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By 1966, it was becoming clear that things were not going well in Vietnam. Arthur Schlesinger expressed concern that the US effort to "suppress the resistance" by widening the war had dubious prospects, though "we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government" if Johnson's escalation succeeds, even if it leaves "the tragic country gutted and devastated by bombs, burned by napalm, turned into a wasteland by chemical defoliation, a land of ruin and wreck," with its "political and institutional fabric" pulverized. "No thoughtful American can withhold sympathy as President Johnson ponders the gloomy choices which lie ahead" -- sympathy for the President, that is, not the victims. Referring to Joseph Alsop's predictions of victory, Schlesinger writes that "we all pray that Mr. Alsop will be right," though he doubts it. The only qualms are tactical: what will be the cost to us?
In this 1966 book, Schlesinger describes himself as keeping faith with JFK -- plausibly enough. He proposes a "middle course": the indigenous resistance should surrender to the US and its client regime, accepting a US-run political process, such as the "valiant try at self-government" which "excited such idealistic hopes in the United States"; he is referring to the 1966 elections, in which the entire opposition (Communists and neutralists) was excluded from the ballot. Withdrawal, he says, is out of the question: it "would have ominous reverberations throughout Asia" and be "humiliating." We must, rather, abide by our "moral obligations" to our clients, "a new class of nouveaux mandarins...pervaded by nepotism, corruption and cynicism," and lacking popular support.7
Again we have the same alternatives: (1) Schlesinger is still concealing JFK's intent to withdraw without victory; (2) JFK had successfully concealed it from him; (3) There was there no such intent, in which case his later claims are false.
Twelve years later, Schlesinger wrote that on January 6, 1966, Robert McNamara had privately informed him and other "New Frontier friends" that the US would have to seek "withdrawal with honor" in Vietnam. A few months later, the friends "decided to do what little we could to stir public opinion." His own contribution, he says, was to write The Bitter Heritage -- which prays for victory and opposes withdrawal as unthinkable.8
After the Tet Offensive in January 1968, major domestic power sectors concluded that the enterprise was becoming too costly to sustain and called for it to be ended. Apart from the impact on the global economy, unfavorable to the US, the mounting popular opposition to the war was of particular concern. One part of the Pentagon Papers record that has gained little attention reviews the concern in high places that further escalation might lead to protest even beyond the "massive" demonstration at the Pentagon in October 1967, perhaps also large-scale civil disobedience. In considering further troop deployments, the Joint Chiefs wanted to ensure that "sufficient forces would still be available for civil disorder control," and the Defense Department feared that escalation might lead to "increased defiance of the draft and growing unrest in the cities," running the risk of "provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions."9
President Johnson was, in effect, dismissed from office, and policy was set towards disengagement.
The effect of the policy shift on the ideological system was dramatic. Virtually everyone suddenly turned out to have been an "early opponent of the war" -- in secret, since no record can be found. In Cambridge, the home of the Kennedy "action intellectuals," it became a standing joke. A more accurate picture is given by the attitudes of the Massachusetts branch of Americans for Democratic Action, at the "ultraliberal" extreme. In late 1967, its leadership would not even accept membership applications from people they expected would speak in favor of an anti-war resolution sponsored by a local chapter that had fallen out of control.10 A few weeks later, after the Tet offensive, everything changed. By late 1969 the liberal press began to move beyond tactical complaints to critical comment, though with no serious deviation from state doctrine.11
Without too much oversimplification, we can take the Tet offensive of January 1968 to be the turning point for the cultural managers, who now faced several challenging tasks. One was to defuse the opposition, an interesting story, still untold. Another was to restore the basic doctrines of the faith: The war must now be understood as a noble effort gone astray, in part because of disruptive domestic elements who had impeded the earnest efforts of "early opponents of the war." At the outer limits, we may say that the war began with "blundering efforts to do good," though "by 1969" it had become "clear to most of the world -- and most Americans -- that the intervention had been a disastrous mistake"; the argument against the war "was that the United States had misunderstood the cultural and political forces at work in Indochina -- that it was in a position where it could not impose a solution except at a price too costly to itself" (Anthony Lewis).
Recall that the population never absorbed the lessons taught by the extreme doves, continuing to believe that the war was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," not a "mistake."
It is misleading to cite only those who have scaled the peaks of independent critical thought. More in the mainstream is Peter Kann of the Wall Street Journal, who concedes that 30 years ago there might have been an issue about "defending an often imperfect ally; supporting distant Asian dominoes; sowing democratic seeds in soil that frequently seemed infertile; waging the war with too much firepower, or too little." But today, "it is hard to think of any issue or any place in the world where hindsight offers a clearer spotlight in which to distinguish right from wrong." When we compare "free, prosperous and stable" countries like Indonesia that have been celebrating "personal dignity" since 1965 with the horrors of Indochina after our retreat, it is obvious to "common sense" that the hawks were right and those who saw the Communists as "groovy little people in the jungle" were dead wrong. That opponents of the war were supporters of Communism need not be argued. It follows at once from the basic doctrine of the Gospel according to Kann and associates: since US perfection is axiomatic and the concept of "US aggression and mass murder" meaningless gibberish, it follows that opponents of US policy are supporters of the hated enemy. As for the rest, putting aside the exaltation of atrocity and oppression, one wonders whether in some dark corner of Russia there remains some commissar so vile and cowardly as to proclaim the nobility of the Soviet cause in Afghanistan, pointing to the people of Kabul terrorized by the rockets of the rebel armies. If so, he can apply for a position at any American journal or university.
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7 Schlesinger, Bitter Heritage; see APNM, ch. 4. On the PR function of staged elections in Vietnam and elsewhere, see Herman and Brodhead, Demonstration Elections; MC, ch. 3.
8 Schlesinger, RFK, 734, 739.
9 See FRS, 25.
10 Howard Zinn and I were the applicants; the chapter was Arlington, near Cambridge. The details are not without interest.
11 On media coverage of the war from the early 1950s through 1985, see MC, 169-296and App. 3.