Two Nightmares: Vietnam and Watergate
Both the Vietnam War and Watergate have been described as “nightmares” and this description has taken hold. But “nightmares” are dreams, so they aren’t real. They are dreams and, so described, the war and Watergate disappear, become unreal. That is, it is not at all clear if they are described as nightmares, what they were.
What was the Vietnam War? Was it, as it is often described, as a quagmire, that is, a series or mistakes or small missteps, that led to the US being pulled into a war in Asia, a war it never wanted? Or was it the result of an imperialistic politics? If it is thought of as the former, then it made sense for Robert McNamara, after the war ended, to hold a conference of US and Vietnamese to try to figure out objectively what had happened, that led to “the tragedy” of that war. If, however, it was the latter, it was an imperialistic phenomenon, then it would be necessary to confront the issue of imperialism, and especially of American imperialism. It would be necessary to ask: Why was/is the American political order imperialistic?
Interestingly, the same question arises with regard to what is called “Watergate.” Of course, “Watergate,” as everyone knows, is shorthand for assessing the Nixon administration and its politics. So, was “Watergate” the result of a series of mistakes, of missteps that led Nixon, et. al., to commit acts that eventually forced Nixon to resign the presidency to avoid impeachment? Or did “Watergate” reflect the imperialistic politics that characterizes the American political order? Was “Watergate” a quagmire or the result of an imperialistic politics?
Watergate began, as it were, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, as Nixon and Kissinger were attempting to redefine US predominance in the world by ending the Vietnam War, creating détente with the Soviet Union, and legitimating Communist China as part of the international order. Nixon claimed that secrecy was absolutely essential to achieve his goals, that without secrecy his goals would have been undermined by his enemies, most of whom were “conservatives.” In fact, we know there were those in the Department of Defense, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who were spying on the Nixon White House in order to assess and undermine Nixon’s political agenda. Nixon learned of this, but he decided not to confront it publicly because that would undermine the secrecy he needed to succeed.
But it is important to understand that secrecy, “secrecy and dispatch” in the words of Publius in the Federalist Papers, is always necessary given the imperialistic character of the American political order. Thus, secrecy can be traced throughout US history, for example, in the administration of JFK given his plans to pull out of Vietnam after he re-election in 1964; in LBJ’s administration as he planned to push into Vietnam after the 1964 election; Reagan’s actions in Nicaragua and Iran; Papa Bush’s invasion of Iraq to get Saddam out of Kuwait; Bush Jr’s. invasion of Iraq; and even the actions of the CIA in the run up to the 9/11 attacks.
So, the two “nightmares,” the Vietnam War and Watergate may be said to have been the result of imperialistic politics, of an imperialistic political order in the United States, an order that, presciently, some of the Anti-Federalists claimed the new, consolidated government to be created under the proposed constitution would become. Ending these “nightmares” wouldn’t change much insofar as the imperialistic politics that underlay them continued. The US pulled out of Vietnam and Nixon was driven from office, but the imperialistic order continued on in different disguises, e.g., “morning in America” [Reagan], a “new world order [Bush I], “the war on terror” [Bush Jr.], or as “making America great again” [Trump]. And now, with Biden, it’s being disguised as “a return to normalcy.” It might be prudent, though, to expect another “nightmare,” perhaps one involving Ukraine.