Intervention in Vietnam & Central America: Parallels and Differences



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Noam Chomsky, “Intervention in Vietnam & Central America: Parallels and Differences” Written in 1985!
I'll start by talking about the geopolitical conception. And I'd like to stress that, in my opinion, if you don't understand this geopolitical conception, the chances that you'll understand what is happening in the world are relatively slight; whereas if you do understand it, quite a lot of things fall into place, and you could even get a reputation as a good prophet. I will then consider what this geopolitical conception has entailed for Vietnam, and what it means today and in the likely future for Central America.

Before doing this, I would like to try to set this off against what one might call an official view, or maybe, less charitably, a party line, which pretty much dominates the interpretation of these issues. It's expressed, for example, with regard to Vietnam, when we read that the U.S. inter­vention in Vietnam began with "blundering effort to do good," although it became a "disaster." That's Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. Or when we read that our involvement began from "an excess of righteous­ness and disinterested benevolence." That's John King Fairbank, the leading'Asia specialist at Harvard, who points out further that what he calls our "defense" of South Vietnam was misconceived and not properly developed. ... This official view is what I would like to contrast with what appears to be the real world.

In the real world, U.S. global planning has always been sophisticated and careful, as you'd expect from a major superpower with a highly centralized and class-conscious dominant social group. Their power, in turn, is rooted in their ownership and management of the economy, as is the norm in most societies. During World War II, American planners were well aware that the United States was going to emerge as a world­-dominant power, in a position of hegemony that had few historical paral­lels, and they organized and met in order to deal with this situation. ...

The conception that they developed is what they called "Grand Area" planning. The Grand Area was a region that was to be subordinated to the needs of the American economy. As one Planner put it, it was to be the region that is "strategically necessary for world control" The geopolitical analysis held that the Grand Area had to include at least the Western Hemisphere, the Far East, and the former British Empire, which we were then in the process of dismantling and taking over ourselves. The Grand Area was also to include western and southern Europe and the oil-producing regions of the Middle East; in fact, it was to include every­thing, if that were possible. Detailed plans were laid for particular regions of the Grand Area and also for international institutions that were to organize and police it, essentially in the interests of this subordination to U.S. domestic needs.

Of course, when we talk about the domestic economy, we don't neces­sarily mean the people of the United States; we mean whoever dominates and controls, owns and manages the American economy. …

The basic thinking behind all of this has been explained quite lucidly on a number of occasions. (This is a very open society and if one wants to learn what's going on, you can do it; it takes a little work; but the documents are there and the history is also there.) One of the clearest and most lucid accounts of the planning behind this was by George Kennan, who was one of the most thoughtful, humane, and liberal of the planners, and in fact was eliminated from the State Department largely for that reason. Kennan was the head of the State Department policy-planning staff in the late 1940s. In the following document, PPS23, February 1948, he outlined the basic thinking:


We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only 6.3 per­cent of its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to main­tain this position of disparity. . . . We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefac­tion. . . . We should cease to talk about vague and. . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards; and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better. …
There are some questions that one can raise about Kennan's formula­tion, a number of them, but I'll keep to one: whether he is right in suggesting that "human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization" should be dismissed as irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy. Actually a review of the historical record suggests a different picture, namely that the United States has often opposed with tremendous feroc­ity, and even violence, these elements - human rights, democratization, and the raising of living standards.

This is particularly the case in Latin America and there are very good reasons for it. The commitment to these doctrines is inconsistent with the use of harsh measures to maintain the disparity, to ensure our control over 50 percent of the resources, and our exploitation of the world. … And in order to maintain the freedom to rob and exploit, we do have to consistently oppose democratization, the raising of living standards, and human rights. And we do consistently oppose them; that, of course, is in the real world.

These particular comments referred to the Far East, but Kennan ap­plies the same ideas to Latin America in a briefing for Latin American ambassadors in which he explained that one of the main concerns of U.S. policy is the "protection of our raw materials." Who must we protect our raw materials from? Well, primarily, the domestic populations, the indig­enous population, which may have ideas of their own about raising the living standards, democratization, and human rights. …

On these grounds, one can predict American foreign policy rather well. So, for example, American policy toward Nicaragua after the 1979 revo­lution could have been predicted by simply observing that Nicaragua's health and education budget rose rapidly, that an effective land reform program was instituted, and that the infant mortality rate dropped very dramatically, to the point where Nicaragua won an award from the World Health Organization for health achievements (all of this despite horrify­ing conditions left by the Somoza dictatorship, which we had installed and supported, and continued to support to the very end, despite a lot of nonsense to the contrary that one hears). If a country is devoted to policies like those I've just described, it is obviously an enemy. ... It is part of a conspiracy to take from us what is ours, namely "our raw materials," and a conspiracy to prevent us from "maintaining the disparity," which, of course, must be the fundamental element of our foreign policy. …

Well, what has all of this meant for Indochina and Central America? Let's begin with Indochina. Now remember I'm talking about the real world, not the one in the PBS television series and so on. In the real world, what happened was that by 1948 the U.S. State Department recognized, explicitly, that Ho Chi Minh was the sole significant leader of Vietnamese nationalism, but that if Vietnamese nationalism was successful, it could be a threat to the Grand Area, and therefore something had to be done about it. The threat was not so much in Vietnam itself, which is not terribly important for Ameri­can purposes (i.e freedom to rob in Vietnam is not all that significant); the fear was that the "rot would spread," namely, the rot of successful social and economic development. In a very poor country which had suffered enormously under European colonialism, successful social and economic development could have a demonstration effect. Such develop­ment could be a model for people elsewhere and could lead them to try to duplicate it, and gradually the Grand Area would unravel.' This, incidentally, is the rational version of the domino theory. …

In fact, the smaller and less significant the country, the more dangerous it is. So, for example; as soon as the Bishop regime in Grenada began to take any constructive moves, it was immediately the target of enormous American hostility, not because that little speck in the Caribbean is any potential military threat or because we need its resources. It is a threat in other respects: if a tiny nothing-country with no natural resources can begin to extricate itself from the system of misery and oppression that we've helped to impose, then others who have more resources may be tempted to do likewise.

In 1961 and 1962 Kennedy simply launched a war against South Vietnam. That is, in 1961 and 1962 the U.S. Air Force began extensive bombing and defoliation in South Vietnam, aimed primarily against the rural areas where 80 percent of the population lived.

The result of all of this is often called a defeat for the United States, but I think that is misleading. The result was, in fact, a partial victory for the United States, a not insignificant victory. And we can see this if we look back at the reasons that explain why the war was fought. The United States did not achieve its maximal aims, that is, we did not succeed in bringing Vietnam to the happy state of Haiti or the Dominican Republic. But we did succeed in the major aims.

As far as the major aims were concerned, the American war was a smashing success. For one thing, there was a huge massacre. The first phase of the war, the French war, probably left about half a million dead. From 1954 to 1965, we succeeded in killing maybe another 160,000 to 170,000 South Vietnamese, mostly peasants. The war, from 1965 to 1975, left a death toll of maybe in the neighborhood of 3 million. There were also perhaps a million dead in Cambodia and Laos. So altogether about 4 to 5 million people were killed, which is a respectable achieve­ment when you're trying to prevent any successful social and economic development. The land was devastated. People can't farm because of the destruction and unexploded ordinance. And this is all a success, Vietnam is not going to be a model of social and economic development for anyone else. In fact, it will be lucky to survive. The rot will not spread. …

For example, one of the side effects of the U.S. war against Indochina was that we pretty much destroyed the buffalo herds. This is a peasant society and buffalo are the equivalent of tractors, fertilizers, etc. India tried to send, in 1977, one hundred buffalo, a very small number, to Vietnam to try to replenish these losses. We tried to block it by threat­ening to cancel Food for Peace aid to India - if they sent the hundred buffalo. The Mennonites in the United States tried to send pencils to Cambodia; again the State Department tried to block it. They also tried to send shovels to Laos to dig up the unexploded ordnance. Of course, we could do it easily with heavy equipment, but that we are plainly not going to do. We didn't even want to send them shovels.

In the post-World War II period, there have been military interven­tions in many places - in Guatemala, for example, several times. In Guatemala, in 1954, we managed to overthrow and destroy Guatemala's one attempt at democracy. There was a New Deal-style, reformist-capital­ist democratic regime which we managed to overthrow, leaving a literal hell on earth, probably the country which comes closest in the contempo­rary world to Nazi Germany. And we repeatedly intervened to keep it that way. …

The impact of all of this has been absolutely horrendous. There's vast starvation throughout the region while croplands are devoted to exports to the United States. There's slave labor, crushing poverty, torture, mass murder, every horror you can think of. In El Salvador alone, from Octo­ber 1979 (a date to which I'll return) until December 1981 - approxi­mately two years - about 30,000 people were murdered and about 600,000 refugees created. Those figures have about doubled since. Most of the murders were carried out by U.S.-backed military forces, including so-called death squads. The efficiency of the massacre in El Salvador has recently increased with direct participation of American military forces. American planes based in Honduran and Panamanian sanctuaries, mili­tary aircraft, now coordinate bombing raids over El Salvador, which means that the Salvadoran air force can more effectively kill fleeing peas­ants and destroy villages, and, in fact, the kill rate has gone up corre­sponding to that. …

Let me return finally to Kennan's formula-"human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization"-considering now Latin America. I want to consider the question that I raised before: are they really irrelevant to our policy the way he suggested they ought to be? Let's take a closer look.

Take human rights. Now actually that's an empirical question. You can study how American foreign policy is related to human rights, and it has been studied for Latin America and elsewhere. The leading American specialist on human rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, has a study published in Comparative Politics (January 1981), in which he investigated exactly that question. He asked how the human rights climate in a country was correlated with American aid. He chose a very narrow conception of human rights, what he called "anti-torture rights," that is, the right to be free from torture by the government and so on. He found that there is a relationship between human rights and American foreign policy: namely, the more the human rights climate deteriorates, the more American aid increases. The correlation was strong. It does not result from a correlation between aid and need. This aid included military aid and it went on right through the Carter administration. To use his words, “Aid has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens,” to the “hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.” This might suggest that Kennan understated the case: human rights are not irrelevant; rather, we have a positive hatred of them. We send aid to precisely those governments which torture their. citizens, and the more effectively they do so, the more we'll aid them. …

There's one by Edward Herman, who investigated the same sort of thing that Schoultz did but on a worldwide basis. Herman found the same correlation: the worse the human rights climate, the more American aid goes up. But he also carried out another study which gives you some insight into what's really happening. He compared American aid to changes in the investment climate, the climate for business operations, as measured, for example, by whether foreign firms can repatriate profits and that sort of thing. It turned out there was a very close correlation. The better the climate for business operations, the more American aid - the more we support the foreign government. That gives you a plausible, theory. U.S. foreign policy is in fact based on the principle that human rights are irrelevant, but that improving the climate for foreign business operations is highly relevant. In fact, that flows from the central geopolitical conception.

Now how do you improve the business climate in a Third World coun­try? Well, it's easy. You murder priests, you torture peasant organizers, you destroy popular organizations, you institute mass murder and repres­sion to prevent any popular organization. And that improves the invest­ment climate. So there's a secondary correlation between American aid and the deterioration of human rights. It's entirely natural that we should tend to aid countries that are egregious violators of fundamental human rights and that torture their citizens, and that's indeed what we find. …

What about democratization? Well, we’ve repeatedly intervened to overthrow democratic governments. This is understandable. The more a country is democratic, the more it is likely to be responsive to the public, and hence committed to the dangerous doctrine that "the government has a direct responsibility for the welfare of the people," and therefore is not devoted to the transcendent needs of Big Brother. We have to do something about it. Democracy is okay, but only as long as we can control it and be sure that it comes out the way we want just as the Russians permit what they call "democratic elections" in Poland. That is the typical history. In Guatemala the government was democratic but out of control, so we had to overthrow it. Similarly in Chile under Allende. Or take the Dominican Republic, which has long been the beneficiary of our solicitous care. Woodrow Wilson began a major counterinsurgency campaign which ended in the early 1920S and which led to the Trujillo dictatorship, one of the most brutal and vicious and corrupt dictatorships that we have supported in Latin America. …

Well, let's turn to El Salvador in connection with our attitude toward democratization. There were democratic elections in El Salvador in 1972 and 1977. In both cases, the military intervened to abort them and in­stalled military dictatorships. The people in Washington could not have cared less. There was no concern whatsoever. There was another development that was even more dangerous. There were the beginnings of popular democratic organiza­tions within El Salvador of the sort mentioned earlier: Bible study groups turning into self-help groups, peasant cooperatives: unions, all sorts of organizations which seemed to be establishing the basis for a functioning democracy. …

The archbishop, Archbishop Oscar Romero, pleaded with Carter not to send military aid. The reasons were the follow­ing: he said that military aid would "sharpen the repression that has been unleashed against the people's organizations fighting to defend their most fundamental human rights." Therefore, he asked Carter not to send military aid.

Well, of course, that was the very essence of American policy: namely, to increase massacre and repression, to destroy the popular organiza­tions, and prevent the achievement of human rights, so naturally the aid flowed and the war picked up steam. Archbishop Romero was assas­sinated shortly afterward. …

I've mentioned some of the similarities. What are the differences? Well, the main difference is that the United States has changed. The United States has changed a lot over-the last twenty years. When Kennedy at­tacked South Vietnam, there was no protest, virtually none. That was in the early 1960s, when Kennedy began the direct military acts against South Vietnam. When Johnson escalated the attack against South Viet­nam to a full-scale land invasion, there was also very little protest. In fact, protests reached a significant scale only when several hundred thousand American troops were directly engaged in the war against South Vietnam, a war which by then extended well beyond South Vietnam.

In contrast, Reagan's attempt to escalate the war in El Salvador has met with considerable popular opposition here. And that's significant. In fact, that's one of the most significant facts of contemporary history. …

As recently as 1982, polls indicate that about 70 percent of the American population regarded the Vietnam War not as a "mistake," but as "fundamentally wrong and immoral." Many fewer "opinion leaders" expressed that view, and virtually none of the really educated class or articulate intelligentsia ever took that position. That, incidentally, is quite typical. It's typical for educated classes to be more effectively controlled by the indoctrination system to which they are directly exposed, and in which they play a social role as purveyors, hence coming to internalize it. So this degree of servility to the party line is not unique to this example. But the point is there's a split, a very substantial split, between much of the population and those who regard themselves as its natural leaders. That is even given a tech­nical name - it's called the "Vietnam syndrome." Notice the term, "syn­drome," as applied to disease. The disease is that a lot of people are opposed to massacre, aggression, and torture, and feel solidarity with the victims. …

Unless we can muster the moral courage and the honesty to understand all of this, and to act to change it, as we indeed can, then it's going to continue and there will be many millions of additional victims who will face starvation and torture, or outright massacre, in what we will call "a crusade for freedom."







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