Monday, November 05, 2007

Losing the Vietnam War

Henry Steele Commager

The historian Henry Steele Commager was very much opposed to the Vietnam War. In an essay that could serve as a real bogeyman to the advocates of the stab-in-the-back version of the Vietnam War, "The Defeat of America", originally published in the New York Review of Books 10/05/1972 issue and later included in a book of essays by the same name, he made a passionate argument on the immorality of that war.

For some context, this was published during the heat of the 1972 Presidential campaign, which at that point looked like a long shot for antiwar Democratic Presidential candidate George McGovern. The Vietnam War was very much an issue in that campaign, even though most American troops had been withdrawn at that point.

Commager slips into a bit of purple prose, as he concludes the essay:

Our concept of "honor," like our concept of "victory" or our concept of "peace," is all part of a pattern of synthetic politics and synthetic morals appropriate to a war fought with impersonal technology over issues that no one can explain, supported by arguments that are spurious and by rhetoric that is canting and unctuous. Indeed nothing about the conduct of this war is genuine or honest or real except the death and devastation we are pouring onto Vietnam: that is real.

This is not only a war we cannot win, it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally. Americans are of course spoiled by the habit of victory, and they have come to think of victory in war as guaranteed by the laws that regulate the cosmic system. An odd conviction, this, especially to men like L. B. Johnson or Dean Rusk or General Westmoreland or Strom Thurmond or Governor Wallace, for they cannot be unfamiliar with what is still called the Lost Cause or unaware that even the most fanatical Confederate flag-waving Dixiecrat would not really have it otherwise.
Continued below the fold...

Quote continues directly:

We honor now those Southerners who stood by the Union when it was attacked by the Confederacy, just as we honor those Germans who rejected Hitler and his monstrous wars and were martyrs to the cause of freedom and humanity. Why do we find it so hard to accept this elementary lesson of history, that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the truest patriots? And of those who resist, often at the cost of their lives and their fortunes but not of their honor, may we not say what Pericles said in that noblest of all speeches, that they are fortunate in "knowing that the secret of happiness is freedom and the secret of freedom a brave heart, and they do not idly stand aside from the enemy's onset."
Commager's essay was not "anti-American", very much the contrary. But it's easy to see how a passage like this could be taken by even some opponents of the Vietnam War as an extreme sort of argument.

Commager was viewing the Vietnam War in a moral and political framework heavily shaped by the Second World War. Few if any politicians at that time would have used a formulation like saying the Vietnam War "is a war we must lose". But German politicians and editorialists would generally have no problem saying that the Second World War was one that Germany had to lose. Commager was viewing the Vietnam War from a long-term democratic and Wilsonian internationalist viewpoint.

Ironically, those most likely to be outraged by Commager's departure from Patriotic Correctness in that quotation are those conservatives who are willing to make even more sweeping condemnations of the US, e.g., "legalized abortion has killed more people than the Holocaust"; "Feminists and gays caused 9/11 because God is punishing us", etc.

Readers who can get past some of his more challenging formulations can find a couple of important observations in the paragraphs I quoted. One is the connection between the Lost Cause view of the Civil War, which was an entirely mainstream view for white Southerners from the 1860s to the 1960s and is far from having died out even now, and the deadender attitude toward the Vietnam War.

The Nixon administration's slogan for continuing the Vietnam War indefinitely was "peace with honor", which is presumably what Commager was addressing in his references to false notions of "honor". The truth was, as pretty much everyone knew at some level, was that the US had to get out of Vietnam, and that the Communists were likely to win at some point afterward.

After he was re-elected, Nixon drastically escalated the war in the "Christmas bombing" of 1972. But the military loss in planes shot down was heavy and significant. And a public that mostly assumed that Nixon was getting the US out of the water was not eager to see it escalated once more. Support for Nixon's policies collapsed at home, and he soon signed the Paris Agreement of 1973.

His hope and that of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was that the agreement would give the US what Kissinger called a "decent interval" between the treaty and the official end of the direct US role in the war and the eventual collapse of the corrupt, unpopular South Vietnamese regime. But Nixon wasn't entirely committed to that concept, either. He made a commitment to the South Vietnamese government that he would send American bombers back into a combat role if the regime were seriously endangered. He kept the agreement secret from Congress, and Congress eventually banned further bombing by the US in Indochina.

Commager had a good point in attacking the "synthetic politics and synthetic morals" behind the cynical public justifications for Nixon's policies. And the question he raised, purple prose aside, was also valid. Since we know the war is lost - or at least is a war that cannot be won in any way a responsible American government should be willing to pursue - how is it somehow honorable or otherwise praiseworthy to keep the killing going?

And there's definitely something to his suggestion that the notion of continuing indefinitely in such a cause is related to the Lost Cause understanding of the Civil War. I'm not sure it could ever be quantified. But there's definitely something to it.

In 1972, the Republican Party was not as far along the road to being Cheneyized as it is today. It was not a Party principle then to defend the use of torture by Americans, for instance.

But the Party was definitely on the road. Nixon's Vice President Spiro Agnew, before he had to resign in disgrace in a plea-bargain to avoid going to jail over taking bribes, rejected any arguments that the Vietnam War was immoral by saying, "All wars are immoral." This was understood to be an argument for continuing the Vietnam War. I think the idea was that since all wars were immoral, then no wars were immoral, or that morality of a war didn't matter, or something along those lines.

Pat Buchanan was Agnew's speechwriter. Agnew was a big favorite of the Republican rightwing. That kind of celebration of the fact that they didn't feel themselves bound by considerations of morality that were only for lesser folk - "the rules don't apply to us" mentality - is still around. And thriving in Cheney's Republican Party.

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