Chomsky’s Totalitarian Apologetics

By Paul Bogdanor

Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volume I (South End Press, 1979).

The pseudo-scholarly appearance of this book - replete with quotations and footnotes - should fool no-one: this is a work of propaganda, in which American allies are furiously attacked and communist dictatorships relentlessly excused. Perhaps its most noteworthy feature is the assertion that “Washington has become the torture and political murder capital of the world” (p. 16), although not one of the reactionary crimes cited by the authors amounts to even a microscopic fraction of the tens of millions who had just been massacred or starved to death in the People’s Republic of China or the millions who were dying at that very moment at the hands of communist tyrants in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, let alone the countless victims of near-genocidal Soviet client regimes, from Ethiopia to Uganda.

Needless to say, Chomsky and Herman flatly deny the post-war atrocities in Vietnam, congratulating the communist dictatorship on its “miracle of reconciliation and restraint” involving “close to zero retribution deaths” (p. 28) and concluding that there has been “no bloodbath, so far as is known; nothing like what happened in France” after the Second World War (pp. 79-80). The statement is remarkable, both for its denial of crimes against humanity and for its suggestion that had such crimes taken place, the victims would have deserved no more sympathy than Nazi collaborators. Needless to say, Chomsky and Herman suppress the abundant contemporary accounts of repression and brutality [1], and they do not even hint at the decision to massacre as many as 200,000 South Vietnamese [2] - with victims beheaded, eviscerated or buried alive [3] - or the mass killings in concentration camps [4] or the mass expulsions that drowned 200,000-400,000 boat people [5]. Could any reader, no matter how diligent, guess the truth from these pages?

Hardly less shameful is their whitewashing of massive communist atrocities during the war, as in their claim that Viet Cong success was based on “understanding and trying to meet the needs of the masses” (p. 340), or their suggestion that the terrorists are “not likely to resort to bloodbaths” because they seek the support of the peasants (p. 341). The reader is not told that Viet Cong death squads butchered some 37,000 civilians [6], or that the victims - typically doctors, teachers, social workers and their families - died after sadistic torture and mutilation: “Sometimes they chop off a finger or a hand, just as a warning. In other instances, they disembowel a man or impale him alive before the eyes of his fellow villagers” [7]. Omissions such as these would make Orwell cringe.

Having denied these atrocities - surely some of the most hideous crimes in living memory - Chomsky and Herman turn to “the two most important mythical bloodbaths,” namely the North Vietnamese land reform and the Viet Cong massacres at Hue (p. 341). On the pre-war slaughter in North Vietnam, they rely on a long-refuted piece of communist agitprop by Gareth Porter, who fabricated mistranslations of sources, smeared witnesses as CIA agents, treated North Vietnamese official statistics as gospel truth and would later argue that Cambodia’s killing fields did not exist - the evidence being that the Khmer Rouge said so [8]. By contrast, they simply ignore the numerous eye-witnesses who testified that 50,000-100,000 were massacred and many more starved to death [9].

On the massacre at Hue, Chomsky and Herman quote from a captured document in which the Viet Cong boast of having “eliminated” thousands of people, but they dismiss the evidence because “nowhere in the document is it claimed or even suggested that any civilians had been executed” (p. 348). So “eliminated” does not mean “executed.” No satirist could invent such an argument. They do not mention the many other Viet Cong documents recording the massacres [10], such as the report boasting that they had “annihilated members of various reactionary political parties, henchmen, and wicked tyrants” in Hue [11]. Nor do they disclose that North Vietnam also admitted communist responsibility for the bloodbath, gloating at “the hooligan lackeys who had owed blood debts to the Tri-Thien Hue compatriots and who were annihilated” in the Tet Offensive [12].

Quite simply, there is no limit to the absurdity of the denials in this book: we are even told that “the apparent absence of retributory killings in post-war Vietnam” proves that there was no massacre at Hue (p. 353). Applying this logic elsewhere, perhaps we can imagine some neo-Nazi tract which defends the claim that the Kristallnacht pogrom was a hoax with the assertion that the Holocaust never happened. Note that such analogies are rather generous to Chomsky and Herman, since the atrocities they deny are far less widely known than their Nazi equivalents, therefore much more easily concealed.

Like all sophisticated propaganda, this book contains particles of truth. The authors are right to condemn Indonesian atrocities in East Timor. But can we take their indignation seriously, when they zealously defend communist mass murderers in Vietnam? Is anyone impressed by double standards on genocide?

NOTES

[1] E.g., Toronto Star, November 28, 1978; Washington Post, December 20, 1978.

[2] 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.

[3] Jacqueline Desbarats and Karl D. Jackson, “Research Among Vietnamese Refugees Reveals a Bloodbath,” Wall Street Journal, April 22, 1985.

[4] See Theodore Jacqueney, They Are Us, Were We Vietnamese, Worldview, April 1977.

[5] Associated Press, June 23, 1979; Vu Thanh Tuy, “Boat People Defeat Sea, But All at Visa Wall,” San Diego Union, July 20, 1986.

[6] Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (Oxford University Press, 1978) p. 272.

[7] Off With Their Hands, Newsweek, May 15, 1967.

[8] Robert F. Turner, Expert Punctures “No Bloodbath” Myth: Gareth Porter Refuted, Human Events, November 11, 1972; Stephen J. Morris, “Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot and Cornell,” The National Interest, Summer 1989. Chomsky and Herman also invoke a study by communist apologist Edwin Moise, another researcher who relied on official North Vietnamese sources.

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

[10] Stephen T. Hosmer, Viet Cong Repression and its Implications for the Future (Rand Corporation, 1970), pp. 72-8.

[11] Ibid., p. 73.

[12] Radio Hanoi, April 27, 1969.