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Essays for the Presidency

A protester plants a flower on the bayonets of guards at the Pentagon during a protest against the Vietnam War, October 21, 1967.
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The End of Either/Or

The end of 1966 finds the United States with more hard business before it than at any time since 1962. We are embattled in Viet Nam; we are in the middle of a true social revolution at home; and we have undiminished involvement with continents and countries that still refuse to match our simpler pictures of them. It is not surprising that one can almost hear the nation asking where it is trying to go. It is Viet Nam that gives the question a special edge, and probably it will be in Viet Nam that the most important early answers will be given. But Viet Nam is not the place to begin. It is better to begin with ourselves, and to ask ourselves again what we want—and should want—in the world.

With all his international preoccupations, the American remains a man of private purposes. His hopes and fears for these purposes still decide most elections. Foreign travel and investment multiply (to the despair of those who think the dollar an end, and not a means, and to the great advantage of a nation that must not live alone any more), but they multiply mainly for private reasons, Americans can be touched by hunger and sentiment, so that food goes to India and help of all sorts to Israel, but the American dream remains domestic. However great their nation's interests overseas, the boys always want to come home. Such inwardness of national feeling can be dangerous, but it has the enormously important consequence for others that the American democracy has no enduring taste for imperialism.

What the American people still want of the world, then, is that it should allow what George Washington called "the security of their union and the advancement of their happiness." The enormous difference between Washington's foreign affairs and our own—a difference nine-tenths of which has developed in the last twenty-five years—is in the number, variety and size of the American actions which are generated by this desire. It is not a change of national purpose. Behind every sustained and serious engagement of the United States there lies an express or implied decision that this action is important to the safety and welfare of the United States itself. Policies which cannot persuasively claim this justification do not last, however attractive they may be for a time or with a part of our public. The American commitment anywhere is only as deep as the continued conviction of Americans that their own interest requires it.

In a world of accelerating change, with both sciences and societies in continuing revolution, it is not only natural but necessary that the specific policies which are right in one decade should be questioned in the next. No spokesman for American foreign policy should ever be afraid to question his own premises, and none should shirk the continuous task of relating what this country does and says to its own safety and welfare. One of the great contributions of our last two Presidents has been their insistent habit, inside the government, of reviewing established policies to test their continuing validity. Presidents are properly cautious about sweeping changes, and both Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Johnson have questioned more policies than they have changed. But as political leaders both of them have continuously understood what both professors and bureaucrats too easily forget—that the most admired plans and policies, whether freshly minted in the imagination or sanctified by long establishment, are no better than their demonstrable relation to the American interest.

There is another almost opposite justification for regular re-examination of our policies: it is that by and large they can stand it. Back in 1950, when Mr. Acheson denounced the species he called "re-Examinist," there was good reason to fear the revival of isolationism, and it could well seem the part of wisdom to avert debates which might call the whole course of U. S. policy into question. But sixteen years later that reaction is out of date. The years of Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson have confirmed a general policy of engagement which is as far from isolationism, in spirit as well as practice, as it is from the merely moralistic globalism which in earlier generations sometimes seemed the only alternative. The debate between Woodrow Wilson and Hiram Johnson is over, and simple solutions to hard problems are less seductive than they used to be. There are wild men in the wings, but on the main stage even the argument on Viet Nam turns on tactics, not fundamentals. This was the meaning of the overwhelming defeat of Senator Goldwater. He may not have been as wild as he sounded, but the country would not take the chance. Candidates of all persuasions, in 1966, showed that they had learned that lesson.


It has not been easy for us to accept the complexity of the world. The revolution in our foreign affairs which dates from the Fall of France made demands that were met only at the price of great oversimplification. For twenty years from 1940 to 1960 the standard pattern of discussion on foreign policy was that of either/or: Isolation or Intervention, Europe or Asia, Wallace or Byrnes, Marshall Plan or Bust, SEATO or Neutralism, the U.N. or Power Politics, and always, insistently, anti-Communism or accommodation with Communists. The drama of these debates, the sweeping generalities which were used repeatedly by political leaders from Roosevelt through Eisenhower, and the excess of certainty which infected every Secretary of State from Hull through Dulles—all these forces served to push into the background the fact that the world is not simple.

Moreover, in the 1940s there were quite special reasons for strong and simple attitudes. Let us admit that Americans too easily choose up sides. The cardboard heroes and villains of the movies, and now of television, respond to a deeply ingrained national habit of dividing the world into good guys and bad guys. (No snobbery is called for; it is a habit to which some of our most distinguished intellectuals are also addicted.) But the first years after 1940 did have their full quota of authentic villains and heroes: Hitler and Churchill, Stalin and Marshall, Mao Tse-tung and Magsaysay. These genuinely polar choices gave reinforcement to natural habits of thought, and justification to the hardening of arguments.

We need not be self-righteous in criticizing the simplifications that were popular in the generation that joined the world. If we are old enough, the odds are overwhelming that we shared in them. Time after time, simplification was the prerequisite of decision and action, and what is most important about this twenty years is that most of the great decisions were right. If the acceptance of complexity was somewhat delayed, and if the political cost of the first great encounters with failure (in China), and stalemate (in Korea) was high, still there is no major nation whose record in that period is half as good.

But in the 1950s the balance of advantage shifted against black-and-white thinking. It was the tragedy of the Eisenhower Administration that the President, who understood in his bones the need for generosity and accommodation, was served by a Secretary of State who combined great subtlety—even deviousness—of tactics with a deep internal need for arbitrary moral certainty. Where there really were still clear-cut issues (as in Berlin or the Formosa Straits) the Eisenhower Administration was capable of a careful firmness that many of us underrated at the time. But where it was not simple—which was most of the time in most countries—the record was disappointing.

The day of either/or may have ended with the death of John Foster Dulles, for black-and-white was never the instinctive mode of General Eisenhower. But with John F. Kennedy we enter a new age. Obviously there had been much recognition of complexity in the years before 1961, but Kennedy was the first American President to make a habit of it. Over and over he insisted on the double assertion of policies which stood in surface contradiction with each other: resistance to tyranny and relentless pursuit of accommodation; reinforcement of defense and new leadership for disarmament; counter-insurgency and the Peace Corps; openings to the left but no closed doors to the reasonable right; an Alliance for Progress and unremitting opposition to Castro; in sum, the olive branch and the arrows. He argued that the surface contradictions were unreal, and by the 1960s the country was ready to agree. In the Presidency of Lyndon Johnson this view has persisted. Like Theodore Roosevelt, and for similar reasons, Mr. Johnson often prefers the poster to the etching, but those upset by language too vivid for their own tastes have too often overlooked the equally vivid language that asserts with equal conviction the countervailing and complementary doctrine. Under the last two Presidents at least, the recognition of complexity has been the first law of policy.

A closely related lesson has been the demonstration that what happens in the world is not determined by Americans alone. (Others with an exaggerated sense of their own importance have had to learn this lesson still more painfully than we—Moscow and Peking are consoling instances—but this essay is about our troubles, not theirs.) Already in the last years of the Truman Administration the painful experiences with China and Korea were turning the minds of perceptive men to the problem of the limits of American influence, and the message was preached in a series of sensible books by men who left office with Mr. Acheson. But in the 1950s Washington did not speak in the rhetoric of restraint, and later events have had to teach us as a nation what a few learned earlier from harsh, direct experience.

Nations in all continents, in the last ten years, have shown a persistent tendency to have histories of their own which are only marginally related to the actions of the United States. It remains the comfortable habit of politicians elsewhere to excuse their own failures as the product of American folly or wickedness, while their successes are usually claimed as all their own. The claims are stronger than the excuses. The role of the United States is seldom central in the internal affairs of other states. Even when direct American power is as important as it has been for a generation in Germany and in Japan, it is still the local political forces which are decisive in the selection and support of governments. The United States did not create de Gaulle or destroy Goulart; it did not make or unmake Sukarno and Nkrumah; it has not been able to "deal with" Nasser, except by making small-scale deals with him; it was not the agent of the fall of Khrushchev or the rise of Lin Piao. It did not even determine the result of the recent elections in the Dominican Republic. Anyone who thinks that the lines of influence from Washington are like so many strings to so many puppets has never sat at the pulling end. We have had to recognize more and more that we live in the midst of troubles most of which we did not make, and among governments moved by problems and purposes of their own.

We have confirmed our acceptance of continuing engagement in the world's affairs, while no longer needing the somewhat artificial encouragement of a belief that we are both all-righteous and all-powerful. We no longer doubt that we should have extensive policies—and take extensive actions—in Europe, in South America, in Asia and in all the oceans. (We still have doubts about Africa, and they are reflected both in the too low priority which we tend to give to the problems of that continent and in the somewhat jerky quality of what we have done in places like the Congo.) We no longer expect these undertakings to produce final results by fixed dates. We have accepted involvement in the real world, and we see that world more nearly as it is.

Meanwhile our real and relative strength has continued to grow. The general performance of our economy has been excellent for nearly six years, and our achievements at the edges of science and technology are still more startling. We have put behind us the fear of stagnation that marked the first years after Sputnik, and worry among our friends about our possible weakness has given way to fear that our continuing technological revolution may have a mass and momentum that condemns all others to a sad second rank. These fears are probably exaggerated, but they testify to our present strength. So does the fact that more than four-fifths of all the foreign investing in the world is now done by Americans.

We also have two decades now of hard experience in the practice of international affairs, and the day has passed when any other nation could claim the advantage of experience and exposure in comparison with us. In particular areas and for particular purposes, others still have special skills that we cannot match. But taken as a whole, the stock of American experience, understanding, sympathy and simple knowledge is now much the most impressive in the world.

These assertions are comforting, however, only in a comparative sense. It does not follow at all that we have all the power and skill we need. Complexity increases; the threat of aggression persists; and so does the menace of nuclear weapons to the future of all mankind. The demands upon American strength and good sense do not decrease. We cannot ensure peace or progress anywhere alone. But there is no safety yet for free men anywhere without us, and it is the relation between this astonishing proposition and the complexities of each part of the world that makes the conduct of our foreign affairs such an overwhelming task.


The great present case, of course, is Viet Nam. Nothing about it is simple. Indeed what has made debate so easy, and action so hard, in Viet Nam is that the debater can defend the propositions he likes from a great pile of evidence in which there is plenty to support every view. In our actions, however, we have to live with the whole. The truth in Viet Nam is that there is both aggression from the North and civil conflict in the South, both corruption and self-sacrifice, both strong anti-Communist feeling and a weary lack of affection for much of the present anti-Communist leadership. The political base for an effective non-Communist state is still weak-but it does exist. The Vietnamese do not think of the Americans as they thought of the French-but they do retain a stubborn insistence on doing things in their own way.

The internal complexities are matched internationally. Viet Nam is indeed a test of Communist revolutionary doctrine, and what happens there will affect what happens elsewhere: but victory for Ho would not mean automatic communization of all Asia, and the defeat of aggression would not mean an end to the pervasive—if sometimes exaggerated—threat of China. The lines of influence and concern stretch out in all directions, but almost never in simple and straightforward terms. There is no simple unity among either Communists or non-Communists on Viet Nam. Those who support our view do so for reasons that vary, and many of those who are critical would be more critical still if we were now to back out. On the international scene, as inside Viet Nam, the only general proposition that seems valid is that sweeping and simple views are useful only for those who do not have responsibility.

This is not the place for a study of the long line of decisions that has brought us where we are in Viet Nam. The continuing conviction, through twelve years, has been that we should be ready to do our full share to help prevent the Communists from taking South Viet Nam by force and terror. This conviction has led to decisions that few foresaw in the early 1950s. Those decisions have enlarged the costs and raised the stakes of both success and failure. The most conspicuous increase in our effort has been military, and more than once decisions have been made just in time. It seems almost certain that without the military commitments made by President Kennedy and President Johnson in late 1961 and early 1965—in each case after the most prayerful consideration of the consequences of both action and inaction—South Viet Nam would have been delivered to the tender care of Hanoi and the chances for peaceful progress in many Pacific nations would have been heavily reduced. My own belief is that these great decisions, with all their costs, have been right, and that it is right to persevere—in the interest of the Vietnamese, in our own interest and in the wider interest of peace and progress in the Pacific.

The political requirements, less dramatic but equally essential, have also grown with time, and at the end of 1966 performance in this field has still not matched the encouraging successes of the armed forces. In part, of course, the difficulty here is simply that without general and sustained military superiority in a given area it is hard even to begin on political action. Beyond that, the job is much more unfamiliar to us all. Finally, unlike the direct campaign against major Communist military units, the political effort, in all its forms, can take effect only as it engages the energies and convictions of the Vietnamese people themselves. So we must not be surprised that real pacification is hard to get in the Vietnamese countryside. It is, after all, the one thing above all others that the Communists are determined to block by whatever means they can. That this work remains slow and hard, less than two years after the days of highest Communist hope, is not astonishing. But it is also no ground for complacency, and it remains right for both Saigon and Washington to give the highest possible priority to this part of their work.

Viet Nam is thus both military and political. It is also an example of another kind of double imperative: the requirement for both action and restraint. It is necessary to act, but it is also necessary to keep that action within limits. What makes this rule a matter of life and death in military matters is of course the ghastly spectre of nuclear exchanges—anywhere with anyone. But there are other reasons for restraint. Even without the ultimate weapons, we would want no war with China. Even without China we would go badly wrong to commit ourselves, by word or by act, to the destruction of the régime in Hanoi. We simply are not in the business of destroying Communist states by force (a proposition confirmed in a most painful way at the Bay of Pigs).

The most debated of our military actions in Viet Nam is of course the bombing of the North. In a measure this debate is less an argument between the Government and its critics than a conflict between two schools of thought, both of which the Government opposes. Given their quite opposite politics and military prejudgments, it is natural that there should be a sharp divergence between single-minded advocates of air power and equally single-minded believers that all forms of bombing are both immoral and ineffective. Those who choose to believe that Hanoi is the aggrieved party in Viet Nam will have still stronger feelings. So debaters here and abroad have naturally made the bombing a central topic, and the tactical advantage of this emphasis for Communists is obvious.

But the truth is that the bombing of the North has never been more than one military instrument among many—an instrument made legitimate by previous hostile actions, made necessary by the critical dangers of 1965, and justified still by its value in hampering the work of infiltration and supply. All bombing carries risks of error and of civilian damage. The bombing of the North has been the most accurate and the most restrained in modern warfare. Those who have watched the President and his Secretary of Defense in action on this subject can testify that it is wholly wrong to charge them with recklessness, or with abdication of their responsibility. What they deserve instead is the understanding support of those who want restraint, as they continue to resist pressures from the few who do believe in greatly widening the war as a means to ending it.

Here, indeed, is the precise and persisting difference on which the country ruled by its vote in 1964. The real choice is not between "doves" and "hawks." It is between those who would keep close and careful civilian control over a difficult and demanding contest, and those who would use whatever force is thought necessary by any military leader in any service.

There is also a decisive difference between raising the cost of aggression and trying to "win" by "defeating" Hanoi. To attempt such a "victory" would be terribly wrong on three counts: (1) it would carry great risk of war with China and the Soviet Union; (2) it would engage us in a new and terrible contest for which we have no taste or need—a contest for the future of North Viet Nam; (3) it would not settle the issue in the South. What three administrations have always understood is still true: the decisive area of our interest in Viet Nam is in the South. It is there that our military and political actions can and should be intensified. It is there that we can also give massive support for relief, for rehabilitation and for economic and social advances—always behind the shield of growing military and political strength and self-confidence.

The contest in Viet Nam is not likely to be short, though its major combat phase may end well before the long hard work of real pacification and rebuilding. Fortunately the American people have demonstrated that their staying power in this effort is much greater than either friend or foe expected. In the face of repeated disappointments and in spite of the confusion of angry debate and imperfect understanding on all sides, our people have shown great resilience of spirit. They have accepted the stress of this effort, and they have refused to give support to easy wrong answers at either extreme. Open opposition has flourished. There has been less jingoism than in any previous war in our history. The nation has endured the special demands of an uncensored war—one which has been freely reported from our side of the lines by a number of men who clearly doubt its value. This is also the first war with daily television from the field. I think it is good, on balance, that the war is brought into our living rooms, but it remains a striking fact that this time we get our dose of "The Naked and the Dead" not afterward, but instantly.

The ability of the people of the United States to keep their balance in this unprecedented situation is profoundly encouraging. Whatever criticism may be current abroad, it is just this sturdy temper that all our friends have needed before and may need again in future. The true value of the United States as an ally and friend rests not on the language of treaties which always have escape clauses, and not on mechanical notions of cause and consequence, but rather upon the fact that this is a nation which sees things through and tries to see them straight.

The prospect in Viet Nam, then, is for more struggle and sacrifice. Of course it is always possible that the Communists may give up their opposition to negotiations, and certainly it is essential that we ourselves should be ready and eager for such a change in their position. There is every reason for the openness and responsiveness that the President and the Secretary of State have repeatedly shown, not only in their words but in public and private diplomacy. The passionate sincerity of this commitment will be proven to all doubters on the day that their offer is accepted. But it would be wrong to count on any early Communist response. Communists, like other men, negotiate when they think it helps them to achieve an objective, and up to now the clear Communist objective has been to take over South Viet Nam. The Communists are quite right in supposing that our own firm purpose in any negotiation will be very different from theirs. Moreover, the struggle will necessarily continue during any negotiations until acceptable terms for an armistice are worked out, and in these circumstances a prolonged negotiation could easily undermine the confidence of Communists in the South. For these reasons it is unlikely that the men in Hanoi will agree to negotiations until our purpose or theirs has changed. Even then the prospect for a negotiated settlement may be weak, for if the Communists do decide that their present purposes exceed their capacity, may they not prefer a private decision to a public admission? This is what happened in Greece, and it is as likely an ending in Viet Nam as a peace by formal agreement. Actions leading to reciprocal actions may be the eventual path away from open warfare—and it was right for the United States to make it plain again in September, through Ambassador Goldberg, that the United States is ready to take this road too.

It is not pleasant to have to write of the prospects for accommodation with Vietnamese Communists in these stark terms. A number of talented and honorable writers have pinned their faith to very different notions of what may be practicable. But they have produced little evidence to back their faith. It would be agreeable if there were a real prospect of a peaceful coalition with Communist participation and non-Communist control; but this picture, drawn from the unusual experience of France and Italy in the 1940s, seems irrelevant to the realities of Viet Nam. It would be good also if there were a serious prospect of inducing the Communists as an organized force to accept a political contest divorced from force and terror, in a securely neutralized and guaranteed state; but the evidence of past Communist behavior in Viet Nam does not support this hope. My own unhappy conclusion is that many of those who write about this kind of solution are really engaged in concealing—perhaps even from themselves—their willingness to let South Viet Nam go to the Communists rather than face the trials of a continued struggle. In this respect they simply do not speak for their country, and it is of great importance that Communists everywhere should come to understand that fact.


Viet Nam is our most immediate foreign business, but even Viet Nam should not let us forget the strength which permits and the interest which requires our active effort elsewhere. As in South Viet Nam itself, so in relating Viet Nam to other concerns, the right choice is not either/or; it is both/and.

First, we need both military and economic action. Our stake in Viet Nam, and our larger stake in Asia, will not end as aggression subsides. We have an abiding national interest in the progress of the people across the Pacific. This interest has been magisterially reaffirmed in the President's trip to Asia. It is part and parcel of the still wider American interest in enlightened help to those who are helping themselves. The level of our economic aid is too low today to serve our own interests, and the fight for a strong and responsive program next year may be the most urgent single cause in foreign affairs for men of good will to back.

Second, we are both an Atlantic and a Pacific partner. Our interest in the future of Europe has not weakened merely because the most active danger today is in Asia. Since the missile crisis of 1962 Europe has known four years of continental quiet that are unmatched in the last half-century. Not all Europeans have taken full advantage of this quiet to work for harmony beyond their present borders, and we ourselves have been a little slow, until recently, in moving out from successful defense toward wider settlement. We face a serious test now in working both against nuclear spread and for Atlantic partnership, but it is a test we can meet. Certainly it is wrong to suppose that our effort in Viet Nam changes or weakens our interest in Europe. We must put troops where they are most needed, but we can and will sustain the great Atlantic commitment we have honored steadily for twenty-five years.

Finally, we have a still more sweeping double duty: to carry on both these wide foreign activities and an active program of social progress at home. Those who resist such a domestic program can be expected to use the costs of Viet Nam as an excuse for a domestic penny-pinching which would be as shortsighted as it is unnecessary. The recent election has probably strengthened the position of those who feel this way. They are wrong. Even if the Vietnamese war were twice as expensive as it is, and even if it were likely to end entirely in a few months, it would be a mistake to use it as an argument for delay in doing what needs to be done within the United States. Since the costs of Viet Nam are in fact quite manageable, and since they are likely to continue for years, the notion of using Viet Nam as a reason for delay at home becomes absurd. It makes no sense for the real interests of any American, since the work at home that we do not do now will simply have to be done later at much higher cost.

It is therefore an act of folly for any true liberal to argue that we must choose between Viet Nam and social progress. The truth is the opposite. Americans who believe in the further development of the great new departures in education and health, in the battle for better cities, and most of all in the cause of really equal opportunity—those, in short, who care for social progress—should not strengthen the hands of their opponents by accepting the notion that we must choose between persistence in Viet Nam and full budgetary support for a strong domestic program of action. It is not so, in economic or even in political terms. Retreat in Viet Nam is not the road forward at home. The real consequence of a pullout in Southeast Asia, for our domestic affairs, would almost surely be heavy reaction.

So as we face the New Year we have no shortage of work to do. We have come a long way over the last generation, and we have a long way to go. But while there is some impatience and irritation among us, we can properly put the main emphasis elsewhere: on our steadiness of purpose, our capacity to do what needs doing and our ability to hold true to the ends of peace and human progress even in a time when the path to peace leads through jungle warfare and the path to progress through the worst tangles of our own selfishness and prejudice.

Almost twenty years ago, Henry Stimson wrote in these pages of "The Challenge to Americans." He was writing mainly about Russia and the needs of Europe, but he set his argument in a larger frame. I venture to pluck a few of his sentences from their context because I think he would not mind.

It would be shriveling timidity for America to refuse to play to the full her present necessary part in the world. And the certain penalty for such timidity would be failure. The troubles of Europe and Asia are not "other people's troubles"; they are ours. . . . The world's affairs cannot be simplified by eager words. We cannot take refuge from reality in the folly of black-and-white solutions. . . . We need not suppose that the task we face is easy, or that all our undertakings will be quickly successful. The construction of a stable peace is a longer, more complex and greater task than the relatively simple work of war-making. . . . Surely there is here a fair and tempting challenge to Americans.

The challenge of 1967 is harder than that of 1947 only for those who are in battle, and for their families. For the rest of us it is easier now than it was then. We have twenty years of experience to help us, and we have the spur of knowing that our other necessary efforts, at home and abroad, are the best possible payment on the debt we owe to those who fight.

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