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Screaming Past Each Other at Christmas: Debating the End of the Vietnam War

Fifty years ago this December, U.S. forces in Southeast Asia embarked on a bombing campaign of North Vietnam amidst the holiday season with Christmas one week away. President Nixon, frustrated over peace talks with the North, broke off negotiations, believing aerial bombardment might force the northern communists’ hand. The “massive new bombing campaign,” wrote New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis, was not meant to win the conflict but rather ensure “the American departure is ‘honorable’” and to humble the North Vietnamese government into returning to negotiations with more reasonable demands from the U.S. perspective. “For that we have caused, are causing, and presumably will continue to cause the most terrible destruction in the history of man.”[1]In a follow up column on December 25th, he lamented that this Christmas, “in the eyes of the world, the Christian peace offered by the United States is the peace of the inquisition: conformity or tormented death.”[2]

Unsurprisingly, considering the polarization of politics around the war then and now, Lewis’s position drew critics, one of whom had emerged as a leading intellectual and fierce anti-communist: poet and historian Robert Conquest. The feud that ensued between the two men encapsulated the controversies and debates over the conflict in Southeast Asia. It demonstrates that heated rhetorical clashes over foreign policy often bludgeon nuance and obscure the views of those most affected by such policies and puts forward the arc of the war’s historiography that would follow, in some cases  making arguments that would be taken up by critics and supporters of the war nearly a decade later.

While at the New York Times, Lewis was a longtime critic of American policy in Southeast Asia, particularly under Nixon, and reacted poorly to a January 12, 1973 column by Conquest in the Sunday Times, an august London newspaper. In a column called “The Propaganda of Atrocity,” Conquest took aim at the commentators and leaders who used atrocities as a means to cloud vision and policy — or, as the historian wrote, “to present a specific allegation in such a way as to make the blood boil and so to preempt or inhibit judgement.”  For Conquest, the issue did not hinge on which state committed the most crimes: “[T]he loser, in terms of Western opinion, is not that state that commits the most atrocities so much as the one whose enemies have the best propaganda machine.”[3]

Conquest’s bonafides regarding horrible authoritarian regimes were well established by 1973. During the 1960s, without access to archives or intelligence about the Soviet Government itself, Conquest correctly ascertained the systematic repression and violence at the heart of the Soviet regime, publishing in 1960 the landmark study Power and Politics, which documented the horrible nature of Josef Stalin’s regime. “His historical intuition was astonishing,” remarked Norman M. Naimark, a respected historian of Eastern European history, at the time of Conquest’s death in 2015. His second book, The Great Terror: Stalin’s Purges of the Thirties, published eight years later was mostly a validation of his earlier book, which Conquest had wanted to title, “I Told You So You Fucking Fools.”[4] Who were those “fucking fools”? Mostly historians and other folks on the left who either disputed Stalinist atrocities or argued they were an aberration in the Soviet system.

Lewis, much like Conquest, broke new ground in his field. During the course of his career, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, transformed legal journalism with his coverage of the Supreme Court and books like Gideon’s Trumpet (1964), and later devoted himself to human rights issues abroad, covering the Biafra War in the late 1960s and tirelessly fought  for the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Domestically, he was a full-throated supporter of the civil rights movement.

In January 1973, renewed attention to the U.S. bombings of North Vietnam brought both domestic and international condemnation. In his column, Conquest appeared rather untroubled by 1,300-1,400 dead from these raids claimed by the North Vietnamese and ridiculed those who compared the bombing to Hiroshima and other World War II acts. He argued that we’re all guilty of supporting “armed struggles” that result in civilian deaths, and in a subsequent letter to Times editor William Rees-Moog cautioned the left about its practice of what he characterized “asymmetrical humanitarianism,” over playing atrocities so as to distort the real villains and blurring lines of support.[5]  

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