This is a letter that Allen Ginsberg wrote to Robert McNamara, LBJ’s Defense Secretary who was the architect of American policy in Vietnam. McNamara probably never read it, but it was reprinted in Allen Ginsberg in America, by Jane Kramer, and I read it this morning on the train to work. It got me thinking very deeply about a lot of things, both things that Ginsberg mentions in the letter and things that are unrelated. I don’t feel like sharing my thoughts right now but I do want to share the letter.
If you aren’t familiar with Ginsberg, I’ll just preface this by saying that, in addition to being a Beat poet and very prominent in sixties counterculture, he was an admirer of Buddhist thought and was dedicated to reaching out to people who thought differently from him. He had a fundamental respect for all human beings and he often played the role of mediator between the counterculture and the rest of America — notably, he testified before Congress on the advantages and disadvantages of psychedelic drugs and brokered a truce between Berkeley peace marchers and the Oakland Hell’s Angels. He had a vast array of friends and contacts in positions of power and in all areas of the counterculture and he relentlessly tried to put people in contact with each other to talk about ideas.
Dear Mr. McNamara,
I am not sure you will respect my advice, but anyway, you cannot help but be interested if I can reach you with this message, so let us try.
The first thing is, be calm, there is no essential threat to anybody’s ultimate being. Not yours, you also are safe, as is one supposed to be your or our enemy. He is also safe.
The reason for this is, as the old Chinese sages recognized earlier in time, that the very flesh universe we find ourselves trapped in is, in its nature, unthreatening because it is empty — illusory — Shakespeare & the Chinese agree — Prospero the Wise Man agrees — everything’s all right because we are inhabiting a very special realm of pure Dream.
But as I get excited as Mao Tse-tung (whoever he is) gets frightened, as you take things so seriously, the dream turns to a kind of physical nightmare, with apparent conflict and — ugh — suffering death — well, death is built into it in any case — but the anxiety and paranoia — fear of a cosmic ENEMY is the stricken-feeling anxiety chord that runs thru
Everybody’s heart in America right now tonight — and in Vietnam and China we can only imagine & — try to calm that panic.
Now, are you doing things to calm that panic, or are you now, generally in fantasy or manifest thought (orders for more bomb), seized by that panic and acting it out? and so creating material conditions for it (the panic-fear-paranoia of Invasion by alien forces from some Outside) to flourish in everybody’s mind — our own mind as well as the minds of China?
I do not know directly personally from contact with you what your subjective attitude is, but from what I read in the reduplicated Images of the mass media, you yourself are sending out waves of anxiety and fear.
Now given your material prominence and TV centrality and known and unknown governmental power-centralization, you must realize that it is your Will, your Fantasy, that dominates the mind-screen images of vast — not all — regions of the populace.
But there are large regions of age and youth whose consciousness operates independently of the sense of fear you manifest. If not fear, the sense of conflict.
A question of staying calm, sitting in the room, the war will end, nobody ultimately wants it, a small area of consciousness living in fear of the shattering of its own Imagery — may prefer that & pain & death to realization — that the war does not actually exist, except in your mind and the mind of your corresponding Powers on the “Other Side.”
Both sides are an illusion — you must by now have read basic Buddhist or Bob Dylan heard, texts & advices how to escape from the trap.
Unfortunately both you and Johnson — seem to me — surrounded by men who have not actually controlled their own Passions — simply, angryness, tendencies towards self-righteous exclusion of the other forms of consciousness. The waves of emotional hysteria — both sides — not any material struggle for space in the universe — are the problem. In Other words the cold war all along has been an Emotional problem of those panicked by power and leadership — they have not been calm & tranquil — They — and you — have separated yourself out, away, from the Communists and other life forms, and have not made sufficient effort to provide conditions for these life forms to “co.” — Yes — “exist.” Coexistance — unless you anticipate a Wagnerian battle for control of the Universe — Dualities and ultimate conflict — do you dream of such a thing necessary — many do. Many posit their whole consciousness on early fear that it’s killed or be devoured — Anyway — Coexistance is the only mode of consciousness which will allow space for both you and the Chinese to exist on the planet. Unless that space is provided and made way for, paid for with cooperation and COMMUNICATION on basic psychic levels — reassurance, etc., such as I am giving you now — has to be given the Chinese — Unless as I say that is given — a straight two-handed calm show of amicability — free joy even — Naturally the Chinese are going to feel persecuted and paranoid. And if they feel that — in response to what is basically the Ill-Will of Americans toward their supposed Threat — then they will act unstable and hostile and we — beginning with what was a fixed white Image, and an artificial Moral image — superiority — will also act hostile.
So we have two life forms — both brothers in their desire for life, both trapped in the dream that it is somehow “Real,” both in separate universes of mental suspicion.
Naturally you’ll have a conflict that way.
If you can find the imagination to break thru that — even if it involves the bankruptcy of your whole phenomenal Purpose, your whole concluded idea system, your SELF and its apparent sensory impressions — yea yea yea — we & you too share in the madness, you are not more Sane than my appeal to you after all, dear — I mean with your vast Armada you’re going to think I’m unbalanced or don’t understand the pith experience of the TRAP? Well, we’re all desperate, myself the most, so certainly you’ll suffer no more in change than me, or Mao Tse-tung —
But the change must begin inside you, not Outside.
I have specific suggestions how to manifest this change — but it would mean a healthy change for America, and China, and be happy and not frightened to see you and talk to you or anyone else you think hath focal Hand in the balances of phantasy & thought.
No war is necessary, it never was outside of our fear contaminating the Chinese and their fear contaminating us — it’s all hysteria — only solution is literally to cut thru the hysteria to a ground — our own natural lucidity and wrinkled eyes and existence is, without the remor and tightening of body and fantasy agitation of mind — into uncontrolled isolation-fear and wrath army consequent.
That’s where “it all is,” no place else, neither in a preordained dialectic or some logical imperative of “History.”
Poets now say History is over; what they mean is that the reality approaching and the possible Doom or liberation from encroaching serpent-fear is a purely subjective matter. It’s already time for you, & Leaders, to take on that subjective responsibility and not set it outside yourself. I’m taking it on by writing you this letter and offering you my Self to come and if need be calm your fear that anyone need be “conquered” any more.
Please reply if you have read and understood this with your own eyes. Thank you,
When applied in general and not simply to the Vietnam War or the US’s relationship with China, this is as close to a statement of my own political philosophy as I’ve ever seen written anywhere.