R: Book Review: _Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of

Thu, 23 Oct 1997 11:30:27 EDT

I think quite a few on the list will find this of interest --complements of
the H-NET Discussion List for American Political History
From: H-Pol Editor Tom Wellock <wellock@cwu.EDU>
Subject: Book Review: _Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the
Vietnam Antiwar Movement.

Ted Morgan

Published by H-Pol@h-net.msu.edu

Adam Garfinkle. _Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the
Vietnam Antiwar Movement_. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1997.
xiii + 370 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $16.95 (paper), ISBN

Reviewed for H-Pol by Lloyd Gardner <lgardner@rci.rutgers.edu>,
Rutgers University

No End of the Madness

Adam Garfinkle tells us that it took him several years to "reduce my
thinking about the Vietnam antiwar movement to two words." What
nagged him for such a long time was that he needed to find the exact
reference to suggest that things "we believe to be dead and buried are
not as inert in our lives as we sometimes think" (p. ix). He found
what he was looking for in Edgar Allen Poe's short story
"masterpiece," "The Tell-Tale Heart." For those unfamiliar with Poe's
narrative, Garfinkle reminds us that a murderer has hidden his victim
beneath the floorboards. When the police come to investigate, the
murderer hears the tell-tale heart beating, louder and louder, until
he finally cannot stand it any longer and confesses. I confess that I
wonder if the time was well-spent searching for the title. "Dracula's
Children" might have served his purpose better, for it conveys the
notion of evil forces rising from the dark night after night, year
after year, to do all sorts of harm to the innocent.

Garfinkle's thesis reduced to a few more than two words is this: The
antiwar movement, despite a carefully cultivated mythology in some
academic circles, not only did not help to bring about an end to the
war, it actually slowed down the process by producing another
psychological reason for staying the course--and, as is common in
similar accounts, by encouraging the enemy. But the bulk of the book
is really about the aftermath of the war, and the pernicious influence
the antiwar movement has had on the nation's political life ever
since, particularly in the creation of an adversary culture that has
distorted the classical role of American liberalism, as defined in the
New Deal era. Thus one of the most famous historians of the antiwar
movement, the late Charles DeBenedetti, must be censured for buying
into--and then furthering--the notion that liberalism can be stretched
to include anti-communist socialists. Before Vietnam, _liberalism_,
argues Garfinkle, was a "legitimate" inside-the-mainstream term in
American political culture. In those years, a liberal was one who
accepted the "basic institutional arrangements of capitalism but would
use government to soften the social discontinuities of a private
economy." DeBenedetti and others have so blurred the definitions that
their work "is a measure of how far the liberal parts of the political
spectrum moved Left during the Vietnam War" (p. 308).

There are a number of troublesome issues here. There is, to begin
with, the problem of definitions. Today's liberal may have much in
common with yesterday's conservative, as the Clinton presidency might
suggest to some--or, conversely, with the once thought radical notion
of national health care, as the Clinton presidency might suggest to
others. I think that many readers will require a somewhat more
specific definition of the "basic institutional arrangements of
capitalism" before setting out to define what a liberal's role has
been in the past, or should be in the future. A second problem
concerns Garfinkle's apportioning of responsibility for the leftward
extension of the normal (?) political spectrum. Did the antiwar
movement cause this development, or are we to assign primary
responsibility to its chroniclers like DeBenedetti for legitimizing
the illegitimate? One concludes that DeBenedetti is, in Garfinkle's
view, at best, a misguided historian for accepting the antiwar
socialists as modern liberals, and, at worst, a willful agent of those
seeking to alter the "basic institutional arrangements of capitalism"
by allowing them to infiltrate the mainstream of American political
culture. Another historian of the antiwar protest movement, Mel Small,
also comes into sharp criticism for concluding, against all his own
evidence, that the movement was effective. He is faulted for writing
about Nixon aides becoming upset with the numbers of important
educational and cultural leaders rallying to the protest side of the
spectrum. Thus he, too, laid the foundations for a mythological
construction of the past that involved little more than "strained
conjecture" (p. 12). Professor Small's argument is somewhat more
sophisticated than Garfinkle's summations would suggest, however, for
it concerns the development of the "credibility gap," and posits the
impact of the antiwar movement in exaggerated claims about the light
at the end of the tunnel and the worthiness of the Saigon regime. It
is the strained nature of Garfinkle's argumentation about the
historians of the movement that provides a weak basis for the
remainder of this effort to conflate current think-tank conservatism
with reality.

Having disposed of the presumed mythmakers, Garfinkle sets out to
provide readers with a proper setting. He attempts to locate the
antiwar movement within other leftist expositions, finally concluding
that despite its eventual allegiance to an "authoritarian Marxist
spirit," it always "contained a deep streak of nativist North American
anarchism." Which is the operative word here--_nativist_ (as in
Richard Hofstadter's old charge against Populism) or _anarchism_? One
has often encountered the suggestion that the 1960s radicals had
something in common with nineteenth-century American utopians.
Emerson and Thoreau are sometimes mentioned as precursors. _Nativist_
is usually reserved, on the other hand, for a xenophobic trend in
nineteenth-century politics sometimes synonymous with splinter parties
such as the "Know-Nothings." When this is paired with _anarchism_, we
have a bit of a puzzler, for the author is presumably not talking
about the current para-military survival communities that dot the
Western hills in Idaho, but a historical trend. Most history texts
suggest that nativists and anarchists, while perhaps sharing a deep
suspicion of government, were otherwise opposites. Our problem is
somewhat lessened if we take Garfinkle's sentence to suggest
anarchists native to North America, but since this is, as one
commentator put it, "an intensely felt" book, such a relatively
neutral phrasing seems out of tune with the overall accusatory tone.

The tragedy of the Vietnam War was, Garfinkle argues, in large
measure, the result of faulty military strategy. It was, he insists,
"winnable within a reasonable definition of strategy" (p. 8). The
antiwar movement did not save lives; it "probably cost them" by
unwittingly abetting the paralysis of the Johnson Administration, and,
apparently, preventing it from casting off self-doubts and enunciating
a sound military strategy. It is far from clear how that scenario
plays out, however, for, on the one hand, Garfinkle argues that it was
the "intellectual frailty" of the military establishment that cost the
nation a victory, and, on the other, that both Johnson and Nixon
over-estimated the influence of the antiwar movement that led to
"irresolution and confusion." Presumably, the connection is the
faulty advice of the Wise Men in the wake of the Tet offensive. This
is rather an old argument, voiced by both Walt Rostow and Henry
Kissinger, to the effect that the "Establishment" lost its nerve in
the face of the Spock generation. The putative leader of the Wise
Men, Dean Acheson, was hardly one to be faced down by anyone, whether
Dean Rusk or Tom Hayden. He was, however, more than a little nervous
about the gold balances and the European situation in 1968, and, like
Clark Clifford, more than a little dubious about the Joint Chiefs
request for 200,000 more troops to "finish off" the defeated survivors
of the Tet debacle.

It is really crucial for Garfinkle to establish that the claims of the
antiwar movement that the war was not winnable, and a waste of lives,
are false. For on that proof depends the argument of the rest of the
book that the recombinant factions of the antiwar movement have
created the greatest danger to our society's well-being today,
"eco-anarchism, the new paradigm of American radicalism." In other
words, what was illegitimate yesterday cannot be legitimate today, and
will lead us to perdition. Readers will have to decide for themselves
if Garfinkle's case is persuasively stated, resting as it does upon
the sins of the historians of the antiwar movement. For the remainder
of the book is basically a Cold Warrior's celebration of how the
Reagan-Bush Administrations gave the Russkies a dose of their own
medicine by inverting the situation and aiding the peoples fighting an
over-extended "evil empire" in such Third World places as Afghanistan.
Some people, he notes disapprovingly, recognizing that the
Reagan-Bush bark was often stronger than its bite, have called the
1980s foreign policy "Detente III." But that was not so. The real
way in which the antiwar movement helped to end the Cold War he
suggests, is by electing Richard Nixon twice--and, therefore,
producing discredited Detentes I and II, which, in turn got Reagan
elected with all the elements of the old Democratic coalition behind
him. Out of such convoluted logic emerges the perils of
eco-anarchism--and its allies among radical feminists and other
groups. "When the next political crisis strikes, it could well
explode into prominence--it could even launch a successful third party
bid for national office if the two main parties cannot find a way to
co-op t it first.... Like its precursors, it too is a search for the
sacred" (p. 296). Religion is indeed an important theme here.
Garfinkle thanks Richard John Neuhaus for grasping the central points
of the book. The true heroes are the repenters. Throughout the book
runs a brooding "True Confessions" threnody to which Garfinkle
constantly repairs, making the real heroes of the antiwar movement
those who have fully repented, such as Eugene Genovese, David
Horowitz, Peter Collier--and (inevitably in such a sel-parodying book)
Adam Garfinkle himself, who, by his own statements really was only on
the fringes. All the guiltier, it appears, for not having abandoned
the faith of the fathers sufficiently so as to deserve to be truly
forgiven today. Only when "we" accept the ironies of an antiwar
movement that prolonged the war and produced such monstrosities as the
eco-anarchists, he writes, "will we ever forgive ourselves for what we
have said and done to each other these many long years." To which,
"Amen" is the only appropriate ending.

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[The book review editor for H-Pol is Lex Renda <renlex@csd.uwm.edu>]