"The Vertical Invasion of the Barbarians"
It is important to understand what the Sixties turmoil was about, for the youth culture that became manifest then is the modern liberal culture of today. Where that culture will take us next may be impossible to say, but it is also impossible even to make an informed guess without understanding the forces let loose by the decade that changed America.
Many people attribute the student frenzy, civil disobedience, and violence of the Sixties to the war in Vietnam. That is a comforting thought, for, if true, it would mean that the Sixties pivoted on a single ephemeral issue rather than representing a major, and perhaps permanent, upheaval across all of American culture. Unfortunately, the evidence seems clear that Vietnam was more an occasion for the outbreaks than their cause. The war at most intensified into hatred a contempt for American civilization that was already in place.
During the same period, other countries that had no involvement in the Vietnamese war, notably France, Italy, and Germany, saw serious student rebellions. In France the students came closer to toppling the government than the radicals ever did in the United States. The turmoil seems to have had more to do with attitudes that reached their culmination in a particular generation in Western democracies than with the war.
Contrast the reaction of American youth to the wars in Korea and in Vietnam. Both were wars in Asia, both exacted high prices in Americans killed or disabled, both had only the rationale ofcontaining communism, both soon became unpopular. Yet American youth went willingly, if not gladly, to Korea, while they demonstrated against Vietnam, marched on the Pentagon, threw blood on draft records, fled to Canada and Sweden, and denounced "Amerika." Something in our culture, or at least the culture of our youth, had changed between the two wars. Vietnam was a convenient and powerful metaphor for what was in reality the belief that America's culture, society, economy, and polity were corrupt.
One must not, of course, discount the great reservoir of self-interest that underlay much of the rhetoric of morality. The generation that fought in Korea had not grown up with affluence. Many had served in World War II or grew up during the war. The middle-class youths who were asked to fight in Vietnam were of a pampered generation, one that prized personal convenience above almost all else. The prospect that their comfortable lives might be disrupted, or even endangered, by having to serve their country in Vietnam was for many intolerable. Thus, the student protests wound down when the draft ended.
Yet to this day, many contend that the radicals' protests against the war were honorable. Professor James Miller of the New School for Social Research, for example, argues that there were substantial benefits from the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention because of the "dissent, confrontation, the passionate expression of moral outrage at a war that was, after all, morally reprehensible and unjust in its brutality, as well as strategically mistaken." Those who speak in this fashion, and there are many, realize that something is still at stake in the argument over Vietnam. Indeed there is. The debate about that war is a contest between two opposed ways of viewing the world, whose current form is the war in the culture. That makes Vietnam worth a word or two.
It may be doubted, to begin with, that a difference of opinion about strategy brought the radicals into the streets. SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) did not arrive at its position on the war through a close study of Clausewitz and Jomini. Nor has anyone persuasively explained why the war was morally reprehensible or unjust in its brutality. It was a time of very worrisome communist expansion by force around the world. The United States had succeeded in saving South Korea by force of arms but had seen China and Cuba fall and was facing an aggressive and heavily armed Soviet Union. Attempting to contain communist dictatorships was hardly an immoral project. It was known at the time that Ho Chi Minh's triumph in the North had resulted in the killing of about 100,000 people, and it was certainly reasonable to anticipate a larger slaughter in the South if we lost the war.
The subsequent fate of the South Vietnamese people ought to convince anyone that the war should have been fought and won. We know of the tortures and murders in the re-education camps, and of the "postwar terror which destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, and which produced over a million refugees." To anyone with the slightest knowledge of communist takeovers in other countries, these things were entirely foreseeable. The almost complete indifference of American antiwar radicals to the terrible fate of the South Vietnamese after the Communists' victory demonstrates that the protests were not motivated by concern for the people of Vietnam. The protests were primarily about the moral superiority of the protesters and their rage against their own country.
What was morally reprehensible were the New Lefts attempts to ensure the American and South Vietnamese defeat. North Vietnam's resolve was greatly increased by the demonstrations against the war in the United States. Bui Tin, a former colonel on the general staff of the North Vietnamese army who left after the war because he became disillusioned with his country's communism, said in an interview that Hanoi intended to defeat the United States by fighting a long war to break America's will. The American antiwar movement was "essential to our strategy. Support for the war from our rear was completely secure while the American rear was vulnerable. Every day our leadership would listen to world news over the radio at 9 a.m. to follow the growth of the American antiwar movement. Visits to Hanoi by people like Jane Fonda, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, and various clergy gave us... Slouching Towards Gomorrah
. Copyright © by Robert H. Bork. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.