John Saville


A crime of the century

(July 1993)

From Socialist Review, No.166, July/August 1993, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Rethinking Camelot. JFK, the Vietnam War and US political culture
Noam Chomsky
Verso £9.95

The 20th century, measured by the total number of dead and tortured has been the most bloodstained period in recorded history; and the United States, since 1945, has greater responsibility than any other nation. There have been criminal accomplices around the world and not least in our own country, but the dynamic and most powerful force for state terror and imperialist aggression has been the United States. It is Noam Chomsky above all others who has steadfastly and consistently documented the evil deeds of his own nation, and who has never been afraid to speak the truth on platforms of any kind. A great man.

This present book of just under 150 pages of text is an examination of John F. Kennedy and the Vietnam War. Kennedy, the ‘Camelot’ of the title, the ‘golden boy’ of Western mythology, is examined on two counts: the first, that he moved the war in Vietnam from the state terror initiated by Eisenhower to American state aggression; and the second, that the argument recently heard – that had it not been for the Kennedy assassination, he would have withdrawn from the war in Vietnam – has no substance in fact.

The story begins with the CIA noting as early as 1948 that the type of nationalism developing in some colonial countries could be harmful to the West within the developing conflict with the Soviet Union. The immediate answer was that the former colonial powers, now often struggling to regain their 1939 position, must at all points be supported. In the case of Vietnam it was of course the French. The ‘peace’ agreements of Geneva in 1954 were ‘at once subverted’ by America, writes Chomsky, by the imposition of a client regime on the South. The puppet government of Ngo Dinh Diem, kept in power by the Americans, killed about 10,000 by 1957 with estimates of another 66,000 murdered between 1957 and 1961. Chomsky describes these killings as ‘state terror’, a normal matter in the many similar situations round the world where the US was supporting repressive regimes with money and often arms.

The position began to change after Kennedy had won the presidential election in the autumn of 1960. He had already made his attitude towards Vietnam clear in speeches in the Senate. In June 1956 he told his fellow Senators: ‘Vietnam represents the cornerstone of the Free World in South East Asia, the Keystone to the arch, the finger in the dike.’ Within less than a year of taking office he sent a US squadron of 12 planes especially equipped for counter-insurgency warfare; and before the end of the year (1961) they were flying coordinated missions with the ground forces of South Vietnam. It was these Kennedy inspired actions of 1961-2 which escalated the state terror into the state aggression of the later years.

Thousands and thousands were killed in the war that ended only in 1975; many more were tortured. The toll, in Chomsky’s words, was ‘awesome’; but the Americans bombed not only people but the land. Massive amounts of herbicide chemicals were poured down onto the Vietnam countryside, with large scale devastation of crops, and untold damage to the eco-systems of forests and plain. Defoliants eliminated half the mangrove forests of the country. When the war ended, the United States maintained a strict embargo on trade and investment which still continues today. America’s war against the Vietnamese people is one of the major crimes of this century.

There is a dimension missing in Chomsky’s account which begins with the French struggling to maintain their position in South Vietnam in the late 1940s. But who put the French back in 1945? The British, in the first months of the new Labour government of 1945 – a story that has been almost completely erased from the books of British historians, and certainly from the consciousness of the British people. The war had ended in August 1945 more suddenly than most expected. What was French Indo-China and became Vietnam was occupied by Japanese troops and within days of the war ending the Vietminh had taken control first in the North – where they were strongest – and then in the South. Without outside intervention the local peoples of Vietnam would have remained in power, and French colonial rule would have ended. There were no French troops at all in the Far East but imperialist regimes must stand together, and in the second week in September the British moved in, with mostly Indian and Gurkha troops and the British RAF. Within four months Saigon and most of the South had been made safe enough for the French who by this time had about 40,000 troops in the country, having arrived there courtesy of the British and Americans. It had not been easy for the British commander in these months before Christmas 1945 for he was short of troops himself. Fortunately there were still large numbers of armed Japanese around and these were used against the Vietminh in October and November 1945, just at the time when newspapers back home were telling their readers of the atrocities perpetuated by the Japanese against these prisoners of war and interned civilians. The senior British commanders noted how ‘cooperative’ the Japanese were. Without the British, the French would not have returned to Vietnam, and its history would have been different.

The second main part of Chomsky’s book is a refutation of the argument that had Kennedy not been assassinated he would have withdrawn from Vietnam. Some versions suggest that it was precisely this which was responsible for the assassination. Chomsky documents Kennedy’s position in great detail and concludes that there is absolutely nothing in the proposition. On the contrary: Kennedy was firm to the end on the need for victory in Vietnam. Some of his military chiefs were in favour of a withdrawal and Kennedy could quite easily have used their authority; but there is no evidence that he was in any way influenced by their advice. He had total commitment to the war in Vietnam.

Chomsky is never an easy read and this book is no exception. He could do with a good editor, but it is a book that is full of important analysis and fact, and must be persevered with because it tells a part of our recent history that all should know. It shows once again the lies and distortions that pass for news coverage in the media, and it is full of nuggets of fact that exhibit the kind of infamy our ruling classes are capable of. Did you know, for example, that by 1969 there were 50,000 Korean mercenaries fighting alongside half a million American troops in Vietnam? The Koreans, says Chomsky, were ‘particularly brutal’, which, from what we know of American savagery, is a horrifying condemnation.

Last updated on 4 July 2010