New Historical

Vietnam in the Basement

David Maryanski II


Ursula K. Le Guin’s story The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas reflects a common image of utopian society during the 1970s, with humanity and nature closely intertwined, a lack of oppressive governing, and ambiguous or absent social roles. The story is set in a city of perfection where humanity seem to have perfect harmony with each other and nature. However, there is great struggle and conflict with the last half of the story, showing the reader that all of Omelas’ perfect utopia was only made possible by the suffering of one person, namely the Child in the basement. The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas views the Child and the society of Omelas as an allegory for the communist and capitalist ideological struggle that occurred in the 1950s to 1970s known as the Vietnam war.

The period of history Le Guin knew revolved around World War II and what we know as the Cold War, primarily between the US and the Soviet Union. We could state that the Cold War was a battle of ideology regarding communist and capitalist views rather than solely a conflict of land and power. Although there was never a full-scale battle between Soviet and US troops the war in Vietnam brought these two countries’ philosophies together, manifesting the Cold War into a physical battle with North Vietnam and South Vietnam, each with an assorted group of allies and supporters. North Vietnam was heavily influenced by the Soviets and other communist states, such as China, while South Vietnam was supported by the US for most of the war because of their desire to be rid of Communist rule (Spector).

How does this all play into Omelas and Le Guin’s view of Utopia? In the battle between communism and capitalism both ideologies seemed to be warring over who would reign supreme and bring about peace for all their people. Both sides of the war in the 1950s to 70s believed their system would be the most beneficial to a struggling country, both promising many freedoms, equalities, and equities. Le Guin may have seen this and responded with disapproval towards the methodology. These points in history also ring true with the shocking revelation of the story.

The child in the basement is a striking image of Vietnam at war and as Jerre Collins puts it, “familiar to us from photo-journalism of war, displacement, and famine” (Collins 526) reflecting the very idea core to the Vietnam war—suffering for the advancement of political ideology. This image has further weight when we examine the reasons the US and the Soviet Union began their support for either South and North Vietnam. What both sides wanted from the war is nicely summarized by Ronald Spector at Britannica. The Soviets’ strategy was to “[help] communist-led insurgencies…subvert and overthrow the shaky new governments of emerging nations” (Spector). On the contrary the US saw it as “an opportunity to test the United States’ ability to conduct a ‘counterinsurgency’ against communist subversion and guerrilla warfare” (Spector). This seems like a training run for the US as they look to be taking part in the war solely for the chance to prove to the Soviets that they have strength to overthrow Communist rule. Further evidence is seen from Spector, who writes:

Kennedy accepted without serious question the so-called domino theory, which held that the fates of all Southeast Asian countries were closely linked and that a communist success in one must necessarily lead to the fatal weakening of the others. A successful effort in Vietnam—in Kennedy’s words, “the cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia”—would provide to both allies and adversaries evidence of U.S. determination to meet the challenge of communist expansion in the Third World.

One may wonder then if Le Guin, an American author viewing these world-shaking events, was solely criticizing American political choices to enter a war with Vietnam by using her images of Omelasian citizens purposefully using a helpless child for the upkeep of their utopia. However, looking at The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas itself shows readers that Le Guin might have meant this for anyone who saw their form of society as the sole means to reach utopia. She writes:

they could perfectly well have central heating, subway trains, washing machines, and all kinds of marvelous devices not yet invented here, floating light-sources, fuelless power, a cure for the common cold. Or they could have none of that: it doesn’t matter. As you like it. (Le Guin 2)

From that text the allegory of Omelas does not seem to be solely targeted towards the American political decisions of the time. She is saying anyone can put whatever they like in their utopia. To Le Guin this story is directed towards all, even the Soviets supporting Northern Vietnam. Both capitalists and communists were using Vietnam as a means to an end and that is the point Le Guin seems to be touching on.

Another aspect that points to The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas being meant for all societies, not just American, can be gleaned from the idea of what capitalism is compared with other philosophies. In their essay Imaginaries of Hope: The Utopianism of Degrowth both Kallis and March analyze another of Le Guin’s books, The Dispossessed, touching on an idea born in the 1970s from radical environmentalism called Degrowth. This philosophy speaks to the opposing view in capitalism, which desires continual growth of material, wealth, and profit. It says that society should have limits without scarcity, economic growth without profit or loss for a single individual, and that endless growth is a capitalist dream. Serge Latouche, a French economist who touches on many ideas of Degrowth is one of their main sources. According to both Kallis and March “Latouche envisions autonomous communities with restricted trade, organized in confederations of autonomous municipalities and bioregions” (Kallis and March 361). Omelas does share the idea of having enough without too little as Degrowth does. The idea of exponential growth does not exist there, neither do “the stock exchange, the advertisement, the secret police, and the bomb” It also noted that their laws are most likely “singularly few” (Le Guin 1) furthering the idea that Omelas does not adhere to any form of government.

Omelas is not system-less however, which seems to be what Le Guin is hinting at. Katherine Cross points out Le Guin’s ideas of informal systems in her paper Naming a Star: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and the Reimagining of Utopianism which also focuses on Le Guin’s story The Dispossessed. Cross writes that “The ‘means’ [or the way we get to utopia] Le Guin details are those by which a society—any society, no matter how utopian or hierarchically flat—operates through power and, at the very least, informal systems” (Cross 1333). This speaks to Le Guin’s ideas of utopia. To her it seems there will always be struggle and conflict. It seems to be that Le Guin believed no one would ever be able to escape the draw to power in their societies, especially in constructed systems. For the child in the basement then, they will always be trapped and abused for society’s sake. In the case of the Vietnam war, perhaps Le Guin saw this as an inevitable reaction to achieving certain societal goals. It seems, to her, other countries will always use those weaker than them to achieve a certain peace for the citizens they most value.

From the revelation of the child in the basement, we move on towards the resolution of the story—those who walk away from Omelas—another group who seem to be unvalued in Omelas. Looking at the final movement of the story through a historical lens readers may first see the people who walk away as social reformers and movers. During the Vietnam war this was encompassed in the anti-war movements and the hippie movement of the early 1960s into the early 1970s. But these much more resemble the children who see why their society is the way it is for the first time. Le Guin writes “No matter how well the matter has been explained to them, these young spectators are always shocked and sickened at the sight” (Le Guin 4) but they eventually forget or accept the abuse and terrible conditions the child lives in, all because they live in a society free from any societal suffering besides the child. The same seems to be about movements such as these. As long as the world of these movements was appeased, pieces could still be moving to achieve “utopia” for its citizens behind the scenes.

Alternatively, those who walk away are neither of those groups. They may represent another group: people who have given up on society changing. These people and Le Guin differ in how they see it, as the ones who walk away have a dismal view of it. Giorgos and Kallis quote Le Guin saying, “Utopia is not an end-state of stability and perfection but a state of struggle and conflict” (qtd in Kallis and March 364) They see the struggle and conflict, viewing it as a hopeless, lost cause or they wish to go to a place “less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness” (Le Guin 5) namely death.

However, Le Guin seemed to be in the middle of these groups. Her idea of utopia encompassed the feeling of perpetual conflict and struggle for power, where there will most likely be a child in the basement everywhere, but she believed as does Latouche “that true revolution means institutional and cultural change, which can only come through reforms, not violent takeovers of power that would drift into bloodshed” (Kallis and March 364). In response to the Vietnam war Le Guin seems to be urging the countries who used Vietnam as their scapegoat to walk away, find another path, away from using countries and people who are in precarious situations for their own political agendas. She seems to be urging them towards a utopia where suffering is non-existent even in the basement.

Works Cited

Collins, Jerre. “Leaving Omelas: Questions of Faith and Understanding.” Studies in Short Fiction, vol. 27, no. 4, Fall 1990, p. 525. EBSCOhost, live&scope=site.

Cross, Katherine. “Naming a Star: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and the Reimagining of Utopianism.” American Journal of Economics & Sociology, vol. 77, no. 5, Nov. 2018, pp. 1329–52. EBSCOhost,

Kallis, Giorgos, and March, Hug. “Imaginaries of Hope: The Utopianism of Degrowth.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 105, no. 2, Mar. 2015, pp. 360–68. EBSCOhost,

Le Guin, Ursula K. “Those Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

Spector, Ronald H.. “Vietnam War”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 30 Nov. 2022, https://www. Accessed 5 December 2022.


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Beginnings and Endings: A Critical Edition Copyright © 2021 by Liza Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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