Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Next segment | Contents | Archive | ZNet


Contours and Context

The chapters that follow deal with a crucial moment of modern history, the escalation of the US war in Vietnam from state terror to aggression from 1961 through 1964, setting the stage for the far more destructive assault that followed. They were intended for another book, Year 501: The Conquest Continues, which is concerned with central themes of the 500-year European conquest of the world that was commemorated on October 12, 1992 and the forms they are likely to assume in the coming years. The war planning for Indochina illustrates rather clearly some leading features of the Columbian era. It could be regarded as a kind of case study, one of unusual interest and import. Nevertheless, the material seemed special enough to warrant separate treatment. To keep this discussion more or less self-contained, I will sketch some of the relevant context, in part taken from Year 501.1

Apart from the terrible consequences for the region itself, the Indochina wars had a considerable impact on world order and the general cultural climate. They accelerated the breakdown of the post-World War II economic system and the shift to a "tripolar" global economy; and the internationalization of that economy, along with its corollary, the extension of the two-tiered Third World social model to the industrial societies themselves as production is shifted to high-repression, low-wage areas. They also contributed materially to the cultural revival of the 1960s, which has since extended and deepened. The notable improvement in the moral and cultural climate was a factor in the "crisis of democracy" -- the technical term for the threat of democracy -- that so dismayed elite opinion across the spectrum, leading to extraordinary efforts to reimpose orthodoxy, with mixed effects.

One significant change, directly attributable to the Indochina war, is a growing popular reluctance to tolerate violence, terror, and subversion. There was no protest or concern when the US was running a murderous terror state in South Vietnam in the 1950s, or when Kennedy escalated the violence to outright aggression in 1961-1962, or when he and his successor stepped up the attack against the civilian population through 1964. If the President wanted to send the US air force to bomb villages in some far-off land, to napalm people who were resisting the US attack or happened to be in the way, to destroy crops and forests by chemical warfare, that was not our concern. Kennedy's war aroused little enthusiasm, a factor in high-level planning as we will see, but virtually no protest. As late as 1964, even beyond, forums on the war were often -- literally -- in someone's living room, or in a church with half a dozen people, or a classroom where a scattered audience was assembled by advertising talks on the situation in Vietnam and several other countries.

The press supported state violence throughout, though JFK regarded it as an enemy because of tactical criticism and grumbling. Much fantasy has been spun in later years about crusading journalists exposing government lies; what they exposed was the failure of tactics to achieve ends they fully endorsed. The New York Times, expressing the conventional line, explained that the US forces attacking South Vietnam were leading "the free world's fight to contain aggressive Communism" (Robert Trumbull), defending South Vietnam "against proxy armies of Soviet Russia" just as the French colonialists had sought to defend Indochina from "foreign-inspired and supplied Communists" (Hanson Baldwin). The US army and its client forces sought to "resist" the Vietcong, southern peasants who "infiltrate" into their own homes and are "trying to subvert this country" in which they live (David Halberstam), enjoying more popular support than George Washington could claim, as government specialists ruefully conceded. Kennedy's brutal strategic hamlet program, which aimed to drive millions of peasants into concentration camps, was a praiseworthy effort to offer them "better protection against the Communists" -- local people whom they generally supported -- marred only by flaws of execution (Homer Bigart). Such methods having failed, President Johnson decided in early 1965 "to step up resistance to Vietcong infiltration in South Vietnam" (Tom Wicker) -- the Vietcong being South Vietnamese, as recognized on all sides. To the end (indeed, to the present), the media reflexively adopted the framework of government propaganda, tolerating even the most outlandish fabrications and absurdities. Exceptions did exist, but they were rare.2

As President Johnson sharply increased the attack against South Vietnam in early 1965, also extending the bombing to the North and introducing US combat forces, there were stirrings of protest, though they were limited and aroused bitter antagonism. Take Boston, perhaps the center of US liberalism. The first public protest against the war was in October 1965 on the Boston Common, with a huge police presence. It was violently disrupted by counterdemonstrators. The media angrily denounced the audacity of those who had sought to voice (embarrassingly timid) protests, but were fortunately silenced; not a word could be heard above the din. The next major public event was scheduled for March 1966, when hundreds of thousands of US troops were rampaging in South Vietnam. The organizers decided to hold meetings in churches, to reduce the likelihood of violence. The churches were attacked and defaced while police stood calmly by -- until they too came under the barrage. In suburban towns, mothers and children were pelted and abused when they stood silently in protest against the escalating war. It was not until late 1966 that the climate began to shift.

By the late 1960s much of the public was opposed to the war on principled grounds, unlike elite sectors, who kept largely to "pragmatic" objections of cost (to us). This component of the "crisis of democracy" was considered severe enough to merit a special designation -- the "Vietnam syndrome," a disease with such symptoms as dislike for war crimes and atrocities. When Ronald Reagan sought to emulate Kennedy in the first weeks of his term, preparing the ground for a direct attack on "aggressive Communism" throughout Central America, the media went along as usual, but public protest quickly induced the Administration to back down in fear that its more central programs would be prejudiced; press critique of Administration fabrications followed some months later. The Reagan Administration was compelled to resort to clandestine international terrorism, at unprecedented levels, to avoid public scrutiny.

An early Bush Administration National Security Policy Review, leaked on the day US ground forces attacked in the Gulf, concluded that "much weaker enemies" (meaning any acceptable target) must be defeated "decisively and rapidly," because any delay or resistance would "undercut political support," recognized to be thin. Classical forms of intervention are no longer an option, the domestic base having eroded. No more Marines marauding and terrorizing for years as in Wilson's days, or US Air Force planes bombing the South Vietnamese countryside in the Kennedy-Johnson style. The options are limited to clandestine terror with foreign agents, so that the media can pretend they do not see and the public is kept in ignorance; or "decisive and rapid" blows against an enemy too weak to strike back after a huge campaign to portray him as a demon on the verge of destroying us.

Despite some changes, leading themes persist, and merit attention and thought. Naturally there are variations as circumstances change, and the world is far more complex than any brief description of it. Nevertheless, we gain no little understanding of contemporary affairs by placing them in a larger framework of policies, goals, and actions with cultural and institutional roots that endure over long periods.

Go to the next segment.

1 See 501 for much further discussion and sources. Also DD, and earlier work cited there.

2 On the media from 1950 through 1985, see MC and sources cited. On developments reviewed below, see my books cited in 501, and sources cited.