Saturday, July 10, 2010

Rick Perlstein on the dark side of democracy

As a child of the 1960s, I found Rick Perstein's wonderful Nixonland a compulsive read. On one level it's a moment-by-moment replay of the era's seismic events as they appeared on the street, in newspapers and on TV, in the national party convention centers, in the counsels of the Johnson and Nixon administrations, and to a significant extent, in Richard Nixon's head.  But it is not a shapeless panorama; rather, it's relentlessly focused on the question Perlstein poses in the preface: what motivated ""the voter who, in 1964, pulled the lever for the Democrat for president because to do anything else, at least that particular Tuesday in November, seemed to court civilizational chaos, and who, eight years later, pulled the lever for the Republican for exactly the same reason" (p. xiii).  While that voter is his "main character,"Perlstein asserts,  Nixon's "story is the engine of this narrative. Nixon's character--his own overwhelming angers, anxieties and resentments in the face of the 1960s chaos--sparks the combustion" (p. ix).

Perlstein succeeds, page after page, in drawing the connections between riot and rebellion, the spectacles as they played out on TV and in the news, and Nixon's masterful manipulation: his securing of Southern support by slow-walking enforcement of Johnson's civil rights legislation; his training of the cameras on uncouth anti-war protesters as backdrop to his staged counter-spectacles of clean-cut loyal youth;  his combination of phased U.S. troop withdrawal and savage bombing in southeast Asia; and finally, his dirty tricks manipulation of the Democratic nomination process in 1972.

Reading Nixonland recalled me to my earliest political perceptions --rooted in the conviction that the Vietnam War was wrong and couldn't be won -- and led me to meditate on the limitations of my own blogging credo that the electorate is smarter than all of us.  It is true I think only in the broadest sweep of history, in that democracy provides the means of self-correction, so that manifest policy failure is eventually punished at the polls. The blunt instrument of the popular vote (and public debate) keeps societies from going all the way on the road to ruin.  But that doesn't mean that most of us are not fooled much of the time, often for a very long time. Or worse, that we don't collectively will evil -- as Nixonland suggests we did in Vietnam. 

While highlighting some rational wellsprings of backlash against social breakdown, the book also centers on a paradox of public opinion that to my mind does suggest a collectively culpability. The paradox: large majorities regarded U.S. engagement in Vietnam as a mistake, and yet large majorities ultimately supported Nixon's prolongation throughout his 5-plus years in office of a war he himself is on record as saying in 1966 and in 1972 that we could not win. That is, because Nixon steadily reduced the number of U.S. troops involved and ultimately ended the draft, Americans supported the slaughter of  millions of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, mainly through aerial bombardment, in pursuit of what Nixon always knew and Americans had every cause to know was a fig-leaf peace agreement, essentially identical to the one that Johnson was negotiating 1968  -- which Nixon's agents reportedly sabotaged .

The depth of Nixon's cynicism takes one's breath away -- not least because it was inseparable from an undeniable geopolitical perspicuity that enabled his opening to China.  According to his former law partner Leonard Garment, who accompanied him on campaign stops during the wilderness years before his 1968 presidential run, Nixon laid out the Vietnam endgame to financial backer Elmer Bobst in 1966:
"Bobst thought it [U.S. engagement in Vietnam] was an unmitigated disaster from which the United States must quickly withdraw. Nixon, said Bobst, agreed that Vietnam could not be "won" and that we would eventually have to withdraw."  That withdrawal, however, must take place under the most strategically propitious circumstances -- whether they be one, five, or ten years in the future. Until that time, the public would just have to be told what the public had to be told (p. 138, citing Garment's 1997 memoir, Crazy Rhythm).
Such was Nixon's understanding of "peace with honor" in 1966. In  August 1972, as he was promising that consummation to the American people to secure his reelection, he told Kissinger (as recorded on tape): "I look at the tide of history out there, South Vietnam probably can never even even survive anyway. I'm just being perfectly candid." And Kissinger said to Nixon: "If a year or two years from now North Vietnam gobbles up South Vietnam, we can have a viable foreign policy if it looks as if it's the result of South Vietnamese incompetence" (p. 708).

The irony, in Perlstein's telling, is that Nixon was also convinced that U.S. economic decline and loss of geopolitical dominance was imminent.  His own reelection, in his mind, was essential to secure the U.S. a kind of strategic retreat on the best terms possible.  To that end he did not hesitate to sacrifice millions of Southeast Asian lives. Americans, I think, essentially understood the Nixon bargain: majorities were not fooled into thinking that U.S. efforts would stand up a self-sustaining South Vietnamese democracy.  Americans accepted Nixon's offering: peace with faux honor, gradual withdrawal covered by mass murder.

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