David Schalk, War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam
(Oxford Press), 1991
Reviewed by Theodore M. Lieverman
In early winter 1971, a group of students and faculty members at Vassar College performed a dramatic reading of The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Daniel Berrigan's poetic rendering of his prosecution for burning draft board records in a Maryland suburb. Appearing as Berrigan was a young history professor, David Schalk, wearing a black turtleneck, ancient sport coat, and a proud but nervous smile. While his performance may not have been up to the standards of Meryl Streep--then a senior on campus--it radiated conviction and demonstrated Schalk's own belief in the intellectual's need to publicly oppose wrongdoing.
I thought of Schalk's performance when I read his recently released book, War and the Ivory Tower, because that book--as he admits in the Introduction--is very much a product of his own experiences and meditations on the Vietnam war. Indeed, his several references to Berrigan show that Schalk has lost none of his admiration for the outlaw priest's wartime resistance. For all his ardor, however, Schalk's book is a thoughtful work of comparative history and deserves to be read.
I should add that David is not just an author to me, but my former teacher, thesis advisor... and draft counselor. I pretend to no objectivity here, but find the book an important contribution to our thinking about the American war in Indochina.
"When injustice becomes master of the world, and the entire universe kneels before it, the clerc must remain standing and confront it with the human conscience."1 Julien Benda's formulation of the duty of the true intellectual, the clerc, well expresses the animating belief of Schalk's work (Schalk actually cites it himself in his earlier study of engagement among the French intelligentsia). Accepting the moral obligation as inherent in intellectual life, Schalk then compares the writings and activities of French intellectuals against the Algerian war with conduct of American intellectuals during the Vietnam war.
He refers to the "painful" similarities between Vietnam and Algeria and spells them out. For example, he shows how in each country a negotiated peace had to await a more conservative administration--de Gaulle and Nixon--than the one which originally created the quagmire. Schalk notes even the similarity of the official optimism about the two wars. While Americans referred to "the light at the end of the tunnel," the French talked about le dernier quart d'heure, "the last fifteen minutes." Less than a month before the Algerian war caused a military coup and the end of the Fourth Republic, French resident minister Robert Lacoste said, "We are just at the moment of reaching our goal"--that moment in fact being four long years and many deaths away.
As Schalk points out, the comparison of Algeria and Vietnam is hardly new--he cites American writers making the point as early as 1965. Still, the book usefully summarizes the commonality of the two wars and thus provides a solid basis for the comparison of intellectual movements which follows. He also makes the similarities convincing with his deft ability to find just the right illustrative quotation.
Analyzing intellectuals' opposition to the two wars, Schalk describes three stages of engagement: the pedagogic, consisting of "calm, rational" writings to persuade leaders of their errors; the moral, in which the writings are marked by protest and "a growing sense of outrage and shame;" and finally the counterlegal, in which intellectuals are willing to advocate illegal activity as morally justified to counter the much larger evil of the war itself. To demonstrate this progression, Schalk focuses on the articles in the French journal Esprit and our own New York Review of Books (NYRB), showing how authors first seek to educate the policymakers, then denounce them, then overthrow them.
Resistance to one's government was not the perverse pleasure of the intellectual, but an agonizing obligation that was not perceived the same way by every writer, as Schalk points out in a short section on Camus--who said about Algeria in 1957, "I believe in justice, but I shall defend my mother above justice."
If this study is modest in its goals and scope, it implicitly maintains its modesty about the limits of comparative history. Schalk does not draw grand conclusions, but describes his events and lets them, to a large extent, speak for themselves. Like a blind date, comparative history is a tempting but risky invitation, and the tendency is to transform lessons from the past into axioms for the future. The intellectual underpinnings of American policy in Vietnam--such as they were--depended on the experience of the falling dominoes of Central Europe in the late 1930s (to which Bernard Fall responded with his essay, "This Isn't Munich, It's Spain). Politics by analogy is a dangerous business, since all too frequently the symbol becomes confused with the reality.
Schalk also reminds us that for many of the antiwar writers, in Anthony Lewis' phrase, "truth is not divisible." Thus, NYRB also published articles and letters by these same intellectuals denouncing Soviet repression of dissidents, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the use of torture against American POWs by the North Vietnamese. Many, if not most, antiwar intellectuals also had a realistic view of the North Vietnamese and the liberation forces, even if it was not a dominant theme of their work. Just the war ended in April 1975, Christopher Lasch, longtime opponent to the war, wrote in NYRB that "only sentimentalists will think that the Vietnamese are now going to enjoy 'democratic socialism, popular rule, and civil liberties.'"
If there is any weakness in the study, it perhaps lies in Schalk's overreliance on the text of what the intellectuals said, rather than any primary material about what they did--or did not do. One example I recognized from personal experience: the Petition for Redress of Grievances (taken from the phrase in the Constitution's First Amendment), presented to Congress in May 1972 by over 150 notables, including Larry Rivers, Felicia Bernstein, Judy Collins, Noam Chomsky, Richard Barnet, Howard Zinn, Arno J. Mayer, and Nobel Laureate George Wald. Schalk writes that the signers "obviously believed that their act was strictly legal" but that "the government took a different view" and arrested ninety-four of the signers for "unlawful assembly."
Well, not quite. As one of the arrestees (though hardly a notable), I can attest that our detention was neither unforeseen nor--in the logic of nonviolent resistance--unwelcome. While presenting the petition was legal, sitting in the hallway of the Capitol building for several hours despite numerous warnings to leave at closing time was probably not constitutionally protected. There were, in fact, two different Redress demonstrations, whose primary purpose was to have leading luminaries arrested for civil disobedience and so dramatize opposition to the war in the tense period after the 1972 bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. None of this was immediately apparent from the ad in NYRB which Schalk cites as his reference.
In his short epilogue, Schalk completes his circle and shows again why it is important to understand what happened to France because of Algeria, and what happened to the U.S. because of Vietnam. He quotes French professor Robert Frank on the Algerian conflict: "A war without a cause is a war without a message, and the rémemoration of a war without a message cannot be transformed into a true commemoration." To Americans, the Vietnam war is the foggy glass through which we dimly perceive shapes but no recognizable picture--in part because we do not want to admit that Vietnam is not a window but a mirror, and that the incomprehensible images are our own.
When I traveled to Vietnam in 1990, I was struck, like most Americans, by the seeming lack of animosity over the war. It was not simply a question of manners, or propaganda or government edict--though they may well have played a part. The Vietnamese knew at least why they fought and how the war fit within their history and social understanding. We have no such perspective.
Moreover, Schalk's study suggests that our incomprehension is not uniquely American, since the French share the same blind spot about Algeria. Is this trait more general than we think? What about the Russian view of Afghanistan, the English view of India, the Portuguese view of Angola and Mozambique? Is it simply the experience of defeat, or is it the special humiliation of western powers vanquished by underdeveloped countries making a successful bid for autonomy?
In addition, the comparative approach needs to be pushed further. How did Algerian intellectuals react to the hour of resistance, in contrast to the French? How do the Vietnamese writers compare to the American? For that matter, how did the Algerians compare to the Vietnamese? Asking these questions broadens our conception of the intellectuals' role in society by encompassing their very different experience in the less developed world.
These are all important questions, part of the knowledge that comes when we reconcile ourselves with our past. David Schalk's study suggests that we find such answers only when we are willing to ask the questions
1 J. Benda, Introduction to 1947 edition of La Trahison des clercs: 76, quoted in D. Schalk, The Spectrum of Political Engagements: 45-46.