YOU'VE GOT TO ADMIRE Noam Chomsky's consistency. For years, he stood out as one of the harshest and most articulate critics of American involvement in Vietnam. When Saigon became Ho Chi Mihn City in 1975, Chomsky took on the role of apologist for the new Vietnamese regime. That stance alienated many of Chomsky's disciples, as it increasingly became clear the infant Hanoi government was subjecting its own citizens to more egregious repression than ever. The price of Chomsky's steadiness was high indeed: he lost much of his influence among the American Left.
Since the Vietnam debacle, Chomsky has remained in the spotlight. Two years ago he drew scathing criticism for writing the preface to a book that essentially denied the existence of the Holocaust. The resulting scandal obscured the fact the Chomsky disagreed with the book's thesis: rather, like a modern day John Stuart Mill, he felt he was affirming the author's right to express himself freely. But even those who grasped those motives found it abhorrent that Chomsky could associate himself at all with such repugnant revisionism.
Now, Chomsky has released a collection of provocative essays that seems likely to unleash the critics once more. Toward a New Cold War chronicles American foreign policy in the 1960s and '70s; Chomsky attempts to dispel the notions that the United States is in triennially "good" and that it prized democracy more than other nations. Yet his analysis unmistakably leads one to the conclusion that America is inherently "evil"; by trying to show that the United States is no better than its adversaries, Chomsky actually make it look worse. This tragic flaw greatly weakens what is otherwise often a painfully accurate picture of the misuse of American might.
IN A LONG INTRODUCTION, Chomsky sets the stage for his arguments. The thesis has two tenets. American foreign policy, he contends, caters to economic interests and is dominated by big business. Yet these self-interested policies are billed as concrete expressions of the American desire to do "good" and respect human rights. The tragedy, says Chomsky, is that Americans rarely look behind their leaders' sloganeering to see the corporate nature of U.S. foreign initiatives.
What we should expect to find is that (1) foreign policy is guided by the primary commitment to improving the climate for business operations in a global system that is open to the exploitation of human and material resources by those who dominate the domestic economy: and (2) that this commitment is portrayed as guided by the highest ideals and by deep concern for human welfare.
Chomsky then leads us through a fascinating case study of the Vietnam war and how Americans perceived it. Much of the population, Chomsky says, believed U.S. intervention in Indochina was necessary and well-intentioned but that America, in the words of CBS anchorman Dan Rather, "got burned."
Chomsky puts much of the blame for this "perverted" perception of Vietnam squarely on the shoulder of intellectuals and the press during the '60s and '70s. Self-interest prevented them from straying too far from the official government line. That view prompts Chomsky to see an American propaganda system that "seeks to determine and limit the entire spectrum of thought." The intelligentsia, except for occasional dissenters whom the press ignored, swallowed the government's accounts. One assumes they conformed so society would not ostracize them, though Chomsky never really makes this clear. he presents an impressive case showing the press's reluctance to criticize U.S. policy-- though he rarely documents in with more than a sentence or two from an entire article.
But he acknowledges that "the doctrines of the state religion were not able to survive the war in Vietnam, at least among large parts of the population." By dismissing the opposition to the war in a flash, Chomsky stands on shaky ground. He fails to explain how the mobilization of anti-war opinion occured, particularly in a country well-versed or so Chomsky claims, in the "engineering of consent."
These criticisms aside, his analysis of Vietnam is pertinent and thought-provoking. Perhaps most frightening--and most effective--is the essay after which the collection is named. In it, Chomsky contends that efforts to erase the "Vietnam syndrome" have spurred renewed international tension. By the "Vietnam syndrome," Chomsky means the "reluctance on the part of large sectors of the population of the West to tolerate the programs of aggression, subversion, massacre and brutal exploitation that constitute the actual historical experience of much of the Third World, faced with 'Western humanism.' "The task for the United States in the aftermath of Vietnam, then, was to restore the image of Western benevolence.
This whitewashing of America was partly accomplished by the purge of President Nixon during the Watergate "farce," Chomsky argues. Instead of prosecuting Nixon for his "serious crimes--the merciless bombings of Laos and Cambodia and the murderous 'pacification' campaigns in South Vietnam..." Americans chased their President from office in the name of morality, charging him with committing what Chomsky calls "petty criminality."
The hostage crisis in Iran further served to rid the country of its post-Vietnam guilt. Instead of seeing the immorality of propping up the dictatorial shah, Americans learned only that we should "overcome our reticence, develop more destructive strategic weapons, deploy forces prepared for rapid intervention throughout the world, 'unleash' the CIA, and otherwise demonstrate our pugnacity." He sums up:
As the decade of the 1970s came to an inauspicious end, NATO, under U.S. pressure, agreed to deploy in Western Europe new advanced missiles targeted against the Soviet Union, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and the Carter Doctrine was proclaimed, calling for still further increases in the military budget, including not only intervention forces but also preparations for a peacetime draft and the MX missile system...a major contribution to an escalating arms race. War clouds are gathering. We entering a period of what some are calling "The New Cold War."
BUT IN THE END, Chomsky fails to convince. His essays are brilliantly written and impressively researched: 370 pages of text and 104 pages of footnotes. The insights into American action in Southeast Asia hold water, as does his contention that the United States is repeating its disastrous mistakes of a decade ago in Latin America today. yet you've got to wonder if the United States is really the belligerent and oppressive state that Chomsky would have us believe.
The answer, at least compared to other nations, is unequivocally no. Chomsky rightfully decries the excesses of such U.S.-backed regimes as the ones in EI Salvador, Guatemala and Chile. Yet he writes nary a word in criticism of left-wing dictatorships or, for that matter, the repression by Eastern Bloc rulers. By showing no tolerance for American mistakes but explaining away the sometimes "confused" policies of other nations. Chomsky undermines his own intellectual honesty.
Chomsky's characterization of the United States as a "propaganda" state like all the rest--distinguishable only by its more effective and seductive salesmanship--is particularly hard to swallow. For every Sidney Hook who dismissed the havoc of Vietnam as "an unfortunate accidental loss of life" and "the unintended consequence of military action," there was a Noam Chomsky, willing--and able--to stand up and decry the madness. Maybe the reaction came to little too late, but Americans eventually rebelled against their own government's policy and, through their action, ended a nightmare.
The lessons Noam Chomsky sets out to teach us in Toward a New Cold War are invaluable. The United States, like any other nations, can and does err, and often in a big way. But Chomsky cannot support at all his implicit diagnosis that America is "bad." While the United States has often taken the wrong path, it has rarely failed to demonstrate--at least in the long run--the courage to reverse its steps.