PSAC leaderboard

Imperial presidency, imperial sovereignty

Noam Chomsky in Toronto, November 21

War ZonesUSA Politics

American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, historian, social critic, and political activist Noam Chomsky.

It goes without saying that what happens in the United States has an enormous impact on the rest of the world–and conversely: what happens in the rest of the world cannot fail to have an impact on the US, in several ways. First, it sets constraints on what even the most powerful state can do. And second, it influences the domestic US component of “the second superpower,” as the New York Times ruefully described world public opinion after the huge protests before the Iraq invasion. Those protests were a critically important historical event, not only because of their unprecedented scale, but also because it was the first time in hundreds of years of the history of Europe and its North American offshoots that a war was massively protested even before it was officially launched. We may recall, by comparison, the war against South Vietnam launched by J.F.K. in 1962, brutal and barbaric from the outset: bombing, chemical warfare to destroy food crops so as to starve out the civilian support for the indigenous resistance, programs to drive millions of people to virtual concentration camps or urban slums to eliminate its popular base. By the time protests reached a substantial scale, the highly respected and quite hawkish Vietnam specialist and military historian Bernard Fall wondered whether “Viet-Nam as a cultural and historic entity” would escape “extinction” as “the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.”

It’s important to remember how much the world has changed since then–as almost always, not as a result of gifts from benevolent leaders, but through deeply committed popular struggle, far too late in developing, but ultimately effective. Johnson had to fight a “guns-and-butter” war, buying off an unwilling population, harming the economy, ultimately leading the business classes to turn against the war as too costly, after the Tet Offensive of January, 1968, showed that it would go on a long time. We learn from the last sections of the Pentagon Papers that, after the Tet Offensive, the military command was reluctant to agree to the president’s call for further troop deployments, wanting to be sure that “sufficient forces would still be available for civil disorder control” in the US, and fearing that escalation might run the risk of “provoking a domestic crisis of unprecedented proportions.” The memoirs of Hitler’s economic czar Albert Speer describe a similar problem. The Nazis could not trust their population, and therefore could not fight as disciplined a war as their democratic enemies, possibly affecting the outcome seriously, given their technological lead.

The Reagan Administration assumed that the problem of an independent, aroused population had been overcome, and apparently planned to follow the Kennedy model of the early 1960s in Central America. But they backed off in the face of unanticipated public protest, turning instead to “clandestine war,” employing murderous security forces and a huge international terror network. The consequences were terrible, but not as bad as B-52s and mass-murder operations of the kind that were peaking when John Kerry was deep in the Mekong Delta in the South, by then largely devastated. The popular reaction to even the “clandestine war”–so called–broke entirely new ground. The solidarity movements for Central America, now in many parts of the world, are again something new in Western history.

The world is pretty awful today, but it is far better than yesterday, not only with regard to unwillingness to tolerate aggression, but also in many other ways, which we now tend to take for granted.

Controlling the ‘great beast’

Without forgetting the very significant progress towards more civilized societies in past years, and the reasons for it, let’s focus nevertheless on the present, and on the notions of imperial sovereignty now being crafted. It is not surprising that, as the population becomes more civilized, power systems become more extreme in their efforts to control the “great beast” (as the Founding Fathers called the people). And the great beast is indeed frightening.

The conception of presidential sovereignty crafted by the radical statist reactionaries of the Bush Administration is so extreme that it has drawn unprecedented criticism in the most sober and respected establishment circles. These ideas were transmitted to the president by the newly appointed attorney-general, Alberto Gonzales, who is depicted as a moderate in the press. They are discussed by the respected constitutional law professor Sanford Levinson in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Levinson writes that the conception is based on the principle that, “There exists no norm that is applicable to chaos.” The quote, Levinson comments, is from Carl Schmitt, the leading German philosopher of law during the Nazi period, who Levinson describes as “the true éminence grise of the Bush administration.” The Administration, advised by Gonzales, has articulated “a view of presidential authority that is all too close to the power that Schmitt was willing to accord his own Führer,” Levinson writes.

One rarely hears such words from the heart of the establishment.

The same issue of the journal carries an article by two prominent strategic analysts on the “transformation of the military,” a central component of the new doctrines of imperial sovereignty: the rapid expansion of offensive weaponry, including militarization of space and other measures designed to place the entire world at risk of instant annihilation. These have already elicited the anticipated reactions by Russia and recently China. The analysts conclude that these US programs may lead to “ultimate doom.” They express their hope that a coalition of peace-loving states will coalesce as a counter to US militarism and aggressiveness, led by … China. Their faith in American democracy is slight when they look to China to save us from marching towards ultimate doom. It’s up to the second superpower to decide whether that contempt for the great beast is warranted.

Rescinding the Geneva Convention to avoid criminal prosecution

Going back to Gonzales, he transmitted to the president the conclusions of the Justice Department that the president has the authority to rescind the Geneva Conventions–the supreme law of the land, the foundation of modern international humanitarian law. And Gonzales, who was then Bush’s legal counsel, advised him that this would be a good idea, because rescinding the Conventions “substantially reduces the threat of domestic criminal prosecution [of Administration officials] under the War Crimes Act” of 1996, which carries the death penalty for “grave breaches” of Geneva Conventions.

We can see right on the front pages of the press why the Justice Department was right to be concerned that the president and his advisors might be subject to the death penalty under the laws passed by the Republican Congress in 1996–and, of course, under the principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, if anyone took them seriously.

Two weeks ago, the New York Times featured a front-page story reporting the conquest of the Falluja General Hospital. It reported that “Patients and hospital employees were rushed out of rooms by armed soldiers and ordered to sit or lie on the floor while troops tied their hands behind their backs.” An accompanying photograph depicted the scene. That was presented as an important achievement. “The offensive also shut down what officers said was a propaganda weapon for the militants: Falluja General Hospital, with its stream of reports of civilian casualties.” And these “inflated” figures–inflated because our Dear Leader so declares–were “inflaming opinion throughout the country” and the region, driving up “the political costs of the conflict.” The word “conflict” is a common euphemism for US aggression, as when we read on the same pages that the US must now rebuild “what the conflict just destroyed”: just “the conflict,” with no agent, like a hurricane.

There are some relevant documents, including the Geneva Conventions, which state: “Fixed establishments and mobile medical units of the Medical Service may in no circumstances be attacked, but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.” So, page one of the world’s leading newspaper is cheerfully depicting war crimes, for which the political leadership could be sentenced to death under US law. No wonder the new, moderate attorney-general warned the president that he should use the constitutional authority concocted by the Justice Department to rescind the supreme law of the land, adopting the concept of presidential sovereignty devised by Hitler’s primary legal adviser, “the true éminence grise of the Bush administration,” according to a distinguished conservative authority on constitutional law, writing in perhaps the most respectable and sober journal in the country.

In an outraged comment on the efforts of Justice Department lawyers to demonstrate that the president has the right to authorize torture, Yale Law School dean Howard Koh said that “The notion that the president has the constitutional power to permit torture is like saying he has the constitutional power to commit genocide.” The president’s legal advisers, and the new attorney-general, should have little difficulty arguing that the president does indeed have that right — if the second superpower permits him to exercise it.

Demystifying ‘pre-emptive war’

The pretext for US-UK aggression in Iraq is what is called the right of “anticipatory self-defense,” now sometimes called “pre-emptive war” in a radical perversion of that concept. The right of anticipatory self-defense was affirmed officially in the Bush Administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) of September, 2002, declaring Washington’s right to resort to force to eliminate any potential challenge to its global dominance. The NSS was widely criticized among the foreign-policy elite, beginning with an article right away in the main establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, warning that “the new imperial grand strategy” could be very dangerous. Criticism continued, again at an unprecedented level, but on narrow grounds: not that the doctrine itself was wrong, but rather its style and manner of presentation. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, summed the criticism up accurately, also in Foreign Affairs. She pointed out that every president has such a doctrine in his back pocket, but it is simply foolish to smash people in the face with it and to implement it in a manner that will infuriate even allies. That is threatening to US interests and, therefore, wrong.

Albright knew, of course, that Clinton had a similar doctrine. The Clinton doctrine advocated “unilateral use of military power” to defend vital interests, such as “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies and strategic resources,” without even the pretexts that Bush and Blair devised. Taken literally, the Clinton doctrine is more expansive than Bush’s NSS. But the more expansive Clinton doctrine was barely even reported. It was presented with the right style, and implemented less brazenly.

Henry Kissinger described the Bush doctrine as “revolutionary,” pointing out that it undermines the seventeenth-century Westphalian system of international order and, of course, the UN Charter and international law. He approved of the doctrine but with reservations about style and tactics, and with a crucial qualification: it cannot be “a universal principle available to every nation.” Rather, the right of aggression must be reserved to the US, perhaps delegated to chosen clients. We must forcefully reject the principle of universality: that we apply to ourselves the same standards we do to others, more stringent ones if we are serious. Kissinger is to be praised for his honesty in forthrightly articulating prevailing doctrine, usually concealed in professions of virtuous intent and tortured legalisms. And he understands his educated audience. As he doubtless expected, there was no reaction.

His understanding of his audience was illustrated again, rather dramatically, last May, when the Kissinger-Nixon tapes were released, over Kissinger’s strong objections. There was a report in the world’s leading newspaper. It mentioned in passing the orders to bomb Cambodia that Kissinger transmitted from Nixon to the military commanders. In Kissinger’s words, “A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” It is rare for a call for horrendous war crimes–what we would not hesitate to call “genocide” if others were responsible–to be so stark and explicit. The publication elicited no reaction. Apparently, it is taken for granted in the elite culture that the president and his national security advisor do have the right to order genocide.

Imagine the reaction if the prosecutors at the Milosevic tribunal could find anything remotely similar. They would be overjoyed, the trial would be over, Milosevic would receive several life sentences, the death penalty if the tribunal adhered to US law. But that is them, not us. The distinction is a core principle of the elite intellectual culture in the West–and, in fact, throughout history quite generally.

The principle of universality

The principle of universality is the most elementary of moral truisms. If the US is granted the right of “anticipatory self-defense” against terror, then certainly Cuba, Nicaragua and a host of others have long been entitled to carry out terrorist acts within the US because there is no doubt of its involvement in very serious terrorist attacks against them, extensively documented in impeccable sources–and, in the case of Nicaragua, even condemned by the World Court and the Security Council (in two resolutions that the US vetoed, with Britain loyally abstaining). The conclusion that Cuba and Nicaragua, among many others, have long had the right to carry out terrorist atrocities in the US is, of course, utterly outrageous, and advocated by no one. And, thanks to our self-determined immunity from moral truisms, there is no fear that anyone will draw the outrageous conclusions.

There are still more outrageous ones. No one, for example, celebrates Pearl Harbor day by applauding the fascist leaders of Imperial Japan. But, by our standards, the bombing of military bases in the US colonies of Hawaii and the Philippines seems rather innocuous. The Japanese leaders knew that B-17 Flying Fortresses were coming off the Boeing production lines, and were surely familiar with the public discussions in the US explaining how they could be used to incinerate Japan’s wooden cities in a war of extermination, flying from Hawaiian and Philippine bases–“to burn out the industrial heart of the Empire with fire-bombing attacks on the teeming bamboo ant heaps,” as retired Air Force General Chennault recommended in 1940, a proposal that “simply delighted” President Roosevelt. That’s a far more powerful justification for anticipatory self-defense than anything conjured up by Bush, Blair and their associates–and accepted, with tactical reservations, throughout the mainstream of articulate opinion.

Fortunately, we are once again protected from such politically incorrect conclusions by the principled rejection of elementary moral truisms.

Polling the ‘great beast’ of public opinion

It is all too easy to continue. But the unpleasantly consistent record leaves open a crucial question: how does the “great beast” react–the domestic US component of the second superpower?

The conventional answer is that the population approves of all of this, as just shown again by election of George Bush. But, as is often the case, a closer look is helpful.

Each candidate received about 30 per cent of the electoral vote, Bush a bit more, Kerry a bit less. General voting patterns–details are not yet available–were close to the 2000 elections; almost the same “red” and “blue” states, in the conventional metaphor. A few per-cent shift in vote would have meant that Kerry would be in the White House. Neither outcome could tell us much of any significance about the mood of the country, even of voters. Issues of substance were as usual kept out of the campaign, or presented so obscurely that few could understand.

It is important to bear in mind that political campaigns are designed by the same people who sell toothpaste and cars. Their professional concern in their regular vocation is not to provide information. Their goal, rather, is deceit. Their task is to undermine the concept of markets that we are taught to revere, with informed consumers making rational choices. It has hardly surprising that the same dedication to deceit and similar techniques should prevail when they are assigned the task of selling candidates, so as to undermine democracy.

That’s hardly a secret. Corporations do not spend hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising every year to inform the public of the facts–say, listing the properties of next year’s cars. But deceit is quite expensive: complex graphics showing the car with a sexy actress, or a sports hero, or climbing a sheer cliff, or some other device to project an image that might deceive the consumer into buying this car instead of the virtually identical one produced by a competitor. The same is true of elections, run by the same public-relations industry. The goal is to project images, and deceive the public into accepting them, while sidelining issues–for good reasons, to which I’ll return.

The population seems to grasp the nature of the performance. Right before the 2004 election, about 10 per cent of voters said their choice would be based on the candidate’s “agendas/ideas/ platforms/goals”; six per cent for Bush voters, 13 per cent for Kerry voters. For the rest, the choice would be based on what the industry calls “qualities” and “values.” Does the candidate project the image of a strong leader, the kind of guy you’d like to meet in a bar, someone who really cares about you and is just like you? It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Bush is carefully trained to say “nucular” and “misunderestimate” and the other silliness that intellectuals like to ridicule. That’s probably about as real as the ranch constructed for him, and the rest of the folksy manner. After all, it wouldn’t do to present him as a spoiled frat boy from Yale who became rich and powerful thanks to his rich and powerful connections. Rather, the imagery has to be an ordinary guy just like us, who’ll protect us, and who shares our “moral values,” more so than the windsurfing goose-hunter who can be accused of faking his medals.

The ‘threat of terrorism’ versus real US priorities

The commitment of Bush planners to “defense against terrorism” is illustrated by their decision to escalate the threat of terror. This is not because they enjoy terrorist attacks against Americans, but because it is, plainly, a low priority for them–surely as compared with such goals as establishing secure military bases in a dependent client state at the heart of the world’s energy resources, recognized since World War II as the “most strategically important area of the world,” “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.” It is critically important to ensure that “profits beyond the dreams of avarice”–to quote a leading history of the oil industry–flow in the right directions: to US energy corporations, the Treasury Department, US high-tech (militarized) industry and huge construction firms, and so on. And even more important is the stupendous strategic power. Having a firm hand on the spigot guarantees “veto power” over rivals, as George Kennan pointed out over 50 years ago. In the same vein, Zbigniew Brzezinski recently wrote that control over Iraq gives the US “critical leverage” over European and Asian economies, a major concern of planners since World War II.

Rivals are to keep to their “regional responsibilities” within the “overall framework of order” managed by the US, as Kissinger instructed them in his “Year of Europe” address 30 years ago. That is even more urgent today, as the major rivals threaten to move in an independent course, maybe even united. The EU and China became each other’s leading trading partners in 2004, and those ties are becoming tighter, including the world’s second-largest economy, Japan. Critical leverage is more important than ever for world control in the tripolar world that has been evolving for over 30 years. In comparison, the threat of terror is a minor consideration–though the threat is known to be awesome; long before 9-11 it was understood that sooner or later, the Jihadist terror organized by the US and its allies in the 1980s is likely to combine with WMD, with horrifying consequences.

Notice that the crucial issue with regard to Middle East oil–about two thirds of estimated world resources, and unusually easy to extract–is control, not access. US policies towards the Middle East were the same when it was a net exporter of oil, and remain the same today when US intelligence projects that the US itself will rely on more stable Atlantic Basin resources, including Canada, which forfeited its right to control its own resources in NAFTA. Policies would be likely to be about the same if the US were to switch to renewable energy. The need to control the “stupendous source of strategic power” and to gain “profits beyond the dreams of avarice” would remain. Jockeying over Central Asia and pipeline routes reflects similar concerns.

There are plenty of other illustrations of the same ranking of priorities. To mention one, the Treasury Department has a bureau (OFAC: Office of Foreign Assets Control) that is assigned the task of investigating suspicious financial transfers, a crucial component of the “war on terror.” OFAC has 120 employees. Last April, the White House informed Congress that four are assigned to tracking the finances of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, while almost two dozen are dedicated to enforcing the embargo against Cuba–incidentally, declared illegal by every relevant international organization, even the usually compliant Organization of American States. From 1990 to 2003, OFAC informed Congress, there were 93 terrorism-related investigations with $9,000 in fines; and 11,000 Cuba-related investigations with $8 million in fines. No interest was aroused among those now pondering the puzzling question of whether the Bush Administration–and its predecessors–downgraded the war on terror in favour of other priorities.

Why should the Treasury Department devote vastly more energy to strangling Cuba than to the war on terror? The basic reasons were explained in secret documents 40 years ago, when the Kennedy Administration sought to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba, as historian and Kennedy confidante Arthur Schlesinger recounted in his biography of Robert Kennedy, who ran the terror operations as his highest priority. State Department planners warned that the “very existence” of the Castro regime is “successful defiance” of US policies going back 150 years, to the Monroe Doctrine; intolerable defiance of the master of the hemisphere. Furthermore, this successful defiance encourages others, who might be infected by the “Castro idea of taking matters into their own hands,” Schlesinger had warned incoming President Kennedy, summarizing the report of the president’s Latin American mission. These dangers are particularly grave, Schlesinger elaborated, when “the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes … and the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.” The whole system of domination might unravel if the idea of taking matters into one’s own hands spreads its evil tentacles.

Successful defiance remains intolerable, ranked far higher as a priority than combating terror, just another illustration of principles that are well established, internally rational, clear enough to the victims, but not perceptible among the agents who describe the events and debate the reasons.

What the ‘great beast’ wants and why it is deceived

Let’s return to the great beast. US public opinion is studied with great care and depth. Right before the election, major studies were released reporting public attitudes–and when we look at the results, barely reported, we see right away why it is a good idea to base elections on deceit, very much as in the fake markets of the doctrinal system. Here are a few examples:

A considerable majority believe that the US should accept the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court and the World Court; sign the Kyoto protocols; allow the UN to take the lead in international crises (including security, reconstruction and political transition in Iraq); rely on diplomatic and economic measures more than military ones in the “war on terror”; and use force only if there is “strong evidence that the country is in imminent danger of being attacked,” thus rejecting the bipartisan consensus on “pre-emptive war” and adopting a rather conventional interpretation of the UN Charter. A majority even favour giving up the Security Council veto. Overwhelming majorities favour expansion of purely domestic programs: primarily health care (80 per cent), but also aid to education and Social Security. Similar results have long been found in these studies, carried out by the most reputable organizations that monitor public opinion.

In other mainstream polls, about 80 per cent favour guaranteed health care, even if it would raise taxes. Public opinion has been similar for a long time, with numbers varying depending on how questions are asked. The facts are sometimes discussed in the press, with public preferences noted but dismissed as “politically impossible.” That happened again on the eve of the 2004 elections. A few days before, the (October 31) New York Times reported that “there is so little political support for government intervention in the health-care market in the United States that Senator John Kerry took pains in a recent presidential debate to say that his plan for expanding access to health insurance would not create a new government program”–what the majority want, so it appears. But it is politically impossible and there is too little political support, meaning that the insurance companies, HMOs, pharmaceutical industries, Wall Street, etc., are opposed.

It is notable that these views are held by people in virtual isolation. They rarely hear them, and though the question is not asked in the published polls, it is likely that respondents regard their own views as idiosyncratic. Their preferences do not enter into the political campaigns, and only marginally into articulate opinion in media and journals. The same extends to other domains, and raises important questions about a “democratic deficit” in the world’s most important state, to adopt the phrase we use for others.

What would the results of the election have been if the parties, either of them, had been willing to articulate people’s concerns on the issues they regard as vitally important? Or if these issues could enter into public discussion within the mainstream? We can only speculate about that, but we do know that it does not happen, and that the facts are scarcely even reported. It seems reasonable to suppose that fear of the “great beast” is rather deep.

What is ‘old Europe’ anyway?

The operative concept of democracy is revealed very clearly in other ways, as well. Perhaps the most extraordinary was the distinction between Old and New Europe in the run-up to the Iraq war. The criterion for membership was so sharp and clear that it took real discipline to miss it. Old Europe–the bad guys–were the governments that took the same stand as the large majority of the population. New Europe–the exciting hope for a democratic future–were the Churchillian leaders like Berlusconi and Aznar, who disregarded even larger majorities of the population and submissively took their orders from Crawford, Texas. The most dramatic case was Turkey, where, to everyone’s surprise, the government actually followed the will of 95 per cent of the population. The official administration moderate, Colin Powell, immediately announced harsh punishment for this crime. Turkey was bitterly condemned in the national press for lacking “democratic credentials.” The most extreme example was Paul Wolfowitz, who berated the Turkish military for not compelling the government to follow Washington’s orders, and demanded that they apologize and publicly recognize that the goal of a properly functioning democracy is to help America.

In other ways, too, the operative concept of democracy is scarcely concealed. The lead think-piece in the New York Times on the death of Yasser Arafat opened by saying that “the post-Arafat era will be the latest test of a quintessentially American article of faith: that elections provide legitimacy even to the frailest institutions.” But later on we read that Washington had “resisted new national elections among the Palestinians,” because Arafat would win. In other words, democracy is fine if the results come out the right way. Otherwise, to the flames. That is “the quintessential faith.”

America’s messianic vision of democracy

To take just one crucial current example of the same doctrines, a year ago, after other pretexts for invading Iraq had collapsed, Bush’s speech writers had to come up with something to replace them. They settled on what the liberal press calls “the president’s messianic vision to bring democracy” to Iraq, the Middle East, the whole world. The reactions were intriguing. They ranged from rapturous acclaim for the vision, which proved that this was the most noble war in history, to critics, who agreed that the vision was noble and inspiring, but might be beyond our reach: Iraqi culture is just not ready for such progress towards our civilized values. We have to temper the messianic idealism of Bush and Blair with some sober realism, the London Financial Times advised.

The interesting fact is that it was presupposed uncritically across the spectrum that the messianic vision must be the goal of the invasion, not this silly business about WMD and al-Qaeda, no longer credible to elite opinion. What is the evidence that the US and Britain are guided by the messianic vision? There is indeed evidence, a single piece of evidence: our leaders proclaimed it. What more could be needed?

There is one sector of opinion that had a different view: the Iraqis. Just as the messianic vision was unveiled in Washington to reverent applause, a US-run poll of Baghdadis was released. Some agreed with the near-unanimous stand of Western elite opinion: that the goal of the invasion was to bring democracy to Iraq. One per cent. Five per cent thought the goal was to help Iraqis. The majority assumed the obvious: the US wants to control Iraq’s resources and use its base there to reorganize the region in its interest.

Actually, their views were more nuanced. Though one per cent believed that the goal of the invasion was to bring democracy, about half felt that the US wanted democracy–but would not allow Iraqis to run their democracy “without US pressure and influence.”

It is not unusual for those at the wrong end of the club to have a clearer picture of reality than those who wield it.

Making use of our freedom to fight back

At the outset I mentioned the notable successes of popular struggles in the past decades, very clear if we think about it a little, but rarely discussed, for reasons that are not hard to discern. Both recent history and public attitudes suggest some pretty straightforward and quite conservative strategies for short-term activism on the part of those who don’t want to wait for China to save us from “ultimate doom.” We enjoy great privilege and freedom, remarkable by comparative and historical standards. That legacy was not granted from above: it was won by dedicated struggle, which does not reduce to pushing a lever every few years. We can of course abandon that legacy, and take the easy way of pessimism: everything is hopeless, so I’ll quit. Or we can make use of that legacy to work to create–in part re-create–the basis for a functioning democratic culture, in which the public plays some role in determining policies, not only in the political arena from which it is largely excluded, but also in the crucial economic arena, from which it is excluded in principle.

These are hardly radical ideas. They were articulated clearly, for example, by the leading twentieth-century social philosopher in the US, John Dewey, who pointed out that, until “industrial feudalism” is replaced by “industrial democracy,” politics will remain “the shadow cast by big business over society.” Dewey was as “American as apple pie,” in the familiar phrase. He was, in fact, drawing from a long tradition of thought and action that had developed independently in working-class culture from the origins of the industrial revolution–right where I live, near Boston. Such ideas remain just below the surface, and can become a living part of our societies, cultures, and institutions. But like other victories for justice and freedom over the centuries, that will not happen by itself. One of the clearest lessons of history, including recent history, is that rights are not granted; they are won. The rest is up to us.

Canada’s imperial crimes in Vietnam

Let us recall Canada’s role in the Indochina wars, some of the worst crimes of the last century. Canada was a member of the International Control Commission for Indochina, theoretically neutral, but in fact spying for the aggressors. We learn from recently released Canadian archives that Canada felt “some misgivings about some specific USA military measures against [North Vietnam],” but “supports purposes and objectives of USA policy” in opposing North Vietnamese “aggression of [a] special type.” This Vietnamese aggression against Vietnam must not be allowed to succeed, because if Vietnam survives “as a viable cultural and historic entity,” the aggression of the Vietnamese might set a precedent “for other so-called liberation wars.”

The concept of Vietnamese aggression in Vietnam against the American defenders of the country is particularly striking because the Canadian observers surely were aware that, at the time, there were more US mercenaries in South Vietnam as part of the invading US army than there were North Vietnamese. And the US mercenaries, along with the far greater US Army, were threatening South Vietnam with “extinction” by mass terror operations right at the heart of the country, while the North Vietnamese “aggressors” were at the periphery, mainly trying to draw the invading forces to the borders, at a time when North Vietnam, too, was being bombed. That remained true, according to the Pentagon, until many years after these Canadian government reports.

The distinguished statesman Lester Pearson had gone further. He informed the House of Commons in the early 1950s that “aggression” by the Vietnamese against France in Vietnam is only one element of worldwide “communist aggression,” and that “Soviet colonial authority in Indochina” appeared to be stronger than that of France–that’s when France was attempting (with US support) to reconquer its former Indochinese colonies, with not a Russian anywhere in the neighbourhood, and not even any contacts, as the CIA had to concede, following a desperate effort to find them. One has to search pretty far to find more fervent devotion to imperial crimes than Pearson’s declarations.

This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .


BTL Glasbeek leaderboard

Browse the Archive