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The following is a lecture, “Containing Internal Aggression,” included in Noam Chomsky’s On Power and Ideology: The Managua Lectures (originally published in 1987 and included in the 12-volume Noam Chomsky collection available from Truthout):
In the last lecture, I reviewed some of the documentary record of high level US planning. From this record, we see that there is indeed a spectrum of opinion, but a very narrow one. Disagreements are mainly over tactical issues, over how best to achieve goals that are accepted with few questions and little need for discussion, since they are so widely shared among the elite groups that take an active part in the political system, that staff the executive branch of the government, and that provide the extragovernmental framework that sets the conditions within which state policy is formulated and executed.
The central concern, with regard to the Third World, is to defend the right to rob and to exploit, to protect “our” raw materials. More generally, the concern is to maintain the Grand Area subordinated to the needs of US elites and to ensure that other powers are limited to their “regional interests” within the “overall framework of order” maintained and controlled by the United States. In the words of George Kennan, the leading dove among early postwar planners, we must put aside “vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization,” and be prepared to use violence if necessary to achieve our objectives, not “hampered by idealistic slogans.”
The main enemy is the indigenous population who attempt to steal our resources that happen to be in their countries, who are concerned with vague and idealistic objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization, and who, in their backwardness and folly, find it difficult to understand that their “function” is to “complement the industrial economies of the West” (including Japan) and to serve the needs of the privileged groups that dominate these societies. The major danger posed by these indigenous enemies is that unless they are stopped in time, they may spread the virus of independence, freedom, and concern for human welfare, infecting regions beyond; they must be prevented from turning their societies into rotten apples, which may infect the barrel, threatening the stability of the Grand Area. As other planners put it, the United States must “prevent the rot from spreading.” It must prevent what is sometimes – on different assumptions as to what is right and just – called “the threat of a good example.” The threat of rot and infection is a serious one, which requires serious measures, violence if necessary, always presented as the defense of the highest values, in the classic manner.
The main lines of thinking are expressed clearly in Top Secret documents and planning studies, and sometimes in public statements as well, but it is missing from political analysis, journalism, or even most of scholarship, in accordance with the second major principle of policy: the ideological system too must serve its “function,” namely, to ensure the required level of ignorance and apathy on the part of the general population as well as among politically active elites, except, of course, for those engaged not just in ideological control but also in serious planning and execution of policy.
I then began to discuss the world system that has developed since World War II, concentrating on the US role, as I will do throughout these lectures. I ended the last lecture with a few remarks on the Third World and on post-World War II Europe and the problems it posed for Grand Area planning: not the threat of Soviet aggression, but the threat of economic collapse and democratic politics, which might lead to forms of social and economic development outside of the US-dominated framework of world order.
To overcome these threats, the US undertook the Marshall Plan and similar programs, which, as noted earlier, also served as critically important subsidies to US exporters of raw materials and manufactured goods. Meanwhile, the threat of democratic politics was met in the natural way, by undertaking a program, worldwide in scope, to destroy the anti-fascist resistance and the popular organizations associated with it, often in favor of fascists or fascist collaborators. This is, in fact, one of the major themes of early postwar history.
The pattern was set in the first area liberated, North Africa, where President Roosevelt installed in power Admiral Jean Darlan, a leading Nazi collaborator and the author of the Vichy regime’s anti-Semitic laws. As US forces advanced through Italy, they restored the essential structure of the fascist regime while dispersing the resistance, which had fought courageously against six Nazi divisions. In Greece, British troops entered after the Nazis had withdrawn, imposing a harsh and corrupt regime that evoked renewed resistance which Britain was unable to control in its postwar decline. The US entered, replacing Britain, under the guise of Truman Doctrine rhetoric about defending “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” Meanwhile, Presidential adviser Clark Clifford happily commented in private that the Doctrine would serve as “the opening gun in a campaign to bring people up to realization that the war isn’t over by any means”; and indeed, it helped set off a new era of domestic militarism and intervention abroad in the context of Cold War confrontation, Greece being only the first target. There, the US launched a murderous war of counterinsurgency, complete with torture, political exile for tens of thousands, reeducation camps, destruction of unions and any independent politics, and the full panoply of means later used in similar exercises throughout the world, placing the society firmly in the hands of US investors and local business elites, while much of the population had to emigrate to survive. The beneficiaries again included Nazi collaborators, while the primary victims were the workers and peasants of the Communist-led anti-Nazi resistance.
The successful counterinsurgency operation in Greece served as the model for the escalation of the US war against South Vietnam in the early 1960s, as Adlai Stevenson proclaimed at the United Nations in 1964 while explaining that in South Vietnam, the United States was engaged in defense against “internal aggression.” That is, the US was undertaking the defense of South Vietnam against the “internal aggression” of its own population; essentially the rhetoric of the Truman Doctrine. The Greek model was also invoked by Reagan’s Central America advisor Roger Fontaine as the Reagan Administration prepared to escalate Carter’s “defense” of El Salvador against “internal aggression” there.
It might be noted that Stevenson’s reputation as an outstanding spokesman for enlightened values and a leading figure of modern liberalism is unsullied by such rhetoric as this. The doctrine that the US has been engaged in defense of one or another country against “internal aggression” is quite blandly accepted by the educated classes in the United States, as in Europe quite generally, a fact that provides a certain insight into the moral and intellectual level of what passes as civilized discourse.
I will return to the Truman Doctrine in a moment, but first it should be stressed that the pattern just described was indeed worldwide. In Korea, the US forces dispersed the local popular government and inaugurated a brutal repression, using Japanese police and collaborators. Some 100,000 people were killed prior to what is called in the West “the Korean war,” including 30-40,000 killed in the suppression of a peasant insurgency on Cheju island. Similarly in the Philippines, the anti-Japanese peasant resistance was crushed in a long and bitter war of counterinsurgency, while Japanese collaborators were restored to power.
In Thailand, the US vigorously supported a series of military coups that finally installed Phibun Songkhram, “the first pro-Axis dictator to regain power after the war,” in the words of former CIA Thai specialist Frank Darling in his study of the United States and Thailand. The leader of the Free Thai movement that had cooperated with the United States during the war, Thailand’s most prominent liberal democratic figure, was deposed by a US-backed coup and ended up in Communist China. In 1954, in the secret planning to subvert the Geneva Accords that established a framework for peace in Indochina, the National Security Council proposed that Thailand be established “as the focal point of US covert and psychological operations in Southeast Asia.” This goal was achieved. Thailand later became the base for US attacks in Indochina and a Free World bastion, complete with child slavery, horrifying exploitation of women, massive corruption, starvation and misery, and ample profits for Western investors and their Thai clients. As the Indochina war wound down, the US continued to support the brutal Thai military in its successful defense against democratizing elements, as it did in the Philippines in the same period.
In Indochina, the US supported France in its efforts to “defend” its former colony against the “internal aggression” of the Vietnamese nationalist movement, which had also cooperated with the US during the war.
Turning to Latin America, a fascist coup in Colombia inspired by Franco’s Spain aroused no more concern than a military coup in Venezuela or the restoration of an admirer of fascism in Panama. But the first democratic government in the history of Guatemala, modeling itself on Roosevelt’s New Deal, elicited bitter US antagonism and a CIA coup that turned Guatemala into a literal hell-on-earth, kept that way since with regular US intervention and support, particularly under Kennedy and Johnson. The story continues through the Carter years when, contrary to what is commonly alleged, official US military aid to a series of Guatemalan Himmlers never ceased and was barely below the norm, while military aid also was sent through other channels, including US client regimes. Under Reagan, support for neargenocide became positively ecstatic.
The postwar pattern of marginalizing or if necessary destroying the antifascist resistance, often in favor of fascist sympathizers and collaborators, was quite a general and pervasive one. But predictably, sanitized history does not include a chapter devoted to this worldwide campaign, though one can discover the details in specialized studies dealing with one or another country. Where the facts are noted in connection with some particular country, the policy is generally described as a mistake, resulting from the ignorance or naivete of the well-meaning US leadership or the confusions of the postwar era.
One aspect of this postwar project was the recruitment of Nazi war criminals such as Reinhard Gehlen, who had headed Nazi military intelligence on the Eastern Front and was given the same duties under the new West German state with close CIA supervision, or Klaus Barbie, responsible for many crimes in France and duly placed in charge of spying on the French for US intelligence. The reasons were cogently explained by Barbie’s superior, Col. Eugene Kolb, who noted that his “skills were badly needed”; “To our knowledge, his activities had been directed against the underground French Communist Party and Resistance, just as we in the postwar era were concerned with the German Communist Party and activities inimical to American policies in Germany.” Kolb’s comment is apt. The US was picking up where the Nazis had left off, and it was therefore entirely natural that they should employ specialists in anti-resistance activity.
Later, when it became impossible to protect them from retribution in Europe, many of these useful folk were spirited to the United States or to Latin America, with the help of the Vatican and fascist priests. Many of them have since been engaged in terrorism, coups, the drug and armaments trade, training the apparatus of the US-backed National Security States in methods of torture devised by the Gestapo, and so on. Some of their students have found their way to Central America, establishing a direct link between the Death Camps and the Death Squads, via the US-SS postwar alliance.
As I’ve mentioned, the reasoning behind these activities was essentially that sketched out by Dean Acheson, later to become Secretary of State, in his advocacy of the Truman Doctrine before Congress. His contribution, and the general conceptions involved, merit a closer look, since they are quite central to US policy planning worldwide, as a corollary to the primary principle of defense of the Fifth Freedom. The context, as described in Acheson’s memoirs, was the difficulty that the Administration faced in overcoming the reluctance of Congress, reflecting the public mood, to engage in new military adventures in 1947. Acheson describes his success in overcoming this reluctance in words that merit full quotation:
In the past eighteen months, I said, Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran, and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe.
Apart from the concern over the “threat” of democratic politics in Europe, two points merit particular notice in connection with Acheson’s remarks: (1) the invocation of the Russian threat; (2) the rotten apple theory. Let us consider them in turn.
Acheson cites three examples of a “highly possible Soviet breakthrough”: the Straits of the Dardanelles, Iran, and Greece. He surely knew that each of these examples was fraudulent. He was surely aware that the Soviet Union had already been rebuffed in its efforts to take part in management of the Straits, and had agreed to leave control over its only warm water access entirely in Western hands. He could also hardly have been unaware of the fact that long before, the Soviet Union had abandoned its efforts to gain a share in the exploitation of Iranian oil, on its border, leaving these riches entirely in the hands of the West. As for Greece, it is difficult to imagine that State Department intelligence had been unable to learn that Stalin was urging restraint on the Greek guerrillas (recognizing that Greece was in the US sphere of influence, regarded as essentially part of the US-dominated Middle East region), just as Acheson surely knew that Stalin had been instructing the Communist parties of the West to join in the reconstruction of capitalism.
Nevertheless, Acheson takes great pride in this successful exercise in deception, a fact that is as worthy of note as his concern over the dangers of democratic politics in the West. As I mentioned in the first lecture, similar concerns impelled the US, under prodding by Kennan and others, to reverse early steps towards democratization in Japan and place the country firmly and, it was hoped, irreversibly, under conservative business control with labor seriously weakened and few opportunities available for serious popular engagement in politics.
Acheson’s success in this deception taught an important lesson for propagandists, applied many times since: when the US political leadership wants to drum up support for intervention and aggression, it need only shout that the Russians are coming. Whatever the facts, this is bound to achieve the desired results. The tactic worked unfailingly until the popular movements in the 1960s somewhat improved the intellectual and moral level of US society, and despite this setback, this tactic remains highly effective.
Acheson’s success had further implications for policy-makers: if it is deemed necessary to arrack another country, it will be highly useful to be able to portray it as a Soviet client to reinforce the cry that the Russians are again on the march. Therefore it is useful to drive the target of aggression into the hands of the Soviet Union by embargo, threat, subversion and other measures, including pressure on allies and international agencies to withdraw assistance, so as to provide the required doctrinal basis for the planned aggression. If this goal can be achieved, it will also provide a retrospective justification for the hostile actions that were undertaken to achieve it, assuming, of course, that the media and articulate intelligentsia can be relied upon to play their assigned part in the charade – a well-founded assumption. If the goal cannot be achieved, the desired consequence can be proclaimed as fact nevertheless, with media complicity. This lesson has also been applied frequently: during the successful overthrow of capitalist democracy in Guatemala in 1954, in the case of Cuba, and with regard to Nicaragua today, among many other cases.
Liberal critics of US policy, willfully blind to its obvious motives and the rich historical record, deplore the fact that the US embargo will compel Nicaragua to rely on the Soviet bloc, failing to comprehend that that is precisely its aim, as in many earlier cases, for the reasons just indicated. This astonishing inability to perceive what is unfolding before their eyes is explained in part by the fact that critics within the mainstream ideological consensus take seriously the claim that Nicaragua poses a “security threat” to the United States. On this assumption, the Reagan Administration must be making a foolish and inexplicable error by acting to increase the dependence of Nicaragua on the USSR by hostile measures and pressure on US allies. No rational person should have any difficulty in discerning the motive behind these quite systematic and familiar efforts: those outlined a moment ago.
We might observe in passing that the claim that Nicaragua might endanger US security makes Hitler sound sane in comparison, with his ravings about Czechoslovakia as “a dagger pointed at the heart of Germany” and about the threat posed to Germany by the “aggressiveness” of the Poles. If the USSR were to warn about the threat posed by Denmark or Luxembourg to Soviet security and the need to “contain” this dire threat, perhaps even declaring a national emergency in the face of this grave danger, Western opinion would be rightly enraged. But when the mainstream US press and a liberal Congress, echoing the Administration, warn ominously of the need to “contain” Nicaragua, the same thinkers nod their heads in sage assent or offer mild criticism that the threat is perhaps exaggerated. And when in May 1985, Ronald Reagan declared a “national emergency” to deal with the “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” posed by “the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua,” the reaction in Congress and the media – and in much of Europe – was not ridicule, but rather praise for these principled and statesmanlike steps. All of this provides yet another indication of the level of Western intellectual culture.
So much for the first point: Acheson’s success in invoking a fraudulent Russian threat, which became virtually a reflex in the subsequent period, not surprisingly. Let us consider the second point: the rotten apple theory that he expressed with such elegance. This too became a staple among planners, who repeatedly express their concern that some errant country or political movement or leadership will be a “contagious example” that will “infect” others, Kissinger’s terms with reference to Allende’s example of democratic socialism, which he feared would “infect” not only Latin America but also southern Europe; or that “the rot will spread” throughout Southeast Asia, perhaps engulfing Japan, the fear expressed by US planners with regard to the Communist-led Vietnamese national movement.
The conventional name for the rotten apple theory is “the domino theory.” This theory has two variants. One, regularly invoked to frighten the domestic population, is that Ho Chi Minh (or whoever the current sinner may be) will climb into a canoe, conquer Indonesia, land in San Francisco, and rape your grandmother. While it may be difficult to believe that these tales are presented seriously by the political leadership, one should not be too sure. Leaders of the calibre of Ronald Reagan may well believe what they say. The same may be true of more serious political figures, for example, Lyndon Johnson, probably the most liberal President in American history and in many ways “a man of the people,” who was undoubtedly speaking honestly when he warned in 1948 that unless the US maintained overwhelming military superiority, it would be “a bound and throttled giant; impotent and easy prey to any yellow dwarf with a pocket knife”; or when he said in a speech in Alaska in 1966, at the height of US aggression in Vietnam, that “If we are going to have visits from any aggressors or any enemies, I would rather have that aggression take place out 10,000 miles from here than take place here in Anchorage,” referring to the “internal aggression” of the Vietnamese against US military forces in Vietnam:
There are 3 billion people in the world [Johnson continued] and we have only 200 million of them. We are outnumbered 15 to one. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.
Difficult as it may be to believe, such sentiments are widely shared among the richest and most privileged people in the world. We need not tarry on the psychological mechanisms; what is important is that this is a fact, and one that allows much of the population to be easily aroused by jingoist rhetoric appealing to deep-seated fears.
But saner minds dismiss this version of the domino theory, and indeed it is regularly derided when some program of intervention and aggression goes awry. Nevertheless, the internal documentary record reveals that the domino theory itself is never questioned by planners; no serious question is raised about the rotten apple theory, the concern that the “virus” may be contagious. But Kissinger surely did not think that Allende was going to conquer Italy, nor did US planners expect that Ho Chi Minh would conquer Japan, the “superdomino.” What, then, are the mechanisms by which “the rot will spread”?
There is only one sensible answer to this question. The rot that concerns planners is the threat of successful social and economic development outside the framework of US control, development of a sort that may be meaningful to poor and oppressed people elsewhere. The “virus” that may spread contagion is the “demonstration effect,” which may indeed cause “the rot to spread” as others seek to emulate successes that they observe. It is “the threat of a good example.”
In the 1950s, US planners were deeply concerned over the possibility of successful social and economic development in North Vietnam and China, and in South Vietnam under the NLF if the “internal aggression” should succeed. This might lead to efforts to emulate their achievements elsewhere, so that Southeast Asia would no longer “fulfill its function” as a dependency of Japan and the West, serving their needs rather than its own. It was feared that ultimately Japan, an industrial power dependent on foreign markets and resources, would “accommodate” to a new emerging system in Asia, becoming the industrial heartland of a region to which the US would not have privileged access. The US had fought World War II in the Pacific to prevent Japan from creating a “co-prosperity sphere” of this sort, and was not inclined to lose World War II in the early postwar period. US policymakers were therefore committed to ensure that the rot would not spread. In this context, Vietnam attained a significance far beyond its own meager importance in the world system.
In the 1950s, US planners recommended that measures should be taken to impede economic development in China and North Vietnam, a proposal that is remarkable in its cruelty. They fought a vicious war to ensure that no successes in Indochina would “infect the region” – a war that succeeded in its major aims, a matter to which I will return.
Similarly, Kissinger was concerned that Allende’s democratic socialism might send the “wrong message” to voters in European democracies. Therefore it was necessary to prevent the “virus” from “spreading contagion,” in a manner that is well-known. The same was true of the efforts of Arévalo and Arbenz to establish independent democratic capitalism geared to the needs of the domestic population in Guatemala. Similarly, the CIA warned in 1964 that Cuba “is being watched closely by other nations in the hemisphere and any appearance of success there would have an extensive impact on the statist trend elsewhere in the area,” endangering the Fifth Freedom. It was therefore necessary to persist in the terrorist war launched by Kennedy against Cuba after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, while maintaining a hostile posture designed to ensure that Cuba would remain dependent on the USSR and would not achieve “an appearance of success.”
Much the same has been true in many other cases, including Nicaragua today. The early successes of the Sandinistas quite rightly caused fear, indeed virtual hysteria among US elites, as we see from the fact that the government can declare a “national emergency” in the face of this grave threat to the existence of the United States without evoking ridicule, indeed, with the expressed support of respectable opinion. If peasants starving to death in Honduras can look across the borders and see health clinics, land reform, literacy programs, improvement in subsistence agriculture and the like in a country no better endowed than their own, the rot may spread; and it may spread still farther, perhaps even to the United States, where the many people suffering from malnutrition or the homeless in the streets in the world’s richest country may begin to ask some questions. It is necessary to destroy the rotten apple before the rot spreads through the barrel. The same fears were evoked by the growth of popular organizations in El Salvador in the 1970s, which threatened to lead to meaningful democracy in which resources would be directed to domestic needs, an intolerable attack on the Fifth Freedom. There are numerous other cases.
That planners understand these matters is evident not only from the consistent invocation of the rotten apple theory and the regular resort to violence and other measures to prevent the rot from spreading, but also from the deceitful manner in which state propaganda is presented. The most recent State Department effort to prove Nicaraguan aggressiveness, published in September 1985 in obvious response to the World Court proceedings after the US refusal to accept lawful means to settle the Central American conflicts it had created, is entitled Revolution Beyond Our Borders. The title is allegedly drawn from a speech by Tomás Borge, and the cover features a mistranslation of a passage from this 1981 speech. In the original, Borge says that “this revolution transcends national boundaries,” making it clear that he means ideological transcendence and adding: “this does not mean we export our revolution. It is enough – and we couldn’t do otherwise – for us to export our example . . . we know that it is the people themselves of these countries who must make their revolutions.” This is the statement that was deformed and then exploited by the US disinformation system – including the media, as we shall see – as proof that Nicaragua actually boasts of its planned “aggression.”
Here we see a clear example of the switch between the two variants of the domino theory: the real concern of privileged elites over the demonstration effect of successful development becomes transmuted, for the public, into a pretended concern that the US will once again be at the mercy of yellow dwarves with pocket knives, who will conquer everything in their path, finally stealing all we have, while the “bound and throttled giant” is unable to prevent this aggression. The deceit is so transparent and so contrived that it is surely an instance of conscious manipulation by unscrupulous propagandists – who are protected from exposure in the mainstream media, a fact from which we can draw further consequences.
I should add that deception of this kind is quite common, including what is called “scholarship.” Elsewhere, I have documented the fact that during the Vietnam years, the government and respected American commentators grossly misrepresented the contents of “captured documents” in exactly the same way, continuing to do so even after the deception was exposed, secure in the knowledge that the exposure, outside of the mainstream, would remain essentially irrelevant among the educated classes whom they address (University of Massachusetts historian Guenter Lewy, in the latter case, in a highly regarded work of “scholarship” justifying the US “defense” of South Vietnam).
In the case of Nicaragua, US officials state openly that while they doubt that the contras can depose the present government, “they are content to see the contras debilitate the Sandinistas by forcing them to divert scarce resources toward the war and away from social programs” (Boston Globe correspondent Julia Preston, citing “Administration officials”). The suffering and economic chaos that result from the attacks by the US proxy armies are then exploited, in the usual manner, to justify the aggression in terms of “the failures of the revolution,” with the mass media regularly parroting the government line, again as usual. The ultimate display of moral cowardice is the allegation that the Sandinistas actually welcome the contra attacks, which provide them with an excuse to conceal their failures and repression, a common refrain of liberal critics of the Reagan Administration.
It is interesting that the cynical and horrifying statements of the Administration officials cited by Julia Preston, and others like them, are blandly reported, evoking no comment, quickly forgotten. In cultivated Western circles, it is considered the prerogative of the United States to use violence to prevent reform measures that might benefit poor and deprived people, so that the statement of such an intent arouses no special interest or concern. The US will permit no constructive programs in its own domains, so it must ensure that they are destroyed elsewhere, to undermine “the threat of a good example.”
The latter phrase is used as the title of a pamphlet on Nicaragua by the charitable development agency Oxfam, which observes that “from Oxfam’s experience of working in seventy-six developing countries, Nicaragua was to prove exceptional in the strength of that Government’s commitment. . .to improving the condition of the people and encouraging their active participation in the development process,” providing numerous examples. The title of the pamphlet is well-chosen. It is precisely these features of the Sandinista revolution that sent chills up the spines of US planners, and privileged elites elsewhere as well. Their pretended concern over repression in Nicaragua, and various real or alleged Sandinista crimes, cannot be taken seriously by any sane person; even if the harshest charges with a shred of credibility are accepted, the Sandinista leadership is positively saintly in comparison with the gangsters that the US has supported throughout Central America and beyond, not to speak of Washington itself. The real crime of the Sandinistas is the one identified by the Oxfam report and affirmed by many others, including the international lending institutions. The crime is to have posed the threat of a good example, which may “infect” the region, and even beyond.
The rotten apple theory explains another wise curious feature of US foreign policy: the profound concern evoked by developments in the tiniest and most marginal countries, such as Laos or Grenada, for example. In the 1960s, northern Laos was subjected to the heaviest bombing in history (soon to be exceeded in Cambodia), what is called a “secret bombing”; this is another technical term, referring to bombing that was well-known to the media but suppressed in service to the state, and later used as evidence of government deceit when it became necessary to remove a political leader who had made the unconscionable error of attacking powerful domestic enemies, people quite capable of defending themselves (the Watergate farce, to which I will return in lecture 5). As the US Administration conceded in Congressional hearings, the bombing was unrelated to the war in Vietnam. Rather, it was directed against the Pathet Lao guerrillas, who were attempting to carry out mild social reforms and to introduce a sense of national identity in the scattered villages of northern Laos, where few people even knew they were in Laos. Or consider Grenada, a tiny speck in the Caribbean of no interest to the United States, where the Maurice Bishop government at once elicited US hostility and rage, including economic measures and threatening military maneuvers and finally, after the regime cracked, outright invasion.
Why should such tiny and marginal countries evoke such concern, indeed near hysteria, among US planners? Surely their resources are of no significance. And while indeed leading US military and political figures solemnly discussed the military threat posed by Grenada, one must assume that these ravings – for that is what they are – were simply a cover for something else. An explanation for this superficially quite irrational behavior is provided by the rotten apple theory, in its internal rather than public form; in these terms, the hysteria makes perfect sense. If a tiny and impoverished country with minuscule resources can begin to do something for its own population, others may ask: “Why not us?” The weaker and more insignificant a country, the more limited its means and resources, the greater is the threat of a good example. The rot may spread, threatening regions of real concern to the rulers of much of the world.
The rotten apple theory, as noted, follows from the basic principle of policy: the defense of the Fifth Freedom. It quite naturally has two variants: the public variant designed to frighten the population at large, and the internal variant that consistently guides planning. This typical duality is a consequence of the second principle of policy: the need to ensure public ignorance and conformity. The public plainly cannot be informed of the true motives of policy, and the educated classes have the task, which they perform with diligence and success, of protecting the general public from any understanding of such critical matters. It should be noted that they also protect themselves from any dangerous understanding of reality, as the political leadership also does to an extent, at least the less intelligent among them. In public as in personal life, it is extremely easy to deceive oneself about the motives for one’s actions, placing a favorable construction on actions taken for quite different ends. Hitler may well have believed that he was defending Germany from the “aggression” of the Poles and excising the “cancer” of the Jews, and George Shultz may believe that he is defending the United States from the “aggression” of Grenada and excising the Sandinista “cancer,” as he and other Administration officials regularly declaim. We have no difficulty in detecting the real motives and plans in the first case, though sophisticated German intellectuals pretended – to themselves and others – to be unable to do so during the Hitler years. And those who can extricate themselves from the Western doctrinal system should have no greater difficulty in detecting the real motives in the second case, and numerous others like it.
I might mention again that there is little that is new in the various formulations of the rotten apple theory. In the early 19th century, conservative European statesmen (Metternich, the Czar and his diplomats) spoke in similar terms of the “pernicious doctrines of republicanism and popular self-rule,” “evil doctrines and pernicious examples” that might spread from the United States “over the whole of America” and even to Europe, undermining the conservative moral and political order that was the foundation of civilization. It is not surprising that the contemporary inheritors of the role of the Czar and Metternich should think along similar lines, even using similar rhetoric, and with similar moralistic pretensions, which they take quite seriously, as do the conformist intellectuals quite generally in the media, journals of opinion, and respectable scholarship.
So far, I have discussed several related elements of the international system that emerged from the wreckage of World War II, still largely focusing on the dominant US role: some of the costs of great power intervention, primarily Western, in the Third World; the problem of incorporating Western and Southern Europe within the Grand Area while Eastern Europe was subordinated to Soviet power; the postwar campaign to destroy the anti-fascist resistance; the rotten apple theory and its applications. Let us turn now to a few remarks on what is commonly regarded as the central feature of the modern global system: the superpower rivalry, the Cold War.
In the early postwar period, the US hoped to incorporate the Soviet Union within the Grand Area: the “roll-back strategy” of NSC-68 was motivated by that goal. It soon became evident that this was hopeless, and the superpowers settled into an uneasy form of coexistence that we call the Cold War. The real meaning of the Cold War is elucidated by a look at its typical events: Soviet tanks in East Berlin in 1953, in Budapest in 1956, in Prague in 1968, the invasion of Afghanistan; US intervention in Greece, Iran, Guatemala, Indochina, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Chile, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and a host of other examples, including US-backed aggression by client states, as in East Timor and Lebanon, among other instances. In each case, when one of the superpowers resorts to subversion or aggression, the act is presented to the domestic population and the allies as “self-defense,” defense against the superpower enemy or its agents. In fact, the actions are taken to ensure control over a certain sphere of influence; for the US, much of the world.
The actual events of the Cold War illustrate the fact that the Cold War is in effect a system of joint global management, a system with a certain functional utility for the superpowers, one reason why it persists. Intervention and subversion are conducted in the interest of elite groups, what is called in political theology “the national interest,” meaning the special interest of groups with sufficient domestic power to shape affairs of state. But, these exercises of state violence are often quite costly to the general population in both material and moral terms – and the latter should not be discounted, as is often done in a display of pretended sophistication that is hardly more than an expression of self-righteous elite contempt for ordinary people, contempt that is as unwarranted as it is uninformed. Domestic policies too are conducted in the interest of dominant elites, but are often quite costly for the general population: militarization of the society, for example. To mobilize the population and recalcitrant allies in support of costly domestic programs and foreign adventures, it is necessary to appeal to the fear of some Great Satan, to adopt the Ayatollah Khomeini’s useful contribution to political rhetoric.
The Cold War confrontation provides a useful means. Of course, it is necessary to avoid direct confrontation with the Great Satan himself, this being far too dangerous. It is preferable to confront weak and defenseless powers designated as proxies of the Great Satan. The Reagan Administration has regularly used Libya for this purpose, arranging regular confrontations timed to domestic needs, for example, the need to gain support for the Rapid Deployment Force or for contra aid. The system is a hazardous one, and may sooner or later break down, leading to a terminal global war, something that has come close to happening more than once and will again. But this is the kind of long-term consideration that does not enter into planning. I will return to closer consideration of this matter in the fourth lecture.
This all-too-brief review of the postwar global system is partial and hence somewhat misleading; thus, I have said nothing about US policies in the Middle East, which are crucial for an understanding of the current world, or about developing conflicts among the industrial capitalist states, among other topics. Before turning to Central America, in the next lecture, I will conclude this general review with a few remarks on the US engagement in Indochina, a major event of modern history and one from which we can learn a great deal about US policy planning, with significant implications for Central America today. In this case, we have an extremely rich documentary record, which is very revealing although (or perhaps more accurately: therefore) generally ignored in the extensive public discussion on the topic.
By 1948, the US recognized that the Viet Minh led by Ho Chi Minh was in effect the Vietnamese nationalist movement and that it would be difficult to achieve any solution excluding it. Nonetheless, the US committed itself to exactly that goal, supporting the French effort to reconquer their former colony. The central reasons for this decision I have already discussed: they follow from the rotten apple theory and the concern that Southeast Asia “fulfill its function” in the US-dominated global order. Naturally, matters could not be presented in these terms.
Once the US had committed itself to supporting the French attack, it became a necessary truth that France was defending Indochina from the “internal aggression” of the Viet Minh, and that Ho was simply a puppet of Moscow (or China; either would do). US Intelligence was assigned the task of demonstrating this necessary truth, and made noble efforts to do so. It failed. Intelligence reported that it was able to find evidence of “Kremlin-directed conspiracy . . . in virtually all countries except Vietnam.” The task, then, was to use this discovery to establish the required conclusion, a step that was simple enough: “it may be assumed,” US officials concluded, “that Moscow feels that Ho and his lieutenants have had sufficient training and experience and are sufficiently loyal to be trusted to determine their day-to-day policy without supervision.” Thus the lack of contact between Ho and his masters in the Kremlin establishes that he is a loyal slave of Moscow, as required.
One of the most startling revelations in the Pentagon Papers is that in a review of US intelligence covering 25 years, the Pentagon analysts were able to discover only one staff paper that even raised the question whether Hanoi was pursuing its own interests instead of just acting as an agent of the “Kremlin-directed conspiracy.” Even US intelligence, which is paid to discover the facts and not to rave about Soviet plans to conquer the world, was unable to escape the grips of the propaganda system, a most revealing fact. Whatever one thinks of Ho Chi Minh and his associates, the fact that they were pursuing Vietnamese national interests as they perceived them rather than merely following Soviet orders is utterly transparent and not in doubt among sane people, but it was beyond the comprehension of US intelligence, an intriguing reflection of the prevailing cultural climate.
In this record we see dramatically revealed one of the central features of US foreign policy. A popular movement or a state does not become an enemy because it is controlled by Moscow; rather, given that it is an enemy (for other reasons) and therefore must be undermined and destroyed, it must be that it is controlled by Moscow, whatever the facts, so that the US attack against it is just and necessary. The “other reasons” are those already discussed. The US may indeed succeed in driving the enemy into the hands of the Russians by its hostile actions, a most welcome result, or if it fails, it will pretend that this is the case, trusting the media to go along, as in the case of Guatemala in 1954, for example. Naturally, none of this can be expressed within the doctrinal system, and indeed it is not.
From 1950 to 1954 the U .S. sought to impose French rule over Indochina, but failed. In 1954, France withdrew, and the Geneva Agreements established a basis for peace. The United States devoted itself at once to undermining them, and succeeded. Thanks to US subversion and its dominance of the international system, the provisional demarcation line at the 17th parallel became an “international boundary” – though the US-imposed client regime in the South never accepted it, regarding itself as the government of all Vietnam. Its official name, throughout, was the Government of Vietnam (GVN), and this pretension was reiterated in an unamendable article of its Constitution, produced under US auspices.
In the South, the US imposed a terrorist regime on the familiar Latin American model. From 1954 to 1960, this client state had massacred perhaps some 75,000 people. Its terrorism and repression evoked renewed resistance – naturally called “Communist aggression,” “internal aggression” in Adlai Stevenson’s phrase – at which point the regime virtually collapsed and the US was compelled to intervene directly. In 1962, the US began extensive bombing and defoliation of South Vietnam as part of an effort to drive several million people into concentration camps where they would be surrounded by barbed wire and “protected” from the South Vietnamese guerrillas (the NLF; in US terminology, “Viet Cong”) whom they were willingly supporting, as the US conceded. For the next few years, the US desperately sought to block a political settlement, including the neutralization of South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia proposed by the NLF. Unable to find suitable clients in the South, the US replaced government after government and finally, in 1964, decided to escalate the attack against South Vietnam with a direct land invasion accompanied by bombing of North Vietnam, a program initiated in early 1965. Throughout all of this period, no North Vietnamese regulars were detected in South Vietnam, though they had every right to be there after the US subversion of the Geneva Agreements and the terror launched in the South. By April 1965, when the US invaded South Vietnam outright, deaths there probably amounted to close to 200,000. While it was the bombing of North Vietnam that attracted international attention, the main US attack, including bombing, was always directed against South Vietnam. Once again, US hegemony in the international system is reflected by the fact that there is no such event in recorded history as the US attack against South Vietnam (rather sanitized history records only a US “defense” of South Vietnam, which was unwise, the official doves later maintained), and the attack was never recognized as such nor condemned by the United Nations.
These facts merit serious consideration for those interested in Western intellectual culture and the dominance of US power in the global system. The US attack against South Vietnam from 1962, escalated and expanded in scope in 1965, plainly took place, just as much as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan did in 1979; furthermore, South Vietnam was the main target of the US attack. In both cases, the aggressors claimed to have been “invited in” by a legal government that they were defending against “bandits” and “terrorists” supported from abroad. Soviet claims in this regard, on their border, are no less credible than those of the US for its aggression 10,000 miles away; that is, the credibility is zero in both cases. Nevertheless, the US, the West, and indeed most of the world, do not recognize the existence of such an event as the US attack against South Vietnam, though few are unable to perceive that the USSR invaded Afghanistan, and indeed this invasion is regularly condemned not only by Western governments but also by the United Nations. Even in peace movement circles, as activists will recall, it was virtually impossible to discuss US operations in South Vietnam honestly: as aggression against the South under the cover of a farcical government established (and regularly replaced, until willing elements could be created) to serve to legitimate the aggression. Neither the media, nor mainstream scholarship, record any such event as the US aggression against South Vietnam. Furthermore, this denial of plain reality extends over most of the world. These are remarkable and highly instructive facts. It is also worthy of note that it is now becoming somewhat easier to speak of these events honestly in public, though rarely in educated circles, a mark of the increased sophistication and understanding of much of the public during the years when it is falsely alleged that a “conservative revival” has taken place, a matter to which I will return in the last lecture.
From 1965 the US expanded its war against South Vietnam, sending an invading army that reached over half a million men by 1968. It also accelerated the attack against the northern half of the artificially divided country, began the murderous bombing of Laos, and extended its violations of Cambodian neutrality, finally initiating another “secret bombing” in 1969 and invading Cambodia outright in 1970 after a US-backed military coup. This was followed by civil war and bombardment at an incredible scale, with hundreds of thousands killed and the country virtually destroyed.
Meanwhile, a popular movement against the Indochina wars began to develop at home, reaching significant proportions by 1967. The major achievement of the peace movement was to prevent the government from carrying out a full-scale national mobilization. It was forced to fight a “guns-and-butter war,” with deficit financing, harming the US economy and laying the basis for the crisis of following years. As a result, US power declined relative to its real rivals, Europe and Japan, the latter now becoming a serious competitor thanks to the costs of the Vietnam war, harmful to the United States but highly beneficial to Japan, which enriched itself by its participation in the destruction of Indochina, as did Canada and other US allies. In January 1968, the Tet offensive caused virtual panic in Washington, and led American business elites to conclude that the investment should be liquidated. A corporate-based delegation of “wise men” was dispatched to Washington to inform Lyndon Johnson that he was finished, and that the government must turn to “Vietnamization,” that is, withdrawal of US troops and a more capital-intensive war.
The war continued for seven more years, reaching its peak of savagery in South Vietnam with the 1969-1970 Post-Tet “accelerated pacification campaign,” a mass murder operation to which the My Lai massacre was one minor footnote, trivial in context.
In January 1973, the US was compelled to sign the Peace Treaty it had rejected the preceding November. What happened next was a virtual replay of 1954, which should be observed carefully by those who enter into negotiations involving the United States. On the day of the signing of the Paris Treaty, Washington announced, quite publicly, that it would reject every major element of the treaty that it signed. The central article of the Paris accords stated that there are two parallel and equivalent “parties” in South Vietnam (the US-backed GVN and the PRG, formerly the NLF); these two parties were to come to an agreement without the interference of any foreign power (meaning: the US), and were then to move towards settlement and integration with the northern half of the country, again without US interference. Washington signed the agreement, but announced that in violation of it, the US would continue to support the GVN as the “sole legitimate government in South Vietnam,” “its constitutional structure and leadership intact and unchanged.” This “constitutional structure” outlawed the second of the two parallel and equivalent parties in the South, and explicitly nullified the articles of the treaty that laid the basis for reconciliation and peaceful settlement. Similarly, every other major element of the treaty would be violated, the US announced.
The mass media, in an illuminating exercise of servility to the state, adopted the Washington version of the Paris accords as the operative one, thus guaranteeing that as the US continued to violate the treaty, the PRG and North Vietnam would appear to be in violation of it and could then be condemned as unconscionable aggressors. That is precisely what happened, exactly as was predicted at the time by the tiny group of dissidents in the US among the articulate intelligentsia, who were carefully excluded from any forum where they might reach a substantial audience. The US-GVN moved at once to extend their control over South Vietnam by force, in violation of the scrap of paper they had signed in Paris. When the inevitable PRG-North Vietnam reaction took place, it was bitterly condemned as yet another example of unprovoked “Communist aggression,” and so official doctrine now records. The true story is missing from sanitized history, though one can find the facts in the marginalized dissident literature, which is easily ignored.
The lessons of 1954 and 1973 are very clear, and the victims of US violence will ignore them at their peril. Though the US government tactic succeeded brilliantly in the United States and the West in general, it failed in Vietnam.
Despite enormous US military support, the GVN collapsed. By April 1975, the US client regimes had been defeated. Most of Indochina, or what was left of it, was under effective North Vietnamese control since apart from Cambodia, the resistance movements – particularly, the NLF in South Vietnam – had been unable to survive the savage US assault, again, exactly as had been predicted years earlier by marginalized dissidents. This predictable (and predicted) consequence of US aggression was, of course, at once used in justification of the aggression that created these conditions, exactly as one would expect of a properly disciplined intellectual community.
Note that all of this took place at the moment when the media had reached their peak of dissidence, priding themselves on their “independence” from the state with the Watergate exposures and the controversy over Vietnam. It is worthy of note that the two examples regularly adduced as proof of the courage and independence of the media – Vietnam and Watergate – in fact provide dramatic evidence of their subordination to state power, along with the educated classes generally.
In the reconstruction of history that has since become approved doctrine, the media are depicted as having adopted an “adversarial stance” with regard to the state during this period, perhaps so much so as to undermine democratic institutions. This is alleged not only by the rightwing, but also by liberal opinion. The charge is made, for example, in an important study called The Crisis of Democracy published by the Trilateral Commission, an elite group of generally liberal persuasion (the group that supported Jimmy Carter and filled virtually every top executive position during his Administration), organized by David Rockefeller in 1973 with representatives from the three centers of industrial capitalist democracy: the US, Europe and Japan. The “crisis of democracy” that they deplore arose during the 1960s, when normally passive and apathetic elements of the population began to enter the political arena, threatening what is called “democracy” in the West: the unchallenged rule by privileged elites. The alleged “adversarial stance” of the media towards the state was one of the most dangerous features of this “crisis of democracy,” the Commission study maintains, a danger that must be overcome. The true nature of this “media dissidence” is exhibited by the remarkable story of the Paris Peace Treaty along with much else, as one can learn, once again, from the marginalized dissident literature, though the “crisis of democracy” was real enough among the general population, and has not yet been overcome, despite dedicated efforts in the post-Vietnam years.
It is commonly held that the US lost the war and that North Vietnam was victorious. This is taken for granted as an unquestionable truth in mainstream US and European opinion, as well as in the US peace movement and the left in Europe. The conclusion, however, is incorrect, and it is important to understand why. The US government won a partial victory in Indochina, though it suffered a major defeat at home, where the domestic effects of the war were very significant, accelerating the growth of popular movements that entirely changed the cultural climate over a large range and for a time threatened elite dominance of the political system, bringing about “the crisis of democracy.” Much of the population – though not educated elites, with rare exceptions – was afflicted with a dread disease called “the Vietnam syndrome,” which persists until today and I hope is incurable: namely, opposition to aggression and massacre and a sense of solidarity and sympathy with the victims. I will turn to this matter, which is of great importance, in the last lecture. Much of the political history of the 1970s has been an elite counterattack to overcome the “crisis of democracy” and the “Vietnam syndrome.”
But what about Indochina itself? Here, the United States had a maximum objective and a minimum objective. The maxi-mum objective was to turn Vietnam into another earthly paradise such as Chile or Guatemala or the Philippines. The minimum objective was to prevent the rot from spreading, possibly with major consequences extending as far as Japan, as I discussed earlier. The US failed to achieve its maximal objective: Vietnam has not been incorporated into the US global system. But despite much inflated rhetoric by Eisenhower and others about the rubber, tin and rice of Indochina, and later talk about oil, it was never of much importance to extend the Fifth Freedom to Indochina itself. The major concern was to excise the “cancer,” in George Shultz’s current phrase, to kill the “virus” and prevent it from “infecting” regions beyond. This objective was attained. Indochina was largely destroyed, and crucially, the dangerous popular movement in South Vietnam was virtually eradicated by US terror. Indochina will be lucky to survive, and postwar US policy has been designed to maximize suffering and repression there – including refusal of promised reparations, barriers to aid and trade, support for Pol Pot, and similar measures familiar enough here in Managua. The cruelty of these postwar measures reveals the significance assigned to ensuring that there will be no recovery from the devastation of the US assault. To mention a few examples, the US government attempted to prevent India from sending 100 buffalos (for an underdeveloped peasant society, that means fertilizer, the equivalent of tractors, etc.) to replenish the herds destroyed by US aggression, and even tried to prevent shipment of pencils to Cambodia after Vietnam had overthrown the murderous Democratic Kampuchea government, a government that the US now supports because of its “continuity” with the Pol Pot regime, the State Department has explained. It is of critical importance to ensure that there will be no recovery for a long, long rime to come, and that the ruined lands will be firmly in the Soviet bloc to justify further hostile actions.
Meanwhile the US strengthened what was called “the second line of defense.” The attack on the “virus” was two-pronged: it was necessary to destroy it at the source, and to “inoculate” the region to prevent the “infection” from spreading “contagion” beyond. The US established and supported murderous and repressive regimes in Indonesia in 1965, in the Philippines in 1972, in Thailand in the 1970s, to ensure that “the second line of defense” would not be breached. As I mentioned earlier, the 1965 Suharto military coup in Indonesia with its murderous consequences – the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of landless peasants – was lauded in the West, by liberal opinion as well, and was offered as justification for the “defense” of South Vietnam, which provided a “shield” behind which the Indonesian generals were encouraged to purge their society of the mass-based Communist Party and open it up to Western plunder, impeded only by the rapacity of the generals and their cohorts.
There is no “threat of a good example” in Indochina, and surrounding regions, the ones that were really important, are firmly incorporated within the Grand Area. The current problems have more to do with rivalries within the First World of industrial capitalism than with the threat of “infection” that might lead to independent development geared to domestic needs. All of this counts as a substantial success for the US crusade in Indochina, a fact of which business circles, at least, have long been well aware.
The doctrinal system regards the war as a US defeat: for those of unlimited ambition, a failure to achieve maximal aims is always a tragedy, and it is true, and important, that elite groups suffered a defeat at home, with the eruption of the “crisis of democracy” and the growth of the “Vietnam syndrome.” The fact that others accept this conclusion may in part be a result of the remarkable hegemony of the US propaganda system, and in part a reflection of the understandable desire to record a “victory” for popular protest, which was often undertaken at quite considerable personal cost, particularly among the young, who spearheaded the anti-war movement. But there should be no illusions about what actually happened. The popular movements did achieve a great deal. Indochina at least survives; the US did not resort to nuclear weapons as it might well have done had the population remained docile and quiescent, as it was during the terror of the US-imposed regime in the South, or when Kennedy launched the direct US attack against the South in 1962. But the “lesson of Vietnam,” which was taught with extreme brutality and sadism, is that those who try to defend their independence from the Global Enforcer may pay a fearful cost. Many others have been subjected to similar lessons, in Central America as well.
I will turn to this topic in the next lecture.
Copyright © 1987 by Noam Chomsky. Re-published in 2015 by Haymarket Books. Not to be reposted without permission of the publisher.
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