Several times recently I have settled down to read about myself only to come away disappointed. I am not referring here to the many books and articles (okay, one or two) in which I am mentioned, but instead to somber essays about people who were opposed to the Vietnam War. I do not recognize myself among them.
The latest description of me and people like me was written by U.N. ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and appeared in a Washington Post essay about Central America entitled, "This Time We Know What's Happening." (Wanna bet?)
In it, Kirkpatrick concocts war critics who thought the Viet Cong had nothing to do with the North Vietnamese, considered them both to be "agrarian reformers," thought their victory would bring to South Vietnam the democracy it so sorely lacked and saw no connection between events in Vietnam and anywhere else in the world.
To be sure, some people believed this and some, to their regret, even wrote along these lines. Critics of the critics like to cite Frances FitzGerald's book, Fire In The Lake, which won numerous prizes, including the Pulitzer, and which contains a penultimate sentence that hangs from FitzGerald's reputation like a dead fish: "It (a communist victory) will simply mean that the moment has arrived for the narrow flame of revolution to cleanse the lake of Vietnamese society from the corruption and disorder of the American war."
FitzGerald, faced with what is today a distinctly uncleansed and oppressive Vietnam, would probably like to rewrite that sentence in much the same way that former Secretary of State Dean Rusk would like to reconsider his oft-repeated contention that China was behind the Vietnam War. (China and Vietnam, having never read Rusk, went to war in 1979 and have been fighting again recently.) It seems, mistakes were made on both sides--some, like a secretary of state's, mattering more than others.
In fact, what mattered to my kind of war critic at the time had nothing to do with FitzGerald and everything to do with Rusk. Not only could we not discern a compelling American interest in the outcome of the war, but even assuming there was one, it appeared the United States was powerless to achieve it. For those reasons, we were against Americans killing people in Vietnam and getting killed there themselves. After that, everything else is beside the point.
But it is not beside the point to ask why that rather simple argument is twisted and/or ignored by Kirkpatrick and others. And since these are the same people who did not get the point during Vietnam and not, it seems, after Vietnam, there is some reason to wonder whether we are going to have to go through the same exercise all over again. Not only would this be hard on us, but it would be even harder on others--at one time the Vietnamese and now, maybe, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans.
For the United States, the issue with Central America, as it was with Vietnam, is not whether things will get better or worse for the people who live there, but whether there is (1) a compelling U.S. interest in the region and (2) whether the U.S. can make a difference. The quality of their life, unfortunately, runs a distant third.
That sounds cynical, but the truth is that we do not go around the globe simply making things better for people. We did not topple Idi Amin and we did nothing to the Argentines when they silenced dissident nuns by throwing them out of airplanes. We do nothing now to the Iranians nor to the Syrians nor, of course, to Jesse Helms's pals in South Africa. Tell me, is Nicaragua worse than South Africa?
The answer, of course, is no--or not so that it matters. What does matter, though, is this attempt by proponents of intervention in Central America to disqualify their critics by reaching back to Vietnam to demolish arguments the critics never made. The question in Vietnam was never the quality of life, but whether Vietnam was worth the lives of Americans. If Kirkpatrick, not to mention the president, still thinks the answer was yes, then we really do have something in common with authoritarian regimes in Central America. We are both in trouble.