After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina & the Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology

right pictureOfficial doctrine in imperial society requires that the crimes of enemy states be circulated as widely as possible irrespective of fact or the historical record. Deviation from this code of conduct invariably elicits a barrage of insults and verbal abuse. Passionate condemnations of dissidents are meant to illustrate the deep humanitarian sensibilities of the intellectual class, moved to speak out against those not sufficiently outraged over the crimes of others, real or perceived. Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s After the Cataclysm deconstructs this deeply rooted tradition of imperial society and, in the process, exposes the fabrications, omissions, and flagrant lies of a well-oiled propaganda industry. Reviewing both the scholarly and journalistic record on post-war Indochina, Herman and Chomsky reveal a persistent tendency in the US to obscure (if not ignore entirely) the decisive American role in the brutal destruction of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Rather than reflect seriously on the odious history of US savagery in Indochina, media accounts regularly portrayed the humanitarian consequences of the imperial assault as a quintessential expression of the evils of “communism.” Meanwhile, the US record of chemical warfare, indiscriminate murder of civilians and diplomatic sabotage remained safely concealed from public scrutiny. It was probably for this reason that President Jimmy Carter, a Nobel Laureate who used human rights rhetoric as a basis for his presidency, was able to evade US responsibility for the massive suffering in Vietnam by claiming “the destruction was mutual.” The US destroyed South Vietnam under the pretext that they were defending its inhabitants from northern “aggression.” This bombing occurred despite the fact that  “about half of the population of the South supported the [National Liberation Front]” (official US government estimate).

One of the more transparently criminal operations in the US attack on the NLF was the Phoenix program. Former intelligence officer K. Barton Osborne described the program in an official testimony as “a sterile depersonalized murder program,” with “no cross-check”, “no investigation”, and “no second options.” Interestingly, President Obama’s drone assassination program mirrors the Phoenix program in many ways, excepting the fact that it’s more “sterile” and “depersonalized” than its predecessor. In addition to the material and human damage the US attack on Vietnam caused, it also destroyed the Vietnamese economy. In an attack on Vietnam’s agrarian-based economy, the US bombing devastated the countryside creating a mass population of internally displaced refugees. US bombing campaigns against the montagnard population was particularly brutal driving hundreds of thousands of people off their land (conservative estimates say a minimum of 125,000 people were forcibly expelled from their territory.) All of this information went completely ignored in the elite media and when alluded to was attributed to the so-called “logic” of “communism.”

Equal attention is given to the US aggression in Laos. CIA subversion was vital in undermining any possibility of democratic governance in Laos. This subversion included an attempt to manipulate Laotian elections in 1958 and ,after failing in this effort, backing “a Thai based military attack against the [Pathet Lao] government …”, a government “recognized by the United States.” Hostilities of this kind were submerged beneath orientalist rhetoric about “lovely little Laos” and its “gentle folk” victimized by North Vietnamese communists. Laotian Vice Foreign Minister Khamphay Boupha informed an American representative in Laos that “the US has dropped 3 million tons of bombs–one ton per head,” and “forced 700,000 peasants to abandon their fields.” Much like the US attack on Vietnam the US bombing of Laos also inflicted severe economic costs on the Laotian people. A harsh drought and a US-backed Thai blockade aggravated the economic crisis in the form of food shortages and an “exodus of skilled technicians.” Filtered through the propaganda industry the plight of Laos was described as follows: “Little Laos is in fact tragically caught between the anvil and the hammer: a pawn of the Vietnamese as the front line of defense against Thailand and a client of the Soviet Union in its big power competition with China.”

Excluded from this picture entirely was the United States which at the time was “[refusing] to send any of its rice surplus to Laos (the world’s largest) , despite impending starvation.” The reason for not interfering to stop this US instigated plague of mass starvation was that such an act would “appear to be pro-communist” (official excuse of the White House). In 1975 the US “cut off its malaria prevention program.” Statements from foreign doctors described this decision as responsible for “killing adults and children indiscriminately, infecting pregnant women, and weakening many people so that they cannot work.” Unexploded ordinance is the lasting legacy of the US attack on Laos. During the war thousands were killed by these “golf-ball sized bombs containing explosives and steel bits released from a large canister.” Today this “war debris” continues to maim and murder the people of Laos.

Perhaps the most consequential section of Chomsky and Herman’s study, in terms of the discussion it generated and the insight it provides in regard to imperial ideology, is that on the US media’s role in distorting the post-war situation in Cambodia. Fake photographs, misquotations, and unverifiable allegations characterized this campaign of misinformation. Special attention is devoted to the media response to Francois Ponchaud’s book Cambodia: Year Zero. Among the assertions made in Ponchaud’s book that escaped critical examination was his claim that the killings in Cambodia were centrally organized and directed by the Khmer government. This unverified assertion conflicted with other credible reports that attributed the massacres to peasants, independent of government control, seeking vengeance for the utterly devastating effects of the US bombings of the Cambodian people. Though glossed over or ignored in media treatment of post-war Indochina, the US military destroyed Cambodia in 1973. Cambodia scholar Laura Summers reported that US B-52s “pounded Cambodia for 160 consecutive days, dropping more than 240,000 short ton bombs on rice fields, water buffalo [and] villages …” This tonnage represented “50 percent more than the conventional explosives dropped on Japan during World War II.” In a sharp departure from conventional narratives about post-war Cambodia Summers concluded that the Khmer revolution was “the expression of deep cultural and social malaise unleashed by a sudden and violent foreign assault on the nation’s social structure.”

One striking feature about the US attack on Cambodia and the media response is how closely it resembles the current discussion surrounding the drone bombings in northern Pakistan. In the case of Cambodia the bombings were conducted under the pretext that they were harboring “Viet Cong guerrillas” from Vietnam. Similarly, Pakistani villages are regularly bombed under the pretext that “terrorists” are hiding in the tribal areas. In both cases, the mass murder of civilians is ignored along with elementary principles of international law. In March of 1969, the year the US officially initiated its air war against Cambodia, the Cambodian government protested the killing of “peaceful Cambodian farmers,” adding that “these criminal acts must immediately and definitively stop …” Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk organized a press conference shortly thereafter on March 28th. At this press conference he made it known that “unarmed and innocent people have been the victims of US bombs,” and in “the latest bombing, the victims … were Khmer peasants, women and children in particular.” In accord with the requirements of the “free press” these protests went unreported. In fact, the US circulated false reports claiming the Cambodian government welcomed the attack.

More than any other book, this text is often cited by propagandists as proof of Chomsky’s “support” for the Khmer Rouge. A simple reading of this book reveals this accusation to be a bad joke at best and at worst a slanderous lie. The purpose of the Cambodia section, and the book as a whole, is stated repeatedly and unambiguously; namely, to illustrate how “available facts were selected, modified, or sometimes invented to create a certain image offered to the general population”, that “the performance of the Free Press in helping to reconstruct a badly mauled imperial ideology has been eminently satisfactory,” and “the only casualties have been truth, decency and the prospects for a more humane world.” In short, the core objective of this text was to demonstrate the capacity for servility within the American intellectual classes, their ability to parrot information without the slightest regard for historical context or documentary evidence. This capacity for servility is regularly renewed in the aftermath of  US imperial projects, the latest being the rape of Fallujah, which is now described as the US military’s effort to “pacify” a violent Iraqi insurgency. Chomsky and Herman’s careful study is, in this respect, an enduring moral refutation of faith-based journalists, scholars and the horrendous crimes of state in which they play a decisive ideological role.


The Washington Connection & Third World Fascism by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman


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