The ontological status of the world and our place in it being as indeterminate as they are, it is no great surprise that wishful thinking has long been a popular human activity. Alas, what passes for reality is a many-splintered thing, and so can be shaped, subjectively at least, by our self-willed orientation to it.
Sometimes wishful thinking is pointed toward the future, which can be a good thing: We often cannot summon our potential nobility unless we can envision a use for it. Our happiness depends on it to no small degree, as well; as Lincoln supposedly said: “Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
Sometimes, however, wishful thinking is pointed backward, where it works mainly as ego protection against the onslaught of contrary evidence. The most common manner of operation is well described by one of La Rochefoucauld’s most famous aphorisms: “We confess to little faults only to persuade ourselves that we have no great ones.”
I was reminded of all this when Jim Jeffrey suggested to me several weeks ago that I tag him to review the latest Ken Burns (with Lynn Novick) docufab of the Vietnam War for The American Interest. I told him that I had not seen any of the multipart series and did not wish to see it because I was thoroughly sick of the whole business. I had said what I had to say on various aspects of the Vietnam War era, felt myself cleansed for the toil, and then about a decade ago gave away all 200 or so of my books on the subject.1 But, I said, “If you want to do it, Mr. Ambassador, go right ahead—Godspeed.”
He went right ahead, and produced an excellent review essay, which as editor I titled “The War That Never Ends.” I knew he would produce a gem. Jeffrey is one of only two senior American diplomats I know to have served in uniform in Vietnam before joining the Foreign Service (the other being Ronald Neumann). So he was “there,” which, while not always a sturdy portcullis to inner wisdom, usually doesn’t hurt when combined with subsequent related experience and the normal blessings of maturity. Ambassador Jeffrey’s decades of pondering strategy and practicing diplomacy at high levels qualify in my book as related experience.
In his essay, Jeffrey pronounced the Burns-Novick effort basically fair-minded and accurate—with one exception, that being
. . . the series’s ninth episode, covering the 1970–73 period, in which Burns and Novick undercut the credibility of their more general, reasonably balanced observations. The narrative of that episode dryly describes the triumphs President Richard Nixon achieved in 1972, diplomatically with China, the USSR, and North Vietnam, politically in the presidential election, and militarily with the defeat of the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) in the Easter Offensive. But this comes only after 100 minutes of almost unceasing negatives on the war: from a Vietnam Veterans Against the War-heavy focus on the minority of veterans who bitterly opposed to it to Jane Fonda in Hanoi, John Kerry’s Senate testimony, drug-addicted U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon Papers, My Lai, and extensive footage of South Vietnamese army (ARVN) troops retreating in Laos and initially in the Easter Offensive (although ARVN soldiers won that battle). The plurality of Americans still supporting the war, which in that period included most veterans, got little airtime. A viewer could easily ask whether Burns and Novick were describing the same country that gave Nixon an overwhelming victory in 49 states in the 1972 election.
Jeffrey’s criticism is spot on, but I admit to wondering at the time why this particular episode went off the guardrails of basic fairness when the others did not.
As it happens, around the time Jeffrey’s manuscript passed my editing block, into my office came a large, heavy book called The Vietnam War, written by Geoffrey C. Ward—a frequent Burns project collaborator over the years—which is one of two ancillary products to come from the decade-long project to produce the documentary’s 900 minutes of film (there is also a soundtrack album). The book is heavy laden with photographs, as well befits a text to a documentary based overwhelmingly, as it must be, on photos and archival video. But in addition to Ward’s text, a few of the chapters include short out-take essays by authors dubbed scholars. There is such an out-take essay accompanying Ward’s chapter nine, “Vietnam and the Movement,” written by Todd Gitlin. And so my wondering came to rest: I understood.
Like so many American protestors of the Vietnam War-era, Gitlin—a former national president of SDS—continues to insist that the antiwar movement was efficacious and noble. In his own words:
The movement helped bring down two war presidents, divide the political class, shatter its families, and upend public opinion. His polymorphous movement began on the fringes of American society, widened and deepened, and for all its frailties, contentions, and absurdities grew into a veto force that dampened the war and helped avert even more death and destruction. Such an achievement deserves not only understanding but awe.
I am in awe, but not the way Gitlin intends me to be. He speaks of bringing down two “war presidents,” but these men—Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon—were fairly and freely elected in a democratic process, and aside from being “war” Presidents they were also Presidents over the rest of U.S. public policy. Gitlin sounds proud that the antiwar movement destroyed their political careers, which is something of an overstatement, but you get the point. He sounds similarly proud to have been part of a movement that divided the American political class, as if that sort of division were a good thing for its own sake—a remarkable comment to make in contemporary circumstances. He is proud, too, it seems, of shattering families, which is not an overstatement. He saves for last the achievement of which he is most proud: upending public opinion.
He later adds the claim that the movement “helped prevent several catastrophic escalations, and contributed to extricating American troops and stopping the bombers.” Perhaps it did prevent a few escalations, but not all, and as Jeffrey makes clear, it was a few well-timed Nixonian escalations that created the pressure for the negotiations that inflected the course of the war and allowed for the extrication of American troops. But at the time, and still now, Gitlin thinks that the escalations that happened and those that did not happen were “catastrophic,” and that it was the movement that got the troops home. Without those escalations the troops would have stayed in theater longer, and more of them (not to mention more Vietnamese) would have been killed, not fewer.
Gitlin knows that not everyone agrees with him. He tells of running into Roger Hilsman years later and being doubted in his claims by this former Kennedy and Johnson Administration high official. Hilsman’s case, as Gitlin reports it, was not very seriously put; it had the feel of a quick-witted elevator conversation, not a reasoned argument. Nevertheless, Gitlin concludes his reportage by writing: “I stand by my original claim. The American antiwar movement . . . helped contain the war. . . . Had the movement been more clearheaded and less desperate, it might have achieved the same mission more quickly. No one will ever know, although we can make educated guesses.”
We can guess what Gitlin’s guesses are, but they’re wrong. He rues the anti-patriotic tenor of the radical protests, the carrying of North Vietnamese flags, the obscenity, and the violence. He thinks that, had these tactics been avoided in a more centralized and controlled movement, the movement’s efficacy would have emerged sooner. “Still, for all its burdens,”—think La Rochefoucauld—“the movement did restrain the war. It moved policy, though never as much as it wanted. . . . A war that had been so popular at first . . . was brought to an end with an impressive boost from popular action.”
Alas, while one can grant the nobility of the motives involved, Gitlin’s account is so wrong in so many ways that one barely knows where to start. To show his basic error, let us do something a bit unusual: deploy a different error.
Gitlin rues the fact that the movement was not better organized, centralized, and controlled. But James C. Scott argues that,
As Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward have convincingly shown for the Great Depression in the United States, protests by unemployed and workers in the 1930s, the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the welfare rights movement, what success the movements enjoyed was at their most disruptive, most confrontational, least organized, and least hierarchical.2
If that is correct, then the tactics Gitlin rues most were the ones that were the most efficacious, essentially by moving the Overton Window of permissible thought. If that is true, then the consequences of the movement Gitlin condemns, such as the Weathermen offshoot of SDS, are the consequences that matter most, and Gitlin, as an SDS president fueling the movement’s outrage, has to think of himself as an enabler of later events that included armed robbery and murder. But of course he doesn’t.
Pivin and Cloward may be correct about most of their “poor people’s movement” examples—my intuition tells me they are—but the antiwar movement was not a poor people’s movement, and they are flat wrong about it. Scott comes to the key point, but only a page and a half later: “Massive disruption and defiance can, under some conditions, lead directly to authoritarianism or fascism, rather than reform or revolution.”3
And that is exactly what happened, with a more temperate vocabulary, in the antiwar movement case. The more radical the tactics, the greater were what John Mueller called, way back in 1973, the “negative follower effect.”4 Just as the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so deeply off-putting protests tend to help the target of the protests in the wide but murky world of public opinion. In the case of the 1968 presidential election season, for example, it’s clear now as it was then that most people sided with the cops against the radical protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago—a fact that even Gitlin has elsewhere acknowledged. So Hubert Humphrey got the nomination, not Eugene McCarthy or Robert Kennedy, and he almost won. There is no way to prove it—another guess we must make—but it is likely that Humphrey did better than Bobby Kennedy would have and much better than McCarthy would have.
Of course, Nixon’s advantage in 1968 turned on more than just the tumultuous domestic politics of the Vietnam War; the backlash from desegregation, the rise of the black power movement, and the Black Panthers had plenty to do with it, as well—from whence his infamous dog-whistling “Southern strategy.” George Wallace ran for President on the same basis, and the anti-antiwar protests of the labor union-based “hard hats” had to choose between Nixon and Wallace. That turned out to be a lot of people, and a lot of voters.
Given all this, it is simply amazing that Gitlin et al. can still tell the story of American politics at the height of the antiwar movement and think that the movement, above all other factors, shoved public opinion into an antiwar tilt. The truth is that, especially at its most radical, the movement retarded the antiwar trajectory of public opinion thanks to the negative follower effect. Other factors were much more important: the plain reality that the war was not going well and that the military brass and the political class turned to lying about it; and the fact that President Johnson eventually lost faith in the war policy.
There can be no doubt that Johnson’s post-Tet Offensive, March 31, 1968 speech—in which he declared a partial halt in the bombing, expressed his willingness to negotiate with Hanoi, and took himself out of the coming presidential race—was the key turning point. As Mueller put it, even before the fall of Saigon in March 1975, basically the American people followed their leaders into war and, when those leaders changed their minds about the wisdom of what they were doing, followed them back out again. It was only after that great wave of reversal that the antiwar movement, when it had become far tamer and more organized, was able to constrain the war through its impact on Congress. This amounted to the piling on of an ant after more formidable life forms had already made the tackle.
As far as I know, Gitlin, in all his writings—especially his 1987 book The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage—never refers to the public opinion data set in the 1973 Mueller book. He certainly has never noted my 1995 book, Telltale Hearts: The Origin and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement, which set out this argument in detail. And as best I can tell, he has never acknowledged any of the mass of scholarship pointing in the same direction, some of it written early on, some of it written later: John P. Richardson’s “Balance Theory and Vietnam-Related Attitudes,” Social Science Quarterly (December 1970), and Richardson, “Public Reaction to Political Protest, Chicago 1968,” Public Opinion Quarterly (Spring 1970); E. M. Schreiber, “Antiwar Demonstrations and American Public Opinion on the War in Vietnam,” British Journal of Sociology (June 1976); Sidney Verba and Richard Brody, “Participation, Policy Preferences, and the War in Vietnam,” Public Opinion Quarterly (Fall 1970); William R. Berkowitz, “The Impact of Anti-Vietnam War Demonstrations upon National Public Opinion and Military Indicators,” Social Science Research (March 1973); Arthur H. Miller, “Political Issues and Trust in Government,” American Political Science Review (September 1974); Kenneth Heineman, “The Silent Majority Speaks: Antiwar Protest and the Backlash, 1965–1972,” Peace and Change, October 1992; and there is plenty more. Gitlin does cite in his Ward book essay Tom Wells’s 1994 volume The War Within, for which Gitlin wrote the forward, a book that itself cites none of this literature.
The Vietnam antiwar movement, regrettably, was counterproductive when in its most radical phase thanks to the much-documented negative follower effect, and fairly marginal to outcomes whilst in its less radical, more organizationally bound phase. The only argument for the movement’s policy efficacy that makes any sense is that by “shattering families,” President Johnson’s “wise men” exaggerated the influence of the antiwar movement because it most roiled their own social class and, indeed in some cases, their own families.5 But that is a far cry from claiming that the antiwar movement, above all else, determined the broad trends of public opinion on the war. Had that been true, as Ambassador Jeffrey implies, then George McGovern would have won 49 states in the 1972 election instead of losing 49 states. Gitlin—and so many others of his view—never comes to terms with this fact. Indeed, again so far as I am aware, he never even raises the question, except to inexplicably label McGovern “a sacrificial lamb” betrayed by the Democratic Party establishment in a curt remark on the last page of a chapter in his 1987 book.6 Had the antiwar movement actually accomplished what Gitlin claims it had, that label would make absolutely no sense.
Retro-wishful thinking cannot change anything about the world as it has actually been. At the same time, I know full well that nothing I or anyone else does can change the cherished youthful memories of the Sixties protest crowd, especially those who got started earlier in the genuinely heroic civil disobedience tactics of the Civil Rights movement. These para-religious efforts were personality-shapers for many, and so deeply entrenched in the bonds of personality do they remain that mere facts are helpless to generate even wisps of doubt, let alone serious reconsideration. As Walter Cronkite used to say, “and that’s the way it is,” still on November 30, 2017.
1In summary I refer to one essay and one book: “That Lousy War: Telltale Hearts: The Origin and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (Explaining Vietnam,” First Things, December 2000; St. Martin’s Press, 1995); and “Aftermyths of the Antiwar Movement,” Orbis, Fall 1995.
2James C. Scott, Two Cheers for Anarchism (Princeton University Press, 2012), p. xviii, citing Piven and Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (Vintage, 1978). Italics added.
3Scott, p. xix.
4Mueller, War, President, and Public Opinion (Wiley, 1973).
5Here see the masterful work of Herbert Schandler, Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam: The Unmaking of a President (Princeton University Press, 1977).
6Gitlin, The Sixties, p. 419.