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.

The most obvious link with the past is in the clear irrationality of American policy. The United States still cannot “lose the war” (and must therefore win it as the best kind of insurance), not simply because “losing” would have certain visible and definite consequences harmful to the American interest, in the sense, for instance, that the so-called “domino theory” envisaged a cataclysmic onrush of events that would follow “defeat”—national liberation movements would triumph, governments would be overthrown, countries “lost to communism.” It must win also because “losing” is in itself an evil, and to avoid it is a moral imperative whose necessity overrules any squalid calculation about consequences.

Chomsky points out2 that this kind of irrationalism showed a marked increase in the early Sixties when, with the influx of a “rootless intelligentsia” into Washington, whose sole claim to power rested on nothing more than its “alleged expertise,” there was “much talk of psychological tests of will, humiliation, the American image, and so on.” But this horror of “loss” has also been as much a characteristic of presidents as of their acolytes: it was President Kennedy who warned that “if Khrushchev wants to rub my nose in the dirt, it’s all over” (“it” being Western civilization); President Johnson who told the troops in Vietnam that unless they “nailed the coonskin to the wall” the wretched of the earth would “sweep over the United States and take what we have.” President Nixon believed (and evidently still believes) that the US would be revealed as a “helpless pitiful giant” if the North Vietnamese, or the Khmer Rouge, were allowed a free run in the jungles of eastern Cambodia.

Given this exaggerated, even paranoid fear of defeat, there can be no sense in which the war becomes “their” war now that the South Vietnamese are doing the fighting themselves, no sense in which the guilt and humiliation of “defeat” can be transferred, like some runic curse, from the American side to the Vietnamese. Instead American honor remains very much on the line even when the last American troops are out: the South Vietnamese are now its bearers by proxy, and their defeat would still prove that the great American effort had been worthless, the sacrifice of fifty thousand lives in vain, and so on. Moreover, this highly developed sense of honor would seem to be strongly resistant to the mellowing influence of time. The odium attached to losing being as great as it now is, one must suppose that Vietnam is just as likely to be considered the moral testing ground ten, even twenty, years hence as it is today—assuming men with President Nixon’s peculiar sensibility continue to control the US government (an alarming prospect that may or may not be dimmed by Watergate).

Moreover it has always been characteristic of official thinking—as Chomsky argues—that such hysterical perceptions of what is involved can co-exist with a calculation of strategic interests which is more or less rational. The loss of Indochina may be a moral and a spiritual disaster, but there are also more mundane questions about real estate which cannot be ignored. For the past twenty-five years US officials have intoned with unrelieved monotony that the loss of Indochina would be followed by the loss of much else besides, the precise way in which the dominoes might fall varying according to the particular stage of the cold war one might be talking about.

Here Chomsky draws on his detailed study of the Pentagon Papers to show that in the early Fifties the “threat” consisted of an impending Chinese-Vietnamese invasion of the region masterminded by the Kremlin; later it was supposed to be the same kind of attack organized by the Chinese, acting as stand-ins for the Russians; then Soviet-inspired “wars of national liberation” became the threat of which the Laos crisis of 1960-1961 was supposedly an example; then, after Lin Piao’s speech of September, 1965, Chinese-inspired wars of national liberation; then, when the Vietnamese war itself was fully under way, wars of national liberation inspired by the North Vietnamese as stand-ins for the Chinese, or even wars of national liberation masterminded by the North Vietnamese and Chinese acting together.

Can these kinds of fears still exist, and continue to influence policy, when US official thinking about Chinese intentions seems to have changed drastically, and when American strategy for “ending” the war has rested on the assumption that the Chinese and North Vietnamese have different interests in Southeast Asia? The clear implication of Chomsky’s analysis3 (and again it deals mainly with the pre-Nixon period) is that the Administration is and will continue to be in the thrall of the domino theory. Not, he argues, because the old paranoia about Chinese intentions still lurks beneath the surface cordiality of rapprochement, but for the more fundamental reason that the real version of the theory which has in fact guided successive administrations (including this one) has never had very much to do with Chinese and North Vietnamese aggression at all, but deals instead with events that are unaffected by what either communist power might decide to do.

All the talk about external aggression must be regarded, in Chomsky’s view, not as expressions of genuine alarm about Chinese or North Vietnamese intentions, but as clever propaganda devices designed to divert attention from the real threats to US interests. These threats have always been the strength of “indigenous Communist-led movements” throughout Southeast Asia, the weakness of the pro-Western regimes they are opposed to, and the likelihood that these regimes will sooner or later succumb to local insurgents without the Chinese or North Vietnamese having to lift a finger. The US, he argues, had to fabricate the myth of a Hitlerian China because it was loath to admit that the regimes in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines could not survive the trauma of a US “defeat” in Indochina. The true source of American anxiety in the Pacific has not been the threat of China and Russia but the internal brutality, corruption, and sleaziness of the regimes the US has been backing and feels it must back if it is to hold power in the Far East. What the US has never been willing to admit, Chomsky shows, is that these indigenous movements in Southeast Asia have their own national interests and have no more wish to be dominated by China than China itself wants to be run by the USSR.

If there is a weakness in this argument, it is that Chomsky applies it with equal force to every stage of the US involvement in Indochina. He wants to argue that US policy makers were never seriously concerned about possible Chinese aggression in Southeast Asia4 that they were always realistic and clearheaded about where the real danger came from, and that John Foster Dulles in 1955 was therefore as deliberate in misleading US public opinion about China as were Dean Rusk and Walt Rostow ten years later.

The difficulty here is that many of the more foolish policies followed by the Eisenhower administration in particular make sense only if we grant that there was a real, if unwarranted, fear of China and (to a lesser extent) of North Vietnam and the Soviet Union: the decision to organize the South Vietnamese, Thai, and Laotian armies on completely conventional lines; the enormous importance Dulles attached to the formation of SEATO as an alliance of great powers which would, like NATO, “deter communist aggression”; the belief of the Eisenhower administration (and initially of the Kennedy administration as well) that the Pathet Lao and neutralist troops which marched on Vientiane during the Laotian crisis of 1960-1961 were possibly the vanguard of an advancing communist horde that would cut Southeast Asia in two, and were therefore a major threat to world peace, the source of a crisis as serious as Berlin, Cuba, the Middle East, and Vietnam itself—all were symptomatic of a highly alarmist view of communist intentions.

Moreover, in view of this genuine fear of Chinese aggression, it is an oversimplification to argue, as Chomsky does,5 that throughout the 1950s the prime strategic rationale for US involvement in Southeast Asia was always the need to protect the Japanese economy from the loss of Southeast Asian food, raw materials, and markets, lest the Japanese turn to the “Stalinist bloc” for other sources of supply. Though this fear undoubtedly influenced American actions, there were more straightforward military calculations which were equally important. Successful “communist aggression” in one theater would most likely be followed by more aggression in another: if Southeast Asia were lost, India and Australia would be directly threatened (thus the more fantastic versions of the domino theory) and the chances of a Soviet “move” in the Middle East or Berlin would be greater.

But whatever shortcomings it may have in explaining the past, Chomsky’s thesis is of great value in making sense of the present: alarmism about Chinese intentions has faded to the point where not even Administration spokesmen bother to mouth the old familiar slogans. But the weakness of the client states is as serious as ever, and their probable reaction to “disengagement” is a major force for American inflexibility in Indochina. It is not simply that “disengagement,” followed by the “loss” of the three Indochinese countries, would so encourage the insurgent movements in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines that they would be carried to victory by the sheer momentum of events—though there might indeed be such fallout effects. Equally if not more important is the psychological impact such a disengagement would have on the ruling cliques in these countries.

It has, for instance, always been an assumption of American policy that the strong pro-US alignment of the Thai regime would not survive a US retreat from Indochina after anything less than victory there. Were this to happen, the Thais would conclude that the US guarantee was useless when the “going got rough” and would then attempt to come to terms with Hanoi and Peking rather than be sold down the river like the Vietnamese.

Another gloomy prediction is that an increase of communist influence in both Indochina and Thailand would have a strongly “destabilizing” influence in Malaysia. Encouraged by the changing balance of power farther north, the large Chinese population there would be much less inclined to tolerate the existing political monopoly of the Malays; the Malays would respond with violence and repression; the Chinese would then turn in increasing numbers to the communist guerrilla movement which still exists in the Thai-Malaysia border area, and there would be a repeat of the “Malayan Emergency” which the British fought during the 1950s. Such chaos in Malaysia would then encourage leftist and Moslem movements in Indonesia and in the already embattled southern Philippines—and so on: it is the “domino theory” in its purest form.

Suppose that some of these prophecies would come to pass—that the Thais probably would alter their alignment (which would be the sensible thing to do), the Malay political situation probably would be changed (no bad thing), and both developments could well be a source of instability in Indonesia and the Philippines. So what? Why should the United States strive so mightily to prevent these things from happening, not only by its Indochina war, but with the whole repressive apparatus of “pacification” which is now at work in Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia?

Chomsky’s own view would seem to be that this huge reactionary endeavor is irrational even according to the kind of motives which typically underlie American imperial behavior: no advantages which might now accrue from having these territories within the American sphere could possibly compensate for the strain and sacrifice involved in actually keeping them there. As Chomsky argued before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee: “This is not the first time in the history of empire that a great empire has torn itself to pieces by the irrational insistence of winning local wars and draining its energies in doing so.”

But of course Nixon and Kissinger are not “rational imperialists.” They do not coldly add up the credit and debit sheets and decide to sell out accordingly. Though such hopeful developments as the rapprochement with China and the Soviet Union suggest a diplomacy both rational and sophisticated, nonetheless there coexists with it a more primitive view of the world which Nixon and Kissinger have constructed during their long careers as cold warriors. The cold war itself may have passed, but the categories of thought appropriate to the cold war linger on: if Soviet and Chinese foreign policy has evolved in a more friendly and cooperative direction it is at least partly because the United States has resolutely opposed all their wicked schemes of expansion, and by doing so has encouraged those elements within the Soviet and Chinese leaderships which favor peaceful coexistence in the true sense.

But for Nixon and Kissinger this process is entirely reversible. If the United States begins to “show weakness” by lagging too far behind in the arms race, by unilaterally withdrawing too many troops from Western Europe, or, in this case, by standing idly by while more regions of Southeast Asia escape from its control, then the Soviets and the Chinese and other lesser troublemakers will be greatly encouraged to start probing for other US weak points. They will mount what Henry Kissinger himself has described as “a combination of military, psychological, and political pressures that always stop well short of the total confrontation that Hitler produced and which puts much greater strain on the political leadership and on the cohesion of the non-communist countries.” As during the cold war itself, American global strategy must be indivisible: “equilibrium” requires that a resolute “posture” be maintained everywhere, in Southeast Asia as well as in Germany and the Middle East. So Thailand and Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia, and Vietnam itself must be “held.”

But to descend from the sublime to the banal, a most disagreeable journey for Nixon and Kissinger, which they have had to make often in recent months—can Nixon’s global doctrine survive Watergate? To “show strength” everywhere is a costly business. Vast sums must be shelled out to keep Thieu and Lon Nol in circulation, to keep well ahead in the arms race, and to maintain the five sacred divisions in Europe, and all these extravagant programs are vulnerable to the kind of financial strangulation by Congress which threatened to stop the Cambodia bombing. Nor will such outlays be of help in dealing with America’s inflation and its declining dollar.

Whether Nixon resigns or whether he limps on for another three years, the Watergate crisis implies at least that the overwhelming presidential authority which sustained the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy during the past four years has been discredited and that those in Congress who find the “diplomacy of strength” outmoded and unnecessary should now be better placed than before to cut into the appropriations that support it. Whether they will or not is another question. Those who have waited eight years for the Congress to do something about the bombing of Indochina must have a nagging suspicion that things may go on much as before. They will find little comfort in Chomsky’s remarkable book.

This Issue

August 9, 1973