The following article is an edited version of a talk delivered at the University of Paris, March 22, 1979. Material specifically relating to France has been deleted.
It is widely and correctly observed that the international system established after World War II had been significantly damaged by the mid-1970’s. The Trilateral Commission Report on the "Crisis of Democracy" defines this international system simply and accurately. "For a quarter century the United States was the hegemonic power in a system of world order," the system that arose from the ashes of World War 11, which of course left the United States in a position of overwhelming power, sufficient to materially influence historical developments though not to control them completely in its interests.
Despite the crises of the past years, there has been virtually no institutional or structural change, so it is only reasonable to suppose that the goals and policies of the past will persist, perhaps in a new guise. Therefore it is worthwhile to pause for a moment to see how this world system has been viewed by U.S. elites. There are actually two quite distinct versions of the U.S. role in the world, as described by American elite groups. First, there is what we may call "the State Religion," a system of doctrines and interpretations that dominates journalism and much of what is called "scholarship." According to the State Religion, the United States is unique among the nations of past or present history in that its policies are governed by abstract moral principles such as the Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, human rights, economic welfare, and so on, not by the material interests of groups that actually have domestic power, as is the case in other societies. Furthermore, the United States is not an active agent in world affairs. Rather, it responds to the acts of others, in defense of the moral principles to which it is committed. Of course, it is recognized that the historical record does not quite conform to the doctrines of the State Religion. These "deviations" are attributed to the complexity of history, error, the limits of American power, innocence, and other factors that have the virtue of being ideologically and socially neutral.
A radically different picture appears in internal planning documents, and often, in the business press. As an example of the former, consider the documentary record of the important War-Peace Studies project organized by the Council on Foreign Relations with the cooperation of the State Department from 1939-1945, which was devoted to planning the structure of the postwar global system. These study groups dealt with "the requirement[s] of the United States in a world in which it proposes to hold unquestioned power." They devised the concept of the Grand Area, a region including the Western hemisphere, the former British Empire and the Far East. The Grand Area was described as a region "strategically necessary for world control," which must be organized so as to guarantee the health of the U.S. economy, offering it the "elbow room" needed to survive without domestic adjustments. The latter qualification was crucial; it was understood that internal social change might eliminate the need for U.S. domination of the Grand Area, but no change in the internal distribution of power was considered admissible—not surprisingly, given the constitution of the study groups. It was recognized clearly that such frank assessments of the postwar reality were not for general consumption. One working group proposed that in the statement of war aims "the interests of other people should be stressed, not only those of Europe, but also of Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This would have a better propaganda effect." The group was no doubt relieved, when, a few months later, the Atlantic Charter was proclaimed, suitably vague and idealistic, to be intoned by journalists, scholars, and other members of the priesthood.
Needless to say, these very significant documents are under a strict taboo in U.S. scholarship, discussed only far from the mainstream. The same is true of other crucial documents, for example the high-level planning documents of the 1940’s and early 1950’s that appear in the Pentagon Papers, which are quite similar to those of the War-Peace Studies project—naturally, since the same interests and many of the same people are involved. The Trilateral Commission study just cited has met the same fate, as have many other critically important documents that do not serve the needs of the State Religion, although—or rather, because—they present an accurate picture of the thinking that guides policy planning.
In a democratic society, heretics who do study and analyze the documentary record and the application of the policies developed in this record are not burned at the stake, or even silenced or imprisoned. Rather, they are denied access to a broad public and their work is largely excluded from what the Trilateral Commission accurately calls the institutions responsible for "the indoctrination of the young." Or their views are presented in caricature, or simply dismissed as "naive" or "irresponsible." No serious effort is made to understand or respond to their work; as in medieval times, it is sufficient to point to a heresy, though the secular priesthood in the democratic societies does not attain the intellectual level of its predecessors, who at least attempted to refute the dangerous and heretical doctrines of the unbelievers.
As noted, the business press often feels less need to conform to the doctrines of the State Religion; businessmen, after all, are concerned with the objective world and need not constantly reaffirm the faith. Thus we read, for example, such analyses as the following, in the liberal journal Business Week in April 1975, just at the time of the final collapse of the U.S. position in Indochina: "The international economic structure, under which U.S. companies have flourished since the end of World War II, is in jeopardy...Fueled initially by the dollars of the Marshall Plan, American business prospered and expanded on overseas orders...No matter how negative a development, there was always the umbrella of American power to contain it...The rise-of the multinational corporation was the economic expression of this political framework ...[But] this stable world order for business operations is failing apart," Business Week feared, with the defeat of U.S. power in Indochina. Such an analysis, which is reasonably accurate, would rarely if ever be found in the mainstream press, and only rarely in academic scholarship.
The failure of American arms in Vietnam was interpreted as dangerous in two major respects: first, because of the failure of American power to contain "negative developments" — that is, developments perceived as ultimately harmful to U.S. business interests; and second, because the doctrines of the State Religion became increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of the horrifying reality of the war, in particular, the doctrine of American benevolence— though contrary to what is commonly believed, the great mass of American intellectuals remained loyal to the faith throughout, and are now assiduously and effectively at work restoring the tattered image. as are their colleagues elsewhere in the "Free World."
In accordance with the doctrines of Grand Area planning, any form of economic nationalism is unacceptable, since it limits the freedom of investment and exploitation. Thus, the British imperial system had to be dismantled, while national capitalism was blocked in Europe as was so-called "Communism" in the Third World, where possible. Joan Robinson once referred to the American crusade against Communism as a "crusade against development." It would be quite accurate to regard it as a crusade against independent development. The same may be said of the current "human rights crusade,’ which has achieved such a spectacular propaganda success in the West. The U.S. Congress has designated seven countries as such severe human rights violators that the United States, as guardians of international morality, must not provide them with any aid. One of these was Uganda—obviously, no list could be complete without Idi Amin, though in this case the citation was a joke, since the economy of Uganda was largely supported by U.S. coffee purchases. The other six are Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Cuba, Angola, and Mozambique. These countries stand alone in their massive violation of human rights, as judged by that great historical defender of human rights, the U.S. Congress, acting to fulfill the pledge of the President to defend human rights everywhere. Only the small-minded would take note of another property that these unique villains share. Meanwhile, the Shah was hailed as a great humanist and progressive, not only by President Carter but also by the liberal press. Similarly, Brazil and Indonesia, for example, were not stigmatized as prime violators of human rights. Only those countries that escaped from the Grand Area were so stigmatized.
The struggle to maintain American global domination reached its peak under the liberal democratic administrations of the 1960’s, with the considerable amplification of the doctrine and practice of counterinsurgency and counterrevolutionary subversion and violence. A plague of neo-fascist states spread through Latin America and elsewhere as well. Brazil, because of its size and power, was a particularly significant example. After the U.S.-backed military coup of 1964, Lincoln Gordon, Kennedy’s Ambassador to Brazil and later U.S. Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, described the "Brazilian revolution" as "the single most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century." Similarly, the Indonesian coup a year later, with its huge massacres, was welcomed in liberal circles as a vindication of the U.S. policy of standing firm in Indochina- The revolution in Cuba, in contrast, was understood to pose such threats to human rights and civilized values that the United States subjected Cuba to invasion, subversion, embargo, terrorism, poisoning of crops and livestock—and now, after this record, stands in judgment over Cuba for its violation of human rights.
It is interesting to inquire into the relation between human rights violations and U.S. aid and support. There is, in fact, a correlation, which has been noted in several studies, one of them by Edward Herman and myself. We found, as did Michael Klare in another study, that the deterioration of the human rights climate in some dependent states of the Free World correlates closely with an increase in U.S. aid and support. Of course, one must be cautious with statistical correlations; the correlation in question should not be interpreted as implying that the United States is rewarding some ruling group for the increase in torture, death squads, destruction of unions, elimination of democratic institutions, decline of living standards for the mass of the population, etc. Rather, the correlation between abuse of human rights and U.S. support is derivative from deeper factors. The deterioration in the human rights situation and the increase in U.S. aid and support each correlate, independently, with a third and crucial factor: namely. improvement of the investment climate. The climate for business operations improves as unions and popular organizations are destroyed, dissidents are tortured or eliminated, real wages are depressed, and the society as a whole is placed in the hands of a collection of thugs and gangsters who are willing to sell out to the foreigner for a share of the loot. And as the climate for business operations improves, the society is welcomed into the Free World and offered the specific kind of "aid" that will further these favorable developments.
The correlation just cited, and the obvious explanation for it, reveal that there is indeed a relation between U.S. foreign policy and human rights, though not precisely the one that is heralded throughout the international propaganda system. No less striking than the correlation is the careful avoidance of all of these matters in respectable scholarship, which prefers to explain the unfortunate developments in Latin America, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere as indications of the limits of U.S. power. And in this context, it is possible for an American President to stand up and proclaim that human rights is "the Soul of our foreign policy," and to be listened to with respect—even critics limit themselves to noting "contradictions," "inconsistencies" and "deviations," thus reinforcing the basic principle of the propaganda system, that the U.S. is committed to a program of freedom and human rights (as is the West in general), one of the great lies of modern history, and an awesome indication of the power of the systems of propaganda that have evolved in the Free World.
The spread of neo-fascist torture-and-corruption states in the Third World under U.S. sponsorship has in part been a response to the lessons of Vietnam. General Maxwell Taylor explained that: "The outstanding lesson [of the Indochina conflict] is that we should never let another Vietnam type situation arise again. We were too late in recognizing the extent of the subversive threat ...We have learned the need for a strong police force and a strong police intelligence organization to assist in identifying early the symptoms of an incipient subversive situation." This was in December 1965, after the U.S. backed military coups in Brazil and ’Indonesia, after the invasion of the Dominican Republic, events that revealed how well the lessons of Vietnam had been absorbed—ruling groups have a historical memory, a capacity to learn, and a high level of class consciousness.
By the 1970’s, the world system based on U.S. hegemony and leadership of the crusade against independent development, while it had achieved many successes, was in disarray. There are many reasons, among them, the end of the era of cheap and abundant energy, the rise of a number of centers of competing industrial capitalism, and the enormous costs of the Vietnam failure. The response, at the global level, has been what is called "trilateralism," though one should bear in mind Henry Kissinger’s important footnote to trilateral doctrine as perceived by U.S. elites: other powers have regional responsibilities, which they are to fulfill within the overall framework of order managed by the United States. At the domestic level, the response to the crisis is to be a kind of "Brazilianization" of the home countries.
There is a striking parallel between the Trilateral theory as to how to overcome the political and ideological crisis at home and the liberal counterrevolutionary ideology developed earlier for application in the Third World. The American political scientist lthiel Pool explained over a decade ago that in such countries as Vietnam, the Congo, and the Dominican Republic, order depends on restoring "passivity and defeatism" among "newly mobilized strata." This is exactly what is proposed now by Trilateral theorists for the industrial societies themselves. It is necessary to return the population to apathy, passivity and defeatism if democracy is to survive. It is necessary to destroy hope, idealism, solidarity, and concern for the poor and oppressed, to replace these dangerous feelings by self centered egoism, a pervasive cynicism that holds that all change is for the worse, so that one should simply accept the state capitalist order with its inherent inequities and oppression as the best that can be achieved. In fact, a great international propaganda campaign is underway to convince people—particularly young people—that this not only is what they should feel but that it is what they do feel, and that if somehow they do not adopt this set of values then they are strange relics of a terrible era that has fortunately passed away.
This process of imposing passivity and defeatism is, of course, to be accompanied by other features of the Brazilian model: restricting real income and social benefits for the working classes, demoralization of unions and other popular organizations, and so on. At the ideological level, the process is already well advanced.
Let us consider how the Western response to events in postwar Indochina fits into this pattern. It is first important to recall some facts which are too quickly forgotten. The attack on Indochina left these impoverished peasant societies devasted and demolished, facing virtually insuperable problems. The agricultural systems were destroyed and much of the population had been driven into urban slums in a conscious effort to undermine the rural resistance to American aggression. The productive economy was in ruins and the foreign dole that had kept much of the population alive was abruptly terminated. It was a condition of survival to turn (or return) the population to productive work in the countryside; on this matter, every competent authority, from the U.S. State Department to the World Bank, is in agreement.
The victors in Cambodia, where the effects of the bombing aimed at destroying the productive potential of the country were particularly severe, undertook drastic and brutal measures, simply forcing the urban population to the countryside where they were compelled to live the lives of poor peasants. At an extremely heavy cost, these measures appear to have overcome the destructive consequences of the U.S. war by 1978. A Japanese Embassy delegation, anti Commmunist U.S. journalists, and others who visited in late 1978 found the population generally well fed, so far as they could determine, even after the terrible floods of the fall of 1978 which had a disastrous impact elsewhere in Indochina. Nayan Chanda of the Far Eastern Economic Review went so far as to suggest that the improvement of the internal situation and the international image of Cambodia was a major factor in the timing of the Vietnamese invasion—that is, that Vietnam felt that it was "now or never" if Vietnam hoped to escape serious international censure. Perhaps the best picture we will ever have of the society that existed in large parts of Cambodia by the end of 1978 is that provided by Richard Dudman of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an experienced and highly qualified observer who visited for two weeks in December 1978, just as the Vietnamese invasion was beginning.
Vietnam, in contrast, pursued a very different course. The Hanoi regime actually diverted very scarce resources in an effort to maintain the artifically inflated living standards of the more privileged sectors of Saigonese society— those whom the Western media refer to as "the South Vietnamese"—while encouraging migration to "New Economic Zones" in which productive work could be undertaken. Until a year ago, the capitalist economy was largely untouched in southern Vietnam, an unproductive economic sector that the country could not tolerate for long. The economic measures of March 1978, closing private business and eliminating cash hoarding, were one major factor in the flight of ethnic Chinese, who expected that they would soon face a life of harsh agricultural labor. The exodus was accelerated by the intensifying conflict between Vietnam and China and the floods of fall, 1978. in a sense the refugee flow from Vietnam in 1978 is comparable to the forced resettlement of the urban population of Cambodia in 1975.
Western propaganda generally attributes all of the suffering and tribulations of Indochina to the evils of Communism, without, however, suggesting some different and more humane ways to deal with problems of a sort that the West has never faced. In fact, if the leaders of the Communist societies were saints, it is difficult to see how they could face the problems that confront them without resort to Draconian measures. Surely there is nothing in Western experience to suggest a model.
What is more, while the West sanctimoniously deplores the failure to overcome problems that are largely the legacy of Western domination and aggression, it refuses to offer reparations or even meaningful aid— or in the case of the United States, even to permit trade or to respond to Vietnamese proposals for normalization of relations. In Laos, hundreds of thousands face death by starvation, while the United States, with the world’s largest rice surplus, refuses more than a tiny trickle of aid, unwilling to forego the propaganda benefits of privation and misery. These victims of starvation and disease are being murdered by the West, which destroyed their land, no less than those who were killed outright by napalm and antipersonnel weapons. In Vietnam as well there is actual or impending starvation in much of the country, but Western moralists shed their crocodile tears only for the miserable refugees, while doing nothing to provide the desperately needed aid (or reparations, to use the proper term) that might alleviate the conditions from which they flee, or even offering a suggestion as to how these conditions might be met. The failure of the U.S. to offer substantial help to the refugees is shameful enough, but it is surpassed by far by the refusal to offer massive reparations to the great mass of the population that is attempting to recover from the American onslaught. I will not even speak of the display of mock horror on the part of Western moralists who "denounce the Vietnamese" but not their own past crimes, and crucially, their present crime of refusing reparations, or of those who have suddenly raised the banner of "human rights" after having accepted or even applauded the atrocities of the past decades.
The policy of imposing harsh conditions on countries that have escaped the Grand Area is ugly, but entirely rational. In the first place, harsh conditions can impede social and economic development, thus diminishing the so-called "domino effect," that is, the demonstration effect of successful economic development outside the approved dependency model; it is worth noting that this was always the rational content of the "domino theory," though more lurid versions were served up for mass popular consumption. Secondly, harsh conditions will tend to enhance the authoritarian and repressive features of the victorious regimes. This consequence is extremely important for domestic propaganda purposes in the industrial democracies. A general public mood of hostility to Third World nationalism is very useful for the managers of the industrial democracies as they attempt to manipulate "North South conflicts" to their benefit. In contrast, the sympathy towards third world independence movements that developed during the post World War II struggles for national liberation, brutally repressed primarily by France and the United States, makes it more difficult to impose measures that will meet the requirements of the wealthy industrial powers. It is therefore important to try to arouse hatred, contempt and moralistic outrage directed against nationalist movements of the Third World that have escaped Western domination. Therefore it comes as no surprise that a major effort should be directed toward revesing the worldwide currents of sympathy towards the people of Indochina that were aroused by the assault of the U.S. war machine. That struggle came to be perceived as symbolic of the conflicts between the industrialized West and the former colonial domains. Thus, the refusal of massive reparations or even meaningful aid, or even trade, is a very rational policy, just as rational as the massive international propaganda campaign, orchestrated by the subservient intelligentsia of the Western world, that is focused on the repression and brutality to be found throughout Indochina, effacing the past and present Western role.
It is a bitter truth that the United States in essentials won its filthy war in Indochina. True, it did not achieve the goal of retaining Indochina within the American system, so that its people could enjoy the fate of the peasants and urban slum dwellers of Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. But that was always a secondary goal. The primary goal was to ensure that "the rot would not spread," in the terminology favored by the planners—namely the rot of successful independent development. In South Vietnam itself, the United States did win the war. The ferocious battering of the peasant society, particularly the murderous post Tet accelerated pacification campaigns, virtually destroyed the indigenous resistance, setting the stage for the Northern domination now deplored by Western hypocrites. In Cambodia, the horrendous bombing campaign of 1973, which was directed against the peasant society and its agricultural resources, was a major factor— probably the major factor—in brutalizing the Khmer Rouge victors, a conclusion supported by U.S. government studies and other sources. In Laos, the prospects for peaceful development in one of the world’s poorest countries were destroyed by American subversion and military attack. North Vietnam, while not conquered, was left in ruins— in large parts of the country, nothing remains standing and even the foundations of buildings crumbled to dust under the ferocious pounding while the remaining population faces starvation. The terrible prospect of successful economic development has been overcome for a long time, perhaps permanently. The postwar policy of refusing aid or normal relations with Vietnam succeeded in driving Vietnam into an alliance with the Soviet Union, as the only alternative remaining, again a consequence eagerly exploited by the Western propaganda system. By systematically creating conditions under which only the most harsh and repressive elements could survive, conditions under which existence is reduced to virtually the zero grade, Western power has attained its primary end throughout Indochina. The West has once again taught the lesson that European civilization has offered the world for centuries: those who try to resist the technologically advanced but morally primitive Western societies will pay a bitter price.
We can gain some insight into the significance of the international propaganda campaign with regard to Indochina by undertaking a few comparisons: Sometimes, history provides us with a virtual controlled experiment to verify certain theses. The 19751978 period is a case in point. Let us explore this matter.
The primary target of Western vituperation has certainly been the victorious Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who inherited a country devastated by American attack. There is no doubt that massive and brutal atrocities have taken place in Cambodia since 1975. About this fact there has been virtually no dispute. But Cambodia is not the only country where massacres have taken place during the period in question. There is, in fact, another, not far away; namely, East Timor, where the Indonesian army, backed and armed by the U.S. and its allies, has been on a murderous rampage during exactly the same period. Let us compare, then, the events in East Timor and in Cambodia, and the Western reaction to them, carrying out the experiment that history has been kind enough to offer us.
There are, in fact, some remarkable parallels in the two situations, enough to offer a fair test of the meaning of the human rights crusade and of the clamor concerning Cambodia. The time frame is identical: 1975 to the present. The same region of the world is involved, so one cannot appeal to the general lack of concern for remote and exotic places to differentiate the two examples. In Cambodia, the harshest critics of the regime allege that perhaps 100,000 people or more were massacred by the Khmer Rouge. Much higher figures appear in Soviet bloc and Western propaganda, but a careful look will show that these further estimates, where they are not simply invention based on no known evidence, include deaths from starvation and disease that are, to no small extent, chargeable to the American account; recall that high U.S. officials predicted in 1975 that a million people would die as a result of the conditions left by the American war.
Turning to Timor, it appears that approximately the same number of people have been killed in the course of the Western backed Indonesian invasion, perhaps 100,000 or more. in this case, the estimates derive not from hostile critics, but from people who at first at least were willing to support Indonesian "integration"— in fact, even Foreign Minister Adam Malik of Indonesia offered an estimate of 50-80,000 dead, though he added, sagely, that perhaps they were killed by Australians. Relative to the population, the scale of massacres in Timor is perhaps 5 or 10 times as high as in Cambodia. Furthermore, these killings cannot be attributed to peasant revenge and similar factors that may well have been operative in Cambodia. given the history of rural violence before and during a brutal war. Rather the Timorese massacres took place in the course of direct aggression, which has been regarded as a rather serious matter since Nuremberg (at least when it is conducted by the wrong parties). As for the quality of the evidence available, there is no time to survey it here: I have done so elsewhere, and I think it can be shown that the evidence concerning atrocities and massacres in East Timor is at least as credible as what has been produced in great profusion in the case of Cambodia. In particular, it is worth noting that critics of the Indonesian massacres in Timor have not discredited themselves by repeated falsification, or by refusal to correct gross falsehoods, as has unfortunately been the case with many of the best known critics of the Khmer Rouge.
So much for parallels. Consider now some dissimilarities. First, hoever awful the facts may have been in the case of Cambodia, there was very little that anyone in the West could do about the matter, apart from helping to encourage a Vietnamese invasion that is likely to lead to still further catastrophes, perhaps even the final end of Khmer nationalism as a viable entity. But this is obviously not at all true in the case of Timor. In this case, exposure and protest might well have mitigated or brought to an end the aggression and massacres for which the West bears direct responsibility. Thus by any reasonable moral standards—that is, standards that relate to the human consequences of one’s acts—the case of Timor was vastly more significant for the West than the case of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. There is a second and closely related difference between the two examples. In the case of Cambodia, there has been an international outcry of unprecedented proportions, and the media, East and West, have eagerly seized upon any scrap of evidence, however tarnished, that might be used to demonstrate the iniquity of the Khmer Rouge, even giving vast exposure to well documented fabrications. In the case of Timor, in dramatic contrast, there is a veil of silence, occasionally lifted for Indonesian or State Department apologetics circulated by the loyal and subservient press.
The contrast reveals with brilliant clarity the true significance of the recent "human rights" clamor in the West,.specifically, the Carter crusade, which is, surprisingly, taken seriously even by normally rational Western observers. It tells us a good deal about the moral content of the alleged concern over the atrocities that have taken place in Cambodia.
The United States is by far the prime offender in the case of Timor; the Indonesian army was 90% supplied by the United States, according to the State Department, and in flat contradiction to false testimony by government spokesmen at Congressional Hearings, the U.S. government continued to provide armaments to Indonesia, including new offers of arms, in the early post-invasion period and indeed since. Furthermore, the continued flow of armaments has been crucial for the Indonesian aggression, since Indonesia has virtually exhausted its arms supplies in its efforts to destroy the Timorese resistance. What is more, the U.S. and the domestic media have been in the forefront of international efforts to conceal the facts about Indonesian aggression and atrocities.
To show that an honorable response was possible, we can turn to the case of Sweden. There, the Social Democratic opposition compelled the government to terminate arms sales to Indonesia. But nothing of the sort has happened in the United States, where the bold standard-bearers of virtue and morality have other commitments and concerns. I should add that this is not past history. The aggression in Timor continues, thanks to the military and diplomatic support provided by the West and the servility of the intelligentsia who loyally keep their silence; and it could still be brought to an end if the West would withdraw from this massacre.
After Cambodia, the sufferings of the "boat people" escaping from Vietnam have been the major subject of Western sympathy and concern—though material support is much less in evidence, and as already mentioned this show of concern has not been accompanied by reparations or aid to mitigate the conditions from which they flee. But let us put aside that quite important matter, and turn to another experiment that history provides. The Vietnamese boat people are hardly the only refugees who flee oppression and misery. But while their suffering is bewailed on the front pages in a daily regimen, a little research is necessary to learn of some other victims. But they do exist. Thus in April and May of 1978, some 200,000 Muslims escaped from Burma to Bangladesh. They were not fleeing starvation or the fear of agricultural labor, but rather the ravages of a marauding army that was burning their villages and massacring those who did not escape. At the peak of the flight, their number was estimated at about 18,000 a day by UN officials, far higher than the flight from Vietnam. Somehow they escaped the attention of Western moralists, as did the 140,000 refugees who fled from the Philippines to Sabah in 1977 or the Haitian "boat people" who arrive in a steady flow in Florida, to be returned to persecution and misery in another land that has long benefited from American tutelage and concern, or the hundreds of thousands of victims of Israeli and Syrian bombardment in Lebanon, or the millions of refugees in Africa, many of them fleeing from murderous regimes bolstered by Western power, such as the Congo of General Mobutu. Only the refugees from Indochina, however, arouse the compassion of the West. To record this miserable display in the proper terms would require the talents of a Swift or an Orwell.
One can continue with parallels of this sort, but I will mention only one last example. Vietnam, incapable of recovering from the blows of Western imperialism and suffering under the harsh measures imposed by the West as further punishment for its resistance to imperial attack, is regularly denounced for its sins in the mass media. In the Far Eastern Economic Review, one of the saner journals dealing with international affairs, we read that the Communists have created a "loathsome" society in Vietnam; the same journal applauded the American war for having permitted the West to construct a "second line of defense" in Thailand and Indonesia, for example. How have these latter countries, untouched by foreign aggression, fared under the Western aegis? We learn a good deal from the pages of the same journal, for example, from the discussion of confidential reports of the World Bank and UN agencies which reveal that for many ’tens of millions of impoverished peasants and urban slum dwellers, living conditions are constantly worsening in these relatively wealthy and favored societies plundered by the West and their own corrupt elites, backed by Western force. But the Western powers responsible for these continuing and massive atrocities are not denounced for having created "loathsome" societies. Rather, these developments are described in quite neutral and dispassionate terms, as the unfortunate consequences of technical errors, or of the evils of "Asian nature" (corruption is a way of life in Asia), or of the inexorable processes of history.
Propagandists in the media and the academy are concerned to obliterate the distinction between two fundamentally different positions: (1) defense of radical nationalist movements from imperialist savagery, and (2) support for the programs and leadership of these movements, often called "Communist"—a term that has come to refer to movements led by a revolutionary intelligentsia that hopes to attain state power through the leadership of popular struggles and then to use this power to carry out forced programs of economic development in relative independence from international capital (hence the hostility of the West) and within a totalitarian framework. it is obvious why ideologists of state capitalism should seek to identify these two entirely different commitments—why they should, for example, regularly identify opponents of the American war in Indochina as "supporters of Hanoi," including those who consistently expressed their opposition to Marxist-Leninist doctrine and practice. In the first place, it is the duty of such ideologists to establish the doctrine that a principled opposition to imperialist depredations cannot exist: either one supports the imperial powers, or one supports their enemies. Furthermore, any repressive or authoritarian policies pursued by the latter can then be exploited to discredit opposition to counterrevolutionary violence and to undermine socialist programs of a sort meaningful in the advanced industrial societies, which share little beyond the name with those undertaken by revolutionary nationalists of the underdeveloped world. There is no reason for the Western left to fall into this trap, though it often has, a major historical error that has severely weakened it since the time of the Bolshevik revolution.
Surely it is legitimate to criticize and protest atrocities in underdeveloped societies, including those that have freed themselves from Western domination, though not to ignore the historical and material circumstances in which brutality and oppression arise. And surely criticism of Marxist-Leninist doctrine and practice is legitimate—there is a long and rich left libertarian tradition, including Marxist currents, that has devoted itself to this essential task for 60 years, and at the doctrinal and theoretical level, long before. But what we are now witnessing is something entirely different, I believe.
When a "human rights" activist in the Soviet Union denounces the United States for its crimes in Vietnam or Chile, or defends the rights of the Wilmington 10, what he says may be exactly correct, but to determine the human and political significance of his protest we ask what he has to say about the crimes of the Russian state. It is cheap and easy to condemn the crimes of the enemy. The same moral and rational standards apply when the New York Times, for example, denounces Cambodian genocide, as it has been doing regularly since mid 1975, while observing a strict silence with regard to the ongoing massacres in Timor, backed and aided at every step by the United States —and by other industrial democracies that crave a share in the plunder of Indonesia.
Much the same is true in other cases I mentioned, and many others that I did not. Individuals have their own motives and reasons, which I am not concerned to discuss. But I think that we can find some important systematic and institutional characteristics in the human rights crusade that was undertaken, with such fanfare, at just the moment when the lustre of traditional imperial doctrine had faded. These characteristics are obvious without further comment. The crusade plays its essential role in arousing contempt for the struggles of poor and oppressed peoples. It is worth noting that despite their enormous wealth and advantage, the Western powers have never conceived of undertaking serious programs directed to the welfare of the suffering and impoverished majority in the underdeveloped countries subject to their domination and influence, and would have no idea how to proceed even if, in some stunning reversal of history, they were to devote some effort to these ends. While Western elites are always keen to denounce injustice beyond their reach, from their position of privilege that derives from centuries of brutal exploitation, the task of overcoming degradation and misery within their own domains merits no more than occasional flights of "Alliance for Progress" rhetoric, the precise meaning of which is evident enough from the record of the acts that accompany it. And they have demonstrated their talents primarily in devising new types of oppression and destruction when their own interests are threatened.
American business has long understood the importance of what is sometimes called "the engineering of consent"—controlling public opinion through careful supervision of the flow of "information" and analysis. Since World War and increasingly after World War II, the engineering of consent has been a major industry. The multitude and variety of programs directed to this end are rarely appreciated, and very substantial successes have been achieved in the U.S., where the conformism and subservience of the intelligentsia has reached unusual levels and where the class consciousness of business groups is also unusually high. One consequence of the partial failure in Vietnam was the recognition that existing measures did not suffice. Consequently, there has been a severe and rather effective attack on the press for its occasional minor departures from the State Religion, for example, for its lack of enthusiasm for the American war (which, in fact, closely mirrored that of powerful business circles) when the going got too tough. Such groups as "Freedom House" and "Accuracy in Media"—true Orwellian constructions, whose exploits I have discussed elsewhere—have been engaged in this campaign, which, once again, accords with the Trilateral model of domestic pacification. The Trilateral Commission Report on the "Crisis of Democracy" (by which is meant the direct involvement of popular groups in the political arena, hampering the freedom of the "elites" who deserve to rule unimpeded) contains some interesting indications of the paranoid response in ruling circles to the rare and limited instances of intellectual independence on the part of the national media and the intelligentsia as a whole.
How far the model of "Brazilianization" will be pursued in the industrial West, and with what success, one can only speculate. It will depend very largely on the seriousness of economic and other crises and the outcome of the campaign to induce apathy, hopelessness, cynicism and passivity throughout the general population. There is no question as to the unity and commitment and resources of those who are committed to domestic pacification. The shape of the future will depend on the strength and commitment of those who choose to resist these developments and to devote themselves to a very different vision.
If readers would like to pursue in depth the issues posed here, we refer you to a two volume study on The Political Economy of Human Rights authored by Chomsky and Ed Herman. Volume I is The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism and Volume II is After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology. Both books are available from South End Press, Box 68, Astor Station, Boston, MA. 02123).