The Cynical Farce about Cambodia

Noam Chomsky

Dissent, June 26, 1978

“Do the recent events in Cambodia warrant a reconsideration of our opposition to the Vietnam War”? Consider the factual and moral premises that allow this question to be seriously raised.

Let us assume the accuracy of the condemnation of the Khmer Rouge (noting, however, that the susceptibility of intellectuals to fabricated atrocity stories has been no less notorious since World War I than their apologetics for some favored state, and that skepticism is aroused in this case by the many documented falsehoods). On this assumption, should we reconsider opposition to the Vietnam War?

One who raises this question must be assuming (1) that the U.S. war was intended to avert Khmer Rouge barbarity, or might have had this likely effect; and (2) that the U.S. has the right to exercise force and violence to avert potential crimes.

Assumption (1) is ludicrous in the light of the factual record. Cambodia was an island of relative tranquility prior to the American invasion of 1970, though it had been repeatedly attacked by American and U.S.-backed forces from 1957 on. There was limited local insurgency, aroused by government repression, even by the 1960s. As Vietnamese were driven to a narrow border strip by the savage American military operations of early 1967, direct U.S. attacks on Cambodia escalated. By May 1967, the Pentagon was concerned that Cambodia was “becoming more and more important as a supply base — now of food and medicines, perhaps ammunition later,” an obvious consequence of U.S. operations in Vietnam and Laos. In March 1969. shortly after the “secret bombings” began, Sihanouk vainly called upon the Western press to publicize his government’s protest over the “criminal attacks” on Khmer peasants. The 1970 invasion helped organize the Khmer Rouge rebellion as thousands of peasants rallied to the resistance under the impact of the vicious bombing and ground attacks of the U.S. military and the Vietnamese forces it organized. Charles Meyer, who had long been close to ruling forces in Cambodia, warned then that “it is difficult to imagine the intensity of the hatred (of the peasants) for those who destroyed their villages and their possessions” (Derriere le sourir khmer). This was well before the murderous American bombings of the 1970s, which surely inflamed peasant hatred and desire for revenge.

Those who failed to devote their energies to ending the American war in Indochina bear a double burden of guilt: for the atrocities committed under American initiative and for the legacy of starvation, disease, hatred, and revenge that was a direct and predicted consequence of the attack on rural Cambodia. Similar remarks apply in the case of Vietnam and Laos.

Assumption (2) has not been defended explicitly. One can easily see why. If the U.S. is entitled to launch a major war to avert potential barbarism, then a fortiori it is entitled to invade countries where state violence currently proceeds; say, much of Latin America, which turned into a horror chamber in one of the recent successes of U.S. foreign policy. Surely, the absurdities of this position are obvious.

Furthermore, one may ask why the U.S. should be uniquely privileged to serve as global judge and executioner. By virtue of its historic role in defense of freedom and human rights within its own sphere of influence, perhaps? Again, discussion is superfluous.

One who advocates the resort to force must present an overwhelmingly powerful argument. There is ample reason to adopt as a guiding principle the restriction on use of force, now codified in law, to self-defense against armed attack. In fact, the official claim always was that the U.S. was defending South Vietnam from “aggression from the North.” Internal documents were more honest. Immediately after the Geneva accords of 1954, the U.S. undertook to help its clients “to defeat local Communist subversion or rebellion not constituting armed attack,” with potential “use of U.S. military forces either locally or against the external source of such subversion or rebellion” — all as determined unilaterally by the U.S. It was the secret plan that was pursued; the official defense is no less ludicrous than the assumption.

The U.S. at once installed a client regime in South Vietnam that abrogated the terms of the Geneva settlement and initiated a program of repression and massacre. When resistance ensued, the U.S. turned to direct military action by 1962 and an outright invasion of South Vietnam in 1965. Government analysts never doubted that the South Vietnamese enemy was the only mass-based political force, while the regimes the U.S. imposed as a basis for its intervention had negligible support. The peace treaty signed but immediately undermined by the U.S. in January 1973 was virtually a paraphrase, in essentials, of the program of the South Vietnamese forces that the U.S. was dedicated to destroy.

By the time the first North Vietnamese battalion was detected in the South — more than two months after the initiation of the systematic bombing of the North and the far more extensive bombing of the South — more than 150,000 South Vietnamese had been killed “under the crushing weight of American armor, napalm, jet bombers and, finally, vomiting gases.” This is the judgment of Bernard Fall, a committed hawk, who turned against the war because he feared that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity… is threatened with extinction” as “the countryside literally dies under the blows of the… (American)… military machine.” The U.S. won its filthy war in South Vietnam, decimating the local forces that resisted American violence and the peasant society in which they were rooted, thus guaranteeing North Vietnamese dominance of the wreckage and leaving ample opportunity for the hypocrites who now bewail the consequences of the American war that they supported.

Now we are asked whether opposition to the U.S. attack on rural South Vietnam, later all Indochina, was legitimate, in the light of postwar suffering and atrocities that are in large measure a result of this aggression. With comparable logic, Germans might have asked whether opposition to Nazi aggression should be reconsidered after the massacre of tens of thousands in France under American civil-military rule.

We are sometimes told that “the story is more complex.” That is true; the real world is more complex than our descriptions, a fact that may be exploited by the cynical or deluded. They can dismiss as a guide to attitude and action the salient features of this real but too complex world.

Like most colonial wars, the U.S. war in Indochina was in part a civil conflict, though in scale and savagery the U.S. intervention has had few historical parallels. Such wars are generally brutal, and the domestic losers often suffer grievously. Those who devoted themselves to ending American aggression and who now work to reverse the inhuman policy of refusing reparations or even aid to its victims have a moral right to condemn repressive acts of the regimes that have arisen from the ruins. Comparably, anti-Nazi resisters had the moral right to condemn the atrocities committed after liberation. Others may well be accurate in their condemnation, but it reeks to high heaven.

The American media have been deluged with denunciations of postwar Indochina, while more favorable accounts, however credible, receive little notice; and murderous repression within the American sphere — in Timor or Uruguay, for example — is consistently ignored. That should not surprise us. As had been predicted, a major effort is underway to reconstruct the interventionist ideology that eroded as popular opposition to the Vietnam war developed. History must be rewritten and principle revised to to conform to the needs of a power that will be called upon to lead the industrial capitalist world in the “North-South” conflict. We read that we must overcome our “Vietnam hang-up” and be willing to use force to defend our interests, often disguised in cynical humanitarian rhetoric. Or we are informed that revolutionary regimes are capable of great brutality, as has been obvious for centuries, and that “we” should rise to the defense of peoples, not states; reasonable enough (and no less familiar) if the term “we” refers to individuals, though it is easily transmuted to refer to state power in a new version of colonialist doctrine.

One who protests barbarism or repression must consider the probable human consequences of his acts. That is why, for example, Amnesty International urges that one write politely to the most miserable tyrant. Unless the goal of protest is self-aggrandizement or service to one’s state, finite energies will be distributed in accordance with a likely impact. A Russian who condemns American behavior in Vietnam or Chile may speak the truth, but we do not admire his courage or moral integrity. Similar considerations apply here. The central responsibility for Americans is to try to modify policies that we can influence; primarily those of the American government and its client regimes, or elsewhere, when there is a likelihood that protest can contribute to the relief of human misery.

Returning to the specific questions of this symposium: events in postwar Indochina amply reinforce the moral imperative of protest and resistance against the American war. Principled opponents of that war should now devote themselves with no less energy to attempting to heal its wounds and help its victims — those in exile, those who are oppressed, and those who are struggling to construct a viable society from the ruins left by American terror. If honest inquiry reveals terror and repression, protest is legitimate. One who undertakes it must ask how his acts may help those who suffer, bearing in mind also the domestic consequences and the fate of future victims of the interventionist ideologies now being reconstructed. One will of course win acclaim in the West by joining the chorus of protest focused on those who have escaped the Western orbit, but for ugly reasons. It is easy to avoid these considerations, but an honest person with true human concern will not lightly do so. Individuals may differ in their assessment of these complex issues, but they deserve more careful attention than they often receive. We cannot escape the world in which we live, inconvenient though that fact may be.