A Parting Shot
ANTI-PERSONNEL bombs were manufactured in the small towns that dot the rolling dairy country of Wisconsin and Minnesota. Teen-age kids who had to keep their cars moving and farm wives who needed to supplement the family income took jobs in the munitions factories, which were turning out all types of shells and bombs around the clock at the peak of the Vietnam War. Anti-personnel bombs were shipped to Southeast Asia, loaded aboard bombers, and dropped over wide swaths of Vietnamese territory.
Anti-personnel bombs flutter to earth and land silently in darkened rice fields. There they wait sinisterly, like chunks of debris. They explode only at human contact, spewing out hundreds of tiny steel pellets which rip, shred, maim and blind. Anti-personnel bombs do not discriminate between soldiers and old women and small boys walking behind the family water buffalo.
There was a savage logic behind the use of anti-personnel weapons. The men in Washington who planned this war knew that the National Liberation Front and North Vietnam had only limited medical facilities and that widespread injuries, instead of deaths, would severely tax those facilities and weaken the Vietnamese war effort. So they issued crisp orders which set in motion the farm wives and the bomber pilots. And more small boys clutched shredded bodies and blinded eyes and screamed in agony.
A group of Chilean leftists recently chose an improbable phrase to inform the rest of the world that they intend to remain in Chile and fight the military dictatorship instead of seeking asylum abroad. The Miristas, a Chilean New Left of students who left the universities to work with landless peasants and urban workers, said only that they would remain in Chile "to fulfill our obligations." They consciously chose a future of furtive meetings and constant fear which for some of them will surely culminate in electric-shock tortures and machine-gun executions.
When I entered this University in 1970, American bombers were carpeting Vietnam and Salvador Allende had just been elected president of Chile. During the past four years, millions starved in Africa and Bangla Desh, more Vietnamese were dismembered by bombs made in Wisconsin's dairy hills, and the Chilean president who had quickened the hopes of his people was lowered into an unmarked grave in a Santiago cemetary.
At times in the past four years, I have had difficulty reconciling my comfortable presence at Harvard with the continuing sorrow elsewhere on our planet. I was conscious somewhat of my obligations to the rest of the world, yet I read books and wrote articles while some of our brothers and sisters screamed and died. I strained to keep up my connections with the world outside Harvard; I returned to my Chicago neighborhood to organize with the people I had left behind and to distill some common meaning from the diverging patterns of our lives. Yet I still could not shake the sense that I had exiled myself from my responsibilities. In fact, some of the clearest memories I have of the past four years--being locked in a narrow jail cell with 50 other people after the antiwar demonstrations at the 1972 Republican Convention or walking down Brooklyn streets with a green-eyed woman--have nothing to do with Harvard.
I expressed some of my ambivalence as a hatred for Harvard, an institution I saw as a grim and sinister counterfeit of liberal values. Henry A. Kissinger '50 helped plan the policies which brought more long years of war to Indochina. There is no getting around it; the man should be tried as a war criminal in the name of every blind and dead little boy and girl in all of Vietnam and Cambodia. Harvard held Kissinger's chair in the Government Department open for him even as Indochina glowed with burning napalm fire; this University's values had retreated so far into the grey twilight of relativism that the values meant nothing.
I HAVE come around to a different view of Harvard, although my feelings regarding Kissinger can never change. There are men and women here, I realize, who live an alternate view of the purpose of a university. These people study American foreign policy or Vietnamese culture not because they wish to plan aggressive war or destroy Vietnam, but because they seek to push outward the frontiers of knowledge and enable people everywhere to grapple a bit better with the problems which confound us all.
The tyrants who rule the world and brutalize its people thrive on ignorance, doubt and suspicion. Truth is radical; it works like water gently seeping, eating away at the structures of oppression. I no longer think of a university as necessarily a staging ground for the Kissingers; I think the Kissingers pervert the meaning of a university. My disgust for Harvard is no longer so general. It is directed at the Kissingers and the Bundys and the McNamaras and their apologists who murder and lie and then smugly smirk behind the liberal values they betray.
Harvard does not measure up to this ideal conception of a university but some people here do, people who serve truth and thereby fulfill their obligations to the rest of the world. Some are my friends, some I know only vaguely. Some have been teachers and some students. I could not name all of them, but one man, Alexander B. Woodside, associate professor of History, serves as a good example. I hardly know Professor Woodside; I took his course on Vietnam and I asked him occasionally for explanations about Indochina developments. But his quiet dedication to his craft has impressed me, and those of us who have gained from him an increasing awe for Vietnam and its history are thankful. This University should belong to the people like Professor Woodside, and we are fortunate that they are around in its quiet corners.
Just as there is a better side of Harvard, so too is there cause for optimism in a world filled with visible evil. There has been plenty of destruction and hatred in the world in recent years, but there have also been uncounted acts of love and compassion and the unrelenting pursuit of justice. It is almost as if the hate calls forth the love and terror the resistance, as if oppression awakens in people their obligations to each other. The Chilean revolution, the Vietnamese resistance and the American presidential campaign of George McGovern are all different sides of a common thirst for justice.
IN CHILE, Salvador Allende worked his entire life for his countrymen--for the workers who had never had a vacation, never been to the seashore even though Chile is but 60 miles wide, and for the peasants who starved without land in the shadow of the great estates. A new world dawned in Chile as scorned and ignored people began to join hands and say, look, we matter--we matter to each other and to our common future. The factories became their factories, managed by committees of workers they elected. Many of the great rural estates were broken up and divided among the poorer peasants, who got back land stolen from their ancestors. And children in the industrial slums whose minds were stunted by malnutrition drank milk for the first time.
On September 3, 1973 almost two million Chileans, about one-fourth of the nation's population, marched in a giant revolutionary celebration through Santiago and waved at the modest looking man on the reviewing stand. One week later, he gave his life not because he was their patron but because he was their brother. It is not only that the United States may have been directly involved in the coup that concerns us. Chile matters to us primarily because a just revolution was ended and many good people were murdered. Even as we mourn their deaths, we draw renewed courage from the examples of their lives.
Vietnam, in recent years a continual example of the brutality in the world, is another shining reminder of the alternatives. None of the American onslaught--the heavy bombs and the anti-personnel bombs and the napalm and the bullets and the prisons--could break the spirit of the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese liberation forces are peasants who are starving without land, and rural school-teachers who cannot teach hungry students and urban intellectuals who cannot accept oppression. My favorite high school teachers, the ones who always had extra time for students, would no doubt have been members of the NLF had they lived in Vietnam.
Contrast, for instance, the two 1973 winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. Le Duc Tho, the North Vietnamese Politburo member, has devoted his life to his people; he spent 10 of his 62 years in colonial jails for resistance activities. Henry Kissinger seeks only a world of stability which excludes revolutionary change, and he has bombed little children in pursuit of his goal. Le Duc Tho refused his half of the prize, explaining that the war had not ended. Kissinger sent one of his subordinates to fetch his half.
I remember the 1972 spring offensive, when the North Vietnamese army packed its rations, shouldered its rifles and marched south to free its country as American bombers droned overhead. The North Vietnamese issued one general directive, in the form of a poem, part of which follows, "Liberation fighter, spring in Vietnam is ineffably beautiful. Tet is unbelievably epic. Apricot blossoms vie with each other to cheer your feats. Swallows take wing, telling our countrymen north and south of your deeds. Liberation fighter, let off your gun this spring instead of the usual firecrackers. And ornament Vietnam's spring with everlasting beauty." And the American bomber pilots, peering at the tiny figures marching below, may have wondered why these people never surrendered.
We at Harvard followed the offensive's progress, hoping that it would be the final battle of a war that began before both we and many members of the Vietnamese liberation forces had been born. We did not immediately see a role for ourselves in the struggle. But suddenly, the American bombers whined over Hanoi and Haiphong and dumped death earthward while people bicycled below. We held a successful strike meeting, left our classrooms, and tried to blockade the Kennedy building yet another time. In the police wagon that took me to jail, I met a kid I had not seen since he graduated from my high school five years earlier.
But the war continued. Kissinger pretended a final settlement was imminent in October, and at Christmas the war peaked in the final act of brutality. It was epic the way Vietnam braced itself for that final onslaught. Wave after wave of B-52 bombers leveled sections of Hanoi but Vietnam stood fast despite the thundering terror.
The peace settlement at least has ended the war's most brutal aspects. When Congress eventually cuts off the aid which props up the Thieu regime, the Vietnamese can bind up their wounds and follow their dreams in developing their society. Justice has been sidetracked temporarily in Chile, but justice is winning in Vietnam, and the rest of us have learned something about the impregnability of the human spirit.
AND EVEN in the United States, the source for much of the world's oppression, the desire for justice is not extinct. George McGovern went through a cycle in the 1972 presidential campaign; first ridiculed, then respected, the admiration turned to contempt again after he was written off as a hopeless loser. But for me, McGovern's finest moments came in those last few weeks of the campaign. He tried to talk about Watergate but I sensed that his heart was not really in it. As he frantically flew around the country in those last days he talked about Vietnam.
He ignored the missed airplane connections and the rain-drenched motorcades, and rose above the reporters and much of the country as they laughed behind his back. He talked about the suffering in that other country where everything evil about America culminated in a series of criminal apocalypses, and he reminded us of the essential decency of our people. Look, he said to people in Iowa and Wisconsin and Mississippi, if you could hear the screams in Vietnam, if you could see the death, you would weep for our country. I believe that you would have no part of the crimes that are committed in your name. Perhaps that is why the cynics laughed, because he believed in that essential goodness--but I also believe it and I am grateful to him for saying it.
* * *
WHICH BRINGS US to the present. Never in recent years has the future seemed so ruled by contingency. Malaise drifts back and forth across this country, past corrupt public officials, cars idling in long lines waiting for gasoline and disabled Vietnam veterans who need jobs and better medical care. A mean-spirited Nixon government has wiped out all sorts of poverty and teaching jobs. Put simply, there seems to be little ahead beyond more of the same. In response, students here and elsewhere are said to be burrowing back into their private lives: no one is interested in joining the Peace Corps now, and Ralph Nader is said to have trouble finding help. Students seem to be joining a lemming-like rush to law school or medical school, hoping to emerge eventually with a bright badge of professionalism to ward off the encroachments of a colder world.
One response to all this is to write off the current group of college students as hopelessly timid and selfish. I cannot accept this explanation, for I am frightened by many of the same things that trouble my classmates and yet I know my motives are not evil. I though of teaching next year but there are no jobs; I considered organizing but there is no money. I, along with many other people here, intend to fulfill my obligations--but one cannot build without mortar and brick.
Other people, in other places and at other times, have faced much greater problems and surmounted them. President Allende once remarked that he had been expelled from his university's socialist organization in the early 1930s for refusing to adopt all of its positions. He had great doubts about his future at the time, the companero presidente recalled; a progressive government had just fallen, he had been repudiated by his own friends, and he did not think socialism would ever come to Chile.
Yet last September, Salvador Allende, then 65 years old, spoke over the radio for the last time as tanks rumbled toward the presidential palace. He told the Chilean workers to remain in their factories; the military is too strong, he said, do not resist foolishly. This defeat will be only temporary, he said. Then he said good-bye to every tired worker and hungry peasant in all Chile and signed off to fulfill his final obligation.
We can draw upon the past and gain both the knowledge and the inspiration to shape the future. We can learn from Chile and Vietnam and George McGovern and countless other people; we can sharpen our senses until suffering in the most remote region in the world becomes as loud and clear as crying next door. And we can fulfill, each in his or her own way, our obligations to each other, and we can start to take back our planet from the murderers and the liars.
When I was in high school, people sometimes called me an idealist. I would answer that the real idealists were those who believed that the world could continue to groan onward without completely falling apart, that I was actually a realist because I saw change as imperative. I also answered by using an old worn-out quote from Albert Camus--"Perhaps we cannot feed all the starving children in the world. But we can surely feed some of them. If you will not help us do this, who will help us do this?" And for all the quote's disarming simplicity, I still believe it. President, 1973-4