The Blog

WHY WE WEREN'T iN VIETNAM

11:00 PM, Nov 5, 1995 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts


Tell me what you think of [the 1960s], and I'll tell you what your politics are," once said Joseph Epstein, the editor of the American Scholar. Of course, you might make much the same point about the 1980s or the 1950s, but the 1960s stand out as a decade of particularly intense cultural and political convulsions.


The American liberalism shaped by Roosevelt and Truman, which was anchored in blue-collar precincts, and which gave us the welfare state, internationalism, and civil rights laws, was killed off in the 1960s. This set the stage for decades of battles between the new liberalism of McGovern, Carter, and Clinton and the new conservatism of Reagan and Gingrich. As for the cultural legacy, hemlines have dropped back from the record heights they reached in the 60s, but the rates of illegitimacy, divorce, and recreational drug use have just kept climbing. The Republican congressional revolution may again reshape American politics, but for the last 25 years we have been living in the shadow of the 1960s.


In Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (St. Martin's Press, 370 pages, $ 24.95), Adam Garfinkle offers a new take on the central force of the 1960s, the antiwar movement. Garfinkle, a resident scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, aims to show that, far from having caused or even hastened America's withdrawal from Vietnam, the antiwar movement had the opposite effect. Since the war was a mistake, as Garfinkle sees it, the "utterly normal contours of American politics," he argues, would have compelled disengagement. But this natural process was inhibited by reaction against the antiwar movement. "The antics of the radical antiwar movement," he says, "deterred more Americans from opposing the war sooner because they were afraid of the company they would have to keep."


Garfinkle advances two other theses: that "the real causes" of 1960s radicalism "lay in the generic difficulties of coping with the revolutionary social life of post-World War II America"; and that "the main impact of the antiwar movement was not felt in Southeast Asia but in the United States." This last point, however, is nothing but a corollary of his first thesis. If the antiwar movement did not impel American withdrawal from Vietnam, then of course its main impact would have been here rather than there. But if Garfinkle is wrong and the antiwar movement was the motor driving American withdrawal, then its effects on American life, however large, pale in comparison to its consequences for the Indochinese: the slaughter of millions and the imposition of totalitarianism on them all.


To advance his second thesis, Garfinkle argues that "overwhelm in the case of the New Left, the young radical had difficult relations with parents and family." He bases this on the research of Stanley Rothman and Robert Lichter, authors of Roots of Radicalism. But Rothman and Lichter do not show that such friction occurred "overwhelmingly," only that it was somewhat more common among radical youngsters than among their non-radical peers. And to the extent that such familial friction existed, what does it explain? Did the youth of the 1960s as a whole have more friction with their parents than the apolitical youth of the 1950s or 1980s? Anyone who was around the New Left knows that many of its members, especially among the core activists and leaders, were the progeny of 1930s radicals.


Garfinkle echoes the conventional description of New Leftism as a generational revolt. But the political activism of many, I would guess most, New Leftists was smiled upon by their parents, whether old radicals or just liberals. And this may be true even of those New Leftists who had difficult relations with their parents. The New Left offspring of old Left parents rejected their parents' ideologies, and to that extent they were rebelling, but whether they knew it or not, they had absorbed much of their outlook from their parents.


Garfinkle mentions "red diaper babies" but belittles their importance. Indeed, he underestimates across the board the influence of old Leftism of various stripes. He attributes the origins of Vietnam protest largely to a group he labels "new pacifists," but they were mostly old radicals. He characterizes the League for Industrial Democracy (from which SDS sprang) as growing out of progressivism, but it was basically a Socialist party front. And he mentions the liaison with Hanoi established by Cora Weiss, whom he describes as heir to the Helena Rubinstein cosmetics empire, when in fact the firm was Fabergand Weiss's more important inheritance was a family tradition of admiration for the Soviet Union.


In addition to the legacy of their parents' radicalism, another unique experience shaped the 1960s radicals, of whom I was one. We came of age during the emergence of the civil rights movement. Many of us joined it. And for even more of us, the civil rights struggle was the first public issue that we followed. From the perspective of maturity, it is possible to see that America's terrible injustice to its black citizens was a great anomaly for a country whose record in so many other respects was worthy of pride. The civil rights issue was unusual in another way, as well: It boiled down to a clear choice of right and wrong, whereas most policy issues involve many shades of gray. Therefore, those of us who were weaned on the civil rights struggle were predisposed to believe ill of our country and also to see political issues in Manichean terms, two characteristics that became hallmarks of 1960s radicalism.


Nor do I find convincing Garfinkle's main thesis -- that the antiwar movement impeded rather than impelled America's withdrawal from Vietnam. Oddly, very little of the book after the first chapter is devoted to proving the case. Garfinkle offers only two pieces of evidence. He cites polling data showing that many Americans were more opposed to the antiwar movement than to the war. And he refers to a book by Melvin Small, who relates that an array of former high officials in the Johnson administration told him that the antiwar movement had no impact on their decisions. (Nonetheless, as Garfinkle tells us, Small concluded that the movement was instrumental in securing U.S. withdrawal.)


Whatever Johnson administration officials may have told interviewers, it was Johnson himself, as Garfinkle shows tellingly, who made the crucial step toward capitulation in Vietnam when he withdrew from the 1968 election and announced conciliatory gestures toward Hanoi. Who can doubt that Johnson's relish of his office was dimmed by the revilement to which he was subjected, the ubiquitous pickets chanting, "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?" And it was not only Johnson who was affected. In the last pages of his book, Garfinkle offers a cogent speculation that goes far toward refuting his own case. Speaking of the "self-doubts of the liberal American political class of that time," he says:


Many government leaders . . . privately accepted the criticisms of their most pernicious adversaries, or were emotionally influenced by their passion if not their content. Most likely, their generally liberal sensitivities connected them more firmly to the protesters' fierce emotions than to the " silent majority" that supported staying the course or escalating the war.


As Garfinkle notes, Johnson recorded in his memoirs that "all the advisers expressed deep concern about the divisions in our country." Many ordinary citizens worried, too. That is why the polls Garfinkle cites showing the unpopularity of the antiwar movement miss the point. He seems to assume that the thinking of the public is ideologically linear, that dislike of the antiwar movement would translate into support of the war. But, for many, wanting the antiwar movement to go away only made them want the war to end and made them impatient with the officials who had gotten us into this mess.


Besides inner doubts and disappointments, the other factor that contributed to Johnson's decision to withdraw from the election and de-escalate the war was the surprising showing in the New Hampshire primary of Sen. Eugene McCarthy, whose campaign became the vehicle for the antiwar movement.


Though this would seem to refute Garfinkle's thesis, he discounts it by arguing that "the anti-war movement succeeded . . . only to the extent that antiwar sentiment became reliberalized through the Democratic Party." Well perhaps, but so what? Although it may be possible to distinguish antiwar liberals from radicals, it was all one movement. Garfinkle tells us, for example, that the radical "Mobilization" and the liberal "Moratorium" shared a building. Many of the same individuals who participated in "radical" demonstrations "reliberalized" to canvass voters for McCarthy. That was the meaning of the 1968 slogan "Neat and clean for Gene."


But you do not have to accept any of Garfinkle's main arguments to enjoy and profit from his painstaking reconstruction of the history of the antiwar movement. He has undertaken prodigious research (he is a few years too young to have experienced most of it firsthand). For those who were close to the scene, it is fun revisiting the arguments between Norman Thomas and David Dellinger, the brief triumph of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers party as the leader of mass antiwar demonstrations, and the final break-up of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) at a convention that pitted doctrinaire Maoists against a somewhat less doctrinaire faction calling itself the Up- Against-the-Wall Motherfuckers.


Thus did its extreme segments flame out, but the movement they left behind triumphed, choking off U.S. aid to the governments of South Vietnam and Cambodia, serving those nations up to the Communists. And, building on the McCarthy campaign, the movement succeeded as well in making the Democratic party its own. The firmness of its grip has been demonstrated anew by Bill Clinton, who campaigned as a different kind of Democrat but has governed as one who cut his teeth in the movement and bears its indelible imprint.



Joshua Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, was national chairman of the Young People's ocialist League from 1968 to 1973. His most recent book, The Imperative of American Leadership, will be published by AEI earlyl next year.