Thursday, 15 May 2014

"One of America’s problems is an inability to see itself." MM on the end of the Vietnam War (final part, from NYRB 1975)

If anything has been added it is the smell of vengefulness associated with the Mayagüezepisode, typical, I fear, of the current mood of this moody nation. It is not proceeding just from the White House and Capitol Hill.

We read that the American people want to forget about Vietnam; they are sick of it. That, obviously, is the opposite of learning a lesson, where a fact or an experience is imprinted on the memory, with cautionary results. I admit that I myself hoped last summer during the House Judiciary Committee hearings that Vietnam and Watergate, between them, would have caused us, at least, to do some self-questioning. The first awful intimation that this was not so came with the orphan airlift. The competition for Vietnamese babies made clear that Americans were still intent on mass demonstration of their essential goodness—a fatal motive in the Vietnamese enterprise, as hospitals, dispensaries, GI-built schools, improved seed strains, toothbrushes, surplus canned goods were strewn over the bombed, defoliated country, proving good intentions. If this sincere delusion had not been persisted in, the war could not have continued. With the orphans, the national heart again began to swell with the familiar philanthropic sentiments; nobody thought to ask what right we had to appropriate these babies, who in fact were part of the Vietnamese patrimony. Again, we were “saving” them, from disease and malnutrition; at the same time, they were little trophies, keepsakes—war loot salvaged from the wreck of the US involvement, so costly to the taxpayer.

The American amour-propre was seriously damaged in Vietnam, and the orphans in the end were insufficient restitution, especially since everybody could not have one. In any case, our generous image, not wholly inexact (Americans are kindly and helpful), is a dangerous reflection of our sense of national superiority, of our having more things to give away, like the ballpoints Nixon used to distribute on the streets of West European capitals, imagining that there was still a hunger for them. The idea that some nations would not want our things or our “know-how”—which made them—is inconceivable to most Americans.
One of America’s problems is an inability to see itself. Hence the concern even among intellectuals with how the US looks after the defeat and how the defeat has affected our “position” in the rest of the world, as though what has happened were as much a social snub or slap in the face as a true loss. And the concurrent hope that the loss can somehow be turned into a gain, something positive, which would be true if whole peoples were able to revise their unthinking estimate of themselves, that is, break with all their habits.
There is no doubt that Germany was profoundly changed and sobered by the Nazi defeat, but it would take an atomic catastrophe, I often think, for the US to recover from the American way of life—the production-consumption cycle that has become an almost biological fact, resting as it does on rapid obsolescence and replacement. Intermittent elections add to the helpless feeling of stasis and eternal recurrence. You watch the same old candidates—Reagan, Jackson, Kennedy, Humphrey, Wallace—on your new color TV set. Anybody in his right mind would rather have it the other way around: fresh voices and faces on a quavery senior citizen TV screen. But for some un-Marxist reason, the constant restyling of the objects among which we live has no effect on the political superstructure, politicians being sent to the junk heap of history at a much slower rate than cars and ice-dispensers.
I can think of no way in which US political life can now be revitalized. The wistful idea (in which I have fitfully shared) of a “use” to which the Vietnam experience could be put shows that our faith remains a naïve, mechanical utilitarianism, which has no room in it for death in private life or tragedy in politics.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

"...when the last American was withdrawn, nothing basically changed except the color of the corpses" :MM on the end of the Vietnam war from NYRB

In early May 1975, The New York Review asked some of its contributors to write on the meaning of the Vietnam war and its ending. They were asked to consider the questions of the responsibility for the war; its effect on American life, politics, and culture, and the US position in the world; and the prospects of recovery from it—or any other questions they felt to be important. > —The Editors

Mary McCarthy
The only beneficiaries I can see of the event of April 30 are the Vietnamese. As the end approached, it was hoped, by many Americans and their sympathizers abroad, that some domestic benefit would be noticed. A weight, it was argued, ought to be lifted, of taxation, guilt, and shame, and new priorities could be set for the republic. With Vietnam out of the way, liberty and equality, a package, would no longer have to be viewed as articles for export and promotional salesmanship. The “lesson of Vietnam” would have been learned, both by our leaders and by the citizenry, which had been viewing the instructive spectacle on television.
It is too soon, of course, to be sure that nothing of the kind is happening. Perhaps a subliminal effect has been registered. Yet since so few “lessons” are ever learned in private life, one wonders why the process should be expected to take place in public life, so much less subject to the control of individual conscience and so poorly endowed, comparatively, with the means of reform. In any case, as it seems to me, the time had long passed when an opportunity for “correction of errors” was present and visible to everyone. That time was 1968, when the light had been seen, as Johnson’s “abdication” in the spring had made clear. The war ought to have been terminated then with North Vietnamese cooperation in an American exit. Between April 1968, when the Paris peace talks were agreed upon in principle (though not, in practice, until the fall), and April 1975, when the last American was withdrawn, nothing basically changed except the color of the corpses.
Had the US gone home then seriously, for good, the result would have been the same as what we are seeing now, with the single difference that third-force elements in the South might have been in a stronger position. At home, the time seemed right for reform or renovation; it looked as if a new leaf might really be turned. The Bobby Kennedy candidacy, the Gene McCarthy “children’s crusade,” the youth rebellion on the campuses, all touched off by revulsion from the war in Vietnam, were signs of a change of heart. The first and last signs. The nomination of Humphrey by the Democratic convention that summer demonstrated that inertia had resumed control of US political behavior. The reaction to Vietnam lost its impact, frittered away in fringe manifestations, such as the various mobilization marches—fun and games dampened by tear gas. Despite all the bloody and sensational events in between—Martin Luther King’s murder, Bobby Kennedy’s murder, Kent State, the attempt on Wallace, Watergate, Nixon’s fall—you could almost say that time had stood still during those seven years.

Nothing is worse for a private person than to have seen in a moment of clarity the error of his ways and then failed to alter them; the last state of the man is worse than the first. That is where our country is now, and to blame our leaders, with their professional deformations, for not rising to the occasion offered them by the war’s end, in other words for not being different from what they evidently are, is a stupid exercise, itself the product of fatigue. That Ford and Kissinger, anxious about US “credibility” abroad, inflated the Mayagüez incident in their own minds and action as though it were a missiles confrontation, that Defense Secretary Schlesinger “warns” the North Koreans that the US has “learned the lesson of Vietnam” (does he mean that the next time we will use nukes?) only shows that the bruised leopard cannot change its spots. The acclaim of Congress for the Mayagüez performance is nothing new either—the Tonkin Gulf reflex all over again. And when we now hear that our air force tear-gassed and nearly killed the crew it was bent on retrieving, we remember Têt and the officer explaining, “We had to destroy the city in order to save it.”