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Story Without End

For Reasons of State

by Noam Chomsky
Pantheon, 440 pp., $3.45 (paper)

Critical Essays and an Index to Vols. 1-4 of the Senator Gravel Edition of the Pentagon Papers

edited by Noam Chomsky, edited by Howard Zinn
Beacon, 70 pp. of index pp., $5.00 (paper)

The more sophisticated among Mr. Nixon’s Vietnam supporters have often tried to draw flattering parallels with de Gaulle’s skillful withdrawal from Algeria. They argue that the kinds of calculations and judgments which have governed Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam during the past four years are precisely those which lay behind de Gaulle’s Algeria policy after 1958. Both realized from the start that their respective wars could not be “won” because in neither case would public opinion tolerate the sacrifices that victory entailed; both concluded that withdrawal was the only remaining choice, even if it meant abandoning causes for which both nations had made enormous sacrifices.

In both cases, so the argument goes, there were political and strategic reasons why the actual withdrawal had to be prolonged or postponed even after the decision to withdraw had been taken. But eventually all military and political intervention in the affairs of the former protectorate would come to an end, and the wisdom and good sense of the imperial power could no longer be doubted. In Vietnam there would be no more Americans fighting either on the ground or in the air, no more clumsy attempts to manipulate the various Saigon factions in the interests of stability and order, and no more irrational fears that the loss of South Vietnam would lead, as Ralph Stavins has put it,1 to the retirement of the US from the arena of world politics. The US would continue to provide ammunition and spare parts for the South Vietnamese forces. But it would do no more than that.

Nixon and Kissinger, characteristically, have avoided any such detailed description of what the post-with-drawal relationship with the South Vietnamese would be, but the notion that they would, like some irritating virus, sooner or later be cast off has been implicit in most of what Nixon and Kissinger have said. Every one of Nixon’s speeches announcing a new troop withdrawal invariably stressed that the withdrawal had been made possible by the remarkable progress of the South Vietnamese, the clear implication being that this improvement would eventually reach the point where complete withdrawal was possible. And Henry Kissinger’s much vaunted “two track” strategy for ending the war, first outlined in his Foreign Affairs article of January, 1969, and supposedly the blueprint for the negotiations he later handled, envisaged a mutual disengagement by the United States and North Vietnam, which would leave the task of negotiating a political settlement to the South Vietnamese factions, free from outside interference. Admittedly both these predictions were contradicted by the stipulation of the Nixon doctrine that US air power would always be available to rescue regimes in distress, but at least until recently Administration spokesmen have always been evasive on whether the doctrine applies to South Vietnam, citing instead Cambodia as its “purest” application.

The number of voters, senators, congressmen, and journalists who have been fully convinced that Nixon’s Vietnam policy would indeed end in such a clear-cut disengagement was probably never very large. But the number of disbelievers was certainly no larger. In between there was a great wad of doubting, indecisive opinion, fickle and unstable in its estimate of what was going on. The existence of this uncertain middle was a great political asset for Nixon and Kissinger because it enabled them to manipulate public opinion by manipulating events. If a bellicose act such as the Cambodian invasion aroused acute suspicions, it was always possible to allay them by announcing another troop withdrawal or by sending Henry Kissinger halfway around the world “in search of peace.” Those in the peace movement who felt they knew that Vietnamization was a fraud and that the US would still be involved in Indochina years after it was supposedly completed were untypical.

The ambivalence of the majority reflected the ambivalence of events themselves. When Johnson was fighting the war between 1965 and 1968 it was possible to divine his true purposes simply by looking at what he was doing—there was an unrelenting aggressiveness about almost everything he did which revealed a frantic desire for victory. But the message of Mr. Nixon’s actions has always been ambiguous. There were acts of folly—the Cambodian invasion, the Laos “incursion,” the bombing and mining of Haiphong—which implied a futile search for victory. But there also existed symptoms of a more reasonable policy for which there was no equivalent in the Johnson period: there was the apparent rationality and good sense of Henry Kissinger, so much appreciated among the Washington press corps, and the presence of such a man at the highest levels of policy-making seemed to be a force for restraint in Indochina. There was the successful rapprochement with China which in one stroke appeared to transform the Vietnam commitment into a strategic anomaly. And there were the various peace plans unveiled by Kissinger which at the time at least seemed much more reasonable than the line of Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow that “Hanoi must admit its guilt and leave the South alone.”

What was the real American intent? Throughout Mr. Nixon’s first term the conclusive answer to this question seemed for many to be locked away in events that would happen only in the distant future. The reckoning would come when the last ground troops were withdrawn—the moment which, in the mythology of Vietnamization, would symbolize the fulfillment by the US of its duties as an ally. Either the US would then go ahead and disengage as the mythology required, or it would go on interfering much as before. There could be no middle course. But at least during the first three and a half years of Nixon’s presidency this moment seemed distant, and during that time the real meaning of events remained, for many, highly elusive.

This moment of truth of course came and went between October and January, and what radical critics of the war always knew would happen, and what many others strongly suspected would happen, has now fully come to pass: there has been no real disengagement, no casting off of the South Vietnamese now that obligations have been fulfilled, no withdrawal approaching de Gaulle’s withdrawal from Algeria. And this remains true notwithstanding the congressional ban on bombing. For although the injunction is something one must be thankful for, and which the people of Indochina undoubtedly will be thankful for if it becomes effective, it leaves completely undisturbed the basic form of American intervention, which is the preservation of the Thieu regime itself. For it is as true now as it ever has been that the Thieu regime is merely a creation of American power, that it is a clique whose survival wholly depends on American financial and moral support, and that even when compared with such notable client regimes as those in Taiwan and South Korea, it is unique in its total estrangement from the people it is supposed to represent.

Having managed to keep this contraption together during the difficult period of the cease-fire and beyond, Nixon’s policy now, as always, is to try to win the war by establishing Thieu’s complete political and military supremacy, by helping him to eliminate all opposition groups, communist and noncommunist alike, and by allowing him to ignore all the political provisions of the Paris agreements. Fortified and emboldened by such support, Thieu can proceed with his own “final solution” to the Vietnamese problem. If this does not actually involve paving over the surface of South Vietnam à la Governor Reagan, it does involve something close to it. Innumerable gangs of thugs bearing such respectably bureaucratic names as “police special forces,” “revolutionary development cadres,” “regional and popular forces,” each a legion of ton ton macouts serving their Vietnamese Papa Doc (though a Papa Doc without magic or voodoo)—all can continue to swarm over the South Vietnamese countryside, preying on the unfortunate people of South Vietnam, devouring those among them who strive for a more just society, until only collaborators, refugees, and those too intimidated to think or act are left.

Since it is very likely that the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong will eventually resume the war rather than submit passively to what Thieu is doing, it is now a major aim of American policy to hold them off for as long as possible, and to give Thieu plenty of time to run wild, free of outside interference. Thus the recent threats to resume the bombing and the evidence of the usual arm twisting in Peking and Moscow.

Anticipation of a new war also obliges the US to look after Saigon’s strategic interests in Cambodia and other border countries where Saigon itself cannot afford to become involved. If the loss of the Sihanoukville-Phnom Penh supply line would greatly strengthen (supposedly) the offensive capability of the North Vietnamese forces operating west of Saigon, then the United States must deny it to them by keeping the decrepit Lon Nol regime in power—even though so far it has taken seven months of terror bombing with B-52s to do it. If it is a help to the South Vietnamese that communist divisions should be tied down in Laos protecting the Ho Chi Minh trail and the approaches of North Vietnam itself from possible harassment by “free world” forces operating further west, then the US must keep the Laotian rightists afloat, in the hope that their futile operations might somehow achieve this.

What kind of long-term objectives are implied by this obsessive determination to keep the war going come what may? The simple answer is that the formula for victory has not changed and that the goals of 1973 are no different from those of 1968 or 1965. The prime objective, now as then, must be to establish strategic superiority in the remote frontier region of South Vietnam, and there to put together a kind of Oriental Maginot line which, year after year, will throw back the North Vietnamese, gradually wearing them down in an eternal war of attrition, destroying their stamina to the point where their attacks become more and more feeble, and the war is effectively won.

Meanwhile, behind this supposedly impenetrable barrier, the task of pacifying the countryside and eliminating the opposition can be carried on without interference. Eventually that war can be won too. But none of this can be even attempted without unending American support: billions of dollars are going to be required to keep the Southern army in the field; and Thieu’s ramshackle regime is so fragile that constant declarations of American support will be needed to keep it intact.

But why must the United States win? The greatest value of Professor Chomsky’s latest book (and of the essays on the war he has edited with Howard Zinn) is that it provides a satisfactory answer to this question. He shows how the psychological and geopolitical factors which have guided American policy in Indochina from the beginning are as much a part of Nixon’s political psychology and behavior as they were of Johnson’s or Kennedy’s. Though Chomsky’s analysis is mainly concerned with the pre-Nixon period (i.e., 1949-1968), the conclusions he reaches apply with equal force to the past four years and, one suspects, to the next four.

  1. 1

    Quoted in For Reasons of State, page 44.

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