New Focus in Vietnam Debate

Brass Tacks

We used to think about Vietnam as a problem. For officials in Washington, the problem was how to beat the Vietcong; for university critics of the government's policy, the problem was how to convince Washington to withdraw.

Last Monday in Lowell Lecture Hall, Hans J. Morgenthau, H. Stuart Hughes, and Stanley Miller thought of Vietnam as a disease. Its roots were not in Southeast Asia, but in the United States. Whatever the origins and history of the war, all three speakers saw its future as lying primarily in Washington, and they saw the future darkly.

The major symptom of the disease was the failure of American consciousness of our place in the world and of what was happening around us. By basing our foreign policy on a series of myths and outmoded models, we were using our military power to oppose the aspirations of the majority of mankind and to undermine our own democratic ideals.

In presenting this new perspective, Professor Morgenthau showed another stage in the evolution of his thought within the changing context of the government university debate.

In the April 3, 1965 issue of The New Republic, Professor Morgenthau entered the Vietnam debate in earnest with an article on "Why U.S. Policy in Asia is Wrong." An admirer of Richelieu, Talleyrand, and Bismark, he could hardly be accused of starry-eyed idealism, and his name had been associated for many years with the power-conscious realist school of international relations. His central argument was that we were on the verge of entering a global anti-Communist crusade which would inevitably involve us in a disastrous war with China. In contrast to the doctrinaire emotionalism of a crusade, Morgenthau pleaded for a flexible and sophisticated policy based on a rational calculation of our interests and power. We still had time, he felt then, to exploit the tensions among the Communist forces and withdraw.

By July 1965, Morgenthau was more pessimistic and more critical. In another New Republic article he castigated President Johnson for a simple-minded "globalism" which sought to protect the entire "free world" from Communist contamination. Arguing that revolutionary situations in undeveloped countries are inevitable, Morgenthau advised that the United States should attempt to sponsor the revolutions, rather than oppose them, in hopes of preventing them from becoming subservient to the U.S.S.R. or China. He further criticized the policy of military containment of Communism as eventually ineffective and perhaps ultimately fatal. Armed American repression would create "too much dread" and engender a world-wide anti-American coalition.

In his article in The New York Review of Books of September 16, 1965, Morgenthau brought his criticism closer to home. He argued that our foreign policy was based on a series of myths about Vietnam and misunderstandings about the nature of national interest, power, and prestige. He showed how an incorrect policy is self-sustaining: the policymakers, fearful of being proven fundamentally wrong, identify the problem of American prestige with their personal political prestige and redouble their efforts to formulate a victorious strategy from their mythical conceptions. Finally, he argued that our practice of terror and destruction in Vietnam was brutalizing our Armed Forces and undermining basic American ideals.

Morgenthau's speech at Lowell Lecture Hall tied together many of these arguments and added another specific condemnation. Our basic misunderstanding of contemporary revolutions and our related myths about Vietnam, he said, were resulting in a policy which worked against our national interest. By failing to grapple realistically with the revolution in Southeast Asia, and by destroying the political and social fabric of South Vietnam, we were unconsciously establishing the preconditions for successful Chinese domination.

The tone of Morgenthau's speech was rational and analytical, and contained some irony born of disappointment. He spoke to the absent government as if to a simple child, explaining that if you want to end a war by negotiation, you have to negotiate with your opponents, even if they are "rebels". But it is his values, as much as his rational analysis, which separates Morgenthau from the strategists in Washington on the perception of Vietnam and the general disease of American foreign policy.

Morgenthau, as a "realist" thinker concerned with America's security, would agree that the United States must oppose Communist threats at certain places and under certain conditions. His disagreement with the "realists" in Washington-say, with McGeorge Bundy-derives from his differential view of the Vietnamese situation and from his different hierarchy of values in the realm of foreign affairs. Thus Bundy apparently rates the American national interest in South Vietnam as relatively high, while Morgenthau sees it as relatively low. But even more important, Bundy and Morgenthau disagree on the cost, as determined by values, of sending thousands of Americans to die in Vietnam, of brutalizing the Armed Forces, of stiffling debate at home and of shrouding the whole operation in executive secrecy. For Morgenthau, whose conception of the national interest includes the nation's domestic values, these costs are too high for the short-term goal of temporarily checking the Communists.

The Lowell Lecture Hall discussion reflects the newest phase of the government-university debate, in which the focus has shifted from the strategy of guerilla war to the faults of American politics and policy. Although this focus is closer to the roots of the disease, it is likely to raise problems more intractable yet more in need of solution than those of Vietnam.