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Marching on Machiavelli

By Michael Lerner

Perhaps five hundred people who want to stop the war in Vietnam will leave Boston by bus tomorrow night at 9:30 for Washington D.C. Most are students; many are affiliated with PAX, SDS, M-2-M, American Friends, B.U. Students for Peace, Brandeis Peace Group or the Young Socialist Alliance. Buses and cars are also en route from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Wisconsin, Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia.

Marches are sensitive to the charge that they march from emotion alone. The leaders work to inform participants and stimulate discussion. There are dozens of leaflets, one-sided but often well-executed. One of the best descriptions of the purpose of the march is in an SDS information sheet for its organizers. Unfortunately, it has not been widely distributed, for it is one of the ablest statements of the politics of voting with one's feet.

The SDS Analysis

The writer of the paper distinguishes among three kinds of marches: marches with policy objectives (the March on Washington), marches to focus public opinion on less defined goals (the Selma March), and "those which primarily demonstrate the commitment and concern of the marchers" (traditional Easter peace-marches). Tomorrow's march is not the first kind, because there is no policy objective in the legislative sense, such as the Civil Rights Bill. It is not the second kind, because it has a longer-range objective than the temporary focusing of public opinion. It is the third kind: The marchers will simply be there to protest the governmental structure that allows McGeorge Bundy and McNamara to decide issues of war and peace. They oppose Johnson's ability to prosecute the war in Vietnam without Congressional control. Only secondarily, according to SDS, is this a protest against the Vietnam war itself.

The "dilemma of power" is more important. Specifically, the marchers seek 1) to break the myth of a solid American concensus on Vietnam behind the President, 2) to return to a more direct democracy in which the people rather than the Bundys, make the decisions, and 3) to unite the groups whose existences are threatened by the removal of policy from the hands of the people to the hands of the experts.

This statement from Students for a Democratic Society is undoubtedly one of the most sophisticated arguments for the march. The question it does not pretend to answer is, what alternatives to the Johnson policy do the marchers offer.

One can argue that it is not the function of the marchers to produce a good policy, that it is only necessary for them to protest an evil one. Yet if one intends to take policy decisions out of Bundy's hands and return them to the people, then the people must be prepared with solutions to the policy problems. Some of the peace groups believe the answer in Vietnam is as clearcut as their slogans. But before adopting such solutions, it is worth trying to understand entirely the policy against which they are rebelling.

Johnson's Tactics

What exactly is the Administration doing? First, by increasing the number of American troops in Vietnam, Johnson is trying to consolidate the areas Saigon still holds in the South. He also wants to ensure that the South Vietnamese government isn't swept into the sea by the major Vietcong offensive expected later this month. Second, he is bombing North Vietnam, and perhaps raiding it as well. The bombing is designed to raise military morale, to pressure Ho Chi Minh to negotiate for peace on Johnson's terms, and to cut off transport arteries leading south. These arteries have carried whatever equipment Hanoi has sent south and would be used in any major retaliation against the American bombings.

Third, Johnson has made a speech launching a peace offensive. He understands, as do the Russians and Chinese, the advantages of talking peace while escalating the war. Fourth, Johnson is trying to coax the South Vietnamese government into enacting agrarian reforms. This is the best possible moment for such reforms, since the Vietcong has boosted land taxes in some of the areas it controls almost to the levels demanded by the old landlords. This was necessary to support the increasing number of Vietcong regular troops. The peasants in affected areas have retaliated by defecting and by giving the Southern army intelligence about Vietcong caches. Reforms would hasten this trend, but as usual they have second place to the military effort.

These are Johnson's tactics for staying in Vietnam, but why stay at all? First, American public opinion is decidedly against U.S. defeat and retreat in Vietnam. (It is also against escalation, creating Johnson's dilemma. His reaction reflects American schizophrenia about Vietnam as well as sound Machiavellian politics: talking peace as he orders the bombing of more Vietnamese.) Second, Johnson can trace the policy back to Eisenhower, and as long as he continues it with what many Americans consider moderation, he is safe domestically. Third, he himself has already gone on record with many strong commitments to Saigon.

Fourth, he recognizes the dispute between Russia and China on how to handle the United States. Moscowcounsels caution although nominally supporting sacred wars of liberation. The Chinese reply that if the U.S. is faced with a protracted guerrilla struggle, eventually, American public opinion and the preference of the peasants for a movement which promises them land without landlords will force the U.S. out. McNamara has warned Johnson that Vietnam is a test case, and that if the U.S. backs down here, the Chinese win the argument. Other peasant revolutionaries around the globe will begin similar bids for power in the name of the local brand of pro-Chinese Marxism.

One can argue, as many radicals argue, that all the United States has to do is to back the aspirations of these peasant revolutionaries and return to its revolutionary values of 1776. That, as John F. Kennedy found out, is easier said than done. In any case it is not an argument that appeals to Johnson.

Fifth, Johnson has great vanity about history and how it will remember him. Where as he no the doubt knows the danger of over-extending power, he also knows that at $2 million a day he is spending less than two per cent of the annual military budget on Vietnam. Will history blame him for the cruelty of the war in Vietnam, or blame him for not understanding the strategic importance of a patch of fertile rice paddies on the other side of the globe? That is Johnson's quandry.

The people getting on the buses tomorrow night are, for the most part, certain that Johnson is dead wrong. There is too much cruelty, too much danger of nuclear war for Johnson's course to be right. The United States has no moral justification for binding Asia to the American-European alliance. It has no moral right to intervene in a class struggle in a foreign country.

Morality has an important place in politics. It is not, however, easy to say what that place is. Johnson, too, wants the war to end, incredible as that may sound to many Cantabrigians. Nor is he any less sane or more sane than those who want the U.S. to get out. But Johnson, like De Gaulle, like Churchill, like Machiavelli, proceeds on different assumptions about what peace and morality require. Hopefully the marchers, when they reach the White House, in that spirit of togetherness and certainty that every march inspires, will not be too contemptuous of the man inside.

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