Monday, May 29, 2006

On Memorial Day

Somewhere in my office is a paperback entitled No More Vietnams?, edited by Richard Pfeffer, which appeared in the fateful year of 1968. I don’t have it in front of me and haven’t read it for decades, but as I recall it is an account of an academic conference whose participants included Richard Barnett of the Institute for Policy Studies, Stanley Hoffmann and Samuel Huntington of Harvard, and others. Both the Vietnam War and the protests against it were reaching their climax when it appeared, and all the participants understood that the assumptions of Cold War foreign policy had come under attack. And my most vivid memory was the obvious panic among some, though hardly all, of the participants, who were terrified that the effects of Vietnam might militate against future interventions of that type. In the short run they had something to fear; in the long run, as it turns out, they didn’t.

Our popular mythology of the origins of the Second World War created a frightening mindset among our leadership. That war was a real struggle for the future of Europe and Asia, pitting the best of western civilization against the worst. Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan wanted to establish empires based on force and lacking any respect for human rights over many of the richest parts of the globe. They could only do so by war, and that left the United States with the choice of war or acquiescence. Franklin Roosevelt definitely chose war, in my opinion, only in the second half of 1941, when Germany had attacked the Soviet Union and created a possible coalition of Britain, the Soviets and the US which could deploy overwhelming force. Four years later we had achieved victory. But the public, by and large, adopted the idea that the war should have been stopped by timely action in 1931 in Manchuria, or in 1936 over the Rhineland, or in 1938 over Czechoslovakia. We carried that view over into the postwar period as we discovered that our victory had raised another totalitarian power (but a far less reckless one) to new heights. To prevent a bigger war later, Harry Truman argued in 1950 and Lyndon Johnson argued in 1965, we had to fight a smaller war now.

During 1968, while the conference published as No More Vietnams? took place, I, at the tender age of 21, was re-evaluating all these assumptions. The war obviously wasn’t going well and it was also becoming obvious that it was not necessary. We did not have the resources, obviously, to move anywhere the Communists did, and we did not, I concluded, have a responsibility for the political future of the Third World. Some areas of the world were more important than others. Two years later I started six years of Army Reserve service, and I didn’t hear or see anything to change my mind during the four months I spent on active duty in 1971. By that time, however, Richard Nixon was in office, and despite his troop withdrawals he clearly believed in the necessity of victory in Vietnam as deeply as his predecessor. Documents now appearing confirm my belief then, although he wavered sufficiently in 1972-3 to make peace.

Nixon also, however, ended the draft. The Army and Marine Corps were in a wretched state by the time he left office and needed many years to rebuild. Their leadership knew how much harm Vietnam had done and were determined to avoid anything similar in the future. And thus, under Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush, the United States pursued essentially the same policy of opposing Communism wherever it reared its head, but without the option of large-scale military intervention. Ford eagerly started a civil war in Angola to try to bring pro-American Marxists, instead of pro-Soviet ones, into power. Carter began the covert war in Afghanistanbefore, as we have now learned, the Soviets intervened there. Reagan started civil wars in Nicaragua, put Marines in Lebanon, and occupied Grenada. George H. W. Bush, in a real departure, masterminded the settlement of the civil war in El Salvador. We achieved our victory in the Cold War, significantly, without resorting to another large scale intervention.

In the 1990s, however, the Boom generation took power. The challenge they faced was stated, as I have just discovered, by no less a figure than Abraham Lincoln when, as a young man of 28, he spoke at the Springfield Men’s Lyceum in 1838 about the heritage of the American revolution. There he really stated the theory of generations and crises that I have explored so often here during the last eighteen months. He began by speaking of the achievements of his grandparents’ and earlier generations, the Revolution and the Constitution.

We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them--they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their's was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; 'tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.

So young Americans might have spoken in 1965—their parents and grandparents had secured liberty not only in the United States, but in Western Europe and Japan. They had created a more egalitarian society in an age of industrialism and they were finally extending full citizenship to black Americans. Unfortunately, the war they were beginning was going to call into question the morality of everything they had done. But as Lincoln understood, the new Boom generation, in any case, would have sought its own mission, its own trademark achievements—whether they represented a step forward or not. His forefathers, he continued, had staked everything on the success of democratic self-government.

Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it:-- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would inspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon?--Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.--It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.

23 years before he became President, Lincoln foresaw the issues upon which the next crisis would turn. Lincoln was one of the younger members of the post-Constitution Transcendental generation. In our current era, he could correspond roughly to someone born around 1960. The Boom generation has followed two entirely different paths, depending on its political orientation. The Left, reacting to Vietnam, became consumed with rage at our entire society in the late 1960s. In so doing it reduced itself to political irrelevance (or worse) on the national scene. But it entrenched itself within academia, where, in the humanities at least, it rapidly repudiated all the achievements of earlier generations and tried to recreate both literary criticism and history—not, in my opinion, with very happy results. The Right, on the other hand, had the emotional incentive of trying to undo all the work of the New Deal—an enterprise that much of corporate America had never accepted. In addition, as I noted after the 2004 elections, the Right made a coalition with Southern whites who could not emotionally reconcile themselves to the civil rights revolution. And the “edifice,” to use Lincoln’s word, which the Right began trying to tear down was also the edifice of secular America. While the Boom generation hasn’t shown much towering genius, it has shown plenty of enormous ambition.

The Boom generation has had totalitarian tendencies from the moment it emerged on the stage in the late 1960s and revived Marxism-Leninism in America. Now in power, it has not cast off the most dangerous legacy of the Cold War—the idea that the United States has both a right and a duty to control the political development of the entire world. Under President Bush, it has also pushed forward radical interpretations of the American constitution and of executive power--interpretations that our parents, in the 1970s, refused to accept. The war in Iraq, like the war in Vietnam in 1968, is going badly, but hardly anyone is emerging to question the fundamental premises of our policy. John Murtha, not coincidentally a veteran himself, is arguing straightforwardly that our intervention is not working, and so it is not. It has apparently strengthened many of the political forces we had hoped to stamp out inside the Muslim world. Even in Iraq, the new government of which the President is so proud has blessed the Iranian nuclear program. But Murtha remains a lonely voice. Robert Kagan, writing in the Washington Post, warns patronizingly that the Democrats must not once again become “the party of McGovern”. (George McGovern was another combat veteran who could recognize a useless war.) He is confident that a Democrat elected in 2008 would have to adopt most of President Bush’s policies. The terrible thing is that he may be right. No one seems willing to stand up and say that the Muslim world, like Russia in 1919, is going its own way and that we shall have to live with it for many decades. I am not aware of a single leading politician who has suggested that military strikes against Iran would be another disaster on an even greater scale, even though that, I suspect, is the danger that retired generals calling for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation are trying to head off.

President Bush, over the weekend, claimed the mantle of Harry Truman and compared the war on Islamic radicalism to the Cold War. The Cold War, however, was fundamentally defensive, and its greatest asset was the strength of democratic traditions, even in defeated Germany and Japan, that gave us real allies against Communism. We are waging an offensive war, consigning every regime in the Middle East to the ashcan of history without many allies on which to count. And our policies, in Lebanon, Egypt, and Palestine, and above all Iraq, have made matters much worse. We need a de Gaulle, who can realize that greatness in the twentieth century will not involve the imposition of the will of a great power, by force, over hundreds of millions of people and vast regions of the earth.