The Political Economy of Human Rights. Volume I: The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism. Volume II: After the Cataclysm: Postwar Indochina and The Reconstruction of Imperial Ideology. By Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman. South End Press. $
June 23, 1980        

Earlier in this century, faced with the popular success of fascism, Antonio Gramsci posed the question: How does any ruling class hold the allegiance of those whom it rules? Gramsci’s question has spawned a vast field of inquiry into ideological control or “hegemony,” the ways people are induced to accept as legitimate, or at least inevitable, their own victimization.

Awareness of this problem, by no means limited to academic Marxists, has produced some white-hot books—“The Wretched of The Earth,” “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” “Death at an Early Age,” “Three Guineas,” and now Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s two-volume “The Political Economy of Human Rights.” Like that other critique of political economy, “Capital,” the Chomsky-Herman work is both an anatomy of a system of domination, in this case America’s relationship with the third world, and a dissection of tire ideology that masks it, the myth of American benevolence, or in its current version, the “human rights” crusade.

Two charts early in the book offer data about the relationship between human rights and American foreign policy. In 12 third world countries within the American orbit—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iran (under the shah), the Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Uruguay—American military and economic aid correlate positively with human rights violations. That is, a high level of human rights violations goes with a high level of American aid. Furthermore, where there have been significant changes in the human rights situation in these countries, American aid has varied correspondingly. Changes of government involving an in crease in democracy and popular participation have resulted in decreased American aid; changes of government involving increased authoritarianism and state terror have resulted in increased American aid. As the rest of the study demonstrates, the same relationship holds for Zaire, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Honduras, El Salvador, and so on throughout the Free World.

Why? What is the key to American foreign policy? Here is the dirty little secret: “The deterioration in the rights situation and the increase in U.S. aid and support each correlate, independently, with a third and crucial factor: namely, improvement of the investment climate. The climate for business operations improves as unions and popular organizations are destroyed, dissidents are tortured or eliminated, real wages are depressed, and the society as a whole is placed in the hands of a collection of thugs and gangsters who are willing to sell out to the foreigner for a share of the loot. And as the climate for business operations improves, the society is welcomed into the Free World and offered the specific kind of ‘aid’ that will further these favorable developments.” Other features of a “favor able investment climate” cited by Chomsky and Herman include unregulated access to minerals and other resources and easy tax and profit-repatriation laws.

Thus, when a popular, moderate, nationalist government in Iran, in 1953, tried to assert a measure of control over the country’s oil, limiting the hitherto complete control by foreign companies, the result was a coup d’etat organized by Allen Dulles, director of the CIA. In Guatemala in 1954, a similar government, popular, moderate, and nationalist, undertook similar modest reforms—distributing uncultivated land owned by American corporations to landless agricultural workers, and permitting labor union organizing. Again the result was a coup, organized, financed, and immediately recognized by the United States. Other examples are equally familiar: Nicaragua in 1926, Lebanon in 1958, Laos in 1958, Brazil in 1964, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile in 1973, Thailand in 1976, and, of course, Vietnam (beginning, however, in the late in the guise of reform movements, labor 1940s, not the early 1960s).

Besides overturning governments that resist control by American capital, there is our support for governments willing to enforce this control, like the 12 listed earlier. Since this control involves such things as conversion of agriculture to case crops for export, creation of a large work force of impoverished ex-peasants for foreign-owned plants and plantations, guaranteed low wages as an incentive for foreign investment, and extreme austerity in social welfare programs, there governments are generally unpopular. This means repression: that is, torture.

The recitation in “The Political Economy of Human Rights” of torture statistics and torture episodes is nauseating. Details may be left for conscientious readers. But a few figures are worth quoting. According to Amnesty International, 35 countries were practicing torture on an administrative (i.e., regular) basis in the mid-‘70s. Of these, 26 ere within the American sphere of influence—recipients of military and economic aid and military and police training. Between 1946 and 1975, these countries received $36.5 billion in military aid and had over 150,000 military personnel trained by the U.S. The Latin American military, for example, are brought to the U.S. Army School of the Americas in the Canal Zone, where, as Chomsky and Herman note, they are offered instruction in sophisticated interrogation techniques and demonstration of state-of-the-art torture technology, and taught that they are the guardians of a beleaguered Western civilization, threatened by relentless Communist subversion in the guise of reform movements, labor organizing, and civil rights agitation. The resultant siege mentality has produced 18 military coups in Latin American since 1960 and what the authors c all the National Security State—fascism with no popular base, or “subfascism.”

Having surveyed the gruesome reality, Chomsky and Herman turn to the myth, to the reporting and interpretation of American foreign policy in the media and academic scholarship. It is an amazing record, a kind of dunciad, an epic of incompetence, hypocrisy, and deceit. They cite simple non-reporting: of the 1968 bombing of Laos, the heaviest in history, of Sihanouk’s White Paper, protesting American bombing in Cambodia in 1969. They cite neglect: When Kissinger appeared on television to summarize the Paris peace accords, no one bothered to point out that his summary was a travesty of the text. They cite flimflam: “Time” and “Newsweek” ran fake photographs of Khmer Rouge atrocities after it was revealed that they had been fabricated by Thai intelligence. And they cite moral obtuseness: When President Carter announced that there would be no reparations for Indochina because “the destruction was mutual,” not a single editorial voice was raised in protest.

Chomsky and Herman record many more examples, equally dismaying, but the burden of their argument lies elsewhere. It is that the normal performance of scholarship and the media involves a systematic bias. Their formulation is provocative, even outrageous. They claim that, much as in totalitarian societies, our scholarship and media function largely as a propaganda system, although the mode of functioning is different. Under totalitarianism, the framework of discussion, the principles of the state religion, are explicitly promulgated. They are sacrosanct but transparent; outward dissent is illegal, but inner dissent, or mental reservation, is made easier by the blatancy of state propaganda. In the United States, the framework is unarticulated and unargued, but is nonetheless assumed by all in the mainstream—in fact, acceptance of this framework is what defines the mainstream. Dissent is legal but marginal; heretics are free to talk to each other, while among those without considerable free time and access to material outside the mainstream, the engineering of consent proceeds unhindered. The consensus is tacit but overwhelming.

The assumption of all “responsible” discourse about American foreign policy, the fundamental article of our state religion, is, in Chomsky and Herman’s words, that “the United States is unique among the nations of past or present history in that its policies are governed by abstract moral principles such as the Wilsonian ideals of self-determination, human rights, economic welfare, and so on, not by the material interests of groups that actually have domestic power, as is the case in other societies.” There is no shortage of critical analysis applied to the international behavior of other countries. It is obvious that the “groups that actually have domestic power” in the Soviet Union, or in Bismarckian Germany, set foreign policy in their own interest. But we are somehow different.

To be sure, there are voices within the mainstream that deplore this excessive idealism. These are the “realists,” who argue that the limits of American power make our overriding concern for human rights and democratic values no longer affordable. Others wonder whether American moralism is a form of naiveté or condescension, an attempt to graft our traditions onto complex and alien cultures. But all agree that, properly or not, “abstract moral principles” have been the soul of American foreign policy.

Occasionally it is admitted that our noble efforts have sometimes gone astray. Thus, the fact that the U.S. bears primary responsibility for turning Latin America into a torture chamber and Indochina into a moonscape is referred to (when acknowledged at all) as “ironic” and a “tragic error,” the unforeseen result of “blundering efforts to do good” (Anthony Lewis), or of “good impulses transmuted into bad policy”(“The Washington Post”). Liberal critics boldly question the feasibility of this or that intervention or the prudence of supporting this or that dictator—but never the essential benevolence of American goals.

Upon this consensus Chomsky and Herman heap 800 pages of staggering documentation and ferocious scorn. Yet, their fury is controlled; there is never a suggestion of deliberate conspiracy. Again like “Capital,” the book portrays a vast, marvelously efficient system without conscious central coordination. The market organizes ordinary greed, as the state religion organizes ordinary chauvinism: though the rules are rigged, the individual players, by and large, are honest.

An elegant theory, and it comes with a crucial experiment. The second volume of the study focuses on postwar Indochina, and especially on Western reporting about Indochina. Its thesis is that defense of the state religion requires proof that the American intervention, however destructive, was plausibly intended to prevent some thing worse—i.e., bloodbath and enslavement. Hence, evidence must be found, or if necessary invented, and counterevidence suppressed. And this, in part, explains the explosion of Western outrage over Cambodia’s incomprehensible “auto-genocide.”

It is difficult to imagine a more unpromising project than to give a rational account of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. To anyone dependent on the mass media for information (just about all of us), the picture is ghastly: a band of Marxist fanatics dedicated to a bizarre form of primitive communism, turning a gentle land into a gigantic prison camp, slaughtering and starving millions. This is the bloodbath our leaders forecast and our forces fought to prevent. Kissinger is ___dicated, the antiwar movement is discredited, liberal columnists repentant.

Chomsky and Herman devote a very long chapter to examining recent Cambodian history and its portrayal in Western media. It is full of surprises. Sidney Schanberg won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting of the fall and evacuation of Phnom Perth in April 1975. Yet Schanberg, like all other Westerners in the city, was largely confined to the French embassy compound. Only one non-Cambodian, Shane Tart, a New Zealander with a Cambodian wife, actually participated in the evacuation, and his account, published in “News from Kampuchea” (readership c. 500), sharply contradicts the general Western impression of a barbarous and vindictive forced march. Tart and a few other leftists tried to circulate his account, in vain.

Chomsky and Herman recall some infrequently remembered background to the evacuation: Three million people, mostly refugees, lived in Phnom Penh in April 1975, five times the prewar population. They were totally dependant on air-lifts of American rice, which were terminated on the day of occupation. Only a six-day store of rice was left in the city, after which mass starvation must have ensued. Cambodian agriculture had been destroyed by American bombing, so that Agency for International Development officials leaving Phnom Penh in April predicted that a million people would die of famine in the next year.

So much for the American legacy. What of life under the Khmer Rouge? The authors write that “there is no difficulty in documenting major atrocities.” Most pundits ascribe these to “dogmatism” or some other form of Communist iniquity. But there are other possible reasons. Chomsky and Herman quote congressional testimony from a former Foreign Service officer in Phnom Penh: “What drove the Cambodians to kill? …To a large extent, I think, American actions are to blame. From 1969 to 1973, after all, we dropped more than 500,000 tons of bombs on the Cambodian countryside. Nearly half of this tonnage fell in 1973…In those few months we may have driven thousands of people out of their minds.” This speculation seems plausible.

What about mass starvation—never mind whose responsibility it would have been? There is little demographic evidence, since Cambodia was largely closed to the outside world. Yet, apart from refugee testimony—often obtained under supervision arid filtered through officially selected translators, and by no means unanimous, as Western reporting suggests—there are some first-hand ac counts from Swedish and Japanese diplomats, Danish and American leftists, Yugoslav journalists, a Belgian sociologist, a French Khmer scholar, and others. The picture is obscure, but it seems that Cambodian agriculture made a surprising recovery, perhaps even reaching prewar levels by 1978, and that Cambodia weathered the disastrous 1978 floods better than any other country in the region. The out standing foreign correspondent, Richard Dudman of “The St. Louis Post-Dispatch,” visited Cambodia in December 1978, on the eve of the Vietnamese invasion, and found it “flourishing and potentially prosperous.” Hardly the picture generally presented in the Western media.

There are probably four main sources for the popular American perception of postwar Cambodia: “Murder in a Gentle Land” by John Barton and Anthony Paul, “Cambodia: Year Zero” by Francois Ponchaud, Jean Lacouture’s review of Ponchaud in “The New York Review of Books,” and Henry Kamm’s reporting in “The New York Times.” Chomsky and Herman discuss them all at length, with devastating results. Barton and Paul’s book and Lacouture’s review are shredded; Ponchaud’s and Kamm’s credibility are seriously damaged. The analysis is too intricate to reconstruct here, but is recommended to connoisseurs of polemic.

All this is somewhat disorienting. The documentation, as noted, is staggering. But the reasoning is something more, so austere and scrupulous that its effect is almost painful. One flinches at the mechanical annihilation of complacent assumptions and gratuitous inferences, the relentless production of jarring conclusions. In a final tour de force, Chomsky and Herman orchestrate a remarkable comparison between the Western responses to atrocities in Cambodia and East Timor.

It happens that history offers a kind of controlled experiment to test the book’s argument. Consider two situations of repression and mass murder, similar in many significant respects, equally worthy of exposure and protest, with this difference: In one case, the atrocities are conducted by our ideological enemies, re mote from our influence, and cannot be mitigated by our denunciations; in the other, they are conducted by our clients, wholly dependent on our continuing military supplies, and therefore vulnerable to
any expression of displeasure by our government or public opinion. What is the response of a morally serious person? Naturally, to protest actions that we may possibly influence and for which we bear some responsibility, i.e., the latter case. But given the Chomsky-Herman hypothesis about the propaganda function of the media, what is the predicted out come? Exclusive concern with former case.

To explain: Indonesia is a typical subfascist client state, an “investors’ paradise,” according to “Le Monde.” On December 7, 1975, the Indonesian army invaded the nearby island republic of East Timor. The day before, Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger completed a state visit to Indonesia; asked to comment on the invasion, Kissinger said only, “The United States understands Indonesia’s position on the question of Timor.” In August 1975, the Australian ambassador to Indonesia cabled home: “We are dealing with a settled Indonesian policy to incorporate Timor, as even the Indonesian Foreign Minister admitted to me…The United States might have some influence on Indonesia at present as Indonesia really wants and needs US assistance in its military reequipment program…But the Ambassador [David Newsome] told me last night that he is under instructions from Kissinger personally not to involve himself in discussions of Timor with the Indonesians.”

The invasion met with resistance from Fretilin, the Timorese Liberation Front. Indonesia responded with indiscriminate bombing, burning, and crop destruction. In 1977 the Indonesian foreign minister estimated Timorese deaths from the invasion at 50,000. Fretilin estimated 100,000. By early 1980 (the fighting continues to the present), refugees and Indonesian church officials put the figure as high as 200,000. Neither the United States nor any relief agency was allowed into East Timor until late 1979.

Cambodia and East Timor are in the same part of the world, about equally distant from the U.S. mainland. Though the standard media figure for victims of the Khmer Rouge is one-to-two million, or even “half the population,” truly serious critics of the regime charge that it (rather than the American war, the Vietnamese invasion, the floods of 1978, and the famines that followed these three catastrophes) was directly responsible for 100,000 or more deaths. Note that the population of East Timor is about one- tenth as large as Cambodia’s, so that the relative scale of the massacre is 10 times as great. Finally, consider that by the ad mission of the American and Indonesian governments the Indonesian army has throughout the fighting been more than 90 per cent equipped with weapons provided by the United States. A strong case, one would think, for intense and constant journalistic attention to East Timor.

The authors exhaustively review coverage of East Timor in the American press since 1975. There is next to none. What there is is so inadequate and misleading, and so nearly identical with public statements and congressional testimony by the State Department, that it is impossible to avoid the suspicion that one is the source of the other. Altogether absent, needless to say, are the thunderbolts of denunciation visited on the Khmer Rouge. Two holocausts—one visible, one in visible. The “Times’s” editorial indignation can never again sound quite real.

Commenting in another essay on the contrast between the avalanche of Western moralizing about the plight of Communist Indochina and the silence from the same quarters about suffering that cannot be exploited for propaganda purposes, Chomsky writes: “To record this miserable display in the proper terms would require the talents of a Swift or an Orwell.” This is too modest: Chomsky is our contemporary Orwell. And not even Swift could surpass the savage indignation of “The Political Economy of Human Rights.”

Life imitates Art, or at least supplies some striking postscripts. The reception of this book has been something of a scandal. A year ago, in “The New York Times Book Review,” Paul Robinson called Chomsky “arguably the most important intellectual alive.” Shortly after that assessment appeared in America’s newspaper of record, the first volume of “The Political Economy of Human Rights” was published; the second volume came out in November. To date, neither has been reviewed in a single major U.S. newspaper. Habent sua fata libelli. The fate of this work illustrates its argument.