To the Editor:
Charles Horner’s reply to Benjamin Novak’s letter on Vietnam [Letters from Readers, August] is a brilliant and moving statement of the moral meaning of our Vietnam experience, Mr. Horner is surely right that a terrible price is being paid even now for America’s failure. His very eloquence on this subject, indeed, compels me to chide him for his disparaging remarks later in the same issue on recent books by Nixon and Kissinger [in his review of Nixon’s The Real War]. I served on the National Security Council staff during the Nixon administration and have a somewhat different recollection of those times. In fact, I think it is Mr. Horner who may have succumbed to the sin of which he accuses those eminent authors: of rewriting the past.
“Nixon and Kissinger now sound like some of their critics of a decade ago,” Mr. Horner writes skeptically, in their warnings of danger. Which critics? I do not know where Mr. Horner was ten years ago, but I do know that COMMENTARY in 1970 was among the fashionable intelligentsia majority attacking the Nixon administration from the Left. Maurice J. Goldbloom, assessing “Nixon So Far” [March 1970], upbraided the administration for its laxity in pursuing SALT, its dangerous decisions to deploy MIRV’s and an ABM, and its skepticism of Brandt’s Ostpolitik; he also looked forward optimistically to a European Security Conference. Norman Podhoretz was frequently and bitterly denouncing the “wanton” American involvement in Vietnam [e.g., “First Things, and Last,” July 1970]. The next year he decided that an American defeat was preferable to continuation of the war [“A Note on Vietnamization,” May 1971].
Every strategic-weapons program we have now is the product of decisions made by the Nixon and Ford administrations over congressional, media, and academic opposition: Trident, MX, MIRV deployments, the cruise missile, the Mk12A warhead (not to mention the B-l bomber, which we don’t have now). And it is impossible to separate Vietnam so easily from these other concerns. It was Nixon and Kissinger who persisted in pursuing an honorable outcome because they felt that a collapse in Indochina would not only doom millions to Communist tyranny but would also have disastrous ramifications—political, military, and psychological—far beyond Southeast Asia. They were convinced that American abdication would embolden adversaries and demoralize friends on every continent; at home it would be used to discredit all military programs, aid to allies, and our world leadership generally, further confirming foreign impressions that the acceptance of defeat marked not a local setback but a sea change in the American attitude to foreign involvement. They were not wrong. The era of American geopolitical retreat dates from 1975, not 1969. In 1975 even such a stalwart supporter of a strong policy as Senator Henry Jackson found it impolitic to support aid to Angola in the year of Vietnam’s collapse. (He also opposed aid to Vietnam in early 1975.) The entire foreign policy of the Carter administration is, in a sense, part of the price we are paying for the Vietnam debacle and its seeming vindication of the anti-war position (as effectively demonstrated in COMMENTARY by Carl Gershman [“The Rise & Fall of the New Foreign-Policy Establishment,” July]).
COMMENTARY, to be sure, continually and valiantly took issue with the Noam Chomskys, Mary McCarthys, and I.F. Stones who despised American leadership in the world. COMMENTARY’s more moderate view seemed to be that American world leadership was indeed crucial, but that it could survive even after, or perhaps only after, the unconditional liquidation of the Vietnam enterprise. This was, to use a favorite word of the current lexicon, naive.
In 1980, COMMENTARY is making an enormous intellectual contribution to the revival of an effective American foreign policy. The magazine deserves applause and even gratitude. Debates over the policies of ten years ago are a bit tricky, however; perhaps they touch sensitive nerves all around. Steering clear of psychoanalytic explanations, especially after reading Frederick Crews [“Analysis Terminable,” July], I nevertheless wonder about this strange compulsion to denounce as too soft, ten years later, an administration that at the time (one perhaps uncomfortably recalls) one was denouncing as too bellicose.
Peter W. Rodman
Charles Horner writes:
I thank Peter W. Rodman for his generous comment about my reply to Benjamin Novak. Mr. Rodman has managed to find in my review of President Nixon’s book, The Real War, a pretext for criticizing the content of articles that appeared in this magazine during 1970 and 1971. I can only assume that it was my use of the phrase “critics of a decade ago” which caused Mr. Rodman to conclude that I was referring to critics of the Nixon policies who attacked from the Left. I do think, however, that the context of the review made clear that the critics in question were those who expressed concern over the conduct of Soviet-American relations from, let us say, the 1972 Moscow summit and after. I suspect Mr. Rodman understands this, just as I understand why he would prefer that the argument be drawn off in a different direction.
Though I should regret not having been more precise in my chronology, I am not displeased that Mr. Rodman seizes upon it to call attention to the flaws in the so-called anti-war argument. Indeed, the phenomenon Mr. Rodman mentions in his closing sentence was also discussed by me in passing in a review of William Shawcross’s book, Sideshow [COMMENTARY, August 1979]. None of this is surprising. Just as President Nixon and his associates are reluctant to embrace a “revisionist view” of their détente policies—though the facts tend increasingly to compel it—critics of the Vietnam war are reluctant to see events in Southeast Asia after May 1975 as a basis for disowning their older positions. The rationalizations in both cases become artful and elaborate. In the first instance they can lead to disingenuous books like The Real War. In the second, they lead almost invariably to silence.