Blogs > Cliopatria > Smoke But No Fire

Jan 24, 2004 1:52 pm

Smoke But No Fire

Reading the exchange at the Nation between Eric Alterman and Errol Morris, I'm sort of baffled about what the issues are, or at least, what it was that got Alterman to begin a pissing match about who is the real historian in the room.

I generally think it's a bad sign when scholars have to fall back onto the"back off, man, I'm a scholar" tactic. It's usually a sign of a weak underlying case producing bluster. There are times where it's justified, where an obscurantist or mindless polemicist is howling to the moon about some issue that he or she literally knows nothing about. But even then, you have to deliver the goods, and say what it is that you know that someone else doesn't.

In this case, I think it's a really bad sign that Alterman actually writes, in his own words,"Since he is not trained as a historian, Morris lacks the ability to weigh the value of one conversation against another, considering context, hidden motives and persons present". For one, the notion that this is a particular or peculiar methodological skill of historians strikes me as a bit odd. For another, it suggests that Alterman has never seen any of Errol Morris' films besides"The Fog of War", despite his profession of admiration for Morris' work. If there's anything that Morris seems good at, it's weighing the value of conversations against one another, and uncovering contexts, motives and situations that condition particular conversations.

More to the point, it seems to me that in their exchange in the Nation is actually a pretty good example of meat-and-potatoes history, and were Morris a historian publishing in historical journals, he would be at least making a permissible argument. If you read carefully the specifics that are at stake here, Morris first off is making an incredibly tightly focused chronological argument about late 1963 and early 1964 about a very narrow window of contingency in which he believes Robert McNamara was advising Johnson to consider withdrawing from Vietnam. Alterman responds with a quote from May 1964 suggesting a contrary possibility. At the least, since Morris so carefully circumscribes the temporal period of his claims, they're actually rather carefully"historical" in the scholarly sense. He doesn't deserve to be rebuked as a good filmmaker, bad historian. It may be that there's a reasonable argument to be had about evidence either way, but that's what good historians do.

More to the point, when Alterman quotes McNamara and Johnson, I come away convinced that both of them were saying more or less the same thing: that the war was a unwinnable dog and they can't get out. Alterman quotes McNamara at the end of his point #3 and Johnson at the beginning of #3 and seems to think that they're saying something completely different. To me, it seems like pretty much the same thing.

There's a more general problem here with the whole damn discussion, and that's the bizarre fetish that most of the people who care about pinning fault for Vietnam on some particular villain have about carrying the day for their man, and the religious mania they have for resolving all contradictions in the record. What I come away convinced of from this discussion and everything else I've ever read about it is that Johnson, McNamara, Bundy, Kennedy and everyone else who had a say about it believed and said contradictory things depending on the time of day, the context, the mood, and the people in the room. Exactly what Alterman says historians are supposed to consider. Why he wants to smooth out those contradictions so that one admitted"pathological liar" and not the other ends up with the lion's share of personal responsibility for a complicatedly collective, institutional and social failure is not clear to me. I haven't yet seen"The Fog of War", but I have a hard time believing that Morris, who normally wallows in contradiction and ambiguity, is as eager to deal out absolution and punishment in such easy measure. Maybe it's because Alterman needs to preserve the Johnson of the Great Society and civil rights agains the Johnson of Vietnam, the same way that the somewhat pathetic rear-guard devotees of John Kennedy's sacred flame need to believe that had he lived, all the bad events of the 1960s would never have happened.

Me, I can live with a world where McNamara and Johnson and all their advisors said different things at different moments, and believed different things at different moments--maybe three contradictory things at the same time. I guess I don't have a dog in this fight.

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Name Removed at Poster's Request - 1/27/2004

Thanks for your well thought out item.

The only thing I can add right now is Johnson\'s post-11/23/63 actions play into discussions of the JFK assassination. Many and possibly most people who\'ve written books about it think that JFK was murdered by a government-connected cabal in part to allow escalation of the war to the level of US involvement that occurred during the Johnson administration. These people generally argue that JFK was cool to the idea of a full-blown (hundreds of thousands of ground troops and/or massive bombing) war (and some have argued, pointing to some evidence, that JFK was toward the end of his life actually working on getting us out of Vietnam), while Johnson was a rabid warhawk who reversed JFK\'s new policy direction as quickly and completely as was politically feasible while trying to maintain the appearance of policy continuation. (As everyone has noted, Johnson was a pathological liar.)

The popular \"Johnson\'s Vietnam policy was a continuation of Kennedy\'s\" thesis works against the argument that Vietnam escalation was a motive for JFK\'s assassination by a militarist conspiracy. The view of Johnson as an indecisive guy pushed into the war by a hawkish McNamara would also work against Vietnam as a motivation for assassination by a militarist conspiracy if it is also assumed that McNamara cannot be connected to the assassination, and I\'ve never reading anything suggesting that he was.

Sure, other than in relation to the JFK assassination, I don\'t know why anyone would bother to get worked up in public 35-40 years after the fact over whether Johnson or McNamara were the instigator of the fullblown Vietnam war.

Ophelia Benson - 1/23/2004

Sure you do, the dog you have in this fight is the one called 'Accepting Complexity' (out of 'Ambiguity' and 'People Change Their Minds a Lot').

What a fascinating post, for all sorts of reasons. I'll have to rush off and read the debate now.

I once heard McNamara say something really interesting, and also explanatory and understandable and sympathizable-with, I think in a conversation on NPR. About The Book, of course, and about the question I and no doubt thousands of others began yelling into the air as soon as The Book came out - 'Why didn't you say all this then?!? Now you tell us! We know! That's what we were saying! So why the hell didn't you say so then?!' He said why he didn't. He was in a minority in the Cabinet, a very small minority, maybe a minority of one - and he could have been wrong. He just always thought 'But what if I'm wrong?' As with so many situations of that kind, it just wasn't clear that one course of action was the safe one and the other wasn't.

But on the other hand another thing that has always stuck in my mind (always since hearing it that is, which is only a few years) is a bit from Beschloss' Johnson tapes, where Johnson in August '64 is telling Bundy how he hates to send a bunch of kids, kids like the son of someone on his staff, into a war, but if he doesn't, Goldwater will be able to portray the Democrats as weak. In short it came down to an election. Get into a war because of an election. That too has its understandable aspects (one might think Goldwater would be so dangerous that such a calculation would be a reasonable one, for example), but still, it's fairly...distasteful.

And yet I admire Johnson now. A lot more than I did at the time.