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Gene Genovese and Our Criminally Reckless Wars

His lessons from Vietnam could teach us a lot about the havoc we've wreaked in the Middle East.

Eugene D. Genovese takes part in the American Historical Association Council meeting in Washington, DC on April 7, 1973. (Photo by Charles Del Vecchio/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Eugene Genovese (1930-2012) was an accomplished and influential historian of the United States whose professional and personal trajectory carried him from the radical Left to a distinctive form of conservatism. As a young man, he was a card-carrying communist. He ended up a devout Roman Catholic. His contributions to scholarship were legion and his impact on our understanding of slavery and on Southern slaveholders massive.

Genovese did not place a premium on getting along with others. Instinctively combative, he was a cantankerous colleague who never hesitated to say what he believed. Giving offense he considered a plus. 

While teaching at Rutgers in 1965, he participated in one of the very first Vietnam “teach-ins.” The purpose of teach-ins was to educate those in attendance about the Vietnam War, then just kicking into high gear, and also to mobilize opposition. Among the scholars who spoke at this event, which commenced at midnight on April 23 and continued past dawn, Genovese was interested less in instruction than incitement. In a passage for which he would become infamous, he declared that “unlike most of my distinguished colleagues here this morning, I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam. I welcome it.”  Here was provocation on steroids.

Now in the spring of 1965, the large-scale introduction of U.S. combat forces into South Vietnam had only just begun. So too had the sustained American campaign of bombing the North. When Genovese spoke, a Viet Cong victory in the South was no longer “impending,” having been forestalled by U.S. military action. Yet the long train of events that would culminate a decade later in a decisive North Vietnamese triumph that extinguished the Republic of Vietnam had now been set in motion. The outcome Genovese professed to welcome was eventually to occur.

Genovese’s remarks unleashed a political furor that lasted for months, as patriotic personages up to and including former vice president Richard Nixon demanded that he be fired. In a victory for academic freedom, Genovese did manage to keep his job—although having caused a rather large migraine for the Rutgers administration, he soon enough picked up stakes and headed off to greener pastures elsewhere. Institutional gratitude did not figure into his hierarchy of values.

In welcoming a communist victory in Vietnam, Genovese had—no doubt with malice aforethought—violated two fundamental tenets of this nation’s prevailing belief system: first, that war is a moral proposition, pitting good against evil, freedom against slavery, the God-fearing against the godless; second, that when the United States enters any war, the cause for which Americans fight is by definition a righteous one.

In April 1965, Genovese was rejecting both of those claims. As a Vietnam veteran, it pains me to admit that he was correct on both counts.

So 55 years after the Rutgers teach-in, we may want to reflect on the assertions that formed the basis of his critique. With the passage of time, they have lost none of their relevance. Indeed, with the United States today mired in more or less permanent armed conflict, it is past time to acknowledge that—much as was the case with Vietnam—our recent wars have been shot through with hypocrisy. It’s past time to strip away the moral fraudulence. 

Good versus evil, freedom versus slavery, the God-fearing versus the godless: these binaries possess no analytical value in understanding the rise of al-Qaeda, the persistence of the Taliban, the grotesque malpractice of the Iraq war, the subsequent emergence of ISIS, or the chaos in places like Libya and Yemen. Nor do they have any relevance to the stand-off between Persian Gulf rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia that finds our national security establishment bizarrely persuading itself that the United States needs to take sides.

Sober analysis devoid of moral posturing back in 1965 would have allowed policymakers to see that the United States had no vital interests at stake in Vietnam, that that nation’s future was best left to the Vietnamese people to decide. Had President Lyndon Johnson and his advisers taken that view, they would have avoided an epic tragedy. Instead they embarked upon an epic crime.

Sober analysis devoid of moral posturing today should allow policymakers to recognize that the United States has no vital interests in the Greater Middle East. A wise approach to policy will allow the people who live there to decide their futures. Further military meddling by the United States will only kill more people and wreak more havoc without any apparent benefit to anyone.

I do not welcome a victory by the Taliban or ISIS or Iran or any of the entities that comprise Washington’s current unofficial enemies list. But across the Middle East, the United States for decades now has pursued a course that has been criminally reckless and counterproductive.

Gene Genovese would have known what to call it.

Andrew Bacevich, TAC’s writer-at-large, is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His new book is The Age of Illusions:  How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory.

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