Chomsky Denies a Genocide

By Paul Bogdanor

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, After the Cataclysm: The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume II, (South End Press, 1979).

The pseudo-scholarly apparatus of quotations and footnotes cannot disguise the true intent of this notorious work of denial literature, which seeks to rehabilitate the radical position on the Vietnam War by systematically whitewashing totalitarian slaughter in Indochina. It must be seen in the light of Noam Chomsky’s previous writings on Vietnamese communism, whose “achievements” he considered “quite remarkable” [1] - as shown, presumably, by the brutal purges in which 50,000-100,000 were massacred and many more starved to death [2].

The book at hand continues these apologetics for communist mass murderers, asserting that there is “no credible evidence of mass executions” in post-war Vietnam (p. 62) - only testimony from defector Nguyen Cong Hoan, who estimated that 50,000-100,000 had been massacred [3] and whom the authors dismiss (pp. 98-103); from political prisoner Doan Van Toai and communist official Nguyen Tuong Lai, who reported that up to 200,000 opponents had been singled out for execution [4]; from torture victim Nguyen Van Coi, whom the authors consign to a footnote (p. 331n75); from UNHCR officials who estimated that communist ethnic cleansing of the Chinese minority had drowned as many as 400,000 boat people [5]; and so on.

On Laos, we are treated to extensive displays of indignation over the horrors of war. The sincerity of this humanitarian concern may be deduced from the observation that the communist Pathet Lao made “efforts to achieve a reconciliation” with the mountain tribespeople (p. 122); these efforts involved a sadistic campaign of genocide that killed 100,000 people [6].

On Cambodia, Chomsky and Herman produce some extraordinary apologetics for the Khmer Rouge, offering a figure of only 25,000 killed and claiming that the bloodbath has been exaggerated by a “factor of 100” (p. 139). They rely on accounts of stage-managed official visits undertaken by credulous Western fellow-travellers, while dismissing the evidence of the victims, on the basis that refugee reports are compromised by “extreme bias” in their selection by the media (pp. 147-8). They reject any parallel between the killing fields and Nazi Germany, asking whether “a more appropriate comparison is, say, to France after liberation,” where tens of thousands of collaborators were massacred “with far less motive for revenge” (p. 149). They complain that “allegations of genocide” are being used “to whitewash Western imperialism,” to distract attention from the “the expanding system of subfascism” and to lay the ideological basis for further Western intervention (pp. 149-50).

Chomsky and Herman ridicule the idea that the people are “suffering in misery under a savage oppressor bent on genocide,” a notion disproved by “common sense” (pp. 151-2). They argue that if the population is being slaughtered, one would expect “unwillingness to fight for the Paris-educated fanatics at the top,” whereas the record indicates that the Cambodian people “have not exactly been awaiting liberation from their oppressors” (p. 156). They suggest that the killers “may actually have saved many lives” (p. 160). Echoing the ideology of the Khmer Rouge, they denounce the country’s “urban society” as “a colonial implantation,” which the perpetrators “know only as a murderer and a remote oppressor,” and thus plainly deserves its fate (p. 290). In their eyes, the atrocities are a “direct and understandable response to the violence of the imperial system,” a suggestion that readers may well interpret as an explicit justification for mass murder (p. 291).

Equally noteworthy is the authors’ use of source material. Having conceded that the work of Khmer Rouge critic Francois Ponchaud is “serious” and deserves “careful study” (p. 253), they proceed to denounce him for his “careless and untrustworthy” writing (p. 274), his “petty deceit” (p. 280), his “highly unreliable” book (p. 282), etc. These scruples disappear, however, when the authors rely on Khmer Rouge apologists such as Michael Vickery (pp. 215-22), Ben Kiernan (pp. 226-30), or Shane Tarr (pp. 235-40), let alone Gareth Porter and George Hildebrand, whose “carefully documented” study [7] has been “almost entirely ignored” by reviewers and journalists (pp. 284-5) - perhaps because it was based largely on official Khmer Rouge propaganda statements.

The alert reader will detect countless falsifications of facts and evidence in these pages. Perhaps the most striking example is the libel of Cambodian refugee Pin Yathay, whose classic memoir [8] offers a detailed account of the unimaginable horrors of the Khmer Rouge dictatorship, which wiped out his family. Chomsky and Herman refer, without further discussion, to a letter in a foreign newspaper that defames Yathay as a CIA-sponsored drug dealer (pp. 143-4). Needless to say, no supporting evidence whatsoever is offered for this scurrilous allegation from an anonymous source, which the authors uncritically deploy for the purpose of smearing a bereaved father and genocide survivor. One is reminded of the neo-Nazi attempts to discredit the diary of Anne Frank.

As Stephen J. Morris has noted, the object of this disgraceful exercise cannot be to convince the reader that the arguments offered are actually true. Rather, the goal is to affect the reader’s emotional attitude, by dulling his or her sense of outrage on contemplating millions of tortured and mutilated corpses brought about by the radical movement that campaigned for a communist victory in Indochina. In this task, the book is eminently successful, not unlike the works of Holocaust denial that serve as its echo and mirror image.


[1] Noam Chomsky, At War With Asia (Vintage Books, 1970), p. 282.

[2] Robert F. Turner, Vietnamese Communism: Its Origins and Development (Hoover Institution Publications, 1975), pp. 142-4.

[3] M. Stanton Evans, Westerners Ignore Vietnam Gulag, Human Events, August 27, 1977.

[4] Al Santoli, To Bear Any Burden: The Vietnam War and Its Aftermath in the Words of Americans and Southeast Asians (Indiana University Press, 1999) pp. 272, 292-3.

[5] Associated Press, June 23, 1979.

[6] Forced Back and Forgotten: The Human Rights of Laotian Asylum Seekers in Thailand (Lawyers Committee For Human Rights, 1989), p. 8.

[7] Gareth Porter and George Hildebrand, Cambodia: Starvation and Revolution (Monthly Review Press, 1976).

[8] Pin Yathay, Stay Alive, My Son (Touchstone, 1988).