Politics & Policy

Vietnam and The Loss of Cultural Honor

From the history book.

EDITOR’S NOTE: James Bowman is the author of the new book Honor: A History, from Encounter Books. Here we excerpt a part of the ninth chapter of the book, in a section on what he calls “Post-Honor Society.” Where we join Honor, Richard Nixon and John Kerry make appearances.

President Nixon’s declared aim of bringing about “peace with honor” in southeast Asia with the Paris Accords of 1973 summed up, ironically, the state of honor in America for (at least) the next thirty years. Most likely there was in Nixon’s mind some recurrence of the spectre of America as “a pitiful helpless giant” that he had used to justify the invasion of Cambodia three years earlier. America’s honor, or reputation in the world for standing up to enemies and standing by allies, was to him the same as America’s freedom of action, and he meant to imply that American withdrawal from a war which, as he had finally been forced to recognize, Americans were not willing to pay the necessary price to win, could still be effected in such a way as to “save face.” But this traditional formula for honorable motivation seemed to a generation of protestors (of which I was one) to describe something contemptible, a merely private vanity. To us it seemed a scandal not that America should become that pitiful, helpless giant in the eyes of the world but that Nixon’s personal and pathological anxiety should have been allowed to figure in the momentous matters of peace and war, life and death. If face-saving–yet another of the many rhetorical alternatives to honor–was inseparable from matters of war and diplomacy throughout human history, it cut no ice with the protestors, who had never heard of any but moral reasons for going to war.

#ad#Against this background the young John Kerry addressed Senator Fulbright’s Foreign Relations Committee in 1971–and was able himself to appeal to another sort of honor.

“Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn’t have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can’t say that we’ve made a mistake. Someone has to die so that President Nixon won’t be, and these are his words, the first president to lose a war. And we are asking Americans to think about that. Because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam; how do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake.”

All wars are of course mistakes in the sense that they represent the failure of more desirable ways of carrying on international relations. And nobody asks anybody to die in them. We do ask people to risk their lives, and we recognize that some of those lives will be lost, but that is not quite the same thing. Yet beneath the rhetorical muddle, Kerry was making the same point as MacArthur’s about the “limited” war in Korea, namely that it was dishonorable in a commander to treat the lives of his men as a means to any lesser end than victory over the enemy. If the enemy were to be suffered to go on killing them while politicians continued to play a diplomatic game of applying or releasing “pressure” on him until he could be brought to an accommodation, that looked to the soldiers in the field not just like a “mistake” but like the deepest died corruption.

The Vanity of Disregarding Appearances

The irony was that Richard Nixon, the president at the time, had been conducting the war according to the practice of “limited war” as laid down by his predecessors in the belief that such a style of war-making was more humane and progressive. He would boast of having conducted military operations with “a degree of restraint unprecedented in the annals of war.” Kerry’s words to the committee were so powerful because they gave expression to the deep resentments felt by those who objected to the political restraints placed upon our soldiers in the field as well as those who thought they shouldn’t have been there in the first place. But his anger against Nixon’s wish not to lose face, and thus to bring about, as he put it, “peace with honor,” as merely contemptible was misdirected. The decision to fight the war may indeed have been a “mistake” but the need to maintain respect for American power was not–was, in fact, as it still is, the only real deterrent against those whose ruthlessness is exceeded only by that of the system of ideology or religion on whose behalf they are fighting. Kerry’s failure to understand this, his apparent assumption that Nixon’s words were an expression of personal vanity, showed that the old beliefs about national honor were a closed book to him. If they had not been he would not have supposed that men were dying for some “mistake” instead of for the honor of their country, on which depended and still depends, according to the once powerful but now almost forgotten view, the peace and stability of the world.

Nixon’s plea for “peace with honor” appealed not to what Tom Engelhardt calls “victory culture” but rather to that which had replaced it in the years since victory was disavowed in Korea. It was the therapeutic substitute. Having gone into the war in the first place in the belief that war was a form of therapy for nations and could be employed as a delicate surgical instrument to cut out undesirable elements in a population while preserving the organism intact, Nixon was now acknowledging the bankruptcy of that idea with the equally therapeutic notion that that there was no reproach in having done our best but failed. The “honor” he spoke of, in other words, did not extend to those in Vietnam and elsewhere to which American support had been pledged. After a “decent interval” the communists would take over–the administration was under few illusions about that–but there would be no shame to us in having tried without success to stop them. Of course no one else understood the phrase in that way. Indeed, Nixon’s desperate attempts to salvage some honor for the U.S. out of the Vietnam debacle were themselves treated as a scandal on the left, who felt as John Kerry did about men dying so that their country could keep up the mere appearance of military potency. About this there might have been thought to be some contradiction–that is between those who thought the war itself to be dishonoring and those who found the dishonor in Nixon’s “betrayal” of his South Vietnamese ally, because the negotiated peace of the Paris Accords was such a transparent figleaf to cover the American abandonment of South Vietnam. Surely, if it would have been honorable to have stood by South Vietnam it could not have been dishonorable to have contracted the alliance in the first place, or to have made even the effort that was made to support her? But no one cared to look any more closely into that contradiction. There was enough dishonor for Nixon on all sides, it seemed, and those who hated him were not disposed to make nice distinctions that could redound to his benefit. Given that honor had been largely colonized by sincerity and that he was one of the least sincere men in American public life, his formulation of America’s purpose took on a bitterly ironical cast, just like his even more-ridiculed statement that “I am not a crook.”

Honor as a Façade

As a result, and by an amazing double irony, honor again assumed some of its old meaning. Once more it had become a public thing and not a mere synonym for honesty or integrity. But once it had become merely public, it also became contemptible, dishonorable in fact. Young people of my generation at once understood that only someone like Nixon would even use the word. He was to us like those “old men” who with that word in their mouths had led young men to slaughter during the First World War–and who had been so execrated for it during the 1930s and afterwards. Then, when Nixon’s presidency was brought low by Watergate, it seemed to confirm what we already suspected, namely that “honor” was nothing but the public façade of those who sought to hide behind it their own viciousness and corruption. As a result, instead of being rehabilitated by being assimilated to virtue and sincerity, honor was once more discredited and almost disappeared from public life for the next thirty years.

Given what we now know about Watergate-like skullduggery among Richard Nixon’s predecessors in the Oval Office, it is even tempting to wonder whether the discovery of a corrupt president in 1973-1974 was cause or consequence of the popular culture’s willingness at precisely the same time to believe that authority was corrupt. David Frum points out, that the polling graphs of public mistrust of government began to decline as early as 1966, six years before the Watergate break-in. “Americans did not lose their faith in institutions because of the Watergate scandal; Watergate became a scandal because Americans were losing faith in their institutions” (italics in original). Mr. Frum’s idea is that this loss of faith–which took place in many other developed countries at roughly the same time–was a result of over-promising by the Western social democracies of the early to mid-1960s, including Lyndon Johnson’s ill-fated “Great Society.” But of course the cultural shift towards mistrust went back to the 1920s and 1930s, as we have seen, and prepared the way for the much more widespread and vulgar forms of mistrust of the 1970s.

A Society without Honor

As ideas of morality were in the process of being transferred from the normal processes of enculturation to the realm of mere personal preference, the effect on honor of that primacy of the individual conscience was in a way even more devastating. Conscience, at least, really is individual, and those who sought to live by an idiosyncratic standard of personal and individual morality–as who did not?–could always appeal to conscience as a justification. But honor by its very nature subordinates the individual to some larger community and is therefore inseparable from its social and communal dimension. Without an honor-group in whose eyes the individual formerly sought to distinguish himself there could be no honor. After the collapse of the official culture there remained small and local honor groups–the neighborhood, the office, the profession or trade group–but no general agreement, often even within the groups themselves, as to what kind of behavior was to be regarded as honorable. In some–such as street gangs, prisons, police and some military units–there was a regression to more primitive forms of honor that were in part a reaction to the disappearance of more sophisticated and socially validated ideas of honor.

Unlike the privileged youths of If. . ., criminals really did have a claim to be rebels against the dominant culture, and the 1970s also saw the growth of a new kind of admiration and respect given to them as romantic or revolutionary figures–beginning, perhaps, with the success of Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967)–especially where, like the cowboys of the 1950s and before, they came out of a quasi-heroic past. So Gunsmoke gave way to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and The Untouchables gave way to The Godfather (1972). No one, of course, thought of the Mafia as revolutionary, but even that kind of reactionary, family-based honor imported from the European backwater of Sicily benefitted from a sort of honor-nostalgia in the popular culture that deserves some closer scrutiny. The Godfather, together with its sequel of 1975, appealed to the post-Vietnam, anti-honor culture because it seemed to be, among other things, a metaphor for America herself, its gangsters like America’s leaders. For many the film’s most memorable moment came when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who is being groomed as the next head of his Mafia family, tries to persuade his non-Sicilian fiancée, Kay (Diane Keaton) that he is just like any other businessman or politician.

“They don’t kill people,” says Kay.

“Come on, Kay,” says Michael. “Now who’s being naïve?”

People loved that line because it flattered them into thinking that they were too knowing to be taken in by the former pretense of a difference between the law and the lawless, and the superiority of the former to the latter. That was the very foundation of the Official Culture, and it, like everything else, was now gone. Like Hannah Arendt’s or Rollo May’s idea of “violence,” the assumption at some level of the moral equivalence of lawmen and outlaws pre-supposed that the essence of Official Culture, namely the insistence on its own privileged position as the guardian of the distinction between right and wrong, between legitimate and illegitimate uses of force, had been a mere imposture introduced by the more powerful in order to keep the less powerful in awe of them. All violence was the same: an attempt by one or another group of the powerful to wrest more power for themselves away from those who were less-powerful. Mafia and police, criminal and victim were put on a level with each other, where the former official wrong-doers were not regarded as being (as in the case of some racial and political crimes) superior to the former official crime-fighters.

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