War of Words: The editors' evolving perspectives on Vietnam

The editorial is by tradition an anonymous literary art form; it speaks for an institution, not the individual at the typewriter or computer. But editorials are written by people—usually with a strong point of view and some expertise in the topic at hand. Thurston N. Davis, S.J., editor in chief of America during the period that included the Vietnam War, once wrote a short essay in which he claimed that he could always tell which New York Times editorials were written by Herbert Matthews, famous as a correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, by how often the metaphor “keeping the lid on” was employed.

The “beat” covered by the associate editor Vincent Kearney, S.J., included the Middle East, Far East and Africa, so chances are high that he set the magazine’s Vietnam policy. Daniel L. Flaherty, S.J., managing editor at the time, told me recently, however, that the editors’ reactions to the war were usually centered on what the president or a prominent official said and did, rather than on an examination of broader issues. This would apply also, I think, to the tendency to focus on a handful of newsmakers and reporters for praise or blame. These excerpts exemplify some themes of the 20 years between 1954 and 1974.

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Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.

“Our Stake in Indo-China” (4/10/54) was inspired by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles’ address at the Overseas Press Club on March 29, 1954, shortly after the agreement that divided North and South Vietnam. America felt Dulles’ speech prepared the American people psychologically for the possibility of a deeper United States involvement in another Asian ground war.

. . .

On the whole, Mr. Dulles’ clarification provided a direct answer to pleadings in this and other journals for a clear-cut statement of where the United States stands on the question of Indo-China. Only by proclaiming to the Soviet bloc that we have a stake in Southeast Asia and that we will defend it no matter what the “risk” can we argue at Geneva from a position of strength.

. . .

Fog Over Vietnam” (3/7/64) was in response to what it considered “equivocation” in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s speeches about when the present troops in Vietnam could be withdrawn and to the less than militant commitment of Senator Mike Mansfield, Democrat of Montana. America restated what its own clear position had always been.

If the American people are confused over our policy in Southeast Asia, we cannot say we blame them. Amid the statements and counterstatements, the proposals and counterproposals, that are flying thick and fast out of Washington, we ourselves confess to a certain mystification. At times we have wondered whether the government itself knows what it wants....

In these circumstances of divided counsel, the next move of the Administration came as no surprise. As though aware that spokesmen, official and otherwise, were flying off in all directions, Washington announced the formation on February 24 of an “interagency committee” to co-ordinate U. S. policy and U. S. operations in South Vietnam. The move begged one all-important question: What was the policy to be co-ordinated?

As if in answer, certain elements of the press began launching a new trial balloon. The syndicated columnist Joseph Alsop and Max Frankel, Washington correspondent of the New York Times, for example, more than hinted at decisions brewing in Washington to “escalate” the war by carrying it into Communist-held North Vietnam. The time had come to give the Reds a dose of their own medicine.

There will doubtless be arguments for and against accepting the dangers inherent in “escalating” the war. Nevertheless, a decision one way or another cannot be made without a precise formulation of policy in Washington. As a start, we suggest that the Administration cut through the developing fog and restate our original purpose in South Vietnam.

This Review has been under the impression for a long time that we are in South Vietnam because at that point of the globe a militant, expansionist communism poses a crucial, front-line threat to the security of the free world. In that sense, Messrs. McNamara and Mansfield notwithstanding, South Vietnam’s war is our war. In our opinion, the sooner we return to thinking of that war in those terms, rather than as a futile, frustrating, pointless fight (which is just what the Communists want us to think), the sooner shall we be able to mount a successful campaign. The sooner, too, will the American people be prepared to accept whatever sacrifices may be involved.

. . .

“Peace Demonstrations” (10/30/65) examined a now accepted ritual that was just then taking shape. America consistently interpreted these events not as expressions of informed conscience but as giving comfort to the enemy. Within a few years Jesuit priests would be destroying draft records.

During World War I, it was commonly supposed that wars start because the people are not consulted. For a certain brief period, the idea of “democratic control of foreign policy” was considered the magic key to lasting peace. Why should not the people have a direct say in whether their sons are to kill and be killed? Both reflection and experience soon made it clear that the vital interests of the country cannot be safely left to the instinctive reactions of well-intentioned but usually ill-informed millions, but must be confided to the responsible judgment of the duly elected representatives of the people. In some cases—in the 1930’s, for example—popular pacifism encouraged expansionist aggressors to gamble on a cheap and quick victory over a defenseless and unaided neighbor.

It is hard to deny to the peace demonstrators of mid-October their right to register in public whatever disagreement they may have with current U. S. policy in Vietnam. Theoretically, this falls within their prerogative guaranteed in the Bill of Rights “peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” Yet there are aspects of the demonstrations that cause profound uneasiness and concern. This was not the harmless exercise of the right of appeal through constitutional channels. It had all the earmarks of a planned propaganda effort of dubious and suspect origin, whose real purpose was not so much to influence U. S. policy as to arouse world opinion against it. President Johnson is rightly shaken by the misleading and dangerous impression these demonstrations can convey abroad, particularly in Hanoi. The highly publicized and synchronized excursions through many cities across the nation could easily generate the illusion that a profound difference of opinion exists in the country. This could only encourage the Vietcong in their resistance, and cost more American lives. We fully share the indignation of Congressmen and others who deplore this “stab in the back” inflicted on young Americans who honorably answered their country’s call and risk their lives today in far-off Vietnam—ironically, in order that demonstrators at home can continue to enjoy their constitutional right to march and to picket.

War is cruel. We need not glorify the conflict in Vietnam or indulge in outpourings of patriotic enthusiasm in order to justify it. This is a grim duty that a great nation must face up to as the price of its own liberty and the liberty of all nations. Those who, in addition to peaceably demonstrating, embark on a program to sabotage the Selective Service are entitled to no support. The law provides adequately and scrupulously for the rights of conscientious objectors. The destruction of a draft card is not the exercise of a right of conscience in any sense recognized by the Constitution. It is rather a gesture of contempt under which the card-destroyers live and whose benefits they are otherwise glad to share in. Their motives may be sincere, but their actions must be roundly condemned.

. . .

“The Heart of the Matter in Vietnam” (2/26/66) was a stark demonstration of the clarity with which the editors saw the conflict. George F. Kennan, former ambassador to the Soviet Union and author of the “containment” policy, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against further escalation of the war. Below is the second half of America’s long reaction to his testimony.

None of this, however, prevents Mr. Kennan from questioning our involvement in South Vietnam. Is it “necessarily the duty of the United States of America,” he asks, to guarantee freedom everywhere? “There are more instances of oppression and abuse of power in the world,” he believes, “than the United States alone can ever hope to remedy, and some of them are closer to home than Vietnam.”

Those who so argue that the United States should play a limited role in world affairs seem to be ready to sacrifice such nations as South Vietnam, albeit unwillingly, to the demands of power politics. Let the world be divided, they seem to be saying, into spheres of Communist and non-Communist influence, even though, in the case of South Vietnam, as Mr. Kennan stated at the Senate hearings, Communist domination would be “morally unwarranted.” Are we to conclude that morality has no place in the world of power politics?

Pressed to its logical conclusion, this position invites questions that John J. Roche, former national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), raises in an article recently written for the Detroit News. “In this spirit, which is profoundly conservative in the psychological sense,” says Mr. Roche disapprovingly, “an American can argue that the game in Asia is not worth the candle. What difference does it make in the over-all balance of power whether South Vietnam is inside or outside the Communist sphere? ... Why get involved in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing? More broadly, what difference does it make if the Afrikaners butcher the Bantu, the Arabs overrun the Israelis or the Chinese crush India?”

True, this is probably a caricature of the Kennan position. Still, if this nation were seeking a rationale to justify our disengagement not only from Asia but from Africa and Europe as well, the Kennan approach would provide it. Sen. Stuart Symington (D., Mo.) saw the implications when, during the Foreign Relations Committee hearings, he asked Mr. Kennan if he would advocate U. S. withdrawal from Europe.

As the controversy over our involvement in South Vietnam gets hotter, the American people should be prepared to ask and answer for themselves such questions as these. For the central issue in Vietnam is not whether to escalate or de-escalate, whether to bomb supply lines in the North or not bomb supply lines in the North, whether to accept the Vietcong as a legitimate political entity or not, but whether we are right and the Communists are wrong. And if we are right, whether we can still bring ourselves, as Mr. Roche puts it, “to turn 15 million South Vietnamese over to the terror regime in Hanoi.”

. . .

“Sheep in the Meadow” (4/29/67) was, for better or worse, a consequence of the America staff’s location only three blocks from Central Park. If I read this comment correctly, the author did not approve of androgynous hippies in bell bottom trousers, beads and purple pants. He did approve of the Vietnam War.

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On the morning of Spring Mobilization Day, April 15, crowds jammed the Sheep Meadow in New York’s Central Park to shape up for the massive march to UN headquarters that would protest U. S. involvement in Vietnam. The vast “be-in” made the meadow swing. On one rocky knoll, an excited cluster of draft-card burners were dropping their cards into tin-can incinerators. Near them, on a ridge up under some trees, a stand was doing a smart business in “revolutionary books”—items ranging from Marx to Mao and Che Guevara plus sundry reprints from Ramparts magazine. On a neighboring knoll, a “Red Guard” Maoist contingent had mounted festoons of Vietcong flags on a big scaffold and were cheering as they sent a smaller flag aloft on a gas balloon. Down in the soggy valley below the two knolls, a band of bearded and painted members of the Obscene Anarchist International (“We’re only doing our thing,” said their mimeographed handout, spangled with four-letter words) were making large black anarchist flags. One was feeding cheese to a baby.

The smell of roast bananas was in the air, and hundreds of buttons marked “Banana Power” extolled the virtues of the newest psychedelic. Androgynous hippies wore bells, beads, purple pants, Viet peasant hats and a wide variety of buttons with such legends as “Sterilize L.B.J.—No More Ugly Children” or “R.I.P.—L.B.J.” Several floats loaded with sculptured dead babies or bloody doll bodies were wheeled into line. A woman wore a hat on which seven naked dolls replaced the usual Easter flowers. A maypole fell into formation behind a float carrying huge caricatures of Mr. Johnson, Mr. Rusk, Mr. McNamara, Senator Dirksen and Cardinal Spellman, all pictured as hawks and vultures. The New York Communist party marched with the tightest formation of any group and sang the lustiest. At the head of the section marked “Religious Groups” walked a man dressed as a priest, arm in arm with a woman in a bright mini-mini-skirt. All the really “in” people carried or wore a daffodil. This practice is thought of as a show of “flower power.”

Though the disciplined Communists, the Maoists and the assorted beatnik groups were so numerous and prominent, there were many other thousands of quieter people in the long file to UN Plaza. Quakers and Ethical Culturists: trainloads from cities like Cleveland, Washington and Chicago; some academicians in caps and gowns; teachers and social workers; a handful of ministers, priests and nuns; groups from Catholic and secular college campuses. A prominent Catholic monsignor walked at the head of the march with his arm locked into that of Rev. Martin Luther King. There were a number of Negroes on hand, but the turnout from Harlem was extremely light. It seemed as though the Negro community as a whole was not willing to go along with Dr. King’s unfortunate new strategy of wedding the civil rights movement to the protest for peace in Vietnam.

At the end of the day, the rain came pouring down on the crowd, and Sanitation Department trucks moved along after the last straggling band of “unaffiliated” artists and writers. Men worked late that night cleaning the streets of Manhattan.

. . .

“Easter and the American Conscience” (4/10/71), written, according to penciled initials on documents in the archives, by Donald Campion, S.J., then an associate editor, marked a turning point in America’s perception of the war, prompted, oddly, by the confluence of two famous murder cases: the murders led by Charles Manson in California, and the slaughter, under the command of Lieut. William L. Calley Jr., of most of the inhabitants of a village in Vietnam. But it was also Easter, and the editor had to write about the meaning of the resurrection.

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For the Christian, Easter is the celebration of Christ’s Resurrection, the affirmation of His victory over death and sin, the prelude to His entrance into judgment over all men. Lent, the six weeks preceding this most sacred of Christian holy days, is for the individual Christian a period of scrutiny, pruning and a purifying awareness of having fallen short of his calling and commitment. The end of Lent and the dawn of Easter, this year, provide American Christians with a unique occasion for profound examination of conscience, a burning sense of contrition and a renewed purpose to do better as a people.

The occasion arose from two murder trials, of Charles Manson and three girl followers in Los Angeles, of Lieut. William L. Calley, Jr. in Fort Benning, Ga. Both trials were lengthy. The Calley verdict of guilty ended the longest trial in the history of American military justice. The jury in the Manson case sat through weeks of hearings merely to decide what punishment should be attached to its previous finding of guilty. The questions posed, then, for the American public had little to do with the soundness of national justice and its concern for the rights of defendants. What we must do is ask ourselves about our complicity.

There could and should be some soul-searching on the part of the nation in the wake of the Manson trial. The murder of Sharon Tate and her companions was too gruesome to permit of sentimentalizing over the blighted background of those convicted of the deed. Yet there will be many families who wonder with pain whether they have had a hand in turning a young son or sister off into the hideous subculture out of which that murder party grew.

If national complicity in the events leading up to the Tate murder is surely mitigated, the same is not so of the massacre at My Lai. Grant whatever explanation one wants to make of the duty a soldier in the field has to follow his own conscience in carrying out any military order, the fact remains that the decision to carry forward the war itself is one for which our Presidents, our Congress and all of us bear some measure of responsibility.

The summons of Lent and Easter, however, is not to fruitless efforts to allocate measures of responsibility, weigh past intentions or explore mitigating circumstances. It is a call to new life for the future, a life that is repentant but filled with new purpose. What does this mean about our involvement in Vietnam?

It must mean a firm commitment to bring that involvement to an end as soon as possible. Presidents and generals have long since told us that there is no sense to the pursuit of military victory. Whatever the savagery and stubbornness of the North Vietnamese, there is no point in trying to match them on those grounds. More important even in terms of traditional “just war” morality, the loss of innocent life—so tragically dramatized in, but not confined to, the My Lai affair—has mounted beyond the point of any possible proportionate gain in the name of justice. Since responsibility for the war rests on the entire nation, each of us should accept a share in the task of making it clear that our national will is to end it now.

Read additional analysis of the Vietnam War from America's editors.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
James MacGregor
4 years 7 months ago
My first week of work, as a teenager, at America at 108th St. was the week that the magazine was (I believe) the first print medium to blast Senator Joseph McCarthy for going beyond the constitutional bounds of his office. The articles were direct, as also were the harassing and threatening 'phone calls from McCarthy supporters and "crazies". The articles about Vietnam this week seem to be an indirect approach to criticizing members of our Government who advocate American involvement in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere. They seem to illustrate the pros and cons of involvement in Vietnam and being slowly sucked into Vietnam as a method of applying the same "lessons learned" - in a very indirect manner - to current events. Have I read the articles correctly?

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