Copyright 1985 The Washington
The Washington Post
March 17, 1985,
Sunday, Final Edition
SECTION: Washington Post
Magazine; Pg. 8
LENGTH: 4056 words
HEADLINE: Lefties for Reagan;
We have seen the enemy and he is not us
BYLINE: BY PETER COLLIER AND DAVID HOROWITZ; Peter Collier and David
Horowitz who were editors of Ramparts magazine, are the authors of the
Rockefellers: An American Dynasty and the Kennedys: an American Drama.
Good-Bye to All That
When we tell our old radical friends that we voted for
Ronald Reagan last November, the response is usually one of annoyed
incredulity. After making sure that we are not putting them on, our old friends
make nervous jokes about Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly, about gods that
have failed, about aging yuppies ascending to consumer heaven in their BMWs. We
remind them of an old adage: "Anyone under 40 who isn't a socialist has no
heart; anyone over 40 who is a socialist has no brain."
Inevitably the talk becomes bitter. One old comrade, after a tirade in which
she had denounced us as reactionaries and crypto-fascists, finally sputtered,
"And the worst thing is that you've turned your back on the Sixties!"
That was exactly right: casting our ballots for Ronald Reagan was indeed a way
of finally saying goodbye to all that -- to the self-aggrandizing romance with
corrupt Third Worldism; to the casual indulgence of Soviet totalitarianism; to
the hypocritical and self-dramatizing anti- Americanism which is the New Left's
bequest to mainstream politics.
The instruments of popular culture may perhaps be forgiven for continuing to
portray the '60s as a time of infectious idealism, but those of us who were
active then have no excuse for abetting this banality. If in some ways it was
the best of times, it was also the worst of times, an era of bloodthirsty
fantasies as well as spiritual ones. We ourselves experienced both aspects,
starting as civil rights and antiwar activists and ending as co- editors of the
New Left magazine Ramparts. The magazine post allowed us to write about the
rough beast slouching through America
and also to urge it on through non-editorial activities we thought of as
clandestine until we later read about them in the FBI and CIA files we both
accumulated. Like other radicals in those days, we were against electoral
politics, regarding voting as one of those charades used by the ruling class to
legitimate its power. We were even more against Reagan, then governor of California,
having been roughed up by his troopers during the People's Park demonstrations
in Berkeley and tear-gassed by his
National Guard helicopters during the University
of California's Third World
Liberation Front Strike. But neither elections nor elected officials seemed
particularly important compared with the auguries of revolution the left saw
everywhere by the end of the decade -- in the way the nefarious Richard Nixon
was widening the war in Indochina; in the unprovoked attacks by paramilitary
police against the Black Panther Party; in the formation of the Weather
Underground, a group willing to pick up the gun or the bomb. It was a time when
the apocalypse struggling to be born seemed to need only the slightest assist
from the radical midwife.
When we were in the voting booth this past November (in different precincts but
of the same mind) we both thought back to the day in 1969 when Tom Hayden came
by the office and, after getting a Ramparts donation to buy gas masks and other
combat issue for Black Panther "guerrillas," announced portentously:
"Fascism is here, and we're all going to be in jail by the end of the
year." We agreed wholeheartedly with this apocalyptic vision and in fact
had just written in an editorial: "The system cannot be revitalized. It
must be overthrown. As humanly as possible, but by any means necessary."
EVERY THOUGHT and perception in those days was filtered through the dark and
distorting glass of the Vietnam war. The left was hooked on Vietnam.
It was an addictive drug whose rush was a potent mix of melodrama, self-importance
and moral rectitude. Vietnam
was a universal solvent -- the explanation for every evil we saw and the
justification for every excess we committed. Trashing the windows of merchants
on the main streets of America
seemed warranted by the notion that these petty bourgeois shopkeepers were cogs
in the system of capitalist exploitation that was obliterating Vietnam.
Fantasizing the death of local cops seemed warranted by the role they played as
an occupying army in America's black ghettos, those mini-Vietnams we yearned to
see explode in domestic wars of liberation. Vietnam
caused us to acquire a new appreciation for foreign tyrants like Kim Il Sung of
North Korea. Vietnam
also caused us to support the domestic extortionism and violence of groups like
the Black Panthers, and to dismiss derisively Martin Luther King Jr. as an
"Uncle Tom." (The left has conveniently forgotten this fact now that
it finds it expedient to invoke King's name and reputation to further its
How naive the New Left was can be debated, but by the end of the '60s we were
not political novices. We knew that bad news from Southeast Asia
-- the reports of bogged-down campaigns and the weekly body counts announced by
Walter Cronkite -- was good for the radical agenda. The more repressive our
government in dealing with dissent at home, the more recruits for our cause and
the sooner the appearance of the revolutionary Armageddon.
Our assumption that Vietnam
would be the political and moral fulcrum by which we would tip this country
toward revolution foresaw every possibility except one: that the United
States would pull out. Never had we thought
that the United States,
the arch-imperial power, would of its own volition withdraw from Indochina.
This development violated a primary article of our hand-me-down Marxism: that
political action through normal channels could not alter the course of the war.
The system we had wanted to overthrow worked tardily and only at great cost,
but it worked.
When American troops finally came home, some of us took the occasion to begin a
long and painful reexamination of our political assumptions and beliefs. Others
did not. For the diehards, there was a post-Vietnam syndrome in its own way as
debilitating as that suffered by people who had fought there -- a sense of
emptiness rather than exhilaration, a paradoxical desire to hold onto and
breathe life back into the experience that had been their high for so many
As the post-Vietnam decade progressed, the diehards on the left ignored conclusions
about the viability of democratic traditions that might have been drawn from
America's exit from Vietnam and from the Watergate crisis that followed it, a
time when the man whose ambitions they had feared most was removed from office
by the Constitution rather than by a coup. The only "lessons" of Vietnam
the left seemed interested in were those that emphasized the danger of American
power abroad and the need to diminish it, a view that was injected into the
Democratic Party with the triumph of the Mc wing. The problem with this use of Vietnam
as a moral text for American policy, however, was that the pages following the
fall of Saigon had been whited out.
No lesson, for instance, was seen in Hanoi's
ruthless conquest of the South, the establishment of a police state in Saigon
and the political obion of the National Liberation Front, whose struggle we on
the left had so passionately supported. It was not that credible information
was lacking. Jean Lacouture wrote in 1976: "Never before have we had such
proof of so many detained after a war. Not in Moscow
in 1917. Not in Madrid in 1939, not in Paris and Rome in 1944, nor in Havana in
1959 . . . " But this eminent French journalist, who had been regarded as
something of an oracle when he was reporting America's derelictions during the
war, was dismissed as a "sellout."
In 1977, when some former antiwar activists signed an Appeal to the Conscience
of Vietnam because of the more than 200,000 prisoners languishing in
"reeducation centers" and the new round of self-immolations by
Buddhist monks, they were chastised by activist David Dellinger, Institute for
Policy Studies fellow Richard Barnet and other keepers of the flame in a New
York Times advertisement that said in part: "The present government of
Vietnam should be hailed for its moderation and for its extraordinary effort to
achieve reconciliation among all of its people."
When tens of thousands of unreconciled "boat people" began to flee
the repression of their communist rulers, Joan Baez and others who spoke out in
their behalf were attacked for breaking ranks with Hanoi.
Something might also have been learned from the fate of wretched Cambodia.
But leftists seemed so addicted to finding an American cause at the root of
every problem that they couldn't recognize indigenous evils. As the Khmer Rouge
were about to take over, Noam Chomsky wrote that their advent heralded a
Cambodian liberation, "a new era of economic development and social
justice." The new era turned out to be the killing fields that took the
lives of 2 million Cambodians.
emerged as an imperialist power, taking control of Laos,
and threatening Thailand.
But in a recent editorial, The Nation explains that the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia
"to stop the killing and restore some semblance of civilized government to
the devastated country." This bloody occupation is actually a "rescue
mission," and what has happened should not "obscure the
responsibility of the United States
for the disasters in Indochina," disasters that are
being caused by playing the "China
card" and refusing to normalize relations with Vietnam.
These acts on the part of the United States
"make Vietnamese withdrawal from Cambodia
unlikely"; only the White House can "remove the pressures on Viet-
nam from all sides (that) would bring peace to a ravaged land." Such
reasoning recalls the wonderful line from the Costa-Gavras film "Z":
"Always blame the Americans. Even when you're wrong, you're right."
ANOTHER unacknowledged lesson from Indochina involves
the way in which Vietnam
has become a satellite of the Soviet Union (paying for
foreign aid by sending labor brigades to its benefactor). This development
doesn't mesh well with the left's on- going romantic vision of Hanoi.
It also threatens the left's obstinate refusal to admit that during the mid-
'70s -- a time when American democracy was trying to heal itself from the twin
traumas of the war and Watergate -- the U.S.S.R. was demonstrating that
totalitarianism abhors a vacuum by moving into Africa, Central
America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere.
Instead of evaluating the Soviets because of the change in what we used to call
"the objective conditions," te left rationalizes Soviet aggression as
the spasms of a petrified bureaucracy whose policies are annoying mainly
because they distract attention from U.S. malfeasance around the world.
If they were capable of looking intently at the Soviet Union,
leftists and liberals alike would have to concur with Susan Sontag's contention
(which many of them jeered at when she announced it) that communism is simply
One of the reasons the left has been so cautious in its reassessments of the
Soviets is the fiction that the U.S.S.R. is on the side of "history."
This assumption is echoed in Fred Halliday's euphoric claim, in a recent issue
of New Left Review, that Soviet support was crucial to 14 Third World
revolutions during the era of "detente" (including such triumphs of
human progress as Iran and South Yemen), and in Andrew Kopkind's fatuous observation
that "the Soviet Union has almost always sided with the revolutionists,
the liberationists, the insurgents." In Ethiopia?
Propped up by 20,000 Cuban legionnaires, the Marxist government of Mengistu
Haile Mariam has as its main accomplishment a "Red Campaign of
Terror" (its official designation) that killed thousands of people. Where
were those who cheer the Soviets' work in behalf of the socialist zeitgeist
when this episode took place? Or this past fall when the Marxist liberator
squandered more than $40 million on a party celebrating the 10th anniversary of
his murderous rule while his people starved? Where were they to point out the
moral when capitalist America
rushed in 250 million metric tons of grain to help allay the Ethiopian starvation
while the Soviets were managing to contribute only 10 million metric tons?
Where are they now that Mengistu withholds emergency food supplies from the
starving provinces of Eritrea
and Tigre because the people there
are in rebellion against his tyranny?
REAGAN is often upbraided for having described the Soviet Union
as an evil empire. Those opposed to this term seem to be offended esthetically
rather than politically. Just how wide of the mark is the president? Oppressing
an array of nationalities whose populations far outnumber its own, Russia is
the last of the old European empires, keeping in subjugation not only formerly
independent states such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania (Hitler's gift to
Stalin), but also the nations of Eastern Europe. Every country
"liberated" into the Soviet bloc has been transformed into a national
prison, where the borders are guarded to keep the inmates in rather than the
The war in Afghanistan
is much more a metaphor for the Soviets' view of the world than Vietnam
ever was for America's.
Of the approximately 16 million people living in Afghanistan
at the time of the Soviet invasion, an estimated 1 million have already been
killed and wounded. There are now about 4 million refugees, a figure that does
not include "internal" refugees -- the hundreds of thousands of
villagers forced to leave their scorched earth for the Soviet-controlled big
cities, the only places where food is available. Or the thousands of Afghan
children who been taken to the Soviet Union to be
"educated" and who will eventually be returned to their native land
as spies and quislings.
Soviet strategy is based on a brutal rejoinder to Mao's poetic notion (which we
old New Leftists used to enjoy citing) about guerrillas being like fish swimming
in a sea of popular support. The Soviet solution is to boil the sea and
ultimately drain it, leaving the fish exposed and gasping on barren land. The
Russian presence is characterized by systematic destruction of crops and
medical facilities, indiscriminate terror against the civilian population,
carpet bombings and the deadly "yellow rain" that even the leftist
Peoples' Tribunal in Paris (successor to the Bertrand Russell War Crimes
Tribunal) has said is being used in Afghanistan.
During each December anniversary of the Soviet invasion, when liberal
politicians rediscover the mujaheddin guerrillas in the hills, after 11 months
of moral amnesia, there are blithe references to Afghanistan
Those who invoke the analogy seem to think that simply by doing so they have
doomed the Russian storm troopers to defeat. But this analogy is based on a
misunderstanding of what Vietnam
was and what Afghanistan
is. Unlike America's
high-tech television war, Afghanistan
is one of those old-fashioned encounters that take place in the dark. The
Soviets make no attempt to win hearts and minds; the My Lais that are daily
occurrences there cause no shock because they do not appear on Moscow TV; there
are no scenes of the peasant children whose hands and faces have been destroyed
by antipersonnel bombs in the shapes of toy trucks and butterflies a Los
Angeles physician we know saw strewn over the Afghan countryside; there are no
images of body bags being offloading from Soviet transports. Because there is
no media coverage, there can be no growing revulsion on the home front, no
protests on Soviet campuses and in Soviet streets, no clamor to bring the boys
not Russia's Vietnam
not only because the nation committing the atrocities never sees them, but
because the rest of the world is blacked out, too. At the height of the Vietnam
war there was a noncombatant army of foreign journalists present to witness its
conduct. In Afghanistan
they are forbidden, as are the Red Cross and all other international relief
agencies that were integral to what happened in Vietnam.
And without these witnesses, Afghanistan
is a matter of "out of sight, out of mind." In Vietnam
we waged a war against ourselves and lost. The Soviets will not let that happen
to them. The truth of the Vietnam
analogy is not that guerrillas must inevitably bog down and defeat a superior
force of invaders, but that war against indigenous forces by a superpower can
be won if it is waged against a backdrop of international ignorance and apathy.
The proper analogy for Afghanistan
is not Vietnam
at all but rather Spain
-- not in the nature of the war, but in the symbolic value it has for our time
-- or should -- in terms of democracy's will to resist aggression. Aid to the
mujaheddin should not be a dirty little secret of the CIA, but a matter of
public policy and national honor as well.
PERHAPS the leading feature of the left today is the moral selectivity that
French social critic Jean-Francois Revel has identified as "the syndrome
of the cross-eyed left." Leftists can describe Vietnam's conquest and
colonization of Cambodia as a "rescue mission," while reviling Ronald
Reagan for applying the same term to the Grenada operation, although better
than 90 percent of the island's population told independent pollsters they were
grateful for the arrival of U.S. troops. Forgetting for a moment that Afghanistan
leftists call Grenada
although people in Afghanistan
(as one member of the resistance there told us) would literally die for the
elections held in Grenada.
The left's memory can be as selective as its morality. When it comes to past
commitments that have failed, the leftist mentality is utterly unable to
produce a coherent balance sheet, let alone a profit-and-loss statement. The
attitude toward Soviet penetration of the Americas
is a good example. Current enthusiasm for the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua
should recall to those of us old enough to remember a previous enthusiasm for Cuba
25 years ago. Many of us began our New Leftism with the Fair Play for Cuba
demonstrations. We raised our voices and chanted, "Cuba S,i! Yanqui
No!" We embraced Fidel Castro not only because of the flamboyant personal
style of the barbudos of his 26th of July Movement but also because Castro
assured the world that his revolution belonged to neither communists nor
capitalists, that it was neither red nor black, but Cuban olive green.
We attributed Castro's expanding links with Moscow
to the U.S.-sponsored invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and
then to the "secret war" waged against Cuba
intelligence and paramilitary organizations. But while Castro's apologists in
the United States may find it expedient to maintain these fictions, Carlos
Franqui and other old Fidelistas now in exile have made it clear that Castro
embraced the Soviets even before the U.S. hostility became decisive, and that
he steered his country into an alliance with the Soviets with considerable
enthusiasm. Before the Bay of Pigs he put a Soviet general
in charge of Cuban forces. Before the Bay of Pigs he
democratic trade union movement, although its elected leadership was drawn from
his own 26th of July Movement. He did so because he knew that the Stalinists of
Cuba's Communist Party would be dependable cheerleaders and efficient policemen
of his emerging dictatorship.
One symbolic event along the way that many of us missed was Castro's
imprisonment of his old comrade Huber Matos, liberator of Matanzas
Province, and one of the four key
military leaders of the revolution. Matos' crime: criticizing the growing
influence of Cuban communists (thereby jeopardizing Castro's plans to use them
as his palace guard). Matos' sentence: 20 years in a 4-by- 11 concrete box.
Given such a precedent, how can we fail to support Eden Pastora for taking up
arms against early signs of similar totalitarianism in Nicaragua?
What has come of Cuba's
revolution to break the chains of American imperialism? Soviets administer the
still one-crop Cuban economy; Soviets train the Cuban army; and Soviet
subsidies, fully one-quarter of Cuba's
gross national product, prevent the Cuban treasury from going broke. Before the
revolution, there were more than 35 independent newspapers and radio stations
in Havana. Now, there is only the
official voice of Granma, the Cuban Pravda, and a handful of other outlets
spouting the same party line. Today Cuba
is a more abject and deformed colony of the Soviet empire than it ever was of America.
The arch-rebel of our youth, Fidel Castro, has become a party hack who
cheerfully endorsed the rape of Czechoslovakia
in 1968 and endorses the ongoing plunder of Afghanistan
today, an aging pimp who sells his young men to the Russians for use in their
military adventures in return for $10 billion a year.
In leftist circles, of course, such arguments are anathema, and no historical
precedent, however daunting, can prevent outbreaks of radical chic. Epidemics
of radical chic cannot be prevented by referring to historical precedents. That
perennial delinquent Abbie Hoffman will lead his Potemkin village tours of Managua.
The Hollywood stars will dish up Nicaraguan president
Daniel Ortega as an exotic hors d'oeuvre on the Beverly
Hills cocktail circuit. In the self-righteous moral glow
accompanying such gatherings, it will be forgotten that, through the offices of
the U.S. government, more economic and military aid was provided the
Sandinistas in the first 18 months following their takeover than was given to
Somoza in the previous 20 years, and that this aid was cut off primarily
because of the clear signs that political pluralism in Nicaragua was being
Adherents of today's version of radical chic may never take seriously the words
of Sandinista directorate member Bayard Arce when he says that elections are a
"hindrance" to the goal of "a dictatorship of the
proletariat" and necessary only "as an expedient to deprive our
enemies of an argument." They will ignore former Sandinista hero and now
contra leader Eden Pastora who sees the junta as traitors who have sold out the
revolutionary dream ("now that we are occupied by foreign forces from Cuba
and Russia, now
that we are governed by a dictatorial government of nine men, now more than
ever the Sandinista struggle is justified"). They will ignore opposition
leader Arturo Cruz, an early supporter of the Sandinista revolution and
previously critical of the contras, when the worsening situation makes him
changes his mind and ask the Reagan administration to support them in a
statement that should have the same weight as Andrei Sakharov's plea to the
West to match the Soviet arms buildup.
American leftists propose solutions for the people of Central America
that they wouldn't dare propose for themselves. These armchair revolutionaries
project their self-hatred and their contempt for the privileges of democracy --
which allow them to live well and to think badly -- onto people who would be
only too grateful for the luxuries they disdain. Dismissing
"bourgeois" rights as a decadent frill that the peoples of the Third
World can't afford, leftists spread-eagle the Central Americans
between the dictators of the right and the dictators of the left. The latter,
of course, are their chosen instruments for bringing social justice and
economic well-being, although no leftist revolution has yet provided impressive
returns on either of these qualities and most have made the lives of their
people considerably more wretched than they were before.
VOTING is symbolic behavior, a way of evaluating what one's country has been as
well as what it might become. We do not accept Reagan's policies chapter and
verse (especially in domestic policy, which we haven't discussed here), but we
agree with his vision of the world as a place increasingly inhospitable to
democracy and increasingly dangerous for America.
One of the few saving graces of age is a deeper perspective on the passions of
youth. Looking back on the left's revolutionary enthusiasms of the last 25
years, we have painfully learned what should have been obvious all along: that
we live in an imperfect world that is bettered only with great difficulty and
easily made worse -- much worse. This is a conservative assessment, but on the
basis of half a lifetime's experience, it seems about right.