Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Introduction: Contours and Context Segment 7/17
Previous segment |Next segment | Contents | Archive | ZNet

Extremes of state terror are commonly necessary "to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority...," in the words of the leading academic specialist on human rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, describing the goals of the neo-Nazi National Security States that had their roots in Kennedy Administration policies designed to prevent the Cuban rot from spreading. The US client regime in South Vietnam was driven to the same course.

Despite their best efforts, responsible intellectuals often find it difficult to conceal US government support for these measures. That is a problem, because US leaders are benign, humane, committed to democracy and freedom and human rights, and otherwise saintly in disposition, by doctrinal fiat. When their dedication to savage atrocities is revealed too clearly, new devices are needed to resolve the contradiction between truth and Higher Truth. One technique is the doctrine of "change of course." Yes, bad things have happened as we departed from our noble course for unfortunate though understandable reasons; but now it is all past, we can forget history, and march forward proudly to a grand future. Those who cannot manage such routines with a straight face would do well to put aside any thought of a career as a respectable commentator on affairs.

The current variant of this standard device is to attribute the crimes committed by the US and its clients to the Cold War. With virtue victorious at last, we can now return to our humanitarian mission of bringing peace, joy, and plenty to suffering people everywhere. We can garb ourselves again in the mantle of "Wilsonian idealism," though bearing in mind that its a tough world, with many villains ready to assault us if we do not keep up our guard.

To select an example at random, after Indonesia committed the error of carrying out a massacre in front of TV cameras and brutally beating two US journalists in Dili, East Timor, in November 1991, the editors of the Washington Post, to their credit, suggested that the US "should be able to bring its influence to bear on this issue," noting that for 16 years Washington had been supporting an Indonesian invasion and forced annexation that had killed "up to a third of the population." The reasons, the Post explained, is that "the American government was in the throes of its Vietnam agony, unprepared to exert itself for a cause" that could harm relations "with its sturdy anti-Communist ally in Jakarta. But that was then. Today, with the East-West conflict gone, almost everyone is readier to consider legitimate calls for self-determination."18

The relation of Indonesia's invasion to the East-West conflict was a flat zero. Unexplained is why, in the throes of its Vietnam agony, the US found it necessary to increase the flow of weapons to its Indonesian client at the time of the 1975 invasion, and to render the UN "utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook" to counter the aggression, as UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan proudly described his success in following State Department orders. Or why the Carter Administration felt obligated to sharply accelerate the arms flow in 1978 when Indonesian supplies were becoming depleted and the slaughter was reaching truly genocidal proportions. Or why the Free Press felt that duty required that it reduce its coverage of these events as the slaughter mounted, reaching zero as it peaked in 1978, completely ignoring easily accessible refugees, respected Church sources, human rights groups, and specialists on the topic, in favor of Indonesian Generals and State Department prevaricators. Or why today it refuses to tell us about the rush of Western oil companies to join Indonesia in the plunder of Timorese oil. All is explained by the Cold War, now behind us, so that we may dismiss past errors to the memory hole and return to the path of righteousness.

Absurdity aside, the thesis is instantly refuted by a look at what came before the Cold War and what immediately followed it; no change in the willingness to resort to repression, subversion, violence, and terror is detectable from Woodrow Wilson and his predecessors through the Cold War and beyond. The historical record, however, has no bearing on Higher Truths. The thesis stands, whatever the facts; such is the way with doctrinal necessity.

More interestingly, the thesis mistakes the nature of the Cold War, another topic that merits at least a brief look, given its importance for understanding the events of this 70-year period -- including the Indochina wars from 1945 until today -- and the doctrinal framework that is designed to provide them with an acceptable cast.

Go to the next segment.

18 Editorial, WP, Nov. 20, 1991.