THE SUITES & THE SWEATS
New York City
In "Economists vs. Students" [Feb. 12], Liza Featherstone and Doug Henwood cheer on students who demand that garments bearing their college's logo be made under decent conditions. The students are right. These garments cost enough to enable employers to pay wages sufficient to meet the basic needs of their workers. Indeed, the economic argument is stronger than the one the authors present. Better-paid, better-educated, healthy workers are more productive, more likely to stay longer and produce better-quality products that benefit the bottom line.
Unfortunately this article, lauding people who fight to improve the plight of workers, misrepresents a code of conduct with the same goals and an effective implementation record: SA8000, the Social Accountability International standard for decent working conditions, and its independent verification system. This information is readily available on SAI's website, www.sa-intl.org.
(1) SA8000 is not led by multinationals. Half the SA8000 advisory board is composed of public interest organizations and trade unions from around the world. These include Amnesty International, trade unions representing 25 million workers (many in the developing world), the National Child Labor Committee, the Maquila Solidarity Network and the comptroller of New York City. Professor Jagdish Bhagwati did once serve on the SA8000 advisory board but does not currently.
(2) Audits of certified factories are by no means "sporadic." On the contrary, they are scheduled at regular six-month intervals. SA8000 auditors are highly trained. Furthermore, the training is and will continue to be regularly evaluated and improved. Far from being superficial, the SA8000 audits require an unusual depth of investigation and worker interviews. Public reports are an SA8000 requirement.
(3) The SA8000 factory cited in the article, where auditors did get bamboozled by a management cover-up, had its certification suspended in a fraction of the time it takes for legal remedies, at zero cost to those who brought the complaint. The loss of its certificate puts it at high risk of losing at least one of its largest customers, so it is under considerable pressure to reform. The certification body that issued the SA8000 certificate has been required to significantly improve its audit procedures. This is prima facie evidence of a system that works.
(4) China is, indeed, "not a friendly environment for independent union organizing," since the right to organize is severely restricted by law, and civil society is virtually nonexistent--and often violently repressed--there. Rates for limbs lost to industrial accidents in parts of China are appallingly high, just one indicator of the cost to workers. Yet 70 percent of toys are made in China, as well as dominant portions of garment manufacture. The 1.2 billion people of China deserve a genuine effort to improve their lot. Where freedom of association is prohibited by law, SA8000 states that employers must provide "parallel means" for free association, such as: a worker-elected SA8000 representative and committees for health and safety, wage negotiations, literacy and complaints and resolutions.
In a world with much exploitation by employers, those who are ardently seeking to change working conditions for the better should work together rather than snipe at one another.
ALICE TEPPER MARLIN, president
Social Accountability International
FEATHERSTONE & HENWOOD REPLY
New York City
Nowhere do we say that SAI is "led by multinationals"; we quote an outside observer who calls it a "PR tool for multinationals," a characterization repeated by many sources. Watching Alice Tepper Marlin fawn over a Toys 'R' Us exec at the SAI conference this past December lent considerable credence to this view. On the advisory board, business members outnumber labor members by more than two to one (not counting the New York City comptroller, who manages one of the world's largest stock portfolios).
Inspections every six months sounds reassuring, but scheduled at predictable intervals and announced in advance, they're unlikely to expose abuses. Snap visits would be much more effective. We're happy to hear that the offending factory eventually lost its certification, but it's troubling that it got approved in the first place; auditors are supposed to see through managers' attempts at bamboozlement. SAI's auditor on the scene, Det Norske Veritas, told the South China Morning Post that it's impossible to do reliable audits in China: "The factories always manage to find a way around the auditors." We're also happy SAI is broadly trying to improve the lot of workers in China, but certifying factories there implies that they meet the criteria of free association in SAI's high-minded code, which they clearly do not. We don't see how "parallel means," whatever they are (and they sound like company unions), could possibly be a substitute for independent organizing.
As for Tepper Marlin's "economic argument," we're always amused when NGO directors suggest they know more about running businesses than managers. If profits are fatter when workers are well paid and well fed, why are there so many miserably exploited people in the world? Businesses pay higher wages only when they're forced to.
'GO TO IT, O JAZZMEN'
Why put up with all the punditry and spiel in Ken Burns's Jazz [Gene Santoro, "All That Jazz," Jan. 29], when the photos, film clips and musical sequences are so wonderful? After all, this is the digital age of free-for-all pirating of images and sound. Just record each episode of Jazz on your VCR (fess up...you're already doing that, aren't you?). Then acquire cheap (or even free) digital video-editing software for your home computer. Load the footage onto your hard drive. Then eliminate the interminable "talking heads" (I'd get rid of all the Wynton Marsalis and keep most of the Gary Giddins, some Stanley Crouch and a few other odds and ends). Assemble your favorite clips into the sequences you like (say, a full hour of Louis Armstrong photos, film clips and music). You can do this over and over again in whatever order you like. In fact, it's this kind of cut and paste that makes up Burns's filmmaking technique, no?
Gene Santoro makes a minor factual error in his review of Ken Burns's Jazz. Burns's Baseball does not stop in 1970. An entire episode is devoted to post-1970 developments. I was on the film's advisory board. There's a segment on the 1986 World Series, when Boston was one out away from the championship in game six but lost to the Mets on a wild pitch and an error. At the final preview screening my friend Ken, a die-hard Red Sox fan, left the room. He still couldn't bear to look.
BERNARD A. WEISBERGER
New York City
My slip is showing, but it's Freudian. Baseball's final episode was as much of a mess as Jazz's.
New York City
I love Calvin Trillin's poems. Who could forget "Norm, Norm, big as a dorm" and "Al D'Amato, sleazeball obbligato"? Brilliant! But this Nader thing has got to stop ["Silver Linings," Jan. 22]. Nader took votes from Gore, sure, but he also got Republican, libertarian and independent votes. Yet somehow these votes, as opposed to Democrats who voted for G. Dubya, made the difference. I don't buy it. Meanwhile, the "liberal" Joe Biden, who voted to confirm Antonin Scalia and who couldn't stop eleven colleagues from defecting for Clarence Thomas, supported John Ashcroft at first. Hmm... What rhymes with Delaware--nice new hair? Cynically aware? We'll decide what's fair? Spines in us are rare?
Nader, an important voice, like Trillin's own, has informed so many about so much for so long. Basta!
CHRIS PEDRO TRAKAS
Cherry Hill, N.J.
Calvin Trillin has a gift
For skewering those with whom he's miffed.
His caustic rhyming the right wing singes,
As he goes snark-hunting in their fringes.
His targets tend to represent
Insiders of the Establishment.
Which is why I wonder at his pique
At Ralph O'Green, who had the cheek
To charge both parties with selling out
To corporate cash and controlling clout.
Trillin's focus seems less than keen
When he waxes snide at Ralph O'Green.
Ashcroft, Whitman, Norton and Watt
Mr. Trillin has bones to pick with this lot.
I agree with his gripes; they mirror mine,
But why blame Nader for Dems' lack of spine?
50 Dems ignored the Black Caucus ordeal
(Senate fetes might lose their warm feel).
I know why he puts blame on Nader alone:
It's easier than rhyming 50 names in a poem.
So if you managed to endure CBS's three-plus hours of Grammy cov erage, if you survived the sparsely attended protests from GLAAD and NOW, host Jon Stewart's lame commentary, the lip-synced perfor
NAME THE PRESIDENT UPDATE
Our contest to pick a title for George W. Bush, the present occupant of the White House, has evidently touched a nerve. Hundreds of cards, letters and e-mails have poured in from those who can't bear to utter the words "President Bush." For the winner or winners: the glittering prize of a Bush-as-Alfred-E.-Neumann T-shirt. Judging from your letters, the contest has been therapeutic, a chance to vent the steam that's been building ever since the Supreme Court handed down the presidency. Final date for entries is February 19--Presidents' Day!
When the Washington Post (or any other big newspaper or magazine that's part of a media conglomerate) speaks on communications policy, readers should listen with skepticism. For example, in its February 12 issue, the Post weighed in on "The New Communications Boss." That would be Michael Powell, head of the FCC and also, to keep it in the family, son of Secretary of State Colin Powell. The Post gave an approving nod to the younger Powell's remarks at a press conference outlining his views on his new responsibilities. The editors applauded what he said about instant messaging--that AOL deserves to keep its present monopoly on this technology, rather than share it with competitors. It also approved of Powell's go-slow policy on regulating interactive television, which AOL-Time Warner threatens to dominate. The Post discreetly averted its eyes to Powell's lack of diplomacy in saying that the concerns about poor people's lack of access to computers (the so-called digital divide) were misplaced--like wanting to buy everyone a Mercedes-Benz. Never once in the editorial did the Post disclose its own broadband of interests in new technologies. Its parent company owns TV stations and cable properties. It owns Kaplan Inc., an online tutoring service, which now has AOL as a partner. It also owns Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive, an online information service. When it comes to media matters the Post should either disclose its interests or shut up--sorry, recuse itself.
BUSH'S TAX CUT/DEFENSE STRATEGY
George W. Bush's recent staged tour of several military bases was heralded by a pledge to shift $5.7 billion in the current defense budget to higher pay, better housing and more healthcare for the troops. Conservatives had been expecting something splashier in the way of defense spending. Instead, Bush called for a review of the overall mission of US military forces. This meshes nicely with the primacy on his agenda of his $1.6 trillion tax cut. Campaign promises about big bucks for high-tech weapons are put on hold. Peace activists, however, weren't putting the nuclear threat on hold. On February 5-6, movie stars Martin Sheen, Michael Douglas and Paul Newman led a phone blitz of the White House, part of the Back from the Brink Campaign (www.backfromthebrink.policy.net)--a nationwide call for taking US and Russian nukes off hairtrigger alert. And on Valentine's Day several Congress members joined a Washington rally protesting Star Wars outside the Ronald Reagan Building, where former TRW board member Dick Cheney held a love fest with defense contractors.
For the second year in a row, The Nation has been nominated for a GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) Media Award for "Outstanding Magazine Overall Coverage." Nation contributor Robert Scheer was also nominated in the "Outstanding Newspaper Columnist" slot for his writings in the Los Angeles Times.
NEWS OF THE WEAK IN REVIEW
Morgan Stanley invested more than $100,000 to hire Bill Clinton for a speech to a convention in Florida. After all, he presided over the longest stock market uptick in history, and the brokerage snagged him for his first postpresidential speech. Then came the Rich pardon, etc. Morgan Stanley was hit by complaints from its customers. Chairman Philip Purcell dispatched a sanctimonious e-mail to clients saying the invitation had "clearly been a mistake" given Clinton's "personal behavior as President."
As George W. Bush so fuzzily put it, "The California crunch really is the result of not enough power-generating plants and then not enough power to power the power of generating plants." Whatever that means, his main responses to California's deregulation crisis have been to tout drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and to bar federal intervention that would curb the profiteering by big generating companies.
Since a tiny percent of the nation's electricity is produced by burning oil, drilling in the refuge is irrelevant to the problem. But, of course, it's quite relevant to the big oil and gas companies' expectations of a payoff from this Administration, in which they had invested millions in campaign contributions. They're salivating for exploration on hitherto off-limits federal lands with ANWR as the opening wedge. Bush plays along by fanning fears of power crises nationwide to overcome the pro-environment sentiment among voters. (Recent polls show that two-thirds of Americans favor a ban on drilling in the wildlife refuge.)
As for withholding federal intervention, that's simply the old-time deregulation religion preached by conservative pundits who blame the failure to deregulate fully for the California crunch. Actually, California's deregulation bill was drafted by the power companies, which made hefty contributions to grease its way through the legislature. Seeking to recapture from consumers the costs of their bad investments in nuclear plants, the utilities devised the very freeze on consumer rates on which they now blame the current crisis, and which they are trying to overturn in the courts. They also agreed to divest themselves of much of their generating capacity, leaving them vulnerable to the market manipulations of independent power producers--including their own parent companies, which are reaping huge profits from this contrived crisis. Those same parent companies are using their "near bankrupt" utilities to launder more than $20 billion in the stranded-cost bailouts that prompted the crisis in the first place.
Clearly, more bailouts for utilities and unleashing Big Oil to ravage the wilds are not the solutions to California's--or the nation's--power problems, especially when there is a native California solution at hand: municipal ownership and conservation. The model is the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, which, after closing down its one nuclear reactor in 1989, held prices steady, invested heavily in wind and solar power and promoted energy efficiency through programs like subsidized buyouts of old, energy-guzzling home refrigerators.
Unfortunately, Governor Gray Davis and the California legislature have chosen to ignore the lesson of Sacramento and to "solve" the crisis by throwing more billions in public money at the utilities. Davis should be using public money and eminent domain to buy the assets of these rogue utilities out of bankruptcy and turn them over to direct public control. A statewide network of public-owned, democratically run municipal utilities would work just fine.
Municipal ownership like Sacramento's is now being urgently considered by San Francisco and other beleaguered California cities. Rather than catering to his energy "adviser" Ken Lay of Enron (who injected $500,000 into Bush campaign coffers, making him the largest single contributor in the last election cycle) and the rest of the oil and gas companies, Bush should recognize that the wind and sun provide more than enough "power to power the power of generating plants" and that power is rightfully owned and most efficiently operated by the public itself.
That 18,000 people--mostly female--filled Madison Square Garden, a basilica of boy-sport theology, on February 10 to watch a celebrity-packed performance of The Vagina Monologues represents a slightly less staggering achievement than a women's takeover of the Vatican or the Chabad Lubavitcher world headquarters. The show was the capper to a daylong international event called V-Day: The Gathering to End Violence Against Women, during which sixty women from six continents presented stop-rape strategies. What was most remarkable about these projects was their insistence not simply on shielding women but on permanently and radically altering how communities talk about rape and deal with rapists. In the evening, the most arresting image was that of an Afghan woman, obliterated by her burqa, moving like a silent, anonymous hill of cloth toward the stage. When the cloth was lifted, a young woman emerged, dressed in the casual jacket-and-pants outfit that would blend in on any university campus in the world, but that her own country's Taliban movement would deem reason enough to beat her to death on the spot.
Those who endeavor to dismiss events like V-Day as pageants of single-issue identity politics are missing the point. The reports of sequestering of Vietnamese women in a Korean-owned sweatshop in American Samoa, where they were fed cabbage water, housed forty to a rat-infested room and kept under the thumb of sexual predators, is a reminder that at the very bottom of the "race to the bottom" economy, there's always a room where women are locked, overseen by a male with the power to starve them and to demand blowjobs in return for allowing them to keep working.
Labor organizations like UNITE and the Hotel and Restaurant Employees now understand that feminist issues like sweatshops, comparable worth for women, sexual harassment and education provide the vital pathway toward the expansion and revitalization of their movement. But events like V-Day make an even broader point: Vigorous global feminism is perhaps the single most effective form of resistance to the systematic degradation of human rights standards worldwide, which makes possible the worst ravages of the transnational economy.
The evidence of these depredations abounds. In London, girls as young as 5, purchased as slaves from Africa, Asia or Eastern Europe, are imprisoned in flats where they are rented to businessmen. Since NAFTA's inception, more than 200 young Mexican women have been raped and murdered on their way home from working in maquiladoras. V-Day's insistence on a worldwide confrontation of the systems that allow such atrocities kicks open a door for all manner of liberation activists. It's harder to imagine a single greater threat to the global sweatshop economy than the systematic pursuit of the rights of women.
Apply a little grease
Then buy yourself an in
GREEN GIANT KILLER Back in the early days of the Clinton Administration, then-North Dakota Agriculture Secretary Sarah Vogel was touted as a potential US Secretary of Agriculture. But her challenges to corporate agribusiness and her outspoken opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement scuttled that idea. Too bad; as her subsequent career as a lawyer in her home state shows, she would have been a hell of a fighter for family farmers. With associate Courtney Koebele, Vogel recently won a $41 million settlement for 8,000 wheat farmers who faced financial ruin when the USDA and finance corporations shifted crop insurance formulas to pay farmers far less than had been promised. Her clients were activist farmers like Paul and Tom Wiley, who drove through North Dakota blizzards to deliver court documents before key deadlines. Vogel and her legal team are also taking on factory farms that spoil the environment, agribusiness corporations accused of selling farmers bad seeds and insurance companies that fail to cover crop damage. She's even going after the Bureau of Indian Affairs on behalf of members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe who say BIA policies threaten Native American farmers. In farm country, Vogel has earned a reputation as "a giant killer in ag law." The fiery lawyer--who is using some of her fees to reopen Bismarck's natural-food restaurant, the Green Earth Cafe--says, "Corporate agriculture would have farmers be serfs." A third-generation rural activist, she says she'll keep using the courts until Washington enacts "farm policy from a farmer perspective"--including restrictions on agribusiness monopolies, fair-trade provisions and limits on genetic modification of food.
IN THE FDA WE DISTRUST Academics and agribusiness leaders who gathered on the University of Minnesota campus in early February dutifully sang the praises of Food and Drug Administration policies on genetically engineered foods. There was even a chorus of endorsements of FDA plans to implement voluntary guidelines for labeling altered foods. "The public trusts the FDA on this issue," intoned panelist Thomas Hoban. Outside in the Minneapolis cold, however, the public wasn't following the script. Police were called to disperse a crowd of several dozen activists from Genetically Engineered Food Alert, who raised a ruckus about what protester Matt Rand labeled the FDA's "very weak industry-backed policy." Food safety activists across the country are stepping up the campaign to get the United States to regulate the marketing of foods that are genetically engineered or that include GE ingredients--which now make up two-thirds of products on supermarket shelves. The Center for Food Safety and the Campaign to Label Genetically Engineered Foods are among those urging consumers to write to the FDA during a comment period that ends April 3, opposing the voluntary labeling plan and calling for tighter regulation. On Capitol Hill, Dennis Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus, is stepping up a drive for Congressional action on his Genetically Engineered Food Right to Know Act. He's working with the Organic Consumers Association and other groups to get constituents to push House members to endorse the bill--which had fifty-six co-sponsors in the last Congress. "If you ask the average American whether they want a label telling them the food they're buying has been genetically modified, they will answer, 'Absolutely,'" says Kucinich, who has developed a GE Food Action Center on his website, www.house.gov/kucinich. "By putting some organization behind that sentiment, we can make this into so big an issue that the industry lobbyists will have to get out of the way."
POLITICAL HEAT FROM THE KITCHEN "Eating is a political act," says Alice Waters, whose pioneering Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse has inspired dozens of organic eateries to reject the processed foods of agribusiness and buy produce from small farmers in neighboring communities. Top cooks from many of these restaurants have formed the Chefs Collaborative (chefnet.com), a network that promotes "sustainable cuisine" by supporting local farmers and educating children about healthy eating. Recently, they've stepped up efforts to educate chefs and consumers about threats to endangered species and ecosystems posed by corporate agribusiness. Chez Panisse, Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe and Chicago's Frontera Grill have launched high-profile initiatives to eliminate GE foods from their menus. "It is critical for us, as chefs, to lead in this public debate and to field questions in our dining rooms and in our kitchens," says Frontera's Rick Bayless. "We're still cooking, but we're also entering the public debate as people who work with food and who want Americans to start asking the questions we do about how food is produced," adds Ann Cooper, author of Bitter Harvest: A Chef's Perspective on the Hidden Dangers in the Foods We Eat and What You Can Do About It (Routledge)... Now that even TV networks are reporting on mad cow disease, activist-authors Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber are feeling a certain amount of satisfaction. "For years, when consumers should have been told about the risks they were taking when they bought beef, there was a blackout on the issue," says Stauber, who with Rampton wrote Mad Cow USA: Could the Nightmare Happen Here? (now available free at www.prwatch.com). Stauber and Rampton are back with a new book, Trust Us, We're Experts! How Industry Manipulates Science and Gambles With Your Future (Putnam).
Are the Clintons better off than they were eight years ago? The evidence appears to point to a resounding yes. So why do they seem to resent the question? Probably because only a full-dress Congressional investigation could establish quite how this came to be and exactly how much better off they are.
Imagine Madison Square Garden brimming over with 18,000 laughing and ebullient women of every size, shape, age and color, along with their male friends, ditto. Imagine that in that immense space, usually packed with hooting sports fans, these women are watching Oprah, Queen Latifah, Claire Danes, Swoosie Kurtz, Kathleen Chalfant, Julie Kavner (voice of Marge Simpson), Rosie Perez, Donna Hanover (soon-to-be-ex-wife of New York's bigamous mayor) and sixty-odd other A-list divas put on a gala production of The Vagina Monologues, Eve Ensler's theater piece about women and their mimis, totos, split knishes, Gladys Siegelmans, pussycats, poonanis and twats. Imagine that this extravaganza is part of a huge $2 million fundraising effort for V-Day, the antiviolence project that grew out of the show and that gives money to groups fighting violence against women around the world. That was what happened on February 10, with more donations and more performances to come as the play is produced by students at some 250 colleges around the country, from Adelphi on Long Island--where it was completely sold out and where, sources assure me, the v-word retains every bit of its shock value--to Yale.
And they keep saying feminism is dead.
The Vagina Monologues, in fact, was singled out in Time's 1998 cover story "Is Feminism Dead?" as proof that the movement had degenerated into self-indulgent sex chat. (This was a new departure for the press, which usually dismisses the movement as humorless, frumpish and puritanical.) In her Village Voice report on the gala, Sharon Lerner, a terrific feminist journalist, is unhappy that the actresses featured at the Garden event prefer the v-word to the f-word. ("Violence against women is a feminist issue?" participant Isabella Rossellini asks her. "I don't think it is." This from the creator of a new perfume called "Manifesto"!) Women's rights aren't what one associates with postfeminist icons like Glenn Close, whose most indelible screen role was as the bunny-boiling man-stalker in Fatal Attraction, or Calista Flockhart, television's dithery microskirted lawyerette Ally McBeal. Still, aren't we glad that Jane Fonda, who performed the childbirth monologue, has given up exercise mania and husband-worship and is donating $1 million to V-Day? Better late than never, I say.
At the risk of sounding rather giddy myself--I'm writing this on Valentine's Day--I'd argue that the implied contradiction between serious business (daycare, abortion, equal pay) and sex is way overdrawn. Sexual self-expression--that's self-indulgent sex chat to all you old Bolsheviks out there--was a crucial theme of the modern women's movement from the start. Naturally so: How can you see yourself as an active subject, the heroine of your own life, if you think you're an inferior being housed in a shameful, smelly body that might give pleasure to others, but not to you? The personal is political, remember that?
The Vagina Monologues may not be great literature--on the page it's a bit thin, and the different voices tend to run together into EveEnslerspeak about seashells and flowers and other lovely bits of nature. But as a performance piece it's fantastic: a cabaret floor show by turns hilarious, brassy, lyrical, poignant, charming, romantic, tragic, vulgar, sentimental, raunchy and exhilarating. In "The Flood," an old woman says she thinks of her "down there" as a cellar full of dead animals, and tells of the story of her one passionate kiss and her dream of Burt Reynolds swimming in her embarrassing "flood" of sexual wetness. A prim, wryly clever woman in "The Vagina Workshop" learns how to give herself orgasms at one of Betty Dodson's famous masturbation classes. At the Garden, Ensler led the cast in a chorus of orgasmic moans, and Close got the braver members of the audience to chant "Cunt! Cunt! Cunt!" at the climax of a poetic monologue meant to redeem and reclaim the dirtiest of all dirty words.
How anyone could find The Vagina Monologues antimale or pornographic is beyond me--it's a veritable ode to warm, quirky, affectionate, friendly, passionate sex. The only enemies are misogyny, sexual shame and sexual violence, and violence is construed fairly literally: A poor black child is raped by her father's drunken friend; a Bosnian girl is sexually tortured by Serbian paramilitaries. None of your ambiguous was-it-rape? scenarios here. Oprah performed a new monologue, "Under the Burqa," about the horrors of life for Afghan women under Taliban rule, followed by Zoya--a young representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA)--who gave a heartbreaking, defiant speech. Three African women spoke against female genital mutilation and described ongoing efforts to replace cutting with new coming-of-age rituals, "circumcision by words."
I hadn't particularly wanted to see The Vagina Monologues. I assumed that it would be earnest and didactic--or maybe silly, or exploitative, or crude, a sort of Oh! Calcutta! for women. But I was elated by it. Besides being a wonderful night at the theater, it reminded me that after all the feminist debates (and splits), and all the books and the Theory and the theories, in the real world there are still such people as women, who share a common biology and much else besides. And the power of feminism, whether or not it goes by that name, still resides in its capacity to transform women's consciousness at the deepest possible level: That's why Betty Friedan called her collection of letters from women not It Got Me a Raise (or a daycare center, or an abortion) but It Changed My Life. Sisterhood-is-powerful feminism may feel out of date to the professoriat, but there's a lot of new music still to be played on those old bones.
Besides, if feminists don't talk about sex in a fun, accessible, inspiring, nonpuritanical way, who will?
* * *
Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics and Culture, a collection of columns originally published in this space, is just out from Modern Library as a paperback original. It has a very pretty cover and a never-before-published introductory essay, and contains most of the columns I still agree with, and one or two about which I have my doubts.
It may be legal, but it's still a coup d'état. The nomination of
Theodore B. Olson to be solicitor general, a position of such influence
that it is often referred to as "the 10th member of the Supreme Court,"
affirms that President Bush has turned the US judiciary over to the far
We can't say we weren't warned when Bush, during the campaign, named
Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia as his role models for future judicial
appointments. They returned the compliment by obediently bowing to the
arguments of Bush's lawyer, Olson, that abruptly stopped the vote
counting in Florida, thus handing the election to Bush.
Once in office, Bush quickly appointed three of Thomas's closest
personal and ideological buddies to head the judicial branch of the US
government. Newly minted Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft made that point when he
rushed off to Thomas's chambers to be sworn in out of the public eye. Then
came the appointment of Larry Thompson, who had defended Thomas in his
stormy confirmation hearings, as deputy attorney general. Then the pièce
de résistance: Olson.
While newspaper editorials praised the Bush Administration for its
moderate style, the often mute Thomas emerged from the shadows to
celebrate the far right's triumph. At a conservative dinner soiree,
Thomas issued a militant call to arms decrying "an overemphasis on
civility." Indeed, instead of being civil to those with whom he
disagrees, we had the unseemly spectacle of a Supreme Court Justice
calling for ideological war: "The war in which we are engaged is
cultural, not civil." He chided moderates in his own party saying he was
"deeply concerned because too many [conservatives] show timidity today
precisely when courage is demanded."
Surely he wasn't referring to the President, who has given the GOP
right wing the prize it really wanted: control of the judiciary. Clearly,
the intention is to use the powers of the state to pursue the right's
social agenda while virtually dismantling the federal government as a
force for social justice.
The choice of Olson as solicitor general seals the right wing's
seizure of power. But it could not have happened without the denigration
of the Clinton Administration and its threat to marginalize the right by
moving politics back to the center. Key to the effort to destroy Clinton
was this same Olson, who will now represent the US government in cases
involving affirmative action, the environment and women's rights. Guess
what side of those issues Olson has represented in the past? Olson, a
member of the board of directors and legal counsel for the extreme right
American Spectator magazine, was a principal figure in smearing Clinton
even before the man was elected to his first term. The magazine used $2.4
million provided by far-right billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife to dig up
dirt on Clinton in what started as Troopergate and ended up propelling
the Paula Jones case to the status of an impeachable offense. It was this
same Olson, a close friend of Kenneth Starr, who coached Jones' attorneys
before their successful request to the Supreme Court to allow a civil
suit to be heard against a sitting President.
Olson is one of those family values conservatives who evidently
believes that only wealthy women like his lawyer-talk show pundit third
wife should work. He argued unsuccessfully before the Supreme Court
against a California law that protected the jobs of women who took four
months of unpaid disability leave for pregnancy, terming it "destructive
Olson had another major failure when in 1996 he argued against women
being admitted to the publicly financed all-male Virginia Military
Institute on the grounds that the school's character would be
fundamentally altered. To which Justice Stephen Breyer tartly replied,
One of Olson's unsavory victories came when he got a federal appeals
court to rule that the affirmative action program for admissions at the
University of Texas was unconstitutional. An opponent of environmental
protection, Olson has gone to court to get sections of the Endangered
Species Act declared unconstitutional.
Now Olson and the other friends of Thomas are in a position to weigh
in heavily on future nominations to the Court, and their own names will
surely head the list. These are lawyers who have devoted not only their
professional lives but their personal political activity to reshaping the
Court as an activist vehicle to turn back the clock on the rights of
women, minorities and working people as well as to leave the environment
open to corporate exploitation.
By selecting this triumvirate to head the Justice Department, Bush has
sent the strongest of signals as to his intent to use the Court to
advance the far right's agenda. So much for moderation.
The Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which in late September 2000 began as a wave of popular protest against Ariel Sharon's belligerent incursion into Jerusalem's sacred Haram
It's time for a liberal philosophy focusing on social justice and inequality.
"Of reconsiderations of Western socialism, there is no end," Norman Birnbaum writes cheekily at the opening of his new book--and immediately sets out to show us (successfully) why his is different. "The prominence of ideas on the supreme efficiency of the market, the large changes implied by the notion of globalization, are historically rather recent. They are, however, the contemporary forms of recurrent dilemmas," he declares.
With that thought in mind, Birnbaum, a Nation editorial board member and University Professor at Georgetown University Law School, spins out what is part comprehensive survey and part prescriptive meditation on the future of reformist impulses. Socialism "in all its forms was itself a religion of redemption," he observes, and yet, a paradox presents itself: that socialism "presupposed the kind of human nature it was intended to make possible." And it is the chasm between utopian hopes and reality that most interests Birnbaum. This is no apologia but a broad analysis of the history of progressive social change as it was carried out in Europe and America over the past century.
Some of the ground Birnbaum covers will be familiar--the appeal of socialism to writers from Auden to Dos Passos, Malraux to Mann, in a discussion of cultural modernism, for example, or his recounting Antonio Gramsci's efforts to invent an Italian Marxism that began with the cultural sphere in efforts to lead the political. Birnbaum moves broadly over the Russian Revolution and beyond, the 1930s and wartime in both Europe and the United States, the evolution (and devolution) of the welfare state, contending versions of socialism ("there is something distinctive about socialist movements in Catholic countries," he maintains, as they "become counterchurches, organized around militant secularism") and brings us up to the present moment--even to the effects of the Internet.
"Our societies are ready for a renewed public discussion of what economic and social rights are bound up with citizenship," Birnbaum concludes. Even anecdotally, he illustrates his point: The German constitutional court recently ruled that there was a "burden upon the government to ensure an equality of living standards," he notes, while in the United States the Senate bounced a prospective federal judge who had "argued that the government had a duty to prevent disease and starvation."
REBELS WITH A CAUSE
A director, now an old man, alone, sits in his tidy house by the sea, everything in its place, the notebooks piled in their drawer, the letter opener and pen neatly on the desk. He conjures up his dead lover, an attractive actress named Marianne. She settles into the window seat, or sits in a chair opposite him, or, more rarely, strolls briefly around the room as she flashes back through her life with him and without him, by turns caustically, tenderly, revealingly, angrily. Through watery, startled, wounded, even yearning eyes, he stares at her and at himself years earlier. For entr'acte punctuation, he stares out the window toward the rolling sea, and three or four times even walks toward it. That, and a couple of Paris-from-the-rooftops shots, are among the few shifts from this movie's claustrophobic interiors and tight head shots and static camera setups. Welcome to Faithless. Premiered at last fall's New York Film Festival, written by Ingmar Bergman and directed by Liv Ullman, the movie takes 150 minutes, more or less, to relive one extramarital affair and its aftermath.
The setup? Marianne (the beautiful and talented Lena Endre, whose performance is one of the film's best aspects) is married to Markus (Thomas Hanzon), a conductor who's rich, powerful and handsome. They have a daughter, the saucer-eyed preteen Isabelle (Michelle Gylemo). Markus's best friend is David (Krister Henriksson), a pudgy, morose, egocentric, not-quite-unsuccessful director. One night David shows up when Markus is on tour, and asks Marianne to sleep with him. She is startled, then agrees to sleep--and only that--with him. And so she does, but the seed of adultery is planted. She fantasizes about David, approaches him and kisses him on the lips (his characteristic response: "This is serious") and decides to meet him in Paris while Markus is in Detroit at a recording session. They agree to "discover" they'll be in Paris at the same time during Markus's farewell dinner, and the affair begins.
Throughout its twists and turns, angst prevails, as steady and remorseless as the unwavering camera's medium-to-close-up range, through flickering moments of sex and happiness. For the older though not much wiser David has conjured a Marianne less Eurydice than Emma Bovary. She's ironic, introspective, optimistic, yet armed with an existentialist sensibility, although somehow--it's unclear whether this reflects the general human condition or whether Marianne is yet another woman in movie-love who pays the wages of sin--she never quite manages to understand why these things are happening to her. She stays almost willfully blind to probable chains of events even when she's set them in motion herself.
Watch how she persistently teases Markus on the eve of his departure about her being with David in Paris. She nudges him into suspicion without a clue that that's what she's done--until he shows up, months later, to confront her in David's bed. In one of the film's most human and effective scenes, she and David blur between laughter and tears while Markus rages and guilt-trips and swaggers and simply stares.
From there on, things unravel relentlessly. There are Isabelle's emotional traumas; an aborted death pact between Markus and Isabelle; David's calculated outbreaks of violent jealousy (in one scene, he asks Marianne about previous lovers, then throws her around after she tells of Markus's sexual power over her); Marianne's unconvincing analyses of herself and her world (she insists to David that she likes simplicity, where he insists things must always be more complicated than they seem); her abortion of David's child after she's screwed Markus several times in one night as part of a "deal" to get custody of Isabelle (all-powerful Social Services looks askance at her future with David); and the affair's last spasms and final collapse. Like a revenge tragedy, it ends with nearly everyone dead, and the old man once more walking toward the sea, meditating on drowning.
Even compared with Bergman's 1973 TV series Scenes From a Marriage, there's a remarkable amount of talk here, far outweighing action. Characters ponder the links, articulated and not, between sex and death, happiness and pain, and the guilt of the past unredeemed. What, Bergman seems to ask in Faithless, could be more human than to blunder or float from event to event as if this particular chain of them were wrapping its way around somebody else? Maybe nothing, but it's also a bit of a trick question: Bergman is no moral relativist. Time after time he's filmed his brooding sense that moral codes as rigid and predetermined as his camera angles underlie the apparent games of chance operating the universe. It's no mere conceit that Faithless is made from the voices of the dead in an old man's head.
Ullmann (who, in addition to her many deservedly praised starring roles in Bergman films, played the wife, also named Marianne, in Scenes) has praised Bergman's hard-won willingness to face himself in this script, mentioning its autobiographical genesis. Fair enough: The film doesn't spare middle-aged David, but it also makes him the center of Marianne's story. Here it's worth noting that Bergman is very much this movie's auteur, though he hasn't directed a feature film in eighteen years. Perhaps it's unintentional, perhaps it's a larger Bergmanesque irony, but Ullmann directs in Bergman's cinematic language in much the same way Marianne, his "muse," speaks his own thoughts.
In her fourth directorial effort (her previous film, Private Confessions, dutifullyshot another Bergman script, that one based on his parents' marriage and infidelities), Ullmann has clearly internalized her erstwhile friend and lover's deliberate, at times ponderous, pacing and pared-back camerawork, his tight shots, even his masterful flair for subtle signposts to mark a mood shift or plot turn, like changing the light or color of a scene. What is more typically Bergman than interrelations between macrocosm and microcosm?
But honesty? Aside from the nagging sense of loss that middle-aged and old David share, what does this self-described malcontent carry with him from all those grave trips down memory lane? The old man touches Marianne's face, and his own younger face too, in benediction, but it reads more like solipsism than real emotional connection.
For all its biting truths, this is a movie about talk whose talk meanders around self-examination without ever really striking self-awareness. Everyone in Faithless is trapped, by their creator's design, in a self-sealed world. Is this honesty about human reality or a kind of smug, bleak paternalism? That and its quaint take on infidelity explain why Faithless ultimately feels like a soap opera for highbrows. (Who else sits through movies with subtitles?) It lacquers an existentialist veneer onto Big Issues like Life and Love and Relationships and Death. But minus the larger framing issues that resonated through Scenes and that series' far more dramatic vicissitudes, in modern America--if not modern Scandinavia--Bergman's truths too often come off as melodramatic, heavy-handed and trite rather than timeless. We're left, in Faithless, with an almost medieval allegory that ultimately flattens human foibles into archetypal moral categories.
It's as if in his old age Bergman has forgotten his lessons from Ibsen's Hedda Gabler and A Doll's House, where real, if inevitably frail, individuals are dramatically, provocatively shaped and bent by larger forces. Scenes worked best when it followed Ibsen's lead. In Faithless, however, Bergman, like the old David (Erland Josephson, who has played the movie Bergman before), spends a lot of time in front of the mirror. When does merciless self-examination slide imperceptibly into narcissism?
Here's my problem. If there's a line separating the later Bergman's existential dilemmas from daily infusions of TV soapsuds, Scenes From A Marriage helped confuse me about where that line might be. (PBS and BBC costume dramas, movies like The English Patient and My Dinner with André, Barbra Streisand, Tennessee Williams and Op-Ed pieces about media violence have the same effect on me.)
Until then, I knew I was supposed to be in awe of Bergman. I saw The Seventh Seal when I was a teenager, and like a good intellectual wannabe, entranced by Death the chess player, I voyaged through Bergman's oeuvre during high school and college. Scenes From A Marriage left me saying goodbye to all that. I guess I decided it was more fun, less patronizing and (in ways I didn't have to defend to myself anymore) more enlightening, even, to tune in to An American Family, the 1973 PBS foray into reality TV that aired at around the same time. Who remembers the Louds, Santa Barbara's favorite upper-middle-class real-life soap opera, who became inured to cameras following them through a year of their lives? One kid coming out of the closet, sex and drug problems for the others, a disintegrating marriage between the apparently sophisticated adults masquerading as parents and, through the bemusement and horror, some key issues of contemporary American life driving a cast of self-consciously avid talkers who grew remarkably sophisticated (if frequently self-contradictory), somehow conscious and unconscious about cameras and soundbites as their Andy Warhol moments of fame spun on and on and on...
A few years later, I was living in Italy when I saw Woody Allen's Interiors, his first overt homage to Bergman. My Italian was pretty good, but as I sat in the huge cold Roman theater with a smattering of chatting Italians watching the frozen, black-and-white anguish spread like molasses across the patched screen, I kept straining for punch lines that never came, making them up for myself when they didn't, finding ironies in the dubbed Italian voices emitted by actors whose accents I knew only too well. I left feeling as though I understood multiple-personality disorder from the inside--not because of the movie, exactly, but from my time in the dark spent in parallel with it.
The unintentional Brechtian effect that Interiors had on me extinguished whatever was left of my need or desire for Bergman's increasingly circumscribed world of angst and sin and guilt, even if filtered through Liv Ullmann's disciplined lens. That, of course, isn't their fault. But despite some fine moments, Faithless didn't convince me I was wrong.
With over 100,000 members in college and university chapters, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was the largest and most significant of the 1960s New Left organizations in the United States. While its history has been told before in a few well-known titles--Kirkpatrick Sale's SDS, James Miller's "Democracy Is in the Streets," Todd Gitlin's The Sixties and Thomas Powers's Diana among them--SDS is finally getting visual treatment as well with Helen Garvy's intriguing film Rebels With a Cause.
Garvy, a former assistant national secretary of SDS, reveals an insider's history of the organization with her film, built around the voices of twenty-eight of its leading activists, including Tom Hayden, Carl Oglesby, Casey Hayden and Bernardine Dohrn. And despite a sparse use of visual images, narration and music, Garvy has created an affecting picture. She avoids the "talking heads" danger inherent in documentary technique through tight editing--one interviewee picks up right where another leaves off. The effect is that of a seamless and compelling narration to the unfolding history and issues.
While other films about the '60s capture the energy and excitement of student rebellion with footage of protests and confrontation, this one captures the thought that went into the activism. It is the best film record we have of the intellectual motivations of the New Left in the United States.
The SDS story as Garvy tells it begins with its founding in 1960 as an organization concerned with racism, poverty, democratization of American society, the cold war and the danger of nuclear confrontation. SDS sought to identify itself with the left but avoid the traditional leftist pitfalls of sectarianism and dogmatism. The Port Huron Statement, drafted two years later by Tom Hayden, began with an expression of the generational anxieties to which SDS was responding: "We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."
Despite the great concerns and ambitions of its founders, SDS was at first nothing more than a loose network of activist friends on a few college campuses (Michigan and Swarthmore, in particular) and in New York City. Then the contacts began to expand; I first heard about SDS in 1963 as a freshman at the University of Oklahoma, where we were concerned with ending both segregation in the surrounding community and compulsory ROTC on campus.
The most important initial organizing thrust of SDS was to serve as a Northern student adjunct to the Southern civil rights movement. But it quickly moved from supporting the Southern struggle to attempting to spark parallel struggles in the North. Through its Economic Research and Action Project (ERAP) the organization embarked on a series of ambitious community organizing campaigns in nine Northern cities with the avowed aim of creating an interracial movement of the poor. "We were very serious organizers," Sharon Jeffrey says in the film. "We intended to change the world." Within a couple of years, though, the escalating Vietnam War began to divert the energies of SDS away from its domestic community-organizing agenda. The ERAP began to wither, as did a number of civil rights projects in the South.
Nineteen sixty-five was a critical year in this transition. On April 17 SDS held the first March on Washington to protest US intervention in Vietnam. Exceeding all expectations, 25,000 people participated. Then more than 100,000 took part in the October 15 International Days of Protest and the November 27 second March on Washington sponsored by SDS and a range of other organizations. The number of SDS chapters on campuses multiplied from a few dozen to well over a hundred. Thousands of new members joined up. National and international media descended upon the Chicago national office, where I was working at the time, thinking that they had located the epicenter of the antiwar movement. In reality, by this time, SDS was just one of many organizations responding to a groundswell of opposition to the war.
The war was the new reality. At this time, SDS was actively struggling against America's foreign policy as well as its racial and economic policies at home. Then, in December 1965, Casey Hayden and Mary King, both highly regarded organizers and informal leaders from the civil rights movement, opened up yet another front. They circulated a letter, titled "Sex and Caste," that called upon women in SDS (and the movement in general) to initiate dialogues over "the problems between men and women." This call added gender to the inequalities of race and class that the organization sought to redress. It also marked the beginning of women's activism in the movement.
For the next four years, SDS played a prominent role in the growth of a freewheeling and militant new radicalism. But the movement defied any kind of central control, and a succession of national SDS leaders struggled to establish a clear role for the organization.
An initially small faction dominated by the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a pro-China splinter from the Communist Party, made inroads into SDS year by year, and its opponents among the national leadership grew increasingly rattled as they sought to fashion nonsectarian alternatives to PL's brand of Marxism-Leninism. The 1969 SDS convention in Chicago broke into warring factions--one controlled by PL, another by the emergent Weather Underground and others, including the Revolutionary Youth Movement. The Weather faction controlled the national SDS office until early 1970, then closed it down before going underground. That marked the formal end of the organization.
In many ways SDS succumbed to the very sectarianism that it had sought to avoid. "There was a process of one-upmanship on rhetoric," Bob Ross says, "that eventually one-upped us right out of touch with either students or the mass of the people."
Most of the tendencies of the radical politics of the seventies, including clandestine guerrilla organizations and the attempts to build Marxist-Leninist parties, can be traced from the breakup of SDS. Some members, however, came out of SDS committed to electoral politics and moving the Democratic Party to the left. A significant number also continued to pursue grassroots organizing strategies.
Although the SDS name continued to be employed by PL for several years, it was not the same organization and has never been recognized as such by original SDS activists. Consequently, Garvy does not include the PL "SDS" in her treatment. However, she does describe the Weather Underground experience, since its leading activists had roots in SDS. A number of these, including Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers and Cathy Wilkerson, speak in the film.
Garvy treads cautiously in this part of Rebels. Since the Weather campaign of terrorism continues to be an issue of sore dispute among SDS veterans, Garvy tells two sides of this story. She includes both a point-blank denunciation of the Weathermen as unrepresentative of the movement by former SDS president Todd Gitlin and a sympathetic interpretation--that the Weather tactics grew out of frustration with the failure of large-scale marches and other nonviolent tactics to stop the war. "In some ways," Jane Adams says, "I felt that they were my agent despite the fact that I didn't agree with them. I could fully understand the frustration out of which their rage came."
But not all of SDS's long-term survival problems were due to its internal dynamics. Documents released through the Freedom of Information Act confirm what was widely suspected then: The FBI and other government agencies kept close tabs on SDS and disrupted its activities through the FBI counterintelligence program (COINTELPRO). The full extent to which government agencies contributed to destroying the organization's effectiveness remains unknown. There are still-unreleased files, and, as is typical, much of the content of the released material is blacked out.
Garvy situates SDS as a phenomenon of homegrown radicalism in the great tradition of American grassroots democratic movements. What she chooses not to show is that SDS was also a phenomenon of the American left.
SDS was as much an outgrowth of, and entangled in, the left-wing political tradition as it was a spontaneous response to issues of the time. A number of its original activists came from left-wing, including Communist, families. The organization began as the student affiliate of the cold war social-democratic League for Industrial Democracy (LID), which had a long history of intraleft warfare against Communism.
The LID parentage proved increasingly problematic as SDS got older, especially as the Vietnam War became a major issue. (Leading members of LID supported the war.) The final straw that broke the relationship came at the 1965 national convention when SDS voted to remove a clause in its constitution that barred Communists from membership. SDS's "anti-anti-Communist" stance could not be tolerated by the profoundly anti-Communist LID, and a formal separation was negotiated a couple of months later.
Throughout its history, SDS saw itself as an alternative to the traditional left-wing Trotskyist, Maoist and Soviet-aligned groups, which it dismissed as sectarian and largely irrelevant to the nation's political life. (It was in SDS that I learned the difference between an "-ist" and an "-ite." You used the former for polite descriptions, the latter for ideological enemies.) Nevertheless, it had both to struggle with those groups and to participate with them in coalition activities. Thus, historical events of the left, from the split between communists and social democrats to the Sino-Soviet split (via the PL), contributed to creating the organizational environment in which SDS functioned.
Garvy can be forgiven for leaving out this part of the story in the interest of producing a film for wide consumption--how many ordinary people would want to sit through hearing SDS veterans onscreen reminiscing about their differences with Trotskyism or other leftist tendencies? Still, those differences did make up a part of the nitty-gritty struggles of the day and were a significant part of SDS history.
Rebels With a Cause can best be described as oral history in the form of a film. As such it is a faithful record--without the left-wing context--of that part of the 1960s movement. It is especially valuable as an antidote to the cynical interpretations that dismiss the 1960s activists as either misguided idealists or hedonists consumed with sex, drugs and rock and roll. But beyond establishing an accurate record, the film's contribution is its transmission of historical memory to later generations. It is an especially valuable resource for current activists who wish to link their struggles to those of the recent past.
I was therefore curious to know what this generation of students, who had not been born when the 1960s movement took place, would think of Garvy's film. There had been no overt censorship to prevent transmittal of the memory. But would other mechanisms keep students from knowing this history? Would they consider the events to be too remotely in the past to have any relevance to their lives?
I showed Rebels With a Cause at the university where I teach--Eastern Connecticut State, a working-class campus not at all known for student activism. As one might expect, reactions and interests varied. What I was most struck by was that while all the students had heard of the civil rights movement, many had not heard of the antiwar movement.
The media and schools have enshrined the civil rights movement, as they should, as a good example of a social movement in American history. The antiwar movement is another matter. It is largely ignored by the media and schools because it is still controversial--both in terms of whether citizens should have protested that war and, most important, for the "dangerous" example it set for how citizens might respond to present and future wars engaged in by this country.
In Rebels With a Cause Helen Garvy has given us a resource for keeping alive the radical memory of such dangerous examples and dreams in American history.
Another book on the Vietnam War? Yes, and one well worth our attention. Enough time has now passed that A.J. Langguth's Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975 serves not only as a wonderful addition to the rich and diverse literature on the war but as a good vehicle for revisiting and better understanding a tragedy of profound dimension. It is also an excellent one-volume introduction to the subject for those to whom this two-decade national experience is mainly a historical episode--and a useful lens through which to view the new Administration of George W. Bush as it begins to deal with military and national security issues.
Langguth is not a professional historian who approaches the Vietnam War merely through archives and secondary sources; he is a seasoned journalist who was on the ground in Vietnam for the New York Times when US combat troops began fighting in large numbers. Initially as a reporter and then as the paper's Saigon bureau chief, Langguth covered the war during this transformative period of 1964-65. He returned to Vietnam in 1968 to report on the aftermath of the Tet offensive, and then in 1970 to report on the US invasion of Cambodia. In preparing Our Vietnam he made five trips to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, wherehe writes he was "warmly received by Vietcong officers and lifelong Communist politicians."
Langguth's firsthand experiences in Vietnam help infuse this anecdotally rich chronological narrative with a vividness and immediacy that propel the reader through nearly 700 pages of history. It is disappointing that he did not write a concluding chapter or two in which to reflect on the longer-term meanings and consequences of the war. But, to his credit, he does cover the war not only from the American perspective but also from the vantage points of the South Vietnamese, the North Vietnamese and the Vietcong. Langguth stays out of the way of his story--as he states, "My goal was simply a straightforward narrative that would let readers draw their own conclusions"--but makes his own point of view quite clear in the book's final paragraph: "North Vietnam's leaders had deserved to win. South Vietnam's leaders had deserved to lose. And America's leaders, for thirty years, had failed the people of the North, the people of the South, and the people of the United States."
Our Vietnam compares favorably with other books on Vietnam written by journalists that attracted wide public acclaim when published and retain distinguished and important places within the literature on the war. David Halberstam began The Best and the Brightest on the heels of covering the domestic turbulence created by the war during the 1968 campaign, in which he "had seen the Johnson Administration and its legatee defeated largely because of the one issue." When his book was published in 1971, US soldiers were still fighting in Vietnam and Richard Nixon was President. Thus, although Halberstam's study of how and why American leaders made decision after decision leading up to and sustaining the war remains a touchstone, he wrote of an event he was living through and for which he had limited sources.
Stanley Karnow's Vietnam: A History is an exceptional single-volume history of the American war in Vietnam, which Langguth almost seems to have used as a guide for his own effort. Although Karnow gives his thoroughly engaging, magisterial history a broad perspective, Langguth had access to more information because he was writing later, and his narrative provides a richer Vietnamese perspective on events. Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam is a remarkable, at times staggering, historical account of the war. But because Sheehan uses the story of Vann's life to tell the tale--even ending with the observation that "John Vann...died believing he had won his war"--his captivating narrative is more personal than a conventional historical account.
Our Vietnam should help keep the record honest today, too, by constituting an antidote to the published memoirs of those who planned and executed the war, the most prominent being former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. In his memoir, In Retrospect, McNamara wrote that his "associates in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were an exceptional group: young, vigorous, intelligent, well-meaning, patriotic servants of the United States," and he wondered: How "did this group...get it wrong on Vietnam?"The mistakes, he insisted, were "mostly honest mistakes," the errors ones "not of values and intentions but of judgment and capabilities." (Langguth's chronology and evidentiary record contradict that view forcefully.)
Langguth's retelling of America's involvement in Vietnam covers already familiar ground. After the North Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, Washington--in keeping with a cold war mentality that gripped much of the nation--promised "free elections" in South Vietnam and dispatched military personnel to train South Vietnam's army. But Vietnam was not on President Eisenhower's radar screen. When he met with President-elect John Kennedy during the transition, he drew Kennedy's attention to Laos as a potential trouble spot and made no mention of Vietnam. As the new President became focused on Vietnam, Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles--both an oracle and a lone wolf--warned (to no avail) against US military involvement there, because it would put the "prestige and power" of the United States on the line "in a remote area under the most adverse circumstances."
In 1961 McNamara became the Kennedy Administration's "supervisor for Vietnam," which caused many, years later, to refer to the conflict as McNamara's War. In 1962 Kennedy began to increase the number of US personnel in Vietnam. In 1963 Buddhists there were mounting a challenge to the autocratic ways of South Vietnam's Prime Minister Ngo Dinh Diem; indeed, that summer one Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, horrified the world by burning himself to death on a Saigon street. Diem was murdered only weeks before Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963.
On to the Johnson Administration: On August 7, 1964, Congress rubberstamped--the House vote was 416 to 0 and the Senate's was 88 to 2--an Administration-drafted resolution informally called the Tonkin Gulf Resolution (following a trumped-up incident of attack on a US vessel), which authorized the President to take "all necessary measures to repel any armed attacks against" US forces and "to prevent further aggression." A month after eight Americans were killed at the US base in Pleiku in February 1965, the United States commenced Rolling Thunder, the systematic bombing of North Vietnam, which continued (with some pauses) until October 1968. In March 1965 President Johnson committed land troops to South Vietnam, which over the next two and a half years were increased to more than 500,000.
When the United States went to war, most Americans might have said that the goal of the war was to stop the spread of Communism. But it is likely that only a small portion of them gave much thought to the meaning of that slogan as it applied to Vietnam. Moreover, a still smaller percentage probably thought carefully about how this war would actually prevent the spread of Communism, and what important interest the United States really had in doing so in South Vietnam per se. Thus, when the war began for the United States in earnest in 1965, the American public had only a wafer-thin understanding of why the nation was fighting a land war in Southeast Asia, the goals of the conflict, the dangers, whether the aims of the war were realistic and what magnitude of commitment and sacrifice might be required to see it through.
Once the war began, it dragged on from one season to the next, year after year. The public became restless and the antiwar movement became forceful. In early 1968 the North Vietnamese pulled off the stunning Tet offensive, which left the indelible image of Marines desperately fighting for their lives as they defended the US Embassy in Saigon. Washington tried to assure the American people that Tet was not a Communist victory. But George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, may have expressed the public's mood best when he said sardonically: "If this is a failure, I hope the Vietcong never have a major success." In the end, Tet shredded confidence in Washington, the idea that the war was being won and the suggestion that the South Vietnamese government was anything but a corrupt puppet.
Senator Eugene McCarthy challenged President Johnson for the Democratic Party presidential nomination and stunned the nation by getting 42.2 percent of the vote in the 1968 New Hampshire presidential primary. A few weeks later, the group of so-called Wise Men advised Johnson not to escalate the war further, and days after that Johnson told the nation he would halt much of the bombing and agree to negotiations with the North Vietnamese. He added that he would not be a candidate for re-election. When the Paris Peace Talks were about to begin, the South Vietnamese refused to attend, and the North Vietnamese and US delegations settled into arguing about the shape of the table at which they would sit--and Americans and Vietnamese continued to die.
When Richard Nixon won the general election, he didn't consider an immediate cessation of hostilities. Instead, he inaugurated a policy--eventually termed "Vietnamization"--of gradually withdrawing ground troops. At the same time, the war from the air was enlarged as he ordered the secret bombing of Communist bases in Cambodia. But the war did wind down, if slowly, and the last US combat troops left South Vietnam in March 1973. Rather than face an impeachment trial, Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974, which left Gerald Ford as President when the North Vietnamese smashed through the gates of Independence Palace in Saigon and defeated the South Vietnamese in 1975.
Vietnam was a tragedy of immense proportions, and although it is regrettable that Langguth does not try to distill its causes, his carefully presented evidence makes it plain that the only arguable United States national security interest in Vietnam was the cold war policy of containing Communism to ward off the oft-invoked "domino effect." But even in this regard, Langguth's account indicates that those who planned and executed the war believed that the primary interest of the United States had less to do with containing Communism than it did with some vague idea of national prestige. As the respected John McNaughton, assistant secretary for international security affairs, stated in a 1965 memorandum to McNamara, "70%" of the purpose of US military intervention during the transition was "to avoid a humiliating US defeat (to our reputation as a guarantor)."
Langguth's account also firmly rules out the idea that Vietnam was a quagmire that US leaders stumbled into unaware of the risks. The "quagmire thesis" first made its mark on public consciousness when David Halberstam wrote The Making of a Quagmire in 1964, maintaining that well-intentioned, idealistic American leaders blundered their way in. After that, many were responsible for restating and elaborating the theme, but it was probably Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the prominent historian and former Kennedy aide, who gave the thesis one of its most quoted expressions, in The Bitter Heritage: Vietnam and American Democracy, 1941-1966, published in 1967.
When I did my research for The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case, it seemed that the Pentagon Papers had smashed the quagmire thesis to smithereens. The Pentagon Papers were a massive, 7,000-page, top-secret military history of America's involvement in Vietnam from the end of World War II to 1968, which McNamara had commissioned in 1967 and which Daniel Ellsberg leaked to the New York Times (and the Washington Post also ran) in 1971. They consisted of government documents embodying key decisions that led up to the war and sustained it, as well as accounts written by so-called Pentagon historians whose task it was to write a narrative of the decisions and events as recorded in the government documents that the study comprised.
But the theme of a morass that had trapped us unwittingly proved resilient. Weeks after the Pentagon Papers became public, none other than Schlesinger stepped forward to defend the quagmire claim against attacks on it by Ellsberg and others. Schlesinger wrote that "the Vietnam adventure was marked much more by ignorance, misjudgment, and muddle than by foresight, awareness, and calculation." He concluded that "I cannot find persuasive evidence that our generals, diplomats, and Presidents were all that sagacious and farsighted that they heard how hopeless things were, agreed with what they heard, and then 'knowingly' defied prescient warnings in order to lurch ahead into what they knew was inevitable disaster."
Even today that view continues to have currency, but Langguth will have none of this. He establishes not only that ranking US officials time and again perceived the dangers but that they were simultaneously unconvinced that the United States had any meaningful national defense or security interests in Vietnam that would have warranted war. Langguth's portrait is one of these same leaders feeling hemmed in by domestic political considerations. They believed that the harm to themselves at home (as well as perhaps to their party) would be too substantial if they were to change the direction of the cold war-inspired policies that were spawned at the end of World War II, and gradually but relentlessly supported the American military involvement in Southeast Asia.
Consider three incidents recounted by Langguth as illustrative of this theme. President Kennedy told his scheduling secretary, Kenny O'Donnell, in 1963 that "withdrawal in 1965 would make him one of the most unpopular presidents in history. He would be damned everywhere as a Communist appeaser. 'But I don't care,' Kennedy said. 'If I tried to pull out completely now from Vietnam we would have another Joe McCarthy red scare on our hands, but I can do it after I'm reelected. So we had better make damned sure that I am reelected.'"
During a 1964 taped telephone conversation between President Johnson and Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, Russell said, "I don't see how we're ever getting out [of Vietnam] without fighting a major war with the Chinese and all of them down there in those rice paddies and jungles. I just don't see it. I just don't know what to do." Johnson answered: "That's the way I've been feeling for six months." When Johnson asked Russell, "How important is it to us?" and Russell answered, "Not important a damned bit," the President did not disagree. Johnson also told Russell that he did not think people knew much about Vietnam and that "they care a hell of a lot less." Toward the end of the conversation, Johnson speculated, "They'd impeach a President that runs out, wouldn't they?"
Langguth also reports a telling incident just before Christmas 1970, when President Nixon told Henry Kissinger, his National Security Adviser, that he "considered making 1971 the last year of America's involvement in Vietnam." Nixon said that he planned to tour South Vietnam in April 1971, reassure South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu about the consequences of the impending US withdrawal and then come home and "announce that America's role in Vietnam was over." Kissinger protested. He argued that after the withdrawal, the "Communists could start trouble" in 1972, which meant that the "Nixon administration would pay the political price in the 1972 presidential election." Kissinger advised, as Langguth recounts, that "Nixon should promise instead only that he would get American troops out by the end of 1972. That schedule would get him safely past his re-election. Nixon saw the wisdom in Kissinger's argument that guaranteeing his second term would require American soldiers to go on dying."
It would be overreaching to assert that Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon made defense and national security decisions solely in response to their own perceived political fortunes, but the evidence does make it clear that their decisions were greatly influenced by the consideration. And to accept that domestic political concerns played such a pivotal role in the US war in Vietnam, which cost 57,000 American and an estimated 2 million Vietnamese lives, constitutes a profound challenge to the capacity of a democratic order to fashion and implement moral and prudent policies.
As damning as it is to accept the degree to which personal and party interests prompted policies that led to such a protracted war, it would be a mistake to think of the Democrats and Republicans who made those decisions as somehow uniquely flawed. It is unlikely that the qualities of mind, temperament and character of current and future political leaders will be more vital, wise or resourceful than those who occupied high office between 1954 and 1975. One must accept that the United States is not likely to have leaders who have the vision, the ability to communicate and that rare quality of leadership that will allow them to reshape what is politically possible by fundamentally altering (after they have helped formulate it) an entrenched mindset that dominates a nation.
Although Langguth's Our Vietnam does not confront this conundrum, his vivid retelling of the American war there allows us to consider once again the role played by the antiwar movement in bringing the war to an end. In so many ways, the movement was chaotic and ineffective. But can one imagine what would have been the course of the conflict if there had been no movement? Would the US combat forces in Vietnam have risen to a million? Would the United States have used nuclear weapons? Would the United States have supported a war of attrition for another three or four years? The movement was the countervailing force to, in its words, "the system" that made and sustained the war. The movement restrained Johnson's buildup; it put Senator McCarthy in a position to mount a challenge to a sitting President; it pressured Nixon to find a way out of an even longer war. The movement accomplished nothing quickly or easily--it couldn't. It was battling a cold war sensibility implanted in the American mind since the end of World War II. What is so astounding, therefore, is not that the movement did not achieve more, but that it achieved so much.
Just as a people may set constraints on the political process that politicians experience as a prison without walls, the people may also be, as they were during the Vietnam War, the system's last best hope. And if that is true, then the people need to be fully engaged as the inexperienced President Bush confronts an array of defense and national security issues: When and under what circumstances should the United States commit ground forces to a situation comparable to Kuwait or Bosnia? Should the United States deploy a national missile defense system? Is the United States meddling in a civil war in Colombia under the guise of advancing a hapless "war on drugs"? If dangerous weapons of mass destruction are identified with certainty in a nation considered a threat, what is the appropriate response?
Langguth's Our Vietnam reminds us time and again of the importance of skepticism and distrust in assessing defense and national security policies. One anecdote about that engagement makes the point memorably. In August 1964 Johnson was widely praised for ordering airstrikes against North Vietnam in the wake of the Tonkin Gulf incident. The influential New York Times columnist James Reston wrote that "even men who had wondered how Johnson would act under fire 'were saying that they now had a commander-in-chief who was better under pressure than they had ever seen him.'" There were not many dissenting voices, but I.F. Stone was one. Referring to the right-wing Republican presidential candidate, who criticized Johnson's policies toward North Vietnam as insufferably weak, Stone wrote in his weekly: "Who was Johnson trying to impress? Ho Chi Minh? Or Barry Goldwater?" Stone's response in this pivotal event is a vital example of a frame of mind that would serve the nation well if it were widely adopted. Any book that becomes a vessel for meaningful re-examination of a national tragedy is exceptional and demands broad attention. And that is what Langguth's book is, and does.