In August of 1966 a vacationing John Updike, feeling relaxed but itching, as an idle writer, to be writing something, responded to a questionnaire he received that posed the question “Are you for, or against, the intervention of the United States in Vietnam?”
Had he not been summering on Martha’s Vineyard he would have been busy, he recalled later, and probably wouldn’t have answered the query, which was designed to elicit responses that would be assembled into a book of the sort that had been put together three decades earlier from writer’s reactions to the Spanish Civil War.
Instead, he composed a thoughtful response that considered both sides of the question; he was, he wrote, uncomfortable about what he called America’s “military adventure” in South Vietnam, but he doubted that the Viet Cong, who used force to rule the peasants of the country, had a “moral edge” over the United States. He said the country needed free elections, and if they chose Communism the U.S. should leave, but until that time came he did “not see that we can abdicate our burdensome position.”
Updike, a social drinker and pot-smoker who like others increased his intake of both while on vacation, had probably forgotten about his off-duty workout on the typewriter by the time he stepped off the ferry to the mainland, but his words didn’t die with the end of summer. They were assembled, along with those of other writers, into Authors Take Sides on Vietnam, whose publication in England a year later was covered by The New York Times.
The Times, in a particularly dishonest bit of sleight-of-hand, said that Updike was the lone American writer in the collection who was “unequivocally for” the United States intervention in Vietnam. This was untrue; novelist James Michener, who had spent much time in Asia, was more forthright in his defense of the American presence there than Updike, saying “I am driven by experience of the past and concern for the future to support my government’s stand.” The poet Marianne Moore was almost lyrical in staking out her position, saying “[i]t is shortsightedly irresponsible … to permit communist domination and acquiesce in the crushing of the weak by the strong.” British poet W. H. Auden, who became an American citizen in 1946, wrote “it is dishonest of those who demand the immediate withdrawal of all American troops to pretend that their motives are purely humanitarian. They believe, rightly or wrongly, that it would be better if the communists won.”
No matter, the damage had been done. Updike, a lifelong Democrat and self-described liberal with actual experience in local anti-discrimination work to back up his claim, was tagged as a conservative, which then as now meant that bien pensant types in the arts, academia and journalism could dismiss him without having read him, and could assign to him beliefs he didn’t hold, by association with others whom he’d never met. One wonders, looking back a half-century later, what the motive of Updike’s “disenchanted Manhattan counterpart” was in thus singling him out for scorn and abuse. One guess is professional envy. As Updike put it, the sixties “were a balmy time, professionally, for me. The New Yorker accepted most of what I sent down to it, and towards the end of the decade a book of mine made a million dollars.” Updike succeeded by leaving “heavily trafficked literary turfs to others.” In short, he defied the conventions of the unconventional, and now would pay a price for his anti-rebel rebellion.
Updike penned a combination apology and defense that The Times printed, but only in part. In it, he highlighted his qualms about the war (which The Times had ignored), but with a novelist’s eye described what he saw as the shifting ground beneath the feet of his opponents that was the real reason for their new-found ferocity towards the war. It was John Kennedy—young, handsome, dashing, cool, Eastern establishment and sexy—who had launched the large-scale escalation in Vietnam that turned the conflict into a source of national conflict while the most strident latter-day critics of the war remained silent.
It was only after Kennedy was assassinated that Lyndon Johnson—a crude Texas politician who exposed his appendicitis scar and lifted a beagle up by its ears in front of reporters—turned Vietnam from a noble endeavor liberals supported to one that was unambiguously beyond the pale. “I feel in the dove arguments as presented to me too much aesthetic distaste for [Johnson] … The protest seems too reflexive.” In the Authors Take Sides collection Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer mocked Johnson’s Southern accent and writers such as Norman Mailer—who saw that fashion had moved further left—tried to outdo each other in the lurid tone with which they opposed the war. To Updike’s eye, such excessive distaste was unseemly coming from those who benefitted from the freedom of the press America provided them. From his perspective, the increasingly strident tone of those opposed to the war “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.”
From Updike’s perspective, the increasingly strident tone of those opposed to the war “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.”
In the long run, the controversy didn’t hurt Updike, who was unceasingly productive to the end of his life, but in the short run it cost him. Within a few months his tenure as a writer of unsigned “Talk of the Town” pieces for The New Yorker ended when his editor objected to the tone of piece that suggested, when Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election in 1968, that the President “might have been right after all.” Updike acquiesced in a suggested revision, then decided to leave the column “to other, more leftish hands.”
History has, of course, proven Updike right; Vietnam is a one-party (Communist) state today, so elections are meaningless, although this does not necessarily mean that the United States should have intervened there in the first place. He was a liberal at a time when, among a certain set, liberalism suddenly became insufficient. The artistic distance he cultivated as a novelist gave him perspective on those who did a sudden about-face, and cast off the views of the recent past as if they were last year’s fashions.