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WHY WE WEREN'T iN VIETNAM

11:00 PM, Nov 5, 1995 • By JOSHUA MURAVCHIK
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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."