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. Herman



The Setting

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 of malice.


The United States in Vietnam: A Partial Victory

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 peace.




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," "irresponsible," etc.).

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 role.

... 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 ...



Final Comments


... 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" or "commumism".


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.

Noam Chomsky page

Authors and Books