Protests outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968

 

This week I finished watching the new PBS documentary series, The Vietnam War, made by Ken Burns and Lynne Novick. It’s a massive piece of work – 18 hours of footage from the last war when American journalists were allowed to roam pretty much wherever they wanted on the battlefield, and when presidents recorded their private conversations. You’ve never seen a war so close.

And it’s a shock. I knew a bit about the Vietnam War, mainly from movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now. But I was still shocked by the atrocities committed by the American army, by the futility of so many of the battles – hills taken at huge cost and then immediately abandoned – and by the awful suffering of the Vietnamese people, who were at war continuously, from the war with France in 1945 to 1954, to the civil war (also involving the US) from 1955 to 1975, to the war with Cambodia from 1975 to 1989.

The US involvement in Vietnam’s civil war looks, from the perspective of history, like a monumental error. It arose from a fundamental misreading of the conflict. Successive US presidents, from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson, thought that if the communist North Vietnamese succeeded in their war with South Vietnam, South Asia would turn communist, and eventually Europe would topple too. 

The domino theory turned out to be wrong. In fact, it was a domestic civil war, and the US picked the wrong side – the South Vietnamese government, nominally democratic, was deeply corrupt, authoritarian, and unpopular. The US thought, when it intervened, that the Vietnamese would see them as liberating heroes. In fact, many saw them as racist imperialist invaders, just like the French before them. 

The US initially sent in ground troops to Vietnam when it thought its ships had been attacked by North Vietnamese forces, in the Gulf of Tonkin incident. This too was an error – the supposed torpedo was a blip on the radar. But, as defence secretary Robert McNamara said years later: ‘We saw what we wanted to believe’.

What’s truly shocking is that as early as 1963 the American government knew the war was going badly and was unlikely to end in victory. Yet the war lasted another decade, costing the US around 60,000 lives, several million Vietnamese lives, and poisoning the political culture of both countries for decades. 

You think American politics is polarised now? Look at 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, when it became horribly obvious to Americans watching the TV news that they were losing the war; a year of race riots, of the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, a year of police brutality and domestic terrorism by radical leftist groups, a year when protests outside the Democratic National Convention were so violent, the convention had to be carried out in an improvised security bunker.

The Baltimore riot of 1968

It was a clash of ethics, as much as anything else. Thousands of young Americans were going through hell to honour the ethic of serving their country. Back in America, other young Americans were choosing a different ethic of personal development and authenticity. Or they were deciding that the best way to serve their country was to protest against an immoral and futile war. 

The ideological clash between liberals and conservatives became ever more bitter. The liberals, in many ways, were right. The war was futile. But the tactics of anti-war protestors were often misguided and self-defeating.

Hippies screamed abuse at returning vets as they arrived home at airports, calling them baby-killers; they burned American flags, and waved the flag of North Vietnam; they called the police ‘pigs’, and America a Nazi police-state. Liberal Hollywood icon Jane Fonda travelled to North Vietnam and denounced American prisoners of war as criminals who deserved to be executed, then let herself be photographed laughing on a North Vietnam anti-war gun used to shoot them down. And groups like the Weathermen and the Black Panthers declared that best form of resistance was violence. No wonder Robert Kennedy said, a few weeks before his assassination, ‘the centre cannot hold, and mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.

Jane Fonda larking around on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gun

The consequence of these radical tactics was to hand Republican candidate Richard Nixon a landslide victory in the 1968 election, in which he won every state except two. He won by appealing to the ‘silent moral majority’ who didn’t want to see America over-run by hippy terrorists – even though, by that point, most Americans actually opposed the war. It took the left over a decade to recover, and Nixon only lost power when his own paranoia led to Watergate.

There are lessons here for the left today, and how it opposes President Trump and other nationalist parties across the west.

This decade is a time of comparable polarisation in western politics. There are protests, riots and police shootings on the streets, and angry clashes on campuses. There is fear and loathing on both sides. The left labels the right as Nazi, while the right labels the left as totalitarian. Violence and hate speech are gradually normalized as political tactics. The intense complexity of global politics is reduced to simple black-and-white narratives of noble heroes and evil sick villains. The centre-ground of politics diminishes. Which side are you on?

As in the Gulf of Tonkin incident, people see what they want to believe. This is true of both sides.

I’ve been following a psychology professor called Jordan Peterson on Twitter. He’s a well-known evolutionary psychologist, but more famous as an outspoken critic of political correctness on campuses, which he sees as a totalitarian threat to western civilization. He’s so terrified of this existential threat, he sees it everywhere.

This week, for example, Nassim Nicholas Taleb tweeted about how political correctness was destroying western education. The British right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins tweeted him a flyer in which she offers free classes to schools, where she offers her unique take on subjects like Black Lives Matter or transgender rights. Jordan Peterson seized on this, and retweeted it as an example of ‘radical leftist indoctrination’. When one bemused follower asked him what his problem was with Katie Hopkins’ classes, he said ‘If you can’t see the difference, then you’ve already been indoctrinated.’

That’s political culture in the West in the early 21st century  – people scanning the net, looking for things to be outraged about, torpedoes to be repelled and revenged, without taking the time to investigate. People seeing their own side as heroes and the other side as evil. Complexity and nuance are the first casualties of this toxic climate.

Ken Burns says he hopes his documentary can act like a vaccination against the virus of the Vietnam War, and the distrust, alienation and polarisation it engendered. You see the suffering of all sides in the war, you see their honourable intentions, and their moral doubts. You see a protestor who fled to Canada, deeply regretting renouncing his American citizenship; you see a soldier who accepted the draft, who feels his acceptance was a defining moment of moral cowardice; you see a former protestor tearfully apologising for the insults they hurled at traumatized veterans as they came home. You see the wounds people have carried for decades.

Both the left and the right today need to try and understand each other’s reasons – the noble intentions and basic emotions driving their calls for social justice or economic freedom or controlled borders or human rights. They need to make the effort to see the other side as humans, rather than Nazis, hippies, SJWs, snowflakes, Remoaners, gooks, cuks etc.

There’s a pragmatic reason for being able to take the other side’s perspective – it makes it more likely you win over public opinion, more likely you achieve your political goals, and less likely that your campaigns backfire and empower your opponents, as they did in 1968. And there’s a moral reason too –  being able to see the other side’s perspective makes it more likely that democracy will survive.