I was proud of the youths who opposed the war in Vietnam because they were my babies.
Benjamin Spock, 1988
The 1960s stands out as a decisive period of unprecedented cultural conflict in the West and specifically in the United States. This Kulturkampf was shaped by several major events – the Cold war, the Vietnam conflict, and the tortured history and civil rights struggle of Black America – all of which enabled the Left to craft a narrative that redefined American institutions and American cultural practices as instruments of domination and oppression and American history as a severe indictment of the society itself. Collective guilt was turned into a powerful political “weapon of the disadvantaged."
The Cold War, which dominated this conflict, produced two distinct and radically different outcomes. As the two major combatants moved toward the end of the 20th century, the U.S. had extended significantly its military and technological superiority over the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union’s centrally planned economy its stagnation and pervasive corruption had rendered it increasingly inefficient and uncompetitive in relation to the West. The aging Bolsheviks leaders could not reform their system without giving it up completely. They were bogged down in a feckless war in Afghanistan and pushed to edge by President Reagan with SDI. The USSR could not both continue its decades-long manic pace of armament building and its high investment with modern weaponry and provide its citizens with a standard of living that did not resemble a hard-scrabble, third world grind that would completely demoralize and alienate its workers. In its capacity as a military colossus, a modern economic engine with a productive citizenry, and a world power, one might say, the Soviet Union had abysmally failed. The Soviets were the clear losers of the Cold war. They knew it.
However, viewed as a cultural battle, a struggle of ideas, aspirations and visions, the U.S. lost the Cold war. Culture trumped economics and arms. The irony could not be more acute and for some, more bitter. In Communist countries no one any longer took Communism seriously. Why should they have? How could they have? In the West Marx came alive. Virtually all of the West’s institutions over the last fifty years have marched dramatically leftward. The two bedrock bourgeois institutions of marriage and religion (the “opiate of the masses”), both despised by Marx as cornerstone elements of bourgeois fraud, have gone into a major decline since mid-century. The latter is now openly scorned and ridiculed by the secularist elites who dominate the universities, the media, and the entertainment industry, the former virtually abandoned by the lower middle-classes who benefit most from its stabilizing, normalizing effects. Engels’s comment on marriage over a century ago captures the cynicism and disdain of Communism for the institution and sounds very much like the commentary of Western feminism a century later. “Matrimony differs from prostitution in that the first is transacted through purchase, the latter through rent.” [Manuel Vazquez Montalban, Pasionaria y los Siete Enanitos, Barcelona, 2005, 45] Hollywood, which mid-twentieth century was socially and politically conservative, moved to the far regions of the Left. Its actors and directors dutifully trooped off to Cuba and other third world Marxist slums for Potemkin excursions, bouts of genuflection and invidious comparison with their evil capitalist home towns.
The Vietnam War was the central causal force in this profound ideological mass migration. At its inception the military incursion into Vietnam was articulated to the American people by President Kennedy as an anti-Communist enterprise, justified as an attempt to prevent Communist insurgencies from taking control of the entirety of South East Asia. Very quickly the picture of the war, including the attributes of the major players, was turned completely upside down by America’s own internal critics as well as those abroad in the lands of its supposed allies. The malefactors in this altered script became the Americans, who were launching a war of imperial aggression fought with conscripts extracted from its underclass – poor and minorities, pitted against an exploited third world people.
The veil of anti-Communism was at last torn away. American action was unmasked, in essence an expression of imperialism and racism: the white imperialists were conscripting their own oppressed black young Americans to carry out their intention to plunder and colonize Asian people whom they viewed as racially inferior, culturally insignificant and physically expendable. American foreign policy particularly in its Vietnam manifestation became an external (international) reflection of its fundamentally racist internal (domestic) character and its chauvinist history.
The copious dishonesty and arrogance of the leadership – President Johnson’s manipulation of the Gulf of Tonkin events and Robert McNamara’s hubristic overreach – also served eventually to discredit the effort. The rapidly diminishing credibility of the Government’s case for American involvement in Southeast Asia and the first television-covered war where Americans could sit in their homes and watch their sons, brothers and husbands killing and being killed not only provoked widespread revulsion with it and its leadership but created a deep and permanent erosion of confidence in American institutions and a withering cynicism attached to its traditional ideals. Americans then finally grimly watched the forced and desperate evacuation of their troops on television after Congress voted to stop the funding and let the country that Americans had fought and bled for over a decade to save fall to the Reds.
Also abandoned by the Americans at the same time were the people of Cambodia who to their lasting sorrow fell under the care and supervision of Brother Number One, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. In just four years Pol Pot and his followers managed to kill twenty percent of their fellow Cambodians, targeting and butchering in particular people with education, property and skills. Cambodia’s beautiful Buddhist temples were destroyed, and, of course, the priests. Demographically, it was the most brutal of the twentieth century Communist revolutions, which considering what Mao and Stalin did, is saying a lot. [Robert Service, Camaradas; Breve Historia del Comunismo, 566] Pol Pot’s vision of Communist utopia for Cambodia was as a primitive, city-less agrarian commune. As Robert Service notes: “Not even Mao eliminated his city dwellers. Pol Pot was unique in the Marxist tradition of treating the urban life not as a requisite for Communist progress, but as an iniquity that had to be eliminated.” [Service, Camaradas, 564.]
The Communists had prevailed in Southeast Asia, not because of their military superiority but because they mastered the message and because the West was choking on its “imperialist” guilt.
The Americans like the French before them departed in sorrow and frustration with a sense of shame and defeat. Fifty-eight thousand American soldiers had perished on Asian soil; and for what? Veterans returning from Vietnam were accosted and spit on by protestors from America’s elite universities. “Fascist,” “Nazi,” “Perpetrator of Genocide,” “Baby Killer” were labels some Americans attached to the other Americans. President Nixon had earlier invoked the final and most cynical of Vietnam era euphemisms – “Peace with honor.” Riots in the major U.S cities, widespread demonstrations on university campuses, political assassinations, Watergate and the culminating humiliating military retreat from Vietnam helped made U.S. institutions particularly vulnerable to a Marxist interpretation of reality in which domination and exploitation is the core reality. Marxism has run deeply and widely in 21st-century America. No one should think otherwise.