Unsentimental Account Of a `Rip in Time'

THE ANXIOUS YEARS: AMERICA IN THE VIETNAM-WATERGATE ERA by Kim McQuaid New York: Basic Books 350 pp. $19.95

`IN these difficult years, America has suffered from a fever of words,'' Richard Nixon said at his 1969 inauguration, his own words intended as an epitaph for the turmoil of the recent past. Yet the fever raged, finally to be broken five years later, when Nixon uttered the unprecedented presidential words: ``I hereby resign.''

The Vietnam war, campus unrest, violence in the cities, and the political-constitutional crisis over Watergate were ``unhappy events of a tragic time,'' in Kim McQuaid's terse, compelling, and unsentimental account of this ``rip in time.''

Beyond that, McQuaid has offered an exercise in history as a way of learning. He is well aware, however, that often the only thing we remember is to forget the past. For that, McQuaid pointedly assaults a growing historical revisionism of the period, one so transparently self-serving and politically propelled.

Like the Great Depression, the Vietnam war imposed a broad scar on American life, scoring a variety of sectors for generations afterward. The 1988 furor over Dan Quayle's military service during the Vietnam war, for example, only exacerbated old wounds; worse, it obscured any understanding of how and why we entered that conflict.

Equally important, we must confront the ongoing consequences of the war, whether they be political (Watergate), institutional (executive-legislative conflicts), economic (inflation, trade imbalances), social (treatment of veterans and dissenters), or obviously, its continuing ramifications for the conduct of American foreign policy.

McQuaid pungently reminds us of the hubris and arrogance that brought us into the war and those painful dislocations. With boundless confidence in themselves as ``The Most Powerful Nation in the World,'' Americans found limits, however, to their mission, limits well understood by their adversaries and friends, and most decisively, challenged at home. It was a time of illusion abroad, and inevitably, one of delusion at home.

``Every quantitative measure we have shows we are winning this war,'' Americans were told by those who considered military technology and abstract statistics as substitutes for strategy and policy. The grotesqueness of the war borders on black humor. Only 1 in 7 American military personnel engaged in combat: Someone, of course, had to negotiate rental leases with Vietnam landlords, or manage the 90 service clubs, the 159 basketball courts, the 337 libraries, and the innumerable PXs. Offensive combat operations produced contact with the enemy less than 2 percent of the time. And in eight years, only one general and eight battalion commanders lost their lives in combat. What were they doing? The Army's own survey condemned its ``ambitious, transitory'' commanders. The careerism inevitably affected morale and policies. And thus, extravagant firepower and inflated body counts became the measurements for ``success.''

McQuaid has resurrected the pain and folly of the war, not least of which was our treatment of the government and people of South Vietnam. For Lyndon Johnson, the client was a vassal; and then Nixon abandoned the vassal under the auspices of the 1973 Paris Accords, an agreement that Henry Kissinger and Nixon had anticipated with their ``peace is at hand'' prophecy. Of all the frivolous Munich analogies that abounded in those days, that was the genuine article, rivaling Neville Chamberlain's blithe assertion that he had secured ``peace in our time.''

The war came home, and the fabric of American society unraveled. The activities of the new left were vastly overrated, and McQuaid provides us with a sober, realistic assessment of that rudderless element. Public opinion, in fact, turned against the war despite the new left. Americans increasingly discovered that the war was either a mistake or a mess, not a crime. The nation found itself divided, confused, and with leadership that operated from isolation and fear.

Since the 1930s, Americans had faith in the efficacy of their government, a government that had seen them through economic holocaust, global war, and the twilight of the cold war.

But that faith had been built on a foundation of candor, consensus, and compatibility between governors and governed. The foundation was shaken in the late 1960s, and further eroded by the mistakes, mess, and crimes of Watergate.

Historical revisionism is inevitable; it need not, however, be irresponsible.

Ronald Reagan described Vietnam as a ``noble crusade''; Kissinger has insisted that South Vietnam would be ``free'' today if it were not for Watergate; and Richard Nixon, that inveterate campaigner, wants Watergate recorded only as a ``footnote'' to his political career. They and the historical revisionists toy with danger when they suggest that the lack of political will and resolve at home allowed North Vietnam to subjugate Indochina, and that the Watergate nightmare was a liberal-media plot to destroy the ``presidency.'' The danger is only compounded when such notions are offered to explain America's relative decline - a danger to consider in the light of the dismal trail of 20th-century ``stab-in-the-back'' theses.

Revisionism for America's ``Anxious Years'' is in full flower. But Kim McQuaid will have none of the excesses. With uncommon sense, and with distance, he has given us a more sophisticated critique than any politically calculated reordering of those tumultuous times. Granted, his analysis does not make for ``morning in America,'' but it provides a sober opportunity to remember, to understand, and to learn from the past.

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