US intervention in Indochina

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Excerpt from The United States, Southeast Asia, and Historical Memory, Haymarket Books

Authors: Richard Falk, Fred Branfman, Channapha Khamvongsa, Elaine Russell, Tuan Nguyen, Ben Kiernan, Taylor Owen, Gareth Porter, Clinton Fernandes, Nick Turse, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Ngo Ving Long.

Co-editors: Caroline Luft, Mark Pavlick

1) What was the existing framework of international law pertaining to war crimes and crimes against humanity at the time of US intervention in Indochina? 

Same as it has been since 1945, and still is.

For war crimes, basically, the UN Charter, spelled out a bit further in the Nuremberg Tribunal.  The “supreme international crime differing from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole” (including all subsequent crimes against humanity) is the crime of aggression (the Nuremberg wording), that is, use of force that does not fall within the exceptions of the Charter: under Security Council authorization, or in “self-defense against armed attack” until the Security Council acts, a very narrow notion, adopting the Webster Caroline wording about immediate necessity leaving no time for deliberation.   Western legal and political analysts and Western governments have sought to weaken those constraints to allow them (but not others) more latitude in the use of force, but the original wording and intent have repeatedly been upheld, recently by a high-level UN Panel (including prominent Western figures) in December 2004, and by the UN World Summit in September 2005.  Crimes against humanity are defined by the Hague, Geneva, and subsequent conventions.

Obviously, the US committed the supreme international crime in Indochina, at least since 1962 when JFK launched a direct attack. Various pretexts were offered (SEATO treaty, collective self-defense, etc.). They’re about as credible as those offered by the Nazis hanged at Nuremberg, and nowhere near as credible as the pretexts offered by the Japanese for Pearl Harbor.

There’s substantial literature on all of this, from the 1960s.  Of course, within the 

international law profession one can find plenty of justifications for the use of force by one’s one state or its allies and clients. That’s to be expected.

2) If you were going to write the chapter on “Bloodbaths in Indochina” in The Political Economy of Human Rights today, what might you see differently?

Not much.  There is more information on the early planning of the war — the kind

of documentary evidence I reviewed in Rethinking Camelot, which reveals more clearly than before the nature of the war in its early stages and Kennedy’s insistence, until the assassination, that there can be no withdrawal before victory is assured.

But that’s more about crimes against peace than about crimes against humanity.  On the latter, Hatfield and others have brought forth a lot more evidence about the chemical warfare.  We also now know more about the planning of the 1973 Cambodia bombing, including Kissinger’s orders reported in the New York Times in May 2004, not eliciting even a ripple of comment, though they would be hard to match in the archival record of any state: “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” There has been one quite remarkable new revelation: the study by Owen Taylor and Ben Kiernan (“Bombs over Cambodia,” Walrus 2006), based on documents released during the late Clinton years that record what happened after Kissinger loyally transmitted the Boss’s orders.  It turns out that the bombing of rural Cambodia was at five times the horrendous level already reported, more than total Allied bombing in all theaters in World War II.  As Taylor and Kiernan observe, this savage attack was also a major factor in creating the Khmer Rouge: the casualties from the intense bombing, sharply accelerated by the Nixon-Kissinger call for virtual genocide, drove an “enraged populace into the arms of an insurgency that had enjoyed relatively little support until the bombing began,” setting the stage for what followed.  The more that is learned, the more we discover about the criminality of the war that Kennedy launched, after years of subversion and violence.

3) Please discuss the movement, particularly among US intellectuals, to rewrite and revise the history of US involvement in Indochina. What might you add today to what you and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm? What are your thoughts about references to the history of the US and Indochina in current US political discourse? 

The last chapter of Rethinking Camelot goes into the rewriting and revision of history after the war became unpopular among elites in the last 1960s, notably the radical revision of earlier accounts by the JFK memoirists and others, part of the effort to burnish the Camelot image – an effort that still continues, with quite surprising misreading of the documentary record and fanciful accounts of Machiavellian plotting by the hero JFK that were so secret they have left no trace., matters I’ve discussed elsewhere.  The earlier version, which conforms to the rich documentary record, is reinforced by Arthur Schlesinger’s recently published journals.  These do not even mention Vietnam until the Johnson years, when concerns about the costs and likelihood of success were beginning to mount.

While many intellectuals tried to reconstruct themselves as “long-time opponents of the war” (in secret), many did not have to revise the record very much because their opposition to the war was so qualified: for example the editors of Dissent, who opposed withdrawal of the US invading army in 1964 because if they left everyone in South Vietnam who opposed the Communists would be slaughtered — so therefore we must proceed to slaughter the South Vietnamese, the obvious consequence of continuing the aggression. Interestingly, they repeated this prediction with pride after the war was over, and even claimed it had been fulfilled — referring to Cambodia, which is not at all what they predicted.  It is, in fact, an intriguing exercise in cynicism in the light of the actual course of events from the early invasion of South Vietnam to the extension of the war to Cambodia with its hideous aftermath).

There are almost no serious references to the US and Indochina in current political discourse.  For example, in the Swift Boat controversy, has there been even a question about what Kerry was doing deep in the southern part of SVN, in areas that had been virtually devastated by 7 years of vicious US attack, and at a time when the atrocities were peaking with the post-Tet accelerated pacification campaigns?  Inconceivable. Or take the reaction to McNamara’s apologia, which (putting aside the ludicrous falsehoods) was comparable to Goering apologizing to Germans after Stalingrad because he hadn’t told them soon enough that the war would be costly to them.  The hawks condemned McNamara as a traitor: the doves hailed him for vindicating their stand.  One of the sicker moments of modern intellectual history.  Have written about that too, in some detail.

4) If you were writing After the Cataclysm today, would you change anything? What are your thoughts on reactions – or the lack of them – to the book?

The book you mention is volume II of Political Economy of Human Rights.  It covered many topics.  All have been completely ignored, to my knowledge, apart from the chapter on Cambodia under Pol Pot, which elicited a torrent of hysterical denunciations.  Volume I was also virtually ignored, in particular, the chapter on East Timor, which was paired with the chapter on Cambodia in After the Cataclysm.  The reaction to the comparison is quite telling.

As was quite explicit in PEHR, the two paired chapters on East Timor and Cambodia under Pol Pot illustrate dramatically a central theme of the two volumes: the reaction to atrocities is very sharply skewed by agency.  When the crimes can be attributed to someone else, particularly official enemies, there is enormous outrage, bitter condemnation, laments about the depths to which evil can descend, cries of “Never Again,” and the rest of the familiar performance.  When comparable or worse crimes are attributable to us, they are either ignored, denied, or dismissed as mistakes, strange departures from our nobility, easily forgotten.  A corollary is that it is considered highly meritorious to condemn ourselves for failure to respond appropriately to terrible crimes – as long as we keep to the crimes of others.

Timor and Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge provide as close to a test case of the thesis as we can expect to find in history.  The atrocities were monstrous in both cases. They took place in the same part of the world and in the same years (though in East Timor, they continued for 20 years after the Khmer Rouge were expelled from Cambodia).

They also differed in crucial respects.  In the case of the Khmer Rouge, responsibility could be blamed on others — if we ignore, as is conventionally done, the role of the horrendous US bombings in laying the groundwork for Khmer Rouge crimes.  Furthermore, no one had any proposal as to how to end the atrocities. Finally, Pol Pot’s atrocities were highly valuable for apologists for state violence.  For the more cynical apologists, the crimes could be — and were — exploited as a retrospective justification for the destruction of Indochina and the acquiescence or tepid opposition of those who allowed it to happen.  And the Khmer Rouge crimes could be — and were — exploited instantly to justify further US atrocities to “save people from the Pol Pot left”:  to support Reagan’s terrorist wars in Central America, for example, which took a hideous toll – forgotten, ignored, or denied, because they are our crimes.

I use the word “exploited” advisedly.  It was exploitation because nothing was done, or even contemplated, to protect the victims of the Khmer Rouge, and when the Vietnamese finally did drive out the Khmer Rouge just as their atrocities were peaking, Vietnam was bitterly condemned, Washington supported a Chinese invasion to punish Vietnam for the crime of ending Pol Pot’s atrocities, and the US and UK turned to direct diplomatic and military support for the Khmer Rouge.  All of this passed without notable comment.  Further evidence for the lack of concern for the fate of Cambodians except at the hands of some enemy is the (null) reaction to the recent exposure of the extraordinary scale and character of the US attack on Cambodia, and its role in creating the Khmer Rouge. The Kissinger orders, reported in the New York Times, scarcely elicited a yawn. The Taylor-Kiernan study, to my knowledge, did not appear in the US apart from my posting of their paper on ZNet, and I haven’t found a mention of it.  Evidently, both the Kissinger orders and the Taylor-Owen article would be headlined on page one if there were any genuine concern for the fate of Cambodians.  These examples, and much more, reveal that the show of concern for Cambodians suffering under Pol Pot was for the most part sheer hypocrisy.  The cynicism was as extraordinary as the lies, and doubtless related.

Turning to East Timor, the contrast is dramatic.  The US had decisive responsibility for the aggression and atrocities from the start, joined by Britain, France, Australia and other Western powers as the atrocities approached genocidal levels, and there was profit to be made by supporting the Indonesian aggressors.  Furthermore, there was a very simple way to terminate the huge slaughter: stop participating in it.  That was obvious all along, and for those who could not figure it out for themselves, it was clearly demonstrated in September 1999, when, under great domestic and international pressure, Clinton finally told the Indonesian generals that the game was over and they instantly withdrew, allowing an Australian-led peace-keeping force to enter.  I’ve reviewed the grotesque details elsewhere, including the aftermath, so will not proceed here.

The reactions to the two comparable cases kept to the thesis just outlined, virtually to the level of caricature.  In both cases there was massive lying, but in opposite directions.  As we demonstrated, fabrication about Pol Pot atrocities would have impressed Stalin, and was often repeated after it was conceded that it was fabrication.  In contrast, the marginal attention to East Timor was largely restricted to lies denying the crimes and the crucial US complicity, or sometimes the cowardly evasion that the US was too occupied with other matters and “looked away”: Washington looked right there, and acted decisively to escalate the atrocities right through 1999.  True, the educated classes chose to “look away,” a standard reaction when the blood is on our hands.

The relative attention to our paired chapters illustrates the same pattern.

Needless to say, the East Timor example was far more significant, precisely because we could so easily do something about it, unlike Cambodia.  That trivially obvious fact allows us to draw the obvious lessons even more sharply.  The fact that it is not done, even contemplated – even intelligible – tells us quite a lot about the reigning moral and intellectual culture.

Turning to your question, which I presume is restricted to the chapter on Cambodia, Herman and I did return to the topic 10 years later, in our book Manufacturing Consent.  We reviewed what had happened since, but were able to find nothing that required any change at all in what we had written in PEHR.  In the chapter on Cambodia we had reviewed extraordinary lying about an earlier article of ours, and the reactions to this chapter were much the same.  To my knowledge, not even a misplaced comma has been found, despite the massive effort to discredit our exposure of the cynicism and deceit of the media and the intellectuals.  That is not too surprising.  The chapter had passed through extensive review at the hands of leading specialists on Cambodia, among them David Chandler, Steven Heder, Ben Kiernan, Laura Summers, and Michael Vickery.  Furthermore, the chapter had quite modest aims, so error would have been unlikely.  For the most part it simply reviewed uncontroversial documentation, comparing the evidence available with what appeared as it was refracted through the ideological prisms.  As we wrote in conclusion, “When the facts are in, it may turn out that the more extreme condemnations were in fact correct.  But even if that turns out to be the case, it will in no way alter the conclusions we have reached on the central question addressed here: how the available facts were selected, modified, or sometimes invented to create a certain image offered to the general population.  The answer to this question seems clear, and it is unaffected by whatever may yet be discovered about Cambodia in the future.”

Our own tentative conclusions were those of State Department intelligence, the most knowledgeable source, which we quoted – which was rare; as can easily be determined, their conclusions were generally ignored.  The reason, presumably, is that they did not conform to the imagery required by service to state power and violence.

5) What lessons might today’s movements for social justice learn from the US domestic movement against the US war in Indochina?

The mainstream movement against the US wars in Indochina kept pretty much to the positions expressed by prominent intellectuals at the dovish extreme: “we all pray” that the hawks are right and that more force will bring victory for the US, and “we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government” if escalation succeeds, while leaving “a land of ruin and wreck” – but it probably won’t succeed (Arthur Schlesinger);  the war began with “blundering efforts to do good” but by 1969 (a year after the business world had turned against the war) it was clear that it was a “disastrous mistake” and the US “could not impose a solution except at a price too costly to itself” (Anthony Lewis).  And many others.  The rhetoric can be carried over virtually unchanged to mainstream criticism of the Iraq war.

The fact that some dedicated Nazis turned against Hitler’s war after Stalingrad merely increases contempt for their values.  If the Russians succeed in pacifying Chechnya, as now seems likely, we do not “salute the wisdom and statesmanship” of the Kremlin.  Those concerned with social justice should be able, without difficulty, to apply the conclusions to our own actions and responsibilities.  A principled stand is not an easy or popular one, but anything short of it opens the way to more atrocities and crimes — always in the name of peace and justice, a primary lesson to be learned from the Indochina wars, and much else.

Another lesson that the movements for social justice should learn from these two wars and much else is that among educated elites, faith in the fundamental benevolence of US policy is profound, and largely immune to fact and logic.  It is simply a presupposition of discourse that is considered “responsible.”  Hence principled opposition to aggression is likely to be fiercely opposed in these sectors, though fortunately, the general public is less deeply indoctrinated and can be reached.

Popular opposition to the Vietnam war did develop, though slowly.  There was almost no opposition when JFK launched outright aggression against South Vietnam in 1962.  Popular opposition did develop on a substantial scale by 1967, but it is well to remember that by then the destruction had reached such a level that the respected military historian and Vietnam scholar Bernard Fall had warned that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity…is threatened with extinction” under the “blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.” He was referring particularly to South Vietnam, always the main target of the US assault.  But like mainstream opposition to the war, the popular movements generally focused on the bombing of the North more than on the far more extreme attack on the South.  The former raised serious threats of international complications that could be harmful to US interests; the latter could be conducted with impunity.   There are lessons here too, not pretty ones.

There are more hopeful lessons too. Popular opposition to the ware did not keep to the paradigm of a mistake based on good intentions. By 1979 over two-thirds of the population described the war as “not a mistake’, but rather “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” Those figures remain pretty constant up to the most recent polls in which the relevant questions were asked, a few years ago. Exactly what people meant by saying this, we do not know with confidence because the right follow-up questions were not asked. But the results are nevertheless striking, particularly because people who express these views are unlikely to have seen or heard them in the mainstream.  

Opposition to aggression is only one of the legacies of the activism of the ‘60’s and its aftermath. It’s common to hear concerns these days about the lack of protest against the Iraq War as compared with the Vietnam protests. The comparisons, however, are misleading. At a period of the Vietnam War comparable to Iraq today, there was virtually no protest. Or take the question of withdrawal. In the case of Iraq it’s a lively topic. The first call for withdrawal from Vietnam that I can recall in the mainstream war was in the fall of 1969, in a Boston Globe editorial. Simply compare the scale of the Indochina wars at that time and Iraq today.

One important lesson of the activism of the ‘60’s is that activism can make a difference, a lasting one, and can lead to changes of consciousness to be carried forward to the future. In many respects the country has become a more civilized place, thanks to the activism of the ‘60’s and its expansion in many directions in the years that followed.

  • September 2008

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