Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Dissident! Red Mary's May Day Celebration


A series of articles on the Vietnam War by Mary McCarthy were collected in two books, Vietnam (1967) and Hanoi (1968). McCarthy's uncompromising antiwar views grew out of her long history of radical activism. She didn't get a lot of credit for her Vietnam writings when they appeared, a cultural media blackout which continues to this day.

Report from Vietnam I. The Home Program

APRIL 20, 1967

Mary McCarthy

I confess that when I went to Vietnam early in February I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it, though often by accident or in the process of being briefed by an official. Finding it is no job; the Americans do not dissemble what they are up to. They do not seem to feel the need, except through verbiage; e.g., napalm has become “Incinder-jell,” which makes it sound like Jello. And defoliants are referred to as weed-killers—something you use in your driveway. The resort to euphemism denotes, no doubt, a guilty conscience or—the same thing nowadays—a twinge in the public-relations nerve. Yet what is most surprising to a new arrival in Saigon is the general unawareness, almost innocence, of how what “we” are doing could look to an outsider.

From NY Review of Books 1960

McCarthy in Vietnam

From Mary McCarthy, The Art of Fiction No. 27

Interviewed by Elisabeth Sifton for The Paris Review 1961

This was when you became involved in politics, wasn’t it?
No. Earlier. In 1936, at the time of the Moscow trials. That changed absolutely everything. I got swept into the whole Trotskyite movement. But by accident. I was at a party. I knew Jim Farrell—I’d reviewed one of his books, I think it was Studs Lonigan—in any case, I knew Jim Farrell, and I was asked to a party given by his publisher for Art Young, the old Masses cartoonist. There were a lot of communists at this party. Anyway, Farrell went around asking people whether they thought Trotsky was entitled to a hearing and to the right of asylum. I said yes, and that was all. The next thing I discovered I was on the letterhead of something calling itself the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. I was furious, of course, at this use of my name. Not that my name had any consequence, but still, it was mine. Just as I was about to make some sort of protest, I began to get all sorts of calls from Stalinists, telling me to get off the committee. I began to see that other people were falling off the committee, like Freda Kirchwey—she was the first to go, I think—and this cowardice impressed me so unfavorably that naturally I didn’t say anything about my name having got on there by accident, or at least without my realizing. So I stayed.
I began to know all the people on the committee. We’d attend meetings. It was a completely different world. Serious, you know. Anyway, that’s how I got to know the PR boys. They hadn’t yet revived the Partisan Review, but they were both on the Trotsky committee, at least Philip was. We—the committee, that is—used to meet in Farrell’s apartment. I remember once when we met on St. Valentine’s Day and I thought, Oh, this is so strange, because I’m the only person in this room who realizes that it’s Valentine’s Day. It was true! I had a lot of rather rich Stalinist friends, and I was always on the defensive with them, about the Moscow trial question, Trotsky and so on. So I had to inform myself, really, in order to conduct the argument. I found that I was reading more and more, getting more and more involved in this business. At the same time I got a job at Covici-Friede, a rather left-wing publishing house now out of business, also full of Stalinists. I began to see Philip Rahv again because Covici Friede needed some readers’ opinions on Russian books, and I remembered that he read Russian, so he came around to the office, and we began to see each other. When Partisan Review was revived I appeared as a sort of fifth wheel—there may have been more than that—but in any case as a kind of appendage of Partisan Review.
Then you hadn’t really been interested in politics before the Moscow trials?
No, not really. My first husband had worked at the Theater Union, which was a radical group downtown that put on proletarian plays, and there were lots of communists in that. Very few socialists. And so I knew all these people; I knew that kind of person. But I wasn’t very sympathetic to them. We used to see each other, and there were a lot of jokes. I even marched in May Day parades. 

How do you characterize your political opinion now?
All the way round?
Yes! No, I still believe in what I believed in then—I still believe in a kind of libertarian socialism, a decentralized socialism.