VICTOR HUGO once proclaimed that "there is nothing so powerful in all the world as an idea whose time has come." For countless American youth and those among the leftist intelligentsia who had labored for five years as the conscience of a nation, the triumph of an idea could not have seemed closer than when Lyndon B. Johnson told a stunned, nationwide television audience on April Fool's day, 1968, that he would neither seek nor accept nomination for another presidential term.
The youth and the intellectual left--having found each other several years before in a shared feeling of utter powerlessness to counter the increasing irrationality of American policy in Southeast Asia--had brought down (or so it seemed at the time) LBJ and his great war machine and were on the verge of leading America to a renewal of democratic policy-making and a moral view of the world. Eugene McCarthy had started humbly in New Hampshire, but had brought the message home to LBJ that Americans wanted peace and would no longer accept American involvement in a jungle war on the other side of the world. Robert F. Kennedy '48, despite antagonizing many among the New and Old Left, was also polling well, and in fact, was beginning to emerge as the one who would carry the ball for a country headed into an era of peace and renewed social consciousness.
The triumph, of course, was short-lived and for the most part a mistaken one, as the events that followed in rapid succession over the next year would clearly indicate. Kennedy was murdered, Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey vied for the honor of becoming the lesser evil, the events and reaction to the Democratic Convention in Chicago proved unequivocally where the heart of the nation was and pointed out the tremendous schisms that existed even between the New and Old Left. By 1969, Nixon was firmly ensconced in the White House with a mandate to clear the streets of the renegades and Communists who sought to bring down our great nation, while bombing in Indochina was rising to record heights as the illegal war widened into Cambodia and Laos.
The time of the idea--or ideal--shared by the youth of America and the intellectual left had not come. How could that be? How, after the duplicity in the conduct of Southeast Asian policy of American officials was coming to light and administration justifications of the war were sounding more Orwellian by the day ("we are fighting this war for peace"), could the American public not follow this vanguard?
Sandy Vogelgesang's The Long Dark Night of the Soul: The American Intellectual Left and the Vietnam War is not the first nor will it be the last book that asks how and why the intelligentsia failed to arouse the nation's conscience. Nor is Vogelgesang's the book that will provide the answer to that question.
VOGELGESANG traces three stages of intellectual thought about the Vietnam war as the 60s wore on: the view she says persisted until February 1965 of Vietnam as a lapse in judgement; the perception of the war as an exercise in immorality, a view that lasted until December 1966; and the notion faded by the time of Nixon's rise to power, that the war reflected the political illegitimacy of the government in Washington. The book follows the writings of "key" leftist intellectuals and journals of the time to illustrate their changing perceptions and campaigns to align first with emerging campus activists, then to win the sympathy and support of their reluctant colleagues in academia and the Johnson administration and finally to woo the electorate.
The focus is on what such spokesmen of the Intellectual Left as Norman Mailer '43, Norman Podhoretz, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, Noam Chomsky, Irving Howe and Dwight MacDonald wrote at each particular stage and how four particular "little magazines" reflected the vacillating fortunes of the intelligentsia. Because the study is an historical one that traces a written record of intellectual thought, Vogelgesang can avoid answering the very questions her survey raises and conclude that "the reaction of the U.S. Intellectual Left to the Vietnam War still begs its own response."
The survey of issues and interpretations fielded in The New Republic, Partisan Review, Studies on the Left, and The New York Review of Books offers a complete and poignant record of intellectual opinion through the 60s. For that alone the book is worthwhile. And, while one can criticize Vogelgesang for not offering more insight into the very questions she raises, her effort to do so probably would have failed where her portrayal of the "long dark night" does not: The perspective and insight necessary to realistically assess the long term effect of the Intellectual Left's view of morality and its clash with the "alleged moralism" of the American government and public will only come when the events which the decade of Vietnam and dissent spawned have played themselves out.
One failure that is not as easy to forgive, however, is Vogelgesang's reluctance to call the intelligentsia to task for its mistakes and miscalculations of the 60s and its acquiescence to a government that in the 70s has not only increased the American government's illegal activity abroad, but also mounted an unprecedented attack on civil liberty and the nation's constitution.
She, for instance, raises only briefly the question of the Intellectual Left's motivation as it gradually got on the bandwagon of dissent in the early 60s. Were these self-proclaimed champions of the nation's moral conscience reacting to a longstanding conviction that U.S. military interference in Indochina was wrong or were they goaded into saving face in light of the increasing protest to American policy that was growing on college campuses? Why had they not come forward when the initial bent of American policy in Vietnam was being openly set by the Kennedy administration? Did it have something to do with the closer relationship between the intelligentsia and Kennedy? There is no clear answer for these questions and the answers must necessarily vary among the vast spectrum of individuals and journals that Vogelgesang considers spokesmen for the Intellectual Left. But since Vogelgesang purports to offer a history of intellectual thought and involvement in the Vietnam debacle, her study would have been more complete had she offered more insight into these issues.
Another nagging question Vogelgesang fails to address is the issue of what the intelligentsia really advocated at each particular stage she describes. If many spokesman of the Intellectual Left, like Mailer and McCarthy, finally concluded that the New Left's call for revolution was a necessary one, how can they explain their subsequent actions? Their intellectual protest and expression of the destitution that existed in the American government never really attempted a thorough-going transformation the American power structure, rather it just got stuck in the stage of moral exercise.
How many intellectuals of the Left really listened to the editors of the Partisan Review when in 1968, sensing the dispair of the intellectual community, they reprinted a 1912 essay by Leon Trotsky, "Concerning the Intelligentsia," that called upon intellectuals to use the time of decreased political efficacy as a mere prelude to revolution, rather than succumbing to depression? The final verdict is not in because the repressive Republican interregnum has not yet ended. But Vogelgesang might have either scored those who have merely returned to their former quiescence or explained how, for instance, Mailer is preparing for revolution or at least necessary social upheaval by writing books about Marilyn Monroe.
FINALLY, Vogelgesang does little to resolve the dilemma that all intellectuals must face. That of morality versus political reality, conviction versus officous power. She does not confront the debate on the proper course for an intellectual faced with the choice of accepting a position of power but knowing that in its exercise he must vitiate many of his beliefs in favor of political expediency. This dilemma is a particularly painful one for contemporary American intellectuals who were so badly burned by their forays into policy-making with the Kennedy administration. Vogelgesang postulates three interconnected preoccupations of American intellectuals: the exercise of moral conscience, obsession with their identity as intellectuals and their relationship to power. She concludes that in each case they are torn and that intellectuals now serve their society both by being at once part of and apart from the body politic. Yet there is no effort to describe the intellectual's rightful relation to power.
Vogelgesang's study is well researched and written and provides a great deal of information and insight into the evolution of intellectual thought during one of America's most controversial and eventful decades. But it does little to answer the questions with which future works on the subject must grapple. That The Long Dark Night of the Soul both begins and ends with the same question is an indication that it is ahead of its time. It was written when the impact of the experiences and events it describes are not fully known or calcuable. Vogelgesang has traced the history, but the conclusions have yet to be drawn.