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Noam Chomsky: Back from Vietnam


Noam Chomsky, one of America's leading linguists, began devoting his time to opposing the Vietnam War in 1965. Since then he has written American Power and the New Mandarins and At War With Asia: Essays on Indochina, two books which provide a powerful critique of American imperialism in the Pacific. On Friday, November 20, Chomsky was interviewed in his office at M.I.T. by CRIMSON reporters David N. Hollander and Garrett Epps.

While the interview progressed, B52 bombers were secretly taxiing on runways in Thailand and Okinawa, and on carriers in the South China Sea, in preparation for a massive bombing raid on the Democratic Republic of Vietnam the first such bombing since last May.

And, at an undisclosed location, a classified number of U.S. troops took off by helicopter for Sontay, an area deep inside the DRV, purportedly to rescue American prisoners of war.

Do you think the U.S. will escalate the war soon?

Well, it depends how you define escalation. There's one component of the war that has been reduced, that is the number of ground combat troops in South Vietnam. But if you consider the areas of Indochina that are under saturation bombing, that has already been escalated under Nixon. Just take the bombing statistics alone, the plain cold statistics the Pentagon gives out. Up to August, 1970, 40 per cent of the ordnance expended in the entire war is under Nixon. In fact, the peak months of bombing were early 1969, after Nixon got in, when it reached the level of 130,000 tons a month- which is just something beyond belief.

From what we understand, that kind of bombing does very little to stop supplies from coming down. Does the White House realize that the main effect of this bombing is genocide?

I suppose. They more or less say so. Did you look at the report of the Kennedy subcommittee on refugees that came out on September 28? The report is written by two young guys who didn't sign their names. They have long sections with this material incorporated in it, and it's very accurate. They point out that the purpose of the bombing in Laos is twofold: first, to destroy the socioeconomic structure of the Pathet Lao, and second, to stop the North Vietnamese infiltration. It has some marginal effect on the second but on the first is extremely effective. In most of the country it's true that the socioeconomic structure- everything in other words- has been destroyed. They don't call it genocide, but it's another word for the same sort of thing.

In fact, they estimate that in Cambodia alone there are about a million refugees already. That means refugees from the American bombardment, since there's nothing else for people to flee from. That's in addition to half a million Vietnamese refugees in Cambodia, so a million and a half in six months of war in a population of six and a half million.

Robert Anson from Time magazine, who was captured in Cambodia- Time hasn't printed any of his stuff on his captivity- stays that where he was there were B-52 bombings regularly. He doesn't want to identify the place, but it was central Cambodia not far from Phnom Penh.

Most of that bombing now comes from Thailand, doesn't it?

For years the bombing of Laos has been almost all from Thailand.

How close do you think the U.S. is to winning in Vietnam and Indochina- in other words, reducing the NLF and other groups to a level where they'd just have to be quiescent for a long time?

Well, as I understand it, for the last couple of years the main American policy has been to try to destroy the rural structures that were the basis for Vietnamese revolution. And the same in Laos and I suppose the same in Thailand and Cambodia. And they have succeeded in that to a significant extent- the destruction of rural society is very extensive and you can see it just in the refugee figures. The fact that Saigon has three and a half million people instead of the 500,000 that it had 10 years ago is an indication of the success of this policy. But this is a kind of tricky thing. They may very well destroy the social base of the Viet Cong in Vietnam, or the Pather Lao in Laos, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they win the ground war.

In Laos, the long run effect is that the Communists are stronger on the ground than ever. The CIA mercenary army in Laos, which is the main fighting force for the Americans there, is virtually destroyed. It's mainly the Meo army, and the Kennedy report estimates that the total population of the Meo is now down to about 200,000- from 400,000 a decade ago. The Dispatch News Service correspondent in Vientiane who has recently been investigating the Meo says that 12-year-old boys are drafted into their army immediately and he'd seen kids as young as eight in the Meo army.

That's the CIA mercenary army.

Yes, the CIA mercenary army. Everyone admits that the Meo are virtually decimated. There are two CIA bases in northern Laos. One called Long Cheng is probably the last in Laos that is still occupied, and most people there think that it may fall in the dry season offensive. If it does, then that's the end of the Meos as an organized community because then they'll have been entirely driven out of the mountain areas and they'll have to go to the other side as many of the Lao have done- which means to live under the constant bombardment. Nobody seems to think that they could survive in the lowland areas, as an organized community at least.

In Vietnam, I would tend to believe the American military reports that they have, in a sense, won a military success in the countryside as a result of the bombing, the sweeps, and the general destructive policy. But they're left with fantastic chaos on their hands in the cities. They've got millions of refugees in these teeming urban slums.

In the cities themselves there is a recognition on the part of a rather substantial part of the urban population- even the urban elite, for the first time- that unless they get the Americans out of there pretty quickly they're going to bomb the country into the South China Sea. And for that reason everyone says that there's a tremendous upsurge of anti-Americanism in the cities. Don Luce, for example, has written that it's unlike anything before- really deep-seated anti-Americanism.

And the students, who were pretty quiescent a couple of years ago. are apparently quite radical and organized now. The schools were all closed down last spring. I don't know if they've opened yet; I doubt it. There's a tremendous amount of student action. There are war veterans demonstrations. There's no doubt that the NLF is very active there. A CIA report issued a couple of weeks ago said that the NLF has about 30,000 agents in the government. Probably something like that is right.

So they've sort of driven the population into these urban centers where they're supposed to be controlled, but then that raises the question of whether they can do anything with this chaos they have created or whether it will explode in the urban centers- which may very well happen.

To what extent do you think people like Sam Huntington are responsible for the policy of driving people into the urban centers?

I don't know any reason to think that they're responsible- I think he's commented on it accurately. Nobody can know from the outside just what policy-making function these people have. They claim that they're just doing research, but I've read the minutes of one meeting of the Vietnam Studies Committee of SEADAG [Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group], the thing that Huntington headed, which purports to be just a scholarly outfit where people come do research on Southeast Asia.

But the minutes of the meeting I read were all concerned with how to deal with the situation I just described- that is. if the United States is driven into elections, how they can manage to control them or manipulate them, given the fact that the NLF is the most powerful politically-organized force in the country which everybody concedes.

He has a paper which he presented to this meeting- it's an interesting paper- a study of how to manipulate, cheat, and coerce in such a way that you can win the elections even though you don't have any popular force on your side, and the minutes of the meeting are really quite amusing. Most of the people are sort of skeptical whether we can do it and they suggest other ways.

So I don't know- there are government representatives present at these meetings and they clearly have a policy-making orientation. Whether that has any effect on policy I can't judge.

Do you think the U.S. has finally found a counterinsurgency strategy that they think will work, that they think they can use everywhere? There used to be theorizing about such things as counter-guerilla groups, now they have this theory of just bombing the hell out of everything.

This is obviously an outsider's impression- I have no access to anything but public documents- but reading the reports of the Senate hearings and other things of that sort you get the impression that everyone agrees that Vietnam has been a disaster.

They say you can't learn anything from it except not to do it that way, but that Laos has been very successful, and that that ought to be the kind of model that we ought to follow.

In the Symington Committee hearings, Senator Symington- who's a very strong opponent of the war in Vietnam, incidentally-and Senator Javits- who again, has a reputation as a dove- say that the war in Laos is very successful. In fact, Javits says at one point this is one war that is successful, so let's not keep it a secret.

And Symington made a statement that in Vietnam- especially North Vietnam- the bombing was really not very fair because there were too many restrictions and it wasn't fair to the pilots because they couldn't bomb the center of Hanoi. But, he says, in Laos we've used the military without shackles- it's his phrase- and we've shown what air power can really do.

And then he says we ought to advertise this. We shouldn't keep it a secret because it would help overcome the frustration of American youth- which he thinks is due to the fact that we weren't able to win in Vietnam.

But it's not really going that well.

They're losing on the ground, but it's a question of whether they care. They're keeping the Mekong Valley. Suppose the Pathet Lao took over Vientiane. It's fairly clear what would happen- the city would just be wiped out. Nothing they can do about it- if not by American bombardment, then by Thai artillery across the river.

There are a lot of open questions; for example, in the population of Thailand, which is about 33 million, there are about 8 million Lao, mostly within the Northern areas. I would assume that the Pathet Lao are organizing there. I don't have any facts, but they'd be crazy if they're not, and if something happens in the areas of Thailand bordering Laos, then it's a different story. But short of that, I don't see how they could move into the Mekong valley. They'd be wiped out.

I think the Tet offensive was a very striking indication to them and to everybody what it means to win. During the Tet offensive, in effect, the NLF just won the whole war. They took over all the cities- they hadn't taken over all the bases and they hadn't taken over all of Saigon but basically they conquered the cities after having taken the countryside.

But it didn't do them any good. The U.S. just wiped out all the cities. It was no sweat. That indicates to them that they can't take over the cities even if they have that military capacity. Most people in Lao think that the Pathet Lao could have taken over the last CIA bases like Long Cheng but they didn't want to pay the cost.

What do you think would happen in Thailand if a revolutionary force there gained enough power to attack the American B-52 bases as the NLF did in Vietnam before they were removed?

The United States can't lose. We can always fight from the sea. During the Tet offensive the NLF actually did threaten the bases and, in fact, the helicopter bases were attacked. I think about a thousand or fourteen hundred helicopters were destroyed on the ground. So what the U.S. did was send in a helicopter carrier.

The United States has infinite resources compared with the NLF or any Vietnamese force, any indigenous Southeast Asian force, and I think we'd fight even harder to preserve Thailand than Vietnam for all sorts of reasons.

But if it were ever threatened . . . The bombing of Vietnam also goes on from Okinawa. It's an Asian war.

Is the situation in Thailand- the situation of the people- comparable to that in the other three countries?

One difference is that Thailand has had a pretty stable military dictatorship for over 20 years now. Thailand's a very rich country by Asian standards. There hasn't been a great deal of guerrilla insurgency. Bangkok is superficially rather affluent and it's basically a Western city implanted in Thailand. For some part of the Thai population- that part which is either the elite or those who are involved in service for the elite- has a fair amount of commodities.

As far as the peasantry are concerned, up until recently there haven't been overwhelming sources of peasant discontent except in the tribal areas of the northeast.

But the United States has moved in Thailand very soon and very quickly. They want to undercut the thing before it begins. The preventive counterinsurgency efforts in Thailand are extremely intensive. The place is just flooded with anthropologists.

There was a good article in the New York Review [of Books] last week about counterinsurgency research in Thailand which showed how the anthropological profession has committed itself almost completely to a major counterinsurgency effort there.

And its not just that- for example, in Thailand the Meo happen to be the guerrillas. In Laos they're the CIA.

How did the Laotian Meos come to fight for the CIA?

There always have been antagonisms between the mountain tribesmen and the lowland peoples and they were exploited very effectively by the CIA, who offered them guns and told them they would protect them against the Lao or lowland people and also the North Vietnamese whom they're very afraid of.

And they buy their opium and no doubt the CIA ships it through Saigon or wherever the outlet is. Incidentally the Meo are split, there are Meo on the other side too.

Can you make any kind of estimate of how many people have died in Southeast Asia?

Well over a million at least. How can you even count the casualties? I went to a refugee camp in April and counted about 400 people. A Dispatch correspondent went back in June, and in those months two months ten people had died of malnutrition and disease.

They're not even counted as war casualties. But they had all been wealthy peasants in the Plain of Jars.

If the U.S. withdrew very soon, what kind of economy would be possible in South Vietnam?

Well, I suppose they have some sort of chance. In North Korea, for example, which was incredibly devastated- and which incidentally didn't get a lot of aid from China and the Soviet Union, they've paid off all aid they got- there isn't a lot of information, but it seems that there was a very substantial and very successful economic reconstruction in a very short period.

Won't it make a difference that we are using so many more powerful chemical weapons in Vietnam?

That's really unknown. Nobody knows what the effect of the chemical warfare will be in the long run. I guess you know the statistics. The area of heavy defoliation is now about 8000 square miles. That's about the size of Massachusetts. Nobody really knows what the effect will be.

Professor Meselson at Harvard is working on a study of this now.

What the effects on population may be is unclear. The chemical warfare does appear to have serious genetic effects. One thing that is clear is that the destruction of forests may be irreversible.

The mangrove forests are valuable lumber and the areas where they have been destroyed have been taken over by bamboo which is very hard to get rid of and useless.

But it may be much more severe. There's this problem of laterization- the turning of the soil into a sort of brick-like substance. I don't know what Meselson discovered- he couldn't do much work on the ground really because they can't land in these places, it's dangerous.

Do they have no more conscience than it appears?

There are some people who may be concerned about the real issues- I assume McGovern or Goodell or Hatfield. But as far as I can see the major response seems to be that it was a blunder and we ought to fix it up as best as possible and that's the whole issue.

In fact most of the commentators, even the liberal commentators on the subject say quite clearly that if the United States were to win they will support it. Take somebody like Arthur Schlesinger. He's been absolutely explicit. He says, if, contrary to my judgment, the government proves to have been successful, then we will all be applauding the wisdom an statesmanship of the government. And I don't think that statement is in any sense outlandish. I think it does reflect the almost automatic opinion of liberal America on the subject. Which isn't terribly surprising. The Germans were perfectly civilized people. Would they have opposed the war if they had won?

Then how does it come about that a large part of the country understands that these people are nuts?

That's the student movement. I think what's unique about the United States- different from other countries in the past- is not the fact that everybody's willing to accept it if we win; that's normal. But rather it's things like the student movement, which is the really organized mass segment of the population against the war. There have been anti-imperialist movements in the past but they've been pretty restricted. That's why it would be a great tragedy if the student movement lapses into apathy. Especially when the Saigon student movement really needs support desperately. Because there might be a terrific repression in Saigon any time now and if the American student movement doesn't respond to that it would really be a tragedy.

I've felt ever since 1968 that the student movement was wasting a lot of effort and making an error of judgment and analysis as well in turning its attention toward universities, which I don't think are all that important.

That kind of movement is easily crushed and has to some extent been crushed. The universities become like any other institutions in society- they protect themselves through the police and so on, which everybody else does automatically.

It's not surprising. Why did the student movement demonstrate against Columbia and not against General Motors? As soon as you answer that question, it's obvious why they could crush it.

As soon as the universities become like General Motors, that's the end of that. At General Motors you can't demonstrate on the premises, because they'll just call out the National Guard and kill you and something like that. It took the universities about a year or two to use the force of the state to protect themselves and to get rid of people who make trouble. But, that was bound to happen.

Now I think things have to turn toward the issue of the war itself, not peripheral institutions like the University.

Do you really think there's a chance that anything we can do can persuade the government to stop the war?

That's a question that's put all the time. But I think its really the wrong question to ask. It's not just a two state affair, in which you either stop the war or the war goes on. There are a lot of degrees.

I think the student movement has been quite successful in constraining the war to some extent. It's hard to say that, considering the scale, but they haven't used nuclear weapons, they haven't wiped out North Vietnam, they haven't bombed China yet.

I think just Cambodia alone is an example of the effectiveness of the student movement. I'm sure they had much bigger plans for a large-scale invasion and a permanent occupation. Instead, they're down to just sending the Saigon air force and carrying out an aerial bombardment, which is not very nice but it's better than it might have been. And I think this kind of pressure can win partial victories.

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