Friday, 4 May 2012

Airbrushed from history

A Eugene McCarthy election badge 

During the US invasion of SE Asia, MM made two trips to Vietnam, as the war correspondent for the New York Review of Books. Her opposition to the war was well known: McCarthy had advocated tax protests and direct action campaigns. She visited south Vietnam in Feb 1967 and north Vietnam in March 1968.

Both trips came at critical times during the conflict. In Jan 67, Pres Johnson had authorized Operation Cedar Falls, a massive bombing campaign against the NLF  north of Saigon. Jan 1968 saw the beginning of the Tet Offensive by the NLF against almost 20 towns and cities in the south, shattering Johnson’s assertion that the war was under control and sparking a new wave of anti-war protest across the US.

McCarthy produced eight articles during her two trips, serialized in NYRB, subsequently published as two paperbacks, Vietnam and Hanoi, and then as an omnibus volume, The Seventeenth Degree, in 1974.

McCarthy seemed an unusual choice as a war correspondent. Alistair Cooke hit a note of false alarm in the Chicago Sun Times: “Mary McCarthy in Vietnam! It holds the promise of a secret weapon or the threat of a crash program by the doves. Once her visa was granted, you can imagine the general beefing-up procedure for the military (alert the ambassador, suspend the tortures, hide the napalm).”
McCarthy’s best-selling novel The Group had come out in 1963, making her a household name and providing the money for her visit to Vietnam. But it also turned her into Cooke's stereotype, the bourgeois lady novelist or Mailer's 'America’s First Lady of Letters', a woman the chattering media classes believed had no business as a war journalist and who also chose to ignore the fact that McCarthy had been active in left wing politics for over 30 years. It was the spin that ensured a virtual media blank-out as her war articles and books were published (very like today's blackout of her Centenary, McCarthy airbrushed from history).