Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Chapter One: From Terror to Aggression Segment 9/27
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But it came too late. "Unfortunately for the United States, the long war of attrition required to weaken the NLF was simultaneously a crushing burden on the U.S. Army and led inevitably to a steady decline in public support for the war effort" in the US, while dissolving the remnants of the client regime.

As the rhetoric indicates, these are not the reflections of a dove. Bergerud begins by informing the reader that he accepts "the moral validity...of the Vietnam war." His commitment is so firm that no other position is even thinkable. Thus in his review of the "large number of interesting books and articles...concerning the American conduct of the Vietnam War," all, without exception, share his unwavering faith in the "moral validity" of the US effort, differing only on how the noble cause should have been implemented.

It may be true that the Front had "gained moral ascendancy" in Vietnam, could fairly claim to be defending "national sovereignty" against the US aggressors, could easily have won the political victory it sought, and was even able to win military victory before the total takeover by the invading superpower, which could respond to its political strength and popular support only by extraordinary terror and violence. But there can be no question of the "moral validity" of the US cause. "Only American military intervention offered hope for the future" after the Front had won control of the province, Bergerud concludes, "hope" being identified with victory by the aggressors and the local thugs they imposed. Furthermore, "the Front was ruthless in its tactics, unquestionably more so than the GVN," a conclusion that follows at once from the fact that the vastly greater terror and violence of the US clients was in a righteous cause; the US, by definition, cannot be "ruthless," however murderous and destructive, just as it cannot lack "moral validity," whatever it does.

Despite such axioms -- which are familiar through the 500-year conquest, and can readily be duplicated in Stalinist and Nazi archives -- Bergerud remains an honest historian, whose contributions are of value not only in thoroughly refuting his judgments, but also in baring the reality with telling clarity.

It would be unfair to leave the impression that Bergerud is extreme in these attitudes. He does not approach Guenter Lewy, who he much admires; or Sidney Hook, or Leo Cherne, or other really extreme advocates of state terror and atrocities. And as already noted, and shown in far greater detail elsewhere, the most liberal and humane sectors of intellectual opinion do not depart from these assumptions in any fundamental way. It is "clear," the New York Times proclaims, that "the lesson of Vietnam was a sense of the limits of United States power." "Clear," and subject to no discussion. In contrast, the lesson of Afghanistan was not "a sense of the limits of Soviet power," except, perhaps, to some utterly unreconstructed Stalinists. Discussing with much approval the "heroic tale" of a Vietnamese collaborator with the French imperialists and their American successors, the Timesreviewer describes the methods he devised in 1962 to destroy the "political organization" of the South Vietnamese revolutionaries. The most successful device was to send "counter-terror teams to track down and capture or kill recalcitrant Vietcong officials" -- counter-terror teams, because it was the US and its clients who were assassinating civilians to undermine an indigenous political organization that they could not confront in the political arena, as fully conceded.31 The lessons taught by the Wehrmacht advisers have been absorbed well beyond Army counterinsurgency manuals, not surprisingly, given their deep roots in the tradition and culture.

Children must be rigorously indoctrinated in these conventions to ensure that Political Correctness will reign unchallenged. The most extensive study of high school history texts found that the word terror"does not appear once in reference to U.S. or client practices in any of the 48 texts examined in 1979 and 1990. The Viet Cong, it is duly noted, murdered and terrorized; one can only wonder how they could possibly out-terrorize Diem's U.S.-backed forces." The answer to that question is quite simple: it is true by definition, the same device that expunges the vastly greater US terror, and its aggression itself, from the annals of history.32

The task of restoring doctrinal conformity among the general population in the post-Vietnam war era has not been an easy one. Considerable effort has been required to entrench a proper understanding of what had happened, and to eradicate the deviant view that the American war was "fundamentally wrong and immoral," not merely a "mistake." This element of the dread "Vietnam syndrome" still infected 71 percent of the population in 1990 (72 percent in 1982, 66 percent in 1986), despite the massive efforts undertaken to overcome the malady, to which educated elites were far less vulnerable. State policies that lose their lustre are reflexively portrayed by respectable intellectuals as a "failed crusade," undertaken for aims that are "noble" but "illusory" and "motivated by the loftiest intentions" (Stanley Karnow's judgment in his best-selling companion volume to a PBS TV series on the war). It is the responsibility of the assassins of history to portray crime as "failure," a mere "aberration," only an apparent departure from our nobility and the perfection of our institutions. Unfortunate consequences are the result of misunderstanding and naiveté, or perhaps the fault of evil men who unaccountably gained inordinate power, soon to be expelled from the body politic.33

This much is close to a cultural universal, and the source of much derision when found in enemy states. For the more extreme and humorless Stalinist party hacks, inability to comprehend such Higher Truths demonstrated the "anti-Sovietism" of the miscreants, a charge that is the very hallmark of a totalitarian culture and is unknown apart from Stalinist Russia, Brazil under the Generals, Nazi Germany, and a few other cases, among them the intellectual mainstream in the United States and its British counterpart, where books on "Anti-Americanism" are highly praised and solemnly reviewed by fellow commissars.34 Outside of such circles, comparable notions would appear merely comical; consider, for example, the likely reaction in Rome or Milan to the notion "anti-Italianism" -- post-Mussolini, that is.

So effectively has history been rewritten that an informed journalist at the left-liberal extreme can report that "the US military's distrust of cease-fires [in Iraq] seems to stem from the Vietnam War," when the Communist enemy -- but not, apparently, the US invaders -- "used the opportunity [of a bombing pause] to recover and fight on" (Fred Kaplan). Near the dissident extreme of scholarship, the chairman of the Center for European Studies at Harvard can inform us that Nixon's Christmas bombing of Hanoi in 1972 "brought the North Vietnamese back to the conference table" (Stanley Hoffmann). Such fables, long ago demolished, are alive and well, as the propaganda system has elegantly recovered; no real problem among the educated classes, who had rarely strayed from the Party Line. The achievements of propaganda are well-illustrated by the fact that Americans generally estimate Vietnamese deaths at about 100,000, a recent academic study reveals, about 5 percent of the official figure. It is as if the German public estimated Holocaust deaths at 300,000, the authors note.35

What conclusion we would draw about the political culture of Germany if the public were to believe such an estimate, while its moral and intellectual leaders declare their righteousness? A question we might ponder, as Year 501 dawns.

Go to the next segment.

31 Peter Applebome, NYT, March 1; Terrence Maitland, NYT Book Review, Feb. 3, 1991, reviewing Zalin Grant, Facing the Phoenix.

32 John Marciano, "Ideological Hegemony and the War Against Vietnam: A Critique of United States History Textbooks," State U. of NY at Cortland, ms., 1992. See also Griffen and Marciano, Lessons; David Berman, "In Cold Blood: Vietnam in Textbooks," Vietnam Generation 1.1, 1989.

33 Karnow, Vietnam. On its severe factual errors and distortion, see my "Vietnam War in the Age of Orwell," Race & Class (London: 4, 1984); Boston Review, Jan. 1984. On the patriotic bias of the accompanying TV series, and the intriguing interpretation of it as a left-wing deviation, see MC, 248ff.; illustrations throughout of elite opinion and the efforts to bring the public back into line. Opinion surveys, Gallup, for Chicago Council on Foreign Relations (MC, 238, on1982, 1986).

34 For examples, see LL, letter 17.

35 Kaplan, BG, Feb. 23; Hoffmann, BG, Jan. 6, 1991. Sut Jhally, Justin Lewis, & Michael Morgan, The Gulf War: A Study of the Media, Public Opinion, & Public Knowledge, Department of Communications, U Mass. Amherst. Morgan, et al., in Mowlana, Triumph.