America at War: Tracking the editorial path of a magazine and nation in conflict

Paris, spring, 1954. Berlioz’s “Requiem” echoes over public address systems throughout the streets of a city in mourning. Dien Bien Phu, France’s last fortress in Vietnam, has fallen to the Communist Viet Minh. It was the end of an empire. Thousands of miles away, in the old townhouse on 108th Street in New York, the editors of America took note. As a college student studying abroad in France, I had no idea I would one day join them in considering the issues of the day.

Over the next 20 years, the editors would wrestle with topics like the Second Vatican Council, birth control, the “new breed” of young people and campus riots; but the most divisive issue the staff had to deal with was the Vietnam War. In July 1954 representatives from the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, China, France and North and South Vietnam were finishing weeks of meetings in Geneva, seeking the peaceful reunification of “Indochina.” The Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the 17th Parallel, with the understanding that the nation would be reunited following a general election in 1956. This general election never took place. In the south, the new Republic of Vietnam elected its own premier, Ngo Dinh Diem, while Ho Chi Minh, who had at one time hoped for United States support, established a Communist government in the north that would pursue a guerilla war in the south.

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In those years the magazine staff included 15 resident Jesuits plus some Jesuit correspondents around the world. Along with Vincent S. Kearney, S.J., and Benjamin L. Masse, S.J., who had visited Vietnam and were the most outspoken on the topic, some of the memorable personalities included the editor in chief, Thurston N. Davis, S.J., a brilliant stylist with a doctorate in classics from Harvard; John LaFarge, S.J., pioneer of interracial justice; Francis Canavan, S.J., a sharp-tongued conservative; Robert A. Graham, S.J., defender of Pope Pius XII; and C. J. McNaspy, S.J., a polymath, music expert and admired friend of many younger Jesuits, whose careers he encouraged.

The accords, wrote Father Kearney in “Vietnam after Geneva” (Am., 9/11/54), left the north’s Communists with a considerable advantage. With its long common frontier with China, men and arms were easily smuggled across the border. The Communists were winning the ideological battle; during the day they played the role of the “loyal, peaceful farmer,” but at night they arose from the rice paddies to hide mines in roads and harass the French. Father Masse, in “The Revolt in Vietnam” (11/26/60), reported that the South Vietnamese were growing dissatisfied with Mr. Diem because he appointed members of his family to high office and allowed no free expression or parliamentary opposition—in fact, he was a dictator. Yet Mr. Diem, said Father Masse, was an incorruptible patriot, a philosopher pondering the metaphysical base of Asian democracy.

The editors of America saw Vietnam as a religious war that divided the country. Some citizens viewed the righteous United States as the “city on a hill,” while others believed that the nation was losing its soul in the war’s waste of human life. In May 1963 Mr. Diem sent troops to quell a Buddhist demonstration in the city of Hue, where his brother, Ngo Dinh Thuc, was bishop. The soldiers reportedly fired into the crowds, killing several protestors, including children. Unrest spread to Saigon. The magazine knew it could not defend all of Mr. Diem’s policies, but it fell back on its standard arguments: Mr. Diem’s enemies are Communists; his faults are exaggerated. Finally: He is all we have.

The Coup

The assassination on Nov. 1, 1963, of both Mr. Diem and his brother and unofficial advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, prompted an editorial that asserted that were it not for Mr. Diem, all of Vietnam would now be ruled from Communist Hanoi. The editors did acknowledge that Mr. Diem sacrificed freedom of expression in order to win the war: “Maybe he was wrong. Maybe he was right. We’re soon going to find out” (11/16/63).

But another political assassination soon distracted America from troubles in Vietnam. Father Davis used his Of Many Things column to link international and domestic sadness following the death of President John F. Kennedy. “What that long last week of November left us was an immemorial ache,” he wrote. “Indeed, the whole earth ached, as the messages we publish in this issue prove.” An editorial, “Power and Responsibility,” concluded: “When our president falls, the world trembles. We cannot longer pretend that our affairs are ours alone.” Adding to the sadness in the office was the fact that Father LaFarge, two days after the assassination of Mr. Kennedy, lay down to read the paper and died in his sleep.

In April 1964, while finishing its 55th year of publication and with a circulation of over 90,000, the America staff moved into its current quarters at 106 West 56th Street in Manhattan. For most of the following year the magazine continued to argue that Mr. Diem had been good for Vietnam; that the Buddhists played Hanoi’s game; that Catholics were being persecuted.

The editors cheered President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “plastering North Vietnam’s PT-boat flotilla” after engagements at sea with a U.S. destroyer in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1965. Mr. Johnson used post-Tonkin authority granted by Congress to greatly expand the war. By the end of 1968, Mr. Johnson had completed “Operation Rolling Thunder,” a prolonged aerial bombing campaign, and had built up troop strength to 536,000. By then nearly 40,000 U.S. service members had died in battle.

At home the peace movement manifested itself in several forms—”teach-ins,” full-page newspaper ads and acts of civil disobedience, like burning draft cards. None of these “actions” won the magazine’s approval. An editor’s commentary scorns a letter to President Johnson that appeared as an advertisement in The New York Times with the heading, “In the Name of God, STOP IT!” The letter was signed by 2,500 priests, ministers and rabbis. America called it “sentimental clamor” that will please the Communists.

New Voices

Another view began to break into the pages of America after the appearance of an interview by Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J., the magazine’s book editor, with the novelist Morris West, whose novel, The Ambassador, was loosely based on Mr. Diem. Mr. West describes the Diem family as “intransigent Catholics out of the Middle Ages.” Mr. West himself was “turning away from militant crusades against communism.” More significant was John C. Bennett’s “Christian Realism in Vietnam,” (8/30/66), which stated boldly, “We need to see first of all that we are involved in acts of inhumanity that are morally intolerable.” Mr. Bennett advised Americans to abandon the obsessive belief that a Communist regime was the worst fate that could come to any country. In June 1967 signs of soul searching surfaced. In “Of Many Things,” Father Davis asks a dozen friends, including a bishop and five priests, the same question: “Should we get out?”

One respondent, John Deedy, an editor at Commonweal, says the United States is on an “unjust and foolhardy mission…almost genocide.” Yet a Sept. 23 editorial still attempts to explain why the United States is in Vietnam. We are there, it argues, “to prevent 17 million Vietnamese from being swallowed up by a voracious and aggressive communism. We are not there to nourish the feeble roots of democracy.” But within a few months, as both the casualties and the tide of resistance to the war rise, critics introduce a new element to the moral equation: Is the moral cost proportionate to the political means?

‘Our Human Brothers’

Today American Catholics remember 1968 as a turning point. That turbulent year included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the riots at the Demo-cratic Convention in Chicago, the escalation of the Vietnam War and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which effectively alienated a great part of the generation with its ban on birth control. In the mid-1960s the national Catholic press became more aware of the moral issues raised by the war. In 1965 Commonweal gave increasing support to anti-war demonstrators, and by December 1966 its editors declared, “The United States should get out of Vietnam.”

The National Catholic Reporter in January 1968 declared, “The war in Vietnam is now clearly immoral.” Just a month before, the editors of U. S. Catholic condemned the Vietnam War as immoral, arguing napalm and carpet bombings were killing combatants and non-combatants alike, that the killing was brutalizing the killers and that the country’s growing involvement in Vietnam polarized the American people and squandered national resources.

That same month, an editorial in America suggested that a bombing halt, which the bishops of South Vietnam had requested, would lead to the conference table, but adds, “It is time the peace movement stopped being an apologist for Hanoi and became relevant.” In this context a landmark article by John McLaughlin, S.J., an associate editor, raised blood pressure and eyebrows. Titled “A Bombing Pause?” (1/27/68), it begins: “We are fast approaching a critical juncture in the Vietnam war which calls for an unconditional pause in the bombing of the North.” The pause will reduce the suffering of the North Vietnamese: “Although we are warring with these people, they are our human brothers.”

But the vapors of peace were blown away by the Tet Offensive at the end of January, when the Viet Cong—taking advantage of tunnels, hidden trails and the hospitality of local allies—suddenly appeared all over the south, including at the gates of the American Embassy in Saigon. The attack began during “Tet,” the Vietnamese New Year’s celebration when many presumed an unofficial ceasefire would be observed. Technically the U.S. side “won,” inflicting heavy losses on North Vietnamese regulars and Viet Cong, but back home, the nation suffered a psychological trauma that would not heal.

On May 11, 1968, Father Davis passed the editorial baton to Donald R. Campion, S.J., a 46-year-old sociologist. He inherited a staff of 13 Jesuits who, over the next few years, would split in three directions on Vietnam policy: continued all-out support for the government; general support with moral reservations; a moral conclusion that the war was unjust and must end immediately.

Gradually, critical views gained print space. Father Davis, who had been my dean at Fordham University in New York, brought me in as a summer editor in 1965 and gave me a column for several years. Because my father was a World War I hero and I had spent two years in the army in Germany, I struggled with the idea that my country could be so terribly wrong. I covered the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968, the one that disintegrated into riots between Chicago police and thousands of young anti-war demonstrators. I got tear-gassed and witnessed an angry police officer pound his fist into the groin of a young man he was dragging off a Civil War statue. When I confronted him, he screamed that I should “go to Vietnam.”

Because the Rev. Michael V. Gannon, a history professor at the University of Florida, thought no one should write about war without experiencing it, he went to Vietnam and listened to front-line troops for a month. He wrote, in “Up Tight in Vietnam” (8/31/68), that most troops were as confused and disheartened by the war as people back home. One described his motivations as staying alive, helping his buddies stay alive and getting “the hell out of here.” Worst of all, said a Protestant chaplain, so many enjoy killing. In their late night conversations they roar with laughter as they tell how they zapped a “gook” in the belly. “What are we doing with these young men?” he asked.

Jesuits in Jail

Some Jesuits felt compelled to oppose the war, even if that meant breaking the law. The activities of Daniel Berrigan, S.J., led to his short exile in Latin America, which the National Catholic Reporter claimed—and America denied—was occasioned by the hierarchy’s intervention. Father Berrigan also traveled to Hanoi to pick up prisoners whom the Communists had agreed to release. He described his visit in an interview. Then in May 1968, nine activists, including Father Berrigan, invaded the draft board at Catonsville, Md., burning draft records in the parking lot.

In the editorial on the trial and conviction of the Catonsville Nine, the editors confessed the divisions among themselves but agreed on certain points: that the Selective Service Act should be reformed to allow for selective conscientious objection and that the defendants had a right to dissent. But had one the right to confront the consciences of others in a way that denies the others’ freedom? No. The editors’ conclusion: The nine chose the wrong means to dissent.

The following year the Chicago 15 pulled a similar draft card raid. “What to Do About Joe Mulligan?” (9/20/69), by James C. Fleck, S.J., concerned one of them, the 27-year old Joseph Mulligan, a Jesuit scholastic, not yet ordained, from Detroit. Father Fleck interviewed a selection of Mr. Mulligan’s fellow Jesuits. It was clear that the Justice Department would try, convict and imprison Mr. Mulligan. But what would the Jesuits do? Should they pay for his defense? James O’Connor, S.J., a professor of canon law, was against Mr. Mulligan’s actions and did not want him ordained, but the order is a family and the family must pay for the defense. Robert Hartnett, S.J., a political scientist best known as the America editor who stood up to the Communist-hunter Senator Joseph McCarthy, said, “If he wanted to act that way, he should not have joined the Society.”

Meanwhile Robert F. Drinan, S.J., the Boston College Law School dean who was about to run for Congress in 1970, toured Vietnam. In “Political Freedom in Vietnam” (6/28/69), he revealed that the Thieu-Ky administration had imprisoned at least 20,000 persons “because of their non-Communist opposition to the Saigon regime.” Father Drinan ran for Congress on his opposition to the war. He served five terms, until 1980 when Pope John Paul II demanded his removal, partly because the pope opposed priests in political positions but mainly because Father Drinan favored legalized abortion. Father McLaughlin ran for the U.S. Senate from Rhode Island, without permission from his Jesuit superiors. He lost, left the Jesuits, became a speechwriter for Richard Nixon and now hosts a conservative talk show, “The McLaughlin Group” on television. Father Joe Mulligan does pastoral work in Christian base communities in Nicaragua. He recently wrote to America urging it to cease publishing ads for military chaplaincies.

Turning Point

The 1969 editorial year ended with the My Lai massacre. The editors wonder if Americans have lost the ability to mourn massacred people. Has human emotion become another casualty of the war?

If there is a clear turning point in America’s attitude about the war, it is perceivable in the editorial, “Easter and the American Conscience” (4/10/71). “What we must do is ask ourselves about our complicity.” We are responsible for the subculture that has produced the Charles Manson murders, it argues, and the decision to carry the brutal Vietnam War forward. As Easter is a call for new life for the repentant, it means we must end our Vietnam involvement as soon as possible, the editors wrote. The loss of innocent life “has mounted beyond the point of any possible proportionate gain in the name of justice.”

Finally, Msgr. Marvin Bordelon, director of the Department of International Affairs for the U.S. Catholic Conference (now the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops), cuts through the “gobbledegook” of the U.S. bishops’ November statement on the war (1/8/72). For some, he writes, the statement means: “Further U.S. involvement in the Southeast Asia war is clearly immoral.” Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit says anyone who agrees with the bishops “may not participate in the war.” New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan disagrees. Msgr. Bordelon sides with Bishop Gumbleton. He says continuation of the war is “unjust and morally indefensible.”

By spring 1972 America proposes amnesty for draft resisters in jail and those who have fled the country; the Paris peace talks have resumed; and a sweep of battle victories has strengthened North Vietnam’s hand. At a May editorial meeting, winning, in the traditional sense of the word, is no longer considered a possibility. At best, the United States might deny the Vietnamese Communists a clear military victory, but it cannot guarantee South Vietnam an enduring peace. Still the editors write that further military involvement is no longer “politically or morally acceptable.”

The final shock, two months after Henry Kissinger stated that “peace is at hand,” comes when the Nixon administration orders the Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong, the “most sustained and devastating aerial attack ever launched against a foe in any two-week period in history.” America says there is no possible justification for such brutality.

On April 30, 1975, the lead tank of the North Vietnam army smashes through the gates of the Saigon government palace. The president, Duong Van Minh, surrenders. American helicopters lift U.S. embassy staff and others from the roof.

Learning from the Past

Twenty years after President Minh’s surrender, Vietnam was beautiful, prosperous and at peace. In Hanoi I visit the embalmed Ho Chi Minh in his air-conditioned tomb. In the Saigon war crimes museum a guillotine represents the French rule. In a photo, a G.I. proudly displays as a trophy the shredded head, shoulder and left arm of a Viet Cong soldier blown to bits by a grenade.

In the cathedral I pay my respects at the open coffin of the 84-year-old bishop of Saigon. No sound of Berlioz’s “Requiem.” On this day I take as my own a 1966 quote from the New York Times war correspondent Neil Sheehan: “I simply cannot help worrying that, in the process of waging this war, we are corrupting ourselves.... And I hope that we will not, in the name of some anti-Communist crusade, do this again.”

Listen to an interview with Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.

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Cynthia Pon
4 years 8 months ago
Thank you for this frank chronicle of how the America Magazine grappled with the realities of war, with the sometimes murky line between belief and ideology, and with conscience. It's a lesson we are still learning as the nation (and Catholics) remain deeply divided over political, economic and ethical issues - issues that ultimately have to do with life and death.
Christopher Rushlau
4 years 8 months ago
I wonder if the writer read Sheehan's "A Bright Shining Lie" about the Vietnam War. In it Sheehan reports (page 138 of the Vintage paperback), "Eisenhower acknowledged in 1954 that if a free election should be held in North and South Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh would win 80 percent of the vote as the father of the country in the eyes of most Vietnamese." In the current memorials for the invasion of Iraq, I'm not seeing a word that my participation in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2004 tells me belongs there: racism. I don't see that word in this Vietnam War retrospective today (although the phrase "pioneer in interracial justice" caught my eye). Would that word tread on the toes of enthusiasts of Israel, "the Jewish state"? If so, what have you learned? Another historical point: the US naval ship was dropping off saboteurs for attacks on the north when Vietnamese patrol boats challenged it. I adopt the usage of "Vietnamese" for the northern regime on that assumption of Eisenhower. In the same vein, we should judge Hezbullah the legitimate government of Lebanon since Shias are the majority of the population and the other Shia party, Amal, co-habits with the minority-Christian warlords and the Saudi-dominated Sunni minority (under the "Taef Accord" which gives this Christian minority half the seats in Parliament--can you imagine a single Muslim agreeing to that "accord"?). And we should judge Palestinians to be the proper electors of the government of mandate/historical Palestine, including those refugees refused return by the Israeli regime, simply because they outnumber Jewish residents (not to say there are not Jewish Palestinians, which there are). Iran is a harder question, with this "supreme leader", but opinion polls indicate that the elected government deserves that adjective. So, racism and popular government. Is the Church, in the widest sense of the word, nothing but a device for some self-designated elite to manage ("hold in the hand") the public against its own interests? Is God, that is, only the magic word by which people are asked to reject the evidence of their senses, the first report of which is that we are all equally responsible as what Karl Rahner called "[h]earers of the word"? My motto here is that we all need each other. I think some anger is called for here.
Kurt Chismark
4 years 6 months ago
I was confused by two points made at the end of "EDITORIAL - Vietnam Postscript" (3/25): 1) "America was unable to appreciate well enough and early enough what was truly at stake." No doubt, true. But why does America give this seemingly lofty impression that they should have been the publication with the wisdom and vision to have all the policy answers on this complex, disturbing time in American history? 2) "America asks for forgiveness for what we have done and for what we have failed to do . . ." Where did America say they were sorry or apologize? They didn't. The editors "acted in good faith and good conscience," just as most of us in the US did back then, regardless of our differences. So where does "forgiveness" come in? I'm confused. This suggestion that we pray for the people of the United States to "be imbued with a 'burning sense of contrition and a renewed purpose to do better as a people' is not limited to just us-- we pray always for ALL peoples of the world. Kurt Chismark Nevada City, CA

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