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An Innocent Abroad

Off the Town

By David R. Ignatius

AMERICAN "FACT FINDING" missions to regimes trying to crush guerrilla movements have been numerous over the last decade. Thus, it is hard to read through the 11,000 words of Stephen Farber's report to the University on his summer "fact finding" trip to Angola without recalling that this is a rather sorry genre of reporting, and without wishing Farber had given more thought to the disastrous errors of his American fact-finding predecessors.

Since the publication of the Pentagon Papers we have known that early Vietnam fact-finding tours by government officials were used as instruments of pro-war propaganda, and that their distortions of fact were precisely calibrated to soothe restive tempers back home.

But the more generous Vietnam commentaries have made it clear that Vietnam reports were colored as much by the cultural biases of the American observers as they were by the Government policy of deliberate lying. In her recent exegesis of the war. Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerald described the American fact finders:

Year after year the delegations of high officials, Congressmen and their dignitaries would arrive in Salgon and, still dizzy from the trip, would receive massive, two or three-hour briefings from colonels with seven overlay charts, then dine with the ambassador or the commanding general, those tall noble Anglo-Saxons who emanated all the confidence of surgeons to their patients. The next day they would be issued green fatigues and flown around by daredevil helicopter pilots to spend (but for the air trip) an unalterably boring day visiting hamlets with pig farms, maternity clinics, 'miracle rice' plots, and children washed, scrubbed and smiling, lining the streets and waving GVN flags... The VIPs would return to announce that progress was being made. How could they deny it? The confidence of the mission officials was so pure.

Robert McNamara, whose bullet-headed manner made him appear an ideal fact-finder, had a fondness for mathematics. David Halberstam has reported that on one Vietnam trip, an edgy McNamara sat through a dull series of fabricated progress reports by American military advisers, but was exhilarated when one clever officer presented his fabricated progress report with elaborate charts, graphs, and computer statistics. Those were facts!

What about Farber's facts? Sitting in Cambridge, it is as hard for us to critically evaluate his first-hand observations as it was for Americans to analyze the facts that were brought home from Vietnam in the mid-sixtles. We do know that some of Farber's facts originated with the Portuguese and Gulf spokesman, and that he made a last-minute change in his statistical account of the Angolan budget after a Portuguese Embassy official, doing his job, complained that Farber's figures were incorrect.

Despite their appearances of bias, it would be unfair to compare Harvard Administrator Farber with Vietnam architects and apologists, or to make any more of the analogy between his factfinding mission and previous ones than a simple caveat to the reader; a warning that the reader be wary of the implicit cultural arrogance of a four-week quest for the truth in a foreign land. Farber's own cover letter admitted that "before my departure I was not sure that my investigations abroad would yield substantially more information than I had (already) been able to compile."

WHEN PRESIDENT BOK first proposed the Angola tour in response to the demands of black students that Harvard sell its Gulf Oil stock, many people shared Farber's skepticism about the value of a whirlwind tour. One visitor to our community remarked: "Only at Harvard would they send someone off to Africa in 1972 to decide if colonialism was a good thing or a bad thing."

Indeed, the critical facts of the Gulf-Angola issue seemed quite clear last Spring: Angola is a colonial possession of Portugal: Gulf Oil's drilling concession payments underwrite the suppression of pro-independence Angolans; Harvard underwrites Gulf through its stockholding. These facts were never really at issue; at issue was what Harvard would do in response.

Now in October comes a suntanned Farber, report in hand, ready to meet the press with fresh insights dug out of the equatorial jungles. For example, he questions whether the Portuguese military is in so shaky a position that Gulf's American dollars are all that stand between the guerrillas and military victory, as a few of Gulf's critics had maintained. "Many of the 60,000 Portuguese troops now in Angola... appear to be underemployed," notes Farber, in reaching his conclusion that militarily, "a low-level stalemate appears likely."

Despite the crisp briefing style that runs through his analysis and schedule of possible options, Farber shows some remarkable lapses in political sophistication. For example, after noting the low security precautions at the Gulf concession in Cabinda, Farber advances several of what he describes as "conspiratorial theories" to explain why the drilling and refining equipment has not been sabotaged by the liberation forces. Yet inexplicably--at a time when enormous destruction is being visited on North and South Vietnamese by the American bombing campaign--it does not occur to Farber that the guerrillas might be afraid that attacking the Gulf plant would invite devastating U.S. military retaliation and intervention.

IS FARBER MERELY native? It's hard to tell. He is able to pinpoint the political perspective of the Gulf managers, who are vocationally more interested in making profits than in maintaining racist or colonial governments. "Governments often change," says Farber of Gulf's attitude, "but contractual agreements like its concession in Cabinda remain in force."

Farber seems to agree with Gulf's critics that whatever the corporation's avowed mission in Angola, profit-making and the maintenance of colonialism have been wedded in a marriage symbolically consummated with the penetration of colonial territory by the corporate derrick. Farber specifies that "in the re-negotiation of the concession agreement in 1969 (when the drilling investment was beginning to pay off) the government was prepared to defer the deadline for partial relinquishment of the Gulf concession area, as the company had hoped, in return for advance payment of royalties that would help ease a tight budget situation in Angola." The budget was tight because so much of it was going to fight the guerrillas.

After having established through his own researches precisely the sort of link between Gulf and the Portuguese that the Mass Hall occupiers boomed out over their loudspeakers last spring. Farber attempts to dismiss the relevance of the charges by nothing that "the operative factor in this negotiating situation and others seems to be the pressing of self-interest by both parties"--as if critics had been claiming that Gulf was not just a corporation, but a perverse philanthropic organization chartered to fund a fascist governments and military adventures.

Gulfis just a corporation and that is perhaps the most important lesson to be taken from the entire debate. Gulf happens to be allied with a colonial dictatorship in its quest for profits. Other corporations are allied with comparable institutions, churning out medical supplies and napalm with the equanimity of good free marketeers. Hideous commodities and corporations converge with benign ones in a dense thicket.

For its part, Harvard is just a University, whose "primary strength and influence lie in its capacity for teaching and research," as Farber says. What can we do about Angola? Farber poses the question with a fatalism that was shared by many students and faculty last spring: how can the University presume to enter the corporate thicket and attempt to prune away Gulf in Angola from the rest, or at least pull the Gulf in Angola briars out of its own skin. Wouldn't that be just a "symbolic" action, concludes Farber; one having little effect in the real world? Even if Harvard were somehow to succeed in pressuring Gulf to withdraw from Angola, wouldn't another oil company from the real world come in and take its place?

IN HIS ASSERTION of this withering "real world," where any attempt by Harvard to aid Angolans in gaining their independence of Portugal is nothing more than a symbolic act, Farber--trying to sound pragmatic--sounds instead like a grumpy Eeyore. We deserve better from him, for he is described as a man of liberal and generous temper.

The Pan-African Liberation Coalition, which raised the Gulf issue last Spring, never saw divestiture of Gulf stock as anything more than a symbolic action. But the PALC organizers were astute enough to understand that symbolic doesn't mean unimportant, and they believed that nationally, the issue of University investment policy was in a momentary logjam. They hoped that Harvard University, by making a solid commitment against colonialism, might be able to break the impasse. Perhaps they thought at the outset of their campaign that Harvard Administrators--feeling some shame for the participation of their country and their University in the destruction of Indochina--might intervene at an early stage of a Vietnam-in-the-making.

IT SEEMS THAT the PALC organizers were wrong about Harvard. Commitment to principle by a University is dismissed in the Farber report as useless symbolic action; students are intimidated by Farber's description of a world in which Gulf or some other foreign oil company will always be at Cabinda and, if the "low-level stalemate" persists, white Portugal will always rule black Angola.

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