I REMEMBER THE DAY I HATCHED AS A HAWK. Born in late 1964, I’d spent my most formative years watching the Vietnam War on TV, and soaking in the multicultural rays of the Electric Company. At age seven, I loved George McGovern, and nagged my Archie Bunker father to vote for him. (A man who is not a liberal at seven has no heart; if not a conservative at twelve he has no brain…) I watched the Watergate hearings, hoping that Nixon, having “cheated,” would now be forced into a “do-over,” like kids replaying an inning. My first exposure to foreign policy was footage of American P.O.W.s shambling home from Hanoi. Over our household hung the fear that my sister’s fiancé would go off to war; the song that played on our radio was the anthem, “Billy Don’t Be A Hero.” (It seemed profound at the time.) I greeted Nixon’s resignation with a sneer of boyish triumph, and the end of the Vietnam War with pure relief. I was a real piece of work—a New York Times intern in training.…
But something happened in 1975. Perhaps you remember it: Saigon fell. The weak regime we’d left in place, defended by paper promises, collapsed. Everyone had known it would. Remember the helicopters hovering over the U.S. embassy, as desperate civilians clutched at the landing rails? The Soviet tanks battering down the gates to the embassy compound, so North Vietnamese soldiers could pull down our flag? I remember. It taught me the meaning of shame.
Each night on television, I could see America helpless. The next few months were worse. Vast columns of civilians, Christians, anti-Communists, and other allies we’d left behind were marched into re-education camps, a gulag in which uncounted thousands died. Thousands more took to the high seas—“boat people” braving pirates, typhoons and scurvy, in desperation to reach the West, the land of empty promises. Gerald Ford had tried to aid the South Vietnam regime—but Congress refused. The liberal Democrats swept in by Watergate and war-exhaustion denied Saigon the aid we’d promised—and we watched our friends go down.
Then Cambodia fell to the black-pajamad savages of the Khmer Rouge. Our recent allies died like lambs—as Spalding Grey writes, small children were pulled apart before the mothers’ eyes like pieces of fresh bread—over a million shot, butchered, starved. And the Democrats in Congress did nothing. The media helpfully explained that all this was Nixon’s fault—because, you see, he’d bombed the Khmer Rouge. Which had made them very, very angry. And now they expressed this anger—well, by murdering every Cambodian who wore glasses. Understand? Somehow, I didn’t. I soaked in the bitter news reports, and my youthful liberalism pickled, turning sour. I came out of my shell a full-fledged hawk.
I wonder how many other Americans my age endured the Carter years in a simmer of rage, waiting for the chance to vindicate their country. Iran fell. Afghanistan seemed to fall. The Soviets piled up missiles, and our Western allies flirted with Finland’s fate. (How bad could “Eurocommunism” be? I remember the Op-Eds.) How many of my generation campaigned for Reagan in 1976 when they were much too young to vote, and danced for glee in 1980 when Carter fell away from the White House like a scab?
My friends and I were delighted to see U.S. Marines land in Grenada—long before we knew where the country was, or why on earth we’d invaded. I remember telling a horrified liberal Yalie, “I’m just glad to see America invading someplace—anyplace.” The sheer spectacle of America asserting itself, pushing back against the Communist tide that then seemed at its height—it braced the soul. It appalled the Birkenstocked hipsters of the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (remember CISPES?) It made college fun. We didn’t dare to dream that within five years (!) the Berlin Wall would crumble, smashed by a million proletarian fists, unleashed by a Polish pope.
So of course it was fun to watch the Taliban and its murderous Al-Qaeda allies fold like a cheap circus tent. It would warm my heart to see Saddam Hussein tethered to a chariot, marched through downtown New York, along with Kim Jong-Il and a bevy of Ayatollahs. It would feed the hunger for vengeance I feel each time I catch a whiff of smoke from Ground Zero.
I sometimes shudder at the thought: What if we abandoned Israel, as we did South Vietnam? Imagine the slaughter, the evacuations, the revenge killings and pogroms. Can America leave another ally to suffer as the Vietnamese did? It sounds unthinkable, I know. So would our evacuation in 1975 have seemed to John F. Kennedy. But it happened, as the moral basis of our intervention was undermined, one blazing Buddhist monk at a time. That year of shame was long in the building, and our enemies were patient. They still are today.
Perhaps such a gradual erosion is what the Bush Administration is trying to avoid, as it pressures Israel and the Palestinians to take seriously the Saudi peace proposal. The deaths and depredations that fall on Arab civilians as Israel defends herself eat away at that country’s conscience, and offend the West. They sap the will to fight—because Israel and the U.S. are civilized countries, with enlightened codes of morality refined by the lessons of the Holocaust. The “Arab Street” is rather less refined. It is not appalled by the deaths of Israeli citizens in discos and cafes (or Americans at Ground Zero). The stronger, more civilized party—America in Vietnam, Israel in the Middle East—is held to a higher standard, and always will be. Barring a cataclysmic war, Israel will never be permitted to empty the West Bank of Arabs—as Croatia emptied Krajina, and the KLA still empties Kosovo, of Serbs. This means that Israel will continue to live with risk—as long as corrupt Arab regimes maintain their “legitimacy” by whipping up hatred of Jews. Which leads me to ask—can these regimes afford to forge even the coldest peace with Israel? Let us pray that they can, and that a measure of peace will descend at last upon the bleeding Holy Land.