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Huntington: A Reconsideration

Brass Tacks

By David Landau

FEW POLITICAL FIGURES still at Harvard have been the subject of as much fruitless controversy as Samuel P. Huntington. Accusing him of complicity in the U.S. war effort, Huntington's critics, here and elsewhere, suggest that he has supported or furthered American military policy in Vietnam. With equal venom, Huntington has responded that he could never have been involved in such nasty activity, and has impugned the sincerity of his critics. Others, taking a more detached view, suggest that Huntington's role will not be evident until the full written record of the war is available, but even the record will not solve much if the assumptions of the present debate are not discarded.

More specifically, Huntington has frequently been identified with the "urbanization" strategy of the U.S. Air Force, a strategy which has wrought unspeakable devastation in the South Vietnamese countryside. Bluntly put, the "rationale" of urbanization has been to saturate the rural areas of the South with bombs, causing large numbers of surviving civilians to flee from areas under NLF control. Crowded into teeming, poverty-striken refugee camps outside South Vietnam's cities, growing numbers of the South Vietnamese people have fallen under the political and military control of the Saigon regime.

Urbanization had long been official U.S. policy by the time Huntington travelled to Vietnam as a State Department consultant in mid-1967. All the same, Huntington returned from Vietnam to describe the effects of urbanization in largely laudatory terms. In an article published in Foreign Affairs in July 1968, an article which presumably repeats in substance his private report to the State Department the previous fall, Huntington observes that "the most dramatic and far-reaching impact of the war in South Viet Nam has been the tremendous shift in population from the countryside to the cities." And despite his observation that "the social costs of this change have been dramatic and often heart-rending"--a passage Huntington never fails to quote back to his critics--most of his remarks tend to treat urbanization as a positive accomplishment. At one point, he goes so far as to say:

In an absent-minded way the United States in Viet Nam may well have stumbled upon the answer to "wars of national liberation." The effective response lies neither in the quest for conventional military victory nor in the esoteric doctrines and gimmicks of counter-insurgency warfare. It is instead forced-draft urbanization and modernization which rapidly brings the country in question out of the phase in which a rural revolutionary movement can hope to generate sufficient strength to come to power.

IT IS this and other similar passages from the article which Huntington's detractors point to as evidence that he had earlier suggested that urbanization be made official policy. But such statements do not prove involvement in the creation of that policy, nor do they even demonstrate that the author honestly means what he says. And what is new in Huntington's Foreign Affairs article is not its analysis of why this particular policy has succeeded, but the blatency and cold-bloodedness of the language he uses to describe urbanization itself.

Strangely enough, Huntington concludes that military strength alone will not be able to spread Saigon's control to all areas of the country. That, he says, "would require a much larger and more intense military and pacification effort than is currently contemplated by Saigon and Washington." The rest of the article then argues for some form of political cooperation between the Thieu regime and the NLF, which Huntington suggests can best be achieved initially on a local level. "Such a system might be labeled federal, confederal, pluralistic, decentralized--but whatever the label, it would reflect the varied sources of political power. In the recognition of the acceptance of that diversity lies the hope for political stability in Viet Nam."

Huntington's argument for political "accommodation," for prodding the Saigon regime into recognizing the NLF as a legitimate political force in South Vietnam, logically contradicts his praise of urbanization. For if Huntington believed urbanization could be effective, he would simply have argued for "a much larger and more intense military and pacification effort" instead of dismissing it as beyond Washington's capability. In fact, a number of government officials who are familiar with Huntington's work have suggested privately that his accolade of the urbanization program was probably a tactical ploy designed to interest "hard-headed" Washington officials in his substantive policy recommendation for a political accord in the South.

IT MAY interest Huntington's detractors at Harvard to learn that he is considered, by Washington's standards, "dovish" or "soft" on Vietnam. This does not mean that he favors either total or unilateral withdrawal from the war; in fact, Huntington consistently argues that, as he put it in a subsequent study, "much of our grief in Vietnam has come as a result of our not becoming deeply enough involved in Vietnamese politics," whereas the crucial assumption of a unilateral withdrawal policy is that Washington must renounce any role in the internal political life of the Vietnamese. At the same time, Huntington's government activity is of some concern not so much because of what he recommends as in the lengths to which he is willing to go to insure that be an "effective" internal critic of official policy.

It may seem a harmless temptation for "relevance"-oriented academics to become "insiders" or government policy-makers as well; when they do so, however, they invariably "toughen" their language and couch their ideas and recommendations in more "hard-headed" terms than they might otherwise use. As anyone who has observed U.S. policymaking knows, there is an atmosphere of bureaucratic machismo which infects decision-making and obliges everyone involved, full-time officials as well as academic consultants, to talk much more brutishly than they would in private. Not only does the government lie as a corporate unit, but each official likewise conceals his innermost thoughts and feelings from everyone else in order to be most "effective" at the right moment. For this reason, not even so extensive a collection of documents as the Pentagon Papers can adequately get at what particular officials were thinking and why they behaved as they did.

None of this should be misconstrued to mean that Huntington has courageously shed his liberal mettle to fight "our" battle against the war on the inside Washington track. The use of phony arguments for opportunistic purposes is no defense of character; when successful, it leads to even greater breaches of principle to achieve further ends. The difference between a purely academic and a Washington-oriented liberal may seem only stylistic, but it is huge; Huntington clearly falls into the second category. If he succeeds in getting into government, he will doubtless become immersed in the bureaucratic propaganda and self-sustaining rationales that he willingly uttered to gain entree. It is instructive to remember that Henry Kissinger was known as a strong Vietnam dove in his final years at Harvard, and even he never saw fit to imply praise for the mass killing and forced migration of Vietnamese civilians as Huntington does in Foreign Affairs.

Nor do men who aspire to service in government free themselves from such calculated behavior when they are outside Washington, because, in most cases, they are quite eager to return as soon as possible. When Huntington wrote his Foreign Affairs article, he had not given up hope of ever working for the government again, and he was conscious of maintaining his "credibility" in Washington. Thus it was necessary for him to discuss urbanization in ugly, callous terms. And whether he "meant" it or not, the language he used cannot by any measure be described as humane or civilized.

TO STATE the matter another way, the standards of teaching and of government service in the Washington of the 1970's are really quite antithetical. Without a fundamental overhaul in the way officials debate issues and make decisions, while those in government are obliged to lie and distort to each other as frequently as their government lies and distorts to its public, scholars entering government will continue to make real compromises on principle if their work has not already departed from the norms of academic interchange. And as in the case of Huntington's discussion of urbanization, their published writings will inevitably sour the level of public discourse, and contribute to the destruction of linguistic and intellectual standards. The issue of the academic in government is a complex and subtle one; but there is a point where the two principles conflict, and no individual can be faithful to both if he performs one of them well.

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