[This article appeared in the October 1975 issue of the St. Croix Review, pp. 26-33.] 


Some Thoughts on “The Lesson of Vietnam 

By Dwight D. Murphey


            The spring of 1975 was particularly beautiful in Kansas.  One golden day followed another, and at my house our nine-year-old daughter put the finishing touches on a puppet show she and some classmates were presenting at school.  My five-year-old son used the spring for his first forays out into the neighborhood, proving that he was no longer so closely tied to the microcosm of home.

            In a way, it was incongruous that there could have been at the same time an oppressive sense of tragedy in the heart of their father.  In common, I should think, with people everywhere who cherish freedom, I was neither able nor wished to dispel from my mind the scenes in Southeast Asia: of desperate people clinging to the undercarriage of airplanes and then falling off into the sea; of three thousand refugees drowning in a single incident and being forgotten by the world within hours; of our Marines smashing the fingers of allies as they tried to get over the wall at the Saigon embassy to seek a place on one of the last helicopters; of countless small boats heading out into the open sea hoping to overtake American warships as they steamed away.

            Not least among the sources of frustration during that time was the inevitability of hearing repeated the liberal’s self-assured refrain about “the lesson America has learned from Vietnam.”  We might have hoped that the world would come away from such a debacle with at least a clear understanding of its causes and ramifications.  But the problem for the free world in Asia, as elsewhere, had its roots in our own spiritual and intellectual void.  The “conventional wisdom” about Vietnam asserted by our liberal friends both reflects and continues the void. 

The Liberal “Lesson” 

            The lesson America is supposed to have learned consists of several parts but in fact arises out of a single worldview:

·        Communist expansion is hardly to be thought of – and certainly not as a serious problem in the world.  Communism is no longer monolithic, and we are even in a period of détente with its two leading powers.  The Cold War is over, and its origins were at least as much in American anti-Communist hysteria as in anything substantial.

·        The wars in Indochina have been civil wars.  Ho Chi Minh was a Vietnamese patriot and we ought, if anything, to have befriended him at the end of World War II.  In the world at large, we are morally wrong if we support corrupt and undemocratic regimes against the aspirations embodied in local revolutionary movements on the excuse that they are “Communist inspired.”

·        The peoples of the emerging nations will perhaps be as well served under so-called “Communist” regimes as under any others.

·        The South Vietnamese weren’t worthy of our support, and their ultimate collapse was yet another indication of their lack of will.

·        America should follow the principle of non-intervention (except, of course, where regimes are befouled by white racism or non-egalitarian fascism).

            I doubt whether most liberals would prefer to juxtapose these attitudes quite so concisely, since to do so reveals their inhumanity and selectivity of perception.  And yet, who has not heard these ideas expressed not once but many times?

            To understand the liberals’ outlook on foreign affairs it is necessary to understand that to the liberal, the world is not essentially different from the world that existed before 1914.  It is a world characterized, to his eye, by powerful nation-states, mutual distrust and a lack of understanding among nations, ambitious imperial self-seeking, an arms race, and aspiring peoples seeking to emerge.  The appropriate remedy lies in greater “mutual understanding” through cultural exchanges, summit meetings, trade and aid, arms reduction, and empathy for the emerging peoples.

            The liberal isn’t wrong in what he sees.  The problem is that he does not see enough.  He has abstracted away the problem of expansionist totalitarian ideology when that ideology is of the left.  He was sensitive to Hitler, but his threshold is much higher as to Communism.  Anyone who has read the liberal writings critical of the F.B.I. knows that they have minimized the threat of internal subversion and espionage; and a look at liberal attitudes toward foreign affairs shows there the same blind spot.  It is, for example, one of the intellectual enormities of the twentieth century that until Solzhenitsyn the world was not made as aware of the atrocities of Stalin as of Hitler.  By similarly selective perception, Mao has been seen as an agrarian reformer and Ho Chi Minh as a Vietnamese nationalist.

            This has been the viewpoint of the typical liberal intellectual.  Liberal presidents, however, have not acted consistently with this view when faced with concrete situations and with the diverse demands of public opinion and conflicting ideology.  And yet the worldview of the liberal intellectual has combined with other factors such as the fear of nuclear confrontation and the spiritual malaise of the West to produce the paralysis of will that has characterized so much American policy.  The liberal worldview didn’t succeed in keeping us out of Vietnam, but it did affect our strategy, our target selection, our willingness to tolerate enemy sanctuaries, our unwillingness to take the war to the north, our presidents’ lack of desire to justify the war on anti-Communist grounds, our unwillingness to bring strong diplomatic and economic sanctions against the Soviet Union and Communist China to cause them to stop their support, our pursuit of an empty “détente” in the face of such aggression, and finally our acquiescence in a “peace” that was from the first a façade for defeat.

            It is important to understand why liberal ideology interprets the world in this way.    The answer lies in the ideological tensions that have divided Western society and in liberalism’s relationship to those tensions.  Eric Goldman and Hubert Humphrey assert that modern liberalism arises out of classical liberal roots, with simply an added willingness to meet modern problems through a pragmatic use of the state.  But this misses the mark.  The underlying intellectual roots of modern liberalism lie in the alienation of the intellectual from bourgeois culture, which alienation began in the early nineteenth century with the generation of Emerson and Thoreau and took on a more definite form in the late nineteenth century when thousands of American scholars studied at German universities and were deeply influenced by the German Historical School.

            Modern liberalism is a branch of the left.  This in itself gives it an unfortunate tendency to overlook the worst features of the left (though we must not fail to give credit to the sincere anti-Communism of some liberals and even some socialists).  This predisposition has been strengthened by the tensions in American politics: the opposition to liberalism has come from conservatives and anti-Communists, and the polarization that this has entailed has kept the liberal on the anti-anti-Communist side.

            If we wish to understand why the liberal views foreign affairs so differently from the conservative, the answer lies in his differing readiness to perceive Communism as a major threat to the world; and this difference in perception is ideologically based. 

What We Should Learn 

            There are other lessons we should be learning from the experience in Southeast Asia, though they are lessons that a general understanding of modern civilization should have taught us long ago.  The tragedy has had two dimensions: in its direct effect on the millions who have died or who have now passed into the ant-heap-like existence of totalitarian society; and in what it signifies about us and about the intellectual, spiritual condition of contemporary civilization.

            Strategic weakness born out of intellectual failure.  In the broadest strategic sense our civilization has been inarticulate and on the defensive for well over a century, at least in terms of the values that conservatives and classical liberals cherish.

            A burgeoning mix of secularism, science, technology, capitalism, and mass population sprang into existence in the 19th century.  Many of the ideas that guided it at the beginning were classical liberal, and an important residue of those ideas has remained as the ethos of the large middle class.  But classical liberal thinkers such as Bastiat in France and Cobden in England felt outnumbered by their opponents even at the time most people think of as the heyday of classical liberalism.  Quickly in Europe and more slowly in America the intellectual community turned to a variety of anti-bourgeois philosophies: democratic socialism, welfare liberalism, Communism, and fascism.  One of the consequences was a major “brain drain” away from classical liberal thought.  The main society went on growing and developing despite these factors.  But the leaders of thought separated themselves from the “silent majority,” and that majority was not able to defend itself adequately against the onslaught of the intellectuals.

            At the same time, two additional events were occurring.  Under the impact of the massive development of the West the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America began their emergence.  The main flow of ideas to them has been from the “alienated intellectual” in Europe and America.  This exportation of socialist and often revolutionary ideology from Europe occurred in Russia in the late 19th century, revolutionized China, won a victory in Indochina; and we see it in the socialist policies in most countries of the world as well as in the “national liberation fronts” that challenge them.

            At the same time, the primary export from Western capitalism has been technique and mass culture.  Because of the divisions of the West’s alienated intellectual culture from the remainder of Western society, for more than a century few of the principles of a free society have come from the West.

            Seen in this light, certain “strategic” factors stand out:

·        In no sense ought we to consider Communist ideology as unthreatening so long as the “alienation of the intellectual” continues within the West.  In its alliance with the “have-nots,” this intellectuality continues to make a virtually unopposed appeal to the minds and imaginations of men.

·        Even if Marxism-Leninism were to evaporate tomorrow, the alienated intellectuality within the West would simply put a new face on its alienation, which might take the form of a virulent “Third World” ideology just as anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist.

·        It is a pathetic reflection of our own spiritual and intellectual emptiness that we suppose we can contain Communism primarily with economic and military power.  If all other factors remain the same, the best we can hope for is that our power will buy us time, as it did for several years in Vietnam.  Time will be valuable only if we use it to create a new intellectual, spiritual renaissance within ourselves or if the massive unseen forces affecting the ontology of modern life will effect such a renaissance for us.  [Note in 2005: Time, as it turned out, proved invaluable in another way: in allowing the disintegration of the Soviet Union through the eventual loss of faith in Communist ideology.]

·        Oddly enough, the greatest priority for our own defense is not military but must be to recognize that the primary source of world neurosis exists in the intellectual and cultural divisions of Europe and America.  This calls for a major redirection of our effort. 

·        Finally, we must acknowledge that in this larger civilizational aspect almost nothing is being done.  It is a symptom of the crisis itself that there is a vacuum of understanding and almost no will to understand it. 

            Such optimism as I nevertheless feel is justified not by an extrapolation from existing tendencies but by an awareness that the tremendous rate of transition in modern life may (though it also may not) alter radically the mix within civilization and perhaps permit us simply to transcend these problems.  It is fortunate, too, that modern culture has all the inertia of a rapidly moving body – and that this gives us more time by making it more difficult for the intellectual and the “have-nots” to deflect it toward their utopias.

            Some concepts to clarify.  I shall not have completed my task of seeking briefly to place our foreign predicament in perspective if I end simply with an emphasis on this main point.  The liberal worldview has spawned a number of subsidiary concepts that must be pierced if we are to avoid being befogged by them.

            The first of these is the suggestion that we ought not to go to the aid of “corrupt and undemocratic” regimes.  We have already seen the accompanying notion that their Communist opponents are somehow progressive, puritanically honest, and enchanting in their sing-song orderliness, and that this is a part of the liberal myopia toward Communism.  

            If we accept the concept that we should assist only governments that approach American standards, we automatically resign ourselves to the notion that there is hardly a place in the world that we should help defend.  Such an expectation willfully overlooks the realities in most of the world.  If the free world wishes to keep enormous masses of people from falling under totalitarian rule and hence to retain for them and for the benefit of civilization their option to live a more enlightened future, it has little choice in each instance but to support such a non-Communist status quo (or truly viable alternative) as may exist.  It may seek in the meantime to improve that status quo, but we ought not to delude ourselves about our effective ability to do so.

            The second concept we should question is that which tells us that it violates international morality for us to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations.

            I fully agree with the policy of non-intervention and of permitting other peoples to work out their own destiny – but only as a prudential policy in a world that is not threatened by expansionist totalitarian ideology.  Even in a “normal” world we can hardly posit a hard-and-fast moral obligation to do nothing while some despot slaughters his own subjects; the principle of non-intervention is, as I say, prudential; i.e., determined by our own needs and sensibilities; but where a hostile ideology, backed by great economic and military resources, is “on the make” in the world, it is idiotic for us to persuade ourselves that the principle of non-intervention applies under such circumstances.  I cringe when I hear the denunciations, say, of the C.I.A. undercover activity to depose Allende in Chile with their implicit assumption that we were morally wrong to have sought his overthrow.  Such a concept, if accepted, can consign more people into slavery than Communist subversion could ever conquer by itself.

            A third concept is that the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, the Laotians, the Cubans, the Chileans ought to “fight their own battle,” and that, if they fail, it is their fault.  Up to a point, this is a notion that elicits the sympathy of a conservative, since it is apparent that the other peoples in the free world ought to do much more for themselves than they characteristically have toward opposing Communism; but our agreement can only go so far.  When a country like South Vietnam comes under attack, it is like the red-hot point focused on by a laser beam; a titanic worldwide struggle centers there and that nation becomes the hapless subject of years of systematic terror.  This denudes it of leadership and of anything more than the basic instinct to live.  We have not given enough credit, in fact, to the incredible bravery of, say, the South Vietnamese, who with their blood and anguish paid a price far greater than anything we have ever borne, and did so over a period of many years.  I am not at all sure that, put in their place, we would have had the character to have done so well.

            A fourth notion is that “Communism is no longer monolithic, since the Communist bloc is diverse and divided; and therefore we should dismiss the Cold War concern over ‘Communism’ as such.”  This relates to my earlier critique of the liberal worldview, but is specific enough that we ought to consider it separately.

            The clarification needed is that it can essentially make little difference to the West that the Communist bloc will undergo power struggles and diversities within itself so long as its constituent parts remain totalitarian and continue their on-going hostility toward non-Communist society.  An analogy is helpful.  Did it matter to the tribes in Gaul and Germany that ancient Rome was torn by civil war among competing contenders for emperor?  No doubt that dissension was an important datum for them, but their struggle to remain outside Roman rule remained largely unaffected.

            We cannot adequately serve the values we cherish if we face the world with an inadequate understanding of the civilization within which we live and with concepts that evade reality.

            The great strategic need is for the West to develop an intellectuality appropriate to the values of a free society.  “The fault,” as we recall Cassius telling Brutus in Shakespeare’s play, “is not in our stars but in ourselves” that we are witness to the tragedy in Southeast Asia.  If our weakness were limited to mistakes of finite policy, our problem should also be finite; but our weakness is complex and cultural and philosophical and spiritual.  It was the misfortune of the South Vietnamese that they had to look for support at this juncture in history to so flaccid and yet so ultimately brittle a reed.  It was also the misfortune of some 55,000 American boys.