Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Chapter 3: The Bounds of the Expressible Segment 2/8
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In short, what is essential is the power to set the agenda. If controversy over the Cold War can be focused on containment of the Soviet Union -- the proper mix of force, diplomacy, and other measures -- then the propaganda system has already won its victory, whatever conclusions are reached. The basic assumption has already been established: the Cold War is a confrontation between two superpowers, one aggressive and expansionist, the other defending the status quo and civilized values. Off the agenda is the problem of containing the United States, and the question whether the issue has been properly formulated at all, whether the Cold War does not rather derive from the efforts of the superpowers to secure for themselves international systems that they can dominate and control -- systems that differ greatly in scale, reflecting enormous differences in wealth and power. Soviet violations of the Yalta and Potsdam agreements are the topic of a large literature and are well established in the general consciousness; we then proceed to debate their scale and importance. But it would require a careful search to find discussion of U.S. violations of the wartime agreements and their consequences, though the judgment of the best current scholarship, years later, is that "In fact, the Soviet pattern of adherence [to Yalta, Potsdam, and other wartime agreements] was not qualitatively different from the American pattern."6 If the agenda can be restricted to the ambiguities of Arafat, the abuses and failures of the Sandinistas, the terrorism of Iran and Libya, and other properly framed issues, then the game is basically over; excluded from discussion is the unambiguous rejectionism of the United States and Israel, and the terrorism and other crimes of the United States and its clients, not only far greater in scale but also incomparably more significant on any moral dimension for American citizens, who are in a position to mitigate or terminate these crimes. The same considerations hold whatever questions we address.

One crucial doctrine, standard throughout history, is that the state is adopting a defensive stance, resisting challenges to order and to its noble principles. Thus, the United States is invariably resisting aggression, sometimes "internal aggression." Leading scholars assure us that the war in Vietnam was "undertaken in defense of a free people resisting communist aggression" as the United States attacked South Vietnam in the early 1960s to defend the client dictatorship against the South Vietnamese aggressors who were about to overthrow it; no justification need be offered to establish such an obvious truth, and none is. Some even refer blandly to "the Eisenhower administration's strategy of deterring aggression by threatening the use of nuclear weapons" in Indochina in 1954, "where French forces found themselves facing defeat" at Dienbienphu "at the hands of the Communist Viet Minh," the aggressors who attacked our French ally defending Indochina (from its population).7 Cultivated opinion generally has internalized this stance. Accordingly, it is a logical impossibility that one should oppose U.S. aggression, a category that cannot exist. Whatever pretense they adopt, the critics must be "partisans of Hanoi" or "apologists for Communism" elsewhere, defending the "aggressors," perhaps attempting to conceal their "hidden agendas."8

A related doctrine is that "the yearning to see American-style democracy duplicated throughout the world has been a persistent theme in American foreign policy," as a New York Times diplomatic correspondent proclaimed after the U.S.-backed military government suppressed the Haitian elections by violence, widely predicted to be the likely consequence of U.S. support for the junta. These sad events, he observed, are "the latest reminder of the difficulty American policy-makers face in trying to work their will, no matter how benevolent, on other nations."9 These doctrines require no argument and resist mountains of counter-evidence. On occasion, the pretense collapses under its manifest absurdity. It is then permissible to recognize that we were not always so benevolent and so profoundly dedicated to democracy as we are today. The regular appeal to this convenient technique of "change of course" over many years elicits not ridicule, but odes to our unfailing benevolence, as we set forth on some new campaign to "defend democracy."

We have no problem in perceiving the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as brutal aggression, though many would balk at describing the Afghan guerrillas as "democratic resistance forces" (New Republic editor Andrew Sullivan).10 But the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam in the early 1960s, when the Latin American-style terror state imposed by U.S. force could no longer control the domestic population by violence, cannot be perceived as what it was. True, U.S. forces were directly engaged in large-scale bombing and defoliation in an effort to drive the population into concentration camps where they could be "protected" from the enemy whom, it was conceded, they willingly supported. True, a huge U.S. expeditionary force later invaded and ravaged the country, and its neighbors, with the explicit aim of destroying what was clearly recognized to be the only mass-based political force and eliminating the danger of political settlement that was sought on all sides. But throughout, the United States was resisting aggression in its yearning for democracy. When the United States established the murderous Diem dictatorship as part of its effort to undermine the Geneva accords and to block the promised elections because the wrong side was expected to win, it was defending democracy. "The country is divided into the Communist regime in the north and a democratic government in the south," the New York Times reported, commenting on the allegation that "the Communist Vietminh was importing guns and soldiers from Red China `in the most blatant fashion,'" threatening "free Vietnam" after having "sold their country to Peiping."11 In later years, as the "defense of democracy" went awry, there was vigorous debate between the hawks, who felt that with sufficient dedication the enemy could be demolished, and the doves, who feared that the resort to violence to attain our noble ends might prove too costly; some preferred to be owls, distancing themselves from the two extremes.

Throughout the war, it was taken for granted within the mainstream that the United States was defending South Vietnam; unwisely, the doves came to believe. Years later, the doctrine remains beyond challenge. This is not only true of those who parodied the most disgraceful commissars as atrocities mounted, seeing nothing more in saturation bombing of densely populated areas than the "unfortunate loss of life incurred by the efforts of American military forces to help the South Vietnamese repel the incursion of North Vietnam and its partisans" -- for example, in the Mekong Delta, where there were no North Vietnamese troops even long after the United States had expanded its aggression to North Vietnam, and where local people resisting the U.S. invaders and their clients evidently do not qualify as "South Vietnamese." It is perhaps not surprising that from such sources we should still read today, with all that is now known, that "the people of South Vietnam desired their freedom from domination by the communist country on their northern border" and that "the United States intervened in establish the principle that changes in Asia were not to be precipitated by outside force."12 Far more interesting is the fact that, even though many would be repelled by the vulgarity of the apologetics for large-scale atrocities, a great many educated people would find little surprising in this assessment of the history, a most remarkable demonstration of the effectiveness of democratic systems of thought control.

Similarly, in Central America today, the United States is dedicated to the defense of freedom in the "fledgling democracies" and to "restoring democracy" to Nicaragua -- a reference to the Somoza period, if words have meaning. At the extreme of expressible dissent, in a bitter condemnation of the U.S. attack on Nicaragua that went so far as to invoke the judgment of Nuremberg, Atlantic Monthly editor Jack Beatty wrote that "Democracy has been our goal in Nicaragua, and to reach it we have sponsored the killing of thousands of Nicaraguans. But killing for democracy -- even killing by proxy for democracy -- is not a good enough reason to prosecute a war."13 One could hardly find a more consistent critic of the U.S. war in the corporate media than columnist Tom Wicker of the New York Times, who condemned the application of the Reagan Doctrine to Nicaragua because "the United States has no historic or God-given right to bring democracy to other nations."14 Critics adopt without a second thought the assumption that our traditional "yearning for democracy" has indeed guided U.S. policy towards Nicaragua since July 19, 1979, when the U.S. client Somoza was overthrown, though admittedly not before the miraculous and curiously timed transformation took place, by some mysterious process. A diligent search through all the media would unearth an occasional exception to this pattern, but such exceptions are rare, another tribute to the effectiveness of indoctrination.15

"Central America has an evident self-interest in hounding" the Sandinistas "to honor their pledges to democratize"; and "those Americans who have repeatedly urged others `to give peace a chance' now have an obligation to turn their attention and their passion to ensuring democracy a chance as well," the editors of the Washington Post admonished, directly below the masthead that proudly labels theirs "an Independent Newspaper."16 There is no problem of "ensuring democracy" in the U.S.-backed terror states, firmly under military rule behind a thin civilian façade.

The same editorial warned that "from the incursions into Honduras [in March 1988], it is plain what Nicaragua's threats to Honduras are." The reference was to military operations in northern Nicaragua near an unmarked border, in which Nicaraguan forces in hot pursuit of contra invaders penetrated a few kilometers into areas of Honduras that had long been ceded to the U.S. "proxy force" -- as they are described by contra lobbyists in internal documents circulated in the White House, and by their own official spokesman.17 In the United States, these actions elicited renewed outrage over the threat of the Sandinistas to overrun their neighbors in the service of their Soviet master.

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6 Melvyn Leffler, "Adherence to Agreements: Yalta and the Experiences of the Early Cold War," International Security, Summer 1986.

7 Robert W. Tucker, "Reagan's Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, "America and the World 1988/89," Winter 1989, featured lead article. John Lewis Gaddis, The Long Peace (Oxford, 1987, 129). The effort to liberate Indochina from the U.S.-backed French forces was in part a civil war, as is generally true of struggles against foreign occupation and colonial rule -- the American revolution, for example. It should be clear that this fact adds no credibility to the bizarre notion that the U.S. was "deterring aggression" by aiding the French effort to reconquer Indochina, even contemplating the use of nuclear weapons for this purpose.

8 See appendix V, section 8, for an example, though one beyond the norm.

9 Neil Lewis, NYT, Dec. 6, 1987.

10 Daily Telegraph (London), Jan. 28, 1988.

11 NYT, June 2, 1956. The charge was made by Assistant Secretary of State Walter Robertson. We can still read of "the south's memory of democracy" (Clayton Jones, Christian Science Monitor, Jan. 19, 1989) -- under the military dictatorships imposed by U.S. violence.

12 Sidney Hook, "Lord Russell and the War Crimes `Trial'," New Leader, Oct. 24, 1966; "Politics Tests Philosophy's Meaning," Review of Alan Ryan, Bertrand Russell: A Political Life, Insight (published by the Washington Times), Oct. 3, 1988. Hook's commentary on Russell will be familiar to anyone acquainted with attacks on dissidents in the Communist Party press in the Stalinist years.

13 Boston Globe, Jan. 15, 1988.

14 NYT, Aug. 6, 1987.

15 For one forthright exception, see "Talk of the Town," New Yorker, Feb. 1, 1988.

16 Editorial, WP Weekly, April 4, 1988.

17 Bruce Cameron and Penn Kemble, "From a Proxy Force to a National Liberation Movement," ms., Feb. 1986, outlining how the U.S. should act to effect this transition. Edgar Chamorro, Packaging the Contras: A Case of CIA Disinformation, Institute for Media Analysis Monograph Series, No. 2 (New York, 1987, 49); Chamorro was the CIA-selected spokesman for the contra directorate from December 1982 until he quit the organization in December 1984.