7 OCTOBER 1972, Page 9

The American scene

The people and the war

Henry Fairlie

The war in Vietnam is not really an issue in this election, and in so far as it is an issue it is Richard Nixon who is reaping the advantage. These two facts — which could always be predicted — disturb many of the opponents of the war. It is clear, they passionately say, that the moral sense of the American people has been dulled, that they do not care if their bombs kill civilians in North Vietnam, as long as American ground forces are no longer fighting and the American casualties are therefore no more than a handful in any week.

The case against the American people can be heightened, of course, by saying that they do not care if brown civilians are killed by their bombs, as long as white soldiers are safe, and this is what the kneejerk liberals, so certain of their own moral sensitivity, do in fact say. In short, the American people are not only callous, they are racist, in this as in everything else.

It seems to me ridiculous to deny that the war seems a less pressing issue to the American people as a result of the withdrawal of their armies and of the decline in their own casualties. This is how one would expect the people of any nation to react, and it does not make them morally insensitive that their own casualties are their first concern. Was it worth bleeding the French nation to hold Algeria? In the end, that is the question which tells. Was the wretched, day-by-day, cost in British lives justified to hold Palestine, say, or Cyprus? This is the natural first calculation of a people; this is the first cost which they will eventually refuse to pay.

Otherwise, why should the Irgun Zvai Leumi, for example, have bothered to blow up the King David Hotel, killing forty-one British soldiers, and injuring forty-three others? (It is one of the most unhappy ironies of today that the state of Israel was brought into existence at least partly as a result of the first successful post-war exercise in unrestrained terrorism.) If one believes the knee-jerk liberals now, none of the colonial peoples since 1945 would have troubled to kill a British, or a French, or a Belgian, or now an American soldier, because the British, and the French, and the Belgian. and now the American people would have been morally too lofty ,to be affected by their own casualties in determining their own actions.

It is of obvious importance to "the Weak" that "the strong" count their own Casualties; at least in free countries they do. There is not a nationalist who would deny it. If the nationalists had had to wait, during the past twenty-five years, for some woolly sentiment in their favour to develop in the metropolitan countries, they would Still be waiting. They have been able to rely O n the more certain assurance that "the Will at the centre" would weaken if the casualties were high enough.

By 1968, in other words, the American People were refusing to pay the price in casualties (and to a lesser extent in treasure) of the war in Vietnam; and by this year, with the almost complete elimination of their own casualties, theirfirst object has been achieved. That does not mean that it is their only object, or that they are morally dulled to the continuation of the war in their name, by their bombs, dropped by their men. To accuse them of such obtuseness is a libel, of course; it is also less interesting than the truth.

The bother about the knee-jerk liberals is that they are so horrified by the single fact of the bombing that they refuse to acknowledge that there is any complexity at all, moral or political, in the issue of bringing the war in Vietnam to an end. This is why the evidence of the effects of the bombing from those who have travelled to North Vietnam, even if one *accepts it as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, is having much less impact in the United States than might otherwise be the case.

Not many people in America read the New York Times, and they are therefore ignorant of the almost hysterical manner in which Anthony Lewis, its London correspondent, is currently addressing himself to this question. But they saw, and they heard, and they read, and they heeded, the reports of Ramsey Clark, not only a former Attorney General, but the Attorney General in the administration which prosecuted the war most vigorously: he did not resign as Anthony Lewis has recently suggested members of that administration should have resigned, "directly and publicly."

If the vast majority of the American people have not been outraged by the rereports of Ramsey Clark, it is not because they do not care. My own observations, and it is the observation of many others, is that they care a great deal: that they do not like the bombing, that it seems to them, to put it on no higher a level, a little ignoble to refuse to fight on the ground but to bomb from seventeen thousand feet in the air. If they then choose to " support " the bombing — all fifty-three per cent of them in the public opinion polls — it is for their own moral reasons.

They really do think that the policy being pursued by Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger may extricate the United States totally from the war, while at the same time giving South Vietnam a chance, which did not seem to exist two years ago, of surviving on its own. They may be mistaken in thinking that the survival of South Vietnam is at all likely; they may be wrong in thinking that it matters enough to justify the bombing; but one cannot -deny that their choice is as strenuously moral as is any other.

This is exactly, however, what Ramsey Clark and Anthony Lewis do deny. They will not entertain the possibility that there is any response other than their own which may also be moral; and it is this, I believe, which has helped to mute so much of the American people's uneasiness at the bombing, and which has made them much more ready to support Richard Nixon, and much less willing to give a hand to George McGovern, than they might otherwise have been. They simply will not be put into the dock as immoral because they see an issue as complex and not as simple. "There are Americans, millions of them, who are aware of the moral consequences of their country's actions in South-East Asia. They are a discouraged and bewildered group of people ". This is the kind of statement (in this case, from Anthony Lewis) which drives the majority of American people up the wall; and with some reason. For the vast majority of the American people are "aware of the moral consequences of their country's actions ", even if they then choose differently from Anthony Lewis. It is the claim of the protesters that they alone have taken the trouble to reach a moral decision which is insufferable to so many people, and is working to Richard Nixon's advantage.

"A few will find the courage to give of themselves in new ways ", continued Anthony Lewis. "At this moment two groups are fasting in protest against the war ". (All of this, one must observe, comes from the London correspondent of the New York Times; it is as if I wrote from here about the mood of the British people, confronted by the Common Market, by Ireland, by the new immigrants.) Well, one has nothing against the two groups who are fasting; one merely questions how much " courage " it takes, especially in a country which allows its citizens to travel to Hanoi and then to write whatever they like; and one in particular wonders if fasting at this stage is not a peculiarly futile gesture. "Most of us would not find such action possible ", Anthony Lewis added, and it would no doubt be difficult at the tables which the London correspondent of the New York Times, one is led to believe, customarily frequents. "All we can do is witness. . . ."

It is this kind of holier-than-thou balderdash of which the American people, including many of those who have for a long time been opposed to the war, are now more than a little weary. That is why there are now no protests, that is why no one tries to organise a demo, that is why Ramsey Clark in one stroke took away the last ounce of persuasion with which George McGovern might have addressed himself to the question of the war. Whether they agree with it or not, the vast majority of people can recognise that the policy of Richard Nixon has its own morality, which needs to be met by argument, and not by the pieties of four years ago, which no longer carry the force even of their original fury.

Under all manner of pressures, the American people have developed an extremely intelligent attitude to the complex issues of the war in Vietnam; part of that intelligence can be seen in the fact that they have not called for the scalps of those who have travelled to North Vietnam, then to return and attack their own country with the evidence which the enemy has provided. If their willingness and their ability to deal with the issue as complex now becomes an even more simple vote of confidence in Richard Nixon than it might otherwise have been, one must ask: who have been the real simplifiers ?