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An Argument From Self-Interest

Brass Tacks

By Salahuddin I. Imam

ATTACKING the immorality and illegality of the Vietnam war could conceivably shame people into stopping it--but this is unlikely. Human beings are remarkably impervious to the calls of conscience when acting on self-interest. The most fruitful argument, then, is one that attempts to show that the American interest is not, in fact, advanced by the war in Vietnam. Here is one.

Most Americans, including the policy makers, feel that if the United States successfully crushes the North Vietnamese attempt to overthrow the Saigon regime, revolutionaries all over the world will be decisively deterred. Such a victory will demonstrate once and for all that the United States has the power to carry out the Truman Doctrine and suppress uprisings led by "armed minorities." Once this action quells the revolutionary aspirations of any mischief-making extremists, the theory further predicts that countries of Asia and Latin America will forever be spared revolutions. The American-in-the-street is quick to understand that this will keep his country on top. So he supports the Vietnam war.

By this logic, the consequences of an American defeat in Vietnam would be catastrophic. Revolutionary leaders on all continents would be so encouraged and heartened that violent uprisings would spring up all over. Most Americans realize that if these are successful, the United States' own security will be endangered--another reason for supporting the Vietnam war.

Thus, both American policy makers and citizens tend to think that the Vietnam war is the crucial contest of the age, with the winner taking all. The U.S. is seen to be preventing an omnipotent genie from escaping its bottle by jamming in the Vietnam stopper.

UNFORTUNATELY, the Chinese leaders seem to share the belief that the outcome of the Vietnam conflict is of crucial importance to the fate of the world revolutionary movement. This, in turn, convinces the American leaders that they are right. Commentator Donald S. Zagoria once explained that when the Chinese call the U.S. a "paper tiger" they mean "not that the enemy is weak but that in the long run he can be overcome." A Communist victory in Vietnam, the Chinese believe, will illustrate this principle at work, inspiring others to launch their own struggles. When Dean Rusk reads Chinese documents expressing these views he is confirmed in his resolve never to give up the fight in Vietnam. Ironically, he seems to believe in the infallibility of Communist wisdom on this point. Nevertheless, both the Chinese and the American analyses are wrong.

The common error lies in the assumption that the resolve of a small group of men is the main factor that determines the success or failure of a revolution. The U.S. seeks to demoralize such people everywhere by defeating their counterparts in Vietnam, while the Chinese, fearful of the same result, do what they can to prevent such a defeat. It is an irony of history that Americans and Chinese, representing radically different ideologies, should labor under the same misconception.

The Chinese leaders are old men who see the world through the tinted glass of their own revolution. They remember how their steadfastness in the face of enormous hardships gave them ultimate victory, and this memory naturally leads them to exaggerate the importance of their own efforts.

While it is true that Mao Tse-tung and his companions made super-human exertions, the Chinese Revolution might never have succeeded if the Japanese had not invaded China in the Second World War. The Chinese leaders today overlook the significance of the extraordinary post-war conditions, attributing their success instead almost entirely to their own revolutionary activities. They are thus victims of the past when they place their emphasis on the contributions made by a small group of dedicated men.

THE American comes to the same conclusion by his prediliction for conspiracy theories. In the 50's it was believed that all uprisings were the work of Communist agents directed from Moscow. Today the Soviet Union is no longer implicated but the idea persists. The American response these days is to try to intimidate the agents rather than the Soviet Union directly.

The truth, however, is that revolutionaries are only peripherally responsible for the revolutions they make. At best they can do no more than transform a potentiality for revolution into an actuality. They cannot by their exertions create such a potential situation. Such situations are the result of basic economic and social inequities in a society. A large mass of people, oppressed and poor, will sooner or later breed its own firebrands. Persecuting them is as futile as attempting to eradicate malaria by annihilating every mosquito rather than cleaning the swamp.

If the aim of the United States is to avert future violent upheavals, the only meaningful course of action is to attempt to alleviate the misery in the world. Posturing in Vietnam can not be a cheaper shortcut to the same end.

Astonishingly, the lessons of the recent Indonesian episode have not been learned. A Communist revolution was crushed by indigenous forces and American officials claim that the U.S. presence in Vietnam "encouraged" the Indonesian army and people to resist the Communists. This account does not gibe with the fact that at the last U.N. General Assembly meeting the Indonesian foreign minister, arch-conservative Adam Malik, denounced the war in Vietnam.

What really happened is that the Chinese Communist leaders, believing as they do that the human will can always prevail over material difficulties, put heavy pressure on the Indonesian Communists to make a move while the U.S. was tied up in Vietnam.

It is clear that the conditions prevailing in Indonesia at that time were not right for such a venture. As could have been predicted, the Communists were massacred by Muslims. This grisly failure shows that men and their ideas simply cannot bludgeon an intractable reality into any desirable shape.

THERE is another flaw in the American rationale for Vietnam. Revolutionaries obviously do play some part in making revolutions, but they have drawn from the history of the Vietnam war exactly the opposite conclusion to the one the U.S. intends for them. The facts seem clear. Even with half a million men and enormous firepower the U.S. has not been able to wrest control of the countryside from the Viet Cong. To the revolutionaries this means simply that the U.S. can be beaten. No matter what happens in the future they will not lose this conviction.

In fact, if zeal and dedication in the revolutionary leaders were all that it took to start an actual uprising, then the shining example of the Vietnamese would long ago have prompted revolutions in every corner of Asia, Latin America and Africa.

This has not happened because economic, social and even psychological conditions are not "suitable" even in Bolivia. If there does come a time when the mass of the people of a country are thoroughly incensed about their plight, nobody will pause to remember what happened or did not happen in Vietnam. Future revolutions will collapse or flourish for reasons other than an American victory or defeat in Vietnam. Thus, continuing the war in Vietnam is actually irrelevant to the furthering of the American interest.

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