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What Are the Consequences of Vietnam? View other pieces in "Harper's"
By Mark Danner , James Chace, Paul Kennedy, Frances Fitzgerald April 1985
Tags: Vietnam | Foreign Affairs | Harper's Forums Print
In the ten years since the last Marine was plucked from the roof of the besieged U. S. Embassy in Saigon, "Vietnam" has come to stand for a good deal more than America's first military defeat. The word calls up images of students battling National Guardsmen in tear gas clouded streets, of journalists harrying politicians with hostile questions, of critics hounding American presidents from office. "Vietnam" stands for America's loss of mnocence.

How have Americans endured this loss? Though policymakers and pundits issue grave warnings about "the lessons of Vietnam," the bitter foreign policy disputes of recent years - over Central America, Grenada, Lebanon-suggest that Vietnam has taught no lessons, at least none Americans can agree on. Nonetheless, the war has had consequences - most important, it has called into question America's sacred mission in the world.

How has Vietnam affected the United States' foreign and military policies? How has it changed Americans' image of their country? How has it influenced American politics and society? Harper's recently invited a group of historians, a military analyst, a political consultant, an economist, and a novelist to reflect on the consequences of Vietnam.

The following Forum is based on a discussion held at the Harvard Club in New York City. James Chace served as moderator.

was for many years managing editor of Foreign Affairs and is currently an editor of the New York Times Book Review. His books include Solvency: An Essay on American Foreign Policy and Endless War; How We Got Involved in Central America-And What Can Be Done.

is Dilworth Professor of History at Yale. His books include Strategy and Diplomacy, 1870-1945 and The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery. He is at work on The Dynamics of World Power from 1500 to the Year 2000.

is a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Strategic and International Studies. His most recent book is The Pentagon and the Art of War: The Question of Military Reform.

writes frequently for the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and other publications. Her books include Fire in the Lake: The Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam and America Revised.

is a novelist and essayist who has written on the moral and cultural issues raised by the Vietnam War for the Nation, Harper's, Psychology Today, and other publications. He is currently at work on a book entitled Conscience and the Common Good.

is president of the American Political Research Corporation and editor of American Political Report. His books include The Emerging Republican Majority, Post-Conservative America, and, most recently, Staying on Top: The Business Case for a National Industrial Strategy.

is author of Sexual Suicide, Visible Man, Wealth and Poverty, and, most recently, The Spirit of Enterprise.

JAMES CHACE: Whether we like it or not, the American experience in Indochina deeply affects the way we live now. Ten years after the last Marine was lifted off the roof of our doomed embassy in Saigon, the traces of that conflict are present everywhere in this country - in our military's attitude toward foreign involvements, in the design of our foreign policy, in the structure of our domestic politics, and, perhaps most evidently, in the conflicting images Americans have of their country's role in the world.

It was only a generation ago, when John F. Kennedy was president and our creeping involvement in Southeast Asia was scarcely noticed, that the United States seemed omnipotent. Then, Americans were truly the "watchmen on the walls of world freedom," as the young president wrote in the speech he was to deliver in Dallas on the day he was assassinated. Today, when Americans speak darkly of the "lessons of Vietnam," that confident talk of American omnipotence seems very far away. Most attempts to exert American power abroad in recent years - the tentative intervention in Lebanon, for example, or the entire U.S. policy in Central America - have been beset by controversy. Indeed, Americans seem unable to agree on what the lessons of Vietnam are, at least as regards the central question of where and under what circumstances the United States should use military force abroad. While many see in the myth of American omnipotence a dangerous illusion that might again lead us into futile adventures abroad, others want to reconstruct the myth, or, in any event, to restore to America the role of world leader it played before its failure in Vietnam.

Our subject today is not the lessons but the consequences of Vietnam. Our task is to search out the traces Vietnam has left on the America of 1985. Where precisely do we find the consequences of Vietnam in today's America? Have we overcome any of the effects of Vietnam? Is America, in Ronald Reagan's words, "standing tall" again?

I thought we might begin by considering what would seem to be the most direct consequences of the Vietnam War - the military ones. From there we can move on to the larger social and moral questions of how the war has affected American behavior both at home and abroad, and how it is likely to do so in the future. Paul Kennedy, as a military historian, what do you see as the main military consequences of the Vietnam War?

PAUL M. KENNEDY: Well, it's difficult to separate the specific effects the Vietnam War has had on America's role in the world from the much larger, structural changes that have gradually transformed the international balance of power during the last twenty-five years. Of course the direct consequences of the war on our military are fairly clear. America now has a noticeably cautious Pentagon, a military establishment that nervously questions itself about when and in what circumstances it can intervene abroad without getting bogged down in an unpopular, divisive war. As is evident from Secretary of Defense Weinberger's speech last November on U.S. military policy, the Pentagon is demanding to know where it can fight and be assured of public support; which is to say, our military is submitting its strategy to a sort of "Vietnam litmus test." And the obvious consequence of that consequence is that the United States has become a very cautious imperial power.

That much is pretty straightforward. The problems arise when we try to separate the specific military consequences from other important changes that have tended to complicate America's role in the world, but that probably would have occurred in any event, even if the war had never happened. For example, in the last quarter-century or so we have witnessed an enormous change in Third World attitudes toward the United States. Many Third World governments have reacted strongly against what they consider an overwhelming American presence, against the growing influence of American capital and the American culture and mores that have come with it. During the same period our European allies have become stronger and more independent, and less willing to follow America's lead unquestioningly in matters of foreign policy. Finally, and perhaps most important, the Russians succeeded in closing the gap in strategic nuclear forces, and the United States lost its position as the clearly predominant superpower.

These gradual transformations, and others we could name, have combined to give Americans the very definite sense that the world is no longer their oyster. And all of them would have occurred even if Vietnam had never happened.

EDWARD N. LUTTWAK: Your analysis implies that the world after Vietnam has achieved a new equilibrium, an equilibrium that includes an inevitably diminished American role. My own assessment is quite different: I believe the war, and its effect on America's willingness to exert its power, has led to world disequilibrium.

Let's look more closely at the purely military consequences of the war. You mentioned the so-called Weinberger doctrine, which basically says that operations like Grenada represent a ceiling on the level of military action the Pentagon is willing to contemplate. Weinberger essentially declared to the world, "We will apply military force only if we know we're going to win quickly and easily, and only if we are guaranteed total support from the public." I think his statement accurately reflects the views of our professional military. I believe this is a wholly praiseworthy doctrine - wonderfully suited to a country such as Switzerland, which promises to come to the aid of no other nation, guarantees no order to the world, and, in short, is content to live in a world in which events are dominated by others. But for a country such as the United States, the Weinberger doctrine is completely and absurdly unsuitable.

What are the consequences of this attitude - the consequences of the consequences of Vietnam? Consider the American performance in El Salvador. The American military, in supervising the war, is imposing its current preoccupation with its great rearmament program, a program that obviously must be sustained politically. The military believes it is very bad business indeed to get involved in Central America: let's not erode the political basis for our new weapons by getting enmeshed in what might become a very unpopular war in El Salvador - that's the Pentagon's attitude.

Hence the President's Central America policy is supported only most reluctantly by the military. It makes no effort to ensure that the pitifully few advisers we have in El Salvador are the very best men; fifty-five people are simply assigned to El Salvador as if it were Germany or Korea. The military makes no attempt to guarantee that the miserable amount of American aid is even applied to acquiring and maintaining suitable weapons. Instead, the military's standard-issue weapons, intended for the world's richest armed forces, are given to the world's poorest. This is just lack of professional attention.

My point is that America's military has been thoroughly corrupted. Not in the trivial sense of soldiers stealing or taking bribes - in that sense the American military is uniquely honest. The military has been corrupted in the classical Greek sense of having lost its essential virtue, its arete. The virtue of a knife, the arete of a knife, is its "cuttingness"; the virtue of a military force is its "fightingness." The U.S. military now stands ready to fight the imagined, preplanned "real war"- that is, the war in Europe - but has no willingness to fight the wars that actually happen, such as that in El Salvador.

The consequence of this is world disequilibrium. International society today is characterized by a sort of perverted Gaullism. But de Gaulle, in his heyday, needed all the strength of his towering figure, and control of a truly major country, to assert a minimum of independence against two terrifically dynamic superpowers. The Soviet Union today, because of the decrepitude of its economy, has lost its dynamism. The Russians can't open new accounts. They can keep Cuba afloat but they can't take on Mozambique. And the United States, because of the consequences of the war that I've described, is mostly passive.

In this perverted Gaullist world, a country need not be led by a de Gaulle to assert its independence. Broad areas of the globe are left unmanaged, to be exploited by regional organizers like South Africa or Syria, which the superpowers can't control. And pirate states - St. Augustine's magna latrocinia, great thieveries - such as Qaddafi's Libya thrive. Only recently a ship chartered by the U.S. Navy was attacked by actUal pirates in the Strait of Malacca. This is the disequilibrium of the world we live in today. This situation will not last. The question is whether it will be the United States that remedies it; if not, other forces will.

CHACE: While Paul Kennedy described an inevitable adjustment of and constraint on American power that followed the Vietnam War but only partly resulted from it, Edward Luttwak is implying that the United States could still function as a world policeman, could still impose a kind of Pax Americana on countries ranging from South Africa to Syria - if only it had the will. But is such a role possible for any nation any longer?

LUTTWAK: Apart from the United States, I see no power willing or able to play this role. The United States is in a transitional stage where the consequences of Vietnam are slowly being absorbed. But I see a clear and logical link between the 1,000 sorties flown each day in Vietnam - which, had they hit worthwhile targets, would have ended the war in a day - and those Marines standing guard outside U.S. battalion headquarters in Beirut who didn't have a single loaded round in their M-16s.

FRANCES FITZGERALD: Whom exactly would you have bombed in Lebanon?

LUTTWAK: To be an advocate of strategy is not quite the same as being an advocate of frenzied bellicosity in every direction. As it happens, I would not have intervened in Lebanon at all. My point is simply that the United States made a minimum symbolic commitment in Lebanon. During the Marines' mission, Secretary Weinberger advertised his displeasure with their de- ployment every time he appeared on television. The operational consequence of that reluctance was that the 1,800 Americans were not seen as the point of a wedge that would broaden into a 5,000- or 50,000-man force, if necessary. They were not seen as merely the tangible manifestation of a greater American power but as the affirmation of American impotence. That was the pitiful, helpless giant of Nixon's immortal words, stationed there in Beirut.

FITZGERALD: As a matter of fact, I consider that speech ofNixon's-in which he announced the Cambodian incursion-crucial to an under- standing of American foreign policy after Vietnam. In that speech, a certain vision of the world is clearly delineated. The alternatives set out are American control over the world, or anarchy and totalitarianism. There is something metaphysical in this vision-particularly as Nixon goes on to say that it is not our power but our will and character that are being tested. Apparently, the United States can restore world order by symbolic action, and by force of character alone. This has now become a familiar theme in American foreign policy; and it is hardly Realpolitik, though some present it as such. Nixon is not discussing whether the United States really has the capacity to project its power all over the world; rather, he is discussing the country's character, or virtue.

Mr. Luttwak, what would you prescribe for our policy in El Salvador?

LUTTWAK: I believe the United States should help the Salvadoran government, which is a democratizing regime, win the war. By "win" I mean reduce the level of guerrilla activity to endemic banditry, which is appropriate to a place of that sort. The United States can permit the Salvadorans to prevail by using their traditional methods - which simply entail killing as many people as they can until there are no guerrillas left. Or, if we insist on imposing our own squeamish tastes on the Salvadorans in typical Yankee imperialist fashion, we must supply them with enough military aid to fight the war cleanly. American methods are clean, but very expensive, requiring helicopters and other sophisticated equipment. The traditional way requires only infantry battalions and plenty of sharp knives. At present we are imposing our mode of warfare on the Salvadorans without funding it sufficiently.

FITZGERALD: What is this nonsense about "endemic banditry" and "clean American methods"? It's absurd to look at a situation like that in El Salvador from a purely military point of view. The problem in El Salvador is not the guerrillas but the government - the military-dominated government that actually created the guerrillas and now can't get rid of them without American help. But the kind of help the United States can provide - greater troop mobility and vastly increased firepower - inflicts enormous damage and suffering on the civilian population. The destruction is "clean" only in the sense that it's impersonal.

Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself only as farce. From the point of view of American policy, El Salvador is a farcical replay of Vietnam. The difference is that the Salvadoran guerrillas are very, very vulnerable in a way that the Vietnamese were not, because El Salvador is a small country and it's possible to drive all civilians out of guerrilla-held areas, to drain the water and leave the' fish exposed. The evacuation of the guerrilla-held zones is already half accomplished. But it does not solve the political problems of El Salvador.

LUTTWAK: Look, El Salvador is a tiny country with a few flea-bitten guerrillas. If our country was not traumatized by Vietnam, the whole affair would be concluded very quickly, I assure you.

KENNEDY: I wonder about that. If Vietnam had not occurred, and America never experienced the loss of morale and the feelings of insecurity the war brought with it, I still doubt that, at this point, the United States would be able to go in and solve the conflict in El Salvador, or solve problems in other Third World countries.

PETER MARIN: I think we're ignoring another significant constraint on American power emerging from the war: the political pressures that seem to restrict America's foreign, and especially military, policies. Something extraordinary and, I think, quite wonderful happened in this country during the Vietnam War - a large part of the population refused to accept the government's announced policy. What you take to be a loss of morale seems to me to be a kind of growing up. One must not forget that by the end of the war, elected officials were able to govern only by shooting people in the streets, or threatening to.

One of the major constraints on American policy is the lingering fear - conscious or unconscious - on the part of those in authority that a similar crisis could erupt if certain kinds of policies are implemented. We now have in the United States a military and political policy constrained, at least in part, by the feelings of its citizens, feelings based on remembered experience rather than on propaganda.

KEVIN P. PHILLIPS: I'm not sure American public opinion is the constraint you think it is. Let's look at some recent foreign-policy controversies to see if what you say holds true. First, there was the acrimonious debate over the Panama Canal Treaties in 1977 and 1978. The treaties were widely condemned in this country, and I think that was a measure of Americans' frustration with their country's diminished role in the world after Vietnam and their rejection of what appeared to be a retreat in Central and South America. Related feelings, I think, lay behind the public's anger with President Carter's in- ability to exercise American power effectively during the Iranian hostage crisis.

But consider the reaction to the Grenada invasion-Americans expressed enormous pleasure at this exercise of U. S. power, even though it was used only to invade a little tinpot country. Their pleasure was enough to kick up President Reagan's approval rating about ten points overnight. The public is completely amenable to an effective display of American power.

FITZGERALD: But at what cost? Grenada is a small, pathetic place; it was possible to "conquer" the island quickly with very few casualties. Would Americans support interventions where the costs were not quite so small?

The problem here is partly that, as Professor Kennedy said, during the last twenty years the United States has had to face revolutionary changes in the Third World. During the fifties, when most Third World countries were still governed by very small groups of elites and the great masses of people were uninvolved in their national politics, it was easy for the United States to overthrow what it considered an undesirable government. In 1954, the United States was able to overthrow the Arbenz government in Guatemala in a few weeks by means of a secret, inexpensive, and relatively painless CIA operation. In Iran, the year before, a single CIA agent was able to restore the Shah to his throne in a matter of three days.

But small-scale and painless interventions are practically impossible these days. The recent upheaval in Iran, in which a small, American- backed ruling elite was violently overthrown- and which was prefigured to some extent by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam-has been repeated in less dramatic form in many Third World countries. Even in a tiny country like El Salvador, the United States is finding it must exert an enormous effort and inflict hideous pain on the local population just to ensure that its allies re- main In power.

I don't believe Americans are interested in such costly interventions, however much they enjoyed the symbolism of Grenada. But many in this country have not quite accepted the changes in the Third World as a part of reality, a part of the world as it is. They picture a bipolar world in which only the United States and the Soviet Union have any real power and Third World countries are essentially amenable to manipulation by whoever gets there first.

LUTTWAK: When we talk about the Third World, I think it's important not to replace the outdated conception of the 1960s-which saw the Third World as completely malleable when in fact it was becoming less so - with one that is already becoming outdated. Many Third World nations are again becoming receptive to American in- fluence. U.S. forces in El Salvador, for example, don't evoke a negative reaction from people whose greatest ambition is to emigrate to the United States. For a good number of Salvadorans, McDonald's is an ideal.

Obviously there is greater resistance in more strongly defined cultures - like the Islamic culture-that are now in decay. If the young men in these countries desert the mosques, they do so to read Playboy, not Pravda. So it 'is perfectly rational for the Islamic fundamentalists to see the United States as their principal threat. Their very extremism stems from their sense of imminent cultural collapse. They fear that if they don't follow the Western model they'll simply rot, culturally and intellectually.

FITZGERALD: Given your analysis, one might wonder why it has proved so difficult for the United States to defeat "a few flea-bitten guerrillas" in El Salvador. On the other hand, the United States is not seen as the only threat to the Islamic world. In Afghanistan, the Russians are being resisted with great intensity, as is the Soviet model. The Third World's, and especially the Islamic world's, reaction to the Soviet invasion has been instructive. So it does seem to matter who gets there first.

LUTTWAK: Behind the Soviet helicopters there are no McDonald's. That is a consideration.

CHACE: It seems to me that Lebanon is a good ex- ample of a country, once strongly pro-Western, that has undergone some of the upheavals Frances FitzGerald described. In his summary of the American public's reaction to recent foreign-policy controversies, I don't believe Mr. Phillips mentioned the Reagan Administration's intervention in Lebanon, which no one could perceive as a success, either strategically or in terms of public opinion.

PHILLIPS: But the failure in Lebanon was not held against the Administration. Why? Because Americans do not associate this Administration with the retreat of American power. However ineptly or ineffectively he may have applied that power in Lebanon, President Reagan was able to wrap the Star Spangled Banner around himself-simply because he has always opposed the idea that the United States should acquiesce to indigenous challenges in the Third World.

CHACE: In other words, the failure in Beirut was covered over by rhetoric.

PHILLIPS: Such failures often are. The point is that the political opportunities for blaming Reagan were virtually nonexistent because he had cultivated an image of strength.

MARIN: That Americans love an image of strength is not being contested here. Whether that means they would accept another 50,000 dead in a foreign intervention is another question. No one has mentioned those 50,000 dead. I don't believe the war can be fully understood if it is regarded only as a strategic defeat; the war was also a traumatic event in the lives of actual men and women. We have to consider the American people's perception of the suffering we inflicted on others and the suffering at least some Americans experienced directly. After all, the war was perceived by many Americans not just as a military defeat but as a moral de- feat, or at least a moral error.

What do people do when they have not only been defeated militarily but also believe they have been defeated morally? How does a country like ours, with its mythical sense of itself as a force for good in the world, deal with a moral defeat, a moral tragedy? These questions have been pushed beneath the surface during the last ten years-and I believe the fact that they are there, unacknowledged, has colored our foreign policy much more than the military defeat per se has.

PHILLIPS: Actually, the United States has a long pathology of postwar reaction. After wars, Americans tend to blame dissidents, and political parties, for unpatriotic behavior. The Federalist Party was crushed after the War of 1812, in which it had been seen as giving aid and comfort to the British; the Whigs were undercut by their opposition to the Mexican War; after World War I there was a large-scale crackdown on antiwar dissidents and radicals. And McCarthyism was in some measure a means to allocate blame for the "loss" of Eastern Europe and China as a result of what were perceived to be weak Democratic policies.

MARIN: Yes, but when Americans are confronted with the reality of defeat, they tend to reassert their old myths. That is what seems to be happening under Reagan, who presents an image of power while avoiding those confrontations that might put it to a test - which, in my view, is precisely why Americans like him.

LUTTWAK: I would like to step back from this debate on public opinion to point out that the purpose of strategy in foreign policy is not to recognize and infinitely adapt to change, but to maintain a set of values and interests by resisting change. Any empire is a great machine of conservation against change - that is the nature of empire. Thus to say that because the Third World is becoming more independent, we automatically must do such and such is not strategy.

KENNEDY: Of course all great powers are essentially conservative - they've risen to the top and don't want to be thrown off. But it's necessary for them to find ways of responding to challenges to their position with some degree of subtlety. Sometimes, of course, such challenges must be resisted. But if an empire is completely ethnocentric, if all it can see is a world filtered through its own strategic concerns, then its chances of misreading the situation in a country - of standing firm where it isn't a good idea to stand firm, or of not standing firm where it is - are that much greater.

GEORGE GILDER: But the fact remains that support around the world for the American system has in fact increased since Vietnam. To see this clearly we have only to look at the world economically, instead of geopolitically. If we consider the economic consequences of Vietnam, I think we'll see that there's a real sense in which the United States won the Vietnam War. At least we won the one prize that was worth anything - the boat people. The boat people are now key figures in the high-tech companies in Silicon Valley and across the country, and are thus contributing substantially to American economic growth.

America's victory in Vietnam is more evident when we look at our economy's growing dominance in the world. At the end of the war, our gross domestic product was a quarter of the world's output; for 1984 it is estimated at almost a third. And the predominance of the capitalist system is nowhere more dramatic than in Asia. The communists may continue to dominate the pathetic small places, but less pathetic small places - Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan - are booming capitalist countries.

This massive shift in economic power from the communist world to the capitalist world, symbolized by the boat people, has been far more important than the tactical defeat the United States suffered in Vietnam. America's position in the world has steadily improved in the last decade. And it will keep improving if we continue the emancipation of our economy that President Reagan has begun-recapturing the momentUm the Kennedy Administration began with its tax cut. The Vietnam War was a crucial factor in this economic development, because in the late 1960s, partly to pay for the war, the government started raising tax rates again. There was economic devastation for several years because of Vietnam. But as soon as the war was over, as soon as tax rates were cut, the United States began to demonstrate that it could again dominate the world economically - which is the way that counts.

Indeed, perhaps the most harmful consequence of Vietnam was that it helped reinforce the fallacy of geopolitics - the idea that the cold war is about real estate, that it really makes a difference to America's power that the Russians control Afghanistan or Angola or Ethiopia, all those pathetic countries you can't even visit without getting sick.

LUTTWAK: Such as Transylvania, where I happen to have been born.

GILDER: Well, maybe you have emotional ties to Transylvania. But in the long run you're probably much more valuable to the United States.

CHACE: Perhaps this is the point where, after discussing the war's effects on the American military, and after touching on its economic consequences, we should take up the question of America's "vital interests." In fact, Vietnam was always of marginal strategic importance to the United States. Another consequence of the war, surely, has been a continuing debate about what we actually mean by an American vital interest. President Reagan, for example, defined Lebanon as a vital interest, but our withdrawal from Beirut does not seem to have hurt the United States. How do we define what this country's vital interests are?

LUTTWAK: When an empire loses a vital interest, it's supposed to collapse. If the empire doesn't collapse, then what it lost wasn't a vital interest.

MARIN: I think the problem has to do with how we see ourselves. Everyone here keeps using the word "empire," assuming that the United States must intervene all over the globe or else fade into insignificance. There is obviously a lot of room in between; yet Americans don't have any images or theories to help them describe their country's role in the world - to explain themselves to themselves. We have a sense of defeat, I believe, not simply because the American empire seems to be falling apart, but because once we can no longer see ourselves as a great empire, we don't know how to see ourselves.

GILDER: I think the Vietnam War did vindicate a certain world view - that of the American right. No one talks about this much, of course, but our retreat from Vietnam led to a holocaust, a stream of atrocities that consumed all of Indochina - which was precisely what the right had warned would happen. That holocaust allowed the rest of the world to see clearly what happens when a country is lost to communism, and it is bound to make other countries more willing to resist communism on their own.

MARIN: That's much too simple a view. The effects of Vietnam are more tragic, and less ideological, than that. Many Americans are smart enough to realize that while our withdrawal from Vietnam had certain tragic consequences, our presence, had we remained there, would have led to a different, and equally tragic, set of consequences. This knowledge is the difficulty: we understand that both America's presence and its absence have had consequences of which we despair. And no one on the left or right has managed to do much with this knowledge, other than to assert over and over the weakness of the other side's position.

LUTTWAK: But empires shouldn't have to use military force to secure their interests in the first place. Empires secure their interests by not using military force; they rely on their reputation for using force only when it is absolutely needed, and then in an utterly implacable manner. If you're in the empire business, it is your duty to be implacable when somebody opposes you - especially when the conflict is on a small scale, and terminating it is nice and cheap. The problem is that the American people never really saw their country as an imperial power; the United States was not designed to manage an empire.

GILDER: America is not in the empire business; the Russians are. But the Soviet Union's economy is steadily declining. The Russians can't even feed themselves. The country is a total failure, a pitiful, helpless giant in every respect except the ability to build up military power. Everything outside the military sphere is going in the United States' direction, beyond the greatest expectations anyone had in the 1950s or 1960s. Today socialism is a joke. Nobody believes in it as a workable economic paradigm anymore. The dynamic has definitely shifted; soon our military strategies will develop to the point where they will properly complement the resurgence of American power and capitalist domination.

KENNEDY: But the war in Vietnam, along with the massive outpouring of vox populi to end the fighting, lent new prominence and seriousness to the ongoing debate over what the country's vital interests really are. Of course, many other countries, great empires and small, have asked these questions of themselves - What are our vital interests? When should we fight for them? But usually the debate has taken place secretly, within an elite group of rulers. It is much more difficult to define your vital interests in a public forum without at the same time letting your, adversaries know where you will stand and fight and where you will not. I think that was a big part of the problem in Lebanon; Secretary of Defense Weinberger and the Joint Chiefs were afraid of getting bogged down - and the secretary said so publicly. Since Vietnam, the military has been hypercautious because it has not devised an effective way to analyze America's vital interests and priorities in public. The public debate - as well as the constant leaks about the private debates-makes managing a global system of influence and interests extraordinarily difficult.

LUTTWAK: A nation can overcome some of the problems you mentioned simply by advertising clearly to its people, and to the world, a general willingness to defend areas that are strategically or economically important to it. To point to specific places is to be unstrategical - an empire doesn't protect its interests by fighting all over the world; rather, it discourages other nations from taking action against it by responding decisively and implacably when it absolutely must.

KENNEDY: Yet it is much easier for a nation to be predictable and implacable in defense of its in- terests when it has a government and a military designed to carry out sustained overseas wars. A small professional army and a nondemocratic system of government enable a nation to maintain an empire. But a full-blown democracy with a conscript mass army - which is what America was at the time of the Vietnam War- will have an extraordinarily difficult time repeatedly going to war to keep recalcitrant natives down. For that, you need a quite different military structure and a quite different constitution.

MARIN: Which leads us to another important consequence of Vietnam: the war forced many Americans to recognize the caste nature of their army - who went to war and who did not. Americans began to notice that their country's conscript army was drawn from the lower middle class and the working class - the young men who didn't go to college. And this knowledge in turn made people more resistant to authority and suspicious of elites who might lead them to war. The war also showed Americans that one could refuse to fight without anything terrible happening. It's difficult to administer an empire if, in the midst of a war, people are able and willing to say: We don't want to fight.

CHACE: Mr. Phillips, how do you assess the war's effect on American politics?

PHILLIPS: Of course, the impact of Vietnam has dominated American politics for the last decade. The most obvious consequence of the war was the radicalization of the Democratic Party and the shift of the patriotic image to the Republicans. This has allowed the Republicans to control the political debate since 1968, except for the interval of Watergate. Watergate, which was clearly tied very closely to Vietnam, destabilized the Nixon/Ford regime and helped elect Jimmy Carter, who could have reached the presidency only after a scandal that enabled him to run as the Sunday school candidate preaching a government of love and trust.

I think Vietnam and Watergate together distorted the underlying political trends of the last fifteen years. Instead of the orderly advance of the moderate conservative political cycle that started in the late 1960s, there was an aberrant interruption of it - in the person of Jimmy Carter - followed by a more extreme repackag- ing of conservatism under Ronald Reagan. I say extreme because this Administration, in its foreign policy at least, appeals to Americans who long for the simpler days of overwhelming American power. But the country can't return to the good old days, so Americans glory in the conquest of Grenada-just as Britain, that old empire with its nostalgic government, gloried in its conquest of the Falklands.

MARIN: But here we come back to the social di- mension of Vietnam that no one seems to want to discuss. American authority was exposed as incompetent and corrupt. Our soldiers refused to fight. Our intelligence agents denounced their government and revealed CIA crimes. Our leaders were shown to be scheming criminals. Day after day, the front page of the evening newspaper, the first few minutes of the evening news, told Americans about the stupidity and dishonesty of their government. Americans, in short, found themselves unable to see the emperor's clothes any longer, whether they wanted to or not. And what they did see, I believe, is still bothering them today, even though many of them seem to be struggling mightily to forget it.

LUTTWAK: Irving Kristol has a theory about this, which explains these events as part of the classic demoralization of the elites in power. According to Kristol, these elites were eventually undermined by another group - the so-called new class of journalists, publicists, academics, and advertising men.

MARIN: Look, I'm trying to talk about the effect of the Vietnam War on the American people. Define what happened as a result of a struggle among elites, if you like. But obviously the war had an enormous effect on the populace at large.

LUTTWAK: Sure it did. The populace at large reacted by shouting, "We want Ronald Reagan!"

MARIN: It is extraordinarily simplistic to treat the American public as if it were one great reactive animal. In order to understand the social effects of the war we have to examine the different groups in our society. For instance, the war had a different effect on the left than on the right. The odd thing was that the left was more demoralized by the cupidity of power than the right; it was as if those on the left learned that what they had been saying for so long about authority and power in America was true, and yet they found themselves unable to do anything with this confirmation.

PHILLIPS: It's true the war crippled the right and the left in different ways. Liberals and others on the left find it impossible even now to come to grips with the question of the effective use of American power. For the voters, the upheavals surrounding the war served to gather together a whole cluster of issues that were widely unpopular, at least in Middle America - what were considered permissive attitudes toward crime and education, and disrespectful attitudes toward patriotism - and to identify them closely with reform elements within the Democratic Party. That radicalization of the party, combined with the weakness of its old elites and the dramatic new assertiveness of minorities, tremendously enfeebled the Democrats.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have been able to use the patriotism issue effectively since 1968. But Vietnam crippled conservatives as well, in a different sense, giving them a rather warped, nostalgic view of American power and a simplistic view of recent American history. They cling to the belief that America can pull the world together again, as it did under Eisenhower. I think that's an illusion, with little basis in the political and economic facts of the world we live in today.

KENNEDY: But how long do you think these political effects will be felt? Today I see on the campuses a different generation, for whom the war and the bitter battles that were fought over it are ancient history. I wonder if we're not really talking about attitudes that are held strongly by one or two generations, but that have not been absorbed by the larger culture.

MARIN: Perhaps. It may well be that a couple of American generations experienced in this war, at least in a small way, something akin to what Europeans suffered in World War I. Vietnam drove home to Americans that war is tragic. Vietnam was as close as modern war has ever come to the United States. The number of men who served, the embittered veterans, the nightly television news, the violent demonstrations in our streets - all this ensured that the war would have an extraordinary impact on the American imagination. Hundreds of books have been written about the war - not books about policy or strategy, but books about horror, about terror, about shame.

GILDER: And that obsessive attitude toward the wax so paralyzed the Vietnam generation that it couldn't participate effectively in the American economy for many years. These people just sat around smoking pot and fantasizing about fascist "Amerika."

The new generation on the rise sees not violence on our campuses but the Chinese Communist leaders declaring that MJrxism is dead - which happens to be immensely more important than any consequence of Vietnam. It is clear by now that the notion that America was losing authority in the world, that it was being overwhelmed by some inexorable trend exemplified by Vietnam, was plain wrong.

MARIN: The Vietnam War was a moral event, and you're incapable of providing anything but an economic response to it. Americans have no means to describe the moral experience of Vietnam. This experience has been lost; or rather, it has become subterranean, and will probably remain so because we have no language to bring it to the surface. This failure of language was the great problem of the left - whatever lessons it learned it turned into hysteria, rather than into wisdom. And this explains, partly, the upsurge of the new privilege George Gilder mentioned - the right simply had no other response to the events that happened during the war. So the left remains mute, and the right grows increasingly self-righteous and trivial in its concerns. That's an immense waste. We could perhaps have become a wiser people. But the war is an experience that is not becoming part of the collective wisdom.

GILDER: Americans are getting on with their iives, in other words.

MARIN: Yes, but perhaps at the expense of our children. We must not "get on with our lives" without coming to terms with what happened in the war.

FITZGERALD: I believe that America's reaction to the war has been solipsistic, in several ways. First, Vietnam veterans have a deep sense that their government victimized them by sending them off on a venture that the society, in the end, didn't approve of. The war was undertaken to achieve aims that were totally unclear to those who fought it, and which turned out never to have existed at all. I don't think this sense of victimization has been overcome. But it has remained a psychological issue for the veterans; it has never really been transformed into a politics. Look at the novels that have come out of Vietnam. They're all intensely personal. There has been no novel of any political scope about Vietnam since Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American. There's been no Catch-22, no attempt at such a comprehensive political understanding on the part of any veteran, or any novelist for that matter.

Americans still prefer to treat Vietnam as a psychological problem for veterans - post- Vietnam syndrome. We can't seem to see the war as a political problem. And the analyses of what post-Vietnam foreign policy should be seem to me similarly solipsistic. No one can come to grips with the fact that none of the objectives the United States imagined it had going into the war justified the size and the ultimate cost of the commitment. What finally happened when we were defeated, when we lost the war? Nothing. Our defeat left our vaunted national security interests in Asia essentially unharmed; indeed, the United States today is arguably in a better position in Asia than it ever has been.

So what did we lose? The right usually answers with more psychological propositions: Vietnam was a failure of will, a failure of nerve. Apparently their concern is that the American image was damaged. But what is that except a sort of narcissistic mortification? The war has not prompted a realistic, reasonable debate about what America's foreign-policy goals are; rather, it has prompted violent swings of emotion over ridiculous symbols. The Grenada invasion was a perfect example of such a symbol - an event of no real consequence that caused an enormous emotional outpouring in this country. So now America is "standing tall" again. The only serious foreign-policy question that has been asked as a result of Vietnam is "Where can the United States intervene militarily?" Surely there are more important questions to ask about the goals of American foreign policy than that.

LUTTWAK: The questions about American foreign policy after Vietnam certainly will not be answered by pondering Grenada. To answer those questions we have to look at Europe.

During the war, it was the hope of the left that America's eventual defeat would bring to an end the assertion of American power world-wide. The left hoped we would withdraw from Europe and Korea and our other primary commitments abroad, thus enabling the world to achieve a new equilibrium where good leftist regimes would run the show. But the mainstream consensus about America's role in the world was not smashed by our withdrawal from Vietnam; in large part the common sense of the American people prevailed, although there is more disagreement than before about peripheral interests. But when we talk about America's role in the world, we are talking first of all about Europe; and there the question is not military intervention but our presence in Germany, which continues to link the fate of America to what happens along the border between the two Germanys. That's why when we talk about America "projecting its power abroad," we are really talking about piddling little areas that are not central to the debate.

MARIN: We must not forget that there exists a realm between the political and the psychological. We need to define what the terms ofa moral debate would be - that is, what consequences justify what costs? For instance, some estimates of the number of vets who committed suicide after the war are as high as 50,000. Americans have never confronted this fact. And it has not been ignored because of our wonderful economic situation and the rise of the yuppies. We have evaded it, because recognizing it would demand so much of us. What does it mean to America that after this war, 50,000 ex-soldiers committed suicide? And what does it mean that our nation won't confront this?

GILDER: There we have a vivid demonstration of the solipsism of the left on the subject of Vietnam - the notion that all Vietnam veterans are somehow traumatized by guilt. In fact, most of them are very proud of their participation in the war; it's the people who evaded the draft who are suffering traumas of guilt. By pointing to all this supposed psychological damage, the left is attempting to show that its opposition to the war has been vindicated.

LUTTWAK: The suicides were a result of the fact that the elite presented the war in a manner designed to humiliate those who fought in it, to make their sacrifice seem unworthy.

MARIN: It is truly corrupt to take this fact and turn it into a political argument. Why should we assume that all the vets committed suicide for precisely the same reason? What you describe was one reason, but there were many others.

GILDER: Such as drug abuse.

MARIN: Such as shame and humiliation. I know vets who think it was a wonderful war and were deeply enraged by the reception they got when they came home. But there are many vets, perhaps far more, who can't get over their guilt. Let me give you a very simple example: a vet who can't forget that at the beginning of the war, he threw cans of food to children from the backs of trucks because he wanted to feed them, and that by the end of the war, he was pelting the children with the cans, trying to kill them. He says he will spend the rest of his life trying to find a way to atone for that.

Now, he doesn't feel shame about America's role in the war or the loss of the war; he feels shame about what he himself did during the war. And our inability to recognize this adds to his shame.

KENNEDY: The argument I've been witnessing for the last few minutes seems to me a consequence of Vietnam: an almost unbridgeable divide has been created in the political culture of this country.

I recently attended a conference on Anglo-American relations. During the proceedings, one of the Brits mentioned the Suez interven- tion in 1956, whereupon another Brit jumped to his feet and violently disagreed with him. Then several others joined in. The entire conference stopped dead for ten minutes while this group of Brits of a particular generation quarreled about Suez. This explosion was a startling reminder of what the impact of Suez had been at the time; it was an event which sent shock waves through the British body politic.

The Vietnam War had an even more violent impact on the Americans who lived through it. It enormously intensified political and ideological feelings, and some Americans will never stop quarreling about it-about the appropriate use of military force, about whether it is moral or not moral for America to intervene abroad, about whether a democracy can truly manage an empire. All of these political disagreements extend outward from the sort of arguments we've heard around this table today.

MARIN: The quarrel, I fear, involves far more than political differences. It involves a disagreement about how men and women, and nations, ought to measure their actions. The vets I know best, for instance, are Catholics, the good boys who went to war because their leaders and priests told them to fight godless communism. Many of them now feel enormous guilt at having done things for which they find themselves unable to atone. The priests in Vietnam came to bless their guns rather than to give them counselor comfort or genuine help in coming to terms with their actions. This turned many of these vets against the church in the end: they could no longer depend on it to guide them in their lives.

A crisis concerning the proper moral basis for actions and decisions was coming in America anyway, but the war precipitated it, brought it to the surface. The same kinds of complex ethical questions raised by the war are at work in the abortion controversy and the debate about Baby Doe. After all, what we are talking about here is killing. We are discussing when and where the state, or individual men and women, have a legitimate right to accomplish their ends by taking thousands of lives, or even, for that matter, a single life.

What we are talking about, in short, is the value of human life, and this is not merely a political or legal issue. It points, as do the other disagreements around this table, both to the complexities of moral choice now confronting us and to a tremendous confusion about the nature of moral life itself. This, I believe, more than any political controversy, explains the power the war still exerts upon us.

CHACE: Finally, we have to ask: Has the American myth, so damaged by Vietnam, really been re- constructed? Perhaps "reconstructing the myth" is a prejudicial phrase; it might be simpler to ask, Has the idea of America, pre-Vietnam America, been reconstructed? The America that can bless a war as it has in the past, that can take firm action in the belief that it is acting rightly, that formulates policy in the belief that it is fulfilling a right and proper mission in the world? Or has this America been set aside- and if so, for how long?

PHILLIPS: In all likelihood, the effects of Vietnam will be pervasive in the United States so long as the generation that was in its early and mid- twenties at the war's height holds sway in American society. And that generation is just assuming power. Through this generation, Vietnam will continue as a subliminal disability in American politics and American society- saddling the left with a paralyzing inability to come to grips with the use of American power abroad, pushing the right to pursue a nostalgic re-creation of an all-powerful America drawn from another era, and, in general, undercutting all attempts to achieve consensus in American foreign policy.

CHACE: We have certainly seen here today that while Ronald Reagan's America may be an assertive America, a resurgent America, it is not an undivided America. The foreign and domestic consensus that largely made possible the forceful exercise of American power after World War II was broken by Vietnam and has never been put back together again. Vietnam was the beginning of the end of the American dream of limitless expectations - we lost our first war.

Without such a consensus, managing a coherent and effective foreign policy is terribly difficult. More to the point, U.S. military intervention abroad, without a clear-cut threat to the United States proper, becomes nearly impossible to carry out. It is not simply a question of military power; the moral and political backing for such intervention, which is imperative in a country such as ours, is lacking.

Without a shared set of moral and political values, how can we agree on what should be defended and with what means? From what we have heard today, it is hard not to conclude that while the image of a self-confident America may well be in the making, the reality remains very different.


© 2017 Mark Danner