Rethinking Camelot Copyright © 1993 by Noam Chomsky. Published by South End Press.
Introduction: Contours and Context Segment 12/17
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7. "Crime Once Exposed..."

In October 1991, President Bush celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of Kennedy's escalation of the war -- coincidentally, opening the 500th year of the European conquest -- by intervening once again to block European and Japanese efforts to end the embargo that the US imposed in 1975 to ensure that the desperately poor and ruined country would not recover from the "dreadful misfortunes" it had suffered. Presumably there were other reasons as well: to punish Vietnam for its failure to succumb to US violence, to teach appropriate lessons to others who might be tempted to emulate such misbehavior, perhaps simply for revenge. Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney reported to Congress that we are not yet ready to grant the Vietnamese entry into the civilized world. The reason is that, like the evil Japanese, the Vietnamese are still unwilling to face up to the crimes that they committed against us.

The Indochina wars have not been completely erased from historical memory. From the horrifying record, one issue still remains: our suffering at the hands of the Vietnamese barbarians, who, after attacking us in South Vietnam when we were nobly defending it from its population, compounded their crimes by refusing to dedicate themselves with sufficient zeal to accounting for the remains of the American pilots they had viciously blasted from the skies over Vietnam and Laos. "Substantial progress" on the MIA issue is required as a condition for our normalizing ties with Vietnam, Secretary of State James Baker announced, a process that could take several years. "Despite improved cooperation," the Vietnamese have a long way to go before we end the embargo that has been strangling them, deterring aid and investment from other countries reluctant to step on the toes of the Godfather and blocking assistance from international lending organizations, where the US wields an effective veto.

The message has resounded in a drumbeat of articles and opinion pieces, with scarcely a departure from doctrinal rigor. For years, the Free Press has been reporting US outrage over the deceitful Vietnamese who evade their responsibility for their crimes against us, without a hint that something may be amiss. Not only do we retain the abilities that so impressed de Tocqueville, destroying people with absolute "respect for the laws of humanity," but we have progressed well beyond, converting our tortured victims into our torturers.

Admittedly, this is no innovation; rather, historical practice that goes back to the days when the authors of the Declaration of Independence denounced the "merciless Indian savages" whom they were exterminating and expelling, an act quite readily absorbed into the official culture of self-congratulation. We learn much by recalling the traditional principle that "Crime once exposed had no refuge but in audacity."

As noted earlier, that principle may have been in John Quincy Adams's mind when he established the doctrine of executive war that was again implemented in Vietnam. In fact, Adams went a step beyond the portrayal of extermination as self-defense against "mingled hordes of lawless Indians and negroes." He knew that Jackson was "a barbarian," as he privately called him, and that aggression was aggression. As his later confessions reveal, he also knew just who was fighting an "exterminating war." But he also knew that the US had the guns; and, following the principle enunciated by his favorite historian, demanded that Spain pay "a just and reasonable indemnity to the United States for the heavy and necessary expenses which they have been compelled to incur by the failure of Spain to perform her engagements to restrain the Indians."25

Tacitus's principle is understood by every petty crook who knows enough to shout "Thief! Thief!" when caught with his hands in someone's pocket. It is a standard propaganda ploy, commonly adopted by powerful states to punish their victims: France's demand that Haiti pay a huge indemnity to compensate for its successful slave revolt is another famous example, with consequences that still endure, two centuries later. The technique is also routine in mainstream media analysis. Adopting it, one can overthrow mountains of evidence exposing media subservience to state and private power by a flick of the wrist: simply ignore the evidence, and ask whether the crusading media have gone too far in their adversarial stance, perhaps even threatening the democratic process in their extreme anti-establishment bias.26

Nevertheless, in the history of state violence and intellectual perfidy, it is doubtful that one can find an example of inversion of guilt that compares with the case of the US wars in Indochina.

Anyone with a lingering belief that even a wisp of principle or human concern might animate the ideological managers intent on arousing furor over the MIAs can readily overcome that delusion by considering two crucial facts. The first is the complete lack of interest in the vastly greater number of MIAs from earlier wars, whose remains are found accidentally to this day in European battlegrounds and even Canada (from the US invasion in 1812), areas where no one has ever hindered any search. The second decisive fact is the history of the POW/MIA campaign. It was carefully orchestrated to overcome rising public concern about US atrocities that could no longer be suppressed -- the Tacitus principle -- and to derail negotiations that Nixon and Kissinger sought to evade. After 1975, the issue was exploited as a device to continue the war by other means.

The revival of the issue in the late 1980s was an entirely predictable consequence of Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia. Its December 1979 invasion after murderous Khmer Rouge attacks on Vietnamese border areas, driving out Pol Pot and terminating his atrocities, was portrayed by US leaders and political commentators as a profound shock to their delicate sensibilities. Naturally these apostles of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, so devoted to international law, could react in only one way: by helping to reconstitute the Khmer Rouge at the border, granting the Pol Pot government diplomatic recognition, and insisting on a central Khmer Rouge role in any settlement. To punish the perpetrators of this crime of aggression, they also had to maintain the embargo that had been "bleeding Vietnam," as the Far Eastern Economic Review described the doctrine. When it was no longer possible to deny that Vietnam had withdrawn its troops from Cambodia in the context of the Paris Agreements, the cultural managers had to revert to the earlier pretext: the failure of the Vietnamese to open their territory and archives to our inspection without impediment, and otherwise dedicate themselves to the sole moral issue that remains unresolved from the war.

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25 Weeks, op. cit.

26 For a few examples, see MC, ch. 5.5.2 and App. 3; NI, App. I.2; LL, letter 18. See p. 114 below.