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Still Chasing the Wrong Rainbows

“Our leaders are following the wrong rainbow.” So remarked the historian William Appleman Williams on April 1, 1965. The occasion was a “teach-in” organized by students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin to protest against the Vietnam War.

Both the war and the phenomenon known ever since as “the Sixties” were just then kicking into high gear. At that moment, in ways that are today difficult to recall, American history and historians of the United States mattered. Among those historians, Williams was then achieving prominence (or notoriety) for challenging the conventional narrative of American statecraft and more specifically the origins and conduct of the Cold War.  

The essence of that conventional narrative, as Williams later wrote, was that the “American Empire just grew like Topsy.” According to this interpretation, the United States became a superpower reluctantly, almost inadvertently, as if through the workings of Providence. Its rise to preeminence ostensibly occurred despite the inclinations of the American people who viewed the outside world with suspicion and disdain and who wanted nothing more than to keep to themselves.  

Williams argued otherwise, crediting American statesmen with having pursued a sophisticated, if opportunistic strategy of expansionism. Over the course of nearly two centuries, the United States had sought power and had succeeded spectacularly in acquiring it. Furthermore, Williams dared to suggest that this longstanding penchant for expansionism was essential to understanding the ongoing Cold War.  

For students in Madison (and elsewhere) who found Lyndon Johnson’s justification for bombing North Vietnam and ordering U.S. combat troops into the South unpersuasive, here was an alternative framework that seemed to make sense. Williams’s critique of orthodoxy meshed neatly with events unfolding before their eyes. Here, in short, was a rendering of the past that illuminated the present.

In our own day, the purpose of history is less to illuminate than to entertain or reassure. More or less like poetry, history serves at best an ornamental function. Today the only American historians enjoying a significant public profile are those like Michael Beschloss or Doris Kearns Goodwin who specialize in repackaging colorful stories. Innovative, critical, probing history does not lack for practitioners;  yet beyond the confines of the professoriate, it commands minimal attention.  

The writings of Professor Williams commanded plenty of attention. Members of that amorphous coalition known as the New Left lionized him. Critics of the New Left intent on discrediting Williams called him every name in the book: economic determinist, communist fellow-traveler, and purveyor of anti-American propaganda.  

Williams was an unapologetic radical. Yet he was by no means unsympathetic to conservatives. Nor did he lack for patriotism. Indeed, viewed in retrospect, he was one of those American intellectuals who bridge the divide between left and right, thereby representing some distinctive amalgam drawing from both camps. (Among Americans, Randolph Bourne, Charles Beard, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Christopher Lasch offer other twentieth-century examples).

So the remarks that Williams made some fifty-two years ago included the following reflection, worth pondering by present-day conservatives. “If we justify our intervention in Vietnam on the grounds that it is crucial to our national security,” he said, “we will soon be able to justify using our power for whatever we happen at the moment to want, or against whatever at the moment we do not like.” Furthermore, “That kind of moral arrogance—that kind of playing at being God—will destroy any chance we have to construct a good society.” Then Williams added:

Notice that I said good society. We already have a great society, and I think that may be the source of much of the trouble with our leaders. For greatness has primarily to do with size, strength, and power. But we citizens who are gathered here are primarily concerned with quality, equity, and with honoring our potential for becoming more fully and truly human.

In 1965, confusion about the distinction between great and good found American leaders “following the wrong rainbow.” President Johnson was promising Americans a “Great Society.” What he was actually delivering was an unnecessary war destined to cost the country dearly and leave it bitterly divided.

Today, in the era of Donald Trump, that confusion has returned with a vengeance. Trump for his part vows to “Make America Great Again,” with greatness measured in quantitative terms: jobs, income, profits, stock prices, and trade balances. For those ordinary Americans left behind or dispossessed by the economic and social changes that have swept the United States in recent decades, the appeal of Trump’s promise of greatness restored is understandable. Their resentment handed him the White House.

Yet Trump’s first hundred days in residence there offer precious little evidence that he will deliver on that promise. Neither he nor anyone else in the Republican leadership has demonstrated the requisite competence or political savvy. Furthermore, nothing that Trump has said or done since taking office suggests that he possesses the capacity or even the inclination to articulate a unifying conception of a common good. The real, although unarticulated slogan of his presidency, is one that looks to “Deepen American Divisions,” with members of the fiercely anti-Trump Left, his ironic collaborators. On all sides, resentment grows.  

Meanwhile, to judge by Trump’s one-and-done missile attack on Syria and the fatuous deployment of the “Mother of All Bombs” in Afghanistan, our president’s approach to statecraft makes Lyndon Johnson look circumspect by comparison. Trump assured his supporters that he was going to break the hold of the foreign-policy establishment. In fact, he has embraced the establishment’s penchant for “using our power for whatever we happen at the moment to want, or against whatever at the moment we do not like.” U.S. national-security policy has become monumentally incoherent, with the man in charge apparently doing whatever his gut or his latest visitor at Mar-a-Lago tells him to do.

This defines the nation’s current predicament: Whatever agreement once existed on what it means to be either great or good has pretty much disappeared from American political culture. Our fragmented society pursues any number of illusory rainbows. Restoring some semblance of a common culture thereby poses a daunting challenge, even larger today than back in the Sixties when everything seemed to be coming apart at the seams. I will refrain from offering any glib advice for how to promote that restoration.

If hardly less challenging, imparting a modicum of coherence to U.S. policy abroad may actually qualify as more urgent. After all, the impetuous Trump appears more likely than Lyndon Johnson to blow up the world.

In that regard, the views expressed by Professor Williams back in 1965 in explaining the rationale for the “teach-ins” offer at least a place to begin. “We are trying to bring our Government back into a dialogue with its own citizens,” he explained.  

We are trying to encourage Congress to meet its responsibilities and to function as a full partner in governing the country. We are trying to change our foreign policy so that it will be closer to the realities of the world and far more in keeping with our best traditions and highest ideals—and thereby make it pragmatically more effective.  

To align foreign policy with American values and with “the realities of the world,” Williams believed, offered a first step toward something even bigger. Williams understood the intimate linkage between the way the United States acts abroad and what it is at home—each expressing the other. To correct the defects in U.S. foreign policy, especially its misuse of force, could “generate the kind of changes that could transform America into a more humane and creative country.”  

As a place to begin, it was good advice then. It remains good advice today.

Andrew J. Bacevich is TAC’s writer-at-large.

14 Comments (Open | Close)

14 Comments To "Still Chasing the Wrong Rainbows"

#1 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 4, 2017 @ 6:19 am

“Over the course of nearly two centuries, the United States had sought power and had succeeded spectacularly in acquiring it. Furthermore, Williams dared to suggest that this longstanding penchant for expansionism was essential to understanding the ongoing Cold War.”

I suppose the mesmerizing power of government propaganda has led me to understand this better late than never.

It’s the ironic observation that a famous general made to his audience, that those who underestimate the power of flattery have never made use of it.

#2 Comment By Bart Frazier On May 4, 2017 @ 7:51 am

Mr. Bacevich, Mr. Williams has quite the catalog. Any recommendations?

#3 Comment By Tyler P. Harwell On May 4, 2017 @ 7:52 am

Well said.

“U.S. national-security policy has become monumentally incoherent, with the man in charge apparently doing whatever his gut or his latest visitor at Mar-a-Lago tells him to do.” A process begun under Bush, diligently carried on by Obama, and now accelerated by Trump.

#4 Comment By WILLIAM J APLINGTON On May 4, 2017 @ 10:42 am

Reading this after seeing Sec.Tillerson’s beginnings of an exposition of the Trump “foreign policy” in today’s Chicago Trib leaves me wondering…
There appears to be a disturbing mismatch! So sad.
Bill

#5 Comment By John Wiederspan On May 4, 2017 @ 11:00 am

Andrew Bacevich should be President of the United States.

#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 4, 2017 @ 11:39 am

““If we justify our intervention in Vietnam on the grounds that it is crucial to our national security,” he said, “we will soon be able to justify using our power for whatever we happen at the moment to want, or against whatever at the moment we do not like.”

And if that had been the sole argument, I might agree. But if one listens to the conversations of Pres. Johnson at the time, he is troubled about defending Vietnam. And his internal struggle was not that he thought that US was at threat from North Vietnam. I think it’s a powerful unveiling of what he was thinking and how he knew the risk he was taking, if he chose to send troops.

It is a stunning revelation. I was to me when I heard it some 20+(?) years ago.

And its just bare naked gymnastics to view Vietnam through the lens of regime change. Because the Vietnam conflict was not about regime change. And it was clearly not soley about US security. Defending Vietnam in no manner created a lens for regime change.

In fact, when examining the scenarios, given the generation in power was from the Vietnam era, its hard to believe that would embark on something as risky as regime change anywhere. It is counter-intuitive to contend that Vietnam opened the door for regime change considering all the factors involved.

On a personal note: I am fully aware that Vietnam holds a deeply emotional place in the minds of those who fought there. And in the minds of those who lost loved one’s there. I am not unsympathetic to the pain, the anguish, but if that anguish rests on some imposed guilt — my admonition is that it need not be there. Most of the advocacy about Vietnam is on how terrible war was in destruction. Well, I can only say, that’s war. And no one sent to Vietnam need crucify themselves for the nastiness of conflict. Vietnam was an attempt to defend the state of S. Vietnam. While it was part of some greater cold war rhetoric. At its core, was defending another would be democracy.

Iraq was anything and everything but that.

Afghanistan was kinda sorta a effort that made some off-kilt sense, but very weak for invasion.

Libya was anything and everything but that.

Syria is everything and anything but that.

The Ukrainian support for revolution was anything and everything but that.

Vietnam is not a reflection of any of the above causes. That Vietnam protesters actually have been the ones leading them is very bizarre indeed. Because if Vietnam was senseless in their minds then the above are tantamount to insanity.

#7 Comment By Nelson On May 4, 2017 @ 2:01 pm

The quality of TAC would rise immeasurably if more of its writers learned from history.

#8 Comment By Moi On May 5, 2017 @ 10:01 am

My take on our times:

A confederacy of dunces directing a theater of the absurd.

We’re finished!

#9 Comment By edr On May 5, 2017 @ 10:24 am

“If we justify our intervention in Vietnam on the grounds that it is crucial to our national security,” he said, “we will soon be able to justify using our power for whatever we happen at the moment to want, or against whatever at the moment we do not like.”

It’s strange proof that the world can turn 180 when you consider that limiting our interventions in the present to something that ACTUALLY DOES threaten our national interests/security would lead to less wars than the US is engaged in today.
But, of course, words can be stretched to mean anything.

#10 Comment By Michael Kenny On May 5, 2017 @ 1:00 pm

Aligning foreign policy with American values and with “the realities of the world” is a great idea. The problem is what to do about the consequences of policies that weren’t in line with American values and/or the realities of the world, how to repair the damage done to the victims of such policies. That is also part of “the realities of the world”. Simply ending policies that weren’t in line with American values and/or the realities of the world does not restore the status quo ante. It just makes the damage even worse. It’s not enough to say to people “we made a great mistake by interfering in your country and we’re now going stop interfering but we’re not going to do anything to help you repair the damage we did”. The mistakes of the victorious WWI powers at Versailles created Hitler but once he was in power and rampaging across Europe, invading and annexing the territory of the new states that had emerged from the war, world leaders simply couldn’t sit back and say “it’s not his fault, Germany was unfairly treated at Versailles”. That explained Hitler’s conduct but it didn’t justify it. Their mistakes created the monster and at the stage things had got to, capitulating to Hitler would not have stopped him. They had to destroy the monster.

#11 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 6, 2017 @ 3:28 am

“Andrew Bacevich should be President of the United States.”

I don’t think he wants the job of CEO of War, Inc.

#12 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 6, 2017 @ 3:44 am

“Vietnam was an attempt to defend the state of S. Vietnam. While it was part of some greater cold war rhetoric. At its core, was defending another would be democracy.”

That’s the Kool-Aid that was passed around.

However, recall the imperial designation, French Indochina. As in previous eras, the elites making United States policy decided to assume responsibility for maintaining profitable colonial empires rather than dismantling them as desired by the nationalists living there. It was preferred that when war weakened their original possessors, that they would then be passed on as economic jewels under the control of what are euphemistically called “U.S. interests.”

Those interests, from the Philippines onwards, have not been in the interest of defending nascent democracies, but as in South Viet Nam, using covert regime change to try to install compliant puppet regimes as satrapies, themselves as a consequence necessarily corrupt. Nor are these “U.S. interests” that are of such geopolitical importance to politicians, congruent with the interests of hundreds of millions of the actual American people.

#13 Comment By Denise Johnson On May 7, 2017 @ 2:25 am

“Nor are these US interests that are of such geopolitical importance to politicians, congruent with the interests of hundreds of millions the actual American people.”

Unless those people want “cheap” oil ?

#14 Comment By Fran Macadam On May 8, 2017 @ 6:31 pm

“‘Nor are these US interests that are of such geopolitical importance to politicians, congruent with the interests of hundreds of millions the actual American people.

“Unless those people want ‘cheap’ oil ?”

Note how quickly the price of oil fell, when the objective was to economically harm revenues of the “gas station masquerading as a nation” (as McCain called his enemy), Russia. They wouldn’t do that to benefit ordinary Americans, though they could have, long ago.

And how quickly they were ready to export our own domestic oil surplus, and ordered laws be passed to do it, rather than have it accrue to the Americans to whom it really belongs.

No, those “American Interests” are not the same as the interests of the millions of American people.

Believe it or not, the CEOs of Exxon-Mobil, Shell or any other multinational hyper corporation don’t consider what our opinions are, in the least, unless it creates a PR nightmare, in which case lawyers and liars are dispatched to distract.