I first read John Updike’s Vietnam War essay “On Not Being a Dove” in 1989. That’s when his memoir Self-Consciousness, the book in which it was included, was first published.
At the time the essay seemed to me to be a curiosity, a slight work of little import. After all, so many years had passed since the turmoil of the 60s and early 70s, with their fevered and nearly endless arguments about the rightness or wrongness of the Vietnam War. Updike was a reluctant hawk—or, rather, a non-dove—back then, and he explained why in the essay. But it had no particular resonance for me then, so many years after the fact.
My, the times they have a-changed. On reading the essay now, newly republished in Commentary, I find sentence after sentence to be not only extraordinarily insightful about what was going on back then, but remarkably relevant to what this country has just been through regarding Iraq. Not only that, but Updike’s description of his discomfiture in attempting to explain his more conservative stance on Vietnam to his liberal literati friends contains echoes of my own experiences with political discussions in the last few years.
In looking back from the vantage point of 1989, Updike quotes a letter he wrote in 1966 in response to a NY Times book review:
Anyone not a rigorous pacifist must at least consider the argument that this war, evil as it is, is the lesser of available evils, intended to forestall worse wars. I am not sure that this is true, but I assume that this is the reasoning of those who prosecute it, rather than the maintenance of business prosperity or the President’s crazed stubbornness. I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for the President…
Updike is writing about the dislike for Johnson. I cannot help but notice that the dislike for another, more recent, Texan president is also at least partly aesthetic in nature (in fact, I compared Bush and Johnson in this respect in an earlier post).
Here is Updike in 1989:
The protest, from my perspective, was in large part a snobbish dismissal of Johnson by the Eastern establishment; Cambridge professors and Manhattan lawyers and their guitar-strumming children thought they could run the country and the world better than this lugubrious bohunk from Texas. These privileged members of a privileged nation believed that their pleasant position could be maintained without anything visibly ugly happening in the world.
There is more; much more. Updike considered himself a liberal Democrat. But his basic intelligence and drive to be honest, both with himself and others, compelled him towards quite different conclusions than most of the people with whom he hobnobbed. And to speak up about it:
I would rather live under Diem (or Ky, or Thieu) than under Ho Chi Minh and his enforcers, and assumed that most South Vietnamese would. Those who would not, let them move North. But the foot traffic, one could not help noticing in these Communist/non-Communist partitions, was South, or West, away from Communism. Why was that? And so on.
I wanted to keep quiet, but could not. Something about it all made me very sore. I spoke up, blushing and hating my disruption of a post-liberal socioeconomic-cultural harmony I was pleased to be a part of.
Updike’s fame was gained primarily as a writer of fiction; he was neither a politician, historian, nor statesman. In his essay, he asserts that writers’ views on the subject of the Vietnam War have no special authority. That is true. But his depth of thought, and the clarity with which it is expressed, creates its own authority:
My thoughts ran as follows. Peace depends upon the threat of violence. The threat cannot always be idle… It was all very well for civilized little countries like Sweden and Canada to tut-tut in the shade of our nuclear umbrella and welcome our deserters and draft evaders, but the United States had nobody to hide behind. Credibility must be maintained. Power is a dirty business, but who ever said it wasn’t?…
The Vietnam war—or any war—is “wrong,” but in the sense that existence itself is wrong. To be alive is to be a killer; and though the Jains try to hide this by wearing gauze masks to avoid inhaling insects, and the antiabortionists by picketing hospitals, and peace activists by lying down in front of ammunition trains, there is really no hiding what every meal we eat juicily demonstrates. Peace is not something we are entitled to but an illusory respite we earn. On both the personal and national level, islands of truce created by balances of terror and potential violence are the best we can hope for.
Updike loved this country and the comfortable and pleasant life he had carved out for himself within it. He never sought to become a pariah within the literary establishment; he wrote that “it pained and embarrassed me to be out of step with my magazine and literary colleagues.” But he could not embrace a position which he believed to be wrong—even if it was wildly unpopular—merely for the sake of convenience.
So, what did Updike think about the Iraq War? After all, he only died a few days ago; he was alive and kicking for most of it. After a quick Googling I was unable to find anything he wrote on the subject, but I think that this is very revealing. It’s a report by a blogger on a talk Updike gave back in 2006, in which he was asked his opinion of the war in Iraq. The questioner made a specific reference to Updike’s earlier views on Vietnam (the interviewer was Jeffrey Goldberg of the New Yorker):
Goldberg points out that John Updike had been one of the few literary figures of the 1960’s to express support for the Vietnam War, and asks him to talk about George Bush and the war in Iraq. Updike accepts the comparison and acknowledges that, as in the 1960’s, his current feelings are mixed: the war is going badly, but the Bush administration faced hard choices and deserves some sympathy for the frustrating position it’s in.
Updike is clearly a principled moderate, and it’s brave of him to insist on ignoring the popular delineations between red-state and blue-state dogmatism…
Yes, indeed. Not that it got him much praise, then or now. Last night, for example, as I was watching a Charlie Rose tribute to John Updike that featured a panel composed of Updike’s editor Judith Jones, New Yorker editor David Remnick, and editor Sam Tanenhaus of The New York Times Book Review, the latter casually mentioned, amidst the praise and reminiscence, that “of course, Updike was on the wrong side about the Vietnam War.”
Of course. Anybody who’s anybody knows that.