James Chace: Henry R. Luce Professor, Bard College

Article excerpt

MY FIRST EXPERIENCE WITH POLITICS AS AN adult act of commitment was in Paris in 1954. After graduating from college, I went to Paris to study art history and ended up being beaten by the French police for protesting the French war in Indochina. I was quite clear that I was opposed to the war because it was a legacy of French colonialism. The French were simply "wrong": The war was immoral. Vietnamese nationalism, whether or not it was aligned with Communism, seemed to me irrelevant. As an American I stood against colonialism. That seemed to me in the American grain. F.D.R., the only President I had known in my boyhood, had opposed colonialism. French soldiers were being sacrificed for a cause that had no moral backing.

But I was troubled as I pondered what I had done. For an American who was drawn, almost by accident, into the student riots and protests, the Indochina war, and especially the tragic siege of Dien Bien Phu, which ended in a French defeat, seemed to connect us to a larger scheme of suffering and judgments than we had ever known. It was not, after all, an American war. I certainly never dreamed that it would become one. It seemed to me then, and it does now, that Vietnam should have been looked upon as a region of marginal strategic significance to the United States. Even those who lamented the installation of a Communist regime should have understood that this was a consequence of French colonialism and, in any case, not an American concern. …