William Pfaff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The End of the Cold War in Europe: Conversation with William Pfaff, columnist, International Herald Tribune, May 7, 1990, by Harry Kreisler

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Writing

What in this experience, looking back, is most difficult about being a writer, essentially a freelance writer? Is it making a living? Or is it knowing how to shape what it is you want to say, to be affected by experience?

I've had extraordinarily good luck. I am able to deal with something of great interest to me -- contemporary history -- and to be paid a reasonable living, in fact a very good living, for telling people what they're supposed to think about it. That's a very privileged position.

[While] you are in these things, I mean, the years with Hudson were not that much fun, and you write and nobody listens to you, and you put out books that don't particularly sell, and you often feel that the world out there has no interest in what you say. Yet in the end, it's cumulative. You run into people and they say, "Oh, I read your book in 1968 and it made all the difference, and I decided to change my life!" That's very affecting; you had no idea at the time that this was happening.

Even on the Vietnam affair, a motivation (I suppose not entirely articulated) of my feeling that we should go and try living a year or two in Europe since the opportunity existed with Hudson setting up, was the feeling that in that debate, what I was saying had become futile. I had been in Vietnam in '63. At the end of my first book -- I had a [few] installments in my first book, which was The New Politics -- we were given some money by a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and I spent it going out to Asia. I had been in Japan during the Korean War, but I'd never been in Southeast Asia.

I was interested, and I went, and I spent time in Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos and Thailand, and on into India. I worked on a book called The Politics of Hysteria. But from that point, it was evident to me that the Christian bourgeoisie around Diem was a reality, that the mass mobilization in the country was, whether you liked it or not, [supporting] the communists, and they had linked their cause to the force of nationalism, and that going against that was just not a very useful idea.

I had started writing a foreign affairs column for Commonweal; I was, of course, still friends with Commonweal and through the sixties I wrote, every other week, a column. I said from the beginning that there was no American national mandate for a war in Vietnam. If the government in Vietnam was incapable of governing itself with the material assistance that the United States was giving them, then it was pointless. Governments that cannot govern their own society, given assistance to match such assistance as their opposition is getting, don't deserve to govern. Unfortunately, that's the historical reality. To throw yourself into somebody else's civil war is not a good idea.

But this argument was dealing without the ideological passion of those who were saying, "Don't you understand? Chinese-Asian communism is sweeping the world!" and on the other hand, those who said, "America, we're now fascist Nazis, war crimes, killers of babies," and so on. The debate simply became such that I thought: "Good luck to them, but what I have to say doesn't seem to be of any interest to anybody, so I'll go think about something else."

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