Volume 5 Number 1-4
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Viet Nam War Canon:
Doctorow, Heller and the Origins of U.S. Intervention
In "The Empire Within: How the Canon Divides and Conquers," Gauri Viswanathan writes:
A mere broadening of the curriculum is no guarantee of respect for the cultural identity of different groups. Even when no invidious comparisons are drawn, it is still self-deceptive to believe that the wrongs committed against a group of people can be corrected simply by including their texts in the curriculum. The suspicion of tokenism is not the only thing that makes me skeptical. The illusion of compensation that curricular reform seems to offer is far more dangerous. Literary texts cannot be expected to succeed where other forms of social action have failed. I am reminded of a colonial administrator in nineteenth-century British India who once proposed nonchalantly that colonial subjects be permitted to indulge themselves in their own art as reparation for the economic violence committed by British rulers against them. This is not compensation but willful deception.1
If it is indeed willful deception to believe that our teaching courses on the Viet Nam war could ever compensate the Vietnamese for what Americans did to them and to their country, we nonetheless do at least have an obligation to honestly confront America's longest war so that our mistakes--or crimes--are not repeated.2>
Viswanathan's important caveat notwithstanding, I am convinced that in our courses on Viet Nam war literature we need to make a much greater effort to include more writings by the Vietnamese, in order to overcome our proclivity to see the war from the American point of view merely. And I believe that the inclusion in our syllabi of even a single text, such as Wendy Wilder Larsen's and Tran Thi Nga's Shallow Graves: Two Women and Vietnam,3 can make a significant contribution to this end. As we formulate a canon of Viet Nam war literature, however, I fear the perpetuation of another serious lacuna, viz., insufficient attention to the period immediately after World War II, when the U.S. cold-war policies congealed into unquestioned dogmas, making our involvement in Southeast Asia virtually inevitable.
I am sure that most of us who teach the literature of the Vietnam War find, as is the case with our other courses, that there are far more meritorious works of real importance we would like our students to read than we can possibly fit into a single quarter or semester. It is with some reluctance, then, that I am offering a proposal which might only exacerbate this problem: that we begin our courses on Viet Nam war literature with two very fine novels that are undoubtedly infrequently considered when we compose our reading lists: Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and E.L. Doctorow's The Book of Daniel.
If Graham Greene's The Quiet American--published nearly a decade before the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the major escalation of U.S. involvement--remains in many ways the best novel yet written on our intervention in Southeast Asia, I would like to suggest that Catch-22, published in 1961, is equally prophetic. One can find, for example, in one of the most incisive and exhaustively researched analyses of U.S. policies in Indochina, James William Gibson's The Perfect War: The War We Couldn't Lose and How We Did, numerous disturbing parallels with the madness, deception (and self-deception), and self-serving opportunists dramatized throughout Heller's novel. Thus Catch-22 might have been read in the early sixties as a harbinger of the disaster that was soon to follow. But if it was only considerably later in the decade that Heller's readers began making this connection, it is worth interrogating why relatively few individuals apparently were able to subject the novel to such an interpretation when it really mattered.
Heller has emphasized that although his book is often read as a World War II novel, it "wasn't really about World War Two. It was about American society during the Cold War, during the Korean War, and about the possibility of a Vietnam."4 Heller has also pointed out that he sees "the Vietnam War as an extension of the Cold War that began in the late Forties and ended with the decline of the domino theory soon after John Kennedy's death."5 Asked why, if the Cold War ended in the mid-Sixties, we remained in Viet Nam until 1972, Heller responded:
For no reason at all. That's the point! We often continue believing in things--and this is true of religions as well as ideologies--long after the circumstances that gave rise to the beliefs have disappeared. The belief in stopping communism wherever it threatens to advance simply carried over into another culture long after the reason for the belief disappeared. We weren't fighting communism in Vietnam. We were fighting culture lag.6
A computer analysis of Catch-22 by a University of Copenhagen professor revealed that, despite Heller's "careful road map, the book includes 16 anachronisms."7 But when Heller himself was asked about the characters in his novel, he remarked: "They're not based on anyone I knew in the war. They're products of an imagination that drew on American life in the postwar period. The Cold War, really. I deliberately seeded the book with anachronisms like loyalty oaths, helicopters, IBM machines and agricultural subsidies to create the feeling of American society from the McCarthy period on."8
But how many of our students will even recognize that these are indeed anachronisms? In their widely discussed book What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr. report that "only 42.6% associate Senator Joseph R. McCarthy with anticommunist investigations; many think he was the Senator McCarthy who led the protest movement against the war in Vietnam. Thus we are raising a generation for whom the term 'McCarthyism' has little meaning."9 If our students do not understand "McCarthyism"10 and its pernicious and enduring legacy, they surely will have extraordinary difficulty making any sense of the origins of U.S. involvement in Viet Nam--or of why so many American Presidents were so fearful that they might someday be held accountable for "losing Indochina."
If we have our students peruse Doctorow's The Book of Daniel, however, it is much less likely that the term McCarthyism will continue to be meaningless for them. More effectively than even the best histories of the McCarthy era, Doctorow's stunning novel enables us to experience the insanity and dread of that time, and also offers imaginative readers an opportunity to empathize with its victims. And it also helps elucidate why the specter of "losing Indochina" intimidated American Presidents for more than two decades.
In fact, the President who orchestrated the major buildup of U.S. troop commitment to Viet Nam, Lyndon Johnson, confided to his biographer that he even had recurring nightmares about this prospect:
... everything I knew about history told me that if I got out of Vietnam and let Ho Chi Minh run through the streets of Saigon, then I'd be doing exactly what Chamberlain did in World War II. I'd be giving a big fat reward to aggression. And I knew that if we let Communist aggression succeed in taking over South Vietnam, there would follow in this country an endless national debate--a mean and destructive debate--that would shatter my Presidency, kill my administration, and damage our democracy. I knew that Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared to what might happen if we lost Vietnam.11
Failing to counter the preposterous Republican claim that they had "lost" China, and soon haunted by the fear that they might someday be condemned for "losing Indochina," the Democrats concluded "that never again could they afford to expose their foreign policy to the charge that it was soft on communism."12 Johnson's allusion to Chamberlain is, of course, the repeatedly misapplied Munich analogy (and its concomitant stigma, "appeasement"), which has been resurrected again and again to discredit all but military solutions to foreign policy dilemmas. In a section of the book called "True History of the Cold War: A Raga," Doctorow's narrator Daniel avers that "[t]here is no evidence that even before the end of the war against Germany and Japan a policy of coexistence with the Russians is seriously considered, let alone put to the test. The false view of Yalta. The profound confusion of diplomacy with appeasement."13 Because this terribly unfortunate confusion flourished in policymaking circles throughout the Viet Nam war, American diplomacy was continually conducted via relentless bombing missions. One wonders how many Americans, even today, have any appreciation of the enormous costs paid by the people and the land of Indochina for this profound and arrogant misreading.
Catch-22 and The Book of Daniel can help us to ask many of the right questions about the origins of our involvement in Viet Nam. But what additional kinds of knowledge will our students need to know if they are to begin answering them? The problem is that if the Viet Nam war itself is already "ancient history" for many of our students, this obtains a fortiori for the crucial years that preceded it. Reminding us that "it is always tempting to believe that the literature of one's own time requires no history for its comprehension," Gerald Graff adds that "at issue in the teaching of literature, then, and in the formation of a literature curriculum, are how much of the 'cultural text' students must presuppose in order to make sense of works of literature, and how this cultural text can become the context of teaching."14 Robert Scholes has also addressed this problem, accentuating that
interpretation is not a pure skill but a discipline deeply dependent upon knowledge. It is not so much a matter of generating meanings out of a text as it is a matter of making connections between a particular verbal text and a larger cultural text, which is the matrix or master code that the literary text both depends upon and modifies. In order to teach the interpretation of a literary text, we must be prepared to teach the cultural text as well.15
If our students are to effectively interpret literary texts of the Viet Nam war they will need considerably more knowledge of the cultural text that antedates it: the origins of the Cold War and McCarthyism. In an interview shortly after the publication of his novel, Heller remarked that he regarded Catch-22
essentially as a peacetime book. What distresses me very much is that the ethic that is often dictated by a wartime emergency has a certain justification when the wartime emergency exists, but when this thing is carried over into areas of peace--when the military, for example, retains its enormous influence on affairs in a peacetime situation, and where the same demands are made upon the individual in the cause of national interest; the line that I like very much is when Milo tells Yossarian that he's jeopardizing his traditional freedoms by exercising them--when this wartime emergency ideology is transplanted to peacetime, then you have this kind of lag which leads not only to absurd situations, but to very tragic situations.... There's a kind of blindness which did carry over to peacetime. I recognize the difference that if a house is on fire you grab something and run out and you leave the door open; if the house is not on fire then it should be locked up.16
This very problem is also remarked on by the narrator of Doctorow's brilliant novel:
Many historians have noted an interesting phenomenon in American life in the years immediately after a war. In the councils of government fierce partisanship replaces the necessary political coalitions of wartime. In the greater arena of social relations--business, labor, the community--violence arises, fear and recrimination dominate public discussion, passion prevails over reason. Many historians have noted this phenomenon. It is attributed to the continuance beyond the end of the war of the war hysteria. Unfortunately, the necessary emotional fever for fighting a war cannot be turned off like a water faucet. Enemies must continue to be found. The mind and heart cannot be demobilized as quickly as the platoon. On the contrary, like a fiery furnace at white heat, it takes a considerable time to cool. (33)
The Book of Daniel is ostensibly about the Rosenberg atom spy trial, and the tormented lives of the children of this executed couple. But Doctorow is in fact using the Rosenberg case to explore a number of issues that especially concern him. The Book of Daniel helps us to understand how the Viet Nam war was an ineluctable result of U.S. policies formulated in the aftermath of World War II, especially the Truman Doctrine and its indiscriminately applied containment policy, the Munich analogy, and McCarthyism and its legacy.
In his brief treatise on the Cold War Doctorow's embittered protagonist proffers "A MESSAGE OF CONSOLATION TO MY GREEK BROTHERS IN THEIR PRISON CAMPS, AND TO MY HAITIAN BROTHERS AND NICARAGUAN BROTHERS AND BRAZILIAN BROTHERS AND DOMINICAN BROTHERS AND SOUTH AFRICAN BROTHERS AND SPANISH BROTHERS AND TO MY BROTHERS IN SOUTH VIETNAM, ALL IN THEIR PRISON CAMPS: YOU ARE IN THE FREE WORLD!" (253) In addition to reminding us that the human beings of many nations in what our policymakers continue to call the "free world" are anything but free, I believe Daniel is suggesting here--by beginning with Greece and ending with Viet Nam--that U.S. involvement in Indochina must be traced directly back to the Truman Doctrine speech of March, 1947.17 Daniel's perceptive comments on the origins of the Cold War also advance this argument.
The Book of Daniel also provides readers with an excellent feel for the fear and hysteria of life during the McCarthy era, and by continually weaving his narrative back and forth between the fifties and the sixties, Daniel helps us to understand how these two ostensibly very different eras are in fact indissolubly linked. Asking his foster father a number of questions about his parents' trial, Daniel is informed:
In those days, this was years before the sputnik thing, it was customary to downgrade the Russians' science. People who know something about these things didn't make that mistake. But at the level of Time magazine the joke was how they copied everything and claimed it for their own. Well, of course the corollary of that is that it's our bomb they have and that means we were betrayed. After the war our whole foreign policy depended on our having the bomb and the Soviets not having it. It was a terrible miscalculation. It militarized the world. And when they got it the only alternative to admitting our bankruptcy of leadership and national vision was to find conspiracies. It was one or the other. (238)
At least one additional repercussion of this "bankruptcy of leadership and national vision," Doctorow's novel convincingly dramatizes, was the disastrous U.S. military intervention in Vietnam.
What I am arguing is that all courses on the Viet Nam should commence by giving students something more than a merely cursory overview of the origins of the Cold War and the containment doctrine, and of the pervasive fear during the McCarthy era which silenced virtually all dissent, rendering any substantial criticism of the narrow, bipartisan consensus of U.S. foreign policy all but unthinkable. Without an adequate understanding of the period preceding the escalation of America's Indochina involvement, it is impossible to comprehend that involvement. With so much material to cover in such a short period of time, most of us understandably cannot wait to begin talking about the Viet Nam war itself. But we do our students a real disservice if we fail to give them this indispensable background: it is crucial not only to understanding the Viet Nam war itself but also to learning whether even now we have finally abandoned the kind of thinking that motivated our military intervention in Viet Nam in the first place.
For a number of years after the end of the Viet Nam war, most Americans appeared loath to think about this troubling episode of their nation's recent past. While this unwillingness to confront the war has since abated considerably, the U.S. has still unfortunately never had anything even approaching a real national debate on the origins of the Cold War, McCarthyism, the Soviet threat, 18 and whether the nuclear option offers the only viable path for achieving national security. All of these issues profoundly affected the decisions of American Presidents which would mire their nation more and more deeply in Southeast Asia, and made them fearful of terminating U.S. involvement. Some insight into them is also a sine qua non for understanding why our murderous presence in Viet Nam lasted as long as it did.
Americans were fighting in Viet Nam not only for tangible objectives, Jonathan Schell reminds us in The Time of Illusion, but also for the psychological objective of maintaining U.S. credibility--"an aim that was bound up in the strategists' thinking with the prevention of nuclear war and the prevention of global totalitarianism."19 In fact, according to Schell, after 1965, "the aim of upholding credibility had become virtually the sole aim of the war." Appearances were paramount. And nowhere do appearances count more than in the chimerical world of nuclear deterrence. Schell explains:
The question of "will," which in former times was a question of a nation's capacity for making sacrifices in order to protect itself, now became a question of a nation's willingness to approach the point of suicide. For the closer a nation was willing to come to that point, the more force it could permit itself to unleash. According to the doctrine of credibility, a nation that wished to have its way in international affairs was obliged, in a sense, to make demonstrations of indifference to its own survival, for it was obliged constantly to show its willingness not just to unleash force on others but to put the gun to its own head and pull the trigger--its willingness, that is, to "face up to the risks of Armageddon." Perhaps for this reason, policymakers of the time often announced it was an aim of American policy to cultivate a reputation for "unpredictability." The ultimate in unpredictability, of course, would be to blow up the world, oneself included. Leaving the question of unpredictability aside, the will to victory in the nuclear age was tempered by the realization that victory could be a worse disaster than defeat. This new circumstance had a shaping influence on every phase of the warfare in Vietnam--on the limits of the war effort, on the justifications for the war, and on the atmosphere engendered in the home country by the war.20
Schell's incisive analysis should serve to remind us that as we teach our courses on the literature of the Vietnam war, we need to ensure that our students truly appreciate that this war was fought during the nuclear age. This assertion may seem axiomatic, but I suspect that it implications are rarely pondered. It is here that The Book of Daniel is particularly helpful, for Doctorow skillfully dramatizes that the madness of U.S. intervention in Vietnam has its roots in the hysteria of the McCarthy era, and in the madness of the nuclear arms race and the militarization of the entire planet.21 Moreover, until the nuclear national security state itself is dismantled, the danger of repeating the fiasco of the Viet Nam war will remain.22 Because no literary work is more suggestive of the madness of our Viet Nam war debacle than Catch-22, Heller's novel nicely complements Doctorow's linking of this madness with the antecedent insanity of the early years of the Cold War.
Those of us who would like to see our teaching and scholarship make a greater contribution to the creation of a "world without war" can only welcome the opening up of the canon and the new historicism in literary studies. One of the most valuable fruits of this new historicism is the proliferation of courses on the literature of the Viet Nam war. We are not being historical enough, however, if we fail to read those texts which presage U.S. intervention in Viet Nam. Suggesting why this is necessary, Doctorow and Heller have also made this task much easier for us.
Because both Catch-22 and The Book of Daniel are disturbing novels, it might be wise to point out to our students that both authors do end their books on a note of affirmation. Doctorow's protagonist/narrator clearly does change and mature by the end of his book, and in Catch-22 Yossarian finally decides that he can no longer remain complicitous in the killing of innocent human beings when the outcome of his war is not longer in doubt. His refusal to any longer serve his utterly corrupt and self-serving officers provides a compelling example for his fellow soldiers, and reminds all of us, who live in a more cynical age, that, in the face of great evil, the role of passive victim is not necessarily the only option.
1 Gauri Viswanathan, "The Empire Within: How the Canon Divides and Conquers," Voice Literary Supplement (Jan/Feb 1989): 20.
2 Anyone who assumes that they are not being repeated might do well to read Michael Klare and Peter Kornbluh, eds., Low-Intensity Warfare: Counterinsurgency, Proinsurgency and Antiterrorism in the Eighties (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988).
3 (New York: Perennial Library, 1987). I suspect that another unfortunate omission in many courses on the Viet Nam war is the burden borne by black Americans during the war. See Wallace Terry, Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans (New York: Ballantine Books, 1985). A video version of Bloods is also available.
4 "Playboy Interview: Joseph Heller," Playboy (June, 1975): 68. When invited to the Air Force Academy to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his novel, what seemed to especially please Heller during his weekend visit "was the constant line of Air Force officers who told him that Catch-22 had helped sustain them during their service in Vietnam." T.R. Reid, "Catch,' 25," The Washington Post (6 Oct 1986): B4.
5 Ibid.: 64.
6 Ibid. Discussing the containment doctrine and the formulation of the NATO alliance with George Kennan during the 1966 Viet Nam hearings of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Frank Church stated: "Now it seems to me we have made no mistake so fundamental in American foreign policy than concluding that a design that was suitable for Europe would also be suitable for those regions of the world that have just thrust off European rule, and that we failed to take into account how very different the underlying situation was in Asia and in Africa, the ex-colonial regions of the world." Kennan emphatically agreed. J. William Fulbright, ed., The Vietnam Hearings (New York: Vintage Books, 1966): 136.
7 Reid: B4
8 Playboy: 61. Emphasis added.
9 Diane Ravitch and Chester E. Finn, Jr., What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? (New York: Perennial Library, 1988): 83.
10 I think it is essential to point out to students why, in important ways, "McCarthyism" is a very misleading term for the phenomenon that bears the name of the junior Senator from Wisconsin. Robert Griffith writes that "By 1950... political leaders had succeeded, through the manipulation of popular myths and stereotypes, in creating a mood conducive to demagogues such as Joseph R. McCarthy. The Wisconsin senator's crude attacks on American policy and policymakers resonated through the political system not because of their uniqueness, but because of their typicality. To call this political impulse 'McCarthyism,' however, is to exaggerate the senator's importance and to misunderstand the politics he came to symbolize. McCarthy was the product of anti-Communist politics, not its progenitor. Had he never made that speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, had his name never been a household word, what people came to call 'McCarthyism' would nevertheless have characterized American politics at mid-century." Robert Griffith, "American Politics and the Origins of 'McCarthyism,'" in Robert Griffith and Athan Theoharis, eds., The Specter: Original Essays on the Cold War and the Origins of McCarthyism (New York: New Viewpoints, 1974): 16. As Doctorow's novel makes clear, McCarthyism could only have succeeded with the complicity and, in many cases, active cooperation of the Democratic Party. "It is unfortunate," Garry Wills has observed, "that McCarthyism was named teleologically, from its most perfect product, rather than genetically--which would have given us Trumanism." "Introduction" to Lillian Hellman, Scoundrel Time (New York: Bantam Books, 1977): 19.
11 Jeffrey P. Kimball, To Reason Why: The Debate About the Causes of U.S. Involvement in the Vietnam War (New York: McGraw Hill, 1990): 45.
12 Godfrey Hodgson, America in Our Time (New York: Vintage Books, 1978): 46. Hodgson provides an excellent analysis of the Cold War consensus which still shackles debate on U.S. foreign policy. In chapter seven of The Best and the Brightest (New York: Penguin Books, 1983), David Halberstam also very effectively illustrates how Democrats allow Republicans to frame the debate on national security issues.
13 E.L. Doctorow, The Book of Daniel (New York: Signet Books, 1972): 251. Additional references will be noted parenthetically in the text.
14 Gerald Graff, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987): 195, 258.
15 Robert Scholes, Textual Power: Literary Theory and the Teaching of English (New Haven: Yale Univ Press, 1985): 33.
16 "An Impolite Interview with Joseph Heller," in Frederick Kiley and Walter McDonald, eds., A Catch-22 Casebook (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1973).
17 See Richard M. Freeland, The Truman Doctrine and the Origins of McCarthyism: Foreign Policy, Domestic Politics, and Internal Security, 1946-1948 (New York: Schocken Books, 1971).
18 Or the Chinese threat, which, our students need to be reminded, was often paramount during the Viet Nam war years.
19 Jonathan Schell, The Time of Illusion (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976): 361.
20 Ibid.: 361.
21 On the "perfectly rational, yet utterly mad" policies of the United States in Viet Nam, see Ronald Aronson, The Dialectics Disaster: A Preface to Hope (London: Verso, 1983): 178-9.
22 A recently published study on the nuclear arms race cogently argues that it is precisely such actions as U.S. intervention in Viet Nam which present the greatest danger of nuclear war. See William A. Schwartz and Charles Derber, The Nuclear Seduction: Why the Arms Race Doesn't Matter and What Does (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990).