After the Cataclysm
Postwar Indochina and the
Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology
The Political Economy of
Human Rights - Volume II,
a book by Noam Chomsky and
Edward S. Herman
South End Press, 1979
" The primary U.S.
goal in the Third World is to ensure that it remains open to U.S.
economic penetration and political control. Failing this the United
States exerts every effort to ensure that societies that try to
strike an independent course ... will suffer the harshest conditions
that U.S. power can impose ... "
Noam Chomsky and Edward S.
The U.S. Impact on Indochina
The U.S. war in Indochina began as one
of innumerable examples of counterrevolutionary intervention throughout
the world. As a result of the wholly unanticipated level of resistance
of the Vietnamese revolutionaries, and later their allies when
the United States spread the war to the rest of Indochina, it
was gradually transformed into one of the most destructive and
murderous attacks on a civilian population in history, as the
world's most powerful military machine was unleashed against peasant
societies with extremely limited means of self-defense and lacking
the capacity to strike back at the source of aggression.
The main outlines of the U.S. war are
well documented. After World War II, the United States determined
to back French imperialism in its effort to destroy what planners
clearly recognized to be an indigenous nationalist movement in
Vietnam, which declared independence in 1945 and vainly sought
recognition and aid from the United States. The French-U.S. repacification
effort failed. In 1954, France accepted a political settlement
at Geneva, which, if adhered to by the United States, would have
led to independence for the three countries of Indochina. Unwilling
to accept the terms of this settlement, the United States undertook
at once to subvert them. A client regime was established in South
Vietnam which immediately rejected the basic framework of the
agreements, launched a fierce repression in the South, and refused
to permit the elections to unify the two administrative zones
of the country as laid down in the Geneva Accords ... In the 1950s,
the United States still hoped to be able to reconquer all of Vietnam;
later, it limited its aims to maintaining control over South Vietnam
and incorporating it into the Free World by any necessary means.
Direct involvement of U.S. armed forces in military action against
the South Vietnamese began in 1961-62.
Meanwhile in Laos the United States also
successfully undermined the Geneva political settlement and prevented
any sharing of power by the Pathet Lao, the left wing resistance
forces that had fought the French and won the 1958 election despite
a major U.S. effort to prevent this outcome. The United States
then turned to subversion and fraud, setting off a civil war in
which, as in South Vietnam, the right wing military backed by
the United States was unable to hold its own. Meanwhile, Cambodia
was able to maintain independence despite continual harassment
by U.S. clients in Thailand and South Vietnam and an unsuccessful
effort at subversion in the late 1950s.
By the early 1960s, virtually all parties
concerned, apart from the United States and its various local
clients, were making serious efforts to avoid an impending war
by neutralizing South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia; that is, removing
them from external (overwhelmingly U.S.) influence and control.
Such an outcome was anathema to the U.S. Ieadership. President
Johnson informed Ambassador Lodge in 1964 that his mission was
"knocking down the idea of neutralization wherever it rears
its ugly head." The United States was deeply concerned to
prevent any negotiated political settlement because, as is easily
documented, its planners and leaders assumed that the groups that
they backed could not possibly survive peaceful competition.
Once again the United States succeeded
in preventing a peaceful settlement. In South Vietnam, it stood
in opposition to all significant political forces, however anti-Communist,
imposing the rule of a military clique that was willing to serve
U.S. interests. By January 1965, the United States was compelled
to undermine its own puppet, General Khanh; he was attempting
to form what Ambassador Taylor called a "dangerous"
coalition with the Buddhists, who were not acting "in the
interests of the Nation," as General Westmoreland explained.
What is more, Khanh was apparently trying to make peace with the
NLF, quite possibly a factor that lay behind the elimination of
his predecessors. At that point, the United States, which stood
alone in understanding "the interests of the Nation"
in South Vietnam, had no alternative but to extend its already
substantial military campaign against the rural society of the
South, where the overwhelming majority of the population lived.
The United States therefore launched a full-scale invasion in
a final effort to destroy the organized popular forces in the
South. The invasion was accompanied by the bombing of North Vietnam,
undertaken to lay some basis for the claim that the United States
was "defending the South against external aggression,"
and in the hope that the DRV would use its influence to bring
the southern rebellion to a halt and permit the United States
to attain its goals. This maneuver failed. The DRV responded by
sending limited forces to the South, as most U.S. planners had
anticipated. Meanwhile, the United States began the systematic
bombing of South Vietnam, at three times the level of the more
publicized-and more protested-bombing of the North.
The war also intensified in Laos, with
U.S. bombing from 1964 and military operations by a "clandestine
army" of Meo tribesmen, organized and directed by the CIA
to supplement the inept "official" army trained and
armed by the U.S. military. U.S. outposts in northern Laos were
guiding the bombing of North Vietnam from Thai bases. By this
time Thai and North Vietnamese forces were also engaged, though
on a considerably smaller scale. By 1968, the United States was
conducting a bombing campaign of extraordinary severity in northern
Laos, far removed from the war in South Vietnam. By 1969 the sporadic
U.S.-Saigon attacks on Cambodia had escalated to intensive bombardment,
and after the coup of March, 1970, which overthrewtheSihanoukgovernment,
Cambodia too was plunged into the inferno. U.S.-Saigon military
actions began two days after the coup and a full-scale invasion
(called a "limited incursion") took place at the end
of April- "limited," as it turned out, largely because
of the unprecedented demonstration of protest in the United States.
This invasion and the subsequent bombing, particularly in 1973,
led to vast suffering and destruction throughout the country.
All of these efforts failed. In January,
1973 the United States s~gned a peace treaty in Paris which virtually
recapitulated the NLF program of the early 1960s. This was interpreted
as a stunning diplomatic victory in the United States. The United
States government announced at once that it would disregard every
essential provision of this treaty, and proceeded to do so, attempting
again to conquer South Vietnam, now through the medium of the
vastly expanded military forces it organized, trained, advised,
and supplied. In a most remarkable display of servility, the Free
Press misrepresented the new agreement in accordance with the
Kissinger-Nixon version, which was diametrically opposed to the
text on every crucial point, thus failing to bring out the significance
of the U.S.-Thieu subversion of the major elements of the agreement.
This misrepresentation of the actual terms of the agreement set
the stage for indignation at the North Vietnamese response and
the sudden collapse of the puppet regime.
All of these U.S. efforts dating back
to the 1940s eventually failed. By April 1975, U.S. clients had
been defeated in all parts of Indochina, leaving incredible carnage,
bitterness, and near insoluble problems of reconstruction. The
United States thereafter refused reparations or aid, and exerted
its considerable influence to block assistance from elsewhere.
Even trade is blocked by the United States, in a striking display
The United States in Vietnam: A Partial
The war in Vietnam ended with a defeat
for U.S. imperial violence, but only a partial defeat-a significant
fact. The U.S. Expeditionary Force of over half a million men
in South Vietnam became "a drugged, mutinous and demoralised
rabble"5 and was withdrawn. U.S. Ieaders had painfully learned
a lesson familiar to their predecessors: a conscript army is ill-suited
to fight a colonial war with its inevitable barbarism and incessant
atrocities against helpless civilians. Such a war is better left
to hired killers such as the French Foreign Legion or native mercenaries,
or in the modern period to an advanced technology that leaves
some psychic distance between the murderers and their victims-although
even B-52 pilots reportedly began to object when Nixon and Kissinger
dispatched them to devastate Hanoi in December, 1972 in a final
effort to compel the North Vietnamese to accept a U.S.-dictated
The Intelligentsia and the State
In considering the refraction of events
in Indochina through l the prism of western ideology, it is useful
to bear in mind some relevant precedents. The first class of precedents
has to do with the ways in which influential segments of the intelligentsia
have responded in the past to abuses of state power; the second,
with the record of treatment of former enemies after revolutionary,
civil or other military conflicts.
The normal case of straight chauvinist
bias is, of course, of central importance in shaping, the responses
and defining the role of mainstream intellectuals ... A primary
social role of the group that Isaiah Berlin called "the secular
priesthood" is to speak positively of the institutions and
objectives of the state and dominant power interests within it
in order to help mobilize public commitment and loyalty. The adaptability
of intellectuals to quality variation in the social order for
which devotion is sought has proven to be very great-the pre-Civil
War southern intelligentsia even found the slave system worth
cherishing despite its economic inefficiency ("slave labor
can never be so cheap as what is called free labor") on the
grounds of its sheer humanity and social beneficence ("what
is lost to us [from inefficiency] is gained by humanity").
A further traditional role of intellectuals
is to disseminate propaganda concerning the evil practices, real
or fabricated, of current enemies of the state.
The general subservience of the articulate
intelligentsia to the framework of state propaganda is not only
unrecognized, it is ) strenuously denied by the propaganda system.
The press and the intelligentsia in general are held to be fiercely
independent, critical, antagonistic to the state, even suffused
by a trendy anti-Americanism. It is quite true that controversy
rages over government policies and the errors or even crimes of
government officials and agencies. But the impression of internal
dissidence is misleading. A more careful analysis shows that this
controversy takes place, for the most part, within the narrow
limits of a set of patriotic premises. Thus it is quite tolerable-indeed,
a contribution to the propaganda system-for the Free Press to
denounce the government for its "errors" in attempting"to
defend South Vietnam from North Vietnamese aggression," since
by so doing it helps to establish more firmly the basic myth:
that the United States was not engaged in a savage attack on South
Vietnam but was rather "defending" it. If even the hostile
critics adopt these assumptions, then clearly they must be true.
The beauty of the democratic systems of
thought control, as contrasted with their clumsy totalitarian
counterparts, is that they operate by subtly establishing on a
voluntary basis-aided by the force of nationalism and media control
by substantial interests- presuppositions that set the limits
of debate, rather than by imposing beliefs with a bludgeon. Then
let the debate rage; the more lively and vigorous it is, the better
the propaganda system is served, since the presuppositions (U.S.
benevolence, lack of rational imperial goals, defensive posture,
etc.) are more firmly established. Those who do not accept the
fundamental principles of state propaganda are simply excluded
from the debate (or if noticed, dismissed as "emotional,"
In a typical example, when the New York
Times (5 April 1975) gave its retrospective assessment of the
Vietnam tragedy, it referred to "the decade of fierce polemics"
(to be resolved in due course by "Clio, the goddess of history")
between the hawks who thought that the United States could win
and the doves who were convinced that the U.S. objective was unattainable.
Those who opposed the war in principle-specifically, the mainstream
of the peace movement-were simply not part of the debate, as far
as the Times was concerned. Their position need not be refuted;
it does not exist.
An excellent illustration of how the ideological
institutions operate to buttress the state propaganda system by
identifying the media as "hypercritical," so much so
as to endanger "free institutions," is provided by a
two-volume Freedom House study of the alleged bias and incompetence
of the media in portraying the Tet offensive as a defeat for the
United States and thus contributing to the failure of U.S. arms
by their excessive pessimism. The name "Freedom House"
should at once arouse a certain skepticism among people attuned
to the machinations of modern propaganda systems, just as any
good student of Orwell should have realized that a change in the
name of the U.S. War Department to "Defense Department"
in 1947 signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting
from defense to aggressive war. In fact, "Freedom House"
is no less of an Orwellian construction, as its record indicates.
The study in question is in the Freedom
House tradition. Contrary to its intentions and stated conclusions,
any independent-minded reader should infer from its 1500 pages
of text and documents that the media were remarkably loyal to
the basic doctrines of the state and tended to view the events
of the period strictly from the government's point of view. But
these facts, though obvious from the documents cited, completely
escaped the author and his Freedom House sponsors; naturally,
since they take ordinary press subservience as a norm. What is
most striking about the study, apart from its general ineptitude,
are the premises adopted without comment throughout: the press
is unjustifiably "pessimistic" if it tends to believe
that U.S. force may not prevail in "defending South Vietnam,"
and is "optimistic" if it expresses faith in the ultimate
success of U.S. state violence. Pessimism is wrong even if based
on fact and in conformity with the views of the Pentagon and CIA
(as was often the case, specifically, in the instance in question).
Since optimism is demanded irrespective of facts, the implication
of this study is that "responsible" media must deliberately
lie in order to serve the state in an undeviatingly propagandistic
... the intelligentsia have been prone
to various forms of state worship, the most striking and significant
being subservience to the propaganda systems of their own government
and social institutions. This subservience often takes the form
of childish credulity that is effectively exploited by the organizations
that are devoted to atrocity fabrication and other modes of ideological
control. Sometimes the credulity is feigned, as the propagandist
knowingly transmits a useful lie ...
... For the groups that dominate economic,
social, political and intellectual life in the United States,
it is a matter of urgency to ensure that no serious challenge
is raised to their predominant role, either in ideology or in
practice. While mild social reforms have been introduced in the
United States, others now conventional in Western Europe (e.g.,
national health insurance, minimal "worker participation"
in industry, etc.) have been effectively resisted here, and there
has been remarkable success in designing policy so that state
intervention in the economy and social life serves the needs of
the wealthy and powerful... the absence of an organized left opposition
in the United States has facilitated the work of the system of
thought control and indoctrination. U.S. ideologists have been
unusually successful in conducting "the engineering of consent,"
a technique of control that substitutes for the use of force in
societies with democratic forms.' To serve this end, every effort
must be made to discredit what is called "socialism"
There is no single cause for the misery
and oppression that we find in every part of the world. But there
are some major causes, and some of these are close at hand and
subject to our influence and, ultimately, our control. These factors
and the social matrix in which they are embedded will engage the
concern and efforts of people who are honestly committed to alleviate
human suffering and to contribute to freedom and justice.
The success of the Free Press in reconstructing
imperial ideology.since the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina has
been spectacular. The shift of the United States from causal agent
to concerned bystander-and even to leader in the world struggle
for human rights-in the face of its empire of client fascism and
long, vicious assault on the peasant societies of Indochina, is
a remarkable achievement. The system of brainwashing under freedom,
with mass media voluntary self-censorship in accord with the larger
interests of the state, has worked brilliantly. The new propaganda
line has been established by endless repetition of the Big Distortions
and negligible grant of access to nonestablishment points of view;
all rendered more effective by the illusion of equal access and
the free flow of ideas. U.S. dissenters can produce their Samizdats
freely, and stay out of jail, but they do not reach the general
public or the Free Press except on an episodic basis. This reflects
the power and interests that benefit from the uncontrolled arms
race, the status quo of domestic economic arrangements, and the
external system of multinational expansion and collaboration with
the Shahs, Suhartos, Marcos's in the contemporary "development"
and sacking of the Third World. Change will come only when material
facts arouse sufficient numbers to force a reassessment of policy.
At the present time, the machine expands, the mass media adapt
to the political economy, and human rights are set aside except
in rhetorical flourishes useful for ideological reconstruction.