THE MOST REPUGNANT strain of conservative thinking that has surfaced publically at Harvard and elsewhere recently is the "Now let us mourn for Indochina" school of revised history. Norman Podhoretz has made this his new gospel, preaching on The New York Times Op-Ed page and in his latest book, Why We Were in Vietnam. Closer to home, members of the Conservative Club have endorsed the message in their newspaper. The Salient, and in small rallies.
In brief, the argument goes something like this: Not only did the United States allow several crucial dominoes to fall by failing to finish the job in Vietnam, but those who opposed American intervention and worked for a removal of U.S. troops are culpable for the misery of the region's starving, oppressed masses. Mark A. Sauter '82, managing editor of The Salient and one of Harvard's prominent student right-wingers, put it this way in a recent interview: "I'm willing to say that most people who marched against the war in Indochina were well-intentioned, most, not all...but what lessons have they drawn? Have they drawn the lesson that their actions have affected millions of lives? They are indirectly responsible, but responsible nonetheless, for millions of dead Cambodians and for hundreds of thousands of people in internment camps in Vietnam, for a general disintegration of law and order, democracy, and human rights in Indochina."
Like Podhoretz, Sauter and his mates have gone to great lengths to prove that conditions in Indochina are worse now than they were during the three decades of war in that region from 1945 to 1975, when a settlement of sorts emerged. The Salient has featured an extensive article by a former North Vietnamese leader who now rails against the failures and lies of communism in his homeland. The campus conservatives have presented similar characters at public demonstrations, and the rhetoric is predictable: The United States precipitated the horrors of communist rule by pulling out. The Cold Warriors could have told you so.
But they were and are dead wrong. The nightmarish "peace" that now exists in Indochina cannot be separated from the war and viewed in isolation as merely a product of communist evil. Vietnam, Cambodia and their neighbors are the legacies of conflict largely propagated by the United States. War, not a particular ideology, traumatized those societies and stripped their politics of all humanity--war the United States encouraged and then escalated.
VIETNAM was on the verge of drastic change at the end of World War Two. The Vietminh coalition, building on a tradition of anti-Japanese resistance, rallied around nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh to throw off French imperialism. An ally of the United States during the war and a communist, Ho issued a declaration of independence resembling our own and attempted to negotiate a French withdrawal. Peaceful efforts failed, and a revolution of liberation began. Instead of working for an independent Vietnam, Washington backed the renewal of French colonialism.
The opportunity to establish mutually productive relations with the Vietnamese slipped away because Washington preferred to undermine a left-wing government (read: monolithic communism) rather than endorse self-determination through democracy. Fearing a leftist victory in any free election, the United States openly sabotaged the Geneva accords of 1954 and subsequently intervened directly with military aid ultimately sending off half a million troops to continue the misguided campaign.
The Vietnam tragedy was not, of course, an isolated series of events U.S. actions in Indochina reflected a pervasive policy that continues today oppose any group that happens to label itself "communist," regardless of the material and psychological damage of our violent interference and the violations of basic human rights inevitably committed by our right-wing allies. Since 1945 the Soviets have pursued equally vicious policies abroad: they deserve no credit for working toward peace and against colonialism. Only U.S. blundering has given Moscow the opportunity to pass itself off as the protector of the underdeveloped.
When the conservative revisionists argue that communism is the source of all hardship in Indochina, they hypocritically ignore the more important role of America's twisted, self-destructive foreign policy. And when they point a quavering finger at the red specter looming over Central America, they make the same egregious over-sign. The United States planted the seed of violent conflict in nations such as Salvador and Nicaragua by maintaining obedient dictatorships and failing to nuture genuine democracy. It is the force of war that rips the soul from third world societies, not the power of one or another "-ism." The anti-communist crusaders bear much of the blame for the horrible peace in Indochina and for the continuing hardship in Central America. Countering Soviet totalitarianism is a valid goal, but the Cold Warriors, young and old, have only made it more difficult to achieve.