Hannah Arendt is our teacher. First, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, she taught us about the great horror of our time; then, in The Human Condition, she taught us about how the Greeks understood the political life, and how different their understanding was from that of modern man, and how we had descended in our politics from seeking virtue and fame to seeking security and the good things of ordinary life. But in addition to these matters, she has also sought to instruct us on other themes—the question of the responsibility for the Nazi Holocaust (in Eichmann in Jerusalem) and the issues of American public life (in Crises of the Republic)—and as she has moved into these other themes, her teaching has for many of us become increasingly obscure.
A recent example of such obscurity is the address she delivered to the Boston Bicentennial Forum last spring and which she subsequently published as an article in the New York Review of Books under the title “Home to Roost.”1 Because Hannah Arendt is so influential a thinker, her reflections on America as it enters its bicentennial year must be taken very seriously; and indeed they have already been much acclaimed, despite their troubling obscurity.
In this address, Dr. Arendt exhorts us to face up to the facts of the many crises into which “this form of government and its institutions of liberty” have fallen—something, she says, we have been unwilling to do since the days of Joe McCarthy. Today, however, “all the chickens have come home to roost.” The American defeat in Vietnam and the “ruin of the foreign policy of the United States” everywhere, combined “with our manifold domestic troubles,” economic and political, are forcing us to confront the possibility that we may be standing “at one of those decisive turning points of history which separate whole eras from each other.”
But, she continues, this facing up to the facts, difficult at best, is made all the more difficult by the invasion of our political life by “Madison Avenue tactics under the name of public relations.” Such tactics were originally invented to serve the purposes of a consumer society “that could keep going only by changing into a huge waste economy,” but they were extended into the political realm during the Vietnam war, when the government began lying to a degree reminiscent of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The difference was that the totalitarian countries used terror to enforce their lies, whereas in the United States the method was “hidden persuasion” and the various practices summed up under the name of Watergate. “Watergate signified the invasion of criminality into the political processes of this country, but, compared to what already happened in this terrible century, its manifestations . . . were so mild that it was always difficult to take them altogether seriously.” Nevertheless they were serious enough. In their aftermath, it looked for a moment as though the “image makers” would be dislodged, but now under Ford they are back again, trying to make us forget both Watergate and Vietnam.
Yet whatever the “image makers” do, Dr. Arendt goes on, they cannot succeed in wiping out the past altogether, especially since its consequences are so vividly present in the form of our current economic difficulties. These difficulties have their immediate origin in our defeat in Vietnam, but they are rooted ultimately in the fact that our economy has only avoided collapse since the Great Depression of the 30's through war and preparation for war—another fact we have been unwilling to face and that the “hidden persuaders” have done their best to prevent us from facing. Thus we can add the economy to Vietnam and Watergate as crises whose true nature we continue to be manipulated into evading by the techniques of Madison Avenue.
In exhorting us to face reality, Dr. Arendt cautions against a search for “deeper causes” and underlying trends “because it is in the nature of speculation about such hidden causes to hide and to make us forget the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are.” But if we take her advice, and apply it to this very essay, we find ourselves in immediate difficulties, for the simple reason that many of the facts about American politics and the American economy that she cites are not facts at all. If the teaching in this essay remains obscure, the facts are not: they are often wrong.
Thus, to begin at the beginning, she tells us in her first paragraph that “one consequence of the McCarthy episode was the destruction of a reliable and devoted civil service, something relatively new in this country, probably the most important achievement of the Roosevelt administration.” We know, of course, what Dr. Arendt has in mind here: the driving out of the diplomatic service of a good number of China experts, and the pall spread by security investigations through parts of the federal government. Had she said just that, we might still have had some details to argue about (how extensive was the pall? how responsible for it was McCarthy?). But she says much more, and what she says reflects a strange view of the relevant historical background. Roosevelt brought in a host of advisers, who spent shorter or longer periods in government, and who did not enter through the civil service but through political appointment, or through civil-service procedures which only lightly concealed the political character of the appointment. There were undoubtedly many more such appointments under Roosevelt than under previous administrations, simply because the size and scope of government in his time expanded so rapidly and into so many fields. For the same reason, the civil service itself also grew, and because of the Depression better men and women went into it than ever before, or since. But in what sense can this be called an “achievement” (let alone “the most important”) of the Roosevelt administration, which, as is the case with most activist administrations, was more annoyed by than approving of the civil service and its restraints?
And however terrible Senator McCarthy was, it is a great exaggeration to say that he “destroyed” this civil service. Partly because of the huge influx into the government of all sorts of people during the New Deal—including, of course, Communists, socialists, and others—the question of Communism and Communist influence in government had been a preoccupation or obsession of Congress since the 30's, and had led to various kinds of security investigations and programs, before and after McCarthy. McCarthy himself was part of this story. He had almost no influence on the civil service dealing with domestic matters, and even his effect on how the civil service dealt with foreign affairs was minor. American policies in the 1950's and 1960's were determined not by fear of Senator McCarthy and his possible successors but by experience with Communist states and parties in various parts of the world, the concern in Congress and among the people in general with the Communist threat, and the outlooks of Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, and their advisers.2
Reading the Watergate tapes, one gets the impression that the Nixon White House feared the FBI and that most permanent civil servant of all, J. Edgar Hoover, and even to some extent, while trying to use it, the CIA as well. Nor could Nixon's men do much with the IRS. None of these agencies had apparently yet been “destroyed” by anyone. Indeed, it was precisely because it could not “use” the FBI, and doubted how much it could “use” the CIA, that the Nixon inner circle set up its own group of investigators (scarcely the “secret service” that Dr. Arendt refers to). There is no intention here to justify this act, but it certainly has to be understood as being based in part on the fact that the regular agencies of government, the civil service, were not easily corruptible (though the political appointees who ran them could be controlled to a degree by the administration which had given them their jobs).
The character of the civil service in the post-McCarthy era is relevant to a further question that Dr. Arendt raises: why the men around Nixon who were not part of Watergate stuck with him to the bitter end. “The same uncomfortable question,” she writes, “could of course, and with more justification, be asked about the men who surrounded and helped Hitler and Stalin.” The answer to Dr. Arendt's question lies in the comparison she herself makes. There was indeed a “reliable and devoted civil service” in Washington, and they continued in their jobs, as could be said of the civil service under Hitler and Stalin. But here, surely, one must make a judgment—which Dr. Arendt surprisingly avoids making—as to the jobs in which they stayed: jobs which in the one case advanced the interests of totalitarian states, and which in the other case involved doing the daily work of a democratic state, including its fight against the expansion of totalitarianism. For the foreign policy of the United States—even as it tried to extricate itself from Vietnam, even as it looked with probably more than warranted suspicion on certain governments around the world that might be taken over by Communist parties—was the defense of democratic and other non-Communist societies. There was very often a myopic inability to distinguish among the broad variety of generally social-democratic governments. But the source of this confusion, it should be understood, was a deep and enduring concern with the important and unambiguous distinction between Communist states, in which no freedom existed, and just about all others.
Dr. Arendt, who has done so much to mark on the minds of a generation the true lineaments of totalitarianism, here nods in drawing the obvious distinction between totalitarianism and democracy herself—and not only in talking about America. Thus, having in the past forthrightly insisted on what German and Russian totalitarianism had in common, she does not in this essay see the difference between post-Nazi Germany and post-Stalin Russia. She tells us that “a political kind of image-making was introduced in both countries to cover up the unbelievable record of the past,” adding the saving clause, “though in very different ways.” But West Germany tried its war criminals, hundreds of them, and imprisoned them, and continues to do so. West Germany recognized a debt to Jews, and paid billions to Israel and to Jewish institutions and individuals to make whatever monetary restitution was possible for crimes that could not be made good. West Germany is a free country in which the horrible record of the past is constantly displayed, discussed, analyzed. West Germany, in short, is a democracy, while Russia remains a totalitarian state, in which no criminal of the Stalin period is accused and sentenced, in which no restitution is possible aside from minor corrections in the record of a false history, in which the past cannot be discussed.
If there is a central theme in this essay which disdains the discussion of “deeper causes,” it is the significance of images, which cover up “the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are” in the United States. These images begin with the need to sell commodities, which has become the motor of a senseless society: “Much more decisive, however, . . . is the fact that Madison Avenue tactics have been permitted to invade our political life.” The Pentagon papers, according to Dr. Arendt, demonstrate this invasion, for “they proved beyond doubt . . . that [the Vietnam war] was exclusively guided by the needs of a superpower to create for itself an image which would convince the world that it was indeed ‘the mightiest power on earth.’”
This seems a strange misreading of the Pentagon papers, though one that is perhaps consistent with Dr. Arendt's tendency in this essay to overlook the role played by the realities of Communism in the shaping of American foreign policy. For one would have thought that the almost “exclusive” object of the Vietnam intervention was to prevent Communist states from conquering their non-Communist neighbors. Indeed, if we are to consider “naked” facts rather than the “deeper causes” proposed by various ideologues, it is this which, if anything, seems to have “exclusively guided” American foreign policy for thirty years. It explains our refusal to countenance the swallowing up of Berlin into East Germany, our military aid to Greece and Turkey, our creation of a Western military alliance, of alliances along the Asian frontiers of the great Communist states, our war in Korea, our maintenance of troops there, and so on.
There is no issue of the promotion of “images” in all this, or in the disastrous attempt to prop up South Vietnam and preserve it as a non-Communist state. There is after all a radical difference, in reality, having nothing to do with images, that Dr. Arendt well understands, between Communist—that is, totalitarian—states and other states, a difference of great significance. Dr. Arendt does not argue, as she well might have, that we were radically misguided (perhaps by “images”) in the way we went about the defense of South Vietnam, that our defense became a travesty and may have damaged South Vietnam, in simple human terms, much more than any Communist conquest could have done. One could understand such an argument. What is incomprehensible, however, is that the entire objective of this intervention should have been forgotten, mislaid, so to speak, by Dr. Arendt, that she should have come to see the matter in such simple—and such mistaken—terms as the maintenance of our image as the “mightiest power on earth.”3
Considering alternatives to her theory of the aim of our involvement in Vietnam, Dr. Arendt dismisses—quite properly—the possibility that it was “profit or power [or] anything so real as influence in Asia to serve particular tangible interests . . .,” but the one aim that stares one in the face, the stated aim, the obvious one that nothing in the Pentagon papers contradicts—the containment of Communist power—is magisterially ignored as if it did not exist.
In one sense, undoubtedly, “images” were important in pursuing this objective: if the “image” of a power that would persist indefinitely in its refusal to allow the North Vietnamese Communists to conquer the South was projected forcefully and steadily and convincingly, it might persuade the North Vietnamese to desist. Thus image did serve policy, as the image of American reliability in the defense of Europe is meant to serve the objective of dissuading Russia from extending her control beyond the line that divides Germany in two. But it is a drastic and radical error to say that image alone was the aim of American policy: it served a policy that was devoted to a very tangible reality indeed, the holding of the line that divides Communist from non-Communist states.
If Dr. Arendt's naked facts are so faulty when she deals with topics that touch on totalitarianism, a subject on which she has given us so much wisdom, it is not surprising that her facts seem even odder when she comes to areas in which she is less at home, and in particular the problems of the American economy.
Here, too, she insists on the “obvious”: “inflation and currency devaluations are inevitable after lost wars, and only an unwillingness to admit a disastrous defeat leads and misleads us into a futile search for ‘deeper causes.’ Only victory, together with the acquisition of new territories and reparations in a peace settlement, can make up the entirely unproductive expenses of war.”
This is scarcely “obvious” to anyone who looks at the naked facts: Germany and Japan lost disastrous wars without acquiring new territories—indeed, they lost vast territories—and without getting reparations—indeed, they paid out huge reparations—but they have become the two strongest economies in the world, with the first least affected by the worldwide inflation, the second with an unparalleled record of economic growth. The costs of World War II to the United States were vastly greater than those of Vietnam, the “new territories” we acquired were expensive military bases, and instead of receiving reparations we spent great sums to rehabilitate our allies and former enemies; and yet we entered an unexampled period of prosperity that was scarcely broken for twenty-eight years. The costs of the Vietnam war were in economic terms (I leave aside political, social, human costs—they are not at issue here) relatively modest: at the peak they were perhaps double the annual costs to the United States of the quadrupling of the price of oil by the OPEC powers in 1973, an act unrelated to the Vietnam war, and one that might well have come to mind in any consideration of immediate and obvious rather than “deeper” causes of the sharp economic downturn in the United States and other free-market economies. The way we handled the economic costs of the Vietnam war undoubtedly contributed to inflation and other economic problems, but this was one factor among several: the huge deficits of the Nixon administration caused by increases in domestic expenditure; the rise of strong overseas competitors; the costs of environmental protection; and the oil-price rise.
Nor is the relation between economic prosperity and war as obvious as Dr. Arendt believes. It is true that the Depression only came to an end in Germany and the United States with preparations for World War II. But this says nothing about whether war and preparations for war are required to maintain employment today in the United States and nations with a similar economy. Japan, which spends almost nothing on defense, seems exempt from this requirement, as do the Western European countries, whose defense expenditures are considerably smaller as a proportion of the GNP than those of the United States, yet who seem to have enjoyed low unemployment until 1973 without resorting to increased defense expenditures.
Even in the United States it is questionable whether our substantial expenditures for arms and defense are necessary or essential to the maintenance of employment, and even more questionable that the unemployment factor plays any large role in maintaining expenditures at their present levels. Defense outlays fell from 8.4 per cent of GNP in 1964 (9.4 per cent in 1968, at the height of the Vietnam war expenditures) to 5.9 per cent in 1974, and even with scheduled increases in 1975 they are far below the figures of the early 1960s4: this, at a time when unemployment might well have been a spur, by Dr. Arendt's reasoning, to higher expenditures. It is hard to see any relationship between the ups and downs of the economy and employment, and the ups and downs of the defense budget: it is much easier to see a relationship between defense expenditures and such obvious facts as the Korean war, the Kennedy administration's desire to catch up with the Russians, the Vietnam war, and the end of the Vietnam war. What the naked facts tell us, in short, is that defense expenditures have in general been related to defense needs rather than to the state of the economy.
Relating unemployment to “automation,” as Dr. Arendt does, is even more questionable. This idea goes back to the early 1960's, when it was believed that workers were being made superfluous by the new technology. But studies by the President's Commission on Automation and Technology showed that the replacement of labor by new machinery was a fairly steady feature of the American economy over a long period of time, and that by itself automation said nothing about the maintenance of employment: employment is maintained by the overall level of demand, which need in no way be affected by the rate of replacement of labor by new machinery. There is thus no evidence that “the debate over automation and employment quickly disappeared for the simple reason that ‘featherbedding’ and similar practices . . . [have] obscured and at least partly taken care of the problem.” Instead, it would seem that the debate disappeared because, as the economy rapidly recovered after the tax cut of 1964, it became clear that it had been a misguided debate. Nor is there any evidence to show that an increase in featherbedding mitigated some special automation crisis, just as there is no evidence for a special automation crisis in the early 1960's. Admittedly in certain industries—particularly government service—workers were able with the help of unionization to improve their conditions, including a reduction in hours, but this is after all the kind of improvement that one expects in a growing economy and is scarcely to be equated with an increase in featherbedding.
The issue here is how one evaluates the undoubted reality that a decline in defense expenditures will hurt employees in given industries and given areas, that people will fight for their jobs, and that the easiest way to accommodate their demands is to maintain unneeded production and unneeded bases. This of course happens; but to call it a principal cause of the general size or character of defense expenditure (“It is no secret,” writes Dr. Arendt, “that a large proportion of the billions of dollars demanded by the Pentagon for the armament industry are necessary not for ‘national security’ but for keeping the economy from collapsing”) is to take a minor factor and to make it central. It is as naive as the point of view of the critics of the “merchants of death” in the 30's, who believed that the sale of arms created wars, and that if the United States refused to sell arms to other countries we would be safe from war. War production has more substantial causes than the desire to maintain employment or keep up sales for arms: first come the situations that seem to nations sufficient reason for strengthening their military forces, and then come the arms purchases—though undoubtedly there is some influence the other way, too, from the “merchants of death,” the professional military, and the managers of the economy who worry about the balance of payments and the level of employment.
There is a crucial and obvious missing element in Dr. Arendt's account of the relation between military expenditure and the economy, and that is the existence of real, not imagined, enemies, and real military threats. Wars are fought with real guns, artillery, shells, planes, and are won and lost, as in Korea and Vietnam, at least in part, because of the quality and availability of those arms. Israel was apparently about to be overwhelmed in 1973 because its Soviet-backed neighbors had a much greater store of the means of waging war, and were more readily resupplied by the Russians; Israel survived only because the United States was in the end willing to deplete its remarkably modest military stocks for Israel's defense. If liberals in Congress are now less sure than they were before October 1973 that the military budget should be cut, it is not because our economic situation is worse, but because the Yom Kippur war demonstrated that we have a considerably smaller store of the weapons needed for even small-scale wars than we thought we had. Totalitarianism, as Dr. Arendt well knows, is no image, but a reality. Neither is the enormous Soviet military establishment—with its plentiful and reckless supply of arms to any country that can serve its interests—an imaginary phenomenon.
If the United States now exports billions of dollars worth of arms, our balance of trade undoubtedly benefits, but this export in arms has grown for political, not economic, reasons. We provide arms to Iran and Saudi Arabia because we are trying to build our influence with those countries against that of Soviet Russia. We provide arms to Israel because we are committed to Israel's survival. We provide arms to Jordan and may provide them to Egypt to show our “even-handedness,” to establish our influence with both sides in the Midde Eastern conflict, and to take advantage of what seems to be a falling-out between Egypt and Russia. We sent arms to Pakistan because we stupidly believed they would be used to defend Pakistan against Russia or China rather than, as it was quite clear they would be, against India, and we mean to send them again for reasons that are less comprehensible but have, once again, nothing to do with economics.
One may argue with one or another of these policies, but one cannot explain them by the simpleminded view that they hold down unemployment in the United States. The reasons in every case are political. This is not to say that to reduce our production of arms, or airplanes, or automobiles, would not lead to tremendous economic adjustments, or that we are particularly well-equipped to manage such adjustments. But economists are convinced that if demand is maintained, the fact that people want fewer or smaller cars or fewer arms does not mean an overall decline in employment, as the released demand flows into other areas—houses, or country homes, or expensive public transport systems, or swimming pools, or vacations, or what not.
Dr. Arendt's effort to eschew deeper causes and concentrate on naked facts, then, leaves us confused: some of the facts are wrong, many are irrelevant, and we can beat no. easy path from the naked facts as she presents them to the crisis of the Republic. One is even at a loss to understand just what she thinks the crisis of “this form of government and its institutions of liberty” consists of. The most space is given to Vietnam and to Watergate, which have undoubtedly been of enormous significance in reducing the prestige and power of the United States, the confidence of our citizenry in our institutions, the reputation of our government and society for wisdom and effectiveness. But do those things amount to a crisis of “our form of government and its institutions of liberty”? Dr. Arendt once “suspected,” she tell us, “that Nixon was engaged in a calculated assault on the basic law of the land, with an attempt to abolish the Constitution and the institutions of liberty,” but she now admits she was “misled,” that what was involved was “‘only’ the firm resolve to do away with any law that stood in the way of shifting designs inspired by greed and vindictiveness.” Her original suspicion seems to me incredible, but even the present judgment is too strong. I see a pitiful effort, terribly destructive and damaging to the Presidency and the nation, by the President and his closest associates to cover up the evidence of the bugging of the Democratic party headquarters by Republicans. But a “firm resolve to do away with any law . . .”?
No one can argue with the long list of troubles, and deep troubles, with which we are afflicted, and which Dr. Arendt lists: Vietnam, Cyprus, Portugal, the Middle East, the Arab states, inflation, devaluation, the cities, unemployment, crime, NATO, Italy, England, India, détente, nuclear arms. . . . But many of these problems have nothing to do with our form of government and the state of our institutions of liberty; and as to others, their connection with our form of government and the institutions of liberty is difficult to discern, and Dr. Arendt gives us no help in doing so.
My own tendency is to see the crisis less as one of a threat to the forms of government and the institutions of liberty than as one of the forms of government and the institutions of liberty, owing to the increasing complexity of the issues that government either must deal with or is forced to try to deal with, under the pressure of democratic political competition. This is combined with an incredible elaboration of the institutions of liberty, of formal procedures that should be reserved for the public realm and for limited areas of human activity, but have now been extended to greater and greater ranges of it. This explosion of the institutions of liberty (quite different from a threat to liberty) means that courts cannot properly administer justice, schools cannot maintain discipline, universities cannot maintain standards, services cannot operate effectively, the realm of production and distribution is saddled with requirements for a formal justice that make it inefficient, and governments at various levels cannot govern. Newly created rights come into conflict with older rights and expectations: to meet the needs of the non-working poor adequately from their point of view is to be unjust to the working near-poor and the taxpayer; to expand the rights of the accused and the imprisoned is to reduce the security of the law-abiding; to provide some minority groups with what appears to them their just share of jobs and education is to be unjust to individuals in other groups, etc., etc.
To my mind, it is this view of the crisis of the Republic to which close attention to the naked facts must lead us. By giving credence to other facts, so many of which are ill-supported by easily available evidence, Dr. Arendt is led into a different view. How could this have happened?
One explanation occurs to me: Dr. Arendt, we know from her other works and this essay, fears the effect on a republican polity of the ordinary life of ordinary people whose daily round prevents them from participating in the demanding work of active citizenship, and who can thus easily slip into acquiescing in the great crimes of government. It is valuable indeed to be reminded of how the ordinary or the “banal” can be linked to the horrible, and she reminds us again here: “At such moments in history when the writing on the wall becomes too frightening, most people flee to the reassurance of everyday life with its unchanging, pressing demands.” One must agree with Dr. Arendt: that is what most people do even when there is no writing on the wall, perhaps particularly when there is no writing on the wall. One suspects it was so even in the glorious days of the founding of the American Republic, and perhaps it was even so in the great days of the Greek polis, if “most people” are taken to include the strangers and the slaves. Dr. Arendt refuses to reconcile herself to this condition, and it is one of her great virtues that she does not.
But if the crisis of the Republic consists in part in the fact that most people withdraw their concern from the great and terrible events, refuse to be informed or to participate, are enveloped in the banality of everyday life, and are manipulated by lies and public relations, then we have an extremely curious paradox: for it is just on the issues which most clearly mark the failures of government—Vietnam, Watergate, and the economy—that the most information and analysis come through the channels of communication, and, moreover, making points not very different from those that Dr. Arendt herself makes. She could not possibly disagree with the main direction of information and opinion and analysis on Vietnam and Watergate emerging from the mass media—they were her own (though she would find less in the regular flow of media information that agreed with her views on the economy). Thus the people are told what Dr. Arendt would on the whole want them to be told. She sees her voice as unique, and of course in respect to her knowledge and understanding and the distinctiveness of her style it is; but where she comes out on current issues is exactly where the ordinary liberal or progressive opinion of the moment comes out, an opinion against which almost nothing can stand today. She sees the special problem of the Republic as consisting of how people in their ordinary lives are to be related to the great tasks of government; but the tasks to which she calls them and the way she understands these tasks are very similar to what we would find in the informed mass media, and the liberal majority of Congress.
Why then do the people refuse to respond as she does? Why do they not rise above banality and take an active part in the determination of policy and the course of government? The answer is that they do, but in ways Dr. Arendt does not recognize or does not approve. For her naked facts are not theirs: they do not see as sharp a threat to our form of government and the institutions of liberty, despite the efforts of the mass media to persuade them of the existence of such a threat. They have certainly heard what Dr. Arendt has heard—who could not?—but they also remember, in their stubbornly immobile way, what she seems to have forgotten: that we were in Vietnam to fight Communism, and that to accord an unconditional amnesty to those who refused the duties of citizenship is to be unjust to those who accepted them and suffered for it. It is because of President Ford's refusal to grant unconditional amnesty to those who fled the draft or deserted, because he granted a pardon to President Nixon, because he is basically in his policies and attitudes a successor to the President who was destroyed by Watergate, and because a large proportion of the people are not ready to condemn the successor to the President they elected, that Dr. Arendt sees the crisis of the Republic as continuing in full gravity.
I believe that Dr. Arendt is right in her understanding of the relationship between the ordinary person today and the great needs of public life. The citizen actively engaged in public life and concerned for the state as a whole—whether we consider that an ideal, or a reality that was actual at certain glorious moments in history—has been replaced, it is true, by the job-holder, the bureaucrat, the family man, doing his work in a market-oriented, consumption-oriented, image-making society. And thus while awful things can be happening up above, at the level where the affairs of state are directed, the people can still go about their business, imprisoned by the ordinary and the banal, even when their daily business consists of shuffling the papers and producing the means for killing other ordinary people, whether in concentration camps or Vietnam. If most people can, by going about their ordinary lives, contribute to and sustain the most terrible crimes, then there is nothing distinctive about Germany, and nothing distinctive about America, to explain why totalitarianism could happen in the one, and why it will not happen in the second.
This, finally, seems to be the implicit message of Dr. Arendt's bicentennial reflections on America. The deeper causes of totalitarianism are to be found in certain modern social developments which are as ominously present in postwar America as they were in prewar Germany. Like the deeper causes Dr. Arendt herself cautions us against in another context, however, this one can blind us, as it often blinds Dr. Arendt, to many of the naked facts which point not to similarities between prewar Germany and postwar America but to crucial differences. I agree with Dr. Arendt that unbelievable things have already happened, and that even more unbelievable things are at least possible. But considering the naked, brutal facts of Vietnam and Watergate, I can find little to suggest—and neither, indeed, does Dr. Arendt herself when she discusses what was actually revealed in the Watergate tapes—that those in charge of the state in any way aimed at the destruction of republican government; and I find little in the actual behavior of the American people to indicate that they were so sunk in ordinary life that they would not have reacted long before any such threat were to have become manifest.
Thus, on the nature of totalitarianism as it developed in Nazi Germany, Hannah Arendt remains our teacher. She also remains our teacher on the political dangers of ordinary life under modern social conditions. But on the application of those teachings to the issues of contemporary America, and to the crisis of American government, she continues to be misleading and obscure, both in her apprehension of the facts and in her view of what the facts tell us about the realities of our situation today.
1 June 26, 1975.
2 On this entire question of the Congressional concern for Communists in government, and its relation to the huge increase in government officials and employees in the Roosevelt administration, see the balanced and scholarly study by Earl Latham, The Communist Controversy in Washington (Harvard University Press, 1966), pp. 73-77, and throughout.
3 Elsewhere, in an essay entitled “Lying in Government,” Dr. Arendt gives a more telling example of the role of images in the war in Vietnam: each of our Presidents of the 60's refused to recognize or accept defeat, to become “the first President to lose a war.” They all therefore deceived themselves or gambled on an unlikely outcome (or even if likely, one against which a catastrophic alternative possibility had to be balanced). But this kind of thing happens less because of the increasing role of images in government than because of the pressures of electoral politics in a democracy. Leaders are constrained to weigh short-run developments which affect their chances of remaining in office much more heavily than long-run developments.
4 Edward N. Luttwak, “The Defense Budget and Israel,” COMMENTARY, February 1975.