Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Reaction, Revolution and Radicalism, Part I
Tony Williams, Cinema and Photography, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale
By the time this review appears in print, we all hope normal U.S. relations with Hanoi will occur--but not in the manner Vietnam Now envisages. Written by the author ofHarvard Hates America: The Odyssey of a Born Again American (1978), with introduction by Richard M. Nixon, Vietnam Now is not the rabid right-wing tract its credentials suggest. It is a contradictory work combining manipulative reasoning, right-wing ideology and justified critique of certain Reagan era politics within a curious hybrid formation. Despite being outdated in several respects (such as the collapse of the former Soviet Union), the former Republican congress-man's main thesis still stands. Arguing for "reassertion of American economic and diplomatic power in the world's most rapidly growing region," Vietnam Now is an interesting example of the chameleon nature of American foreign policy--in other words "Business as Usual." Approaching Vietnam Now as a work of fragmented ideological reasoning, and less for its supposedly coherent structure, yields great dividends. While not suggesting the necessity of monitoring every right-wing ideological production (or even viewing every Rush Limbaugh show), examining particular works often yields remarkable insights, especially concerning ideological counteroffensives expected within the next few years.
During the thirties American business and political interests often ignored frequent evidence concerning Fascist brutalities in the hope that dictators would see reason and return to the fold of international corporate capitalism. Despite historical differences this strategy dominates LeBoutillier's book. Fearful of growing Russian and Chinese expansion in Southeast Asia, LeBoutillier wishes to restore lost American influence by persuading a supposedly now reformist Hanoi of the benefits of American trade. This involves removing a formidable obstacle--the current ban on political and diplomatic engagement with a former enemy. Thus the time is now right for revealing certain iniquities within the once-applauded Reagan regime. Vietnam Now excellently illustrates the devious nature of an institutional ideology ready to do a deal whenever circumstances permit.
After some opening pages depicting the failure of Soviet economic aid, the author concludes with a utopian vision of future benefits.
"In fact, Minister Nien held a small dinner for me in the state house in Hanoi. During the evening, Nien and his subordinates questioned me about computers, television, Star Wars, medicine and other American technological advances. They have nothing but admiration for American and Western accomplishments. (They also love American entertainment, especially football, Muhammad Ali, and even televised heavyweight wrestling.) What a shame that we don't use this advantage to wean Vietnam from Moscow."(9)
The question of who is fooling whom does not arise. However, what is remarkable is the author's unveiling of negative aspects of American diplomatic policy to achieve desired aims. When economic goals become desirable former political deviousness suffers condemnation. Such is the fate of Cambodia and the M.I.A. issue.
Bitter State Department infighting prevented Jimmy Carter's October 1978 moves to normalize relations with both China and Vietnam. Figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Cyrus Vance prevented the latter move. LeBoutillier believes that US recognition would have prevented Vietnam's "invasion" of Cambodia. However, he understands the reasons for this, citing Pol Pot's invasion of Vietnam and his murder of "thirty thousand" people. While critiquing America's recognition of "Pol Pot as the legitimate representative of Kampuchea in the United Nations" (30), a policy whose effect is causing damaging consequences in the region today, LeBoutillier still clings to the dubious "world policeman" idea. "Only the positive introduction of a new player, the United States, into the region can untie this messy complicated knot" (30).
Believing in the existence of live P0Ws in both Laos and Vietnam, LeBoutillier (President of Account For POW/MIAs Inc.) documents a long history of duplicity and secrecy on the part of the government from the 1973 Paris Peace Accords to 1989. Despite its M.I.A. mythology this chapter--"Pawns in The Game Between Washington and Hanoi"--makes depressing reading. The inauguration of Jimmy Carter made no real difference since he was denied institutional knowledge of the previous eight year dealings with Hanoi. Reagan administration rhetoric about the P0Ws actually concealed an acceleration of the deception begun under Kissinger. Although officially declared as a high national priority, the issue remained in the hands of the National Security Council whose advisors repeatedly refused State Department requests for operational authority (54-55). Among those advisors were John Poindexter, Frank Carlucci, and America's current "favorite public servant" Colin Powell. Both Carlucci and Powell frequently ignored John Tower's recommendations following the Iran/Contra revelations concerning NSC involvement in foreign affairs and negotiations, thus contravening the State Department's supposed effectiveness in those areas (65-66).
"Carlucci and his successor, Powell, ignored all of Tower's recommendations. They allowed Childress, an army officer, to stay seven years, not three. They continued to allow him to brief the press; in one briefing of the Associated Press, Childress labelled the families of POWs in Southeast Asia `crazies.' Carlucci and Powell also continued to authorize Childress to conduct negotiations --all after the Tower report" (66).
LeBoutillier continues to explore contradictions in American foreign policy before urging restoration of diplomatic relations since "the Pacific is the world's fastest growing region" (91). But, despite his documentation of government abuses, he believes that a television-dominated culture will easily digest and forget the devious nature of this change in American foreign policy. His attitudes towards media and audience reveal manipulative contempt contradicting his belief that recognition will "cause many Americans to debate a serious topic" (90).
"The United States in the last quarter of the twentieth century has become a nation and a populace dominated by television. This medium not only influences what people think, but also how they think. For instance, the recent success of People magazine and USA Today are due, in part, to the short-focus period of television news broadcasts. In other words, most people in the United States want the headline and the facts--quickly. Their concentration will stray after a few minutes."(90)
Naturally, televised announcement of diplomatic restoration will result in a desired historical amnesia. This, of course, affects the author's revelations concerning government duplicity. Once highlighted, they could be easily forgotten by a gullible "sound-bite" orientated audience.
Recent work on ideology has pointed to its pervasive, chameleon-like nature, its tendencies to discard former heroes and ideals, in the service of constant adaptation. If the current occupant of the White House is often described as "slippery," the application may also apply to the right's manipulation of the battle of ideas. Actions, once strategic, may be condemned in favor of a larger goal. For LeBoutillier, this involves a free-enterprise system involving the "opening of the Vietnamese market and the harnessing of the Vietnamese discipline and spirit" (94) to multinational business ideals. Whether Vietnam itself would agree is quite another matter.
David L. Schalk's War and the Ivory Tower: Algeria and Vietnam is far more stimulating and thought-provoking. Reading the pages of The New York Review of Books today, it is hard to imagine that it was once the focus of heated debate concerning the Vietnam War. Schalk writes in a climate of historical amnesia affecting both America and France today. But, unlike LeBoutillier, his purpose is far more sincere and honest.
With the notable exception of Margot Kidder, the Gulf War did not see the type of Hollywood condemnation characteristic of debate about Vietnam a generation ago. Similarly, the academic world generally lacked the vehement protest characteristic of its predecessors during the 60s and 70s era. Schalk's book comes as a timely reminder of this era. Examining the nature of intellectual protest against the Algerian and Vietnam conflicts, he reveals the now generally-neglected aspect of engagement associated with Zola's activities in the Dreyfuss affair now sadly absent today. Meticulously examining different, but similar, modes of engagement, Schalk highlights three main phases. The first antiwar stage generally involves activities of a persuasive nature by means of teach-ins, scholarly writings, and petitions. When this fails, moral outrage follows, characterized by open letters and essays warning the homeland of its ethical lack. The final stage results in the call for "counter-legal" activities such as draft, tax resistance and civil disobedience often leading to arrest.
War and The Ivory Tower begins with a poignant frontispiece documenting the 1984 suicide note left by veteran Jerry Serino. "America, don't forget Vietnam. Future generations deserve to know." Schalk's work is "conceived as a fragment of a response to Mr. Serino's last request." In an era mostly characterized by intellectual capitulation and a return to the ivory tower, Schalk laments the loss of what Bernard-Henry Levy describes as the once-influential engaged intellectual and aims to record and revive echoes from the American "age of relevance."
Algeria and Vietnam presented "spectacular traps" (20) for both France and the United States. Algeria was politically a part of metropolitan France governed by French law. Although never a colony, the Americans tended to treat Vietnam as such. Despite the different status of the national struggles, they caused similar effects on political, military, diplomatic arenas, especially concerning the nature of intellectual opposition.
Schalk's work is valuable, restoring the positive nuance in the word "intellectual", a term by no means identical with disengaged academic. Noting the emergence of a conscious political stance associated with a particular group during the Dreyfuss affair, Schalk makes some interesting observations.
"There was, and perhaps remains, a symbiotic relationship between the intellectual and engagement. This indisputable fact produces a paradox: Just as the concept of the intellectual was being elaborated and the word coined, the temptation to abandon the activities generally understood as falling within the intellectual sphere was present and was irresistible, at least temporarily" (40).
Engagement refers "to political involvement by members of the intellectual class--however broadly or narrowly defined a social group that is widely viewed as not normally prone to descend from the ivory tower into the arena."(41) It can not be coerced but is derived from reflection upon a specific political and social situation. Schalk notes the three cycles of engagement operating both in France and the U.S.A. The first educative phase lasted until 1955 in France and 1965 in America, a reaction characterized by protest articles in newspapers and magazines. Both countries experienced the culminating counter-legal phase in 1957 and 1967 respectively, the latter characterized by the march on Washington. The final stage saw "serious and sometimes even vicious debates between the engaged intellectuals who believed that civil disobedience was `the last recourse before violence to change a situation which the silent majority has come to look upon as unchangeable' and the active minority that accepted violence..."(52) Schalk notes that most French and American antiwar intellectuals remained engage rather than embrigade, "that is, abandoning their critical spirit in the unquestioning support of a political cause." This was certainly the case with the liberal Catholic journal Esprit which criticized the abuses of both sides in the Algerian Conflict (74-75). Father Daniel Berrigan formed the American parallel to Esprit's position. Though in hiding, he strongly denounced the Weathermen's violent tactics while sympathizing with their anger and alienation.
While discussing conscientious objection and draft resistance, the Esprit editorial group never advocated actual desertion. Domenach believed that for intellectuals to do this would be "vile" in view of the differing punishments awaiting intellectual and active duty soldier. By 1960, both legal and counter-legal activities were common. However, the end of the Algerian conflict saw the occurrence of a "happy amnesia" soon to affect American intellectuals. Domenach's warning words in 1962 found their counterpart in I. F. Stone's call for a continuing role for the engaged intellectual following the war's decline--"if we are ever to disentangle ourselves from Indochina, it is necessary to force the painful record back into public consciousness. The facts are well-known, but continually forgotten."(96) It is so relevant today.
Reviewing current issues of The New York Review of Books with their occasional hot debates over deconstruction and the original version of Ulysses results in a telling comparison with the clarion call appearing in the February 17, 1966 issue, a call whose gender address would not be the same today.
"The writer's function is not without arduous duties. By definition, he cannot serve today those who make history; he must serve those who are subject to it.... Whatever our personal frailties may be, the nobility of our calling will always be rooted in two commitments difficult to observe: refusal to lie about what we know and resistance to oppression."
Between 1964 to 1975, the Review was actually the "Bible of Vietnamese Dissent" featuring articles by writers such as Noam Chomsky, a figure conspicuously absent from its pages today. Schalk notes that the "writings were indisputably engage but, arguably at least, rarely embrigade. Like the Esprit group during the Algerian War, the NYRB intellectuals attempted to avoid tunnel vision" (131). Writer Anthony Lewis wrote a powerful condemnation of the North Vietnamese use of torture. "The torture of even one person is inadmissible and so is any attempt to dismiss it as insignificant." Like the Algerian War, the Vietnam conflict saw a brief period of unity among committed intellectuals reaching its peak in 1969. It far outnumbered supportive declarations favoring American involvement in Vietnam signed by past and present figures such as Sidney Hook, Max Lerner, John Dos Passos and William Buckley. Schalk's fourth chapter pertinently states the issue. It was "The Acid Test of an Intellectual Generation" reviving a committed radicalism in American society dormant since the McCarthy era.
The era saw the finest hour of committed intellectuals such as I.F. Stone and Chomsky, whose important words speak beyond their time to future generations. "It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies." However, following the end of the war, Chomsky noted another concern still relevant today querying the historical record "as the custodians of history set to work."
Concluding with reasons for the lack of intellectual engagement today, Schalk cites Bernard-Henri Levy's 1987 "Elegy for the Intellectuals" criticizing the group itself as responsible for its own degradation. Factors such as the demise of Marxism, structuralist and post-structuralist philosophy have led to the banalization of culture and intellectual aridity as well as sterile consensus. Intellectuals have invalidated themselves in a kind of self-destructive masochism. While some of these factors are undoubtedly pertinent, as seen in current debates concerning deconstruction and postmodernism, attention needs to focus on the nature of the changing era we live in. Rather than entirely bemoan this lost world of intellectual activism, Schalk needs to consider the current nature of post-capitalist society where spectacle dominates current popular memory and focus upon some of the provocative writings of Lyotard and Baudrillard which give a much detailed, though disturbing, picture of where we are. Society and ideology constantly evolves as twentieth century followers of classical theoretical doctrines such as Marxism and Freudianism note. Attention needs to be given to this wider picture which has determined the current outmoded role of the formerly engaged intellectual. Everyone now is living in a more complex era and new theories and practical rules of engagement need to be considered. There are broader reasons for the current dominance of collective amnesia not solely due to intellectual disengagement.
Despite these reservations, Schalk's work is stimulating and important, a definite necessity for anyone concerning the relationship of past historical activism to the current situation. His concluding sentences form a keen challenge to all engaged in the past, present and future relevance of the Viet Nam Generation.
"The semioticians speak of `engagement with the texts,' and we can take a lesson from their book. As committed historians and citizens, we need to grapple with all varieties of texts, the irreducible facts, the memoirs and the memories, the newsreels, the entire vast array of historical materials, and help reconstruct these two divisive pasts. The goal of our engagement would be to bring these pasts into history, so that the mourning and the commemoration can proceed. Then at last we may be able to have amnesty without amnesia (178-179).