Vietnam War Revision on the Right

The twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Saigon has been the occasion for a whole series of retrospectives, reassessments, and general all-around breast-beating, and everyone seems to be having a grand old time of it. The Left – or what passes for the Left in this post-Marxist era – is busy slapping itself on the back for having foreseen the disaster: unfortunately, such foresight seems entirely lacking on that side of the political spectrum when it comes to contemporary quagmires such as Kosovo and Iraq. As Atlantic correspondent Benjamin Schwarz put it in an excellent article published in Newsday:

The war galvanized a pro-war left that embraces Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s foreign policy doctrine of ‘virtuous power.’ Since the American victory in Kosovo, a significant segment of the U.S. and European left has exorcised the ghost of Vietnam and learned to stop worrying and love a globalist American foreign policy. Many prominent left-wingers have taken to heart British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s announcement that this was ‘the first progressives’ war’ and have with a new martial spirit celebrated the conflict against Serbia as the kind of crusade the West should undertake in the future.”COMMIES FOR PEACE?

But the Right, particularly the generally pro-war neo-conservative Right, is just as bad, if not worse, and worst of all is David Horowitz, who recently subjected viewers of PBS’s News Hour to a tirade that basically outlined the right-wing revisionist view of Vietnam in the crudest possible terms. As University of California professor Ruth Rosen, congressman Bobby Rush (D-Illinois), Rev. James Wallis, editor of Sojourners magazine, and liberal journalist Haynes Johnson made the connection between the civil rights movement of the sixties and the subsequent upsurge in opposition to the war, Horowitz – whose main claim to fame is that he converted from an unreasoning leftism (as an editor of Ramparts) to an equally unreflective rightism – sat there sneering into the camera, listening to the other panelists with ill-concealed disdain. When the host turned finally to him, the visibly impatient Horowitz had gotten himself so worked up that he lobbed a verbal hand-grenade:

“Well, there’s a false parallelism here. The civil rights demonstrators in the South were demonstrating against an undemocratic regime; black people didn’t really have the right to vote, and they didn’t have normal channels, you know, to redress their grievances. The so-called ‘antiwar movement’ was led by and organized by people who wanted a totalitarian regime to establish itself in South Vietnam. That’s really what it was about.”


Anyone who takes the voluble Horowitz seriously – and I know there aren’t many out there, but the rest of you please bear with me – would have to conclude that Senator J. William Fulbright, Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann were all “people who wanted a totalitarian regime to establish itself in South Vietnam.” Not to mention Senators Wayne Morse and Ernest Gruening, who opposed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, the entire pacifist movement, personified by the venerable A. J. Muste, and the Rev. Martin Luther King – this last, ironically, one of Horowitz’s heroes. Poor Ruth Rosen didn’t know how to respond, except by conjuring the “red-baiting of the 1950’s” and descrying his remark as “shameful and disgraceful.” Horowitz was ready for her. Of course, he didn’t portray everyone who opposed the war as “a demonic Communist,” as Rosen put it. Horowitz continued:

“I didn’t do that at all. I said the movement was led and organized by people who wanted the Communists to win. That’s why the slogan was ‘bring the troops home now’ because that’s what we’d accomplish.”


In other words: it doesn’t matter if they were Communists, that is, members of the Communist Party or even consciously sympathetic to the Viet-Cong: objectively, this is what the actions and program of the antiwar movement accomplished. This argument resembles those made by the Communists in the 1930s, and after, who were always saying that so-and-so was “objectively” anti-Communist and an enemy of the working class: they said it in Germany about the Social Democrats, as Hitler was rising to power, to justify their refusal to engage in a united front against the Nazis. The Social Democrats, said the German Communist Party and their puppet-masters in the Kremlin, are “objectively social fascists” and therefore worse than Hitler and his legions. This is why Horowitz never offers an iota of proof for his contention that the antiwar movement was part of a Communist conspiracy to install Ho Chi Minh in power, for, by this “objective” standard, no proof of organizational affiliations is required. At this point, Rosen, whose stolidly placid face has shown amazingly little sign of annoyance, finally breaks down and exclaims “That’s not true!” But it is Horowitz’s turn, and he is not about to give up his moment in the spotlight. “Let me finish,” he whines, “let me finish,” and the host intercedes on his behalf. But the drive-by smear technique is not conducive to any extensive analysis, and Horowitz could only bring himself to confide the following:

“I have to tell you, you know, having been in the movement, I know very well what the people who led it, and people like Ruth Rosen, believed, and that’s what they believed.”


In the end, we are told that we have to simply take Horowitz at his word: I know they were all a bunch of Commies because I was one of them. While the centrality of David Horowitz to the antiwar and New Left movements of the sixties is problematic, at best, there is another far more serious problem with this thesis: it is complete bullshit. Communist Party members had little or nothing to do with organizing the antiwar movement of the sixties and seventies, let alone leading it. The determinedly non-Communist anti-Stalinist A. J. Muste was the one figure who came closest to a leader in that his authority was recognized by all factions, and it was Muste who arguably did the most the minimize the influence of Communists and their sympathizers in the movement. In 1960, when congressman Thomas Dodd was red-baiting the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE) and conducting a government investigation into its activities, Muste wrote in Liberation magazine that standing up to Dodd, instead of caving, which is what the SANE leadership did,

“might have called forth a tremendous response; might have put new heart and courage into many people, especially young people, fed up with conformism and apathy; and might have led to the development of a more radical movement against nuclear war and war preparations. Such a movement would be invulnerable to attempts at Communist control, if such were made.”


This is no fellow-traveler. Horowitz knows perfectly well that people like Muste, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) President Carl Oglesby, and even the Trotskyists of the Socialist Workers Party – who provided many of the foot-soldiers and grassroots organizers of the various antiwar “mobilization” committees – most certainly did not advocate a victory to the Vietcong or give them political support. Oglesby argued, in Containment and Change, for a New Left-Old Right antiwar alliance, and cited right-wing isolationists of the past (Robert A. Taft) and the sixties (such as Murray Rothbard) as evidence of a native American noninterventionist tradition. The Trots were ideologically opposed to the Vietcong, whom they denounced as “Stalinists,” and explicitly would not give them political support – an issue that was constantly a source of contention between the SWP and uncritical supporters of Hanoi. But since most people – especially Horowitz’s fellow conservatives – do not know the inside story of internal disputes on the Left, such sweeping pronouncements as to the loyalties of the antiwar movement go unchallenged.


Horowitz smears the whole religious tradition of nonviolent resistance to state authority upheld by the pacifist movement through two world wars on up to the present, and this is not the only history that he either ignores or distorts. The very first demonstrations against US military intervention in Vietnam were largely organized by the Student Peace Union (SPU) in the fall of 1963. The occasion was a tour of the US by Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu, sister-in-law of President Diem and wife of the head of South Vietnam’s secret police: Mme. Nhu was notorious for referring to the self-immolation of Buddhist monks protesting the repressive Diem regime as “barbecues.” At the time, according to the US government, there were 14,000 American troops stationed in Vietnam; the number was probably more, but the public was not that exercised about it. Even on the far Left such organizations as the Communist Party USA, SDS, and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) did not start organizing around the issue until the number of American troops in Vietnam passed the 20,000 mark, in the spring of 1964. At the time, only the SPU raised the alarm about the dangers of getting involved in a land war in Asia on behalf of an unpopular and corrupt dictatorship – and they were very far from being apologists for the Kremlin.


For the SPU was controlled by the Young People’s Socialist League, the youth section of Max Shachtman’s International Socialist League (ISL), which hated the Kremlin and Stalinism as much if not more than the US State Department. The young Shachtmanites were virulently anti-Communist, and vigorously pushed an anti-Communist exclusion rule at all their public events and in coalitions in which they took part, including at these demonstrations. Horowitz ignores or chooses not to remember the key role played by such Shachtman lieutenants as Bayard Rustin, and others such as Irving Howe and Michael Harrington. Were they totalitarians of the Left? For more on the impact of these “Third Camp” socialists on the antiwar movement, see chapter 2 of Maurice Isserman‘s 1987 book, If I Had a Hammer, but the point is that Horowitz – the alleged expert on the ins and outs of the Left – simply does not know what he is talking about. The crudity of his analysis of the antiwar movement is exceeded only by his broad-brush approach to the war itself. In response to Haynes Johnson’s observation that “we involved ourselves in a colonial war and a civil war, which was against our own traditions and our leaders didn’t understand it and they never explained it to the public,” Horowitz retorted:

“It wasn’t a civil war; it was a war for freedom, and we’re going to win it; the Vietnamese will one day adopt a market system, private property, and civil liberties; it’s just been prolonged by, you know, people like the people on this show. I have never seen – except in Tom Hayden actually – a single leftist recognize that by forcing the United States to withdraw from the battlefield in Vietnam they are responsible for two and a half million deaths of the peasants in Indochina who were murdered by the Communists that the so-called “antiwar movement” supported. I’d like to see a little honesty on this issue. You know, I just couldn’t agree less with Haynes Johnson.”


Eh? If we will win the war against Communism in Vietnam anyway, then why was the war necessary in the first place? Horowitz seems strangely oblivious to this rather obvious point. He also claims that the antiwar movement is responsible for prolonging Vietnam’s transition to a market-based society, but certainly bombing much of the country back to the Stone Age did nothing to establish the hegemony of private property relations – unless the idea is to destroy all property and start out with a “level playing field.”


The idea that we were defeated on the home front, instead of militarily, on the battlefield, is a myth that is at the core of right-wing revisionism on the Vietnam question, and shows a basic blindness not only to the military problem involved in fighting a war on the Asian landmass, but also a woeful ignorance of the history of the conflict. For it was the United States and its allies during World War II, and not just the Kremlin, who were the first sponsors of what was then called the Viet-Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) – led by then-nationalist leader Ho Chi Minh – in an insurgency against the Japanese occupation army and the Vichy French colonial authorities. When Uncle Ho and his Allied-supplied guerrilla fighters rode into Hanoi in the summer of 1945, victorious, the future Communist dictator read the words of the Declaration of Independence in the public square. But the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was crushed by British troops, who returned the south of the country to the French: Truman’s decision to side with Paris was determined by the exigencies of the cold war: France was a major bulwark of the NATO alliance, and the protests of a Vietnamese leader who quoted Thomas Jefferson were simply ignored.


If there was ever a setup for a civil war, in which all the ingredients of a future conflict were methodically introduced, then surely it was in the arrangement presided over by American “observers” at the 1954 Geneva accords. We handed half the country over to the Vietminh, set up a more cooperative government in Saigon, and then stood by the French when they bombed Haiphong harbor. Having set the Vietminh up in business to begin with, American diplomats and policy makers then proceeded to alienate Ho and drive him into the arms of the Kremlin. Which brings us to the major problem with the Horowitzian brand of right-wing revisionism – not that it is too ideological, too reflexively right-wing, but that it is not nearly right-wing enough. . . .


If we are examining right-wing revisionist accounts of the Vietnam war, then I much prefer the one proffered by Robert Welch, the much vilified founder of the John Birch Society who was once a bogeyman to the liberal elites, in his excellent pamphlet The Truth in Time. As the war was tearing the country – and the American military – apart, Welch noted that it was the West that created the conditions (including the Vietminh) for precisely the kind of war that America could not hope to win. Welch also maintained that the installation of President Ngo Dinh Diem, and his subsequent persecution of the Buddhists, had done more to undermine the noncommunist element in Vietnam than any action initiated by Ho Chi Minh and his subordinates. The subsequent US-engineered coup, in which Diem was killed, led to the seizing of power by a series of generals who seemed to change by the week – and led Welch to ask: who benefits from the Vietnam war?


The answer, to Welch, was clearly not the US: having gotten us into another unwinnable land war in Asia, the US State Department had done its best to further rig the game by neutralizing the indigenous anti-Communist element. The Communists didn’t really want us out of Vietnam – they wanted us to stay in so as to underscore and maximize their nearly inevitable victory. It was a war, Welch wrote, “run on both sides by the Communists.” [American Opinion, November 1966]. Strong words, but if we judge the Vietnam war by its results then, in retrospect, Welch’s words are eerily prophetic. The American elites, averred Welch, are looking for an excuse to strengthen and extend their control over the economy and every facet of American life, and war is perfect for their purposes. If it wasn’t Vietnam, then it would have been somewhere else: war is the great diversion arranged by our rulers to cement their rule whenever it gets too shaky. At the end of The Truth in Time, Welch quotes the famous line from Shakespeare that succinctly sums up the meaning and purpose of our globalist foreign policy: “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.”


Welch knew that the real subverters of our American Republic were not in Vietnam, or the Kremlin, but right here in our own country; the main enemy is in Washington, not Moscow. This is an insight that many on the Right have now rediscovered, and adopted, in the face of Clintonian interventionism from Haiti, to Iraq, to Kosovo – and, who knows, maybe he’s not done yet. They have learned, through bitter experience, the uses of foreign intervention as a diversion, the consequence not of some overseas “crisis” but of the requirements of domestic American politics. In looking back on the Vietnam debacle, they rightly sense that America was betrayed – what they need to get clear on is identifying what was betrayed and by whom.


For the entire half century of the cold war, conservatives were told that they had to delay their agenda of rolling back Big Government on the home front in order to fight the war on Communism overseas. We needed high taxes, bristling armaments, foreign aid, a national security bureaucracy, and even curbs on basic civil liberties in order to defeat the Kremlin’s drive for world domination. Well, now that Communism has imploded, and this alleged threat is wiped off the face of the earth, what is the excuse for not turning to the unsettled business of restoring our old republic? Why do we need a military budget bigger than all the other military budgets of every nation on earth combined? Why do we need to intervene everywhere, to combine the roles of global police and social worker, to “pay any price, bear any burden”: for God’s sake, they haven’t even gotten rid of the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe yet – indeed, their budgets have increased! The national security bureaucracy is here to stay – and so is the global empire we suddenly find ourselves in possession of, with protectorates from Kuwait to Kosovo, and a dynamic all its own. Apart from and in contradiction to the specifically national interests of the US, the interests of the Empire and those who profit from its expansion predominate in the Imperial City of Washington, D.C. This is the real price we paid for the cold war: we “won” that war, but it was a Pyrrhic victory – for we lost our own soul in the process.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].