A Special Supplement: The Meaning of Vietnam (1975)

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In his item, A Requiem for Vietnam, ANDREW J. BACEVICH mentioned this item published by The New York Review of Books in 1975. Both are worth reading in these days of endless, undeclared wars. Below are the opening paragraphs of each person who contributed to the article. 


12 Jun 1975 |Stuart HampshireElizabeth HardwickGarry WillsGore Vidal, and Norman Mailer,Noam Chomsky et al.| The New York Review of Books

In early May, 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

Sheldon S. Wolin

“The lessons of the past in Vietnam,” the President said recently, “have already been learned—learned by Presidents, learned by Congress, learned by the American people—and we should have our focus on the future….” The past, he declared, should be left to the historians. For then, presumably, after events have lost their preternatural shape and passions have cooled, when no one cares any longer, perspective is possible once more. Not long ago, Watergate evoked the same advice, even the same words. Then, too, we were advised to “put the past behind us,” to cease our recriminations, and to concentrate on the urgent matters of the day. Then as now, when the nation has been transfixed by events of extraordinary peril and significance, our leaders have all but told us that, as a people, we lack the maturity to reflect upon the meaning of great events. They have invited us, instead, to emulate the landlord who walks away from his profitless investment, leaving only the memorial of a tax write-off. Then as now, we have had urged upon us a politics of oblivion, a mass drinking ritual by which we drown memory in the sweet waters of Lethe and find in forgetfulness the healing balm for “our” wounds.

Garry Wills

“It may take twenty-five or thirty years before one can make a real judgment where the course of wisdom lay, either in getting in or getting out.”

Dean Rusk

Analyzing the Vietnam war may become as long and futile a process as waging it. Most of the debate will involve problems of self-perception. The war was, among other things, a social thermometer for this country. Its opening years reflected our confidence, our reliance on technology, our belief in “surgical” tamperings with anything and everything beneath (or on) the moon. Its middle time showed a dying of confidence, disguised by a tendency to soothe ourselves with lies: the official rejection of the Kerner Report on American racism was a domestic Tonkin Gulf affair. Nixon inherited a legacy of mendacity, one he had great talents for but did not initiate. Our confidence, once it crumbled into lying, led to fear—an anticipation of violence by pre-empting violence: Kent State was a domestic My Lai. And as we were stunned into impotence—ready to settle at last, and to call anything we settled for “peace with honor”—we clung to the despicable and claimed it was our preference: Nixon was the domestic Thieu.

Gore Vidal

Ten years ago I thought of the Vietnam caper as our empire’s Syracusan adventure, an analogy which now seems melodramatic, for during all this time there has not been a Sparta (pace Kissinger—Schlesinger—Fordinger) capable of bringing us down. Only we could have done that; and we came close. Fortunately, the very thoroughness of our defeat ought to put an end forever to our loony military pretensions. Americans have always been lousy soldiers. In the face of the enemy, Kilroy throws away his gun and splits; should an officer object, Kilroy frags him. To me our enduring cowardice is a sign of good judgment. We win the occasional war and deter would-be Spartas through our superior production of lethal toys. This true state of affairs makes all the more meaningless the rhetoric of those who have no actual connection with American life, like the current administration which has now taken to warning us that the last virginal orifice of the all-American, all-macho imperium is in serious danger of penetration by nuclear-tipped cylindrical hardware unless we cease our pitiful, helpless “isolationism.”

Susan Sontag

One can only be glad about the victory of the DRV and the PRG, but there seems little taste for rejoicing. It would have been disheartening beyond imagination if America had its way with Indochina, and yet nobody I know has managed to feel festive. Celebrations of the war’s end, like the one in Central Park a few Sundays ago, had the wanness of a class reunion, its participants moist-eyed and nostalgic for the Sixties’ gallant hopes, communal ardors, and risks antic and real.

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.

Norman Mailer

The responsibility for the war is entirely ours. The US was immersed in a geopolitics that looked on countries as aggregates. Whoever had the most aggregates won the Christianity versus Communism game. The domino theory was a corollary of this kind of thought, and the domino theory has proved “operative,” but in the worst way. Agrarian communist cadres, their intelligence tempered by war, will take over from urban Indochinese populations which now have small desire to resist. America’s military forged those communist cadres. My point is that the domino theory was always operative; the communists would have absorbed Southeast Asia whenever America was no longer there.

Robert Lowell

I am glad the war is finished, despite the poison it leaves behind: it leaves more than we can face, the catastrophic moral and military disaster, 55,000 dead, a half million unpardonably unpardoned deserters, half Vietnam killed, robbed, and scrapped with our complaisance—the Waterloo of anti-Stalinism. How can we get out of the indignities of the display window? The black prophet is now drowned by his truth. In our defeat communism is inevitable and cleansing, though tyrannical forever.

Christopher Lasch

Any lingering illusions that this was to be the American century have been shattered by the collapse of anticommunism in Southeast Asia.

After World War II the United States emerged, temporarily, as the strongest power in the world, and its leaders entertained visions of vast and continuing influence. But American ascendancy, even while it lasted, was based on highly unusual circumstances—the economic exhaustion of Europe, the disintegration of Japanese influence in the Far East, the collapse of older colonial systems in general, and the polarization of the world into rival blocs led by the two great nuclear powers, the United States and the USSR.

George Kennan

The lessons of Vietnam are few and plain: not to be hypnotized by the word “communism” and not to mess into other people’s civil wars where there is no substantial American strategic interest at stake.

Elizabeth Hardwick

I feel some hesitation about a final statement. One’s adjectival vehemence has been used up. Novelty is beyond me and the horrific repetitions fall from the air without instruction. The intervention, undertaken for the most glassy motive, prestige, was destructive with a mad excess that finally became an unfathomable national caprice. Now, at the end, we are prepared to grant that Indochina was always far, far away. Yet neither distance nor defeat quite separates us as we had imagined: they, there in the Mekong Basin, in the damp heat, with the memory of forests of hard woods and care-worn rubber trees; and we, back home from a foreign adventure, sore and bored, and not altogether pleased with our too many friends who have made the journey back with us.

Stuart Hampshire

As an Englishman who lived in America from 1963 to 1970 I recall that there was always well-informed opposition within the US to the war, from 1965 onward. Why then were the opponents of the war able to see the realities of the situation while the men in the Washington war-rooms, particularly Johnson’s advisers, utterly misjudged events?

John K. Fairbank

Many “lessons” are being drawn from Vietnam, most of them profoundly culture-bound. Ignorant of Buddhism, rice culture, peasant life, and Vietnamese history and values generally, we sent our men and machines to Saigon. Now we are out, and still ignorant, even of the depth of our ignorance.

Noam Chomsky

The US government was defeated in Indochina, but only bruised at home. No outside power will compel us to face the record honestly or to offer reparations. On the contrary, efforts will be devoted to obscuring the history of the war and the domestic resistance to it. There are some simple facts that we should try to save as the custodians of history set to work.

J. M. Cameron

Outside the United States there is some gloomy joy over the way in which the Vietnam war ended. David’s slaying of Goliath is always a good story and a heart-warming spectacle. Those of us who know and like the United States and its people are sad and anxious.

Geoffrey Barraclough

The decision to liquidate the entanglement in Vietnam may have marked, in President Ford’s words, the end of one chapter. It also marked the beginning of another. What matters now is not the antecedents but the sequel. As a historian, Kissinger is well aware of the old adage: reculer pour mieux sauter, and there is a good deal of evidence that what we are witnessing is not a revulsion against imperialism but a reappraisal of America’s imperial mission in terms better suited to the present constellation of world forces.

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