Watergate and the Indochina War

"The official line is we don't want to profit from a national tragedy," Gary Hart of the McGovern campaign remarked recently of the Watergate hearings. "You can translate that as, 'let the Republicans stew in their own juice.'"

You can translate that as we don't want to profit from a national "tragedy." Few Democrats have been making inflammatory speeches, or seriously attacking these wonderful folks who brought us the plumbers' unit, or coming out and saying that President Nixon is personally responsible for the activities of his administrators and election committee. McGovern, Humphrey, Muskie--the would-be Democratic presidents of the party--have little or nothing to say about Watergate. Kennedy, however, told a Fourth of July crowd that although he differs with George Wallace "on some issues," they have in common the fact that neither of them keeps lists of political enemies. To the skeptical observer this doesn't seem like quite enough of a basis for a political party, or even for an attack on a rival political party. One might have expected Kennedy to attack Nixon for attempting to bribe the judge in the Pentagon Papers trial, for approving--by his own admission--a national security program he knew was illegal, for extorting secret campaign contributions from large corporations. To attack him for keeping lists of his enemies is a little bit like attacking the terror bombing of Hanoi on the grounds that it was a waste of the taxpayers' money.

It is clear that the Democrats have enough to start impeachment proceedings against Nixon, if they want to. It is equally clear that they do not want to. Although, according to the Washington Post, most of them think Nixon approved the cover up, they are reluctant to further divide our bleeding nation, and so forth. They are reluctant to profit from a national tragedy (i.e. 'tragedy' liberally defined). This is unusual. The Republican Party showed no such scruples during reconstruction; the Democrats were perfectly willing to profit from the Depression. Self-interest and idealism both prompt political parties to profit from whatever comes along. Why are the Watergate hearings different?


The Watergate hearings might better be viewed as the last act of the struggle against America's war on Indochina. Nixon's half-hearted attempts to justify his activities are based on the exigencies of national security, by which he apparently means suppression of radical and liberal opposition to the war. When loyal CREEPs want to demonstrate that Nixon's activities were responses to illegal activities by his opponents, they point to Daniel Ellsberg and the Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Among the first fruits of Nixon's troubles were Congressional demands for an end to the bombing of Cambodia. Dramatically, it would be hard to improve on the Watergate hearings as a last act for the Tragedy of America in Indochina--except, of course, by Nixon's impeachment under suitably histrionic dramatic circumstances. Even as it is, Vietnam beats Coriolanus hollow. Yet this dramatic connection hides a deeper, more genuine one which comes out in the struggle over Indochina.


When the Vietnamese threw the French out in 1954, the educated Vietnamese middle-and upper-classes apparently hoped to establish an American-style republic. Most politically conscious Vietnamese peasants, on the other hand, were not excited by republican slogans. They were more interested in economic power which they could use to break the power of the landlords and achieve a decent life. They supported Ho Chi Minh.

Most Americans believed that American-style republics deserved support, and that communism was a bad thing. Naturally, therefore, the United States threw its weight behind Vietnam's liberal classes. At Geneva, Vietnam was divided into a politically democratic, capitalist south and a socialist north. Since the Vietnamese had just fought a long and bitter war for national sovereignty and unity, this solution was less than ideal. But each side--the liberals and the communists--believed that Vietnam would be united under its own system of government in the national elections scheduled for 1956. And in the south, the middle-classes, swollen by refugees from the hostile north, set out to build a political democracy in which they could build a flourishing capitalist economy.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Karl Marx described the paralysis of a middle-class anxious to maintain the political democracy it believed in, but increasingly aware that political democracy might mean an end to capitalism, and therefore to its own power. Vietnamese liberals after Dienbienphu found themselves in a similar predicament. Free elections with universal suffrage would bring socialists to power. Establishing the democracy would mean class suicide. Freedom of assembly might turn into revolution at any moment. Freedom of speech meant agitation against the shaky government. Freedom of religion meant that the Buddhist peasants could hope to overthrow the largely Catholic middle class. Just as the French middle-class Marx wrote about found that the democracy it believed in endangered its rule and so accepted the dictatorship of Napoleon III, Vietnamese liberals found themselves accepting the dictatorship of General Diem, and refusing to hold a national election, as they had promised, in 1956.

The Eisenhower Administration encouraged Diem to cancel the '56 election, in the belief that a democratic election would bring communists to power throughout Vietnam, and so end democracy there once and for all. It was a curious preview of later Administration reasoning: cancelling elections to protect democracy smacks of destroying villages in order to save them. But the confusion was inevitable, given that the preservation of political democracy and the suppression of economic democracy was a basic aim of American foreign policy. Political democracy without economic democracy was impossible in Vietnam. The communist peasants out-numbered the liberal middle-class too over-whelmingly, and the Vietnamese middle-class was too weak and too discredited by its involvement with the French.

Nevertheless, most Americans did not think of themselves only as fighting against communism, but as fighting for political democracy. In countries where political democracy seemed to mean radical social change, to be sure, the United States had shown itself willing to tolerate military dictatorship, just as had the previously democratic middle-and upper-classes of those countries. Franco's Spain and the Afrikaaners' South Africa, after all, are bulwarks of The Free World. But most Americans do not really like to defend these countries, much as Vietnamese liberals were not really happy with Diem. American supporters of a right-wing dictatorship, therefore, do not emphasize its dictatorial character--most of them dislike dictatorships themselves. They are willing to accept a dictatorship only because they believe it is the only alternative to radical change, and only because their commitment is shaky enough so that they are not compelled to inquire into or maintain active awareness of its nature.


As American involvement in Vietnam increased, this second condition began to fail. After the cancellation of the 1956 elections, guerrilla activity began in the South. Naturally, the Saigon government did not take this lying down; to fight the guerrillas effectively, it had to accept a further erosion of civil liberties and democracy. It also needed a further infusion of American money and troops, which increased unavoidably Americans' interest in and knowledge of the erosion of the civil liberties for which they were supposedly fighting.

The situation was tolerable only so long as it was misunderstood. To acknowledge the impossibility of a merely political democracy in Vietnam was unthinkable for Americans loyal to the rhetoric of the New Frontier. It would mean facing a choice, unthinkable to them, between economic democracy and no democracy at all, between a hopefully temporary dictatorship of the peasants and the small working class and a hopefully permanent dictatorship of the Army and the small upper bourgeoisie. Inevitably, therefore, American politicians blamed the failure of democracy in Vietnam not on the conditions that made their definition of democracy inadequate, but on the one factor in the situation that they could readily change--the South Vietnamese government. Because it was loyal to the ideal of political democracy, therefore, the Kennedy Administration overthrew General Diem. And because a merely political democracy was impossible in Vietnam, General Diem's successors inevitably ruled even less democratically than he had.

Naturally, American liberals were disillusioned. For most of them, both the real alternatives in Vietnam--the victory of the National Liberation Front, and the continuance of what liberals were beginning to call a "tinhorn dictatorship"--were still unacceptable. But the United States, after all, had no compelling interest in Vietnam.

Americans were there to give the Vietnamese a chance to make American-style democracy work. If the Vietnamese would not or could not do this, the United States could withdraw without losing anything except a few sacred ideals and a few of the war industries that were keeping the economy booming. However unpleasant these losses, they were, to increasing numbers of liberals, insignificant beside the effects of the war-influenced inflation and the loss of self-respect contingent on continuing to bomb and kill and die in defense of a corrupt and totalitarian state.