Leftist Hawks Double-Talk on War

By Benjamin Schwarz

28 April 2000 NEWSDAY



DESPITE ALL the discussion and debate surrounding the anniversaries of both
the Vietnam and Kosovo Wars, one of the Kosovo conflict’s most important
legacies has been largely ignored: 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.

But these progressives have never explained why they were so enthusiastic
for U.S. intervention in the Balkans when they were so critical of
intervention in Vietnam. To be sure, there were many sound reasons to oppose
the Vietnam War: No intrinsic American interests were involved in that
geopolitically peripheral country; “victory” was unattainable at any
remotely acceptable cost; fighting that war, as would fighting any war,
perforce required unsettlingly brutal actions on our part.

A number of figures-most prominently such non-leftists as George Kennan, J.

William Fulbright, Hans Morgenthau and Walter Lippmann -invoked these
arguments. They added their conviction that it was dangerous and arrogant
for America to regard instability, aggression and tyranny as threats in

Today, many progressives dismiss this sort of reasoning as “isolationist”
and coldly “realist.” And, although the left availed itself of these
arguments during the Vietnam War, its critique of the conflict hinged on its
idealized view of North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, which it perceived as
benevolent forces fighting for liberation and self-determination against
American oppression.

During the Kosovo war, many of these same progressives demanded that America
make war in the Balkans to protect and advance democracy and human rights
and to punish an aggressive dictator. But, if these should be the purposes
of U.S. foreign policy, why weren’t these progressives advocating
intervention against the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong during the
Vietnam war? After all, although the South Vietnamese regime was clearly
corrupt and incompetent, the 1 million who fled the North when Vietnam was
partitioned in 1954 attest that that Stalinist state was far more

Leftists such as the writer Susan Sontag-perhaps the most vocal and
persistent progressive hawk during the Kosovo war-have compared Serbia to
“Nazi Germany.” But North Vietnam’s totalitarian, Communist Party state,
which she lauded in 1968 as “a place that deserves to be idealized” was
indisputably a much more oppressive regime than is Slobodan Milosevic’s
indisputably thuggish one.

Sontag decried America’s role in Vietnam as immoral and, in contrast,
proclaim- ed that America’s intervention against Serbia was “a just war.”
However, upon coming to power in 1954, North Vietnam’s leaders murdered
50,000 people and then condemned hundreds of thousands to die in labor
camps; the Viet Cong massacred more than 3,000 when they occupied the city
of Hue in 1968. And, with the “liberation” of South Vietnam in 1975,
probably more than 10,000 people were executed; anywhere from 150,000 to 1
million were confined for years in gulag-style “re-education” camps;
millions were forced to work in labor gangs, and tens of thousands of ethnic
Chinese were driven from the country, joined by hundreds of thousands of
“boat people” escaping the Communists, with perhaps as many more dead in

Yet, Sontag pronounced the Communist North “an ethical society.” But during
the Kosovo war-reflecting the views of the pro-war progressives-she
denounced as “genocidal” the Serbian regime (the number of whose victims
pales in comparison to Hanoi’s). She demanded “a forceful response.” Sontag
and the other progressive hawks of her generation suggest that Kosovo is a
model for the kind of righteous wars to which America should commit itself.
But Sontag and her crowd are obviously in no position to speak seriously
about the moral dimensions of American military intervention.

Their crusading zeal no doubt flatters their image of themselves. But before
other members of the left and the rest of us embrace their new notion of
“virtuous power,” we should heed America’s homegrown progressive (and
conservative) tradition.

For more than a century, that tradition-comprising such heterogenous figures
as Mark Twain, Eugene Debs, Edmund Wilson and Gore Vidal-has emphasized the
limits of American power, been wary of a universalist conception of American
security interests and held to the convictions that democracy can’t be
imposed by war and that the United States cannot and should not remake the
world in its image.

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