by Oscar Handlin
No one is better qualified than ARTHUR M. SCHLESINGER, JR., to apply the insights of history to contemporary problems. His combination of talents is unique — a sound knowledge of the American past, practical experience in the process of arriving at national decisions, and the skill at writing which reflects the play of a brilliant mind.
His THE BITTER HERITAGE: VIETNAM AND AMERICAN DEMOCRACY 19411966 (Houghton Mifflin, 43.95) is nevertheless a disappointing work. The book advocates a middle course, not withdrawal from Vietnam, but also no escalation. The United States is immediately to halt its bombing raids on North Vietnam and to cease its search-and-destroy efforts. Instead, it is to confine itself to holding the areas now under control while working out a negotiated settlement. A quick review of the step by step American involvement in Southeast Asia buttresses the argument.
We have a right to expect from Arthur Schlesinger a more probing analysis of the strategic issues at stake. Who knows better than he that the war in Vietnam runs counter to the basic military tradition of the United States, one to which not only generals but Presidents subscribed. Like Mac Arthur, Marshall, Pershing, and Grant, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wilson, and Lincoln all believed that war was hell. It followed, in their view, that the only way to fight was to get it over with quickly, to mobilize maximum power and destroy the enemy.
The United States departed from that tradition some fifteen years ago when it recognized that it could no longer destroy the enemy without destroying itself. The alternative to nuclear warfare was graduated deterrence, the response to provocation one step at a time, escalating the scale of combat only as much as was necessary to inhibit the antagonist but also meeting each blow with pain-dealing retaliation.
History has by no means yet proven the new strategy wholly successful. But Professor Schlesinger cannot afford to back away from it now. For without some other plan for keeping the peace, we would then revert to the old strategy, still advocated by some hawks, but which Professor Schlesinger brilliantly criticized when General MacArthur stated it some years ago. If we do not resist by “one more step,” do we have any capacity for response to aggression other than massive nuclear retaliation?
That question Professor Schlesinger seeks at all costs to avoid. Hence he urges us to negotiate without contemplating the possibility that the enemy may not wish to do so. There is ample evidence that the Vietnamese Communists, like the Chinese, have become so habituated to war as a way of life that they will accept no terms short of victory as long as they can hope that victory is possible. The effort to lure to the conference table those who wished to fight has not been notably successful in the past.
In any case, Professor Schlesinger is fully aware of the dangers of appeasement but denies the analogy to the situation of 1938. Hitler had overwhelming military power, and his invasion of Czechoslovakia passed “across old and well established lines of national division.” There the history is a little shaky. At the time of Munich, Czechoslovakia was, after all, only twenty years old, and its boundaries, which conformed to no past reality, were fixed by émigres. Furthermore, Nazi military power by no means seemed so overwhelming at Munich or even a year after as it does in retrospect, The British and French in the winter of the Sitzkrieg were perfectly willing to take on a war with the Russians at the same time as with the Germans, who seemed no more dangerous then than the Chinese do now.
History is not inscrutable, but it is shadowed by wish fulfillment. Professor Schlesinger suggests that we follow the precedent of Laos and admit the Viet Cong to a coalition government in South Vietnam. Yet that settlement which opened out the war against Saigon was short-lived indeed, and Laos even today survives only with American military support. Schlesinger also exaggerates the extent to which the RussoChinese split has “set all Communist states free to pursue national policies.” Whatever flexibility of policy actually exists in Communist countries is due not only to internal stress but also to the inhibiting presence of nearby American power. Differences of opinion with the Chinese did not restrain the Russians from their Cuban missile adventure in 1962. Important as it is, the divergence between China and Russia is on means, not on ultimate objectives of Communist victory. It is optimistic indeed to expect that the split alone will halt Red aggression.
Nationalism and Communism
The basic premise of most criticism of American policy is the certitude that the Viet Cong are fighting a nationalist revolution. Professor Schlesinger is even willing to speculate that Ho Chi Minh would have been a buffer against potential Chinese aggression had he taken all of Vietnam in 1954. The only evidence in support of this cheerful guess comes from Viet Cong statements. Yet Communists have used such disclaimers of foreign influence for forty years in Asia as well as in other parts of the world, with results that have not been reassuring.
We are not likely in the near future to have better evidence on this question than that presented in LUCIEN BODARD’S THE QUICKSAND WAR: PRELUDE TO VIETNAM (Atlantic — Little, Brown, $7.95). The author is a French journalist, born in China, who lived through the disastrous decade after the defeat of Japan, knew everyone, saw everything. He has written the best account of any phase of modern Vietnamese history available in English. And although it reaches down only to 1950, there is no better introduction to the problems of 1967.
The book actually condenses two volumes of a series ultimately planned to carry the story to 1954. It is a pity that some of the detail has been lost. But none of the essential elements are omitted, and the excellent translation by Patrick O’Brian admirably captures the verve and the mordant humor of the French original.
Bodard has no illusions. He is critical of everyone and not least of the United States. The French, the Vietnamese, the Communists, the Catholics, the Buddhists all are begrimed by their encounters on the bloody ground of a pleasant land. The only heroes are the dead, redeemed by failure in a situation where every sacrifice is futile. However much it is necessary to discount Bodard’s jaundiced point of view, his story of corruption, cruelty, lust, and deception carries conviction. He knows about what he writes. Although his words drip acid, they convey the real meaning of a tragic struggle.
From the mass of fascinating detail, there emerges first of all an impression of the enormous human complexities of a society in which exploitation, torture, and vice were casual incidents of life, one in which a quarter century of fighting had made war a normal aspect of existence. There is an unforgettable portrait, for instance, of the wrinkled, arrogant Leu Huu-tu, the white-clad Trappist bishop of Phatdiem, reduced by fanatic flagellation to little more than a pair of burning eyes. From a huge baroque cathedral, he ruled the people, continually on their knees or marching in processions. In 1946, the Communists allowed him to carve out whole Catholic states in the middle of Vietnam, and then, when the alliance was no longer useful, turned against him; whereupon the bishop resorted to prayer and to double-dealing, in a determined effort to save his faith and his power. Then there is the Pope of the abstinent Caodist sect who granted himself dispensations so that he could drink champagne with a guest at ten o’clock in the morning. And Lu Han, master of Kumming, who had tortured thousands of Reds yet who became a tool of Mao out of hatred for Chiang.
Bodard also answers the fundamental question of the relationship of Communism to nationalism in Vietnam. There cannot possibly be a doubt that the decisive point in the Viet Minh struggle came in 1949 with the intervention of the Red Chinese. Until then, Ho — about whose Communism there was never any doubt, except among a few innocent Americans — followed a tortuous course, collaborating with nationalists, Communists, American imperialists, and the Emperor Bao Dai. It was important only to survive. With Mao Tsetung installed across the border, the whole situation changed. The Communism of the Viet Minh emerged into the open. And the delicious irony was this, that the French, who had been diddling the United States with stories they did not believe about Red influence in the rebellion in order to squeeze out more dollars, now discovered — too late — that it was all true!
In dealing with nationalism, the Communists were dangerously flexible. In Tonkin Ho Chi Minh had no need of the nationalists. He ordered them massacred. Gentleness, assimilation, and advance by successive purges were unnecessary. “He was already strong enough, and what he wanted was ‘purity’ straight away, a solidly Communist party. It had been appalling. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of men had been liquidated in 1945, 1946 and later — always in spectacular numbers, as though the Communists wanted to destroy not only their bodies but even their memory. The intention was that horror and dread should extinguish the last trace of respect for them among the masses.” On the other hand, in Cochinchina, the Communists receded into the background while Giap’s battalions fought in the north. “During all this time the propaganda in the south amounted to no more than this — Maintain the Party but do not stir. Just do your utmost to improve Communist thinking and wait until the people’s armies from Tonkin reach you and liberate you.” Whoever suggests coalition in the future should keep past experience in mind.
Finally, Bodard unintentionally reveals the French character of the defeat. A remote central government, itself constantly shifting and for a time penetrated by Communists, resented every American suggestion that the day of colonialism was over and struggled to hold its territory by using foreign money and mercenary soldiers. Its failure, as in other parts of the world, was neither surprising nor an omen of what a different kind of effort might yield.
The opportunities of the Red leaders arise from the fact that the abstractions of neither Communism nor nationalism mean much to the mass of peasants. Two quite different books show the results.
SUSAN SHEEHAN’S TEN VIETNAMESE (Knopf, $4.95) is surprisingly informative. She spent less than a year in the country, was unfamiliar with its institutions, and did not speak the language. Undaunted, she set out with an interpreter to interview typical Vietnamese, among them a Buddhist monk, a Montagnard woman, an orphan boy, and a refugee.
Mrs. Sheehan was a good listener, and dealing on her own level with a sophisticated politician, Dr. Diep, she is thoroughly perceptive. At other times she is uncritical. She accepts the refugee Duong Tam’s statement that he had never heard of Prime Minister Ky or of Ho Chi Minh. It does not occur to her that the profession of ignorance may only have been the poor man’s prudence.
One of Mrs. Sheehan’s subjects was a V.C. defector who neither in his joining nor in his escape betrayed the least indication of ideological concern. DOUGLAS PIKE’S VIETCONG (M.I.T. Press, $8.95) arrives at the same conclusion. This careful and lucidly written study, based on hundreds of documents and interviews, surveys the structure of the National Liberation Front and its operations, strategy, and relations with the outer world. He concludes that most of its success has been organizational. While the leaders and true believers were Communists in the sense that they swore blind allegiance to the world movement, whose loci of power were Moscow and Peking, they recruited and governed their followers by means of a carefully constructed apparatus rather than through some unique spirit or élan. “The deeper one plunged into the study of the NLF the stronger became the feeling of being on the edge of a future social morass, only dimly seen. Here, one felt, was tomorrow’s society, the beginning of 1984, when peace is war, slavery is freedom, the nonorganization is the organization.” Yet there is an element of hopefulness in that conclusion. If the organization begins to crumble and communications between the Communist cadres and the people weaken, it may not be difficult to detach the followers from the leaders. Once the military problem is settled, reconstruction may not be more remote than it was in Japan after 1945.
While it lasts, however, the war is nasty and creates doubts among those unwilling to reckon the costs of the alternative. THE UNITED STATES IN VIETNAM by GEORGE MCTURNAN KAHIN and JOHN W. LEWIS (Dial, $5.95), for instance, is a book of solid appearance by two respectable political scientists who go astray in the eagerness to prove American policy wrong despite a double set of notes. It may be just ignorance when they write that the United States showed little interest in Vietnam until 1949 or that Bishop Huu-tu was a simple ally of the French regime. But it is more perplexing to read the following description of a reign of terror: “Hastily trained political cadres . . . were overzealous in their interpretation of the agrarian laws.” When Ho’s instructions to his southern henchmen to go underground are interpreted as signs of his peaceful intentions, it becomes clear that the authors’ errors arise out of a tendency to discount any statements emanating from either Saigon or Washington and to take at face value those from Hanoi. Hence there are in these pages those highminded agrarian reformers seeking national independence who were so prominent in books about China two decades ago, although, alas, they never existed in actuality.
In THE ARROGANCE OF POWER (Random House, $4.95) WILLIAM FULBRIGHT, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, puts into print the broody forebodings about American foreign policy he has voiced for some time in public hearings.
Many features of American foreign policy trouble the senator. At times he seems an isolationist, as when he argues that the United States has no business in Asia, and yet he calls for an invasion of Cuba during the missile crisis. At other times, the arrogance of power he criticizes seems to mean the tendency to create and extend an empire. But basically, he objects to any effort to use power for moral purposes. Our own Civil War was needless. Had the hotheads “been less influential, the war might have been avoided and slavery would certainly have been abolished anyway, peacefully and probably within a generation after emancipation actually occurred.” He deplores “Puritanism” or “crusading” — that is, the impulse to impart an ethical quality to our relationships with the outer world. In that respect he echoes the French complaints, which Bodard repeats, against the United States in 1949. In any case, the fear of a moral commitment has put Senator Fulbright in an anomalous position that helps explain the inability of the committee he heads to influence foreign policy.
One could wish that the senator would read the long and thoughtful essay by FRANCIS L. LOEWENHEIM, in THE HISTORIAN AND THE DIPLOMAT (Harper & Row, $6.95). This carefully written analysis traces the continuities in American foreign policy from the Revolution to the present. It reveals that those continuities with remarkably few exceptions have focused on the nation’s moral and intellectual heritage from the Enlightenment — freedom, selfdetermination, and the rights of peoples. This little volume should have a much wider audience than the scholars at whom it is primarily directed, for it goes a long way toward explaining why Americans act as they do in their relations with the rest of the world.
The old pros
There is a comfort, by no means negligible, in the writings of the tried and true professionals. One expects no exciting novelties, no great revelations. But also one gets no disappointments.
JOHN GUNTHER’S INSIDE SOUTH AMERICA (Harper & Row, $6.95) follows the pattern of his earlier books. He has been to the right places and seen the right people, and he covers the whole story, all ten turbulent countries of it, except for Guyana. He knows how to do the job. The book is informative, well written, and nicely seasoned with anecdotes and vignettes of personalities. For those who do not wish to read every page, a neat fact sheet summarizes it all.
The book, however, lacks depth, and the catchy chapter titles — “Uruguay on the Rocks” — give the impression that the author is less serious than he actually is.
GEOFFREY HOUSEHOLD’S THE COURTESY OF DEATH (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $4.95) is a rousing story which follows a reliable formula. There is a man alone — in this book an engineer recently returned to England and without friends — who pursues and escapes from the members of a powerful conspiracy. The enemy are members of a maniacal religious group whose creed permits them to kill so long as they do so courteously. The twist in this case is the setting, a vast network of underground caves in which the protagonist is twice incarcerated. The chase goes on in high spirit, just the right length. Household’s narrative skill permits him to carry the story off without any lag of interest.
I DON’T NEED YOU ANY MORE (Viking, $4.95) assembles nine short stories by ARTHUR MILLER. He is at his best in the title story, an impressionistic account of emotional family crises seen through the eyes of a five-year-old. Here and in “A Search for a Future,” Miller deals with the family tensions that elicit his best writing. In view of his prolific work for the stage, it is surprising that there are so few dramatic elements or conversational passages in the stories. But they are competently put together and exhibit considerable variety of style.