted among the most shortsighted and least defensible misjudgments of American policy.
The trouble is that we are still chasing the phantom of military “victory” in Vietnam. It is a phantom because this is not a war that either side can “win” in the conventional sense any more. The South Vietnamese army has already lost it, in all but name, at least twice. It has become a war, which we never intended to fight, of American boys doing what Asian boys should be doing for themselves. It is a war to prove that we cannot be beaten by the North Vietnamese militarily, which does not need to be proven. It is a war which can result in no meaningful “victory” precisely because it has become primarily military. It is a war in which the cost and the return have become hopelessly out of balance and must become more so with every month. It is a war based on the mistaken premise that power can substitute for politics, with the result that we will use more and more power and less and less politics. It is a war in which, in order to “deny” ground to the enemy, we must devastate the land of our friends. It is a war which we may continue to delude ourselves into “winning,” but the Vietnamese people can no longer win. It is a war to make guerrillas fade away, as if this were the same thing as doing away with them or removing the political and social conditions which breed and nourish them. It is a war that is isolating us, distorting our economy, and corrupting our intellectual and political life.
In such a war, the least we can and should do is to give U Thant's proposals a chance to pull us and the Communists out of the morass. It is a measure of the American crisis that even critics of American policy in Vietnam, who see clearly all the past defects and future dangers, cannot free themselves from the incubus of military victory. Richard N. Goodwin could think of nothing better to end his otherwise thoughtful and critical essay than to recommend a continuation of the war in the South. We should not, he gravely counsels, spare manpower or money to retake “mile by painful mile.”45 In an essay which ranges far and wide, he does not so much as mention U Thant's efforts or proposals as a possible alternative to this forbidding and probably futile course. If President Johnson's policy has such critics, it does not need any defenders.
The latest military course on which we have embarked already appears to be one more makeshift and improvisation. It depends for its success not merely on the feasibility of the American forces to retake “mile by painful mile” but even more on the ability of the South Vietnamese army to “pacify” the countryside. American “search-and-destroy” operations will admittedly fail of their ultimate purpose if they are not backed up by effective “clear-and-hold” operations. Thus, one way or another, we cannot decide the issue by ourselves. We are again entrusting the crucial social mission of this war to the South Vietnamese government and army, no matter how poorly they have performed and how little faith we may have in them, simply because we cannot do that job ourselves. We may try to oversimplify the post-1965 stage of the war as a “foreign aggression,” but we cannot escape from the realities of the “civil war” or rather the complex of civil wars—Communist against anti-Communist, peasant against landowner, civilian against soldier, Southern Southerners against Northern “Southerners.”
The American military are so little optimistic about the new strategy that some of them are already preparing correspondents and public opinion for the next phase. A “widely respected American commander” told Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (July 8, 1966): “We should occupy and rule this country instead of pretending to respect the sovereignty of a government that really is only temporary and illegal and could change tomorrow. It would be more efficient and probably the end result would be better if we abandon the idea of assistance and pacification and settled for subjugation, regarding South Vietnam as an enemy country.” If this appears hard to believe, Marvin L. Stone has reported in U.S. News & World Report (December 5, 1966): “Some ranking military men insist that the 1967 experiment with the Vietnamese forces is going to prove a year of costly waste—and that the U.S. should face up to reality if it wants to win this war, mobilize reserves and Guardsmen at home, send in an additional 400,000 men and take over the ‘other war’—the sooner the better.” But Stone notes, this “reality” is so unpleasant that other Americans consider it to be the “worst mistake” we could make.
The only certainty is that the goal of military “victory” requires either a sudden Communist collapse to bring the war to a halt rapidly or a long war of attrition which will demand more and more American manpower. Stone tells us that all the Americans on the scene seem to have the same timetable—one or two years of regular army operations to break down the enemy's main-line forces followed by five to ten years to bring down the guerrillas. The more we stress the strictly military side of the prospective “victory,” the more we encourage pressure in the United States to save lives and money by using more and more extreme military measures, from the invasion of North Vietnam to the employment of nuclear weapons. If the pessimists are again right, the next stage of this war may bring us to the brink of frightfulness; it may tear the conscience of this country apart; it may bring on a hunt for “guilty men”; and the guiltiest may do most of the hunting.
In these circumstances, does it still make sense to pretend that there is no use taking seriously U Thant's proposals? The longer we wait, and we may have waited too long already, the higher the price must be. But at least, it will signal a change in national attitude and policy, without which we cannot plead innocence in the court of mankind.
The American crisis is bad enough when we consider how hard it is to get out of this inopportune and thankless war. But, whatever one may think about getting out, there is still the larger and deeper crisis of how we got into it, and how we got into the Cuban and Dominican military interventions. We cannot continue to live wholly in the moment, snatching at every status quo, however rotten and unstable, to hold the line against Communism at whatever cost, transfixed by the terminal stages of the disease. In the new worship of power, we are squandering our power by using too much too frequently and too maladroitly. All great powers which have overestimated, overindulged, and overextended their power, have come to grief. Unless we can break the sinister cycle of political ineptitude and military intervention, the Johnson administration may be turning a corner in American history and may be heading toward the same abyss. Whatever one may think about the present military imperatives, the larger historical problem is political and social; we cannot go on failing politically and “succeeding” militarily without ultimately inviting disaster beyond anything yet known to the world. The President and his closest associates might do worse than take a few minutes to reacquaint themselves with what was said of another military victory by Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, in 279 B.C.
1 El Tiempo (New York), July 10, 1966.
2 U.S. News & World Report, November 7, 1966, p. 42.
3 I do not cite this statement as evidence of how democratic Ho Chi Minh might have been. He might have taken power democratically, but he would not have kept power democratically, which is far more important. In 1960, the “elections” in North Vietnam resulted in a 99.8 per cent majority for the ruling Communist party and its two small satellite groups, with no one permitted to run on an opposition platform. For this reason, it is fatuous to imagine that Vietnam would have been more “democratic” if Ho Chi Minh had been permitted to get an 80 per cent majority in a national election, as provided for by the Geneva Agreements. The only reason for citing Mr. Eisenhower's statement is that it underlines the unique character of the Vietnam problem. In what other country could a Communist leader have been assured of an 80 per cent sweep in a free election?
4 In his memoirs, Mandate for Change (1963), Eisenhower gives the impression that the United States contemplated large-scale intervention only in the event of Chinese support for Ho Chi Minh's forces, and that he needed little dissuading on any other grounds. If we trust Generals Ridgway and Gavin, this version was not entirely candid. Ridgway had already written in his memoirs, Soldier (1956), that “we very nearly found ourselves involved in a bloody jungle war in which our nuclear capability would have been almost useless” (my italics, T.D.). He records that “individuals of great influence, both in and out of government,” raised the cry for U.S. intervention “to come to the aid of France with arms” (pp. 275-277). Gavin confirmed Ridgway and added details in his 1966 testimony (The Vietnam Hearings, Vintage Books, pp. 67-69). According to the new biography of Senator Fulbright by Tristram Coffin, Senators Lyndon Johnson and Richard Russell told Mr. Fulbright that Dulles and Nixon favored a plan by Admiral A. W. Radford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to bolster the French by attacking a major supply area close to the Chinese frontier with atomic weapons (Dutton, p. 232).
5 The American aid program was contemplated, the letter said, “provided that your Government is prepared to give assurances as to the standards of performance it would be able to maintain in the event such aid were supplied.” The American offer, it went on, was intended to make the Government of Vietnam “a strong viable state, capable of resisting attempted subversion or aggression through military means. The Government of the United States expects that this aid will be met by performance on the part of the Government of Vietnam in undertaking needed reforms.” Yet this letter of October 23, 1954 has been cited as if it were an unconditional “commitment” on the part of the United States “to resist Communist aggression” from then to the present and seemingly for all time. It should also be noted that the letter put the burden of resistance on the government of Vietnam, not on the United States. Mr. Eisenhower's caution, which was most notable in his own administration, seems to desert him whenever he gives advice to other administrations. On April 20, 1964, President Johnson said that “our commitment today is just the same as the commitment made by President Eisenhower in 1954.” If so, it is still nothing more than an offer of aid conditional on “the standards of performance” of, and “needed reforms” by, the government of South Vietnam.
6 Bernard B. Fall, Viet-Nam Witness, Praeger, p. 124.
7 Only Professor Frank N. Trager seems to insist that the Communists constituted a “genuine threat to security” in South Vietnam in 1955-56 (Why Viet Nam?, Praeger. pp. 119-21). In those years, and for two or three more years. however, pro-Diem supporters used to deride the seriousness of the Communist threat and boast of South Vietnam's peacefulness and stability. Even George A. Carver, Jr., later revealed as a CIA official, states that the “incipient insurgency” did not become a “serious threat” until the end of 1958 and that the Vietcong was still unable “to win a really significant political following” by the following year (Foreign Affairs, April 1966, p. 359).
8 Wilfred G. Burchett, Vietnam: Inside Story of the Guerrilla War, International Publishers, pp. 112-15.
9 “Les Américains au Vietnam” in Les Temps Modernes (Paris), January 1966. This article was published in German in Das Argument (Berlin), February 1966, where it was signed by Georg W. Alsheimer. An English translation appeared in Alternatives (La Jolla, California), Fall 1966.
10 Robert Shaplen, The Lost Revolution, Harper, rev. ed. 1966, p. 141. This estimate is supported by Carver who states that Diem “reached his political highwater mark some time around mid-1957” (op. cit., p. 358).
11 John Mecklin, Mission in Torment, Doubleday, p. 17.
12 Speech of March 26, 1964.
13 Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., A Thousand Days, Houghton Mifflin, pp. 544-47 and 986. Testimony of General Maxwell D. Taylor, The Vietnam Hearings op. cit., p. 171. Theodore C. Sorensen, Kennedy, Harper & Row, p. 653.
14 Mecklin, op. cit., pp. 13-14.
15 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 538; Sorensen, op. cit., p. 651.
16 I am inclined to believe that the historical verdict on the Kennedy administration will be much closer to the more skeptical view of Henry Pachter's essay, “JFK. as an Equestrian Statue: On Myth and Mythmakers,” in Salmagundi, Spring 1966, pp. 3-26.
17 Mecklin, op. cit., pp. 48 and 204-5; Shaplen, op. cit., p. 189; Trager, op. cit., p. 178.
18 Of the many versions, the following may be mentioned. At one extreme is Arthur Schlesinger's assurance: “It is important to state clearly that the coup of November 1, 1963, was entirely planned and carried out by the Vietnamese. Neither the American Embassy nor the CIA were involved in instigation or execution” (op. cit., p. 997). Schlesinger is probably right about the “execution” but “instigation” is a broad word which, in this case, may cover too much ground. The other extreme view is represented by former Ambassador Frederick E. Nolting, Jr., who has publicly charged, in a letter to the New York Times of October 29, 1966, that the anti-Diem generals were “encouraged by the United States Government.” Shaplen, who learned a great deal about the inside story of the coup, says that the coup was executed with the “full knowledge” and “consent” of the Americans (op. cit., p. 211). Mecklin reviews the available evidence and clearly believes that U.S. policy from early October 1963 encouraged and even “led to” the coup. He sums up bitingly: “But to assert that the U.S. was ‘not involved’ in the coup was a bit like claiming innocence for a night watchman at a bank who tells a known safecracker that he is going out for a beer” (op. cit., p. 278). Sorensen states that President Kennedy sent a cable in late August 1963 “indicating that the United States would not block any spontaneous military revolt against Diem” but he denies that the plotters received any “assistance” from the United States, as if the hands-off attitude were not assistance enough (op. cit., p. 659). The upshot seems to be that Shaplen is right in his judgment that the coup “succeeded in the end primarily because it was a genuine homegrown plot that expressed real grievances against a regime that had become totally corrupt and oppressive.” But the homegrown plotters needed, if not encouragement, then at least a lack of discouragement from the United States. In the circumstances, the latter was almost as positive as the former.
19 Schlesinger, op. cit., p. 997; Mecklin, op. cit., p. 186.
20 March 26, 1964. The same admission is made in the State Department's White Paper of February 1965: “The military and insurgency situation was complicated by a quite separate internal political struggle in South Vietnam, which led in November, 1963, to the removal of the Diem government and its replacement with a new one” (my italics, T.D.).
21 Denis Warner, The Last Confucian, Penguin Books, p. 236.
22 Viet Nam: The Struggle for Freedom, Government Printing Office, 1964, p. 21.
23 It does not yet seem possible to pinpoint the latter decision, although it was certainly made early in 1965. A feature article on General Westmoreland in Newsweek, December 5, 1966, p. 49, indicates it was made in February and carried out in March. The first American combat troops landed on March 6, 1965. The Mansfield report stated that the American military force of about 34,000 was still “basically an advisory organization” in May 1965. It then went on to say that the logistic system to support the vastly expanded U.S. effort started “almost from scratch in May of 1965.” But the logistic effort may have followed the decision by some time. General Westmoreland has recently revealed: “Early in 1965 we knew that the enemy hoped to deliver the coup de grâce by launching a major summer offensive to cut the Republic of Vietnam in two with a drive across the central highlands to the sea. I had to make a decision, and did. I chose a rapid build-up of combat forces, in the full knowledge that we should not have a fully developed logistic base to support those forces” (U.S. News & World Report, November 28, 1966, p. 49). We thus know the approximate time of the decision but the general does not mention the exact month. Ambassador Lodge recently dated the turning-point as July 28, 1965, when the President formally announced the decision to commit U.S. troops on a large scale (ibid., November 21, 1966, p. 67). But this is the announcement, not the decision.
24 Report of Special Subcommittee to South Vietnam of the Committee on Armed Services, House of Representatives, June 10-21, 1965, especially p. 3,248; Bernard B. Fall, the New Republic, October 9, 1965, p. 17; “The Vietnam Conflict: The Substance and the Shadow,” Report of Senators
25 November 5, 1966.
26 Both the New York Times and the Washington Post of June 17, 1966, reported the speech but omitted mention of this passage. A letter in the New York Times of November 15, 1966, however, quoted the relevant sentence. The entire speech may be found in the Congressional Record, Senate, June 16, 1966, pp. 12,856-58.
27 Taylor, The Vietnam Hearings, p. 183; Mecklin, op. cit., p. 290; Fall, the New York Times Magazine, December 12, 1965, p. 48; New York Times, Dec. 3, 1966.
28 Speech of June 16, 1966.
29 Foreign Affairs, October 1966, p. 6.
30 “South Vietnam's defense minister [Lt. Gen. Nguyen Huu Co] said Thursday [November 17, 1966] the entire Vietnamese army will switch to a pacification role in 1967 and leave major fighting to American troops” (UPI, Los Angeles Times, November 18, 1966). The state of the pacification program was described from Saigon by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak: “A crisis of utmost gravity lurks just behind the euphoric public relations propaganda about this vicious war that has recently been filling the air from Washington. Boiled down to its essence, the crisis is simply this: that instead of going forward, the absolutely vital program of pacification of the tens of thousands of hamlets in South Vietnam is going backward.”
31 In 1963, when Mr. Lodge was waging his war of nerves with Ngo Dinh Diem, the prize witticism in Saigon's American colony was: “Our mandarin will beat their mandarin.”
32 U.S. News if World Report, November 21, 1966, pp. 66-68.
33 New York Times, December 5, 1966.
34 Ibid., November 28, 1966, p. 49.
35 The discussion aroused in France and Italy by the proposal of Les Temps Modernes may be followed in Atlas, November 1966, 19-24.
36 The Reporter, November 17, 1966, p. 14.
37 The Vietnam Hearings, p. 269.
38 P. J. Honey, Communism in North Vietnam, M.I.T. Press, pp. 1-14, 81.
39 The Reporter, November 17, 1966, p. 41.
40 Harlan Cleveland, The Obligations of Power, Harper & Row, pp. 14-16, 135.
41 Richard C. Hottelet, The Reporter, November 3, 1966, p. 20. Virtually the same words are used by Arnaud de Borchgrave in Newsweek, December 5, 1966, p. 55.
42 Richard N. Goodwin, Triumph or Tragedy: Reflections on Vietnam, Vintage Books, p. 15.
43 This summary of U Thant's efforts is based mainly on Franz Schurman, Peter Dale Scott, Reginald Zelnick, The Politics of Escalation in Vietnam, Fawcett, pp. 26-34; Mario Rossi, the New York Review of Books, November 17, 1966, pp. 8-13; Emmet John Hughes, Newsweek, December 12, 1966, pp. 62-63.
44 War/Peace Report, October 1966, p. 3.
45 Goodwin, op. cit., p. 62.
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The American Crisis: Vietnam, Cuba & the Dominican Republic
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t can be said that the Book of Samuel launched the American Revolution. Though antagonistic to traditional faith, Thomas Paine understood that it was not Montesquieu, or Locke, who was inscribed on the hearts of his fellow Americans. Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is a biblical argument against British monarchy, drawing largely on the text of Samuel.
Today, of course, universal biblical literacy no longer exists in America, and sophisticated arguments from Scripture are all too rare. It is therefore all the more distressing when public intellectuals, academics, or religious leaders engage in clumsy acts of exegesis and political argumentation by comparing characters in the Book of Samuel to modern political leaders. The most common victim of this tendency has been the central character in the Book of Samuel: King David.
Most recently, this tendency was made manifest in the writings of Dennis Prager. In a recent defense of his own praise of President Trump, Prager wrote that “as a religious Jew, I learned from the Bible that God himself chose morally compromised individuals to accomplish some greater good. Think of King David, who had a man killed in order to cover up the adultery he committed with the man’s wife.” Prager similarly argued that those who refuse to vote for a politician whose positions are correct but whose personal life is immoral “must think God was pretty flawed in voting for King David.”
Prager’s invocation of King David was presaged on the left two decades ago. The records of the Clinton Presidential Library reveal that at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, an email from Dartmouth professor Susannah Heschel made its way into the inbox of an administration policy adviser with a similar comparison: “From the perspective of Jewish history, we have to ask how Jews can condemn President Clinton’s behavior as immoral, when we exalt King David? King David had Batsheva’s husband, Uriah, murdered. While David was condemned and punished, he was never thrown off the throne of Israel. On the contrary, he is exalted in our Jewish memory as the unifier of Israel.”
One can make the case for supporting politicians who have significant moral flaws. Indeed, America’s political system is founded on an awareness of the profound tendency to sinfulness not only of its citizens but also of its statesmen. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” James Madison informs us in the Federalist. At the same time, anyone who compares King David to the flawed leaders of our own age reveals a profound misunderstanding of the essential nature of David’s greatness. David was not chosen by God despite his moral failings; rather, David’s failings are the lens that reveal his true greatness. It is in the wake of his sins that David emerges as the paradigmatic penitent, whose quest for atonement is utterly unlike that of any other character in the Bible, and perhaps in the history of the world.
While the precise nature of David’s sins is debated in the Talmud, there is no question that they are profound. Yet it is in comparing David to other faltering figures—in the Bible or today—that the comparison falls flat. This point is stressed by the very Jewish tradition in whose name Prager claimed to speak.
It is the rabbis who note that David’s predecessor, Saul, lost the kingship when he failed to fulfill God’s command to destroy the egregiously evil nation of Amalek, whereas David commits more severe sins and yet remains king. The answer, the rabbis suggest, lies not in the sin itself but in the response. Saul, when confronted by the prophet Samuel, offers obfuscations and defensiveness. David, meanwhile, is similarly confronted by the prophet Nathan: “Thou hast killed Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and hast taken his wife to be thy wife, and hast slain him with the sword of the children of Ammon.” David’s immediate response is clear and complete contrition: “I have sinned against the Lord.” David’s penitence, Jewish tradition suggests, sets him apart from Saul. Soon after, David gave voice to what was in his heart at the moment, and gave the world one of the most stirring of the Psalms:
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I acknowledge my transgressions: and my sin is ever before me.
. . . Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, thou God of my salvation: and my tongue shall sing aloud of thy righteousness.
O Lord, open thou my lips; and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.
For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.
The tendency to link David to our current age lies in the fact that we know more about David than any other biblical figure. The author Thomas Cahill has noted that in a certain literary sense, David is the only biblical figure that is like us at all. Prior to the humanist autobiographies of the Renaissance, he notes, “we can count only a few isolated instances of this use of ‘I’ to mean the interior self. But David’s psalms are full of I’s.” In David’s Psalms, Cahill writes, we “find a unique early roadmap to the inner spirit—previously mute—of ancient humanity.”
At the same time, a study of the Book of Samuel and of the Psalms reveals how utterly incomparable David is to anyone alive today. Haym Soloveitchik has noted that even the most observant of Jews today fail to feel a constant intimacy with God that the simplest Jew of the premodern age might have felt, that “while there are always those whose spirituality is one apart from that of their time, nevertheless I think it safe to say that the perception of God as a daily, natural force is no longer present to a significant degree in any sector of modern Jewry, even the most religious.” Yet for David, such intimacy with the divine was central to his existence, and the Book of Samuel and the Psalms are an eternal testament to this fact. This is why simple comparisons between David and ourselves, as tempting as they are, must be resisted. David Wolpe, in his book about David, attempts to make the case as to why King David’s life speaks to us today: “So versatile and enduring is David in our culture that rare is the week that passes without some public allusion to his life…We need to understand David better because we use his life to comprehend our own.”
The truth may be the opposite. We need to understand David better because we can use his life to comprehend what we are missing, and how utterly unlike our lives are to his own. For even the most religious among us have lost the profound faith and intimacy with God that David had. It is therefore incorrect to assume that because of David’s flaws it would have been, as Amos Oz has written, “fitting for him to reign in Tel Aviv.” The modern State of Israel was blessed with brilliant leaders, but to which of its modern warriors or statesmen should David be compared? To Ben Gurion, who stripped any explicit invocation of the Divine from Israel’s Declaration of Independence? To Moshe Dayan, who oversaw the reconquest of Jerusalem, and then immediately handed back the Temple Mount, the locus of King David’s dreams and desires, to the administration of the enemies of Israel? David’s complex humanity inspires comparison to modern figures, but his faith, contrition, and repentance—which lie at the heart of his story and success—defy any such engagement.
And so, to those who seek comparisons to modern leaders from the Bible, the best rule may be: Leave King David out of it.
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Three attacks in Britain highlight the West’s inability to see the threat clearly
This lack of seriousness manifests itself in several ways. It’s perhaps most obvious in the failure to reform Britain’s chaotic immigration and dysfunctional asylum systems. But it’s also abundantly clear from the grotesque underfunding and under-resourcing of domestic intelligence. In MI5, Britain has an internal security service that is simply too small to do its job effectively, even if it were not handicapped by an institutional culture that can seem willfully blind to the ideological roots of the current terrorism problem.
In 2009, Jonathan Evans, then head of MI5, confessed at a parliamentary hearing about the London bus and subway attacks of 2005 that his organization only had sufficient resources to “hit the crocodiles close to the boat.” It was an extraordinary metaphor to use, not least because of the impression of relative impotence that it conveys. MI5 had by then doubled in size since 2001, but it still boasted a staff of only 3,500. Today it’s said to employ between 4,000 and 5,000, an astonishingly, even laughably, small number given a UK population of 65 million and the scale of the security challenges Britain now faces. (To be fair, the major British police forces all have intelligence units devoted to terrorism, and the UK government’s overall counterterrorism strategy involves a great many people, including social workers and schoolteachers.)
You can also see that unseriousness at work in the abject failure to coerce Britain’s often remarkably sedentary police officers out of their cars and stations and back onto the streets. Most of Britain’s big-city police forces have adopted a reactive model of policing (consciously rejecting both the New York Compstat model and British “bobby on the beat” traditions) that cripples intelligence-gathering and frustrates good community relations.
If that weren’t bad enough, Britain’s judiciary is led by jurists who came of age in the 1960s, and who have been inclined since 2001 to treat terrorism as an ordinary criminal problem being exploited by malign officials and politicians to make assaults on individual rights and to take part in “illegal” foreign wars. It has long been almost impossible to extradite ISIS or al-Qaeda–linked Islamists from the UK. This is partly because today’s English judges believe that few if any foreign countries—apart from perhaps Sweden and Norway—are likely to give terrorist suspects a fair trial, or able to guarantee that such suspects will be spared torture and abuse.
We have a progressive metropolitan media elite whose primary, reflexive response to every terrorist attack, even before the blood on the pavement is dry, is to express worry about an imminent violent anti-Muslim “backlash” on the part of a presumptively bigoted and ignorant indigenous working class. Never mind that no such “backlash” has yet occurred, not even when the young off-duty soldier Lee Rigby was hacked to death in broad daylight on a South London street in 2013.
Another sign of this lack of seriousness is the choice by successive British governments to deal with the problem of internal terrorism with marketing and “branding.” You can see this in the catchy consultant-created acronyms and pseudo-strategies that are deployed in place of considered thought and action. After every atrocity, the prime minister calls a meeting of the COBRA unit—an acronym that merely stands for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A but sounds like a secret organization of government superheroes. The government’s counterterrorism strategy is called CONTEST, which has four “work streams”: “Prevent,” “Pursue,” “Protect,” and “Prepare.”
Perhaps the ultimate sign of unseriousness is the fact that police, politicians, and government officials have all displayed more fear of being seen as “Islamophobic” than of any carnage that actual terror attacks might cause. Few are aware that this short-term, cowardly, and trivial tendency may ultimately foment genuine, dangerous popular Islamophobia, especially if attacks continue.R
ecently, three murderous Islamist terror attacks in the UK took place in less than a month. The first and third were relatively primitive improvised attacks using vehicles and/or knives. The second was a suicide bombing that probably required relatively sophisticated planning, technological know-how, and the assistance of a terrorist infrastructure. As they were the first such attacks in the UK, the vehicle and knife killings came as a particular shock to the British press, public, and political class, despite the fact that non-explosive and non-firearm terror attacks have become common in Europe and are almost routine in Israel.
The success of all three plots indicates troubling problems in British law-enforcement practice and culture, quite apart from any other failings on the parts of the state in charge of intelligence, border control, and the prevention of radicalization. At the time of writing, the British media have been full of encomia to police courage and skill, not least because it took “only” eight minutes for an armed Metropolitan Police team to respond to and confront the bloody mayhem being wrought by the three Islamist terrorists (who had ploughed their rented van into people on London Bridge before jumping out to attack passersby with knives). But the difficult truth is that all three attacks would be much harder to pull off in Manhattan, not just because all NYPD cops are armed, but also because there are always police officers visibly on patrol at the New York equivalents of London’s Borough Market on a Saturday night. By contrast, London’s Metropolitan police is a largely vehicle-borne, reactive force; rather than use a physical presence to deter crime and terrorism, it chooses to monitor closed-circuit street cameras and social-media postings.
Since the attacks in London and Manchester, we have learned that several of the perpetrators were “known” to the police and security agencies that are tasked with monitoring potential terror threats. That these individuals were nevertheless able to carry out their atrocities is evidence that the monitoring regime is insufficient.
It also seems clear that there were failures on the part of those institutions that come under the leadership of the Home Office and are supposed to be in charge of the UK’s border, migration, and asylum systems. Journalists and think tanks like Policy Exchange and Migration Watch have for years pointed out that these systems are “unfit for purpose,” but successive governments have done little to take responsible control of Britain’s borders. When she was home secretary, Prime Minister Theresa May did little more than jazz up the name, logo, and uniforms of what is now called the “Border Force,” and she notably failed to put in place long-promised passport checks for people flying out of the country. This dereliction means that it is impossible for the British authorities to know who has overstayed a visa or whether individuals who have been denied asylum have actually left the country.
It seems astonishing that Youssef Zaghba, one of the three London Bridge attackers, was allowed back into the country. The Moroccan-born Italian citizen (his mother is Italian) had been arrested by Italian police in Bologna, apparently on his way to Syria via Istanbul to join ISIS. When questioned by the Italians about the ISIS decapitation videos on his mobile phone, he declared that he was “going to be a terrorist.” The Italians lacked sufficient evidence to charge him with a crime but put him under 24-hour surveillance, and when he traveled to London, they passed on information about him to MI5. Nevertheless, he was not stopped or questioned on arrival and had not become one of the 3,000 official terrorism “subjects of interest” for MI5 or the police when he carried out his attack. One reason Zaghba was not questioned on arrival may have been that he used one of the new self-service passport machines installed in UK airports in place of human staff after May’s cuts to the border force. Apparently, the machines are not yet linked to any government watch lists, thanks to the general chaos and ineptitude of the Home Office’s efforts to use information technology.
The presence in the country of Zaghba’s accomplice Rachid Redouane is also an indictment of the incompetence and disorganization of the UK’s border and migration authorities. He had been refused asylum in 2009, but as is so often the case, Britain’s Home Office never got around to removing him. Three years later, he married a British woman and was therefore able to stay in the UK.
But it is the failure of the authorities to monitor ringleader Khuram Butt that is the most baffling. He was a known and open associate of Anjem Choudary, Britain’s most notorious terrorist supporter, ideologue, and recruiter (he was finally imprisoned in 2016 after 15 years of campaigning on behalf of al-Qaeda and ISIS). Butt even appeared in a 2016 TV documentary about ISIS supporters called The Jihadist Next Door. In the same year, he assaulted a moderate imam at a public festival, after calling him a “murtad” or apostate. The imam reported the incident to the police—who took six months to track him down and then let him off with a caution. It is not clear if Butt was one of the 3,000 “subjects of interest” or the additional 20,000 former subjects of interest who continue to be the subject of limited monitoring. If he was not, it raises the question of what a person has to do to get British security services to take him seriously as a terrorist threat; if he was in fact on the list of “subjects of interest,” one has to wonder if being so designated is any barrier at all to carrying out terrorist atrocities. It’s worth remembering, as few do here in the UK, that terrorists who carried out previous attacks were also known to the police and security services and nevertheless enjoyed sufficient liberty to go at it again.B
ut the most important reason for the British state’s ineffectiveness in monitoring terror threats, which May addressed immediately after the London Bridge attack, is a deeply rooted institutional refusal to deal with or accept the key role played by Islamist ideology. For more than 15 years, the security services and police have chosen to take note only of people and bodies that explicitly espouse terrorist violence or have contacts with known terrorist groups. The fact that a person, school, imam, or mosque endorses the establishment of a caliphate, the stoning of adulterers, or the murder of apostates has not been considered a reason to monitor them.
This seems to be why Salman Abedi, the Manchester Arena suicide bomber, was not being watched by the authorities as a terror risk, even though he had punched a girl in the face for wearing a short skirt while at university, had attended the Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Didsbury Mosque, was the son of a Libyan man whose militia is banned in the UK, had himself fought against the Qaddafi regime in Libya, had adopted the Islamist clothing style (trousers worn above the ankle, beard but no moustache), was part of a druggy gang subculture that often feeds individuals into Islamist terrorism, and had been banned from a mosque after confronting an imam who had criticized ISIS.
It was telling that the day after the Manchester Arena suicide-bomb attack, you could hear security officials informing radio and TV audiences of the BBC’s flagship morning-radio news show that it’s almost impossible to predict and stop such attacks because the perpetrators “don’t care who they kill.” They just want to kill as many people as possible, he said.
Surely, anyone with even a basic familiarity with Islamist terror attacks over the last 15 or so years and a nodding acquaintance with Islamist ideology could see that the terrorist hadn’t just chosen the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester Arena because a lot of random people would be crowded into a conveniently small area. Since the Bali bombings of 2002, nightclubs, discotheques, and pop concerts attended by shameless unveiled women and girls have been routinely targeted by fundamentalist terrorists, including in Britain. Among the worrying things about the opinion offered on the radio show was that it suggests that even in the wake of the horrific Bataclan attack in Paris during a November 2015 concert, British authorities may not have been keeping an appropriately protective eye on music venues and other places where our young people hang out in their decadent Western way. Such dereliction would make perfect sense given the resistance on the part of the British security establishment to examining, confronting, or extrapolating from Islamist ideology.
The same phenomenon may explain why authorities did not follow up on community complaints about Abedi. All too often when people living in Britain’s many and diverse Muslim communities want to report suspicious behavior, they have to do so through offices and organizations set up and paid for by the authorities as part of the overall “Prevent” strategy. Although criticized by the left as “Islamophobic” and inherently stigmatizing, Prevent has often brought the government into cooperative relationships with organizations even further to the Islamic right than the Muslim Brotherhood. This means that if you are a relatively secular Libyan émigré who wants to report an Abedi and you go to your local police station, you are likely to find yourself speaking to a bearded Islamist.
From its outset in 2003, the Prevent strategy was flawed. Its practitioners, in their zeal to find and fund key allies in “the Muslim community” (as if there were just one), routinely made alliances with self-appointed community leaders who represented the most extreme and intolerant tendencies in British Islam. Both the Home Office and MI5 seemed to believe that only radical Muslims were “authentic” and would therefore be able to influence young potential terrorists. Moderate, modern, liberal Muslims who are arguably more representative of British Islam as a whole (not to mention sundry Shiites, Sufis, Ahmmadis, and Ismailis) have too often found it hard to get a hearing.
Sunni organizations that openly supported suicide-bomb attacks in Israel and India and that justified attacks on British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan nevertheless received government subsidies as part of Prevent. The hope was that in return, they would alert the authorities if they knew of individuals planning attacks in the UK itself.
It was a gamble reminiscent of British colonial practice in India’s northwest frontier and elsewhere. Not only were there financial inducements in return for grudging cooperation; the British state offered other, symbolically powerful concessions. These included turning a blind eye to certain crimes and antisocial practices such as female genital mutilation (there have been no successful prosecutions relating to the practice, though thousands of cases are reported every year), forced marriage, child marriage, polygamy, the mass removal of girls from school soon after they reach puberty, and the epidemic of racially and religiously motivated “grooming” rapes in cities like Rotherham. (At the same time, foreign jihadists—including men wanted for crimes in Algeria and France—were allowed to remain in the UK as long as their plots did not include British targets.)
This approach, simultaneously cynical and naive, was never as successful as its proponents hoped. Again and again, Muslim chaplains who were approved to work in prisons and other institutions have sometimes turned out to be Islamist extremists whose words have inspired inmates to join terrorist organizations.
Much to his credit, former Prime Minister David Cameron fought hard to change this approach, even though it meant difficult confrontations with his home secretary (Theresa May), as well as police and the intelligence agencies. However, Cameron’s efforts had little effect on the permanent personnel carrying out the Prevent strategy, and cooperation with Islamist but currently nonviolent organizations remains the default setting within the institutions on which the United Kingdom depends for security.
The failure to understand the role of ideology is one of imagination as well as education. Very few of those who make government policy or write about home-grown terrorism seem able to escape the limitations of what used to be called “bourgeois” experience. They assume that anyone willing to become an Islamist terrorist must perforce be materially deprived, or traumatized by the experience of prejudice, or provoked to murderous fury by oppression abroad. They have no sense of the emotional and psychic benefits of joining a secret terror outfit: the excitement and glamor of becoming a kind of Islamic James Bond, bravely defying the forces of an entire modern state. They don’t get how satisfying or empowering the vengeful misogyny of ISIS-style fundamentalism might seem for geeky, frustrated young men. Nor can they appreciate the appeal to the adolescent mind of apocalyptic fantasies of power and sacrifice (mainstream British society does not have much room for warrior dreams, given that its tone is set by liberal pacifists). Finally, they have no sense of why the discipline and self-discipline of fundamentalist Islam might appeal so strongly to incarcerated lumpen youth who have never experienced boundaries or real belonging. Their understanding is an understanding only of themselves, not of the people who want to kill them.
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Review of 'White Working Class' By Joan C. Williams
Williams is a prominent feminist legal scholar with degrees from Yale, MIT, and Harvard. Unbending Gender, her best-known book, is the sort of tract you’d expect to find at an intersectionality conference or a Portlandia bookstore. This is why her insightful, empathic book comes as such a surprise.
Books and essays on the topic have accumulated into a highly visible genre since Donald Trump came on the American political scene; J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy planted itself at the top of bestseller lists almost a year ago and still isn’t budging. As with Vance, Williams’s interest in the topic is personal. She fell “madly in love with” and eventually married a Harvard Law School graduate who had grown up in an Italian neighborhood in pre-gentrification Brook-lyn. Williams, on the other hand, is a “silver-spoon girl.” Her father’s family was moneyed, and her maternal grandfather was a prominent Reform rabbi.
The author’s affection for her “class-migrant” spouse and respect for his family’s hardships—“My father-in-law grew up on blood soup,” she announces in her opening sentence—adds considerable warmth to what is at bottom a political pamphlet. Williams believes that elite condescension and “cluelessness” played a big role in Trump’s unexpected and dreaded victory. Enlightening her fellow elites is essential to the task of returning Trump voters to the progressive fold where, she is sure, they rightfully belong.
Liberals were not always so dense about the working class, Williams observes. WPA murals and movies like On the Waterfront showed genuine fellow feeling for the proletariat. In the 1970s, however, the liberal mood changed. Educated boomers shifted their attention to “issues of peace, equal rights, and environmentalism.” Instead of feeling the pain of Arthur Miller and John Steinbeck characters, they began sneering at the less enlightened. These days, she notes, elite sympathies are limited to the poor, people of color (POC), and the LGBTQ population. Despite clear evidence of suffering—stagnant wages, disappearing manufacturing jobs, declining health and well-being—the working class gets only fly-over snobbery at best and, more often, outright loathing.
Williams divides her chapters into a series of explainers to questions she has heard from her clueless friends and colleagues: “Why Does the Working Class Resent the Poor?” “Why Does the Working Class Resent Professionals but Admire the Rich?” “Why Doesn’t the Working Class Just Move to Where the Jobs Are?” “Is the Working Class Just Racist?” She weaves her answers into a compelling picture of a way of life and worldview foreign to her targeted readers. Working-class Americans have had to struggle for whatever stability and comfort they have, she explains. Clocking in for midnight shifts year after year, enduring capricious bosses, plant closures, and layoffs, they’re reliant on tag-team parenting and stressed-out relatives for child care. The campus go-to word “privileged” seems exactly wrong.
Proud of their own self-sufficiency and success, however modest, they don’t begrudge the self-made rich. It’s snooty professionals and the dysfunctional poor who get their goat. From their vantage point, subsidizing the day care for a welfare mother when they themselves struggle to manage care on their own dime mocks both their hard work and their beliefs. And since, unlike most professors, they shop in the same stores as the dependent poor, they’ve seen that some of them game the system. Of course that stings.
White Working Class is especially good at evoking the alternate economic and mental universe experienced by Professional and Managerial Elites, or “PMEs.” PMEs see their non-judgment of the poor, especially those who are “POC,” as a mark of their mature understanding that we live in an unjust, racist system whose victims require compassion regardless of whether they have committed any crime. At any rate, their passions lie elsewhere. They define themselves through their jobs and professional achievements, hence their obsession with glass ceilings.
Williams tells the story of her husband’s faux pas at a high-school reunion. Forgetting his roots for a moment, the Ivy League–educated lawyer asked one of his Brooklyn classmates a question that is the go-to opener in elite social settings: “What do you do?” Angered by what must have seemed like deliberate humiliation by this prodigal son, the man hissed: “I sell toilets.”
Instead of stability and backyard barbecues with family and long-time neighbors and maybe the occasional Olive Garden celebration, PMEs are enamored of novelty: new foods, new restaurants, new friends, new experiences. The working class chooses to spend its leisure in comfortable familiarity; for the elite, social life is a lot like networking. Members of the professional class may view themselves as sophisticated or cosmopolitan, but, Williams shows, to the blue-collar worker their glad-handing is closer to phony social climbing and their abstract, knowledge-economy jobs more like self-important pencil-pushing.
White Working Class has a number of proposals for creating the progressive future Williams would like to see. She wants to get rid of college-for-all dogma and improve training for middle-skill jobs. She envisions a working-class coalition of all races and ethnicities bolstered by civics education with a “distinctly celebratory view of American institutions.” In a saner political environment, some of this would make sense; indeed, she echoes some of Marco Rubio’s 2016 campaign themes. It’s little wonder White Working Class has already gotten the stink eye from liberal reviewers for its purported sympathies for racists.
Alas, impressive as Williams’s insights are, they do not always allow her to transcend her own class loyalties. Unsurprisingly, her own PME biases mostly come to light in her chapters on race and gender. She reduces immigration concerns to “fear of brown people,” even as she notes elsewhere that a quarter of Latinos also favor a wall at the southern border. This contrasts startlingly with her succinct observation that “if you don’t want to drive working-class whites to be attracted to the likes of Limbaugh, stop insulting them.” In one particularly obtuse moment, she asserts: “Because I study social inequality, I know that even Malia and Sasha Obama will be disadvantaged by race, advantaged as they are by class.” She relies on dubious gender theories to explain why the majority of white women voted for Trump rather than for his unfairly maligned opponent. That Hillary Clinton epitomized every elite quality Williams has just spent more than a hundred pages explicating escapes her notice. Williams’s own reflexive retreat into identity politics is itself emblematic of our toxic divisions, but it does not invalidate the power of this astute book.
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When music could not transcend evil
he story of European classical music under the Third Reich is one of the most squalid chapters in the annals of Western culture, a chronicle of collective complaisance that all but beggars belief. Without exception, all of the well-known musicians who left Germany and Austria in protest when Hitler came to power in 1933 were either Jewish or, like the violinist Adolf Busch, Rudolf Serkin’s father-in-law, had close family ties to Jews. Moreover, most of the small number of non-Jewish musicians who emigrated later on, such as Paul Hindemith and Lotte Lehmann, are now known to have done so not out of principle but because they were unable to make satisfactory accommodations with the Nazis. Everyone else—including Karl Böhm, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Walter Gieseking, Herbert von Karajan, and Richard Strauss—stayed behind and served the Reich.
The Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, then as now Europe’s two greatest orchestras, were just as willing to do business with Hitler and his henchmen, firing their Jewish members and ceasing to perform the music of Jewish composers. Even after the war, the Vienna Philharmonic was notorious for being the most anti-Semitic orchestra in Europe, and it was well known in the music business (though never publicly discussed) that Helmut Wobisch, the orchestra’s principal trumpeter and its executive director from 1953 to 1968, had been both a member of the SS and a Gestapo spy.
The management of the Berlin Philharmonic made no attempt to cover up the orchestra’s close relationship with the Third Reich, no doubt because the Nazi ties of Karajan, who was its music director from 1956 until shortly before his death in 1989, were a matter of public record. Yet it was not until 2007 that a full-length study of its wartime activities, Misha Aster’s The Reich’s Orchestra: The Berlin Philharmonic 1933–1945, was finally published. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, its managers long sought to quash all discussion of the orchestra’s Nazi past, steadfastly refusing to open its institutional archives to scholars until 2008, when Fritz Trümpi, an Austrian scholar, was given access to its records. Five years later, the Viennese, belatedly following the precedent of the Berlin Philharmonic, added a lengthy section to their website called “The Vienna Philharmonic Under National Socialism (1938–1945),” in which the damning findings of Trümpi and two other independent scholars were made available to the public.
Now Trümpi has published The Political Orchestra: The Vienna and Berlin Philharmonics During the Third Reich, in which he tells how they came to terms with Nazism, supplying pre- and postwar historical context for their transgressions.1 Written in a stiff mixture of academic jargon and translatorese, The Political Orchestra is ungratifying to read. Even so, the tale that it tells is both compelling and disturbing, especially to anyone who clings to the belief that high art is ennobling to the spirit.U
nlike the Vienna Philharmonic, which has always doubled as the pit orchestra for the Vienna State Opera, the Berlin Philharmonic started life in 1882 as a fully independent, self-governing entity. Initially unsubsidized by the state, it kept itself afloat by playing a grueling schedule of performances, including “popular” non-subscription concerts for which modest ticket prices were levied. In addition, the orchestra made records and toured internationally at a time when neither was common.
These activities made it possible for the Berlin Philharmonic to develop into an internationally renowned ensemble whose fabled collective virtuosity was widely seen as a symbol of German musical distinction. Furtwängler, the orchestra’s principal conductor, declared in 1932 that the German music in which it specialized was “one of the very few things that actually contribute to elevating [German] prestige.” Hence, he explained, the need for state subsidy, which he saw as “a matter of [national] prestige, that is, to some extent a requirement of national prudence.” By then, though, the orchestra was already heavily subsidized by the city of Berlin, thus paving the way for its takeover by the Nazis.
The Vienna Philharmonic, by contrast, had always been subsidized. Founded in 1842 when the orchestra of what was then the Vienna Court Opera decided to give symphonic concerts on its own, it performed the Austro-German classics for an elite cadre of longtime subscribers. By restricting membership to local players and their pupils, the orchestra cultivated what Furtwängler, who spent as much time conducting in Vienna as in Berlin, described as a “homogeneous and distinct tone quality.” At once dark and sweet, it was as instantly identifiable—and as characteristically Viennese—as the strong, spicy bouquet of a Gewürztraminer wine.
Unlike the Berlin Philharmonic, which played for whoever would pay the tab and programmed new music as a matter of policy, the Vienna Philharmonic chose not to diversify either its haute-bourgeois audience or its conservative repertoire. Instead, it played Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Mozart, and Schubert (and, later, Bruckner and Richard Strauss) in Vienna for the Viennese. Starting in the ’20s, the orchestra’s recordings consolidated its reputation as one of the world’s foremost instrumental ensembles, but its internal culture remained proudly insular.
What the two orchestras had in common was a nationalistic ethos, a belief in the superiority of Austro-German musical culture that approached triumphalism. One of the darkest manifestations of this ethos was their shared reluctance to hire Jews. The Berlin Philharmonic employed only four Jewish players in 1933, while the Vienna Philharmonic contained only 11 Jews at the time of the Anschluss, none of whom was hired after 1920. To be sure, such popular Jewish conductors as Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter continued to work in Vienna for as long as they could. Two months before the Anschluss, Walter led and recorded a performance of the Ninth Symphony of Gustav Mahler, his musical mentor and fellow Jew, who from 1897 to 1907 had been the director of the Vienna Court Opera and one of the Philharmonic’s most admired conductors. But many members of both orchestras were open supporters of fascism, and not a few were anti-Semites who ardently backed Hitler. By 1942, 62 of the 123 active members of the Vienna Philharmonic were Nazi party members.
The admiration that Austro-German classical musicians had for Hitler is not entirely surprising since he was a well-informed music lover who declared in 1938 that “Germany has become the guardian of European culture and civilization.” He made the support of German art, music very much included, a key part of his political program. Accordingly, the Berlin Philharmonic was placed under the direct supervision of Joseph Goebbels, who ensured the cooperation of its members by repeatedly raising their salaries, exempting them from military service, and guaranteeing their old-age pensions. But there had never been any serious question of protest, any more than there would be among the members of the Vienna Philharmonic when the Nazis gobbled up Austria. Save for the Jews and one or two non-Jewish players who were fired for reasons of internal politics, the musicians went along unhesitatingly with Hitler’s desires.
With what did they go along? Above all, they agreed to the scrubbing of Jewish music from their programs and the dismissal of their Jewish colleagues. Some Jewish players managed to escape with their lives, but seven of the Vienna Philharmonic’s 11 Jews were either murdered by the Nazis or died as a direct result of official persecution. In addition, both orchestras performed regularly at official government functions and made tours and other public appearances for propaganda purposes, and both were treated as gems in the diadem of Nazi culture.
As for Furtwängler, the most prominent of the Austro-German orchestral conductors who served the Reich, his relationship to Nazism continues to be debated to this day. He had initially resisted the firing of the Berlin Philharmonic’s Jewish members and protected them for as long as he could. But he was also a committed (if woolly-minded) nationalist who believed that German music had “a different meaning for us Germans than for other nations” and notoriously declared in an open letter to Goebbels that “we all welcome with great joy and gratitude . . . the restoration of our national honor.” Thereafter he cooperated with the Nazis, by all accounts uncomfortably but—it must be said—willingly. A monster of egotism, he saw himself as the greatest living exponent of German music and believed it to be his duty to stay behind and serve a cause higher than what he took to be mere party politics. “Human beings are free wherever Wagner and Beethoven are played, and if they are not free at first, they are freed while listening to these works,” he naively assured a horrified Arturo Toscanini in 1937. “Music transports them to regions where the Gestapo can do them no harm.”O
nce the war was over, the U.S. occupation forces decided to enlist the Berlin Philharmonic in the service of a democratic, anti-Soviet Germany. Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan, who succeeded him as principal conductor, were officially “de-Nazified” and their orchestra allowed to function largely undisturbed, though six Nazi Party members were fired. The Vienna Philharmonic received similarly privileged treatment.
Needless to say, there was more to this decision than Cold War politics. No one questioned the unique artistic stature of either orchestra. Moreover, the Vienna Philharmonic, precisely because of its insularity, was now seen as a living museum piece, a priceless repository of 19th-century musical tradition. Still, many musicians and listeners, Jews above all, looked askance at both orchestras for years to come, believing them to be tainted by Nazism.
Indeed they were, so much so that they treated many of their surviving Jewish ex-members in a way that can only be described as vicious. In the most blatant individual case, the violinist Szymon Goldberg, who had served as the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster under Furtwängler, was not allowed to reassume his post in 1945 and was subsequently denied a pension. As for the Vienna Philharmonic, the fact that it made Helmut Wobisch its executive director says everything about its deep-seated unwillingness to face up to its collective sins.
Be that as it may, scarcely any prominent musicians chose to boycott either orchestra. Leonard Bernstein went so far as to affect a flippant attitude toward the morally equivocal conduct of the Austro-German artists whom he encountered in Europe after the war. Upon meeting Herbert von Karajan in 1954, he actually told his wife Felicia that he had become “real good friends with von Karajan, whom you would (and will) adore. My first Nazi.”
At the same time, though, Bernstein understood what he was choosing to overlook. When he conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time in 1966, he wrote to his parents:
I am enjoying Vienna enormously—as much as a Jew can. There are so many sad memories here; one deals with so many ex-Nazis (and maybe still Nazis); and you never know if the public that is screaming bravo for you might contain someone who 25 years ago might have shot me dead. But it’s better to forgive, and if possible, forget. The city is so beautiful, and so full of tradition. Everyone here lives for music, especially opera, and I seem to be the new hero.
Did Bernstein sell his soul for the opportunity to work with so justly renowned an orchestra—and did he get his price by insisting that its members perform the symphonies of Mahler, with which he was by then closely identified? It is a fair question, one that does not lend itself to easy answers.
Even more revealing is the case of Bruno Walter, who never forgave Furtwängler for staying behind in Germany, informing him in an angry letter that “your art was used as a conspicuously effective means of propaganda for the regime of the Devil.” Yet Walter’s righteous anger did not stop him from conducting in Vienna after the war. Born in Berlin, he had come to identify with the Philharmonic so closely that it was impossible for him to seriously consider quitting its podium permanently. “Spiritually, I was a Viennese,” he wrote in Theme and Variations, his 1946 autobiography. In 1952, he made a second recording with the Vienna Philharmonic of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, whose premiere he had conducted in 1911 and which he had recorded in Vienna 15 years earlier. One wonders what Walter, who had converted to Christianity but had been driven out of both his native lands for the crime of being Jewish, made of the text of the last movement: “My friend, / On this earth, fortune has not been kind to me! / Where do I go?”
As for the two great orchestras of the Third Reich, both have finally acknowledged their guilt and been forgiven, at least by those who know little of their past. It would occur to no one to decline on principle to perform with either group today. Such a gesture would surely be condemned as morally ostentatious, an exercise in what we now call virtue-signaling. Yet it is impossible to forget what Samuel Lipman wrote in 1993 in Commentary apropos the wartime conduct of Furtwängler: “The ultimate triumph of totalitarianism, I suppose it can be said, is that under its sway only a martyred death can be truly moral.” For the only martyrs of the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics were their Jews. The orchestras themselves live on, tainted and beloved.
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He knows what to reveal and what to conceal, understands the importance of keeping the semblance of distance between oneself and the story of the day, and comprehends the ins and outs of anonymous sourcing. Within days of his being fired by President Trump on May 9, for example, little green men and women, known only as his “associates,” began appearing in the pages of the New York Times and Washington Post to dispute key points of the president’s account of his dismissal and to promote Comey’s theory of the case.
“In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty,” the New York Times reported on May 11. “Comey Demurred.” The story was a straightforward narrative of events from Comey’s perspective, capped with an obligatory denial from the White House. The next day, the Washington Post reported, “Comey associates dispute Trump’s account of conversations.” The Post did not identify Comey’s associates, other than saying that they were “people who have worked with him.”
Maybe they were the same associates who had gabbed to the Times. Or maybe they were different ones. Who can tell? Regardless, the story these particular associates gave to the Post was readable and gripping. Comey, the Post reported, “was wary of private meetings and discussions with the president and did not offer the assurance, as Trump has claimed, that Trump was not under investigation as part of the probe into Russian interference in last year’s election.”
On May 16, Michael S. Schmidt of the Times published his scoop, “Comey Memo Says Trump Asked Him to End Flynn Investigation.” Schmidt didn’t see the memo for himself. Parts of it were read to him by—you guessed it—“one of Mr. Comey’s associates.” The following day, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to oversee the Russia investigation. On May 18, the Times, citing “two people briefed” on a call between Comey and the president, reported, “Comey, Unsettled by Trump, Is Said to Have Wanted Him Kept at a Distance.” And by the end of that week, Comey had agreed to testify before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
As his testimony approached, Comey’s people became more aggressive in their criticisms of the president. “Trump Should Be Scared, Comey Friend Says,” read the headline of a CNN interview with Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes. This “Comey friend” said he was “very shocked” when he learned that President Trump had asked Comey for loyalty. “I have no doubt that he regarded the group of people around the president as dishonorable,” Wittes said.
Comey, Wittes added, was so uncomfortable at the White House reception in January honoring law enforcement—the one where Comey lumbered across the room and Trump whispered something in his ear—that, as CNN paraphrased it, he “stood in a position so that his blue blazer would blend in with the room’s blue drapes in an effort for Trump to not notice him.” The integrity, the courage—can you feel it?
On June 6, the day before Comey’s prepared testimony was released, more “associates” told ABC that the director would “not corroborate Trump’s claim that on three separate occasions Comey told the president he was not under investigation.” And a “source with knowledge of Comey’s testimony” told CNN the same thing. In addition, ABC reported that, according to “a source familiar with Comey’s thinking,” the former director would say that Trump’s actions stopped short of obstruction of justice.
Maybe those sources weren’t as “familiar with Comey’s thinking” as they thought or hoped? To maximize the press coverage he already dominated, Comey had authorized the Senate Intelligence Committee to release his testimony ahead of his personal interview. That testimony told a different story than what had been reported by CNN and ABC (and by the Post on May 12). Comey had in fact told Trump the president was not under investigation—on January 6, January 27, and March 30. Moreover, the word “obstruction” did not appear at all in his written text. The senators asked Comey if he felt Trump obstructed justice. He declined to answer either way.
My guess is that Comey’s associates lacked Comey’s scalpel-like, almost Jesuitical ability to make distinctions, and therefore misunderstood what he was telling them to say to the press. Because it’s obvious Comey was the one behind the stories of Trump’s dishonesty and bad behavior. He admitted as much in front of the cameras in a remarkable exchange with Senator Susan Collins of Maine.
Comey said that, after Trump tweeted on May 12 that he’d better hope there aren’t “tapes” of their conversations, “I asked a friend of mine to share the content of the memo with a reporter. Didn’t do it myself, for a variety of reasons. But I asked him to, because I thought that might prompt the appointment of a special counsel. And so I asked a close friend of mine to do it.”
Collins asked whether that friend had been Wittes, known to cable news junkies as Comey’s bestie. Comey said no. The source for the New York Times article was “a good friend of mine who’s a professor at Columbia Law School,” Daniel Richman.
Every time I watch or read that exchange, I am amazed. Here is the former director of the FBI just flat-out admitting that, for months, he wrote down every interaction he had with the president of the United States because he wanted a written record in case the president ever fired or lied about him. And when the president did fire and lie about him, that director set in motion a series of public disclosures with the intent of not only embarrassing the president, but also forcing the appointment of a special counsel who might end up investigating the president for who knows what. And none of this would have happened if the president had not fired Comey or tweeted about him. He told the Senate that if Trump hadn’t dismissed him, he most likely would still be on the job.
Rarely, in my view, are high officials so transparent in describing how Washington works. Comey revealed to the world that he was keeping a file on his boss, that he used go-betweens to get his story into the press, that “investigative journalism” is often just powerful people handing documents to reporters to further their careers or agendas or even to get revenge. And as long as you maintain some distance from the fallout, and stick to the absolute letter of the law, you will come out on top, so long as you have a small army of nightingales singing to reporters on your behalf.
“It’s the end of the Comey era,” A.B. Stoddard said on Special Report with Bret Baier the other day. On the contrary: I have a feeling that, as the Russia investigation proceeds, we will be hearing much more from Comey. And from his “associates.” And his “friends.” And persons “familiar with his thinking.”
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In April, COMMENTARY asked a wide variety of writers,
thinkers, and broadcasters to respond to this question: Is free speech under threat in the United States? We received twenty-seven responses. We publish them here in alphabetical order.
Floyd AbramsFree expression threatened? By Donald Trump? I guess you could say so.
When a president engages in daily denigration of the press, when he characterizes it as the enemy of the people, when he repeatedly says that the libel laws should be “loosened” so he can personally commence more litigation, when he says that journalists shouldn’t be allowed to use confidential sources, it is difficult even to suggest that he has not threatened free speech. And when he says to the head of the FBI (as former FBI director James Comey has said that he did) that Comey should consider “putting reporters in jail for publishing classified information,” it is difficult not to take those threats seriously.
The harder question, though, is this: How real are the threats? Or, as Michael Gerson put it in the Washington Post: Will Trump “go beyond mere Twitter abuse and move against institutions that limit his power?” Some of the president’s threats against the institution of the press, wittingly or not, have been simply preposterous. Surely someone has told him by now that neither he nor Congress can “loosen” libel laws; while each state has its own libel law, there is no federal libel law and thus nothing for him to loosen. What he obviously takes issue with is the impact that the Supreme Court’s 1964 First Amendment opinion in New York Times v. Sullivan has had on state libel laws. The case determined that public officials who sue for libel may not prevail unless they demonstrate that the statements made about them were false and were made with actual knowledge or suspicion of that falsity. So his objection to the rules governing libel law is to nothing less than the application of the First Amendment itself.
In other areas, however, the Trump administration has far more power to imperil free speech. We live under an Espionage Act, adopted a century ago, which is both broad in its language and uncommonly vague in its meaning. As such, it remains a half-open door through which an administration that is hostile to free speech might walk. Such an administration could initiate criminal proceedings against journalists who write about defense- or intelligence-related topics on the basis that classified information was leaked to them by present or former government employees. No such action has ever been commenced against a journalist. Press lawyers and civil-liberties advocates have strong arguments that the law may not be read so broadly and still be consistent with the First Amendment. But the scope of the Espionage Act and the impact of the First Amendment upon its interpretation remain unknown.
A related area in which the attitude of an administration toward the press may affect the latter’s ability to function as a check on government relates to the ability of journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. The Obama administration prosecuted more Espionage Act cases against sources of information to journalists than all prior administrations combined. After a good deal of deserved press criticism, it agreed to expand the internal guidelines of the Department of Justice designed to limit the circumstances under which such source revelation is demanded. But the guidelines are none too protective and are, after all, simply guidelines. A new administration is free to change or limit them or, in fact, abandon them altogether. In this area, as in so many others, it is too early to judge the ultimate treatment of free expression by the Trump administration. But the threats are real, and there is good reason to be wary.
Floyd Abrams is the author of The Soul of the First Amendment (Yale University Press, 2017).
Ayaan Hirsi AliFreedom of speech is being threatened in the United States by a nascent culture of hostility to different points of view. As political divisions in America have deepened, a conformist mentality of “right thinking” has spread across the country. Increasingly, American universities, where no intellectual doctrine ought to escape critical scrutiny, are some of the most restrictive domains when it comes to asking open-ended questions on subjects such as Islam.
Legally, speech in the United States is protected to a degree unmatched in almost any industrialized country. The U.S. has avoided unpredictable Canadian-style restrictions on speech, for example. I remain optimistic that as long as we have the First Amendment in the U.S., any attempt at formal legal censorship will be vigorously challenged.
Culturally, however, matters are very different in America. The regressive left is the forerunner threatening free speech on any issue that is important to progressives. The current pressure coming from those who call themselves “social-justice warriors” is unlikely to lead to successful legislation to curb the First Amendment. Instead, censorship is spreading in the cultural realm, particularly at institutions of higher learning.
The way activists of the regressive left achieve silence or censorship is by creating a taboo, and one of the most pernicious taboos in operation today is the word “Islamophobia.” Islamists are similarly motivated to rule any critical scrutiny of Islamic doctrine out of order. There is now a university center (funded by Saudi money) in the U.S. dedicated to monitoring and denouncing incidences of “Islamophobia.”
The term “Islamophobia” is used against critics of political Islam, but also against progressive reformers within Islam. The term implies an irrational fear that is tainted by hatred, and it has had a chilling effect on free speech. In fact, “Islamophobia” is a poorly defined term. Islam is not a race, and it is very often perfectly rational to fear some expressions of Islam. No set of ideas should be beyond critical scrutiny.
To push back in this cultural realm—in our universities, in public discourse—those favoring free speech should focus more on the message of dawa, the set of ideas that the Islamists want to promote. If the aims of dawa are sufficiently exposed, ordinary Americans and Muslim Americans will reject it. The Islamist message is a message of divisiveness, misogyny, and hatred. It’s anachronistic and wants people to live by tribal norms dating from the seventh century. The best antidote to Islamic extremism is the revelation of what its primary objective is: a society governed by Sharia. This is the opposite of censorship: It is documenting reality. What is life like in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Northern Nigerian States? What is the true nature of Sharia law?
Islamists want to hide the true meaning of Sharia, Jihad, and the implications for women, gays, religious minorities, and infidels under the veil of “Islamophobia.” Islamists use “Islamophobia” to obfuscate their vision and imply that any scrutiny of political Islam is hatred and bigotry. The antidote to this is more exposure and more speech.
As pressure on freedom of speech increases from the regressive left, we must reject the notions that only Muslims can speak about Islam, and that any critical examination of Islamic doctrines is inherently “racist.”
Instead of contorting Western intellectual traditions so as not to offend our Muslim fellow citizens, we need to defend the Muslim dissidents who are risking their lives to promote the human rights we take for granted: equality for women, tolerance of all religions and orientations, our hard-won freedoms of speech and thought.
It is by nurturing and protecting such speech that progressive reforms can emerge within Islam. By accepting the increasingly narrow confines of acceptable discourse on issues such as Islam, we do dissidents and progressive reformers within Islam a grave disservice. For truly progressive reforms within Islam to be possible, full freedom of speech will be required.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the founder of the AHA Foundation.
Lee C. BollingerI know it is too much to expect that political discourse mimic the measured, self-questioning, rational, footnoting standards of the academy, but there is a difference between robust political debate and political debate infected with fear or panic. The latter introduces a state of mind that is visceral and irrational. In the realm of fear, we move beyond the reach of reason and a sense of proportionality. When we fear, we lose the capacity to listen and can become insensitive and mean.
Our Constitution is well aware of this fact about the human mind and of its negative political consequences. In the First Amendment jurisprudence established over the past century, we find many expressions of the problematic state of mind that is produced by fear. Among the most famous and potent is that of Justice Brandeis in Whitney v. California in 1927, one of the many cases involving aggravated fears of subversive threats from abroad. “It is the function of (free) speech,” he said, “to free men from the bondage of irrational fears.” “Men feared witches,” Brandeis continued, “and burned women.”
Today, our “witches” are terrorists, and Brandeis’s metaphorical “women” include the refugees (mostly children) and displaced persons, immigrants, and foreigners whose lives have been thrown into suspension and doubt by policies of exclusion.
The same fears of the foreign that take hold of a population inevitably infect our internal interactions and institutions, yielding suppression of unpopular and dissenting voices, victimization of vulnerable groups, attacks on the media, and the rise of demagoguery, with its disdain for facts, reason, expertise, and tolerance.
All of this poses a very special obligation on those of us within universities. Not only must we make the case in every venue for the values that form the core of who we are and what we do, but we must also live up to our own principles of free inquiry and fearless engagement with all ideas. This is why recent incidents on a handful of college campuses disrupting and effectively censoring speakers is so alarming. Such acts not only betray a basic principle but also inflame a rising prejudice against the academic community, and they feed efforts to delegitimize our work, at the very moment when it’s most needed.
I do not for a second support the view that this generation has an unhealthy aversion to engaging differences of opinion. That is a modern trope of polarization, as is the portrayal of universities as hypocritical about academic freedom and political correctness. But now, in this environment especially, universities must be at the forefront of defending the rights of all students and faculty to listen to controversial voices, to engage disagreeable viewpoints, and to make every effort to demonstrate our commitment to the sort of fearless and spirited debate that we are simultaneously asking of the larger society. Anyone with a voice can shout over a speaker; but being able to listen to and then effectively rebut those with whom we disagree—particularly those who themselves peddle intolerance—is one of the greatest skills our education can bestow. And it is something our democracy desperately needs more of. That is why, I say to you now, if speakers who are being denied access to other campuses come here, I will personally volunteer to introduce them, and listen to them, however much I may disagree with them. But I will also never hesitate to make clear why I disagree with them.
Lee C. Bollinger is the 19th president of Columbia University and the author of Uninhibited, Robust, and Wide-Open: A Free Press for a New Century. This piece has been excerpted from President Bollinger’s May 17 commencement address.
Richard A. Epstein
Today, the greatest threat to the constitutional protection of freedom of speech comes from campus rabble-rousers who invoke this very protection. In their book, the speech of people like Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald constitutes a form of violence, bordering on genocide, that receives no First Amendment protection. Enlightened protestors are both bound and entitled to shout them down, by force or other disruptive actions, if their universities are so foolish as to extend them an invitation to speak. Any indignant minority may take the law into its own hands to eradicate the intellectual cancer before it spreads on their own campus.
By such tortured logic, a new generation of vigilantes distorts the First Amendment doctrine: Speech becomes violence, and violence becomes heroic acts of self-defense. The standard First Amendment interpretation emphatically rejects that view. Of course, the First Amendment doesn’t let you say what you want when and wherever you want to. Your freedom of speech is subject to the same limitations as your freedom of action. So you have no constitutional license to assault other people, to lie to them, or to form cartels to bilk them in the marketplace. But folks such as Murray, Mac Donald, and even Yiannopoulos do not come close to crossing into that forbidden territory. They are not using, for example, “fighting words,” rightly limited to words or actions calculated to provoke immediate aggression against a known target. Fighting words are worlds apart from speech that provokes a negative reaction in those who find your speech offensive solely because of the content of its message.
This distinction is central to the First Amendment. Fighting words have to be blocked by well-tailored criminal and civil sanctions lest some people gain license to intimidate others from speaking or peaceably assembling. The remedy for mere offense is to speak one’s mind in response. But it never gives anyone the right to block the speech of others, lest everyone be able to unilaterally increase his sphere of action by getting really angry about the beliefs of others. No one has the right to silence others by working himself into a fit of rage.
Obviously, it is intolerable to let mutual animosity generate factional warfare, whereby everyone can use force to silence rivals. To avoid this war of all against all, each side claims that only its actions are privileged. These selective claims quickly degenerate into a form of viewpoint discrimination, which undermines one of the central protections that traditional First Amendment law erects: a wall against each and every group out to destroy the level playing field on which robust political debate rests. Every group should be at risk for having its message fall flat. The new campus radicals want to upend that understanding by shutting down their adversaries if their universities do not. Their aggression must be met, if necessary, by counterforce. Silence in the face of aggression is not an acceptable alternative.
Richard A. Epstein is the Laurence A. Tisch Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law.
David FrenchWe’re living in the midst of a troubling paradox. At the exact same time that First Amendment jurisprudence has arguably never been stronger and more protective of free expression, millions of Americans feel they simply can’t speak freely. Indeed, talk to Americans living and working in the deep-blue confines of the academy, Hollywood, and the tech sector, and you’ll get a sense of palpable fear. They’ll explain that they can’t say what they think and keep their jobs, their friends, and sometimes even their families.
The government isn’t cracking down or censoring; instead, Americans are using free speech to destroy free speech. For example, a social-media shaming campaign is an act of free speech. So is an economic boycott. So is turning one’s back on a public speaker. So is a private corporation firing a dissenting employee for purely political reasons. Each of these actions is largely protected from government interference, and each one represents an expression of the speaker’s ideas and values.
The problem, however, is obvious. The goal of each of these kinds of actions isn’t to persuade; it’s to intimidate. The goal isn’t to foster dialogue but to coerce conformity. The result is a marketplace of ideas that has been emptied of all but the approved ideological vendors—at least in those communities that are dominated by online thugs and corporate bullies. Indeed, this mindset has become so prevalent that in places such as Portland, Berkeley, Middlebury, and elsewhere, the bullies and thugs have crossed the line from protected—albeit abusive—speech into outright shout-downs and mob violence.
But there’s something else going on, something that’s insidious in its own way. While politically correct shaming still has great power in deep-blue America, its effect in the rest of the country is to trigger a furious backlash, one characterized less by a desire for dialogue and discourse than by its own rage and scorn. So we’re moving toward two Americas—one that ruthlessly (and occasionally illegally) suppresses dissenting speech and the other that is dangerously close to believing that the opposite of political correctness isn’t a fearless expression of truth but rather the fearless expression of ideas best calculated to enrage your opponents.
The result is a partisan feedback loop where right-wing rage spurs left-wing censorship, which spurs even more right-wing rage. For one side, a true free-speech culture is a threat to feelings, sensitivities, and social justice. The other side waves high the banner of “free speech” to sometimes elevate the worst voices to the highest platforms—not so much to protect the First Amendment as to infuriate the hated “snowflakes” and trigger the most hysterical overreactions.
The culturally sustainable argument for free speech is something else entirely. It reminds the cultural left of its own debt to free speech while reminding the political right that a movement allegedly centered around constitutional values can’t abandon the concept of ordered liberty. The culture of free speech thrives when all sides remember their moral responsibilities—to both protect the right of dissent and to engage in ideological combat with a measure of grace and humility.
David French is a senior writer at National Review.
Pamela GellerThe real question isn’t whether free speech is under threat in the United States, but rather, whether it’s irretrievably lost. Can we get it back? Not without war, I suspect, as is evidenced by the violence at colleges whenever there’s the shamefully rare event of a conservative speaker on campus.
Free speech is the soul of our nation and the foundation of all our other freedoms. If we can’t speak out against injustice and evil, those forces will prevail. Freedom of speech is the foundation of a free society. Without it, a tyrant can wreak havoc unopposed, while his opponents are silenced.
With that principle in mind, I organized a free-speech event in Garland, Texas. The world had recently been rocked by the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists. My version of “Je Suis Charlie” was an event here in America to show that we can still speak freely and draw whatever we like in the Land of the Free. Yet even after jihadists attacked our event, I was blamed—by Donald Trump among others—for provoking Muslims. And if I tried to hold a similar event now, no arena in the country would allow me to do so—not just because of the security risk, but because of the moral cowardice of all intellectual appeasers.
Under what law is it wrong to depict Muhammad? Under Islamic law. But I am not a Muslim, I don’t live under Sharia. America isn’t under Islamic law, yet for standing for free speech, I’ve been:
- Prevented from running our advertisements in every major city in this country. We have won free-speech lawsuits all over the country, which officials circumvent by prohibiting all political ads (while making exceptions for ads from Muslim advocacy groups);
- Shunned by the right, shut out of the Conservative Political Action Conference;
- Shunned by Jewish groups at the behest of terror-linked groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations;
- Blacklisted from speaking at universities;
- Prevented from publishing books, for security reasons and because publishers fear shaming from the left;
- Banned from Britain.
A Seattle court accused me of trying to shut down free speech after we merely tried to run an FBI poster on global terrorism, because authorities had banned all political ads in other cities to avoid running ours. Seattle blamed us for that, which was like blaming a woman for being raped because she was wearing a short skirt.
This kind of vilification and shunning is key to the left’s plan to shut down all dissent from its agenda—they make legislation restricting speech unnecessary.
The same refusal to allow our point of view to be heard has manifested itself elsewhere. The foundation of my work is individual rights and equality for all before the law. These are the foundational principles of our constitutional republic. That is now considered controversial. Truth is the new hate speech. Truth is going to be criminalized.
The First Amendment doesn’t only protect ideas that are sanctioned by the cultural and political elites. If “hate speech” laws are enacted, who would decide what’s permissible and what’s forbidden? The government? The gunmen in Garland?
There has been an inversion of the founding premise of this nation. No longer is it the subordination of might to right, but right to might. History is repeatedly deformed with the bloody consequences of this transition.
Pamela Geller is the editor in chief of the Geller Report and president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative.
Jonah GoldbergOf course free speech is under threat in America. Frankly, it’s always under threat in America because it’s always under threat everywhere. Ronald Reagan was right when he said in 1961, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
This is more than political boilerplate. Reagan identified the source of the threat: human nature. God may have endowed us with a right to liberty, but he didn’t give us all a taste for it. As with most finer things, we must work to acquire a taste for it. That is what civilization—or at least our civilization—is supposed to do: cultivate attachments to certain ideals. “Cultivate” shares the same Latin root as “culture,” cultus, and properly understood they mean the same thing: to grow, nurture, and sustain through labor.
In the past, threats to free speech have taken many forms—nationalist passion, Comstockery (both good and bad), political suppression, etc.—but the threat to free speech today is different. It is less top-down and more bottom-up. We are cultivating a generation of young people to reject free speech as an important value.
One could mark the beginning of the self-esteem movement with Nathaniel Branden’s 1969 paper, “The Psychology of Self-Esteem,” which claimed that “feelings of self-esteem were the key to success in life.” This understandable idea ran amok in our schools and in our culture. When I was a kid, Saturday-morning cartoons were punctuated with public-service announcements telling kids: “The most important person in the whole wide world is you, and you hardly even know you!”
The self-esteem craze was just part of the cocktail of educational fads. Other ingredients included multiculturalism, the anti-bullying crusade, and, of course, that broad phenomenon known as “political correctness.” Combined, they’ve produced a generation that rejects the old adage “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never harm me” in favor of the notion that “words hurt.” What we call political correctness has been on college campuses for decades. But it lacked a critical mass of young people who were sufficiently receptive to it to make it a fully successful ideology. The campus commissars welcomed the new “snowflakes” with open arms; truly, these are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
“Words hurt” is a fashionable concept in psychology today. (See Psychology Today: “Why Words Can Hurt at Least as Much as Sticks and Stones.”) But it’s actually a much older idea than the “sticks and stones” aphorism. For most of human history, it was a crime to say insulting or “injurious” things about aristocrats, rulers, the Church, etc. That tendency didn’t evaporate with the Divine Right of Kings. Jonathan Haidt has written at book length about our natural capacity to create zones of sanctity, immune from reason.
And that is the threat free speech faces today. Those who inveigh against “hate speech” are in reality fighting “heresy speech”—ideas that do “violence” to sacred notions of self-esteem, racial or gender equality, climate change, and so on. Put whatever label you want on it, contemporary “social justice” progressivism acts as a religion, and it has no patience for blasphemy.
When Napoleon’s forces converted churches into stables, the clergy did not object on the grounds that regulations regarding the proper care and feeding of animals had been violated. They complained of sacrilege and blasphemy. When Charles Murray or Christina Hoff Summers visits college campuses, the protestors are behaving like the zealous acolytes of St. Jerome. Appeals to the First Amendment have as much power over the “antifa” fanatics as appeals to Odin did to champions of the New Faith.
That is the real threat to free speech today.
Jonah Goldberg is a senior editor at National Review and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
KC JohnsonIn early May, the Washington Post urged universities to make clear that “racist signs, symbols, and speech are off-limits.” Given the extraordinarily broad definition of what constitutes “racist” speech at most institutions of higher education, this demand would single out most right-of-center (and, in some cases, even centrist and liberal) discourse on issues of race or ethnicity. The editorial provided the highest-profile example of how hostility to free speech, once confined to the ideological fringe on campus, has migrated to the liberal mainstream.
The last few years have seen periodic college protests—featuring claims that significant amounts of political speech constitute “violence,” thereby justifying censorship—followed by even more troubling attempts to appease the protesters. After the mob scene that greeted Charles Murray upon his visit to Middlebury College, for instance, the student government criticized any punishment for the protesters, and several student leaders wanted to require that future speakers conform to the college’s “community standard” on issues of race, gender, and ethnicity. In the last few months, similar attempts to stifle the free exchange of ideas in the name of promoting diversity occurred at Wesleyan, Claremont McKenna, and Duke. Offering an extreme interpretation of this point of view, one CUNY professor recently dismissed dialogue as “inherently conservative,” since it reinforced the “relations of power that presently exist.”
It’s easy, of course, to dismiss campus hostility to free speech as affecting only a small segment of American public life—albeit one that trains the next generation of judges, legislators, and voters. But, as Jonathan Chait observed in 2015, denying “the legitimacy of political pluralism on issues of race and gender” has broad appeal on the left. It is only most apparent on campus because “the academy is one of the few bastions of American life where the political left can muster the strength to impose its political hegemony upon others.” During his time in office, Barack Obama generally urged fellow liberals to support open intellectual debate. But the current campus environment previews the position of free speech in a post-Obama Democratic Party, increasingly oriented around identity politics.
Waning support on one end of the ideological spectrum for this bedrock American principle should provide a political opening for the other side. The Trump administration, however, seems poorly suited to make the case. Throughout his public career, Trump has rarely supported free speech, even in the abstract, and has periodically embraced legal changes to facilitate libel lawsuits. Moreover, the right-wing populism that motivates Trump’s base has a long tradition of ideological hostility to civil liberties of all types. Even in campus contexts, conservatives have defended free speech inconsistently, as seen in recent calls that CUNY disinvite anti-Zionist fanatic Linda Sarsour as a commencement speaker.
In a sharply polarized political environment, awash in dubiously-sourced information, free speech is all the more important. Yet this same environment has seen both sides, most blatantly elements of the left on campuses, demand restrictions on their ideological foes’ free speech in the name of promoting a greater good.
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.
Laura KipnisI find myself with a strange-bedfellows problem lately. Here I am, a left-wing feminist professor invited onto the pages of Commentary—though I’d be thrilled if it were still 1959—while fielding speaking requests from right-wing think tanks and libertarians who oppose child-labor laws.
Somehow I’ve ended up in the middle of the free-speech-on-campus debate. My initial crime was publishing a somewhat contentious essay about campus sexual paranoia that put me on the receiving end of Title IX complaints. Apparently I’d created a “hostile environment” at my university. I was investigated (for 72 days). Then I wrote up what I’d learned about these campus inquisitions in a second essay. Then I wrote about it all some more, in a book exposing the kangaroo-court elements of the Title IX process—and the extra-legal gag orders imposed on everyone caught in its widening snare.
I can’t really comment on whether more charges have been filed against me over the book. I’ll just say that writing about being a Title IX respondent could easily become a life’s work. I learned, shortly after writing this piece, that I and my publisher were being sued for defamation, among other things.
Is free speech under threat on American campuses? Yes. We know all about student activists who wish to shut down talks by people with opposing views. I got smeared with a bit of that myself, after a speaking invitation at Wellesley—some students made a video protesting my visit before I arrived. The talk went fine, though a group of concerned faculty circulated an open letter afterward also protesting the invitation: My views on sexual politics were too heretical, and might have offended students.
I didn’t take any of this too seriously, even as right-wing pundits crowed, with Wellesley as their latest outrage bait. It was another opportunity to mock student activists, and the fact that I was myself a feminist rather than a Charles Murray or a Milo Yiannopoulos, made them positively gleeful.
I do find myself wondering where all my new free-speech pals were when another left-wing professor, Steven Salaita, was fired (or if you prefer euphemism, “his job offer was withdrawn”) from the University of Illinois after he tweeted criticism of Israel’s Gaza policy. Sure the tweets were hyperbolic, but hyperbole and strong opinions are protected speech, too.
I guess free speech is easy to celebrate until it actually challenges something. Funny, I haven’t seen Milo around lately—so beloved by my new friends when he was bashing minorities and transgender kids. Then he mistakenly said something authentic (who knew he was capable of it!), reminiscing about an experience a lot of gay men have shared: teenage sex with older men. He tried walking it back—no, no, he’d been a victim, not a participant—but his fan base was shrieking about pedophilia and fleeing in droves. Gee, they were all so against “political correctness” a few minutes before.
It’s easy to be a free-speech fan when your feathers aren’t being ruffled. No doubt what makes me palatable to the anti-PC crowd is having thus far failed to ruffle them enough. I’m just going to have to work harder.
Laura Kipnis’s latest book is Unwanted Advances: Sexual Paranoia Comes to Campus.
Eugene KontorovichThe free and open exchange of views—especially politically conservative or traditionally religious ones—is being challenged. This is taking place not just at college campuses but throughout our public spaces and cultural institutions. James Watson was fired from the lab he led since 1968 and could not speak at New York University because of petty, censorious students who would not know DNA from LSD. Our nation’s founders and heroes are being “disappeared” from public commemoration, like Trotsky from a photograph of Soviet rulers.
These attacks on “free speech” are not the result of government action. They are not what the First Amendment protects against. The current methods—professional and social shaming, exclusion, and employment termination—are more inchoate, and their effects are multiplied by self-censorship. A young conservative legal scholar might find himself thinking: “If the late Justice Antonin Scalia can posthumously be deemed a ‘bigot’ by many academics, what chance have I?”
Ironically, artists and intellectuals have long prided themselves on being the first defenders of free speech. Today, it is the institutions of both popular and high culture that are the censors. Is there one poet in the country who would speak out for Ann Coulter?
The inhibition of speech at universities is part of a broader social phenomenon of making longstanding, traditional views and practices sinful overnight. Conservatives have not put up much resistance to this. To paraphrase Martin Niemöller’s famous dictum: “First they came for Robert E. Lee, and I said nothing, because Robert E. Lee meant nothing to me.”
The situation with respect to Israel and expressions of support for it deserves separate discussion. Even as university administrators give political power to favored ideologies by letting them create “safe spaces” (safe from opposing views), Jews find themselves and their state at the receiving end of claims of apartheid—modern day blood libels. It is not surprising if Jewish students react by demanding that they get a safe space of their own. It is even less surprising if their parents, paying $65,000 a year, want their children to have a nicer time of it. One hears Jewish groups frequently express concern about Jewish students feeling increasingly isolated and uncomfortable on campus.
But demanding selective protection from the new ideological commissars is unlikely to bring the desired results. First, this new ideology, even if it can be harnessed momentarily to give respite to harassed Jews on campus, is ultimately illiberal and will be controlled by “progressive” forces. Second, it is not so terrible for Jews in the Diaspora to feel a bit uncomfortable. It has been the common condition of Jews throughout the millennia. The social awkwardness that Jews at liberal arts schools might feel in being associated with Israel is of course one of the primary justifications for the Jewish State. Facing the snowflakes incapable of hearing a dissonant view—but who nonetheless, in the grip of intersectional ecstasy, revile Jewish self-determination—Jewish students should toughen up.
Eugene Kontorovich teaches constitutional law at Northwestern University and heads the international law department of the Kohelet Policy Forum in Jerusalem.
Nicholas LemannThere’s an old Tom Wolfe essay in which he describes being on a panel discussion at Princeton in 1965 and provoking the other panelists by announcing that America, rather than being in crisis, is in the middle of a “happiness explosion.” He was arguing that the mass effects of 20 years of post–World War II prosperity made for a larger phenomenon than the Vietnam War, the racial crisis, and the other primary concerns of intellectuals at the time.
In the same spirit, I’d say that we are in the middle of a free-speech explosion, because of 20-plus years of the Internet and 10-plus years of social media. If one understands speech as disseminated individual opinion, then surely we live in the free-speech-est society in the history of the world. Anybody with access to the unimpeded World Wide Web can say anything to a global audience, and anybody can hear anything, too. All threats to free speech should be understood in the context of this overwhelmingly reality.
It is a comforting fantasy that a genuine free-speech regime will empower mainly “good,” but previously repressed, speech. Conversely, repressive regimes that are candid enough to explain their anti-free-speech policies usually say that they’re not against free speech, just “bad” speech. We have to accept that more free speech probably means, in the aggregate, more bad speech, and also a weakening of the power, authority, and economic support for information professionals such as journalists. Welcome to the United States in 2017.
I am lucky enough to live and work on the campus of a university, Columbia, that has been blessedly free of successful attempts to repress free speech. Just in the last few weeks, Charles Murray and Dinesh D’Souza have spoken here without incident. But, yes, the evidently growing popularity of the idea that “hate speech” shouldn’t be permitted on campuses is a problem, especially, it seems, at small private liberal-arts colleges. We should all do our part, and I do, by frequently and publicly endorsing free-speech principles. Opposing the BDS movement falls squarely into that category.
It’s not just on campuses that free-speech vigilance is needed, though. The number-one threat to free speech, to my mind, is that the wide-open Web has been replaced by privately owned platforms such as Facebook and Google as the way most people experience the public life of the Internet. These companies are committed to banning “hate speech,” and they are eager to operate freely in countries, like China, that don’t permit free political speech. That makes for a far more consequential constrained environment than any campus’s speech code.
Also, Donald Trump regularly engages in presidentially unprecedented rhetoric demonizing people who disagree with him. He seems to think this is all in good fun, but, as we have already seen at his rallies, not everybody hears it that way. The place where Trumpism will endanger free speech isn’t in the center—the White House press room—but at the periphery, for example in the way that local police handle bumptious protestors and the journalists covering them. This is already happening around the country. If Trump were as disciplined and knowledgeable as Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which so far he seems not to be, then free speech could be in even more serious danger from government, which in most places is its usual main enemy.
Nicholas Lemann is a professor at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for the New Yorker.
Michael J. LewisFree speech is a right but it is also a habit, and where the habit shrivels so will the right. If free speech today is in headlong retreat—everywhere threatened by regulation, organized harassment, and even violence—it is in part because our political culture allowed the practice of persuasive oratory to atrophy. The process began in 1973, an unforeseen side effect of Roe v. Wade. Legislators were delighted to learn that by relegating this divisive matter of public policy to the Supreme Court and adopting a merely symbolic position, they could sit all the more safely in their safe seats.
Since then, one crucial question of public policy after another has been punted out of the realm of politics and into the judicial. Issues that might have been debated with all the rhetorical agility of a Lincoln and a Douglas, and then subjected to a process of negotiation, compromise, and voting, have instead been settled by decree: e.g., Chevron, Kelo, Obergefell. The consequences for speech have been pernicious. Since the time of Pericles, deliberative democracy has been predicated on the art of persuasion, which demands the forceful clarity of thought and expression without which no one has ever been persuaded. But a legislature that relegates its authority to judges and regulators will awaken to discover its oratorical culture has been stunted. When politicians, rather than seeking to convince and win over, prefer to project a studied and pleasant vagueness, debate withers into tedious defensive performance. It has been decades since any presidential debate has seen any sustained give and take over a matter of policy. If there is any suspense at all, it is only the possibility that a fatigued or peeved candidate might blurt out that tactless shard of truth known as a gaffe.
A generation accustomed to hearing platitudes smoothly dispensed from behind a teleprompter will find the speech of a fearless extemporaneous speaker to be startling, even disquieting; unfamiliar ideas always are. Unhappily, they have been taught to interpret that disquiet as an injury done to them, rather than as a premise offered to them to consider. All this would not have happened—certainly not to this extent—had not our deliberative democracy decided a generation ago that it preferred the security of incumbency to the risks of unshackled debate. The compulsory contraction of free speech on college campuses is but the logical extension of the voluntary contraction of free speech in our political culture.
Michael J. Lewis’s new book is City of Refuge: Separatists and Utopian Town Planning (Princeton University Press).
Heather Mac DonaldThe answer to the symposium question depends on how powerful the transmission belt is between academia and the rest of the country. On college campuses, violence and brute force are silencing speakers who challenge left-wing campus orthodoxies. These totalitarian outbreaks have been met with listless denunciations by college presidents, followed by . . . virtually nothing. As of mid-May, the only discipline imposed for 2017’s mass attacks on free speech at UC Berkeley, Middlebury, and Clare-mont McKenna College was a letter of reprimand inserted—sometimes only temporarily—into the files of several dozen Middlebury students, accompanied by a brief period of probation. Previous outbreaks of narcis-sistic incivility, such as the screaming-girl fit at Yale and the assaults on attendees of Yale’s Buckley program, were discreetly ignored by college administrators.
Meanwhile, the professoriate unapologetically defends censorship and violence. After the February 1 riot in Berkeley to prevent Milo Yiannapoulos from speaking, Déborah Blocker, associate professor of French at UC Berkeley, praised the rioters. They were “very well-organized and very efficient,” Blocker reported admiringly to her fellow professors. “They attacked property but they attacked it very sparingly, destroying just enough University property to obtain the cancellation order for the MY event and making sure no one in the crowd got hurt” (emphasis in original). (In fact, perceived Milo and Donald Trump supporters were sucker-punched and maced; businesses downtown were torched and vandalized.) New York University’s vice provost for faculty, arts, humanities, and diversity, Ulrich Baer, displayed Orwellian logic by claiming in a New York Times op-ed that shutting down speech “should be understood as an attempt to ensure the conditions of free speech for a greater group of people.”
Will non-academic institutions take up this zeal for outright censorship? Other ideological products of the left-wing academy have been fully absorbed and operationalized. Racial victimology, which drives much of the campus censorship, is now standard in government and business. Corporate diversity trainers counsel that bias is responsible for any lack of proportional racial representation in the corporate ranks. Racial disparities in school discipline and incarceration are universally attributed to racism rather than to behavior. Public figures have lost jobs for violating politically correct taboos.
Yet Americans possess an instinctive commitment to the First Amendment. Federal judges, hardly an extension of the Federalist Society, have overwhelmingly struck down campus speech codes. It is hard to imagine that they would be any more tolerant of the hate-speech legislation so prevalent in Europe. So the question becomes: At what point does the pressure to conform to the elite worldview curtail freedom of thought and expression, even without explicit bans on speech?
Social stigma against conservative viewpoints is not the same as actual censorship. But the line can blur. The Obama administration used regulatory power to impose a behavioral conformity on public and private entities. School administrators may have technically still possessed the right to dissent from novel theories of gender, but they had to behave as if they were fully on board with the transgender revolution when it came to allowing boys to use girls’ bathrooms and locker rooms.
Had Hillary Clinton had been elected president, the federal bureaucracy would have mimicked campus diversocrats with even greater zeal. That threat, at least, has been avoided. Heresies against left-wing dogma may still enter the public arena, if only by the back door. The mainstream media have lurched even further left in the Trump era, but the conservative media, however mocked and marginalized, are expanding (though Twitter and Facebook’s censorship of conservative speakers could be a harbinger of more official silencing).
Outside the academy, free speech is still legally protected, but its exercise requires ever greater determination.
Heather Mac Donald is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of The War on Cops.
John McWhorterThere is a certain mendacity, as Brick put it in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in our discussion of free speech on college campuses. Namely, none of us genuinely wish that absolutely all issues be aired in the name of education and open-mindedness. To insist so is to pretend that civilized humanity makes nothing we could call advancement in philosophical consensus.
I doubt we need “free speech” on issues such as whether slavery and genocide are okay, whether it has been a mistake to view women as men’s equals, or to banish as antique the idea that whites are a master race while other peoples represent a lower rung on the Darwinian scale. With all due reverence of John Stuart Mill’s advocacy for the regular airing of even noxious views in order to reinforce clarity on why they were rejected, we are also human beings with limited time. A commitment to the Enlightenment justifiably will decree that certain views are, indeed, no longer in need of discussion.
However, our modern social-justice warriors are claiming that this no-fly zone of discussion is vaster than any conception of logic or morality justifies. We are being told that questions regarding the modern proposals about cultural appropriation, about whether even passing infelicitous statements constitute racism in the way that formalized segregation and racist disparagement did, or about whether social disparities can be due to cultural legacies rather than structural impediments, are as indisputably egregious, backwards, and abusive as the benighted views of the increasingly distant past.
That is, the new idea is not only that discrimination and inequality still exist, but that to even question the left’s utopian expectation on such matters justifies the same furious, sloganistic and even physically violent resistance that was once levelled against those designated heretics by a Christian hegemony.
Of course the protesters in question do not recognize themselves in a portrait as opponents of something called heresy. They suppose that Galileo’s opponents were clearly wrong but that they, today, are actually correct in a way that no intellectual or moral argument could coherently deny.
As such, we have students allowed to decree college campuses as “racist” when they are the least racist spaces on the planet—because they are, predictably given the imperfection of humans, not perfectly free of passingly unsavory interactions. Thinkers invited to talk for a portion of an hour from the right rather than the left and then have dinner with a few people and fly home are treated as if they were reanimated Hitlers. The student of color who hears a few white students venturing polite questions about the leftist orthodoxy is supported in fashioning these questions as “racist” rhetoric.
The people on college campuses who openly and aggressively spout this new version of Christian (or even Islamist) crusading—ironically justifying it as a barricade against “fascist” muzzling of freedom when the term applies ominously well to the regime they are fostering—are a minority. However, the sawmill spinning blade of their rhetoric has succeeding in rendering opposition as risky as espousing pedophilia, such that only those natively open to violent criticism dare speak out. The latter group is small. The campus consensus thereby becomes, if only at moralistic gunpoint à la the ISIS victim video, a strangled hard-leftism.
Hence freedom of speech is indeed threatened on today’s college campuses. I have lost count of how many of my students, despite being liberal Democrats (many of whom sobbed at Hillary Clinton’s loss last November), have told me that they are afraid to express their opinions about issues that matter, despite the fact that their opinions are ones that any liberal or even leftist person circa 1960 would have considered perfectly acceptable.
Something has shifted of late, and not in a direction we can legitimately consider forwards.
John McWhorter teaches linguistics, philosophy, and music history at Columbia University and is the author of The Language Hoax, Words on the Move, and Talking Back, Talking Black.
Kate Bachelder OdellIt’s 2021, and Harvard Square has devolved into riots: Some 120 people are injured in protests, and the carnage includes fire-consumed cop cars and smashed-in windows. The police discharge canisters of tear gas, and, after apprehending dozens of protesters, enforce a 1:45 A.M. curfew. Anyone roaming the streets after hours is subject to arrest. About 2,000 National Guardsmen are prepared to intervene. Such violence and disorder is also roiling Berkeley and other elite and educated areas.
Oh, that’s 1970. The details are from the Harvard Crimson’s account of “anti-war” riots that spring. The episode is instructive in considering whether free speech is under threat in the United States. Almost daily, there’s a new YouTube installment of students melting down over viewpoints of speakers invited to one campus or another. Even amid speech threats from government—for example, the IRS’s targeting of political opponents—nothing has captured the public’s attention like the end of free expression at America’s institutions of higher learning.
Yet disruption, confusion, and even violence are not new campus phenomena. And it’s hard to imagine that young adults who deployed brute force in the 1960s and ’70s were deeply committed to the open and peaceful exchange of ideas.
There may also be reason for optimism. The rough and tumble on campus in the 1960s and ’70s produced a more even-tempered ’80s and ’90s, and colleges are probably heading for another course correction. In covering the ruckuses at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere, I’ve talked to professors and students who are figuring out how to respond to the illiberalism, even if the reaction is delayed. The University of Chicago put out a set of free-speech principles last year, and others schools such as Princeton and Purdue have endorsed them.
The NARPs—Non-Athletic Regular People, as they are sometimes known on campus—still outnumber the social-justice warriors, who appear to be overplaying their hand. Case in point is the University of Missouri, which experienced a precipitous drop in enrollment after instructor Melissa Click and her ilk stoked racial tensions last spring. The college has closed dorms and trimmed budgets. Which brings us to another silver lining: The economic model of higher education (exorbitant tuition to pay ever more administrators) may blow up traditional college before the fascists can.
Note also that the anti-speech movement is run by rich kids. A Brookings Institution analysis from earlier this year discovered that “the average enrollee at a college where students have attempted to restrict free speech comes from a family with an annual income $32,000 higher than that of the average student in America.” Few rank higher in average income than those at Middlebury College, where students evicted scholar Charles Murray in a particularly ugly scene. (The report notes that Murray was received respectfully at Saint Louis University, “where the median income of students’ families is half Middlebury’s.”) The impulses of over-adulated 20-year-olds may soon be tempered by the tyranny of having to show up for work on a daily basis.
None of this is to suggest that free speech is enjoying some renaissance either on campus or in America. But perhaps as the late Wall Street Journal editorial-page editor Robert Bartley put it in his valedictory address: “Things could be worse. Indeed, they have been worse.”
Kate Bachelder Odell is an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal.
Jonathan RauchIs free speech under threat? The one-syllable answer is “yes.” The three-syllable answer is: “Yes, of course.” Free speech is always under threat, because it is not only the single most successful social idea in all of human history, it is also the single most counterintuitive. “You mean to say that speech that is offensive, untruthful, malicious, seditious, antisocial, blasphemous, heretical, misguided, or all of the above deserves government protection?” That seemingly bizarre proposition is defensible only on the grounds that the marketplace of ideas turns out to be the most powerful engine of knowledge, prosperity, liberty, social peace, and moral advancement that our species has had the good fortune to discover.
Every new generation of free-speech advocates will need to get up every morning and re-explain the case for free speech and open inquiry—today, tomorrow, and forever. That is our lot in life, and we just need to be cheerful about it. At discouraging moments, it is helpful to remember that the country has made great strides toward free speech since 1798, when the Adams administration arrested and jailed its political critics; and since the 1920s, when the U.S. government banned and burned James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses; and since 1954, when the government banned ONE, a pioneering gay journal. (The cover article was a critique of the government’s indecency censors, who censored it.) None of those things could happen today.
I suppose, then, the interesting question is: What kind of threat is free speech under today? In the present age, direct censorship by government bodies is rare. Instead, two more subtle challenges hold sway, especially, although not only, on college campuses. The first is a version of what I called, in my book Kindly Inquisitors, the humanitarian challenge: the idea that speech that is hateful or hurtful (in someone’s estimation) causes pain and thus violates others’ rights, much as physical violence does. The other is a version of what I called the egalitarian challenge: the idea that speech that denigrates minorities (again, in someone’s estimation) perpetuates social inequality and oppression and thus also is a rights violation. Both arguments call upon administrators and other bureaucrats to defend human rights by regulating speech rights.
Both doctrines are flawed to the core. Censorship harms minorities by enforcing conformity and entrenching majority power, and it no more ameliorates hatred and injustice than smashing thermometers ameliorates global warming. If unwelcome words are the equivalent of bludgeons or bullets, then the free exchange of criticism—science, in other words—is a crime. I could go on, but suffice it to say that the current challenges are new variations on ancient themes—and they will be followed, in decades and centuries to come, by many, many other variations. Memo to free-speech advocates: Our work is never done, but the really amazing thing, given the proposition we are tasked to defend, is how well we are doing.
Jonathan Rauch is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought.
Nicholas Quinn RosenkranzSpeech is under threat on American campuses as never before. Censorship in various forms is on the rise. And this year, the threat to free speech on campus took an even darker turn, toward actual violence. The prospect of Milo Yiannopoulos speaking at Berkeley provoked riots that caused more than $100,000 worth of property damage on the campus. The prospect of Charles Murray speaking at Middlebury led to a riot that put a liberal professor in the hospital with a concussion. Ann Coulter’s speech at Berkeley was cancelled after the university determined that none of the appropriate venues could be protected from “known security threats” on the date in question.
The free-speech crisis on campus is caused, at least in part, by a more insidious campus pathology: the almost complete lack of intellectual diversity on elite university faculties. At Yale, for example, the number of registered Republicans in the economics department is zero; in the psychology department, there is one. Overall, there are 4,410 faculty members at Yale, and the total number of those who donated to a Republican candidate during the 2016 primaries was three.
So when today’s students purport to feel “unsafe” at the mere prospect of a conservative speaker on campus, it may be easy to mock them as “delicate snowflakes,” but in one sense, their reaction is understandable: If students are shocked at the prospect of a Republican behind a university podium, perhaps it is because many of them have never before laid eyes on one.
To see the connection between free speech and intellectual diversity, consider the recent commencement speech of Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust:
Universities must be places open to the kind of debate that can change ideas….Silencing ideas or basking in intellectual orthodoxy independent of facts and evidence impedes our access to new and better ideas, and it inhibits a full and considered rejection of bad ones. . . . We must work to ensure that universities do not become bubbles isolated from the concerns and discourse of the society that surrounds them. Universities must model a commitment to the notion that truth cannot simply be claimed, but must be established—established through reasoned argument, assessment, and even sometimes uncomfortable challenges that provide the foundation for truth.
Faust is exactly right. But, alas, her commencement audience might be forgiven a certain skepticism. After all, the number of registered Republicans in several departments at Harvard—e.g., history and psychology—is exactly zero. In those departments, the professors themselves may be “basking in intellectual orthodoxy” without ever facing “uncomfortable challenges.” This may help explain why some students will do everything in their power to keep conservative speakers off campus: They notice that faculty hiring committees seem to do exactly the same thing.
In short, it is a promising sign that true liberal academics like Faust have started speaking eloquently about the crucial importance of civil, reasoned disagreement. But they will be more convincing on this point when they hire a few colleagues with whom they actually disagree.
Nicholas Quinn Rosenkranz is a professor of law at Georgetown. He serves on the executive committee of Heterodox Academy, which he co-founded, on the board of directors of the Federalist Society, and on the board of directors of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).
Ben ShapiroIn February, I spoke at California State University in Los Angeles. Before my arrival, professors informed students that a white supremacist would be descending on the school to preach hate; threats of violence soon prompted the administration to cancel the event. I vowed to show up anyway. One hour before the event, the administration backed down and promised to guarantee that the event could go forward, but police officers were told not to stop the 300 students, faculty, and outside protesters who blocked and assaulted those who attempted to attend the lecture. We ended up trapped in the auditorium, with the authorities telling students not to leave for fear of physical violence. I was rushed from campus under armed police guard.
Is free speech under assault?
Of course it is.
On campus, free speech is under assault thanks to a perverse ideology of intersectionality that claims victim identity is of primary value and that views are a merely secondary concern. As a corollary, if your views offend someone who outranks you on the intersectional hierarchy, your views are treated as violence—threats to identity itself. On campus, statements that offend an individual’s identity have been treated as “microaggressions”–actual aggressions against another, ostensibly worthy of violence. Words, students have been told, may not break bones, but they will prompt sticks and stones, and rightly so.
Thus, protesters around the country—leftists who see verbiage as violence—have, in turn, used violence in response to ideas they hate. Leftist local authorities then use the threat of violence as an excuse to ideologically discriminate against conservatives. This means public intellectuals like Charles Murray being run off of campus and his leftist professorial cohort viciously assaulted; it means Ann Coulter being targeted for violence at Berkeley; it means universities preemptively banning me and Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Condoleezza Rice and even Jason Riley.
The campus attacks on free speech are merely the most extreme iteration of an ideology that spans from left to right: the notion that your right to free speech ends where my feelings begin. Even Democrats who say that Ann Coulter should be allowed to speak at Berkeley say that nobody should be allowed to contribute to a super PAC (unless you’re a union member, naturally).
Meanwhile, on the right, the president’s attacks on the press have convinced many Republicans that restrictions on the press wouldn’t be altogether bad. A Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll in late April found that 36 percent of Americans thought freedom of the press “does more harm than good.” Undoubtedly, some of that is due to the media’s obvious bias. CNN’s Jeff Zucker has targeted the Trump administration for supposedly quashing journalism, but he was silent when the Obama administration’s Department of Justice cracked down on reporters from the Associated Press and Fox News, and when hacks like Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes openly sold lies regarding Iran. But for some on the right, the response to press falsities hasn’t been to call for truth, but to instead echo Trumpian falsehoods in the hopes of damaging the media. Free speech is only important when people seek the truth. Leftists traded truth for tribalism long ago; in response, many on the right seem willing to do the same. Until we return to a common standard under which facts matter, free speech will continue to rest on tenuous grounds.
Ben Shapiro is the editor in chief of The Daily Wire and the host of The Ben Shapiro Show.
Judith ShulevitzIt’s tempting to blame college and university administrators for the decline of free speech in America, and for years I did just that. If the guardians of higher education won’t inculcate the habits of mind required for serious thinking, I thought, who will? The unfettered but civil exchange of ideas is the basic operation of education, just as addition is the basic operation of arithmetic. And universities have to teach both the unfettered part and the civil part, because arguing in a respectful manner isn’t something anyone does instinctively.
So why change my mind now? Schools still cling to speech codes, and there still aren’t enough deans like the one at the University of Chicago who declared his school a safe-space-free zone. My alma mater just handed out prizes for “enhancing race and/or ethnic relations” to two students caught on video harassing the dean of their residential college, one screaming at him that he’d created “a space for violence to happen,” the other placing his face inches away from the dean’s and demanding, “Look at me.” All this because they deemed a thoughtful if ill-timed letter about Halloween costumes written by the dean’s wife to be an act of racist aggression. Yale should discipline students who behave like that, even if they’re right on the merits (I don’t think they were, but that’s not the point). They certainly don’t deserve awards. I can’t believe I had to write that sentence.
But in abdicating their responsibilites, the universities have enabled something even worse than an attack on free speech. They’ve unleashed an assault on themselves. There’s plenty of free speech around; we know that because so much bad speech—low-minded nonsense—tests our constitutional tolerance daily, and that’s holding up pretty well. (As Nicholas Lemann observes elsewhere in this symposium, Facebook and Google represent bigger threats to free speech than students and administrators.) What’s endangered is good speech.
Universities were setting themselves up to be used. Provocateurs exploit the atmosphere on campus to goad overwrought students, then gleefully trash the most important bastion of our crumbling civil society. Higher education and everything it stands for—logical argument, the scientific method, epistemological rigor—start to look illegitimate. Voters perceive tenure and research and higher education itself as hopelessly partisan and unworthy of taxpayers’ money.
The press is a secondary victim of this process of delegitimization. If serious inquiry can be waved off as ideology, then facts won’t be facts and reporting can’t be trusted. All journalism will be equal to all other journalism, and all journalists will be reduced to pests you can slam to the ground with near impunity. Politicians will be able to say anything and do just about anything and there will be no countervailing authority to challenge them. I’m pretty sure that that way lies Putinism and Erdoganism. And when we get to that point, I’m going to start worrying about free speech again.
Judith Shulevitz is a critic in New York.
Harvey SilverglateFree speech is, and has always been, threatened. The title of Nat Hentoff’s 1993 book Free Speech for Me – but Not for Thee is no less true today than at any time, even as the Supreme Court has accorded free speech a more absolute degree of protection than in any previous era.
Since the 1980s, the high court has decided most major free-speech cases in favor of speech, with most of the major decisions being unanimous or nearly so.
Women’s-rights advocates were turned back by the high court in 1986 when they sought to ban the sale of printed materials that, because deemed pornographic by some, were alleged to promote violence against women. Censorship in the name of gender–based protection thus failed to gain traction.
Despite the demands of civil-rights activists, the Supreme Court in 1992 declared cross-burning to be a protected form of expression in R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, a decision later refined to strengthen a narrow exception for when cross-burning occurs primarily as a physical threat rather than merely an expression of hatred.
Other attempts at First Amendment circumvention have been met with equally decisive rebuff. When the Reverend Jerry Falwell sued Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt for defamation growing out of a parody depicting Falwell’s first sexual encounter as a drunken tryst with his mother in an outhouse, a unanimous Supreme Court lectured on the history of parody as a constitutionally protected, even if cruel, form of social and political criticism.
When the South Boston Allied War Veterans, sponsor of Boston’s Saint Patrick’s Day parade, sought to exclude a gay veterans’ group from marching under its own banner, the high court unanimously held that as a private entity, even though marching in public streets, the Veterans could exclude any group marching under a banner conflicting with the parade’s socially conservative message, notwithstanding public-accommodations laws. The gay group could have its own parade but could not rain on that of the conservatives.
Despite such legal clarity, today’s most potent attacks on speech are coming, ironically, from liberal-arts colleges. Ubiquitous “speech codes” limit speech that might insult, embarrass, or “harass,” in particular, members of “historically disadvantaged” groups. “Safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” protect purportedly vulnerable students from hearing words and ideas they might find upsetting. Student demonstrators and threats of violence have forced the cancellation of controversial speakers, left and right.
It remains unclear how much campus censorship results from politically correct faculty, control-obsessed student-life administrators, or students socialized and indoctrinated into intolerance. My experience suggests that the bureaucrats are primarily, although not entirely, to blame. When sued, colleges either lose or settle, pay a modest amount, and then return to their censorious ways.
This trend threatens the heart and soul of liberal education. Eventually it could infect the entire society as these students graduate and assume influential positions. Whether a resulting flood of censorship ultimately overcomes legal protections and weakens democracy remains to be seen.
Harvey Silverglate, a Boston-based lawyer and writer, is the co-author of The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America’s Campuses (Free Press, 1998). He co-founded the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in 1999 and is on FIRE’s board of directors. He spent some three decades on the board of the ACLU of Massachusetts, two of those years as chairman. Silverglate taught at Harvard Law School for a semester during a sabbatical he took in the mid-1980s.
Christina Hoff SommersWhen Heather Mac Donald’s “blue lives matter” talk was shut down by a mob at Claremont McKenna College, the president of neighboring Pomona College sent out an email defending free speech. Twenty-five students shot back a response: “Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist . . . classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live.”
Some blame the new campus intolerance on hypersensitive, over-trophied millennials. But the students who signed that letter don’t appear to be fragile. Nor do those who recently shut down lectures at Berkeley, Middlebury, DePaul, and Cal State LA. What they are is impassioned. And their passion is driven by a theory known as intersectionality.
Intersectionality is the source of the new preoccupation with microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and privilege-checking. It’s the reason more than 200 colleges and universities have set up Bias Response Teams. Students who overhear potentially “otherizing” comments or jokes are encouraged to make anonymous reports to their campus BRTs. A growing number of professors and administrators have built their careers around intersectionality. What is it exactly?
Intersectionality is a neo-Marxist doctrine that views racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, and all forms of “oppression” as interconnected and mutually reinforcing. Together these “isms” form a complex arrangement of advantages and burdens. A white woman is disadvantaged by her gender but advantaged by her race. A Latino is burdened by his ethnicity but privileged by his gender. According to intersectionality, American society is a “matrix of domination,” with affluent white males in control. Not only do they enjoy most of the advantages, they also determine what counts as “truth” and “knowledge.”
But marginalized identities are not without resources. According to one of intersectionality’s leading theorists, Patricia Collins (former president of the American Sociology Association), disadvantaged groups have access to deeper, more liberating truths. To find their voice, and to enlighten others to the true nature of reality, they require a safe space—free of microaggressive put-downs and imperious cultural appropriations. Here they may speak openly about their “lived experience.” Lived experience, according to intersectional theory, is a better guide to the truth than self-serving Western and masculine styles of thinking. So don’t try to refute intersectionality with logic or evidence: That only proves that you are part of the problem it seeks to overcome.
How could comfortably ensconced college students be open to a convoluted theory that describes their world as a matrix of misery? Don’t they flinch when they hear intersectional scholars like bell hooks refer to the U.S. as an “imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist patriarchy”? Most take it in stride because such views are now commonplace in high-school history and social studies texts. And the idea that knowledge comes from lived experience rather than painstaking study and argument is catnip to many undergrads.
Silencing speech and forbidding debate is not an unfortunate by-product of intersectionality—it is a primary goal. How else do you dismantle a lethal system of oppression? As the protesting students at Claremont McKenna explained in their letter: “Free speech . . . has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry.” To the student activists, thinkers like Heather MacDonald and Charles Murray are agents of the dominant narrative, and their speech is “a form of violence.”
It is hard to know how our institutions of higher learning will find their way back to academic freedom, open inquiry, and mutual understanding. But as long as intersectional theory goes unchallenged, campus fanaticism will intensify.
Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. She is the author of several books, including Who Stole Feminism? and The War Against Boys. She also hosts The Factual Feminist, a video blog. @Chsommers
John StosselYes, some college students do insane things. Some called police when they saw “Trump 2016” chalked on sidewalks. The vandals at Berkeley and the thugs who assaulted Charles Murray are disgusting. But they are a minority. And these days people fight back.
Someone usually videotapes the craziness. Yale’s “Halloween costume incident” drove away two sensible instructors, but videos mocking Yale’s snowflakes, like “Silence U,” make such abuse less likely. Groups like Young America’s Foundation (YAF) publicize censorship, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sues schools that restrict speech.
Consciousness has been raised. On campus, the worst is over. Free speech has always been fragile. I once took cameras to Seton Hall law school right after a professor gave a lecture on free speech. Students seemed to get the concept. Sean, now a lawyer, said, “Protect freedom for thought we hate; otherwise you never have a society where ideas clash, and we come up with the best idea.” So I asked, “Should there be any limits?” Students listed “fighting words,” “shouting fire in a theater,” malicious libel, etc.— reasonable court-approved exceptions. But then they went further. Several wanted bans on “hate” speech, “No value comes out of hate speech,” said Javier. “It inevitably leads to violence.”
No it doesn’t, I argued, “Also, doesn’t hate speech bring ideas into the open, so you can better argue about them, bringing you to the truth?”
“No,” replied Floyd, “With hate speech, more speech is just violence.”
So I pulled out a big copy of the First Amendment and wrote, “exception: hate speech.”
Two students wanted a ban on flag desecration “to respect those who died to protect it.”
One wanted bans on blasphemy:
“Look at the gravity of the harm versus the value in blasphemy—the harm outweighs the value.”
Several wanted a ban on political speech by corporations because of “the potential for large corporations to improperly influence politicians.”
Finally, Jillian, also now a lawyer, wanted hunting videos banned.
“It encourages harm down the road.”
I asked her, incredulously, “you’re comfortable locking up people who make a hunting film?”
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s unnecessary cruelty to feeling and sentient beings.”
So, I picked up my copy of the Bill of Rights again. After “no law . . . abridging freedom of speech,” I added: “Except hate speech, flag burning, blasphemy, corporate political speech, depictions of hunting . . . ”
That embarrassed them. “We may have gone too far,” said Sean. Others agreed. One said, “Cross out the exceptions.” Free speech survived, but it was a close call. Respect for unpleasant speech will always be thin. Then-Senator Hillary Clinton wanted violent video games banned. John McCain and Russ Feingold tried to ban political speech. Donald Trump wants new libel laws, and if you burn a flag, he tweeted, consequences might be “loss of citizenship or a year in jail!” Courts or popular opinion killed those bad ideas.
Free speech will survive, assuming those of us who appreciate it use it to fight those who would smother it.
John Stossel is a FOX News/FOX Business Network Contributor.
Warren TreadgoldEven citizens of dictatorships are free to praise the regime and to talk about the weather. The only speech likely to be threatened anywhere is the sort that offends an important and intolerant group. What is new in America today is a leftist ideology that threatens speech precisely because it offends certain important and intolerant groups: feminists and supposedly oppressed minorities.
So far this new ideology is clearly dominant only in colleges and universities, where it has become so strong that most controversies concern outside speakers invited by students, not faculty speakers or speakers invited by administrators. Most academic administrators and professors are either leftists or have learned not to oppose leftism; otherwise they would probably never have been hired. Administrators treat even violent leftist protestors with respect and are ready to prevent conservative and moderate outsiders from speaking rather than provoke protests. Most professors who defend conservative or moderate speakers argue that the speakers’ views are indeed noxious but say that students should be exposed to them to learn how to refute them. This is very different from encouraging a free exchange of ideas.
Although the new ideology began on campuses in the ’60s, it gained authority outside them largely by means of several majority decisions of the Supreme Court, from Roe (1973) to Obergefell (2015). The Supreme Court decisions that endanger free speech are based on a presumed consensus of enlightened opinion that certain rights favored by activists have the same legitimacy as rights explicitly guaranteed by the Constitution—or even more legitimacy, because the rights favored by activists are assumed to be so fundamental that they need no grounding in specific constitutional language. The Court majorities found restricting abortion rights or homosexual marriage, as large numbers of Americans wish to do, to be constitutionally equivalent to restricting black voting rights or interracial marriage. Any denial of such equivalence therefore opposes fundamental constitutional rights and can be considered hate speech, advocating psychological and possibly physical harm to groups like women seeking abortions or homosexuals seeking approval. Such speech may still be constitutionally protected, but acting upon it is not.
This ideology of forbidding allegedly offensive speech has spread to most of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. Rather than seeing themselves as taking one side in a free debate, progressives increasingly argue (for example) that opposing abortion is offensive to women and supporting the police is offensive to blacks. Some politicians object so strongly to such speech that despite their interest in winning votes, they attack voters who disagree with them as racists or sexists. Expressing views that allegedly discriminate against women, blacks, homosexuals, and various other minorities can now be grounds for a lawsuit.
Speech that supposedly offends women or minorities has already cost some people their careers, their businesses, and their opportunities to deliver or hear speeches. Such intimidation is the intended result of an ideology that threatens free speech.
Warren Treadgold is a professor of history at Saint Louis University.
Matt WelchLike a sullen zoo elephant rocking back and forth from leg to leg, there is an oversized paradox we’d prefer not to see standing smack in the sightlines of most our policy debates. Day by day, even minute by minute, America simultaneously gets less free in the laboratory, but more free in the field. Individuals are constantly expanding the limits and applications of their own autonomy, even as government transcends prior restraints on how far it can reach into our intimate business.
So it is that the Internal Revenue Service can charge foreign banks with collecting taxes on U.S. citizens (therefore causing global financial institutions to shun many of the estimated 6 million-plus Americans who live abroad), even while block-chain virtuosos make illegal transactions wholly undetectable to authorities. It has never been easier for Americans to travel abroad, and it’s never been harder to enter the U.S. without showing passports, fingerprints, retinal scans, and even social-media passwords.
What’s true for banking and tourism is doubly true for free speech. Social media has given everyone not just a platform but a megaphone (as unreadable as our Facebook timelines have all become since last November). At the same time, the federal government during this unhappy 21st century has continuously ratcheted up prosecutorial pressure against leakers, whistleblowers, investigative reporters, and technology companies.
A hopeful bulwark against government encroachment unique to the free-speech field is the Supreme Court’s very strong First Amendment jurisprudence in the past decade or two. Donald Trump, like Hillary Clinton before him, may prattle on about locking up flag-burners, but Antonin Scalia and the rest of SCOTUS protected such expression back in 1990. Barack Obama and John McCain (and Hillary Clinton—she’s as bad as any recent national politician on free speech) may lament the Citizens United decision, but it’s now firmly legal to broadcast unfriendly documentaries about politicians without fear of punishment, no matter the electoral calendar.
But in this very strength lies what might be the First Amendment’s most worrying vulnerability. Barry Friedman, in his 2009 book The Will of the People, made the persuasive argument that the Supreme Court typically ratifies, post facto, where public opinion has already shifted. Today’s culture of free speech could be tomorrow’s legal framework. If so, we’re in trouble.
For evidence of free-speech slippage, just read around you. When both major-party presidential nominees react to terrorist attacks by calling to shut down corners of the Internet, and when their respective supporters are actually debating the propriety of sucker punching protesters they disagree with, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our increasingly shrill partisan sorting is turning the very foundation of post-1800 global prosperity into just another club to be swung in our national street fight.
In the eternal cat-and-mouse game between private initiative and government control, the former is always advantaged by the latter’s fundamental incompetence. But what if the public willingly hands government the power to muzzle? It may take a counter-cultural reformation to protect this most noble of American experiments.
Matt Welch is the editor at large of Reason.
Adam. J. WhiteFree speech is indeed under threat on our university campuses, but the threat did not begin there and it will not end there. Rather, the campus free-speech crisis is a particularly visible symptom of a much more fundamental crisis in American culture.
The problem is not that some students, teachers, and administrators reject traditional American values and institutions, or even that they are willing to menace or censor others who defend those values and institutions. Such critics have always existed, and they can be expected to use the tools and weapons at their disposal. The problem is that our country seems to produce too few students, teachers, and administrators who are willing or able to respond to them.
American families produce children who arrive on campus unprepared for, or uninterested in, defending our values and institutions. For our students who are focused primarily on their career prospects (if on anything at all), “[c]ollege is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” as David Brooks observed 16 years ago. “They’re not trying to buck the system; they’re trying to climb it, and they are streamlined for ascent. Hence they are not a disputatious group.”
Meanwhile, parents bear incomprehensible financial burdens to get their kids through college, without a clear sense of precisely what their kids will get out of these institutions in terms of character formation or civic virtue. With so much money at stake, few can afford for their kids to pursue more than career prospects.
Those problems are not created on campus, but they are exacerbated there, as too few college professors and administrators see their institutions as cultivators of American culture and republicanism. Confronted with activists’ rage, they offer no competing vision of higher education—let alone a compelling one.
Ironically, we might borrow a solution from the Left. Where progressives would leverage state power in service of their health-care agenda, we could do the same for education. State legislatures and governors, recognizing the present crisis, should begin to reform and renegotiate the fundamental nature of state universities. By making state universities more affordable, more productive, and more reflective of mainstream American values, they will attract students—and create incentives for competing private universities to follow suit.
Let’s hope they do it soon, for what’s at stake is much more than just free speech on campus, or even free speech writ large. In our time, as in Tocqueville’s, “the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of a democratic republic,” especially “where instruction which awakens the understanding is not separated from moral education which amends the heart.” We need our colleges to cultivate—not cut down—civic virtue and our capacity for self-government. “Republican government presupposes the existence of these qualities in a higher degree than any other form,” Madison wrote in Federalist 55. If “there is not sufficient virtue among men for self-government,” then “nothing less than the chains of despotism” can restrain us “from destroying and devouring one another.”
Adam J. White is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.
Cathy YoungA writer gets expelled from the World Science Fiction Convention for criticizing the sci-fi community’s preoccupation with racial and gender “inclusivity” while moderating a panel. An assault on free speech, or an exercise of free association? How about when students demand the disinvitation of a speaker—or disrupt the speech? When a critic of feminism gets banned from a social-media platform for unspecified “abuse”?
Such questions are at the heart of many recent free-speech controversies. There is no censorship by government; but how concerned should we be when private actors effectively suppress unpopular speech? Even in the freest society, some speech will—and should—be considered odious and banished to unsavory fringes. No one weeps for ostracized Holocaust deniers or pedophilia apologists.
But shunned speech needs to remain a narrow exception—or acceptable speech will inexorably shrink. As current Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai cautioned last year, First Amendment protections will be hollowed out unless undergirded by cultural values that support a free marketplace of ideas.
Sometimes, attacks on speech come from the right. In 2003, an Iraq War critic, reporter Chris Hedges, was silenced at Rockford College in Illinois by hecklers who unplugged the microphone and rushed the stage; some conservative pundits defended this as robust protest. Yet the current climate on the left—in universities, on social media, in “progressive” journalism, in intellectual circles—is particularly hostile to free expression. The identity-politics left, fixated on subtle oppressions embedded in everyday attitudes and language, sees speech-policing as the solution.
Is hostility to free-speech values on the rise? New York magazine columnist Jesse Singal argues that support for restrictions on public speech offensive to minorities has remained steady, and fairly high, since the 1970s. Perhaps. But the range of what qualifies as offensive—and which groups are to be shielded—has expanded dramatically. In our time, a leading liberal magazine, the New Republic, can defend calls to destroy a painting of lynching victim Emmett Till because the artist is white and guilty of “cultural appropriation,” and a feminist academic journal can be bullied into apologizing for an article on transgender issues that dares to mention “male genitalia.”
There is also a distinct trend of “bad” speech being squelched by coercion, not just disapproval. That includes the incidents at Middlebury College in Vermont and at Claremont McKenna in California, where mobs not only prevented conservative speakers—Charles Murray and Heather Mac Donald—from addressing audiences but physically threatened them as well. It also includes the use of civil-rights legislation to enforce goodthink in the workplace: Businesses may face stiff fines if they don’t force employees to call a “non-binary” co-worker by the singular “they,” even when talking among themselves.
These trends make a mockery of liberalism and enable the kind of backlash we have seen with Donald Trump’s election. But the backlash can bring its own brand of authoritarianism. It’s time to start rebuilding the culture of free speech across political divisions—a project that demands, above all, genuine openness and intellectual consistency. Otherwise it will remain, as the late, great Nat Hentoff put it, a call for “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason.
Robert J. ZimmerFree speech is not a natural feature of human society. Many people are comfortable with free expression for views they agree with but would withhold this privilege for those they deem offensive. People justify such restrictions by various means: the appeal to moral certainty, political agendas, demand for change, opposing change, retaining power, resisting authority, or, more recently, not wanting to feel uncomfortable. Moral certainty about one’s views or a willingness to indulge one’s emotions makes it easy to assert that others are doing true damage or creating unacceptable offense simply by presenting a fundamentally different perspective.
The resulting challenges to free expression may come in the form of laws, threats, pressure (whether societal, group, or organizational), or self-censorship in the face of a prevailing consensus. Specific forms of challenge may be more or less pronounced as circumstances vary. But the widespread temptation to consider the silencing of “objectionable” viewpoints as acceptable implies that the challenge to free expression is always present.
The United States today is no exception. We benefit from the First Amendment, which asserts that the government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech. However, fostering a society supporting free expression involves matters far beyond the law. The ongoing and increasing demonization of one group by another creates a political and social environment conducive to suppressing speech. Even violent acts opposing speech can become acceptable or encouraged. Such behavior is evident at both political rallies and university events. Our greatest current threat to free expression is the emergence of a national culture that accepts the legitimacy of suppression of speech deemed objectionable by a segment of the population.
University and college campuses present a particularly vivid instance of this cultural shift. There have been many well-publicized episodes of speakers being disinvited or prevented from speaking because of their views. However, the problem is much deeper, as there is significant self-censorship on many campuses. Both faculty and students sometimes find themselves silenced by social and institutional pressures to conform to “acceptable” views. Ironically, the very mission of universities and colleges to provide a powerful and deeply enriching education for their students demands that they embrace and protect free expression and open discourse. Failing to do so significantly diminishes the quality of the education they provide.
My own institution, the University of Chicago, through the words and actions of its faculty and leaders since its founding, has asserted the importance of free expression and its essential role in embracing intellectual challenge. We continue to do so today as articulated by the Chicago Principles, which strongly affirm that “the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed.” It is only in such an environment that universities can fulfill their own highest aspirations and provide leadership by demonstrating the value of free speech within society more broadly. A number of universities have joined us in reinforcing these values. But it remains to be seen whether the faculty and leaders of many institutions will truly stand up for these values, and in doing so provide a model for society as a whole.
Robert J. Zimmer is the president of the University of Chicago.