Greg Bales

Required Reading for Joe Lieberman

War Council On the eve of sending 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, Vietnam is percolating to the surface in places both expected and unexpected. Last week, the first segment of Bill Moyers Journal was dedicated to Lyndon Johnson’s conversations with advisers about Vietnam, soon after John F. Kennedy’s assassination but before the 1964 election.1 Primarily told through Johnson’s (secretly) taped conversations, the segment is a fascinating portrait of the deliberations of power.

Similarly, Vietnam arises in in the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry off the Shelf podcast. Curtis Fox and Michael Hoffman unpack Robert Lowell’s “July in Washington” as a meditation on American empire at the time Johnson was worrying on the phone. In contrast to Moyer’s focus on the office of the President, Lowell turns attention to Congress, or perhaps more generally all those who seek and find power in the beltway. Here is Lowell’s poem.

July in Washington

The stiff spokes of this wheel
touch the sore spots of the earth.

On the Potomac, swan-white
power launches keep breasting the sulphurous wave.

Otters slide and dive and slick back their hair,
raccoons clean their meat in the creek.

On the circles, green statues ride like South American
liberators above the breeding vegetation—

prongs and spearheads of some equatorial
backland that will inherit the globe.

The elect, the elected … they come here bright as dimes,
and die dishevelled and soft.

We cannot name their names, or number their dates—
circle on circle2, like rings on a tree—

but we wish the river had another shore,
some further range of delectable mountains,

distant hills powdered blue as a girl’s eyelid.
It seems the least little shove would land us there,

that only the slightest repugnance of our bodies
we no longer control could drag us back.

1 Listening to the tapes, it seems to me that Johnson’s biggest mistake was to presume the domino theory to be true. As any President would be, Johnson worried about both the prospect and politics of war. He thought Vietnam would probably become another Korea, but he also believed the consequences would be much worse if the United States did not support South Vietnam than if it did. If South Vietnam fell, he argued, eventually India would, too. Who did he have to argue against such alarming—and alarmist—prospects?

2 Not that it matters much, but Fox and Hoffman mostly ignore around the poem’s circles, though much takes place on them. The wheel is the first circle, which they ignore entirely, though surely the allusion is to Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s street plan for Washington, in which the “spokes” of the streets radiate out from the Capitol, the source of power. The second circle, as Hoffman says, is probably a reference to traffic circles, though what matters is that the statues are on them. The third circle is the shape of a dime, and the fourth is a metaphor for the “elect, elected” who are unnameable and undatable. These figures are “circles on circles”; the metaphor recalls the statues (on circles) riding “like South American / liberators above the breeding vegetation.” But the figure is dense and made more ambiguous by the simile “like rings on a tree,” which Fox latches onto to say that Lowell is “tying it back to nature again.”

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