TCS Daily

Dear War Protesters

By Arnold Kling - March 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Dear war protesters,

I was a war protester in the Vietnam era. Maybe you can relate to my story.

My Vietnam Timeline

I was born in 1954, the year the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The French failure meant that American help was required for the Vietnamese to fend off a Communist takeover.

In the early 1960's President Kennedy sent "advisers" to South Vietnam. They were not called "troops," and so nobody felt a need to explain to the American people the purpose for our "involvement," as it came to be called.

In 1963, I was getting ready to enter 5th grade (I had skipped first grade, because I learned how to read early). The Kennedy Administration thought that our ally South Vietnam suffered from feckless, cruel leadership, so that we engineered a coup against then-President Ngo Dinh Diem. He was assassinated. Two months later, President Kennedy was assassinated.

The years 1964 and 1965 were when the "involvement" escalated into war. But the war's birth was illegitimate and it was treated like an orphan. President Johnson did not try to make the case for war or to prepare the American people for sacrifice. On the contrary, he spent 1964 making the case against the hawkish views of his Republican opponent, Barry Goldwater. In 1965, Johnson played down the war so that he could ram through his Great Society domestic programs. Many people, particularly those to the left of center, never really bought into the war.

By 1967-68, I was a freshman in high school and the anti-war movement was in full swing. I was for anti-war Presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. My politics were what Thomas Sowell would later call The Vision of the Anointed, which made me think that McCarthy and his supporters were intellectually superior to everyone else. Had McCarthy been less aloof and more down-to-earth, he might have won the Democratic Party nomination.

I was a voracious reader, and anti-war writers, such as Norman Mailer, wrote eloquently. Meanwhile, the hawks merely recited an unconvincing "domino theory" that if Vietnam were lost, other Asian countries soon would turn Communist. Communism did not frighten those of us on the left. We read John Kenneth Galbraith's The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society, which said that the only difference between the United States and the Soviet Union was that in our country the central planning was done by corporate apparatchiks.

My junior and senior year in high school, in 1970 and 1971, I participated in anti-war demonstrations. For example, there was a "national moratorium" against the war, in which we stayed out of school and attended protests. I think that by this time I considered myself a "radical," which meant that I viewed the war as United States aggression promoted by the military-industrial complex in order to exploit Vietnam's economy. I believed that the United States deserved to lose, and the other side deserved to win.

In the fall of 1971, I attended Swarthmore College, a left-wing bastion that produced a number of radical leaders, some of whom mellowed and went on to political prominence under Michael Dukakis (a Swarthmorean) and President Clinton. Seeing radical students close up had the effect of turning me off. They did not impress me intellectually. And I was actually repelled by a small but intense faction called the National Caucus of Labor Committees. Their leader was a brilliant, charismatic man (not a student), named Lynn Marcus. However, his followers had a peculiar stupor about them - my friend Jeffrey Frankel (now a prominent Democratic economist) remarked that they never seemed to smile. Their cult still exists, although it has changed its name, as has its founder - he is now semi-famous as minor-party Presidential candidate, Lyndon LaRouche.

In addition, my freshman year I read The Best and the Brightest, David Halberstam's historical analysis of the Vietnam war. While Halberstam was a dove, and he reinforced my prejudice against hawks, it became clear that there was no imperialist conspiracy driving the war effort. Instead, Halberstam argued that America's leaders were elitist, arrogant, and hemmed in by rigid anti-Communist ideology. At this point, I still thought that the Vietnamese would be better off if the United States withdrew, but I backed away from the radical point of view that saw America as an evil aggressor.

One of the arguments that hawks made during Viet Nam was that U.S. withdrawal would lead to a bloodbath and suffering of the Vietnamese. We protesters dismissed this - surely the war was worse, or so we thought. However, after the United States finally withdrew in 1975, there was a bloodbath and there was suffering. Vietnamese desperately tried to escape by sea - they became known as "boat people." Today, where my children go to school in Silver Spring, there are more children named Nguyen than Smith. Where I once viewed anti-Communism as crude and gauche, it seems clear now that the anti-Communists had wisdom and moral courage on their side.

The Moral of the Story

To me, the moral of the story is that it is OK to change your mind. I am not saying that if we had it to do over again I would be a hawk on Vietnam. However, I certainly would not protest the goal of trying to maintain the independence of South Vietnam. I would not view the war as imperialist aggression. I would not view the choice between capitalism and Communism as a matter of indifference.

In the months and years ahead, people may change their minds about the Iraq war. As a supporter of the war, I hope that the facts and repercussions of the conflict turn out to reinforce my beliefs. But if I turn out to be wrong, I expect that I will find the courage to admit it.

Yours truly,

Arnold Kling

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