30 Years of Research in Review

Commager on Vietnam

-Excerpted from Henry Steele Commager: Midcentury Liberalism and the History of the Present, pp. 176-77, by Neil Jumonville

The war in Vietnam caused a war in America. "We engage in the deception of our own people," Commager warned. The corruption of our language, as Orwell knew, was "a sign of corruption of mind and spirit." America could not escape its sentence. It was, he counseled, "no use saying that the other side is equally guilty; it is our morals we must take care of." This war had brought a pestilence to feed on the spirit and character of the nation, he declared.

The double standard Commager saw in our foreign policy infected our sense of economic and racial justice at home. "Perhaps the most odious violation of justice," he protested during the Nixon administration, "is the maintenance of a double standard of one justice for blacks and another for whites, one for the rich and another for the poor, one for those who hold 'radical' ideas, and another for those who are conservative and respectable." While Black Panthers were on trial for murder, those police officers who murdered Black Panthers were punished with demotion. "Here," Commager counseled his fellow citizens, "is our greatest failure: that we destroyed slavery but not racism, promised legal equality but retained a dual citizenship, did away with legal exploitation of a whole race but substituted for it an economic exploitation almost as cruel. And this political and legal failure reflects a deeper psychological and moral failure."

...(in Vietnam) "This is not only a war we cannot win," he told his fellow citizens, "it is a war we must lose if we are to survive morally... We honor now those Southerners who stood by the Union when it was attacked by the Confederacy, just as we honor those Germans who rejected Hitler and his monstrous wars and were martyrs to the cause of freedom and humanity. Why do we find it so hard to accept this elementary lesson of history, that some wars are so deeply immoral that they must be lost, that the war in Vietnam is one of these wars, and that those who resist it are the true patriots?"