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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Power Systems

Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire

American Empire Project

Noam Chomsky; Interviews with David Barsamian

Metropolitan Books


The New American


One of the themes that Howard Zinn tried to address during his long career was the lack of historical memory. The facts of history are scrupulously ignored and/or distorted. I was wondering if you could comment on imperialism then and now, interventions then and now. Specifically about Saigon in 1963 and 1964 and Kabul today?

What happened in Vietnam in the early 1960s is gone from history. It was barely discussed at the time, and it's essentially disappeared. In 1954, there was a peace settlement between the United States and Vietnam. The United States regarded it as a disaster, refused to permit it to go forward, and established a client state in the South, which was a typical client state, carrying out torture, brutality, murders. By about 1960, the South Vietnamese government had probably killed seventy or eighty thousand people.1 The repression was so harsh that it stimulated an internal rebellion, which was not what the North Vietnamese wanted. They wanted some time to develop their own society. But they were sort of coerced by the southern resistance into at least giving it verbal support.

By the time John F. Kennedy became involved in 1961, the situation was out of control. So Kennedy simply invaded the country. In 1962, he sent the U.S. Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam, using planes with South Vietnamese markings. Kennedy authorized the use of napalm, chemical warfare, to destroy the ground cover and crops. He started the process of driving the rural population into what were called "strategic hamlets," essentially concentration camps, where people were surrounded by barbed wire, supposedly to protect them from the guerillas who the U.S. government knew perfectly well they supported. This "pacification" ultimately drove millions of people out of the countryside while destroying large parts of it. Kennedy also began operations against North Vietnam on a small scale. That was 1962.

In 1963, the Kennedy administration got wind of the fact that the government of Ngo Dinh Diem it had installed in South Vietnam was trying to arrange negotiations with the North. Diem and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were trying to negotiate a peace settlement. So the Kennedy liberals determined that they had to be thrown out. The Kennedy administration organized a coup in which the two brothers were killed and they put in their own guy, meanwhile escalating the war. Then came the assassination of President Kennedy. Contrary to a lot of mythology, Kennedy was one of the hawks in the administration to the very last minute. He did agree to proposals for withdrawal from Vietnam, because he knew the war was very unpopular here, but always with the condition of withdrawal after victory. Once we get victory, we can withdraw and let the client regime go.

Actually, imperialism is an interesting term. The United States was founded as an empire. George Washington wrote in 1783 that "the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage, as the wolf, to retire; both being beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape." Thomas Jefferson predicted that the "backward" tribes at the borders "will relapse into barbarism and misery, lose numbers by war and want, and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forests into the Stony mountains."2 Once we don't need slavery anymore, we'll send the slaves back to Africa. And get rid of the Latins because they are an inferior race. We're the superior race of Anglo-Saxons. It's only to the benefit of everyone if we people the entire hemisphere.

Copyright © 2012 by Noam Chomsky and David Barsamian