My Vietnam Lessons
By David Horowitz
2003

 

The following is an excerpt from a chapter in the book Left Illusions: An Intellectual Odyssey, by David Horowitz:

 

 

When I see protesters in the flush of youthful idealism holding signs that proclaim “No Vietnams in Central America,” a feeling of ineffable sadness overtakes me. For 20 years ago I was one of them. In 1962, as a graduate student at Berkeley, I wrote the first book of New Left protest, Student,[1][1] and helped to organize the first “anti-war” demonstration opposing what we denounced as U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

 

In the mid-Sixties, I went to England and helped to organize the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, which supported what we called the Vietnamese struggle for independence from the United States, as well as the International War Crimes Tribunal, which brought American war atrocities under intense and damning scrutiny but ignored atrocities committed by the Communist forces in Vietnam. While in England, I also wrote The Free World Colossus, a New Left history of the Cold War, which was used as a radical text in colleges and in the growing movement against the Vietnam War. At the end of the Sixties, I returned to America as an editor of Ramparts, the most widely read New Left magazine. Our most famous cover appeared during Richard Nixon’s campaign in 1972 for a second term. It featured a photograph of the My Lai massacre with a sign superimposed and planted among the corpses saying, “Re-Elect the President.”

 

Let me make this perfectly clear: Those of us who inspired and then led the anti-war movement did not want merely to stop the killing as so many veterans of those domestic battles now claim. We wanted the Communists to win. It is true that some of us may have said we only wanted the United States to get out of Vietnam, but we understood that this meant the Communists would win. “Bring the troops home” was our slogan; the fall of Saigon was the result.

 

There was a political force in American life that did want a peace that would not also mean a Communist victory — a peace that would deny Hanoi its conquest and preserve the integrity of South Vietnam. That force was led by our archenemy President Richard Nixon, whose campaign slogans were “Peace with Honor” in Vietnam and “Law and Order” at home. Just as we did not want honor that meant preserving the government of South Vietnam, so we did not respect law and order, because respecting the democratic process would have meant that the majority in America, who supported President Nixon and South Vietnam, would have prevailed.

 

Like today’s young radicals, we Sixties activists had a double standard when it came to making moral and political judgments. We judged other countries and political movements—specifically socialist countries and revolutionary movements—by the futures we imagined they could have if only the United States and its allies would get out of their way. We judged America, however, by its actual performance, which we held up to a standard of high and even impossible ideals. We were, in the then-fashionable term, “alienated” from what was near to us, unable to judge it with any objectivity.

 

Some of this alienation—a perennial and essential ingredient of all political leftism—could be attributed to youth itself, the feeling that we could understand the world better and accomplish more than our elders could. There was another dimension to our disaffection, however, an ideology that committed us to “truths” behind the common sense surface of things.

 

I myself was a Marxist and a socialist. I believed in the “dialectic” of history and, therefore, even though I knew that the societies calling themselves Marxist were ruled by ruthless dictatorships, I believed that they would soon evolve into socialist democracies. I attributed their negative features to underdevelopment and to the capitalist pasts from which they had emerged. I believed that Marxist economic planning was the most rational solution to their underdevelopment and would soon bring them unparalleled prosperity—an idea refuted as dramatically by the experience of the last 70 years as the ancillary notion that private property is the source of all tyranny and that socialist states would soon become free.

 

On the other hand, the same Marxist analysis told me that America, however amenable to reform in the past, was set on a course that would make it increasingly rigid, repressive, and ultimately fascist. The United States was the leviathan of a global imperialist system under attack at home and abroad. Its ruling class could not afford to retreat from this challenge; it could only grow more reactionary and repressive. This expectation, wrong in every respect, was not an idiosyncratic theory of mine but was the lynchpin of the New Left’s political view of the world generally and of its strategy of opposition to America’s war in Vietnam in particular.

The New Left believed that, in Vietnam, America’s corporate liberal empire had reached a point of no return. As a result, electoral politics and any effort to reform it were futile and counterproductive. The only way to alter America’s imperial course was to take to the streets—first to organize resistance to the war and then to “liberate” ourselves from the corporate capitalist system. That was why we were in the streets. That was why we did not take a hard stand against the bomb throwers in our midst.

 

What happened to change my views and cause me to have second thoughts? As our opposition to the war grew more violent and our prophecies of impending fascism more intense, I had taken note of how we were actually being treated by the system we condemned. By the decade's end we had (deliberately) crossed the line of legitimate dissent and abused every First Amendment privilege and right granted us as Americans. While American boys were dying overseas, we spat on the flag, broke the law, denigrated and disrupted the institutions of government and education, gave comfort and aid (even revealing classified secrets) to the enemy. Some of us provided a protective propaganda shield for Hanoi's Communist regime while it tortured American fliers; others engaged in violent sabotage against the war effort. All the time I thought to myself: If we did this in any other country, the very least of our punishments would be long prison terms and the pariah status of traitors. In any of the socialist countries we supported—from Cuba to North Vietnam—we would spend most of our lives in jail and, more probably, be shot.

And what actually happened to us in repressive capitalist America? Here and there our wrists were slapped (some of us went to trial, some spent months in jail) but basically the country tolerated us. And listened to us. We began as a peripheral minority, but as the war dragged on without an end in sight, people joined us: first in thousands and then in tens of thousands, swelling our ranks until finally we reached what can only be called the conscience of the nation. America itself became troubled about its presence in Vietnam, about the justice and morality of the war it had gone there to fight. And because the nation became so troubled, it lost its will to continue the war and withdrew.

 

Thus was refuted all the preconceptions we had had about the rigidity of American politics, about the controlled capitalist media (which, in fact, provided the data that fueled our attacks on the war), and about the ruling-class lock on American foreign policy. That policy had shown itself in its most critical dimension responsive to the will of ordinary people and to their sense of justice and morality. As a historian, I believe I am correct in my judgment that America’s withdrawal from the battlefront in Vietnam because of domestic opposition is unique in human history: There is no other case on record of a major power retreating from a war in response to the moral opposition of its own citizenry.

 

If America’s response to this test of fire gave me an entirely new understanding of American institutions and of the culture of democracy that informs and supports them, the aftermath of the U.S. retreat gave me a new appreciation of the Communist opponent. America not only withdrew its forces from Vietnam, as we on the left said it could never do, but from Laos and Cambodia and, ultimately, from its role as guardian of the international status quo.[2][2]

 

Far from increasing the freedom and wellbeing of Third World nations, as we in the left had predicted, however, America’s withdrawal resulted in an international power vacuum that was quickly filled by the armies of Russia, Cuba, and the mass murderers of the Khmer Rouge. All this bloodshed and misery was the direct result of America’s post-Vietnam withdrawal, of the end of Pax Americana, which we had ardently desired and helped to bring about.

            In Vietnam itself, the war’s aftermath showed beyond any doubt the struggle there was not ultimately to achieve or prevent self-determination but—as various presidents said and we denied—a Communist conquest of the South. Today, the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, whose cause we supported, no longer exists. Its leaders are dead, in detention camps, under house arrest, in exile, powerless. America left Vietnam 10 years ago; but today Hanoi’s army is the fourth largest in the world, and Vietnam has emerged as a Soviet satellite and imperialist aggressor in its own right, subverting the independence of Laos, invading and colonizing Cambodia.

 

            These events confronted me with a supreme irony: The nation I had believed to be governed by corporate interests, a fountainhead of world reaction, was halted in mid-course by its conscience-stricken and morally aroused populace; the forces I had identified with progress, once freed from the grip of U.S. “imperialism,” revealed them-selves to be oppressive, predatory and unspeakably ruthless. I was left with this question: What true friend of the South Vietnamese, or the Cambodians, or the Ethiopians, or the people of Afghanistan, would not wish that Pax Americana were still in force?

 

            There was yet another Vietnam lesson for me when I pondered the question put by Jeanne Kirkpatrick to the still-active veterans of the New Left: “How can it be that persons so deeply committed to the liberation of South Vietnam and Cambodia from Generals Thieu and Lon Nol were so little affected by the enslavement that followed their liberation? Why was there so little anguish among the American accomplices who helped Pol Pot to power?” Indeed, why have such supposedly passionate advocates of Third World liberation not raised their voices in protest over the rape of Afghanistan or the Cuban-abetted catastrophe to Ethiopia?

 

            Not only has the left failed to make a cause of these Marxist atrocities, it has failed to consider the implications of what we now know about Hanoi’s role in South Vietnam’s  “civil war.” For North Vietnam’s victors have boldly acknowledged that they had intruded even more regular troops into the South than was claimed by the Presidential White Paper used to justify America’s original commitment of military forces—a White Paper that we leftists scorned at the time as a fiction based on anti-Communist paranoia and deception. But today’s left is too busy denigrating Ronald Reagan’s White Papers on Soviet and Cuban intervention in Central America to consider the implications of this past history to the present.

 

My experience has convinced me that historical ignorance and moral blindness are endemic to the American left, necessary conditions of its existence. It does not value the bounty it actually has in this country. In the effort to achieve a historically bankrupt fantasy—call it socialism, call it “liberation”—it undermines the very privileges and rights it is the first to claim.

 

The lesson I learned from Vietnam was not a lesson in theory but a lesson in practice. Observing this nation go through its worst historical hour from a vantage on the other side of the barricade, I came to understand that democratic values are easily lost and, from the evidence of the past, only rarely achieved, that America is a precious gift, a unique presence in the world of nations. Because it is the strongest of the handful of democratic societies that mankind has managed to create, it is also a fortress that stands between the free nations of the world and the dark, totalitarian forces that threaten to engulf them.

 

My values have not changed, but my sense of what supports and makes them possible has. I no longer can join “anti-war” movements that seek to disarm the Western democracies in the face of the danger that confronts them. I support the current efforts of America’s leadership to rebuild our dangerously weakened military defenses, and I endorse the conservative argument that America needs to be vigilant, strong, and clear of purpose in its life-and-death struggle with its global totalitarian adversaries. As an ex-radical, I would only add that in this struggle Americans need to respect and encourage their own generosity—their tolerance for internal dissent and their willingness to come to the aid of people who are fighting for their freedom.