18 AUGUST 1967, Page 4

Johnson's prison


Anzagansett, L/—Colonial government is an art of balancing the benediction with the curse upon the natives, and we seem in our in- decision to be tipping towards the curse upon the Negroes who are the natives of our colonies —the cities.

,There remains the hopeful 'circumstance that politicians like Senator Percy of Illinois, whose acumen about the desires of the ordin- ary voter has earned them particular respect, remain on the side of constructive remedies; while the destructive ones are urged by those Southern Senators who, for a long time, have been exempt from any need to worry whether the weight of opinion in their constituencies might be with the high-minded.

„The realism of those who would be national politicians seems then still on the side of an appeal to the public conscience. But the prac- tical limits of that appeal have to be reached very soon. Our slums and our welfare system may seem to us unhappy accidents, but it would be difficult to devise a less expensive way to keep alive so many surplus people. Mr Johnson's conscience is an accurate re- flection of the public condition, being active in aspiration but passive by necessity. The President's prison is, of course, Vietnam, which has now arrived at that stage familiar in crusades when they are less and less dis- tinguishable from barbarian invasions on the ground where they are being fought and more and more the occasion for groans from the lost an distant homeland from which taxes and levies must be dispatched to support them. Mr Johnson has said, of course, that 'our country will be able to do whatever is neces- sary' in engaging the urban problem; but the very language that so resignedly summoned us to the breach brought out the loss of morale beneath the contrivance of determination. The war is costing two billion dollars a month; even the commanders suggest to reporters on the scene that it is a stalemate. This is, of course, no more to be taken as a reflection of reality than their old assurances that things were progressing splendidly; every soldier's war is a struggle against his country's enemies abroad and a vigilant manning of posts against his own enemies at home. The field com- manders are enraged at Secretary of Defence McNamara because he wants to give them no more than a quarter of the troop levies they demand, and alarmed about President Johnson because he will give them no more than half.

They can therefore be expected to be pessi-

mistic until they get what they want, after which they will again be optimistic as they seem so baselessly to have been in the past. But .in. .the meantime their dank observations lend authority to the increasing civilian sus- picion that the war goes badly.

Mr Johnson can afford to trust no one to sleep in camp any longer; the roster of de- fectors has come to contain names you would have every reason to suspect would be among the very last to leave. The other. day Senator Symington of Missouri declared himself in favour of what would amount almost to aban- donment of the entire enterprise. Senator Symington's most cherished constituency is the Strategic Air Command; his desertion sug- gests that even the sac now wants an end to distractions abroad in order to concentrate on the real war at home, in its case the war against Secretary McNamara.

Mr Johnson, of course, could seek peace and probably does. But at present he would negotiate from a position of special weakness.

President Ho Chi Minh has sustained the worst the Americans appear to want to give him; his terms, under the circumstances, would appear to involve the almost uncon- ditional withdrawal of American forces, a de- feat no President could very well accept.

The gloomy charade of the South Vietnam- ese elections has all but extinguished the small hope, to which the Administration clung all spring, that once a Vietnamese President had been installed, the United' States could with- draw, leaving at least the illusion of a viable society behind it. After four years of the most massive infusions of American social tech-

niques, almost no observer now seems to be- lieve that a South Vietnamese government could survive six months on its own. - Mr Johnson has the choice then of con- tinuing the war as he has, or increasing the expenditure of our resources. This, next to defeat, is the one thing he has tried • most to avoid; it has been his and Secretary McNamara's special pride that this is the first war in our history to be maintained with no disruption of our economy, or, for that matter, of our social fabric, it being the first war in this.century during which middle-class fathers unashamedly reminded their sons of 'any' of the boundless opportunities for avoiding war

service they may have overlooked.' •

There is no indication that : the "Affietiefm middle class would uncomplainitiglir" .g`ett.Pt any of the sacrifices which an end Johnson's indulgence would require.' Mt' „fairies Reston, of the New York Times,. recently re- turned from Havana and went to rest' in California. He found Havana full of the sense of purpose which Americans have so suddenly discovered themselves to lack; his reports were full of a respect and an envy only slightly diminished by the recognition of how much quite malignant nonsense it is necessary to believe in order to attain this particular sense of purpose. In California, Mr Reston found only people concerned with their families and disturbed most of all by the effect of taxes upon their comforts.

That fatal mood seems to have come upon us when, be the cause good or bad, we ask only that it shall not inconvenience us. The failure of harsh counsels (whether in respect of Viet- nam or in respect of the Negroes in our cities) to prevail would be more encouraging if it did not seem to be the result of an equal public indifference to gentle ones. Since harsh counsels are the more convenient at home, they are the ones more likely to have their way in the end. How curious that in America, so long protected from real despair, Yeats's lines about the time when the best lack all con- viction and the worst have a passionate in- tensity should have been worn into a cliché. •