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The Most Dangerous Wave

Why We Were in Vietnam By Norman Podhoretz Simon and Schuster: $13 50.240 pp.

By William E. Mckibben

"Can we understand why the Negroes of Watts rebelled 'Then shy do we need a devil theory to explain the rebellion of the South Vietnamese.' Can we understand the oppression in Mississippi, or the anguish that our Northern ghettoes makes epidemic? Then why can't we see that the proper human stuggle is not with communism or revolutionaries, but with the social desperation that drives good men to violence, both here and abroad?" Carl Oglesby, former president of SDS. March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam, November 27, 1965

OFFON the horizon, a powerful swell was starting to form, and Norman Podhoretz--liberal lefty New York Norman Podhoretz--had his eye on it. It was a powerful comber, powerful enough to wash away much of the sandcastle consensus of the 1960s. But it didn't wash away Norman No, he was up on top, surfing like a native cutting back and forth across the face of the wave, dazzling has new friends and dismaying his old buddies. Why We Were in Vietnam proves the transition--from a man who used to write ponderous articles against the war (didn't everyone') to a man who will defend Vietnam as a moral triumph. It's, finally, the attacked on the ultimate orthodoxy of yesteryear: it is a bid for superstardom in neo-conservative circles, a bid to become the Duke Kehanomoko on this wave. It is a book, in other words, that sits up and begs for abuse.

But cheap shots are not enough to beat back this ugly argument For one thing, there's a grain of truth in it and for another. Podhoretz's version of Vietnam is politically ascendant. Only a few weeks ago, speaking off the cult at a press conference. President Reagan rewrote the history of Indochina to suit his Central American agenda. The idea, endorsed by Podhoretz in his concluding paragraph that the U.S. role in Indochina was "noble," "idealistic," and "morally sound" is winning converts: it must be denied and defused, and to do that it must first be taken seriously.

One review after another has nibbled away at the factual underpinning of this book--the military historians have challenged Podhoretz's casualty figures, the Kissinger specialists have picked apart his analyses of Cambodia. This reviewer know's relatively little about those matters, but a good deal about the history of the domestic antiwar movement. If Podhoretz's treatment of that great and powerful outburst is typical of the way he deals with the facts, then much of this book is a twisted, lying account. Though he allows at one point that the "radicals who openly supported the Communists were in a minority even within the leftist opposition," virtually every other discussion of the opposition makes it appear that its constituents were hardened Bolsheviki.

The first antiwar groups he mentions are the "Maoist Progressive Labor Party," the "Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party," and the "Moscow-oriented Communist Party," three groups about as influential in the struggle as "past winners, Pillsbury Bake-Off" and the Kiwanis Club. "All the Communist groups worked on increasingly close terms with the non-Communist radicals who made up the ever-swelling constituency of what had only recently become known as the New Left or the Movement," he says.

By implication, then, the widespread resistance was cooperating extensively with the old-line revolutionaries. Stuff and nonsense--"traditional" leftism was the wart on the log in the hole of the bottom of the sea. (By contrast, Podhoretz mentions Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) exactly once, and that reference is to their "crude..." propaganda--a laughable charge to anyone who has read The Port Huron Statement, one of the most troubling and insightful documents of the decade).

OVERSTATED, THEN, manipulated and distorted. But not entirely wrong, for parts on Podhoretz's argument ring true Opponents of the war, he says, thought of the NLF and the North Vietnamese as benevolent. That idea, and it was widely shared, has been obliterated in the wake of the Communist victory, obliterated by the sinking junks of boat people, obliterated by the stories of "reeducation camps," obliterated with the recognition that at least some of the men who surrounded Ho Chi Minh are unreconstructed Stalinists. But what about the conclusion that Podhoretz draws from the scenario? Vietnam, he says, was an "act of imprudent idealism whose moral soundness has been, overwhelmingly vindicated by the hideous consequences of our defeat." Given the boat people, he says, the American effort to save the South from Communism was correct. But he is wrong.

In the first place, as he admits quite freely, we robbed a people of the right to self-determination by preventing elections in the 1950s. "The main reason for opposing these elections was that they would in all probability have resulted in a victory for Ho Chi Minh," not through deceit but because "possibly 80 percent of the population would have voted" for him. (The problem, says Podhoretz, is that though he would have been democratically chosen he would not have ruled democratically. It is an interesting argument, that people should not be permitted in free and open balloting to support one of the world's two dominant political-economic systems: at the very least, it points up the paternalism inherent in the whole American approach. Or, if not the paternalism, then the disregard for Vietnamese views and the focus instead on our own, strategic interests.

Beyond that, Podhoretz makes no attempt to class any of the pathetically weak strongmen who took our orders in the South was more than a tyrant. He credits Diem with jailing tens of thousands, assisting local officials, and the "wholesale suppression of political opposition." Life under Thieu, he adds, included "rigged elections" and "those underground 'tiger cages' fit only for wild animals. "It seems reasonably clear why the South Vietnamese of the 1950s were not terrified of choosing undemocratic Ho.

Most significant of all, there is the issue Podhocetz shilly-shallies around--the incredible brutality of our war. He has three lines of defense: our conduct was no more brutal than in other wars, atrocities like My Lai were rare, and we did not violate the international rules of war too often. So who cares? That we were brutal in Korea is no excuse for Vietnam-cruelty is not governed by rules of precedent. And the antiwar movement paid much less attention to the My Lai's and Son My's than it did to the day-in and day--out operation of the war. Nothing Podhoretz says matters.

Our planes were loaded with "anti-personnel devices," the conventional equivalent of neutron bombs, designed to slice people with indiscrimination. Our planes carried napalm, burning jelly that clung to humans. Our planes bombed dikes, and ruined farms, carpeted the country with craters, made an entire race cringe at the sound of a jet engine. One unanswered question, by the way, is how much of the barbarity of the North Vietnamese communist results from the shambles in which we left their land. We know many of our veterans came home from the war irremediable fucked up, still whimpering at fire fights acted out in their minds, at vapory hand grenades and imaginary mortars. What did the war-do-to the minds of the people who bore an even heavier burden.

THESE THREE FACTORS--that we took from the Vietnamese the chance to choose their leader peacefully, that the men we backed were tyrants, and that the backing we gave was a horrible, all-too-modern war--are arrayed against President's recurring. image of the boat people. All of this, he seems to say, was worth it. The Communists are worse.

But history chokes Podhoretz's imagination; in his pachydermish outlook. George McGovern is not much more than another Henry Wallace, and the early 1970s Congressional inquiries into the CIA are just about the same as the McCarthy hearings. This antiquarian outlook keeps Podhoretz from under-standing that the opposition to the war spring from something more than Communist tendencies or native. The unstated backbone of Podhoretz's argument is that there were really only two possibilities in Vietnam--Stalinist totalitarianism, or American-backed authoritarianism. What the New Left was saying--correctly--was that neither of those was any good, neither was worth wasting the lives of Americans or Vietnamese.

Where the left was wrong was in their estimation of the North Vietnamese. As Podhoretz currently points out, the steady stream of folk singers and Nation writers flowing into Hanoi really thought it was a benevolent government. They were wrong in thinking that Ho Chi Minh stood for justice, peace and poetry. But they were not wrong in thinking those goals worth pursuing.

The next generation of radicals must not made the same mistake, must not blindly support Sandinistas or El Salvador an rebels, or anybody ebe. Instead, we must continue the thinking began by SDS and others what we must do is develop the understanding that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union not the People's Republic of wherever represents a stars factory model for the world.

So one can agree with Podhoretz that in some measure the left too-willingly backed the communists in Vietnam. But that is a far cry from agreeing with Podhoretz that the U.S. background the rights with Translating ideals into something real will continue to be hard work: it is though a much more noble task than shedding the blend of the innocent in supported an evil status quo

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