AMERICAN NOTES: The Hitler Analogy

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In 1971 George McGovern declared: "Except for Adolf Hitler's extermination of the Jewish people, the American bombardment of defenseless peasants in Indochina is the most barbaric act of modern times." Last week he conjured up the Hitler analogy again. He accused President Nixon of being "at least indirectly" responsible for the invasion of the Democratic National Committee offices in Washington by five men last June (see story, page 20). McGovern later added that the incident was "the kind of thing you expect under a person like Hitler."

Even in a campaign year—or especially in a campaign year—such rhetoric is difficult to excuse. It rests, to start with, on an inflammatory imprecision, the polemics of overkill. Hitler's holocaust remains the century's central metaphor of evil. Throughout the '60s, by a process of escalating outrage, the device debased what was left of political dialogue. Radicals painted "Amerika" on campus walls. Police were "fascist pigs." Women's Lib's Gloria Steinem even took up the cry recently, claiming that a female reading Playboy must experience the same revulsion that a Jew would feel encountering a Nazi manual. Meantime, ideologues on the other side professed to see Brownshirts in the bearded radicals.

Of course, President Nixon and Vice President Agnew have made their own special contribution to the lexicon of excess. Those who profess deep social feelings, as George McGovern surely does, seek to authenticate them with verbal ultimates. But the process wrings out our political vocabularies, corrupts them, drains them of meaning.