by J. William Fulbright
[As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the Johnson and Nixon administrations, Fulbright was a vocal and powerful critic of the Vietnam War. In this 1967 speech he connects the urban unrest of the sixties to American foreign policy abroad, linking himself intellectually with those most critical of American society and its expansive role in international affairs. This speech gives insight into where American global engagement during the Cold War Era led-to a period of social unrest, bitter division over the Vietnam War, and disillusionment. Particularly striking is Fulbright’s praise for those “idealistic” young people who, it happens, shared his vision of “the price of empire.”]
Standing in the smoke and rubble of Detroit, a Negro veteran said: “I just got back from Vietnam a few months ago, but you know, I think the war is here.” There are in fact two wars going on. One is the war of power politics which our soldiers are fighting in the jungles of southeast Asia. The other is a war for America’s soul, which is being fought in the streets of Newark and Detroit and in the halls of Congress, in churches and protest meetings, on college campuses, and in the hearts and minds of silent Americans from Maine to Hawaii.8
I believe that the two wars have something to do with each other, not in the direct, tangibly causal way that bureaucrats require as proof of a connection between two things, but in a subtler, moral and qualitative way that is no less real for being intangible.
Each of these wars might well be going on in the absence of the other, but neither, I suspect, standing alone, would seem so hopeless and demoralizing. The connection between Vietnam and Detroit is in their conflicting and incompatible demands upon traditional American values. The one demands that they be set aside, the other that they be fulfilled. The one demands the acceptance by America of an imperial role in the world, or of what our policy makers like to call the “responsibilities of power,” or of what I have called the “arrogance of power.” The other demands freedom and social justice at home, an end to poverty, the fulfillment of our flawed democracy, and an effort to create a role for ourselves in the world which is compatible with our traditional values.
The question, it should be emphasized, is not whether it is possible to engage in traditional power politics abroad and at the same time to perfect democracy at home, but whether it is possible for us Americans, without particular history and national character, to combine morally incompatible roles.
Administration officials tell us that we can indeed afford both Vietnam and the Great Society, and they produce impressive statistics of the gross national product to prove it. The statistics show financial capacity but they do not show moral and psychological capacity. They do not show how a President preoccupied with bombing missions over North and South Vietnam can provide strong and consistent leadership for the renewal of our cities. They do not show how a Congress burdened with war costs and war measures, with emergency briefings and an endless series of dramatic appeals, with anxious constituents and a mounting anxiety of their own, can tend to the workaday business of studying social problems and legislating programs to meet them. Nor do the statistics tell how an anxious and puzzled people, bombarded by press and television with the bad news of American deaths in Vietnam, the “good news” of enemy deaths-and with vividly horrifying pictures to illustrate them-can be expected to support neighborhood antipoverty projects and national programs for urban renewal, employment and education.
Anxiety about war does not breed compassion for one’s neighbors; nor do constant reminders of the cheapness of life abroad strengthen our faith in its sanctity at home. In these ways the war in Vietnam is poisoning and brutalizing our domestic life. Psychological incompatibility has proven to be more controlling than financial feasibility; and the Great Society has become a sick society.
Imperial destiny and the American dream
When he visited America a hundred years ago, Thomas Huxley wrote: “I cannot say that I am in the slightest degree impressed by your bigness, or your material resources, as such. Size is not grandeur, and territory does not make a nation. The great issue, about which hangs the terror of overhanging fate, is what are you going to do with all these things?”
The question is still with us and we seem to have come to a time of historical crisis when its answer can no longer be deferred. Before the Second World War our world role was a potential role; we were important in the world for what we could do with our power, for the leadership we might provide, for the example we might set. Now the choices are almost gone: we are almost the world’s self-appointed policeman; we are almost the world defender of the status quo. We are well on our way to becoming a traditional great power-an imperial nation If you will-engaged in the exercise of power for its own sake, exercising it to the limit of our capacity and beyond, filling every vacuum and extending the American “presence” to the farthest reaches of the earth. And, as with the great empires of the past, as the power grows, it is becoming an end in itself, separated except by ritual incantation from its initial motives, governed, it would seem, by its own mystique, power without philosophy or purpose. That is something which none of the great empires of the past has ever done or tried to do or wanted to do, but we were bold enough-or presumptuous enough-to think that we might be able to do it. And there are a great many Americans who still think we can do it-or at least they want to try.
That, I believe, is what all the hue and cry is about-the dissent in the Senate and the protest marches in the cities, the letters to the President from student leaders and former Peace Corps volunteers, the lonely searching of conscience by a student facing the draft and the letter
to a Senator from a soldier in the field who can no longer accept the official explanations of why he has been sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. All believe that their country was cut out for something more ennobling than an imperial destiny. Our youth are showing that they still believe in the American dream, and their protests attest to its continuing vitality.
There appeared in a recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs a curious little article complaining about the failure of many American intellectuals to support what the author regards as America’s unavoidable “imperial role” in the world. The article took my attention because it seems a faithful statement of the governing philosophy of American foreign policy while also suggesting how little the makers of that policy appreciate the significance of the issue between themselves and their critics.
It is taken for granted-not set forth as an hypothesis to be proved-that, any great power, in the author’s words, “is entangled in a web of responsibilities from which there is no hope of escape,” and that “there is no way the United States, as the world’s
mightiest power, can avoid such an imperial role. . . .” The author’s displeasure with the “intellectuals”-he uses the word more or less to describe people who disagree with the Administration’s policy-is that, in the face of this alleged historical inevitability, they are putting up a disruptive, irritating and futile resistance. They are doing this, he believes, because they are believers in “ideology”-the better word would be “values” or “ideals”-and this causes their thinking to be “irrelevant” to foreign policy.
Here, inadvertently, the writer puts his finger on the nub of the current crisis. The students and churchmen and professors who are protesting the Vietnam war do not accept the notion that foreign policy is a matter of expedients to which values are irrelevant. They reject this notion because they understand, as some of our policy makers do not understand, that it is ultimately self-defeating to “fight fire with fire,” that you cannot defend your values in a manner that does violence to those values without destroying the very thing you are trying to defend.
They understand, as our policy makers do not, that when American soldiers are sent, in the name of freedom, to sustain corrupt dictators in a civil war, that when the CIA subverts student organizations to engage in propaganda activities abroad, or when the Export-Import Bank is used by the Pentagon to finance secret arms sales abroad, damage-perhaps irreparable damage-is being done to the very values that are meant to be defended. The critics understand, as our policy makers do not, that, through the undemocratic expedients we have adopted for the defense of American democracy, we are weakening it to a degree that is beyond theresources of our bitterest enemies.
Nor do the dissenters accept the romantic view that a nation is powerless to choose the role it will play in the world, that some mystic force of history or destiny requires a powerful nation to be an imperial nation, dedicated to what Paul Goodman calls the “empty system of power,” to the pursuit of power without purpose, philosophy or compassion.” The critics of our current course also challenge the contention that the traditional methods of foreign policy are safe and prudent and realistic.
They are understandably skeptical of their wise and experienced elders who, in the name of prudence, caution against any departure from the tried and true methods that have led in this century to Sarejevo, Munich and Dien Bien Phu. They think that the methods of the past have been tried and found wanting, and two world wars attest powerfully to their belief. At present much of the world is repelled by America and what America seems to stand for in the world. Both in our foreign affairs and in our domestic life we convey an image of violence; I do not care very much about images as distinguished from the things they reflect, but this image is rooted in reality. Abroad, we are engaged in a savage and unsuccessful war against poor people in a small and backward nation.
At home-largely because of the neglect resulting from twenty-five years of preoccupation with foreign involvements-our cities are exploding in violent protest against generations of social injustice. America, which only a few years ago seemed to the world to be a model of democracy and social justice, has become a symbol of violence and undisciplined power. Far from building a safe world environment for American values, our war in Vietnam and the domestic deterioration which it has aggravated are creating a most uncongenial world atmosphere for American ideas and values. The world has no need, in this age of nationalism and nuclear weapons, for a new imperial power, but there is a great need of moral leadership-by which I mean the leadership of decent example. That role could be ours but we have vacated the field, and all that has kept the Russians from filling it is their own lack of imagination.
At the same time, as we have noted, and of even greater fundamental importance, our purposeless and undisciplined use of power is causing a profound controversy in our own society. This in a way is something to be proud of. We have sickened but not succumbed and just as a healthy body fights disease, we are fighting the alien concept which is being thrust upon us, not by history but by our policy makers in the Department of State and the Pentagon. We are proving the strength of the American dream by resisting the dream of an imperial destiny. We are demonstrating the validity of our traditional values by the difficulty we are having in betraying them.
The principal defenders of these values are our remarkable younger generation, something of whose spirit is expressed in a letter which I received from an American soldier in Vietnam. Speaking of the phony propaganda on both sides, and then of the savagery of the war, or the people he describes as the “real casualties”-“the farmers and their families in the Delta mangled by air strikes, and the villagers here killed and burned out by our friendly Korean mercenaries”-this young soldier then asks “Whatever has become of our dream? Where is
that America that opposed tyrannies at every turn, without inquiring first whether some particular forms of tyranny might be of use to us? Of the three rights which men have, the first, as I recall, was the right to life. How then have we come to be killing so many in such a dubious cause?”
The sick society
While the death toll mounts in Vietnam, it is mounting too in the war at home. During a single week of July 1967, 164 Americans were killed and 1,442 wounded in Vietnam, while 65 Americans were killed and 2,100 were wounded in city riots in the United States. We are truly fighting a two-front war and doing badly in both. Each war feeds on the other and, although the President assures us that we have the resources to win both wars, in fact we are not winning either.
Why should not riots and snipers’ bullets bring the white man to an awareness of the Negro’s plight when peaceful programs for housing and jobs and training have been more rhetoric than reality? Ugly and shocking thoughts are in the American air and they were forged in the Vietnam crucible. Black power extremists talk of “wars of liberation” in the urban ghettoes of America. A cartoon in a London newspaper showed two Negro soldiers in battle in Vietnam with one saying to the other: “This is going to be great training for civilian life.”
An unnecessary and immoral war deserves in its own right to be liquidated; when its effect in addition is the aggravation of grave problems and the corrosion of values in our own society, its liquidation under terms of reasonable and honorable compromise is doubly imperative. Our country is being weakened by a grotesque inversion of priorities, the effects of which are becoming clear to more and more Americans-in the Congress, in the press and in the country at large. Even the Washington Post, a newspaper which has obsequiously supported the Administration’s policy in Vietnam, took note in a recent editorial of the “ugly image of a world policeman incapable of policing itself” as against the “absolute necessity of a sound domestic base for an effective foreign policy,” and then commented: “We are confronted simultaneously with an urgent domestic crisis and an urgent foreign crisis and our commitments to both are clear.”
Priorities are reflected in the things we spend money on. Far from being a dry accounting of bookkeepers, a nation’s budget is full of moral implications; it tells what a society cares about and what it does not care about; it tells what its values are. Here are a few statistics on America’s values: Since 1946 we have spent over $1,578 billion through our regular national budget. Of this amount over $904 billion, or 57.29 percent of the total, have gone for military power. By contrast, less than $96 billion, or 6.08 percent, were spent on “social functions” including education, health, labor and welfare programs, housing and community development.
The Administration’s budget for fiscal year 1968 calls for almost $76 billion to be spent on the military and only $15 billion for “social functions.” I would not say that we have shown ourselves to value weapons five or ten times as much as we value domestic social needs, as the figures suggest; certainly much of our military spending has been necessitated by genuine requirements of national security.
I think, however, that we have embraced the necessity with excessive ethusiasm, that the Congress has been all too willing to provide unlimited sums for the military and not really very reluctant at all to offset these costs to a very small degree by cutting away funds for the poverty program and urban renewal, for rent supplements for the poor and even for a program to help protect slum children from being bitten by rats. Twenty million dollars a year to eliminate rats-about one one-hundredth of the monthly cost of the war in Vietnam- would not eliminate slum riots but, as Tom Wicker has written, “It would only suggest that somebody cared.” The discrepancy of attitudes tells at least as much about our national values as the discrepancy of dollars.
The regenerative power of youth
While the country sickens for lack of moral leadership, a most remarkable younger generation has taken up the standard of American idealism. Unlike so many of their elders, they have perceived the fraud and sham in American life and are unequivocally rejecting it. Some, the hippies, have simply withdrawn, and while we may regret the loss of their energies and their sense of decency, we can hardly gainsay their evaluation of the state of society.
Others of our youth are sardonic and skeptical, not, I think, because they do not want ideals but because they want the genuine article and will not tolerate fraud. Others-students who wrestle with their consciences about the draft, soldiers who wrestle with their consciences about the war, Peace Corps volunteers who strive to light the spark of human dignity among the poor of India or Brazil, and VISTA volunteers who try to do the same for our own poor in Harlem or Appalachia- are striving to keep alive the traditional values of American democracy.
They are not really radical, these young idealists, no more radical, that is, than Jefferson’s idea of freedom, Lincoln’s idea of equality, or Wilson’s idea of a peaceful community of nations.
Some of them, it is true, are taking what many regard as radical action, but they are doing it in defense of traditional values and in protest against the radical departure from those values embodied in the idea of an imperial destiny for America. The focus of their protest is the war in Vietnam and the measure of their integrity is the fortitude with which they refused to be deceived about it. By striking contrast with the young Germans who accepted the Nazi evil because the values of their society had disintegrated and they had no normal frame of reference, these young Americans are demonstrating the vitality of American values. They are demonstrating that, while their country is capable of acting falsely to itself, it cannot do so without internal disruption, without calling forth the regenerative counterforce of protest from Americans who are willing to act in defense ofthe principles they were brought up to believe in.
The spirit of this regenerative generation has been richly demonstrated to me in letters from student leaders, from former Peace Corps volunteers and from soldiers fighting in Vietnam. I quoted from one earlier in my remarks. Another letter that is both striking and representative was written by an officer still in Vietnam. He wrote: “For eleven years I was, before this war, I was a Regular commissioned officer-a professional military man in name and spirit; now-in name only. To fight well (as do the VC), a soldier must believe in his leadership. I, and many I have met, have lost faith in ours. Since I hold that duty to conscience is higher than duty to the administration (not ‘country’ as cry the nationalists). I declined a promotion and have resigned my commission. I am to be discharged on my return, at which time I hope to contribute in some way to the search for peace in Vietnam.”
Some years ago Archibald MacLeish characterized the American people as follows: “Races didn’t bother the Americans. They were something a lot better than any race.
They were a People. They were the first self-constituted, self-declared, self-created People in the history of the world. And their manners were their own business. And so were their politics. And so, but ten times so, were their souls.” Now the possession of their souls is being challenged by the false and dangerous dream of an imperial destiny. It may be that the challenge will succeed, that America will succumb to becoming a traditional empire and will reign for a time over what must surely be a moral if not a physical wasteland, and then, like the great empires of the past, will decline or fall. Or it may be that the effort to create so grotesque an anachronism will go up in flames of nuclear holocaust.
But if I had to bet my money on what is going to happen, I would bet on this younger generation-this generation who reject the inhumanity of war in a poor and distant land, who reject the poverty and sham in their own country, this generation who are telling their elders what their elders ought to have known, that the price of empire is America’s soul and that price
is too high.
8 J. William Fulbright, “The Price of Empire,” 1967 .
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