Last March the New York Review of Books published two articles about the Americans who had been held as prisoners of war in North Vietnam and who are now telling their stories in print. One of the articles was by Anthony Lewis, and it reached a conclusion not easily swallowed by those who regarded our participation in the war as misguided or immoral: that the Americans were, indeed, tortured by the North Vietnamese, and that the inconvenience of that fact is not a good enough reason to ignore or disbelieve it.

The second article was by Mary McCarthy, and it dealt with only one of the POW books Lewis discussed, Robinson Risner’s The Passing of the Night (Random House, $6.95). Risner, who spent seven years in captivity, has apparently never flinched in his devotion to the old American virtues—neither in prison nor on his return to the States; he is, in Mary McCarthy’s words, “a widely-admired hard-liner and Nixon zealot.” What provoked her to write about him was not so much the substance of his book—she alludes only to one three-page section of it—as the fact that the two of them had met once, in 1968, when he was a prisoner and she was touring North Vietnam to report for The New York Review.

The McCarthy visit was only one in a series of meetings between the prisoners and foreign observers, who mainly came from Eastern bloc countries and Western anti-war groups. Risner says in his book that the visits were generally occasions for brutality against the prisoners (the North Vietnamese being apprehensive about the prisoners’ performance), and that he underwent a particularly gruesome round of torture immediately before Mary McCarthy’s arrival. Rather than have photographs of his family displayed before the previous delegation, a TV crew from East Germany, Risner had torn them up and hid them in his toilet pail. For this he was tortured, as he had been for previous refusals to tell foreign delegations that the U. S. should abandon the war. The very pointlessness of these gestures—the confessions of a man in captivity could not have been counted for much—actually reinforced my faith in the plausibility of his account. The matter-of-fact description of inhuman acts, the dogged intransigence about inconsequential points of “honor” for himself and his country, are parts of one consistent view of life. The “enemy” will be senselessly cruel and so the officer must senselessly resist:

He was really brutal tearing the skin off my shoulders and neck and cutting them deep. The same procedure on my ankles. Everything was bleeding, but I didn’t notice that. I was in too much pain. When they bend you up like that, everything protests. Your hip joints pull and are almost dislocated…. It is hard to explain your feelings after you have been in pain like that for a long time. It sucks your will in a hurry. You start balancing the pain against the value of what they want. I wanted desperately to protect my family, by not letting the Cat and others get their dirty hands on those pictures. Those pictures were sacred…. It was almost a question of the principle of right and wrong.

Soon thereafter, Risner met Mary McCarthy. His captors had warned him that he would be punished again if he failed to play the Grateful Prisoner for her. Accordingly, Risner says that during the McCarthy visit the talk skimmed the surface in forced discussions of Bibles, sweets, and vague hopes for peace.

The publication of Risner’s book cannot have been a happy occurrence for Mary McCarthy, for if he was telling even a bit of the truth, she had missed something big in the North. In her book, Hanoi, she devoted a little more than two pages to a discussion of the two unnamed prisoners she had met. What clearly interested her more than the men and their activities was the difference between them and her:

The Vietnamese, one hears, have been taken aback by the low mental attainments of the pilots, who have officer rank (the gaunt, squirrel-faced older man led in to see me [this is Risner] was a lieutenant colonel) and usually college degrees, which must be leading their captors to wonder about American university education. I was taken aback myself by a stiffness of phraseology and naive role-thinking, childish, like the handwriting … printed or in round, laboriously joined cursive letters…. Far from being an elite or members of an “establishment,” they were somewhat pathetic cases of mental malnutrition.

Since Mary McCarthy would certainly have said something about the torture if she had suspected it was going on, the implication is that she didn’t notice. It would be very hard to fault her for this misperception; unless a writer were expert in detecting the medical signs of abuse, he might find it impossible to pierce the surface of the formal POW presentation—which was expressly designed to convey the most favorable impression of how the prisoners were being treated. As skilled a journalist as Anthony Lewis had not been able to detect the torture. He too managed to see two POWs in Hanoi, but the interview was so confusing that eventually he omitted it entirely from his reports for The New York Times.

In his New York Review article Lewis handled the POWs’ revelation with some grace. He acknowledged the POWs’ opinion that journalists had been naive: “I think the men underestimate the difficulties, and the efforts made to get a sense of the truth, but there is something to their feelings.”

Mary McCarthy was less ready to concede the point. Her article in The New York Review is a defensive and quite petty reply to Risner, intended as far as I can tell, to demolish his stature as a witness. He says she offered to bake him a cake; she can’t remember it. He thinks she asked to see him specifically; she says no. She blows the dust off her old notebooks to find unflattering characterizations of Risner: “tight lined face, wilted eyes, somewhat squirrelly. Fawns on Vietnamese officer. Servile. Zealot”; and then she objects to his description of her as “large.” She says that even if she’d suspected that torture was going on, the “highly perceptive and intelligent” North Vietnamese official she was traveling with would have denied it, for how could such a man have countenanced brutality?

Mary McCarthy’s hatchet has been bloodied before, and she counts such figures as J. D. Salinger, Truman Capote, and David Halberstam among her victims. But the Risner article was the first in which she’d attacked a defenseless victim, a man so ill at ease with words as to be in no condition for trading debating points with anybody. The case suggests some interesting questions about Mary McCarthy. She cannot be blamed for having missed the truth the first time, although she may have been mistaken to draw belittling conclusions from the evidence (“naive. . . childish”) rather than withholding judgment as Lewis had done. But there are ugly implications in the fury with which she lashed back at Risner; she shows no awareness that missing the .truth, whether innocently or not, is a matter of some gravity.

Mary McCarthy’s importance as a political writer is no longer to be overlooked. Eight years ago she was exclusively a novelist and literary critic; this spring, she is publishing books on both Watergate and Vietnam (a unique accomplishment), and she is a star political correspondent for The New York Review of Books. Her commentary has a larger significance as well, for it indicates another wrinkle in the rough connection between political writing and political reality. This magazine has published several articles exploring the ways journalism can more fully embrace the truth of public affairs. Several months ago I wrote an article suggesting that a novelist’s eye and understanding would improve most writing about public affairs (“Will Editors Ever Love Flaubert?” March). Mary McCarthy’s political writing shows the other side of the story: the damage that can be done by a novelist with insufficient care for the facts.

Her two books on the war are a good place to start in an evaluation of Mary McCarthy’s writing. Vietnam and Hanoi were the products of trips in 1967 and 1968 to Indochina, the first to South Vietnam and the second to the North. They were published as reportage in The New York Review, then re-issued as books, and now form part of The Seventeenth Degree. (The third major essay in the new book is Medina, originally published in 1972, an account of the 1971 trial which led to the acquittal of Ernest Medina, William Calley’s commanding officer at the time of the My Lai massacre.)

Mary McCarthy undertook Vietnam and Hanoi as her personal effort to do something about the war. The first words of Vietnam are, “I confess that when I went to Vietnam early last February I was looking for material damaging to the American interest and that I found it . . . .” Unfortunately both books suffered from a deficiency which severely limited their worth as either literature or as polemic—a lack of objectivity so profound as to make even sympathizers wary. In both countries she applied her renowned skill in rendering detail. (It is said that when Edmund Wilson, her husband for a time, was teaching Mary McCarthy to write, he would stand her in front of a store window, let her look for 30 seconds, and then turn her around and make her describe the contents.) But the details she selected in the one country were so different from what she reported from the other that, even with the considerable differences between North and South Vietnam taken into account, the contrast was implausibly overstated. South Vietnam was peopled by the greedy and the diseased; the North Vietnamese were pioneer stock making their way with fortitude and bold resolve. In the South, Mary McCarthy shows us a leper colony; in the North, a group of school children not only radiant with health (“No acne in North Vietnam”) but also well-mannered nearly to a fault (“You would not find such a well-disciplined class in America today”—has she forgotten her Catholic upbringing?). There are hateful masses in the South; in the North “wherever you go you are met with smiles, cheers, hand clapping. Passersby stop to wave at your car on the road.” “In glaring contrast to Saigon, Hanoi is clean—much cleaner than New York, for example.” Such is the difference in sanitation that while the South cannot keep even its hospitals clean, even the pigs in the North are housed in “clean pigsties,” a notion that adds considerably to previous under standing of what “pigsty” means.

No doubt the North of Ho Chi Minh and the South of the fast-turnover dictators possessed some of the features Mary McCarthy attributed to them, but the comparison was so out of balance as to lose its verisimilitude. The fault cannot simply be traced to her political commitment; no one could have been more committed than Daniel Ellsberg, after all, and yet when he decided to talk, his Papers on the War carried great persuasive weight. The Ellsberg comparison suggests the real defect in Mary McCarthy’s work: that she was practicing set-piece journalism without taking any of the necessary precautions against the hazards of the genre.

Switching the Brain to Automatic

“Set-piece” writing, which is increasingly the dominant mode of political and literary criticism, means that the author confines himself to one discrete topic, one occasion for writing—be it a book to review, a play to criticize, or a journey on which to report. Having selected his “set-piece,” the writer then trims his own curiosity—often automatically—so as to prevent it from extending beyond the bounds of the set-piece. To give the most notable example, there is nothing prohibiting book reviewers from including more factual material, original research, even talks with the authors, in their essays. Reviews might be better for the inclusion, but automatic habits of mind (“I’ll knock off. that review this afternoon”) prevent most writers from thinking of it. Mary McCarthy’s case illustrates the more subtle difficulty, which is that even when writers make strenuous efforts to leave their writer’s-den—whether by going to Vietnam or covering the presidential campaign—they can often switch their brains to automatic and let the set-piece do their thinking for them.

Sometimes high-quality work does. grow out of a set-piece, but when that happens, it is usually because the writer has one of two qualifications. He may, on the one hand, bring to the set-piece such a body of experience and reflection that the specific topic becomes an occasion for rich speculation. (This is the difference, as commonly understood, between “book reviewers” and “critics.” It is also the quality that. enabled Daniel Ellsberg to make sense of that great set-piece, the Pentagon Papers. Having seen the way the war worked from the inside, Ellsberg was able to write “What Nixon Is Up To,” which The New York Review published in 1971, before Ellsberg was a celebrity.) If, on the other hand, he lacks the experience, the writer can still make something of the set-piece by roaming abroad from its borders to find the pieces of evidence not conveniently included in the package. I. F. Stone is one of the very few who have navigated this second course successfully.

Unfortunately Mary McCarthy is qualified by neither of these tests. Her experience is not deep enough for her to make sense consistently of what she’s shown, and she is almost never willing to step beyond the confines of the formal set-piece presentation. Nonetheless, virtually all her political writing works from set-pieces: the trips to Vietnam, the Medina trial, the Watergate hearings, the books by Halberstam and Risner. That means that while her political writing has its virtues, it is generally a lesson in what to avoid.

The Limits of Pure Sensitivity

Prime among Mary McCarthy’s virtues is that she will tell you what she sees. Now and then in the Vietnam and Watergate books she sticks in an awkward fact, like” sand in the oyster, just to let you know it has not escaped her notice. Her portrayals of the Watergate principals are some of the most sympathetic yet to appear; she lavishes care on John Mitchell, especially, to absolve him of the worst sins and present him as a pathetic victim done in by his own ideas of loyalty. In South Vietnam, she prefers the blunt-spoken Marines to the mealy-mouthed PR men; at least the soldiers won’t lie to you. In the North, her hosts present her with an aluminum ring; the metal it is made of came from an American plane they shot down. She admits a physical aversion to the ring, and realizes that “quite a few of the questions one does not, as an American liberal, want to put in Hanoi are addressed to oneself.” These insights ring true because she knows what she is talking about. She comes armed with the kind of relevant experience that enables her to interpret wisely.

Why aren’t there more of these moments? Because Pure Sensitivity, untainted by fact or research, can go only so far, and then it runs into things that are actually different than they seem. The Seventeenth Degree and Mask of State are full of these deceptions, cases in which Mary McCarthy, for one reason or another, is not able to draw valid conclusions from what she sees—and, far from reserving her opinion, goes on to interpret the situation boldly and incorrectly. One of the more egregious instances arises in her discussion of the economics of communist states. Those countries are better suited to retard impersonal modern technologies than is the West, because “variety of manufactures, encouragement of regional craft, ought to be easier for communist planners whose enterprises are not obliged by the law of the market to show a profit or perish.” In this case she does not know what she is talking about. Economic planners from. Bulgaria to, yes, North Vietnam could tell her that when they are choosing their projects, they—like their brothers the capitalists—rely on cost-benefit analyses to determine where to put their money. They may call it “people’s gain” rather than “profit,” but they’re talking about the same thing (as the paucity of “regional craft” in most socialist states indicates).

The misunderstandings that occur in Mask of State, are generally of a slightly different type: mistaking the ploys and double-whammies one side was using against the other for the real, unrehearsed historic action. It is obvious by now that the Administration’s greatest weapon during the Ervin hearings was John J. Wilson, the aged fireplug of a lawyer who seemed always to be rebuking the senators for their offenses against his clients, Haldeman and Ehrlichman. After four or five of his outbursts, Ervin and the rest were so buffaloed that they began directing their tactics with the primary goal of preventing Wilson from yelling. What did it matter if Mr. and Mrs. America thought Wilson was outrageous if he was keeping the ogre from his clients’ door? George V. Higgins, in a superb article in the April Atlantic, captured the importance of Wilson:

Whenever the committee got close to his clients, or to the President, who had some interest in how they did, he went into his best crusty-old-lawyer number. He got into legal arguments with Ervin, and used up Ervin’s time. He professed inability to understand Baker’s questions, and used up Baker’s time. He locked horns with Weicker, and made him very angry, and used up Weicker’s time …. well-prepared, and a wall-eyed disaster for the committee. He did what a good lawyer is supposed to do for his client: he ate the opposition alive.

How much of the insider’s story did Mary McCarthy capture? Wilson is introduced as a grotesque, one of those alarming night creatures likely to crawl out from odd corners of the capital: “John L. Wilson, the dean of reactionary lawyers in Washington, a querulous dropsical old party with a mean City Hall mouth and a shrill ungoverned temper recalling Rumpelstiltskin.” Shortly afterwards she dismisses him as a powerless ninny and does not let us hear from him again: “Wilson’s querulous objections got shriller; you expected him to stamp his tiny foot like a thwarted Fury when overruled.” Wilson, of course, could not have cared less how he looked on TV, or to Mary McCarthy. In fact, the more of this kind of publicity he got, the better his strategy worked.

Glued to Her Seat

No one can know everything, but what makes these misperceptions the more alarming is that Mary McCarthy does not take the one step that could prevent them. If John Wilson seemed to be making a fool of himself, with his clients’ approval, she might have asked a lawyer or even another reporter about what was going on. But, apart from one tour of the Watergate Hotel (where she was staying), she makes no attempt to stir from her seat. She says in Medina that the trial itself was a colossal bore. It gave her time to speculate—for example, about the witnesses who were testifying to different stories than they’d told at the Calley trial. She wonders: “Had they changed, along with their testimony?” Interesting question. Just the kind of question the reader might like to have answered for him. But finding the answer would mean tracking down the witnesses, talking with them and their families, leaving the courtroom in search of the facts. The reader cannot do that for himself; evidently Mary McCarthy will not do it either, for she provides no further enlightenment on this point. She is a marvelous source of questions: throughout the Vietnam books she asks: Whoever thought of this program? What were things like before? What would officials say,about the catastrophe? But she does not attempt to find the answers.

(In the Watergate book, she does, in fact, try to do more than report her initial reaction to the event. She ends with a long section apportioning blame among members of the White House gang, matching names with crimes. But this was less a matter of asking questions the committee didn’t answer than sitting in her Paris apartment with the Ervin committee transcript and speculating about the missing pieces of the puzzle. Her conclusions are logical enough—Nixon is the likely culprit, and should be removed—but they are neither more profound nor more provably true than those reached at dinner-table conversations in half the households of America each night.)

If the mounds of unanswered questions are not to be taken as a sign of laziness, they at least suggest that Mary McCarthy has not fully comprehended that journalism is a serious business. She obviously enjoys being on the scene of the political story of the day, but she feels no compulsion to be there long enough to ask all the questions and find the answers. She frequently expresses pique at the burdensome necessity of actually showing up at the affairs she is to cover. She missed the first week of the Medina testimony because of her husband’s vacation plans. She dropped out of the Ervin hearings early because it was time to return to Paris: “Those who watched on television during late September (I was no longer in America) said the low point came . . . ” In the preface to The Seventeenth Degree, she says: “The. trouble with trying to be a reporter is that events either hurry ahead of you or else lag behind. They do not sit still and wait for you to join them like the characters in a novel.” Her attitude and performance realize the worst fears of the enemies of the “New Journalism,” who predicted that writers who embellished the facts might fail to include the facts at all.

Sometimes the questions go unanswered for a different reason: not that it would take extra legwork, but that she’s embarrassed to ask. On arrival in North Vietnam, Mary McCarthy was, she says, confident of her ability to find the truth and bring it home. With passing time, “I found my claim to being a disinterested party starting not exactly to disappear, but to shrink from showing itself, as if ashamed. The Vietnamese, beginning with peasants eagerly showing you where their fields had been bombed, had an earnest, disarming conviction that you would give them total credence. To question facts, figures, catch small discrepancies would be to abuse this open, naive (from a Western point of view) trust.” The sensitivity which produced this response is not to be ridiculed, but the role of the tactful guest is not the role of the journalist. The minute you start feeling like anybody’s guest, you are dead as a journalist, and that is part of what happened to Mary McCarthy in Vietnam.

The Story She Missed

I came across one of the most puzzling of the unanswered questions when I was re-reading Vietnam some time ago. Mary McCarthy ends the book urging the anti-war movement to stop wasting its time talking about “solutions” to the war. Its job, she says, is to make clear to Lyndon Johnson that the war had to stop, and then to leave the details to him and his friends in the Pentagon. As part of this argument she states that “Americans who are serious in opposing the war should be refusing to identify themselves with the U.S. government, even a putative government that would. . . prepare, as they say, to sit the war out.” The question here is, what about the author herself? Her husband, James West, was as she wrote those words an American diplomat, and as such more than slightly identified with the American government and its foreign policy. Was he a secret dove? Was she somehow “refusing to identify” herself with him, or he with her? How had she applied the prescription she recommended to others?

I found what I could from the State Department. James R. West, now 59 years old, joined State in the early 1950s, having served for six years in the Air Force (which he left as a Major). He has shown some mastery of the art of diplomacy within the State Department, having managed to spend nearly all of the past 20 years stationed in Paris. In 1962 State “seconded,” or loaned, him to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, which is also located in Paris; he served there as an information officer. On June 30 of last year he voluntarily resigned from State, but he continues in his OECD position.

The bare bones. Only so much to conclude: that James West had not resigned from the service of his government during the war, but neither had his government fired him for his wife’s dissent. There must have been more, but I could not be sure what it was until I read, “The Way It Went,” the new preface to The Seventeenth Degree.

It seems that Mary McCarthy was more aware of the delicacy of her husband’s position than any of her wartime writing revealed. Robert Silvers of The New York Review had first asked her to go to Vietnam in 1966, by which time she was already racked by loathing for the war and abhorrence for the bombing. But she could not go in 1966; it was because of her husband:

If I went, he said, he would have to hand in his resignation. “Are you sure?” I said. “Yes.” He had three children to support, as well as alimony payments to make, and had spent most of his life in government service, first in the Air Force and later with government agencies. “Well, then, I can’t go.” I did not feel he was constraining me, only presenting me with an ineluctable fact. There it was. I could not invest his life in my desire to go to Vietnam . . . . There were no bad feelings between us. Rather, the contrary. It was as if my trip was a sacrifice we had made jointly: he, too, had wanted it for me.

One year later Silvers asked her again. Things were different for her husband. He would let her go:

“But are you going to resign?” I said. “Hell, no. They’ll have to fire me.” That was the decision he had come to. “Maybe they won’t.” “Maybe.”

The most important story of the war is contained in these two conversations. At least half the people in the State Department stood in James West’s shoes when he told his wife, in 1966, that he opposed the war but that he wasn’t ready to lose his job. By that time Foreign Service Officers everywhere were commenting sourly about the stupidity of the war— commenting, that is, to their friends and their families, and not to those on the outside; commenting, rather than jeopardizing their careers. The James West of 1947 was a far rarer case, for he had come nearly the full distance. A year before he, like most of the others, had placed the shackles on himself. Now even though he was not publicly dissenting himself, he had removed the shackles and agreed to take the risk. If Mary McCarthy wanted to understand how the war happened and why appeals to logic and good conscience were not stopping it, there was the story for her to tell. She gives it one sentence in The Seventeenth Degree: “What had changed was that a whole year had passed and U. S. policy was the same.” She might well have given it a book, in which to explore why her husband had changed, what forces had imprisoned him before, why so few others had changed along with him, how more might be set free. These are the very lines of inquiry for which her training as a novelist would have best prepared her; they are, after all, questions of career, motivation, choice. Instead, she charged off to the war zone and wrote Vietnam and Hanoi.

Black Hats and White Hats

In her eagerness to participate by going to Vietnam, Mary McCarthy took the wrong turn at the crucial junction. The worst mistakes she has made since then are precisely those she might have avoided by staying to tell her husband’s story. Instead of going to a land she’d never seen and attempting to judge events by the quick glances she allowed herself, she might have stayed with people whose motives she understood as they understood them. Clearly no one saw the gnarls of James West’s dilemma with more love and toleration than his wife; she realized that while he had been pressed into the service of an end he despised, he had neither lost his humanity nor forfeited her respect. Her understanding was not confined to her husband, but embraced other officials she knew. After deciding to go to Vietnam she decided “as a matter of courtesy” that she should pay a call on the late Charles Bohlen, then Ambassador to France and her husband’s nominal boss. “For an hour we debated about Vietnam. It reminded me of school, when you have to listen respectfully to the principal as she carries out her duty, which is to point out to you the error of your thinking, even though she knows you will do what you have determined to do anyway. Having executed that formality, he became very nice . . . . The best qualities of old-fashioned American representatives abroad were being exhibited in ‘Chip’ Bohlen’s gay and efficient helpfulness.”

Knowing these men as she did, Mary McCarthy must have realized that labels slapped on from the outside could be terribly misleading. Bohlen could have been called a tool of the imperialists; her own husband might have been said to have changed from cowardice to courage within a year. In the cases of these, her friends, she could not help but know that the truth was more complicated. She must have been aware of the complexities that made her husband hesitant in 1966 and which bound many of his colleagues long afterwards. She might, if she had tried, have examined these complexities and described them in terms that Bohlen, West, and the thousands of others in their position would have recognized as true, and which, therefore, might have helped them understand exactly how they were trapped and what they had to do to escape.

But she did not do that. Instead, she has dealt exclusively with strangers, and has ended up producing series of political caricatures that ring true to no one. The public officials she describes are often one-dimensional, robot-like figures who march heedlessly forward with large keys labeled “Imperialism” or “Repression” protruding from their backs. It is the old problem again of not asking enough questions, caused this time because Mary McCarthy knows too much before she starts examining her characters. She knows that Vietnam was caused by French-American imperialism, and that My Lai made manifest the fundamental brutality of American life, and that the public ability to absorb the Watergate scandals “can be explained by the residue of guilt left over from Vietnam, guilt unadmitted by the majority and therefore all the more in need of relief.” With the motives already supplied, she need not endow her characters with the wrinkles and subtleties of the human world.

The temptation to over-simplify is as dangerous when she raises a hero as when she exposes a villain. In Mask of State, she naively builds Sam Ervin into a figure of quite implausible and un-human nobility, instead of recognizing from the beginning that he, like other real people, has his frailties and his blind spots, even though he is on balance one of the better men in public office. So when disappointment hits, it hits her hard, as when Ervin agrees to the Stennis tapes compromise and Mary McCarthy suddenly remembers that Ervin is a “hawk”:

How could this old man, looking benign and dreamy in the Oval Office rogues gallery, have welcomed a Trojan horse into so long and stoutly defended territory?. .. The answer, I am afraid, is that most men have a fatal weakness or—to stay in Troy—an Achilles heel, and Nixon had found Ervin’s. Ervin is a hawk. We had forgotten it all in our affection for his love of liberty, Shakespeare, and the Bill of Rights. But Nixon had not . . . The White House played on the old warrior’s patriotic sentiments, emphasizing the need for national unity in the impending showdown. Ervin succumbed. Well, every good man pays for his sins, and Senator Sam paid for a lifetime of being a hawk; he was diminished in the public eye and probably his own. The sudden loss of heroic stature made him seem pathetic, a deflated windbag still tiresomely huffing and puffing.

Worse even than describing public officials in terms appropriate only to a high-school civics course or a sermon (“pays for his sins,” “heroic stature”) is Mary McCarthy’s active hostility to those writers who have tried to add just the element that she lacks. Her notorious knife-work on David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (included as a bonus essay in The Seventeenth Degree) is the clearest illustration.

Rare Compassion

The style of the onslaught is in itself off-putting. Mary McCarthy goes about her work with Halberstam in the fashion of the anti-pornography crusader who provides illustrations at his lectures. She insists again and again that the book is pointless, boring, stupid: “I cannot think who will be benefitted by The Best and the Brightest“; “there are few disclosures of the ordinary kind, that is of facts not generally known”; “there is nothing surprising in these personal histories”; and “the bewildered demand, ‘Why is he writing this book? What is he trying to say?’ may become, in the course of pages, ‘Why, for God’s sake, am I reading it?’ ” The book’s vacuity established, she then goes on to steal all his best yarns and illustrations and sprinkle them throughout her review.

When dealing with the substance of the book she makes clear that she is, most angry about its best feature: Halberstam’s attempt to get inside the characters and understand how they viewed the maelstrom around them. In fairness to Mary McCarthy, she has not overlooked this accomplishment; indeed, she acknowledges it before dismissing it as trivial: “This kind of understanding, while it allows for the mixture of motives and the conflicts present, no doubt, in everybody, does not do more here, at best, than elicit sympathy for the actors as they looked to themselves, rather than as history may look at them.” (emphasis in original)

But only by trying to understand people as they understand themselves can a writer ever really hope to reach them. Mary McCarthy does not judge her husband as history will judge him, she did not judge Bohlen that way, and I doubt that she, any more than the rest of us, is able to apply these harsh standards to herself. Yet she dismisses Halberstam’s attempts to portray the American officials not as war criminals but as men whom ambition and environment had led to a certain point. She writes off Halberstam’s rich, if overwrought, characterization of Robert McNamara by saying: “The Vietnam policy required false figures to sustain it, and he was loyal.” As for the motives of the cast as a whole, she has a simpler explanation than Halberstam’s, with all its complications and “turning points”: “I believe that our investment and markets are at stake in Vietnam. Vietnam has been fastened on as a symbol of the rights of U. S. capital to flow freely throughout the globe and return home.” This kind of talk would mean nothing to Mary McCarthy if someone said that her husband had not resigned in 1966 because of American markets or the flow of U. S. capital—or that his later conversion mainly depended on those things. In his case, she could presumably recognize the difference between historical abstractions and daily realities. Perhaps because she has seen too little of the people she tries to immobilize within this formula, she can forget that they, no less than her husband, are complicated human beings with parts of them pulling toward honor and parts holding them back.

I think it is significant that the only “sympathetic” portraits in Mary McCarthy’s political writing (apart from those in North Vietnam) come from the Watergate hearings. Mitchell’s case is the most notable, but Kalmbach, Haldeman—in fact, virtually everyone but Ehrlichman and Magruder—are all treated more corn passionately than they have been by any other writer. The explanation may be that in a sense Mary McCarthy did get to know these people. She watched Mitchell as he squirmed on the stand, and she could see that while he was patently lying, he was taking no pleasure in the act. Perhaps if she had been able to watch McNamara and Bundy under similar duress, she might have seen past the facade. Greater miracles have happened: Mary McCarthy’s friend, Hannah Arendt, had watched Adolf Eichmann on trial for his life and had seen in him not the embodiment of evil but an illustration of “the banality of evil.” While Mary McCarthy was able to see through Mitchell’s crimes to his character, she could not do as much for her “war criminal,” Medina. Perhaps because he spoke so little at his trial, perhaps because the war was still going on and the book was part of her campaign against it, Medina is caricatured as baldly as any of her figures, and rather less fairly (she called him impassive at the trial, said he showed “no traces whatever of the crime or its aftermath,” but neglected to mention that he nearly disintegrated in tears at the end).

An Erudite Bully

Even with Mitchell, her capacity for understanding is less than complete, because she hits him with a few low blows. In Mary McCarthy’s words the clearest distinction between friends and strangers seems to be whether they are proper subjects for ridicule and abuse. Those who know her (I do not) say that she is a charming and gracious woman, unfailingly polite, always solicitous of the feelings of others. She is almost excessively charitable in criticizing her friends’ work. One cannot imagine her dismissing her friends with the brittle wit that so dominates her prose, or singling out in them those tell-tale signs of character (especially weak chins and fleshy hips) she is quick to discern in strangers.

Yet something enables this gracious woman to make some of the most graceless comments imaginable, often with a strong, bullying tone. Far from merely over-simplifying strangers, she withers them, mocking their integrity and deriding their intelligence. She engaged so heavily in fussiness about grammar at the Medina trial—where the soldiers were expressing themselves badly—that Gloria Emerson of The New York Times was provoked to reply, “Who do you think was sucked into the Vietnam war, Miss McCarthy, our Harvard and Princeton boys? It was the American peasantry, who are very rarely among our great talkers.”

When she has it in her heart to make someone look a fool, she can be a quick woman with the dictionary and the encyclopedia, and she can dance tight circles of erudition around her victims. There is an extremely revealing illustration in Mask of State, when she decides at one point that the time has come to balance her portrayal of John Mitchell by reproaching him on his grammar:

“In hindsight,” Mitchell now said (a favorite barbarism with him; cf OED: “The backsight of a rifle. 1851. Mayne Reid, Scalp Hunt. xxi, When you squint through her hindsights.”), he thought there had been pressures . . . .

If she meant that Mitchell had used an awkward preposition with “hindsight,” she could simply have said so; she might even have offered this illustration of its proper use from her own works: “which hindsight finally concedes might have been the best plan . . .” (Hanoi, p. xxiii) But obviously she meant to ridicule the word itself—why else trot out the OED? If so, she was bending the rules, in a game that two can play. Anyone who has looked far enough into the Oxford English Dictionary to find definition number one of “hindsight” has probably also seen definition number two: “Seeing what has happened and what ought to have been done after the event; perception gained by looking backward; opp. to foresight. 1883. Trul. Educ. XVII. 264. That a schoolman so preternaturally gifted with ‘hind-sight’ should have been so defective in ‘fore-sight.'” It would be hard to find a better word for what Mitchell was trying to say, or a clearer indication that for Mary McCarthy sloppiness with the facts is not so serious a defect. Combined with her over-simplifications, her cavalier, I didn’t-want-to-ask attitude, it suggests that the consequences of her carelessness are never brought home to her. It may be that, living in Paris, she has no one to check her excesses. She allows herself to write thing like (in North Vietnam) “to question facts, figures, catch small discrepancies would be to abuse this. . . trust” and (in explaining why she didn’t interview major government officials) “I hate embarrassing someone I am talking to. Arguing is one thing. But to sit across a desk, deferential notebook in hand, from some powerful personality you disapprove of, who would start lighting your cigarettes, beaming at you, seeking your sympathy for his difficult position. . . no! . . .I think I would almost rather assassinate such a man, if put to the choice, than fell him with an awkward question. . . . In Vietnam, even when I knew the right ‘probing’ question, I generally could not bring myself to utter it. Besides, people reveal themselves spontaneously.” She needs someone to shake her at these moments, to say Stop! You’re writing nonsense! That person is not there; and she herself, separated by thousands of miles from the people and events she describes, may begin to think that fidelity to the truth, to even its awkward twists, does not make much difference.

But carelessness with the truth is all the more grievous for a writer who hopes to do more than present the bare, sterile facts in a box-score manner. Even those who honor “objectivity” and cringe at such cliche labels as “advocacy writing” and “the New Journalism” often know that the best, the truest, writing occurs only when an author has something important to tell—some truth which he, like the novelist, wants to present to the readers in a way which will make them understand things they have not understood before. Doing so requires not only scrupulous fidelity to the who-what-where detail, but also a much greater effort of inquiry. It means especially that the writer must avoid the strait jacket of set-piece journalism. To use literary criticism as a parallel: if a reviewer confines himself to pointing out the good books and the bad, he will have provided some service to his readers. But if he is interested in helping authors understand the mistakes that are making them produce bad books, he will have to inquire more deeply, so that he can criticize in terms that will ring true to the author.

What Mary McCarthy wanted to say was that we must leave the war. If she had run to John Kennedy in 1963 or Lyndon Johnson afterwards and said that the flow of U. S. capital was going to trap us in Vietnam, they would not have heard a word. But if she had tried to understand why they fell into the next-election trap—the President’s fear of “losing” Vietnam before the next election—she might have made something click inside their heads. If she did not reverse the course of history at that moment, she would still come closer than she ever could by calling them liars and imperialists. Even Richard Nixon, who seems so split between his pious and his unscrupulous personalities that the one must lie to cover up the other’s activities, is susceptible to such reasoning: Melvin Laird knew his man well enough to convince him that our “honor” would be intact with Vietnamization, and Patrick Moynihan nearly kept him convinced that a guaranteed annual income would enhance his Administration.

To be persuasive in this fashion requires not less attention to the facts but more. Mary McCarthy’s writings show too clearly the dangers of thinking otherwise.

James Fallows

James Fallows began his magazine career at the Washington Monthly in the 1970s, later serving as editor of U.S. News & World Report and as a White House speechwriter. He has written 12 books, the most recent being Our Towns, coauthored with his wife, Deborah Fallows, which was a national best-seller and the basis of a 2021 HBO documentary.