• Email
  • Print

A Frustrating Task

In response to:

After Pinkville from the January 1, 1970 issue

To the Editors:

In the space of three brief paragraphs in your January 1 issue, Noam Chomsky manages to mutilate the truth in a variety of ways with respect to my views and activities on Vietnam.

Mr. Chomsky writes as follows:

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by “direct application of mechanical and conventional power…on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city….”

It would be difficult to conceive of a more blatantly dishonest instance of picking words out of context so as to give them a meaning directly opposite to that which the author stated. For the benefit of your readers, here is the “obvious conclusion” which I drew from my statement about the Viet Cong:

…the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation.

By omitting my next sentence—“Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation”—and linking my statement about the Viet Cong to two other phrases which appear earlier in the article, Mr. Chomsky completely reversed my argument. (Incidentally, the phrase “direct application of mechanical and conventional power” is not mine, but one which I quote from Sir Robert Thompson. Mr. Chomsky, however, does not see fit to recognize these distinctions of authorship.)

Mr. Chomsky’s further effort to say that I favor demolishing Vietnamese society and “eliminating the people” in order “to crush the people’s war” is totally false and misleading. My article described the urbanization produced by the escalation of the war between 1965 and 1968 and the extent to which this “American-sponsored urban revolution” undercut the “Maoist-inspired rural revolution.” It concluded from this fact that peace would require compromise and accommodation on both sides. To eliminate Viet Cong control in the areas where they have been strong, I said, “would be an expensive, time-consuming and frustrating task.” Instead of attempting this, we should aim at a political reintegration of the country which “clearly will depend, however, upon the recognition and acceptance of Viet Cong control of local government in these areas. It is here that accommodation in the most specific sense of the word is a political necessity.” This is, in a nutshell, the thesis of the article, and it is well reflected in its title, “The Bases of Accommodation,” which Mr. Chomsky somehow forgot to mention.

Not content with distorting my views directly, Mr. Chomsky goes on to repeat Daniel Ellsberg’s prejudiced and inaccurate description of them. The phrase “modernizing instruments” which he quotes is Mr. Ellsberg’s phrase, not mine. The repetition of Mr. Ellsberg’s distortions by M. Chomsky does not make them any less distorted. Or does Mr. Chomsky think that truth is produced by reiteration rather than analysis? If Mr. Chomsky is interested in my views on Vietnam, he would do well to read more carefully than he has what I have written on the subject rather than to rely on what critics such as Mr. Ellsberg assert I have said.

Mr. Chomsky is equally inaccurate and misleading in his description of the Council on Vietnamese Studies as “in effect the State Department task force on Vietnam.” His use of the definite article implies that there is only one such task force or that this is a very special task force. In fact, of course, there have been scores if not hundreds of State Department task forces, study groups, working groups dealing with Vietnam. The Council on Vietnamese Studies, however, is not one of them. The Council is the creation of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group which, in turn, was created by the Asia Society which, in turn, acted under a contract with the Agency for International Development which, in turn, is a semi-autonomous agency of the State Department. The Council is thus a task force of the State Department to the same degree that Mr. Chomsky is the son of his great-great-grandfather. The Council has, on occasion, met with AID officials to discuss matters of common interest, but it has never, to the best of my knowledge, undertaken any “task” for the State Department. It was, indeed, almost a year before any Vietnam expert in the State Department could muster enough interest in the Council to show up at one of our meetings. The principal task of the Council, as its name implies, is to raise funds from public and private sources to support scholarly research on Vietnam, a task at which, I regret to say, it has been only moderately successful.

The three paragraphs of Mr. Chomsky to which I have referred constitute less than five percent of his article. I do not know if the level of veracity which he achieves in them is typical of the entire piece. If these paragraphs are representative, however, the article as a whole should contain, by conservative extrapolation, approximately 94 other serious distortions and misstatements of fact.

Samuel P. Huntington

Palo Alto, California

Noam Chomsky replies:

In the issue of January 1, I pointed out that massacre and forced evacuation of the rural population is the essence of American strategy in Vietnam, and referred to Samuel Huntington’s essay in Foreign Affairs for a clear explanation of the theory behind this strategy. There he wrote that: “In an absent-minded way the United States in Vietnam may well have stumbled upon the answer to ‘wars of national liberation.’ ” The answer to such wars is “forced-draft urbanization and modernization which rapidly brings the country in question out of the phase in which a rural revolutionary movement can hope to generate sufficient strength to come to power.” He presents a more detailed description of “the answer” we have stumbled upon in a comment on Sir Robert Thompson’s contention that People’s Revolutionary War is immune to “the direct application of mechanical and conventional power.” This Mr. Huntington denies:

In the light of recent events, this statement needs to be seriously qualified. For if the “direct application of mechanical and conventional power” takes place on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city, the basic assumptions underlying the Maoist doctrine of revolutionary war no longer operate. The Maoist-inspired rural revolution is undercut by the American-sponsored urban revolution.

He also points out that the Viet Cong is “a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.”

These comments are no doubt accurate and, as I wrote, provide a succinct explanation of American strategy. Since the Viet Cong is a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist, we have resorted to military force, causing the migration of the rural population to refugee camps and suburban slums where, it is hoped, the Viet Cong constituency can be properly controlled.

I also commented that Mr. Huntington “does not shrink from” these conclusions. This comment could, in fact, have been strengthened. Thus he says that “forced-draft urbanization and modernization,” Vietnam-style, may well be “the answer” in general to mass-based peasant revolutions. In fact, he expresses no qualms, no judgment at all about such methods (which clearly involve “war crimes” as defined by Nuremberg Principle VI, for example). His approach follows the principle stated by two counterinsurgency theorists in Foreign Affairs, October, 1969: “All the dilemmas [of counterinsurgency] are practical and as neutral in an ethical sense as the laws of physics.” Thus Huntington uses such terms as “urbanization” to refer to the process by which we drive the Viet Cong “constituency” into refugee camps and cities, and he speaks of the “American-sponsored urban revolution,” the “social revolution” that we have brought about in this way. So successful is “urbanization,” he might have added, that the population density of Saigon is now estimated at more than twice that of Tokyo. Lucky Vietnamese.

Enough has been written about the conditions of life of the five million or so beneficiaries of “urbanization” so that further comment is unnecessary. A useful indication of the nature of the “American-sponsored urban revolution,” as it affects the more privileged, is given in an observation by Luce and Sommer (Vietnam: the Unheard Voices):

When students at Saigon’s teacher training college were asked to list 15 occupations in an English examination, almost every student included launderer, car washer, bar-girl, shoeshine boy, soldier, interpreter, and journalist. Almost none of the students thought to write down doctor, engineer, industrial administrator, farm manager, or even their own chosen profession, teacher. The economy has become oriented toward services catering to the foreign soldiers.

Huntington himself refers to the “often heart-rending” social costs of “urbanization” and writes that: “After the war, massive government programs will be required either to resettle migrants in rural areas or to rebuild the cities and promote peacetime urban employment.” Such is the social revolution we have brought to Vietnam.

Mr. Huntington further claims that I said he “favors” eliminating the Viet Cong constituency by bombardment, whereas he only states that such “forced-draft urbanization” may well be “the answer to ‘wars of national liberation’ ” that we have stumbled upon in Vietnam. The distinction is rather fine. One who insists on it must also recognize that I did not say that he “favored” this answer but only that he “outlined” it, “explained” it, and “does not shrink from it,” all of which is literally true.

My only additional comment involved a quotation from Ellsberg, who speaks of the “people who have been driven to Saigon by what Huntington regards as our ‘modernizing instruments’ in Vietnam, bombs and artillery.” Huntington claims that this is prejudiced and a distortion. Unfortunately, it is an accurate statement. The “forced-draft urbanization and modernization” that he believes may be the answer to peasant revolution was, as he makes clear, effected primarily by American military force. Bombs and artillery produced “the depopulation of the countryside,” the migration to the cities, where “the Maoist-inspired rural revolution is undercut by the American-sponsored urban revolution.”

So far as my comments go, then, they are accurate. But Mr. Huntington objects that they do not go far enough, and cites two reasons. First, I did not state that the phrase “direct application of mechanical and conventional power” was borrowed from Thompson. That is correct (though irrelevant—see the full statement, just quoted); however, it was clearly indicated that the quotation was abbreviated, and note 4 refers to a fuller discussion where I explicitly gave the source of the wording. His second and more serious claim is that I misrepresented his position by not discussing his specific tactical proposals. It is true that I did not discuss these proposals, restricting my comments to his assessment of Viet Cong strength and his general ideas about how to defeat peasant revolution. Let us turn, then, to his immediate suggestions for Vietnam.

After describing how we may have stumbled upon the answer to peasant revolutions, Huntington adds this paragraph:

Time in South Viet Nam is increasingly on the side of the Government. But in the short run, with half the population still in the countryside, the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation.

Obviously, if the Viet Cong constituency will continue to exist in the short run, it follows that in the immediate future, if there is to be peace, it must be based on accommodation (or American withdrawal, which is rejected as “misplaced moralism”). This is not a policy proposal, but rather, indubitably, an immediate consequence of the assumption that the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force. Why this assumption? Huntington explains:

To eliminate Viet Cong control in these areas would be an expensive, time-consuming and frustrating task. It would require a much larger and more intense military and pacification effort than is currently contemplated by Saigon and Washington.

Since “the answer to ‘wars of national liberation’ ” will, in this instance, require an effort that is expensive, time-consuming, and frustrating, and since Saigon and Washington cannot or will not take the necessary steps, evidently another approach must be sought. Therefore Huntington proposes that the Viet Cong accept an arrangement rather like that of the Hoa Hao (who, he asserts, went through the typical evolution: development of social and political consciousness, confrontation with the Central Government, defeat by the Central Government, withdrawal from the national political scene, accommodation). Given the present “rates of urbanization and of modernization,” his prognosis is that the Viet Cong “could now degenerate into the protest of a declining rural minority increasingly dependent upon outside support” (though at one time, prior to “urbanization and modernization,” the Viet Cong “had the potential for developing into a truly comprehensive revolutionary force with an appeal to both rural and urban groups”).

Suppose, however, that the NLF refuses to be satisfied with the generous offer of some degree of local control within the framework of national power set by the US military and the Saigon authorities it has installed. Suppose that the NLF is unwilling to accept an “accommodation” under which it is likely to degenerate into a declining rural minority. Then, Mr. Huntington explains, we can make clear that “this confrontation cannot succeed.” He does not list the methods, but they can easily be imagined.

Thus although the general answer to peasant revolution may be beyond our grasp in the short run, given present political realities, we may still be able to impose (by force) an “accommodation” that is likely to lead to the political solution that we have determined to be appropriate. Nothing could indicate more clearly the persistence of what can only be described as colonialist assumptions, pragmatically attuned to the political and economic constraints within which policy makers are forced to operate.

Finally, Mr. Huntington objects to my description of the Council of Vietnamese Studies, which he headed, as “in effect the State Department task force on Vietnam.” He states that this group is only indirectly related to the State Department, that its influence is negligible, and that its main function is fund-raising for scholarly research. An assessment of this statement depends on records that are not available to me. My identification was based only on hearsay, and I am quite ready to accept the correction.

  • Email
  • Print