Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Introduction: Contours and Context Segment 5/17
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Smith's lesson applies directly to the Indochina wars. These are commonly described as an American defeat, a classic case of costly overreach. At the dissident extreme of scholarship and media commentary, well after the corporate world called for the enterprise to be liquidated as too costly, the Vietnam war was finally perceived as a "disaster" that arose "mainly through an excess of righteousness and disinterested benevolence" (John King Fairbank) and "blundering efforts to do good" (Anthony Lewis); hawks took a harsher line, accusing the peace movement, the media, and other criminals of turning what all regard as a "noble cause" into a costly failure.

The costs were real, including the incalculable cost of tens of thousands of American soldiers killed. But a realistic assessment requires the perspective of class analysis that Smith took for granted, as does the business press today, if without his clear-eyed frankness. In 1973, the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review described the US war as a success, which had "won time for Southeast Asia, allowing neighboring countries to build up their economies and their sense of identity to a degree of stability which has equipped them to counter subversion, to provide a more attractive alternative to the peasant than the promises of the terrorist who steals down from the hills or from the jungles at night," so that the region is becoming one of the world's great opportunities for enrichment by "American businessmen" and their Japanese and European counterparts.

Particularly encouraging to such more realistic observers was the "boiling bloodbath" in Indonesia, as Time magazine enthusiastically termed it, which littered the country with hundreds of thousands of corpses, mostly landless peasants, eliminating the only mass-based political party and opening the riches of Indonesia to Western plunder. This "gleam of light in Asia" (James Reston, New York Times) evoked unrestrained euphoria in the West and much acclaim for the firm US stand in Vietnam, which encouraged the Generals and provided a "shield" to protect them as they carried out their grim if necessary work. Only a shade less gratifying was the military coup that established the rule of the torturer and killer Marcos in the Philippines, and similar achievements in Thailand and elsewhere, "providing a more attractive alternative" -- to investors, if not to the peasant -- than the social and economic development that was feared in an independent Vietnam.14

The US achieved its basic goals in Indochina, though not the maximal goal of duplicating such triumphs as Indonesia. The years that followed have solidified the accomplishment, in a manner to which we return. Coming back to Smith's lesson, though this particular episode of "the savage injustice of the Europeans" may have been costly for the population of the United States, the interests of the "principal architects" of policy were, once again, "most peculiarly attended to."

Throughout history, the rabble have sought more freedom and justice, and have often won improved conditions of life. The "men of best quality" have been less than delighted with these developments. There has been broad agreement among them that the rabble should not be permitted to interfere in the management of public affairs: they should be spectators, not participants, as modern democratic theory holds, kept in line with "necessary illusions" and "emotionally potent oversimplifications" (Reinhold Niebuhr, expressing standard views). As the rabble have gained political and civil rights, it becomes increasingly difficult to control them by force; accordingly, it is necessary to control their thought, to isolate them, to undermine popular organizations (unions, etc.) that might provide ways for people with limited resources to enter in a meaningful way into the political arena. In the United States, these measures have been refined to an unusual degree as a highly class-conscious corporate sector has sought to "control the public mind" in perhaps the world's most free society. The emerging de facto world government offers new means to achieve the long-sought ideal of depriving democratic structures of any substantive meaning. Its decision-making apparatus is largely immune from public interference, even awareness.

"Stability" at home requires that elite elements be indoctrinated with proper beliefs while the rabble are dispersed and marginalized, and fed their necessary illusions in simplified form. A significant development of the past 30 years has been the failure of the doctrinal institutions to achieve these ends. Control of the rabble can be expected to become an ever more serious problem as the Third World model extends at home.

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14 See FRS, ch. 1.V (reprinted in Peck, Chomsky Reader). 501, ch. 5, on the reaction to the 1965 Indonesia bloodbath. See PEHR, vol. I, on the general pattern.