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Liberal Newspeak and the Indochina War

By Seth M. Kupferberg

LIBERALS are quick to point, and with good reason, to Nixon's and his friends' misuse of language: to the "inoperative" statements, the "counter-insurgency actions" that are actually bombings, and the "intelligence programs" that are actually programs of mass murder. (My own favorite instance was Jerry Friedheim's admission last January that there might have been some damage to "the hospital the enemy calls Bach Mai.") But not enough attention has been paid to the language liberals have used to discuss the war.

A couple of weeks ago, for example, the New York Times Magazine, four years behind things as usual, ran a piece called "Is America Burning?" The piece was by James A. Michener, author of Tales from the South Pacific, Hawaii, and The Source, one-time Democratic candidate for Congress, and a would-be Muskie delegate to the Convention last year.

"The Sixties was a period of prolonged and widely varied domestic crises," Michener informed his readers, "that did and did not have to do with the war." Presumably, this is not the sort of sentence that makes Michener's books best-sellers, although he does proceed to paint an appealing picture of thousands of perplexed Americans flocking to his Ohio home for guidance on the difficult question of whether to impeach President Nixon. He advised them not to; the shilly-shallying ambiguity of the sentence I've quoted suggests the reason.

THE MOST immoral thing about the war in Vietnam, Michener went on to explain, was "of course" that it was waged on behalf of a nation that could not profit from our help and against a nation with whom we had no substantive quarrel. The fact that it killed several million innocent people counted for just about nil, apparently. My Lai does merit special attention, in Michener's view, however, because it "resulted in a kind of moral schizophrenia in the American people."

Now, if you asked him, Michener would probably concede that killing a million and a half people in defense of a reactionary dictatorship might result in a kind of moral schizophrenia, whatever that may be, in the American people. But with high-flown meaningless phrases like moral schizophrenia, Michener obscures and trivializes the real issues involved.

If you believe, for example, that your society has just committed mass murder--with the best intentions in the world, of course--you may feel obliged to make sure that it doesn't happen again. If, on the other hand, you believe that your society has merely committed moral schizophrenia, there is no reason for you to do anything at all. It may be a good idea to remove yourself from disturbing influences--to withdraw from Indochina, say--but you are certainly not responsible for what happened to the Indochinese. You are not obliged to make reparations payments, for example. You were temporarily insane. Of course, by putting the emphasis in your discussion of the war on its comparatively minor effects on the United States, you have already suggested that these far outweigh its comparatively enormous effects on Indochina. So you may even feel rather proud of yourself. Moral schizophrenia has a distinguished sound; it's the sort of thing that practically begs the throwing up of hands.

ALTHOUGH few opponents of the war put this thought blatantly, few seem altogether immune to it. No one could accuse Anthony Lewis of closing his eyes to the war's effects on the Vietnamese people. On the contrary, he stands almost alone among newspaper commentators in his determination not to forget what the war meant to the people whose lives it destroyed. "Whatever one's moral qualms at savaging that once innocent and beautiful country," he wrote last week of the compromise date for an end to the bombing of Cambodia, "it represents a crucial step in restoring the political health of our country." No doubt it does. But the Cambodians killed between now and August 15 will be no less dead for that.

It is from precisely such uncomfortable facts that mouthings about moral schizophrenia shield their speakers. The phrase "tragic war in Vietnam," has become a near proverb among Liberals. But "tragic" has no definite meaning; it doesn't refer to Aristotle's rules of drama, or Elizabethan concepts of the rise and fall of statesmen, or anything like that. Insofar as it means anything at all, it means "sad." Accordingly, the phrase is given out in subdued undertones, as though a dead man with a brokenhearted widow were weeping in the next room. It is used as if in reference to an accident. And accidents, of course, cannot be avoided, which is precisely the point. Talk of the tragic war in Vietnam ducks responsibility for the war nearly as effectively as talk of moral schizophrenia.

WHAT is really unacceptable in the vocabulary of the polite is talk of the aggressive war in Vietnam. Similarly, when antiwar students greeted President Johnson with chants of "Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?", even the most antiwar liberal commentators deemed this a rude address, bereft of the reverence befitting the President.

What most liberals--the Micheners if not the Lewises, the Muskies and Humphreys if not always the McCarthys and McGoverns--found objectionable about Vietnam, then, was that it stirred up divisive passions in the United States. Their anti-war opposition, like Nixon's support, arose from their fear of radical social change. But unlike Nixon, they thought continued controversy over the war was more likely to bring turmoil and radical change than an NLF victory.

As they predicted, controversy world wide--and particularly in this country--is dying with the Vietnam war. Lenin's successor whispers friendly greetings in Nixon's ear, and announces solemnly that anyone who does not believe in the eternal coexistence of incompatible economic systems is insane. Kissinger goes back to Peking. The Democrats let the Republicans stew in their own juice. The Jefferson Airplane break up; the Carpenters pack the halls. Bobby Seale puts on suit and tie and runs for Mayor of Oakland. At least half of New York City's Democratic Party coalesces around its official candidate for mayor. Rennie Davis makes speeches for the 15-year-old Perfect Master. The New York Yankees look as though they will win the pennant for the first time since the halcyon days of Lyndon Johnson. And the New York Mets--the team of the undaunted losers, of the underdog, the Viet Cong of organized baseball--are in last place, with half their players injured.

NOW the last thing most liberal Democrats want, when things are going so nicely, is to stir up old passions by impeaching President Nixon. The Watergate hearings, they believe, will bring the good liberals back to power, and put an end once and for all to the Nixonian onslaught of fascism. At the same time, American withdrawal from Indochina will end once and for all the wave of liberal and radical protest that made Nixon, like Diem before him, believe repressive methods necessary. So much for the profit Democrats hope to make off of this national 'tragedy.' When the Republican Party in the aftermath of the Civil War profited to consolidate the rule of the Northern middle-class, when the Democrats profited from the Depression to enact the welfare legislation demanded by the sinking middle-class, major realignments were brought about in American society, reflected in American politics.

DEMANDS for similar realignments emerged out of anti-war agitation. Witness the popular response to McGovern's relatively mild welfare proposals last year. Unlike other national catastrophes, Vietnam was the product of Vietnamese class conflicts, not American. It was a vicariously experienced secondhand national tragedy, and the Democrats would like to keep it that way.

Not all cessations of conflict, not even all reconciliations, should be welcomed. As Nixon, fresh from his attacks on American democracy, goes on hobnobbing with Brezhnev and sending arms to Papadopoulos, we might be moved, like Senator Ervin, to quote Shakespeare. It's time to fear, Pericles remarked, when tyrants seem to kiss.

(This is the second of a two part series.)

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