To the American Left in the 1960s, Hanoi was the Eternal City. It was the place to go to protest America’s war in Vietnam and to express one’s solidarity with Ho Chi Minh’s Communist regime. In Hanoi one could find, according to Tom Hayden and Staughton Lynd, a “socialism of the heart” and a budding “rice-roots democracy.” “We suspect,” they observed, “that colonial American town meetings and current Vietnamese village meetings, Asian peasants leagues and Black Belt sharecroppers’ unions have much in common….” It was also in Hanoi that one could, in Ramsey Clark’s words, witness “the chief and universal cause of the revolutionary impulse,” namely “the desire for equality.” “You see no internal conflict in this country,” Clark happily reported. At least, he stated, “I’ve seen none.” Finally, it was in Hanoi that one could, in Susan Sontag’s words, visit a place “which, in many respects, deserves to be idealized,” and see a people who “really do believe in the goodness of man….”
Noam Chomsky was among those on the Left who traveled to Hanoi. In his At War With Asia (1970), the linguist-turned-activist fondly recounted how he found a country that was “unified, strong though poor, and determined to withstand the attack launched against [it] by the great superpower of the Western world.” Everywhere he went, Chomsky found people “healthy, well-fed, and adequately clothed.” Indeed, he saw great promise in Vietnamese Communism. “My personal guess is that, unhindered by imperialist intervention, the Vietnamese would develop a modern industrial society with much popular participation” and “direct democracy.” While in Hanoi, Chomsky broadcasted a speech of solidarity on behalf of the Communists. He declared that their heroism revealed “the capabilities of the human spirit and human will.” “Your cause,” he continued, “is the cause of humanity as it moves forward toward liberty and justice, toward the socialist society in which free, creative men control their own destiny.” Chomsky was so moved by his journey that, at one point, he proudly “sang songs, patriotic and sentimental, and declaimed poems” with his hosts. He admitted that some Western observers, those too encumbered by bourgeois prejudice, might find his actions distasteful. He was not concerned. “Let the reader think what he may,” Chomsky wrote. “The fact is,” the whole experience was “intensely moving.”
Noam Chomsky went to Vietnam to protest a war he insisted was “simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men….” He opposed the war in word and deed while it was being fought, and he continues to write against it today. In the 1960s, he aided antiwar students and participated in one of Boston’s first antiwar demonstrations. He also joined the infamous October 1967 march on the Pentagon. Chomsky thought it was a glorious affair with “tens of thousands of young people surrounding what they believed to be - I must add that I agree - the most hideous institution on this earth.” He helped form the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars (CCAS), an organization that demanded “total, immediate, [and] unilateral American withdrawal” from Vietnam. And in 1969, Chomsky supported the October 15 nationwide Moratorium Against the War in Vietnam.
Chomsky has always been celebrated by the Left for his relentless opposition to the war. In 1969, Robert Sklar wrote a review of Chomsky’s work for The Nation and glowed about his “remarkable scholarly tenacity and depth” and his “capacity for going beneath specific political issues to unveil their underlying cultural and ideological foundations….” A few years later, Simon Head argued that Chomsky’s work on the war was “of great value in making sense of the present.” More recently, radical historian Howard Zinn has called Chomsky “the leading critic of America’s involvement in Vietnam.” Noted anti-free trade activist Arundhati Roy, in a new forward to Chomsky’s For Reasons of State (1972), praises him as “one of the greatest, most radical public thinkers of our time.” Finally, in 2003, Richard Falk argued that Chomsky was right about the Vietnam War. His judgments, Folk proposed, “stand brilliantly the test of time.”
Chomsky’s indictment of the war has not changed since the 1960s. To understand it, one could read an essay he published in 1968, or one published in 2003. For almost forty years, he has offered the same critique. It rests on four related points. First, Chomsky argues that Communism offered the Vietnamese people the opportunity for a democratic and prosperous future. Second, he argues that the Communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV), was not assisted by the Chinese or the Soviets. Similarly, he argues that the independent National Liberation Front (NLF or Vietcong), was a South Vietnamese political organization that was not controlled by the DRV. Third, Chomsky provides a Marxist interpretation of the war’s origins. The U.S., be believes, went to Vietnam for economic reasons. Further, the corporate ruling class determined American foreign policy in Vietnam, and their major goal was boosting the power and profits of big business. Fourth, Chomsky argues that the U.S. resorted to Nazi-like acts of barbarity and repression to accomplish its goals, including the installment of a lackey government in South Vietnam (the Republic of Vietnam or RVN).
Chomsky’s four point critique is extensive. He offers an epic and gripping story of American greed, ignorance, and cruelty contrasted with the grit and solidarity of the Vietnamese Communists. He views America as an evil colossus, an omnipotent and always unjust force inflicting its will on the innocent Vietnamese. The story of America in Vietnam is not, as some liberals might think, a story of a once noble effort that metamorphosized into a quagmire. Instead, it is the story of America’s willful and intentional criminality – of its attempt to inflict genocide on the people of Southeast Asia. Chomsky’s work makes for gripping and, if one did not know any better, disturbing reading. But alas, Chomsky’s Vietnam epic is entirely wrong.
Chomsky’s first point is his contention that Communism offered Vietnam the opportunity for a golden future. He argues that Ho Chi Minh and his comrades were fighting to bring about a new world of economic justice and national emancipation. Their goal was to establish a “good example” of non-capitalist development for other Third World nations to follow. The society they desired was one that would, as Chomsky stated while on his tour of Vietnam, enable free and creative men to control their own destiny. Chomsky also insists that the Vietnamese people overwhelmingly supported the Communists.
Much of Chomsky’s first point rests on his analysis of the DRV’s 1953-1956 land reform campaign, and on his dismissal of Communist atrocities. He believes that the land reform campaign, in which the Communists took land away from farmers and landlords and gave it to poor peasants, was an important and necessary achievement. For too long, Chomsky argues, Vietnamese peasants had suffered from gross economic inequalities. True, Chomsky concedes, some of the tactics used to implement the reforms were too aggressive, but the overall effect of the campaign was positive.
Chomsky propagated this view of the DRV’s land reform campaign during the war and he has clung to it ever since. In 1967, he observed that, “if it were true that the consequences of not using terror would be that the peasantry in Vietnam would continue to live in the state of the peasantry of the Philippines, then I think the use of terror would be justified.” In 1970, he admitted that some people were killed during the campaign but insisted that this was less important than the fact that land reform “laid the basis for a new society” that has “overcome starvation and rural misery and offers the peasants hope for the future.” After the war, in a book that Chomsky co-wrote with Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism (1979), he argued again that the reforms were much needed. He also insisted that they were not intended as political reprisal against opponents. Moreover, Communist leaders did not condone the violence associated with the reforms: “There is no evidence that the leadership ordered or organized mass executions of peasants.” Further, they were “upset by the abuses,” and demonstrated a capacity to “keep in touch with rural interest and needs.” Most importantly, the land reform was an economic success.
Because Chomsky viewed Vietnamese Communism as a viable alternative to capitalist development, he dismissed the violence associated with land reform as inconsequential. He dismissed, as well, numerous other Communist atrocities such as the 1968 massacre at Hue where Communists killed three thousand civilians. The Hue massacre, he argued, should be attributed to the U.S.
Chomsky’s first point is wrong. His romantic faith that Communism could work in Vietnam is contradicted by the fact that Communism simply can not work in any nation. It is an inherently flawed economic doctrine that inevitably leads to totalitarianism. F.A. Hayek, the great economic theorist, pointed this out long before the onset of the Vietnam War. In his Road to Serfdom (1944), Hayek cogently argued that because modern economies are too complex to be managed by even the brightest of state bureaucrats, centralized economic planning and control will destroy economic productivity. It will also give the state monopolistic control over the most basic decisions of life. In so doing, Communism will furnish the state control of the means for all human ends, and “whoever has sole control of the means must also determine which ends are to be served, which values are to be rated higher and which lower – in short, what men should strive for.” Communism, Hayek argued, would never work and the human costs involved in trying to make it work would be terribly high.
Cold War developments proved Hayek correct. In Eastern Europe, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union, Communism was a colossal nightmare. According to the authors of The Black Book of Communism (1999), Communism was responsible for the deaths of possibly 100 million people during the course of the 20th century. Communism killed. It also ruined economies. In the Soviet Union, for example, Communism produced poverty, food shortages, denial of basic services, massive pollution, low rates of productivity, terrible health conditions, corruption, lack of educational opportunities, and high rates of alcoholism. In the 20th century, as David Horowitz has argued, history demonstrated Communism’s “utter bankruptcy and historic defeat.”
Vietnamese Communism was no exception. Contrary’s to Chomsky’s thesis, the Vietnamese Communists were not progressive, popular, or capable of building a prosperous society. Instead, they were despotic. Their economic policies, in turn, were disastrous. These facts are clearly demonstrated by the Communist’s political actions and economic program before, during, and after the Vietnam War.
In 1945, immediately after establishing the DRV, the Communists dedicated themselves to the elimination of all opposition. They strove to replicate the horrors of Soviet and Chinese Communism. In a 1951 speech, Ho Chi Minh (who had studied and lived in the Soviet Union) proudly declared that “Marx, Engles, Lenin, and Stalin are the common teachers for the world revolution.” He also expressed great confidence in the future because “We have the most clear-sighted and worthy elder brothers and friends of mankind – comrade Stalin and comrade Mao Tse-tung.” Following his elder brothers, Ho established a one-party state with a secret police force and numerous detention camps for dissidents. He strove to liquidate Trotskyites, political dissidents, and even women who had married Frenchmen. “All those who do not follow the line which I lay down,” he threatened, “will be broken.”
The DRV’s land reform campaign was particularly vicious. Contrary to Chomsky, it did involve mass killings. Its purpose was to destroy wealthy and middling landowners by stealing their property and giving it to poor peasants. The result was large scale terror, paranoia, perhaps 100,000 dead, and many thousands more who were imprisoned. Moreover, top Party leaders, including Ho Chi Minh, instigated and directed the campaign. As William Duiker has pointed out in his Ho Chi Minh (2000), “there is ample evidence that much of the [violence associated with land reform] was deliberately inspired by Party leaders responsible for drafting and carrying out the program.” Economically, it was a disaster. By following the model provided by China and killing thousands of productive and successful land holders, many of whom owned comparatively small plots of land, the Communists were insuring the demise of their economic policies. The DRV’s land reform campaign was a monstrous act that paralleled similar efforts in the Soviet Union and China. As Michael Lind has written in his Vietnam: The Necessary War (1999), “Communist agriculture could not produce good harvests – but it repeatedly produced bumper crops of the dead.”
After carrying out their brutal policies in the North, the Communists sought to extend their power to South Vietnam. In 1957, they launched a terrorist campaign against supporters of South Vietnamese leader Ngo Dinh Diem. Over the next several years, Vietcong guerillas assassinated tens of thousands of individuals and abducted thousands more. They also killed many thousands of innocent civilians by shelling towns and cities with rockets and mortars.
The South Vietnamese, moreover, were not devoted to the Vietcong, as was clearly demonstrated during the 1968 Tet offensive when they refused to rally to the Communist cause – as the Communists believed they would. Nor, for that matter, were the North Vietnamese as supportive of the Communists as Chomsky argues. After the 1954 Geneva conference, there was a mass exodus of North Vietnamese into South Vietnam, including as many as one million Catholics. In fact, in the immediate months after the conference, almost ten times as many Vietnamese headed South as did those who went North. During the war, millions of Vietnamese realized that the Communists were destroying their chances for democracy and economic development. The war’s aftermath confirmed their suspicions and demonstrated what the true aims of the Communists were. It also proved the complete fallacy of Chomsky’s first point.
In 1975, after taking Saigon, the Communists quickly extended their Stalinist dictatorship throughout South Vietnam. The new Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) was corrupt and tyrannical. Its Stalinist leaders trampled on individual rights and established a string of “reeducation camps” for anyone not sufficiently supportive of the new regime. They forced possibly one million or more people into these cruel and primitive camps for weeks, months, or years, and without any legal trials. Camp prisoners suffered from severe malnutrition, as well as malaria, and dysentery. One journalist who interviewed former inmates noted that prisoners commonly suffered “from limb paralysis, vision loss, and infectious skin diseases like scabies caused by long-term, closely-packed, dark living conditions.” Because of these inhumane conditions, many prisoners killed themselves. The Communists also eliminated freedom of movement, requiring all citizens to carry internal passports. They eliminated all political parties and conducted bogus political elections. They closed down the free press that had existed in South Vietnam and created two official papers and one official television channel. They launched a racist pogrom against Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese citizens. They swept aside all southerners, including almost all NLF leaders, from positions of power. They also subjected all citizens to daily education sessions to promote the Party’s power and to celebrate the words of Ho Chi Minh and other great Communist luminaries, including Stalin. One official poem, written by the head of the Communist Party Committee of Culture, contained these moving lines:
Oh, Stalin! Oh, Stalin!
The love I bear my father, my mother, my wife, myself
It’s nothing beside the love I bear you.
Oh, Stalin! Oh, Stalin!
What remains of the earth and of the sky!
Now that you are dead.
All of this was deeply discouraging to the people of Vietnam. One former Communist official, General Pham Xuan An, commented “All that talk about ‘liberation’ twenty, thirty years ago, all the plotting, all the bodies, produced this, this impoverished, broken-down country led by a gang of cruel and paternalistic half-educated theorists.”
Under Communist rule, Vietnam became a totalitarian hell and an economic calamity. The workers paradise that Chomsky envisioned never came. Provided their opportunity to be free of American “imperialism,” the Vietnamese Communists – following the examples provided by China and the Soviet Union – used the economy to enrich themselves at the expense of the people they had professed to care so much for. They proved once again that Communism simply does not work. Since 1975, corruption has been rife, as has unemployment and poverty. Vietnam’s per capita income and its GDP have remained extremely low. The peasantry has felt little incentive to work hard and is generally embittered. In 1988, parts of Vietnam suffered famine, with millions of people on the brink of death. Vietnam’s educational system remains poor, as does its basic infrastructure. Prostitution, crime, and drug use plague the country. One can go on and on but the point should be clear. Contrary to what Chomsky predicted, Vietnamese Communism has proven to be a total disaster.
The consequence of Communist rule was a mass exodus of as many as two million Vietnamese who fled Vietnam in small boats and rafts in the hopes of finding a better life in Indonesia, the Philippines, or the United States. Eventually, approximately one million Vietnamese came to the U.S., the nation that Chomsky believes is the enemy of the Vietnamese people. “There is no way out, no hope,” one individual declared, “….The best way to commit suicide is to take a boat. Either you go to the bottom of the ocean or to paradise – California.”
Chomsky’s response to the grim fate that has befallen Vietnam has been to rally to the SRV’s defense and to blame everything on the U.S. In 1975 he celebrated Saigon’s collapse. In 1977 he declared that he would not sign any letter that would be distributed through the American media that protested human rights violations in Vietnam. In fact, he disputed claims that any significant violations were taking place and he reminded people of the “unprecedented savagery” of America’s attack against Vietnam. He did acknowledge the existence of the reeducation camps, but insisted that some of the individuals in them deserved their fate. He also attacked the credibility of refugee reports, while happily using the reports of visitors to Vietnam who shared his politics. In later years, Chomsky simply argued that any problem that was occurring in Vietnam was the fault of the United States. The U.S. war, he insisted, guaranteed that the Communists would establish a Stalinist state. “Imposing harsh conditions on an impoverished Third World society,” he claimed, “….more or less compel[s] them to resort to draconian measures.” Moreover, the SRV’s reeducation camps were the best that could be expected, and the level of political repression was typical for a nation recovering after a war.
Chomsky wants to absolve the Communists of their sins. This will not do. It was the Communists, not the U.S., that established a Stalinist state. They built the reeducation camps. They built the cult of personality around Ho Chi Minh, Stalin, and Mao. They killed, tortured, and imprisoned their political opponents. And they have destroyed, for some time to come, the hope that Vietnam could become a prosperous, productive, and democratic nation. To insist, as Chomsky does, that the U.S. is to blame for this tragic reality is to resort to Alice in Wonderland logic. It is to deny that the Communists were Communists, individuals who were doing nothing more than following the dictates of their own twisted ideology. These are facts, though for many on the Left such as Chomsky, they are embarrassing to acknowledge. As Doan Van Toai, a former Vietnamese revolutionary, has argued, intellectuals such as Chomsky have chosen to ignore or rationalize Vietnam’s ugly fate. Astutely, Toai observes that such intellectuals will likely “continue to maintain their silence in order to avoid the profound disillusionment that accepting the truth about Vietnam means for them.”
Chomsky’s second point is his assertion that the DRV was independent of Soviet and Chinese aid and that the NLF was independent of Hanoi. Chomsky first advanced this point during the war. In 1972, he argued that “Administration spokesmen have held to the view that by destroying Vietnam we are somehow standing firm against Chinese or Russian aggression….One searches the record in vain for evidence of this policy.” After the war, Chomsky reiterated this view. In What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1992), he argued that U.S. leaders simply invented the idea of a great North Vietnamese-Chinese-Soviet axis to scare Americans into supporting the war. Communism was not some ominous collection of powerful nations arrayed against the U.S. Instead, it was the idea that government should take care of its people, not the needs of an imperial power. This was not an acceptable idea to American imperialists. In Rethinking Camelot (1993), Chomsky wrote that “it was Ho Chi Minh’s ‘ultranationalism’ that made him unacceptable, not his services to the ‘Kremlin conspiracy’ or ‘Soviet expansion’….” The war, he contends, was an act of aggression against an independent nation that was unaided by the two great Communist superpowers. It was also an act of aggression against the NLF, a popular and nationalistic South Vietnamese organization that advocated popular economic and social programs. NLF authority, Chomsky writes approvingly, was “decentralized and placed in the hands of local people, in contrast to the rule of the U.S. client regime, perceived as ‘outside forces’ by major segments of the local population.” NLF policies, particularly its land reforms, benefited the great mass of poor peasants. Moreover, Northerners did not influence the NLF, and did not become directly involved in the struggle against the United States until after 1965. The war, according to Chomsky, must be characterized as an “invasion” by the U.S. into a nation that simply refused to kowtow to American imperialism.
Chomsky’s second point can not be sustained. Scholars who have had access to Vietnamese, Soviet, and Chinese sources have now firmly established that both the Soviet Union and China provided the DRV with substantial military and economic assistance during the war. They have also established that Hanoi controlled the NLF.
Chinese aid to the Communists was essential in the 1950s and the 1960s. At the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu, Chinese advisers directed the Communist dominated Viet Minh army. China also furnished the Viet Minh with food, trucks, oil, canons, guns, artillery shells, and millions of bullets. Chinese aid enabled the Viet Minh’s victory over the French. From 1953 to 1956, China played a key role in assisting the North Vietnamese land reform campaign. Chinese Communists trained many of the campaign’s leaders. The DRV official who directed the program, General Secretary Truong Chinh, was a well known supporter of Mao and the Marxist idea of class war. The killing of class enemies, Chinh believed, was a necessary component of the Vietnamese Revolution. Finally, from 1965 to 1968 - as Qiang Zhai has pointed out in his recent, China and the Vietnam Wars (2000) - Mao sent 320,000 support troops to North Vietnam. China also supplied surface-to-air missiles, artillery, and essential logistical assistance. The Chinese and the Vietnamese Communists celebrated their joint efforts and appreciated the bloody results. In one remarkable conversation that Mao had with North Vietnamese premier Pham Van Dong, and military leader Le Duc Anh, the Great Helmsman took particular pleasure in learning what effect Chinese anti-tank weapons had on American soldiers:
Pham Van Dong: Tanks will melt when they are hit by this weapon.
Le Duc Anh: And the drivers will be burnt to death.
Mao Zedong: Good. Can we produce more of this?
One no longer needs to search in vain for evidence of Chinese support for the Vietnamese Revolution. Nor does one have to search in vain to find enough evidence to realize that Soviet assistance was also of fundamental importance to the DRV. According to the Oxford University Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War (1998), total Soviet bloc aid from 1955 to 1961 was over $1 billon. The Soviets supplied loans to build dozens of industrial plants and numerous power stations. By 1971, the Soviet Union had provided up to $3 billion in economic and military aid to North Vietnam. Soviet military assistance included T-54 tanks, SA-7 Strela anti-aircraft missiles, and thousands of SA-2 surface-to air–missiles. Soviet aid, moreover, continued long after the war was over. In 1983, the Soviets were supplying the Vietnamese up to $4 million a day in economic and military aid.
David Horowitz, The Politics of Bad Faith: The Radical Assault on America’s Future (New York: The Free Press, 1998), p.96. Stephane Courtois, Nicolas Werth, Jean-Louis Panne, Andrzej Paczkowski, Karel Bartosek, and Jean-Louis Margolin, The Black of Communism: Crimes, Terror, and Repression (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), p.4. Also see Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2001). Robert Conquest, Reflections on a Ravaged Century (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000).
The Communist victory in Vietnam and the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia promoted the fall of Laos to the Communist Pathet Lao, and the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal massacre in Cambodia. The dominoes, as American leaders predicted, did fall. The Communist victory in Vietnam also encouraged Soviet proxies in Ethiopia, Angola, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and elsewhere.
See Tucker, ed., The Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War, p.348. Doan Van Toai and David Chanoff, The Vietnamese Gulag (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986). For an informative report on Vietnam written three years after the war see Carl Gershman, “After the Dominoes Fell,” Commentary, May, 1978.
At what Howard Zinn has called the war’s last teach-in, Zinn, Chomsky, and the participants were joyous upon hearing of the fall of Saigon. “In the midst of the proceedings,” Zinn recalls, “a student came racing down the aisle with a dispatch in his hand, shouting ‘Saigon has fallen. The war is over,’ and the auditorium exploded in cheers.” See Zinn’s forward in Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, p.viii.
Odd Arne Westad, Chen Jian, Stein Tonnesson, Nguyen Vu Tung, and James G. Hershberg, “77 Conversations between Chinese and Foreign Leaders on the Wars in Indochina, 1964-1977,” Cold War International History Project Working Paper No.22 (Washington: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, May 1998).