Robert Bly: War, writers and government money
The New York Review of Books
December 21, 1967
To the Editors:
The fact that so few Americans have resigned from the government or from responsible posts to protest the Vietnam War is remarkable to me. It is odd, particularly if you look at European history. In English political life of the last thirty years alone, many officials have resigned posts in opposition to government policy. Such resignations not only are dramatic, but they involve the curious quality of self-sacrifice. If that isn’t present in a protest, we somehow don’t find the protest entirely believable. No American cabinet officer has resigned; Hubert Humphrey has not. no Supreme Court justice, no ambassador, no head of any of the innumerable Federal agencies. By contrast, during the American Revolution, the commander-in-chief of the English forces, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, resigned rather than prosecute what he considered a futile and morally wrong war against the Colonies.
Can we imagine General Westmoreland resigning, and refusing to prosecute a brutal war? Never. Pilots drop anti-personnel bombs on small North Vietnamese villages, and many of them hate it; but they don’t resign with a public statement of protest. They quietly retire when their tour is over.
Another example of the same American failure to resign is the acceptance by so many American writers of the new grants being passed out by the National Foundation on the Arts. The National Foundation, distributing Administration money, has so far given over twenty-five grants to American writers, and not one has refused it. Incredible! Even poets who have written fierce poems protesting the War took them.
What does this show about Americans? Timidity? Materialism? Greed? I don’t think so.
What it shows is a disastrous split between the American’s inner and outer worlds. He does not aim to use his life to make himself whole, to join the two worlds in himself. On the contrary, he is prepared to give up one of the two worlds. The businessman gives up the inner world, and clings to the outer as his way. A large body of literature denounces the businessman for taking the one world without the other. But when a writer is opposed to the Vietnam War, and still accepts a grant from the government prosecuting the war, he is doing something similar — he is letting the world split —he lets the outer world go by him with just a wave of his hand, and then he reaches out and pulls the inner world to him. He accepts the money “for the sake of my work.” It will enable him to live in his inner world. But the disastrous split has already taken place before he begins to use the money for his work. Instead of trying to apply what he has learned in the actions of his inner life to the actions of the world, he pulls back inside the house, closes the door, and declares he doesn’t know what is going on out there, or knows but has rejected it all as outside his sphere of interest, he is “not political.” But what could be more within the sphere of interest of a writer than the world? Or the prevention of a deeper split inside himself?
I don’t think, therefore, that refusing government money at this time is the right thing to do, or the heroic thing, etc. — it is the only sensible thing to do. It is a matter of uncommon and common sense, and it should be as natural for us to refuse as it would be to refuse if someone suggested we cut off a leg with one of the new painless saws and throw it out the window.
The following correspondence might be interesting to some of your readers.
The Sixties Press
12 September, 1967
Mr. Roger L. Stevens, Chairman
National Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities
1800 G. Street, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20506
Dear Mr. Stevens:
Thank you for your letter offering The Sixties Press a $5,000 grant from the national Foundation on the Arts and the Humanities. But I oppose the Vietnam War, and I cannot accept the grant.
In my mind there is a link between poetry and compassion. Since the Administration is maiming an entire nation merely to advance our national interest, I think it is insensitive, even indecent, for that Administration to come forward with money for poetry.
Since it is clear that a given sum of government money could go either for a poetry magazine or a napalm canister—and only chance bookkeeping decides between them—there could be no pride in such an award or in such editing. I refuse to participate and I don’t want the money.
Yours very sincerely,
17 September, 1967
Dear Mr. Bly:
I have received your letter declining the $5,000 grant in behalf of The Sixties Press, from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The right to free speech and thought is essential in a Democracy, so you are entitled to your opinion as to the connection between the grant and the Viet Nam War. However, since the policies of this government were arrived at by representatives chosen in a free election, I am afraid that all government action cannot be stopped because of a difference of opinion in the Viet Nam War, otherwise the result would be chaotic.
Since there is a very limited amount of money available for the arts, I am sure your refusal will enable another deserving group to be helped.
Roger L. Stevens, Chairman
18 September, 1967
As it concerns my programs in Literature, I’m going to reply to your letter to Mr. Stevens, in addition to his reply. Clearly, I wouldn’t be here today if I agreed with you that only a bookkeeper determines whether federal money is spent on a napalm canister or on a book of poems. In fact I’m here precisely because I feel that it is my moral duty to try to salvage as much as possible from the holocaust.
During World War II, much was made of the argument that all federal cultural programs should cease, because of the “war effort.” And—unlike Great Britain, who took the opposite course—cease they did, not just federal programs in the arts, but, in a way which has devastated our cities and laid waste to our countryside, programs in city and country planning, which were thought to combine the two devils of “art” and “socialism.” It seems to me, that by denying the right of a federal arts program to coexist with the war in Vietnam, you align yourself with the very people in congress and elsewhere who are trying to eliminate the arts program because of the “priorities” of Vietnam. And believe me, these people are not the doves.
Meanwhile, because this arts program also includes planning and architecture and “total environment” programs, people labor here to try to undo the almost irrevocable damage done to our country during the desert of those artless (in all senses) planless years. What point is there in trying to stop the war in Vietnam, from our standpoint, if our world is to be given over to violence, anarchy, ugliness and destruction? The role of the artist, as you and I both believe, has always been dedicated to an outcry against the destruction of morals and values, and to the preservation of order and beauty and human affection. Traditionally, men tend to be the protestors, and women the conservators. So be it. But stopping one war doesn’t make all right with the world. If we don’t work to eliminate some of the violence and ugliness at home, it will all happen again, until nothing remains.
With affectionate regards, as always,
28 September, 1967
Dear Carolyn and Mr. Stevens:
Thank you for your letters, both emphasizing the value of continuing cultural programs during wartime. That’s all very well if the country is on the right side. But in this war we are simply murderers, like the Germans. Stopping our cultural programs wouldn’t help the Vietnamese, but it would help to alter our numb acquiescence.
A part of the German government supported culture too. All Gieseking had to do was to play the piano while other parts of the government did ugly things. The National Foundation is not the Reich Chamber of Music, but you are a part of the Administration, and unless you publicly disavow them, you are part of its policies. In any case, if I accepted your grant I would be in Gieseking’s position.
The Vietnam director of the IVS resigned recently, after eight years there, with a flat statement that we are murdering a nation. He resigned rather than be silent and watch it happen. How can we go on with “business as usual”—as Bruno Bettelheim put it—or “culture as usual”? You both feel a duty to your country, and keep your positions in response to that. I think a more realistic and more valuable response would be for you, also, to resign.