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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 5. 1967.

Better not written

page 8

Better not written

The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy 1941-1966 by Arthur M Schlesinger Jr. (London: Andre Deutsch Ltd 1967; NZ price 19/-). Reviewed by Peter Robb (1964).

Arthur Schlesinger is a historian, but that is not the trouble. He must know as well as any observer the exigencies which frame the action of the President, and he has done this sort of thing before— Nixon or Kennedy in 1960. It seems to be rather (he sense of himself as activist which stops him from being good at polemic now. That precarious connexion of his new pamphlet with the reality of political action certainly makes for immediate excitement, but it damages his argument pretty severely, too.

Mr. Schlesinger is so sensitive to the tensions in the situation that between his opening straight talk for realism and his final cry of hope that 'in whatever direction our decisions and destiny take us, we can preserve and cherish our fundamental unity of purpose as Americans,' he makes his argument so expansive and yet so restricted that in the end it somehow explodes. One hoped he would be able to present a reconciling of long and short views of the war in Vietnam, but from the start he is oddly deprecating about the resources of knowledge and reason.

The pamphlet begins: 'Why we are in Vietnam is today a question of mainly historical interest. We are there, for better or worse, and we must deal with the situation that exists'; and the exclusion of history from political reality in these first sentences is an indication of the pernicious appeal to brisk American good sense which pervades his argument It is pernicious because not frank or simple, but a supposed reinforcing ploy which reduces the liberal rhetoric of the climax to a terrible chauvinism and destroys the larger appeal Mr. Schlesinger first makes to the historical and moral sense.

Presumably not believing his own first words, he follows them with chapters on How We Got There, What We Did There and Where We Are Now. They are terse narratives of chances ignored and lost, and the disposition of quotes and facts would be impressive if it didn't seem to be so largely domestic political jeering. Mr. Nixon's idiot statements, for which no man should have to be responsible, recur through the book as they did in A Thousand Days. Nobody can blame Mr. Schlesinger for being bugged by Richard M. Nixon, who certainly makes an amusing chorus, but Mr. Nixon is not important and The Bitter Heritage is a very short book. Pains are taken to raise Roosevelt and Kennedy above small mistakes and inconsistency, and to make distinctions between Mr. Rusk and Mr. McNamara.

The trouble is that the book is not properly conceived. In pursuing several vague purposes at once it effects nothing, except perhaps injury to its author. Mr. Schlesinger is undecided whether if is more important to persuade the Administration or to exhort the American people, and so remains uncertain about the level of his argument, whether it should impel by knowledge or coax with self-interest. Finally, he appears unsure of his area of argument. American or Vietnamese. All that leads to disaster, and the tensions perceptible in the first part of the book cause it to disintegrate in the next two thirds.

The plainest sign of ethical collapse is the absence of that discussion of the Vietnam war in its national and Asian contexts which might have been expected after the opening chapters on American involvement. The book's subtitle is Vietnam and American Democracy 1941-1966 and its weakness is that emphasis falls entirely on the latter. Mr Schlesinger writes only in terms of the American experience in Vietnam about what he insists at the same time is an Asian affair.

There is a harsh irony in the very titles of the soulful chapters on The Price We Are Paying and The Roots of Our Trouble. Whose trouble? It is appalling that Mr. Schlesinger should not consider that, and it must answer finally any question of the value of the role here which is whatever good faith he has chosen to play.

So when the proposals are reached for A Middle Course, they suffer not merely from an inescapable vagueness but from being unsupported by thought for the Vietnamese party in the conflict. The statement of the pamphlet as it survives impresses neither as an historical appraisal of the war in Vietnam nor as a plan for action now. Mr. Schlesinger's failure to arrive at any substantial position on the Vietnam war is a consequence of the inadequacy of the arguments adduced. He can shelter quite a number of readers no doubt under the umbrella of 'Negotiate,' but in this case they will not be sharing his advocacy from conviction, only despair. The objection to his rhetoricis the old Platonic one, that true knowledge must move to right action, and the great disappointment of his book, the bitterest thing about it, is his abandonment of a moral line. His realism corrupts not least itself.

Such an attack on this slight work, no doubt intended to help, may seem immoderate and unfair. Yet Mr. Schlesinger's abandonment of his function is so generally damaging that it would have been better if he had not written this pamphlet. He appears in The Bitter Heritage to have traded his knowledge and conscience for a most imperfectly realised pragmatism. The misunderstanding involved in Mr. Schlesinger's bad deal almost makes one despair. He has not demonstrated the accommodating knowledge and sympathy in which the only useful realism consists, but presented in more sophisticated form the attitude he derides.

One remembers that it was from a Kennedy that he first learned pragmatism. In his speech to the Senate on Vietnam policy. Senator Robert Kennedy said, as Andrew Kopkind quotes him:

'Events ... have brought the astounding might of American power upon a remote and alien people. It is difficult to feel in our hearts what this war means to the people of Vietnam ... few of us are directly involved while the rest of us continue our lives and pursue our ambitions undisturbed by the sounds and fears of battle ...'

One likes to think that Arthur Schlesinger's hand was in the making of that speech.