Jan. 4, 2005 at his office in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, MA.
[Transcript lightly edited by Noam Chomsky for clarity.]
David McNeill: Can you give me your views on the current war in Iraq. As you know, many critics of the war are now saying the invasion was a historic mistake, on a par with the US invasion of Vietnam.
Noam Chomsky: Well, I don’t think that Vietnam was a mistake; I think it was a success. This is somewhere where I disagree with just about everyone, including the left, right, friends and so on.
To determine whether it was a failure you have to first look at what the goals were. In the case of Indo-china, the US is a very free country; we have an incomparably rich documentary record of internal planning, much richer than any other country that I know of. So we can discover what the goals were. In fact it is clear by around 1970, certainly by the time the Pentagon Papers came out, the primary concern was the one that shows up in virtually all intervention: Guatemala, Indonesia, Nicaragua, Cuba, Chile, just about everywhere you look at. The concern is independent nationalism which is unacceptable in itself because it extricates some part of the world that the US wants to dominate. And it has an extra danger if it is likely to be successful in terms that are likely to be meaningful to others who are suffering from the same conditions.
So in the former colonial world, the Third World and the south, the problem was what planners called the rotten apple that might spoil the barrel or a virus that might infect others. The virus is independent nationalism that seems as though it may be successful in terms that are meaningful to others that are suffering similar problems. That’s a theme that goes through the entire documentary record and it was a concern in Vietnam. So the US, during the late 1940s, hadn’t really decided whether to support the French in their re-conquest of the former colony or to take the path that they did in Indonesia in 1948 and support the independence movement against the Dutch. But the issue was: suppose Vietnam turns out to be an independence movement that is out of control. They knew it was not run by the Russians and the Chinese: that was for public show. It was clearly an independent nationalist movement which could turn out to be successful. So in the 1950s they became increasingly concerned that North Vietnam was developing in ways that could be meaningful for others in the region. A fully independent Vietnam could truly dominate Indochina, which could become an independent nationalist force, a rotten apple which would affect others: Thailand, Malaya, which was a big problem at the time, possibly Indonesia. They were deeply concerned about Indonesian nationalism under Sukarno, which was going off on its own independent course and was a pillar of the non-aligned movement. If this infection of independent nationalism spread the concern was it might ultimately lead to Japan — the “superdomino,” as Asia historian John Dower called it. Not that Japan would be affected by it but that Japan would be induced to, as they put it, accommodate to independent Asian nationalism in SE Asia, maybe spreading from Vietnam, Indonesia, China, which was by then a huge rotten apple. And if Japan were to accommodate to Asian independent nationalism and offer itself as the technological and commercial and financial and industrial center it would effectively have won the Second World War. The Second World War was fought in the Pacific phase to prevent Japan from establishing a new order in Asia in which it would be the center. And it would be an independent force in world affairs. Well in the 1950s the US was not prepared to lose the Second World War and so it took a nuanced position. It first supported Sukarno then quickly turned against him. In 1958, US President [Dwight] Eisenhower was supporting the break up of Indonesia. It quickly in 1950 decided to support the French in Vietnam. And it just goes on from there. You can go through the steps, but effectively this is what happened.
By around 1960 the US recognized that it could not maintain a client state in Vietnam. The client state, which had already killed maybe 60,000 people, had engendered resistance which it could not control. So in 1962 Kennedy simply invaded the country outright. That’s when US bombing started, chemical warfare, attempts to drive people into concentration camps and so on, and from then on it just escalated. By 1967 South Vietnam was practically destroyed. Bernard Fall, who is a very respected and rather hawkish military analyst and Vietnam specialist, was writing by 1967 that he wondered whether Vietnam could survive as a historic and cultural entity under the assault of the biggest military machine of all time. There was very little protest at that time. The US and England and the rest were just content to see Vietnam destroyed. That was much worse than anything happening in Iraq. It looked at that point as if they would conquer Vietnam. The Tet Offensive [a major national offensive by anti-US Vietnamese forces in early 1968] made it clear it was going to be a long war. At that point the business world turned against the war and decided this is just not worth it. They said we have already achieved the main objectives and Vietnam is not going to undergo successful independent development. It will be lucky if it survives. So it is pointless; why waste the money on it. The main goal had been achieved by the early seventies.
You start reading in the Far Eastern Economic Review that this was a pointless enterprise, you guys have basically won so just go home and quit. Why ruin your economy, spoil your situation in the world scene and so on. And they assumed that now that it is destroyed it will sooner or later be absorbed into our system, which is in fact what happened. Well that’s a partial victory not a defeat. The defeat was that they didn’t achieve their maximal goal which was to turn all of Indochina into something like Guatemala or the Philippines, and that they didn’t achieve, but they did achieve their main goal.