The past and future of a right-wing myth
Posted on Friday, July 14, 2006. Originally from June 2006, Harpers Magazine
First drink, hero, from my horn:
I spiced the draught well for you
To waken your memory clearly
So that the past shall not slip your mind!
—Hagen to Siegfried
Every state must have its enemies. Great powers must have especially monstrous foes. Above all, these foes must arise from within, for national pride does not admit that a great nation can be defeated by any outside force. That is why, though its origins are elsewhere, the stab in the back has become the sustaining myth of modern American nationalism. Since the end of World War II it has been the device by which the American right wing has both revitalized itself and repeatedly avoided responsibility for its own worst blunders. Indeed, the right has distilled its tale of betrayal into a formula: Advocate some momentarily popular but reckless policy. Deny culpability when that policy is exposed as disastrous. Blame the disaster on internal enemies who hate America. Repeat, always making sure to increase the number of internal enemies.
As the United States staggers past the third anniversary of its misadventure in Iraq, the dagger is already poised, the myth is already being perpetuated. To understand just how this strategy is likely to unfold—and why this time it may well fail—we must return to the birth of a legend.
* * *
The stab in the back first gained currency in Germany, as a means of explaining the nation’s stunning defeat in World War I. It was Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg himself, the leading German hero of the war, who told the National Assembly, “As an English general has very truly said, the German army was ‘stabbed in the back.’”
Like everything else associated with the stab-in-the-back myth, this claim was disingenuous. The “English general” in question was one Maj. Gen. Neill Malcolm, head of the British Military Mission in Berlin after the war, who put forward this suggestion merely to politely summarize how Field Marshal Erich von Ludendorff—the force behind Hindenburg—was characterizing the German army’s alleged lack of support from its civilian government.
“Ludendorff’s eyes lit up, and he leapt upon the phrase like a dog on a bone,” wrote Hindenburg biographer John Wheeler-Bennett. “‘Stabbed in the back?’ he repeated. ‘Yes, that’s it exactly. We were stabbed in the back.’”
Ludendorff’s enthusiasm was understandable, for, as he must have known, the phrase already had great resonance in Germany. The word dolchstoss—“dagger thrust”—had been popularized almost fifty years before in Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. After swallowing a potion that causes him to reveal a shocking truth, the invincible Teutonic hero, Siegfried, is fatally stabbed in the back by Hagen, son of the archvillain, Alberich.
Wagner had himself lifted his plot device from a medieval German poem, which was inspired in turn by Old Norse folklore, and of course the same story can be found in a slew of ancient mythologies, whether it’s the fate of the Greek heroes Achilles and Hercules or the story of Jesus and Judas. The hero cannot be defeated by fair means or outside forces but only by someone close to him, resorting to treachery.
The Siegfried legend in particular, though, has nuances that would mesh perfectly with right-wing mythology in the twentieth century, both in Germany and in the United States. At the end of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, the downfall of the gods is followed by the rise of the Germanic people. The mythological hero has been transformed into the volk, just as heroic stature is granted to the modern state. Siegfried is killed just after revealing an unwelcome truth—much as the right, when pressed for evidence about its conspiracy theories, will often claim that these are hidden truths their enemies have a vested interest in concealing. Hagen, as a half-breed, an outsider posing as a friend, stands in for something worse yet—the assimilated Jew, able to betray the great warrior of the volk by posing as his boon companion.
It was an iconography easily transferable to Germany’s new, postwar republic. Hitler himself would claim that while recuperating behind the lines from a leg wound, he found Jewish “slackers” dominating the war-production bureaucracy and that “the Jew robbed the whole nation and pressed it beneath his domination.” The rape imagery is revolting but vivid; Hitler was already attuned to the zeitgeist of his adopted country. Even before the war had been decided, a soldier in his company recalled how Corporal Hitler would “leap up and, running about excitedly, say that in spite of our big guns, victory would be denied us, for the invisible foes of the German people were a greater danger than the biggest cannon of the enemy.”
It didn’t matter that Field Marshal Ludendorff had in fact been the virtual dictator of Germany from August of 1916 on, or that the empire’s civilian leaders had been stunned by his announcement, in September of 1918, that his last, murderous offensives on the western front had failed, and that they must immediately sue for peace. The suddenness of Germany’s defeat only supported the idea that some sort of treason must have been involved. From this point on, all blame would redound upon “the November criminals,” the scheming politicians, reds, and above all, Jews.
Yet it was necessary, for the purging that the Nazis had in mind, to believe that the national degeneration went even further. Jerry Lembcke, in his brilliant work, The Spitting Image: Myth, Memory and the Legacy of Vietnam, writes of how the Nazis fostered the dolchstosslegende in ways that eerily foreshadowed returning veteran mythologies in the United States. Hermann Göring, the most charismatic of the Nazi leaders after Hitler, liked to speak of how “very young boys, degenerate deserters, and prostitutes tore the insignia off our best front line soldiers and spat on their field gray uniforms.” As Lembcke points out, any insignia ripping had actually been done by the mutinous soldiers and sailors who would launch a socialist uprising shortly after the war, tearing them off their own shoulders or those of their officers. Göring’s instant revisionism both covered up this embarrassing reality and created a whole new class of villains who were—in his barely coded language—homosexuals, sexually threatening women, and other “deviants.” All such individuals would be dealt with in the new, Nazi order.
* * *
The dolchstosslegende first came to the United States following not a war that had been lost but our own greatest triumph. Here, the motivating defeat was suffered not by the nation but by a faction. In the years immediately following World War II, the American right was facing oblivion. Domestically, the reforms of the New Deal had been largely embraced by the American people. The Roosevelt and Truman administrations—supported by many liberal Republicans—had led the nation successfully through the worst war in human history, and we had emerged as the most powerful nation on earth.
Franklin Roosevelt and his fellow liberal internationalists had sounded the first alarms about Hitler, but conservatives had stubbornly—even suicidally—maintained their isolationism right into the postwar era. Senator Robert Taft, “Mr. Republican,” and the right’s enduring presidential hope, had not only been a prominent member of the leading isolationist organization, America First, and opposed the nation’s first peacetime draft in 1940, but also appeared to be as naive about the Soviet Union as he had been about the Axis powers. Like many on the right, he was much more concerned about Chiang Kai-shek’s worm-eaten Nationalist regime in China than U.S. allies in Europe. “The whole Atlantic Pact, certainly the arming of Germany, is an incentive for Russia to enter the war before the army is built up,” Taft warned. He was against any U.S. military presence in Europe even in 1951.
This sort of determined naiveté had Taft and his movement teetering on the brink of political irrelevance. They saved themselves by grabbing at an unlikely rope—America’s very own dolchstosslegende, the myth of Yalta. No reasonable observer would have predicted in the immediate wake of the Yalta conference that it would become an enduring symbol of Democratic perfidy. Yalta was, in fact, originally considered the apogee of the Roosevelt Administration’s accomplishments, ensuring that the hard-won peace at the end of World War II would not soon dissolve
into an even worse conflict, just as the botched peace of Versailles had led only to renewed hostilities in the years after World War I. The conference, which took place in the Soviet Crimea in February 1945, was the last time “the Big Three” of the war—Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin—would meet face-to-face. The U.S. negotiating team went with specific goals and was widely perceived at the time as having achieved them. Agreements were reached on the occupation of the soon-to-be-defeated German Reich, the liberation of those Eastern European countries occupied by or allied with Germany, the Soviet entrance into the war against Japan, and, most significantly in Roosevelt’s eyes, on the structure of a workable, international body designed to keep world peace, the United Nations.
FDR’s presentation of these agreements before a joint session of Congress that March met with almost universal acclaim. This was not surprising. Roosevelt, who had been at Versailles as a junior member of the Wilson Administration, was preoccupied with making sure that his vision for the postwar world did not founder on any partisan bickering with Congress. Before leaving for Yalta, he had briefed a group of leading senators from across the political spectrum on what he hoped to accomplish, and solicited their opinions and questions. The delegation he took with him to the Soviet Union was a bipartisan team of senior diplomats, advisers, and military men, and he continued to cultivate support from all quarters on his return to the United States. Such prominent Republican figures as Arthur Vandenberg, the once-isolationist senator from Michigan turned internationalist, and Thomas Dewey, Roosevelt’s fierce opponent in the 1944 presidential race, expressed general support for the results of the Yalta conference. Taft and the right wing of the Republican Party were more skeptical, but offered no substantial criticisms.
Save for a few congressmen, newspaper publishers, and columnists on the extreme fringe of the right, this early Cold War consensus would survive until 1948. Then, Dewey’s and the Republicans’ stunning losses in the elections that fall, combined with a confluence of American setbacks abroad, served to revivify the right.
Not only did the Republicans lose a presidential election against a badly divided, national Democratic Party; they also lost the congressional majorities they had just managed to eke out in 1946, following fourteen years in the political wilderness. It now seemed clear that the Republicans would never return to power merely by supporting Democratic policies, or by promising to implement them more effectively, and the right wing gained traction within the party.
Meanwhile, the exposure of Alger Hiss as a Soviet agent followed, in relatively rapid succession, by the fall of Czechoslovakia’s coalition government to a Soviet-backed coup, the Soviet attainment of an atomic bomb, and the victory of Mao’s Communists over Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang regime in China, cast the entire policy of containment into doubt. Never mind that the right’s own feckless or muddled proposals for fighting the Cold War would not have ameliorated any of these situations. The right swept them into the memory hole and offered a new answer to Americans bewildered by how suddenly their nation’s global preeminence had been diminished: Yalta.
A growing chorus of right-wing voices now began to excoriate our wartime diplomacy. Their most powerful charge, one that would firmly establish the Yalta myth in the American political psyche, was the accusation that our delegation had given over Eastern Europe to the Soviets. According to “How We Won the War and Lost the Peace,” an essay written for Life magazine shortly before the 1948 election by William Bullitt—a former diplomat who had been dismissed by Roosevelt for outing a gay rival in the State Department—FDR and his chief adviser, Harry Hopkins, were guilty of “wishful appeasement” of Stalin at Yalta, handing the peoples of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states over to the Soviet dictator.
The right wing’s dolchstosslegende was a small but fateful conspiracy, engineered through “secret diplomacy” at Yalta. Its linchpin was Hiss, a junior State Department aide at Yalta who was now described as a major architect of the pact. Hiss was a perfect villain for the right’s purposes. He was not only a communist and a spy; he was also an effete Eastern intellectual right down to his name—and, by implication, possibly a homosexual. He had been publicly exposed by that relentlessly regular guy, Dick Nixon, as an unnatural, un-American element who had used his wiles to sway all of his superiors in the Crimea.
Just how he had accomplished this was never detailed, but it didn’t matter; specificity is anathema to any myth. Bullitt and an equally flamboyant opportunist of the period, Congresswoman Clare Boothe Luce, offered a more general explanation. The Democrats, Mrs. Luce had already charged, “will not, or dare not, tell us the commitments that were overtly or secretly made in moments of war’s extermination by a mortally ill President, and perhaps mortally scared State Department advisers.”
The idea of the “dying President” at Yalta was plausible to much of the public, who had seen photographs of Roosevelt looking suddenly, shockingly gaunt and exhausted throughout much of the last year of his life. To the right wing—which had conducted a whispering campaign against Roosevelt throughout his term in office, claiming that his real affliction was not polio but syphilis, and that he, his wife, and various advisers, including Hopkins, were “secret Jews” and Soviet agents—it all made perfect sense. To the many Americans who still loved Roosevelt and whose votes the Republicans needed, FDR himself could now become the Siegfried figure, a dying hero betrayed by the shady, unnatural Hiss.
All of this, of course, falls apart under the most cursory examination. Hiss was a “technician” at Yalta, relied upon mostly for his expertise regarding the planned United Nations, and—already suspected of espionage—he had played no policymaking role in a large, bipartisan delegation that included most of the nation’s military and diplomatic leadership. Roosevelt was in severe physical decline and would die from a massive stroke some two months later, but his mind was still active and engaged. Chip Bohlen—who actually was at Yalta and who went on to become a leading Cold War statesman under both Republican and Democratic administrations—would echo many other observers in reporting that while Roosevelt’s “physical state was certainly not up to normal, his mental and psychological state was certainly not affected. He was lethargic but when important moments arose, he was mentally sharp.”
Far from handing over anything to anyone, Roosevelt had actually persuaded Stalin to sign onto a “Declaration on Liberated Europe” that affirmed “the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live” and committed the Big Three “to the earliest possible establishment through free elections of governments responsive to the will of the people.” More was not possible. The salient fact about Eastern Europe at the end of World War II was that the Red Army enjoyed an immense numerical advantage there. To dislodge it, the United States would have had to embark immediately upon another epic struggle, a vast new war for which the American people, already clamoring for demobilization, showed absolutely no enthusiasm. It is likely that the United States would have eventually prevailed in such a struggle, but only at a cost of American lives that would have dwarfed the total lost in World War II itself, and the further devastation of the very European countries we had sought to liberate.
As Bohlen told a Senate committee in 1953, “I believe that the map of Europe would look much the same if there had never been a Yalta conference at all.” Why this should have been surprising, and how it possibly reflected a failure of American foreign policy, is a mystery in any rational analysis of the situation. But any such analysis could never be made by the heroic state. Instead, Roosevelt and the nation he represented had to have been betrayed. The previous, disastrous policies advocated by the Republican right—ignoring the growing Axis threat, then leaving Western Europe defenseless while plunging into war in China—could be safely forgotten.
* * *
Republicans now began an almost continuous campaign against alleged Democratic conspiracies. Following Chiang’s defeat, conservatives in Congress demanded to know “Who lost China?” and Robert Taft, discarding his much vaunted integrity, egged on Joe McCarthy’s witch-hunt against the Truman Administration, urging him to “keep talking and if one case doesn’t work out, he should proceed with another.” Yet it would take another hot war—and another expansion of the dolchstosslegende—to permanently enthrone the idea of a vast, treasonous left-wing conspiracy in the American psyche.
The outbreak of hostilities in Korea in 1950 was disturbing enough, but the defeat of General Douglas MacArthur that winter by invading Chinese forces sent shock waves throughout the United States. More than anyone else, MacArthur had brought about his own defeat, launching his troops up the Korean peninsula in separate columns, divided by mountain ranges, ignoring both orders from the White House to halt and plentiful signs that a massive Chinese force had already infiltrated the Korean peninsula. But while his subordinates scrambled to rally their reeling men, MacArthur moved swiftly to salvage his military reputation and his hopes for the presidency.
What the general proposed was a massive escalation of the war. U.N. troops would not only “blockade the coast of China” and “destroy through naval gunfire and air bombardment China’s industrial capacity to wage war” but would also “release existing restrictions upon the Formosan garrison” of Chiang Kai-shek, which might lead to counter-invasion against “vulnerable areas of the Chinese mainland.” Above all, MacArthur urged that no fewer than thirty-four atomic bombs be dropped on what he characterized as “retardation targets” in Manchuria, including critical concentrations of troops and planes. Even this soon seemed insufficient. MacArthur later added that had he been permitted, he not only would have launched as many as fifty atomic bombs but also would have used “wagons, carts, trucks, and planes” to create “a belt of radioactive cobalt” that would neatly slice the Korean thumb from China. “For at least sixty years,” he said, “there could have been no land invasion of Korea from the north.”
MacArthur insisted the “only way to prevent World War III is to end the Korean conflict rapidly and decisively”—as if a massive, atomic attack upon the world’s most populous nation would not, in itself, constitute World War III. When the Truman Administration rejected his proposals, the general announced that he was not being allowed to win—“An enormous handicap without precedent in military history.” The U.N. had to “depart from its tolerant effort to contain the war to the area of Korea” and accept his strategy to “doom Red China,” an opponent “of such exaggerated and vaunted military power.”
MacArthur conveyed similar sentiments to his conservative allies in Congress, writing House Minority Leader Joseph Martin that he was only trying to “follow the conventional pattern of meeting force with maximum counter-force, as we have never failed to do in the past,” and concluding: “There is no substitute for victory.” Martin gleefully aired the great man’s views in a speech in Brooklyn, thundering, “If we are not in Korea to win, then this Administration should be indicted for the murder of thousands of American boys.” He added that “the same State Department crowd that cut off aid” to Chiang in 1946 now opposed invading China because this would show up their earlier mistakes. The only way to “save Europe and save Asia at the same time” was “to clear out the State Department from top to bottom.” After Martin repeated MacArthur’s views on the House floor, Truman finally removed the general from his command. But the move seemed only to confirm that something was very wrong.
The right seized the opportunity to renew—and expand—its charges of dolchstoss. Republican Senator William Jenner of Indiana bellowed from the floor of the Senate that “this country today is in the hands of a secret inner coterie which is directed by agents of the Soviet Union. We must cut this whole cancerous conspiracy out of our Government at once. Our own choice is to impeach President Truman and find out who is the secret invisible government which has so cleverly led our country down the road to destruction.” Nixon, his new colleague, agreed in barely coded language, attacking “the whining, whimpering, groveling attitude of our diplomatic representatives who talk of America’s fear rather than of America’s strength and of America’s courage.” He claimed that “top administration officials have refused time and time again to recognize the existence of this fifth column” or “to take effective action to clear subversives out” of the government.
Douglas MacArthur now became the martyred Siegfried, stabbed in the back by weaklings at home who were for some reason afraid of victory. It was the fault of these “whimpering,” “soft,” “cowardly,” “lavender” “appeasers,” so unnatural they were willing to “murder” American boys to cover up their own misjudgments. Communist treachery and appeasement were blended seamlessly with an emerging, postwar sex panic.
An entire, seemingly plausible narrative of treason was now firmly established. The conspiracy of spies, or sexual deviants, or both, had now expanded beyond Alger Hiss to include pretty much the entire State Department and maybe the rest of the executive branch. Taft, launching his third run for the Republican nomination, offered to name MacArthur as his vice president, and the general, while still harboring hopes of winning the nomination himself, agreed on the condition that he would have a voice in foreign policy and be put in charge of national security.
In their desire for power, Republican centrists soon joined this right-wing chorus. John Foster Dulles, now Eisenhower’s secretary-of-state designate, denounced the very strategy of containment that he had helped to formulate and promised to “roll back” Communism everywhere, including in Eastern Europe. Eisenhower himself refused to disown McCarthy, even after the senator had impugned the patriotism of his longtime friend and mentor, George Marshall.
The Republican platform that Ike ran on in the fall of 1952 was a freefall into fantasy, a fatal compact by party moderates with a right wing that would eventually push them into extinction. For the first time since the Civil War era, one major American political party charged another one with treason. Democrats were accused of having “shielded traitors to the Nation in high places” and creating “enemies abroad where we should have friends.” Democrats were responsible for all “110,000 American casualties” in Korea, where they had “produced stalemates and ignominious bartering with our enemies” that “offer no hope of victory.” Republicans promised to “repudiate all commitments contained in secret understandings such as those of Yalta which aid Communist enslavements.”
United once more, Republicans brought this compilation of hysterical charges and bald-faced lies before the American people—who swallowed them willingly. Once in power, Eisenhower and Dulles immediately returned to managing the Democratic system of containment. Dulles met with MacArthur, listened respectfully to his plan to nuke Manchuria, allowed that it “could well succeed,” then shelved it without another word. No “secret understandings” to “aid Communist enslavements” were repudiated because, of course, they did not exist. The idea of “rolling back” Communism from Eastern Europe was taken seriously solely by the Hungarian people, who launched a brave rebellion against their Soviet occupiers in 1956, only to find that Dulles and Eisenhower were willing to offer them nothing more than sympathy.
* * *
The right’s initial blindness toward first the Axis and then the Soviet threat in Europe; the disastrous military campaign waged by one of its icons; its feckless and even apocalyptic ideas for recouping its previous mistakes—all had been erased in much of the public consciousness by the stab in the back, a vote-winning tale of deviancy, subversion, and intentional defeat radiating from Yalta all the way to Korea. The Vietnam War, however, would call for yet another expansion of the dolchstosslegende.
Vietnam was the sort of war Republicans had been clamoring to fight for two decades. A liberal administration had started it, with misplaced bravado, but it had been egged on—even dared—to take the plunge into full-scale war by prevailing right-wing dogma. When the war soured, Republicans first tried to blame not the failed premise of the domino theory or the flawed diplomacy of the Kennedy Administration or the near-universal American failure to recognize Vietnam’s boundless desire for self-determination—no, it was the old fallbacks of appeasement, defeatism, and treachery in high places.
Once again, we were told that American troops were not being “allowed” to win, if they could not mine Haiphong harbor, or flatten Hanoi, or reduce all of North Vietnam to a parking lot. Yet Vietnam was a war with no real defeats on the ground. U.S. troops won every battle of any significance and inflicted exponentially greater casualties on the enemy than they suffered themselves. Even the great debacle of the war, the 1968 Tet offensive, ended with an overwhelming American military victory and the Viet Cong permanently expunged as an effective fighting force. It is difficult to claim betrayal when you do not lose a battle.
Worse yet, Republicans could not provide any meaningful alternative strategy. Nixon was able to take office in 1969 only by offering a “secret plan” to get the boys home from Vietnam, not by promising to hugely escalate the fighting or risk a wider conflict. Richard Nixon became the first Republican president since the turn of the century to take office while a major war still hung in the balance, and now all the fantasies began to fall away. More than 21,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam during Nixon’s time in office, and there were no Democrats to blame it on.
The only political hope for the administration was to turn its gaze outward—to blame the people themselves, or at least a portion of them. Nixon, as historian Rick Perlstein has observed, “had a gift for looking beneath social surfaces to see and exploit subterranean anxieties,” and he had been on hand at the creation of this game. Initially, the divisions he sought to exploit were much the same as those he had manipulated back in the 1940s, though they were now aimed at broad swaths of the general public—the children of the New Deal, as it were. The leading tactics included employment of the same sorts of code words so bluntly wielded twenty years before, along with a good deal more street muscle.
Over and over, antiwar protesters were called Communists, perverts, or simply “bums”—the last epithet from Nixon’s own lips. The large percentage of college students in their ranks were depicted as spoiled, obnoxious, ungrateful children. Older, more established dissidents were ridiculed by Nixon’s vice president, Spiro Agnew, in a series of William Safire‒authored speeches, as “nattering nabobs of negativity,” and, unforgettably, as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.” These invectives were, of course, doubly disingenuous; it was Agnew and Safire who very much wanted such persons to be known by the damning label of “intellectual,” and what the vice president was really calling them was fags.
All these bums and effetes might be un-American, but their disapproval still was sufficient to demoralize our fighting men in Vietnam and thereby put them in imminent peril. And on hand to take the torch from an increasingly beleaguered Nixon was a new Republican master at exploiting subterranean anxieties, Ronald Reagan. As early as 1969, Reagan was insisting that leaders of the massive Moratorium Days protests “lent comfort and aid” to the North Vietnamese, and that “some American will die tonight because of the activity in our streets.”
The Nixon Administration now had its new Hagens. People who voiced their opposition to the war were traitors and even killers, responsible for the death of American servicemen, and as such almost any action taken against them could be justified. The Nixon White House even had its own blue-collar shock troops. Repeatedly, on suspiciously media-heavy occasions, construction workers appeared to break up antiwar demonstrations and beat up peaceful demonstrators. The effete protesters had been shown up by real working-class Americans—and their class allies in the police force eagerly closed ranks.
* * *
Neither Nixon, nor Agnew, nor the war would survive a second term. With the shameful, panicked helicopter evacuation of Saigon, U.S. prestige in the world dropped precipitously—but none of the other dominoes followed. Once again, by 1975, the American right should have found itself utterly discredited. A war that conservatives had fervently supported had ended in defeat, but with none of the consequences they had prophesied. Instead, the entire operating right-wing belief in “monolithic communism” was debunked in the wake of our evacuation from Saigon, as Vietnam attacked Cambodia, China invaded Vietnam, and the Soviet Union and China clashed along their border.
Yet the cultural division that Richard Nixon had fomented to try to salvage the war in Vietnam would take on a life of its own long after the war was over and Nixon had been driven from office in disgrace. It cleverly focused on the men who had fought the war, rather than the war itself. If Vietnam had been an unnecessary sacrifice, if world Communism could no longer be passed off as a credible threat to the United States, then the betrayal of our fighting men must become the issue.
Vietnam, for the right, would come to be defined mainly through a series of closely related, culturally explosive totems. The protesters and the counterculture would be reduced to the single person of Jane Fonda, embalmed forever on a clip of film, traipsing around a North Vietnamese antiaircraft gun. The soldiers, meanwhile, were transformed into victims and martyrs. It became general knowledge that they had been savagely scorned and mocked upon their return to the United States; those returning through the San Francisco airport were especially liable to be spat upon by men and women protesting the war.
Of course, those who were able to return at all were the lucky ones. Soon after we had bugged out of Saigon, millions of Americans became convinced that American prisoners of war had been left behind in Vietnamese work camps, by a government that was too cowed or callous to insist upon their return. Numerous groups sprang up to demand their release, disseminating flags with a stark, black-and-white tableau of a prisoner’s bowed head against the backdrop of a guard tower, a barbed-wire fence, and the legend: YOU ARE NOT FORGOTTEN POW*MIA.
It would do no good to point out that there is no objective evidence that veterans were ever spat upon by demonstrators or that POWs were ever left behind or that Jane Fonda’s addle-headed mission to Hanoi did anything to undermine American forces. The stab-in-the-back myth is much more powerful than any of these facts, and it continues to grow more so as time passes. Just this past Christmas, one Faye Fiore wrote a feature for the Los Angeles Times about how returning Iraqi veterans are being showered with acts of good will by an adoring American public, “In contrast to the hostile stares that greeted many Vietnam veterans 40 years ago.” The POW/MIA flags, with their black-and-white iconography of shame, now fly everywhere in the United States, just under the Stars and Stripes; federal law even mandates that on at least six days a year—Memorial Day, Flag Day, Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, Independence Day, and one day during POW/MIA Week (the third week of September)—they must be flown over nearly every single U.S. government building. There has been nothing else like them in the history of this country, and they have no parallel anywhere else in the world—these peculiar little banners, attached like a disclaimer to our national flag, with their message of surrender and humiliation, perennially accusing our government of betrayal.
* * *
If the power of the stab-in-the-back narrative from Vietnam is beyond question, it still raises the question of why. Why should we wish to maintain a narrative of horrendous national betrayal, one in which our own democratically elected government, and a large portion of our fellow citizens, are guilty of horribly betraying our fighting men?
The answer, I think, lies in Richard Nixon’s ability to expand the Siegfried myth from the halls of power out into the streets. Government conspiracies are still culpable, of course; ironically, it was Nixon’s own administration that first “left behind” American POWs in North Vietnam. Yet this makes little difference to the American right, which never considered Nixon ideologically pure enough to be a member in good standing, and which has always made hay by railing against government, even now that they are it. What Nixon and a few of his contemporaries did for the right was to make culture war the permanent condition of American politics.
On domestic issues as well as ones of foreign policy, from Ronald Reagan’s mythical “welfare queens” through George Wallace’s “pointy-headed intellectuals”; from Lee Atwater’s characterization of Democrats as anti-family, anti-life, anti-God, down through the open, deliberate attempts of Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove to constantly describe opponents in words that made them seem bizarre, deviant, and “out of the mainstream,” the entire vernacular of American politics has been altered since Vietnam. Culture war has become the organizing principle of the right, unalterably convinced as it is that conservatives are an embattled majority, one that must stand ever vigilant against its unnatural enemies—from the “gay agenda,” to the advocates of Darwinism, to the “war against Christmas” last year.
This has become such an ingrained part of the right wing’s belief system that the Bush Administration has now become the first government in our nation’s history to fight a major war without seeking any sort of national solidarity. Far from it. The whole purpose of the war in Iraq—and the “war on terrorism”—seems to have been to foment division and to win elections by forcing Americans to choose between starkly different visions of what their country should be. Again and again, Bush and his confederates have used the cover of national security to push through an uncompromising right-wing agenda. Ignoring the broad leeway already provided the federal government to fight terrorists and conduct domestic surveillance, the administration has gone out of its way to claim vast new powers to detain, spy on, and imprison its own citizens, and to abduct and even torture foreigners—a subject we shall return to. It has used the cover of the war to push through enormous tax cuts, attempt to dismantle the Social Security system, and alter the very social covenant of the nation. Incidents from the Terri Schiavo case to the teaching of “intelligent design” are periodically exploited to start new cultural battles.
Given this state of permanent culture war, it is not surprising that the Bush White House trotted out the stab-in-the-back myth when its Iraq project began to run out of steam early last summer. It was first given a spin, as usual, by the right’s media shock troops, and directed at both Democratic and renegade Republican lawmakers who had dared to criticize either the strategic conduct of the war or our treatment of detainees. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page opined, “Where the terrorists are gaining ground is in Washington, D.C.” and noted that General John Abizaid, of the U.S. Central Command, had said, “When my soldiers say to me and ask me the question whether or not they’ve got support from the American people or not, that worries me. And they’re starting to do that.”
Again, the link was made. Soldiers of the most powerful army in the history of the world would be actively endangered if they even wondered whether the folks at home were questioning their deployment. The right was looking for a target, and it got one when Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), appalled by an FBI report on the prisons for suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay, compared them to those run by “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings . . . ”
The right’s response was predictably swift and savage. The Power Line blogger Paul Mirengoff commented that the senator “slanders his own country. Normally that kind of slander is uttered only by revolutionaries seeking the violent overthrow of the government.” Rush Limbaugh harrumphed that “Dick Durbin has just identified who the Democrats are in the year 2005, particularly when it comes to American national security and when it comes to the U.S. military. These are the same people that say they support the troops. This is how they do it, huh? They give aid and comfort to the enemy.”
Yet for once, Rush was outdone. John Carlson, host of a Seattle talk show and Washington State’s unsuccessful Republican candidate for governor in 2000, said of Durbin, “This man is simply a piece of excrement, a piece of waste that needs to be scraped off the sidewalk and eliminated.” Bill O’Reilly of Fox News launched a preemptive attack on his few liberal counterparts, urging that the staff of Air America be jailed: “Dissent, fine; undermining, you’re a traitor. Got it? So, all you clowns over at the liberal radio network, we could incarcerate them immediately. Will you have that done, please? Send them over to the FBI and just put them in chains, because they, you know, they’re undermining everything.”
Once the Republican media had secured the ground and set the terms of debate, the party’s representatives in Washington jumped into the fray. When Democratic House Leader Nancy Pelosi called the war “a grotesque mistake” that was “not making America safer,” the as-yet-unindicted Tom DeLay retorted that Pelosi “owes our military and their families an apology for her reckless comments,” and House Majority Whip Roy Blunt claimed that Pelosi’s words had “emboldened” the enemy.
All of the crucial elements of the stab-in-the-back charge were now in place. Critics of the war were not simply questioning its strategy or its necessity, or upholding the best of American traditions by raising concerns over how enemy prisoners were being treated. Instead, they were aiding the enemy, and actively endangering our fighting men and women. They were traitors and “revolutionaries,” individuals who were “conducting guerrilla warfare on American troops,” and “excrement” who could now be safely incarcerated “immediately” or even “eliminated.”
It remained only for the chief Republican strategist, Karl Rove, to appear before a conservative party fundraiser in Manhattan on June 22 and tie up a campaign that bore all of his usual earmarks.
“Conservatives saw the savagery of 9/11 in the attacks and prepared for war; liberals saw the savagery of the 9/11 attacks and wanted to prepare indictments and offer therapy and understanding for our attackers,” Rove began, riffing on a proven theme from the 2004 presidential election, which sought to link Democrats not only with the terrorist attack on 9/11 but also with a generation of Republican assertions that liberals are “soft” on domestic crime. Rove then honed in on poor Dick Durbin’s remarks: “Has there ever been a more revealing moment this year? Let me just put this in fairly simple terms: Al Jazeera now broadcasts the words of Senator Durbin to the Mideast, certainly putting our troops in greater danger. No more needs to be said about the motives of liberals.”; (My italics.)
The conspiracy had expanded yet again. Not just Nancy Pelosi or Dick Durbin but all Democrats and all liberals were now firmly established as traitors, and it was not possible that they had made some honest gaffes; instead, their very motives were sinister.
When Rove’s thunderous media offensive had finally subsided, however, a strange silence ensued. The popularity of his master, George W. Bush, continued to plunge in the opinion polls. Support for the war continued to plummet as well, and by July, Rove himself was thoroughly enmeshed in the Valerie Plame scandal, with all of the attendant implications about its manipulation of prewar intelligence. By November, Rove was forced to send out Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney themselves on a new “Strategy for Victory” campaign. Speaking on Veterans Day to an all-military audience at an army depot in Tobyhanna, Pennsylvania, Bush attacked Democrats who were saying they had been duped by the fraudulent intelligence the administration had used to secure their votes for war.
“These baseless attacks send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America’s will,” Bush told the soldiers assembled for his photo op. “As our troops fight a ruthless enemy determined to destroy our way of life, they deserve to know that their elected leaders who voted to send them to war continue to stand behind them.”
Once again, criticism of the war in Iraq had been adroitly linked to criticism of the administration, and then to treason—something that would, somehow, magically empower the enemy and demoralize our own troops. Once again, unnatural enemies were striking at the heroic, Siegfried figures at the top of the administration, who struggled to get out their great truth that no intelligence had been manipulated and the Democrats were engaging in “revisionism.”
Yet still, somehow, Bush’s numbers continued to plunge. What went wrong? How could such an infallible Republican strategy, conducted with all of the right wing’s vast media resources at his command, have failed so utterly? How was it that the story of the stab in the back had lost its power to hold us spellbound?
* * *
What has really robbed the conspiracy theories of their effectiveness is how the war in Iraq has been conducted. Bush and his advisers have sought to use the war not only to punish their enemies but also to reward their supporters, a bit of political juggling that led them to demand nothing from the American public as a whole. Those of us who are not actively fighting in Iraq, or who do not have close friends and family members who are doing so, have not been asked to sacrifice in any way. The richest among us have even been showered with tax cuts.
Yet in demanding so little, Bush has finally uncoupled the state from its heroic status. It is not a coincidence that modern nationalism dates from the advent of mass democracy—and mass citizen armies—that the American and French revolutions ushered in at the end of the eighteenth century. Bush’s refusal to mobilize the nation for the war in Iraq has severed that immediate identification with our army’s fortunes. Nor did it begin with the Bush Administration. The wartime tax cuts and the all-volunteer, wartime army are simply the latest manifestations of a trend that is now decades old and that has been promulgated through peace as well as war, by Democrats as well as Republicans. It cannot truly be a surprise that a society that has steadily dismantled or diminished the most basic access to health care, relief for the poor and the aged, and decent education; a society that has allowed the gap between its richest and poorest citizens to grow to unprecedented size; a society that has paid obeisance to the ideology of globalization to the point of giving away both its jobs and its debt to foreign nations, and which has just allowed one of its poorer cities to quietly drown, should choose to largely opt out of its own defense.
Anyone who doubts that this is exactly what we have done need only look at how little the war really engages most of us. It rarely draws more than a few seconds of coverage on the local television news, if that, and then only well into the broadcast, after a story on a murder, or a fire, or the latest weather predictions. Even the largest and angriest demonstrations against our occupation of Iraq have not approached the mobilizations against the war in Vietnam, but a close observer will notice that we also have yet to see any of the massive counterdemonstrations that were held in support of that war—or “in support of the troops.” Such engagement on either side seems almost quaint now.
Who could possibly believe in a plot to lose this war? No one cares that much about it. We have, instead, reached a crossroads where the overwhelming right-wing desire to dissolve much of the old social compact that held together the modern nation-state is irreconcilably at odds with any attempt to conduct such a grand, heroic experiment as implanting democracy in the Middle East. Without mass participation, Iraq cannot be passed off as an heroic endeavor, no matter how much Mr. Bush’s rhetoric tries to make it one, and without a hero there can be no great betrayer, no skulking villain.
And yet, a convincing national narrative, though it may be the sheerest, most vicious fiction, can have incredible staying power—can perhaps outlast even the nation that it was meant to serve. It is ironic that, even as support for his war was starting to unravel in May of 2005, George W. Bush was in the Latvian capital of Riga, describing the Yalta agreement as “one of the greatest wrongs of history.” The President placed it in the “unjust tradition” of the 1938 Munich Pact and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which together paved the way for the start of World War II in 1939. Bush’s words echoed his statements of three previous trips to Eastern Europe, dating back to 2001, during which he had pledged, “no more Munichs, no more Yaltas,” and called Yalta an “attempt to sacrifice freedom for the sake of stability,” a “bitter legacy,” and a “constant source of injustice and fear” that had “divided a living civilization.”
The ultimate irony of Bush’s perpetuating this ageless right-wing shibboleth is that for once it wasn’t intended for home consumption. The Yalta myth has finally lost its old magic, here in historically illiterate, contemporary America. Nor did Bush make any special attempt to let his countrymen know he was apportioning them equal blame with Stalin and Hitler for the greatest calamities of the twentieth century.
Bush’s pandering was directed instead to the nations he was visiting, in a region that still battens on any number of conspiracy theories. Why he should have so denigrated his own country to a few small Eastern European nations might seem a mystery, until one considers that this is the “new Europe” that Bush has solicited for troops for his Iraqi adventure . . . and where he appears to have found either destinations or conduits for victims of “extraordinary rendition,” en route to where they could be safely tortured in secrecy.
An American president, wandering the halls of Eastern European palaces, denounces his own nation in order to appease his hosts into torturing secret prisoners. Our heroic age surely has come to an end.
About the Author
Kevin Baker’s most recent novel, Strivers Row, is the final installment in his “City of Fire” trilogy about New York City. His last article for Harper's Magazine, “We’re in the Army Now,” appeared in the October 2003 issue.