Attempting to articulate the dilemmas faced by the liberal voter this year, COMMENTARY herewith continues its regular column, Election '68. This department, which will run continuously until October, is intended to provide a forum for a variety of opinions on the options open to the concerned and responsible citizen. Michael Harrington, author of the present essay, is chairman of the League for Industrial Democracy. His books include The Other America, The Accidental Century, and the forthcoming Toward a Democratic Left, which Macmillan will publish later this month. We invite letters and comments from our readers on the points raised by Mr. Harrington as well as by the other contributors to this department.
Ending the war in Vietnam must be the aim of any liberal or radical strategy for 1968.
The tragic character of the American involvement in Southeast Asia is, for me, so obvious that I will only note it rather than argue it. Our commitment to this hideous conflict threatens World War III through a military confrontation with Chinese Communism. It has already reversed many of the hopeful trends toward a Soviet-American detente and even a liquidation of the cold war. And last, but not least, it ravages an innocent land which has already undergone a generation of bloodshed. America acts as the heir of French imperialism, supports a government led by officers who fought against their own countrymen on behalf of a colonialist army, and thus continues a tactic which, for over twenty years, has driven nationalists into a Communist-led movement.
Moreover, and this is not so obvious, the American involvement in Vietnam constitutes the strongest right-wing force in our domestic political life. There will be no solution to the crisis of the cities, no response to the economic, social, and psychological outrage of racism, and no positive answer to the hysteria about “crime in the streets” as long as the war goes on. Since this is the case, any strategy which seeks to mute the issue of Vietnam in order to forward the struggle against injustice within the United States is self-defeating.
A dedicated, brilliant liberal like Leon Keyserling would challenge the above thesis. In this, he is an able spokesman for a point of view which has significant influence in the American liberal movement, particularly in its labor wing. Keyserling argues that, in terms of economic resources, America is so wealthy that it can simultaneously fight the Vietcong abroad and the slums at home. That is quite right. He also insists that the poor, both black and white, must not be required to pay a disproportionate cost of the war. That is quite right, too, and therefore doves should unite with hawks in the battle for civil rights, anti-poverty funds, and all the rest. Those opponents of the war who refuse to work on such issues with, say, the AFL-CIO leadership bcause of the latter's support of Johnson's Vietnam policy are not being militant. They are simply imposing the heaviest burden of a war which the middle-class peace movement has not succeeded in stopping upon the backs of people in the ghettos and the backwoods.
But where Keyserling is, to my mind, quite wrong is in thinking that there is any political hope to push forward with social programs as long as the commitment to Vietnam continues. The effort must be made, to be sure, but given the right-wing impact of Vietnam upon American life, it will be a holding action at best. Since 1965, the administration has de-escalated the struggle against poverty and racism every time it has escalated the attack in Southeast Asia, and the Great Society no longer survives even as a phrase. The President has not simply shifted billions of dollars from construction to destruction. He has appropriated all the intangible resources at his command—human energy, intelligence, and imagination—in support of his Vietnam policy as well.
As a result, Mr. Johnson has helped to create the conditions for what Bayard Rustin has termed “the politics of fear and frustration.” The poor were promised an “unconditional” war on poverty in January 1964. The beginnings of the campaign were exceedingly modest—a reconaissance rather than a battle—but there were reasons to hope. So black America, the most dynamic, aspiring part of the other America, gave massive support to Johnson in the 1964 elections. But then, having raised up the spirits of the poor, and particularly of Negroes already in political motion, Mr. Johnson dashed them down. Out of this bitter experience, a sense of frustration swept the activists. Some turned to an angry, and even racist, militancy; others sank back into a despairing nihilism. The whites were fearful of this aroused frustration, and professed reactionaries therefore received more and more support. In 1967, they successfully mounted a savage attack upon the Aid for Dependent Children program and, in effect, passed an anti-Negro law (actually, all of the young receiving help under ADC were harmed—it was an anti-anti-poverty law—but the blacks among them suffered the most grievously, as usual).
In other words, the domestic political consequences of the Vietnam policy have canceled out the economic possibility of waging two vigorous wars, one tragic and one happy, at the same time. I will certainly join with Keyserling and his co-thinkers in insisting as loudly as possible that this should not be so. But a political strategy has to be based on the sure knowledge that it is already a fact.
In this perspective, every major issue in America today is a function of the war. Those who argue, for instance, that the real debate in the coming campaign will be over “crime in the streets” and not Vietnam, fail to understand that the first issue depends on the second. When Mr. Johnson's commitment to Southeast Asia made it impossible for him to redeem his sweeping promises to the American ghetto, he lost the chance to deal with Negro frustration in a positive way. Since the President is thus unable to remove the fundamental and outrageous causes of black desperation, he has no effective answer to the white backlashers who demand the rule of the nightstick. Were it not for Vietnam, it might well not even be necessary to have the discussion over “crime in the streets,” for vigorous programs would deal with basic causes: but thanks to Vietnam, Mr. Johnson finds it so difficult to answer his critics on the Right that he is apparently going to try to steal the issue from them.
In saying these things about Johnson, let me dissociate myself from some of the more hysterical anti-warriors, in part out of a sense of simple fairness, in part because of the politics of the future.
I see Lyndon Johnson as more tragic than malevolent. In 1964, I suspect he honestly and genuinely wanted to complete Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. I was convinced then, as now, that he did not understand the radical departures which his goals implied, but at least he was pointing to the real problems. In Washington in those days, and on the very campuses which are now most disenchanted and angry with the President, there was a sense of hope and possibility. But slowly, in tiny increments of error, through carefully phased and counter-productive escalations, Mr. Johnson led this nation into the most morally disastrous war in its history. And among the many victims of this policy were his own best intentions.
It is also politically important to maintain a sense of the complexity of the issue. If this horrible war is ended before an ultimate escalation, then the only hope for progressive social change will be a reunification of the liberal and labor forces now so bitterly divided with regard to the administration's foreign policy. There exists no political majority for democratic structural reform without the trade unionists—who represent the largest organized force for such domestic innovations—the Negroes, the liberal middle class, and others. The efforts of various New Left theorists to discover a new “proletariat,” be it among the poor, the blacks, the alienated, the youth, or wherever, have all failed. Now, it is conceivable that it will even be impossible to construct the kind of coalition I describe here. But it is certain that this represents the only chance for humane transformations of America and, eventually, of America's role in the world.
When the war is over, the Council of Economic Advisors tells us in its 1968 Report, $30 billion will become available in eighteen months ($15 billion through cutbacks in Defense spending; $15 billion through the normal fiscal dividend which an expanding economy provides). How will it be spent? The Council mentions a number of possibilities, the very first among them a tax cut. And there is no question that there will be powerful conservative forces pressing for such a reactionary Keynesian intervention to stimulate the postwar economy. On the other side in such a debate will be those who will seek to use this money for direct public investments to meet vital social needs. For this latter view to prevail, the factions of the democratic Left which are now bitterly split over Vietnam will have to come together again.
For this reason, I would urge my point of view against that of Keyserling and the labor liberals in a certain way. I believe that they are quite wrong in failing to understand that, so long as Vietnam continues, America will move to the Right on all fundamental social questions. One fights the trends, and there might even be a victory here and there, but the political economics of 1968 are such that the administration cannot, and will not, supply the resources both for the wrong war there and for the right one here. And this fact, more than any speech by Rap Brown, will incite some black Americans to desperation and white Americans to fear. But in thus insisting that Vietnam is central to every major question in the campaign, I want to act so as to promote cooperation now on immediate social issues and between doves and hawks, and thus lay the basis for the coalition of the future.
So my criterion for judging political strategies this year is this: how will a candidate, or a tactic, help to end the war in Vietnam? And I take this position not simply because of what that conflict is doing in Asia and in the world but also because of what it is doing in America.
Given this standpoint, the various “resistance” strategies are not an effective means of bringing the war to a close, though they may well be transcendental obligations which bind the individual conscience. For the most part, resistance is an attempt to give political meaning to the moral anguish of young people faced with the impossible choices of serving in a war they consider to be profoundly unjust, going to jail, or fleeing to Canada. Were I in the age group, I would myself refuse to serve and seek classification as a conscientious objector, going to jail if need be. And, if the public prosecutor will once again take note, I hereby counsel young people—and everyone, for that matter—to follow their conscience on the issue of the war (the reasoning behind my attitude is spelled out in the March-April Dissent).
But the fact remains that, however morally necessary some form of resistance may be to the individual, it is not an effective political tactic against the war. It is largely confined to the middle class, particularly when it becomes a matter of risking jail, and to a tiny minority at that. Moreover, when resistance takes the form of épater les bourgeois, of subordinating the struggle to end the war to the battle for pot or groovy clothes, it becomes a contemptible act of petty bourgeois self-indulgence in which “doing one's thing” is more important than the agony of the Vietnamese. Finally, when the resisters do not simply witness their own convictions but try to stop others in the exercise of their democratic rights, they are not simply anti-libertarian but running the risk of provoking a McCarthyite repression.
If I were Lyndon Johnson, I would hope that the “Yippies” have a marvelous campy happening at the Chicago Democratic convention and identify the anti-war cause with the East Village and Haight-Ashbury. In American political terms that would constitute the most effective pro-war demonstration imaginable.
Then there are the various third-party strategies on the Left, the most serious among them being the Peace and Freedom party which has qualified for the ballot in California. These efforts will, I believe, lead many committed and excellent people to a political dead-end. For such groups have taken a principled, programmatic position in favor of being a marginal minority—and that is not going to end the war or prepare for the peace.
In California, for instance, prominent Peace and Freedom leaders have made it clear that unmasking Eugene McCarthy is one of their main functions. And indeed, the tactic of persuading liberals and radicals to switch their registration out of the Democratic party will make Mr. Johnson's task all the easier during the primary. But this is not a simple aberration from tactical judgment. It flows from a long-range strategy which is current among many New Leftists. It is worth taking seriously, not because it has any serious political substance, but because it speaks to the emotions of many young people who must eventually be won to a democratic-Left coalition.
The basic premise underlying the Peace and Freedom tactic is that there is a chasm which separates radicalism and liberalism. Thus in San Francisco last year, the Vietnam referendum had to be phrased in terms of immediate withdrawal; dividing the anti-war camp in this way, it allowed the President a gratuitous victory. Thus, too, I heard a young militant at a Berkeley meeting last October (it was in violation of an anti-libertarian injunction) denounce the main enemy of the peace movement: Senator Robert F. Kennedy. And thus, too, they argue that Eugene McCarthy is really pro-war.
Here is how Carl Oglesby, writing in the February Ramparts, defined “the historic mission of American liberalism”: “bridge all the old contradictions and close the wounds of America.” Now there is no question that liberalism, which is non-revolutionary and proposes reform within the system, can be used to prop up the status quo. There are indeed corporate liberals who, having learned from Marie Antoinette, are happy to “social engineer” some bread for the masses so that the elite can keep its cake. But there are also liberals whose main concern is reform, not the system reform is supposed to ameliorate. These are the ones who stood firm against McCarthyism and defended the rights of Communists, who struggled for the social changes which allowed so many of the New Leftists to go to college, who risked their lives in the civil-rights struggle, and so on.
But in the Peace and Freedom view, this contradictory, changing phenomenon of mass liberalism has been reduced to the worst aspects of its most conservative wing. And in one stroke, the organized American working-class (which stands for a domestic liberal program), most of the Negroes, most of the middle class, are placed beyond the pale. There is no understanding that America will move to the Left only when these people, acting out of what is best in their liberal commitment and in response to overwhelming events, turn in a radical direction. Instead, there is an emotionally satisfying proclamation of radical righteousness which appeals primarily to college students and graduates.
So I would reject the Peace and Freedom approach on two grounds. First, its long-range strategic orientation is a blueprint for irrelevance and contains elements of elitist contempt for the democratic potential of rank-and-file Americans. And second, in terms of the overriding necessity to organize for ending the war in Vietnam, this tactic would reduce the anti-war movement to a moralistic fringe.
Therefore, in this election it seems to me that political efforts to stop the war must be directed toward one of the two major parties—or both.
Between now and the Democratic convention there is no question in my mind that Senator Eugene McCarthy's campaign provides the most effective way of challenging administration policy. McCarthy has a position in favor of negotiations which might both win the support of the majority of the American people and actually provide the basis for ending the Vietnamese agony. His efforts are concentrated in the party which already commands the allegiance of those who are concerned both about Vietnam and about social change in America.
I certainly wish McCarthy's record on several domestic issues were better than it is, but the fact that he provides a rallying point for effective anti-war sentiment is a much greater contribution to the cause of domestic transformation than a perfect voting record in the past. For Vietnam, once again, is the determinant of our domestic possibilities as well as a hideous event in its own right. The McCarthy style has been much criticized, and I am not sure on that count who is right: perhaps an understated approach may produce more lasting eloquence than the flamboyant psychodramas which some of McCarthy's critics on the Left demand. But in any case, Eugene McCarthy is the only Democrat who, at this writing, has taken a courageous and audacious stand against the war in the form of a direct challenge to the President. That makes up my mind.
McCarthy, I assume, will not win the nomination. But if his movement can command significant, committed minority support within the Democratic party, it will provide the most effective way of registering anti-war protest. Lyndon Johnson will hear about such strength; so will the Republican party.
But the Democratic party will nominate Johnson. What then? At that point it will be necessary to follow a rigorous lesser-evilism which, in most cases, will point to an emotionally unsatisfying, and even repugnant, vote. For the claims of the suffering people of Vietnam and the threat of World War III posed by a continuation of that war are so urgent that gestures which are merely moral become immoral.
In a contest between Lyndon Johnson and a Republican super-hawk (Ronald Reagan certainly, Richard Nixon possibly), I would vote for Johnson on lesser-evil grounds. It has been somewhat fashionable in recent years for opponents of the war to apologize for voting for Johnson in 1964 because he turned out to be a Goldwaterite on Vietnam. I make no such apology. Johnson was, and is, a lesser evil than Goldwater on Vietnam and, in comparison, a positive good when it comes to domestic questions. For all of my anger at Johnson's violation of his campaign promises of '64, for all my suspicions that he was planning escalation even as he talked peace, he has not yet turned over the conduct of the war to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Perhaps he will do so in the future. But Goldwater, I am convinced, would have done it four years ago. And Reagan would do it next January, and perhaps Nixon would. And since I believe the Joint Chiefs are, whether wittingly or not, objectively advocates of World War III, I would vote for Johnson as against a super-hawk.
If a Republican dove ran against Johnson, or even a somewhat dovish Republican who was trying to take advantage of the popular anti-war sentiment, I would, with great reluctance, vote for him. I say this even though I am convinced that the election of any Republican, no matter how liberal, would further conservatize the Congress. For the Republican party is certainly going to be to the Right of any of its doves, and the coattail effect which always takes place in Presidential years would be reactionary in this case. But, once again, four more years of Johnson's war policy would have an even more Rightward effect than would be produced by a dove Republican with a conservative Congress.
Moreover, I am convinced that one of the main reasons that Johnson does not really seek negotiations (I believe that every one of his peace offers has announced American willingness to accept a Vietcong surrender in one form or another) is that once they are concluded he will have to explain why he spent all that blood and treasure on the venture. And since a political settlement of the war will inevitably involve concessions to the National Liberation Front, Johnson cannot find a rationale which would justify the high human and material price of his policy. Therefore, I believe that a Republican dove, even a somewhat opportunistic one, would be able to end the war where Johnson could not.
But if the choice is between the President and a merely hawkish, but not super-hawkish, Nixon, I would vote for Johnson on the grounds that he is clearly to be preferred on domestic questions. At the same time, I would make it quite clear that this eventuality strikes me as a failure of the democratic system—that at a moment of high peril and profound issues there is no significant choice with regard to the fate of the nation and of the world as it is posed in Vietnam. For there would be no serious way to vote effectively for an end to the war.
Finally, a few general comments: I assume that the foregoing is as depressing to read as it was to write. Yet I think it important, even in these rather dark days, not to jump to apocalyptic conclusions as some on the Left have done. There are, for instance, those who think that democracy has broken down because they have not been able to persuade a majority to agree with an anti-war position. Now, this may well show that the democratic majority is capable of being tragically wrong under certain conditions. But it does not prove that there are no longer ways of changing men's minds and creating new majorities. Therefore one must insist, and particularly to the young in these disenchanting times, that the struggle is going to be a long one, that it might conceivably even be lost, but that it is by no means over yet.
So if a certain conservatism of American social structure and political habit results, in one way or another, in an endorsement of this terrible war, it is hardly the moment to flee into revolutionary fantasies in which the poor misguided people are really radical if only they'd listen to the spokesmen of their true interest. Neither is it a time for withdrawal, either into a hippie ghetto or into a suburban inwardness.
There are congressional and senatorial elections of enormous moment on the ballot and, should the Wallace candidacy succeed in winning a balance of power for segregation, it would be of great importance. Even if the most obscene consequences of the Wallace tactic do not come to pass, there is still the battle over social legislation. Therefore, it seems to me that, no matter what an opponent of the war might decide to do on the Presidential line, it is of the utmost urgency to participate in all of the other campaigns where there are significant choices. For eventually, once this war is over, there must be a new majority in America and it will number in its ranks those who now differ on the war. That is why it is so important to seek to end the war in such a way as to make it possible to win the peace: that there will never be another Vietnam; that there will be a new America.
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