Thursday, August 19, 2004

An Anonymous J'Accuse

A reader who wishes to remain anonymous has sent me this excellent denunciation of Chomsky's actions, associations, and ideologies in Vietnam.

Chomsky does not like to be reminded of, or questioned about, his April 1970 speech in Hanoi. Instead he likes to refer to his 28-page account of the visit in his book At War With Asia. Unfortunately for Chomsky, the account in the book is in many ways even more damning than the speech.

Chomsky found North Vietnam a socialist paradise. He found the country “relaxed and serene.” Everywhere he went, the people “seemed healthy, well-fed, and adequately clothed.” The only negative feelings are evoked by the damage caused by American bombing.

So far as Chomsky can tell, “the country is unified, strong though poor,and determined to withstand the attack launched against Vietnam by the strongest superpower in the world.” That is, there was no dissent whatsoever. The famous American dissenter did not find that odd in the least.

Chomsky accepted every word of his Hanoi hosts without criticism, questioning, or skepticism. Governments engage in propaganda, he loves to remind us–but not Hanoi! When they informed him that their goal for South Vietnam was a “larger coalition government” he accepted that ludicrous contention without reservation.

He called the Saigon authorities “increasingly authoritarian and repressive.” Such a comment in Hanoi, a Stalinist state, certainly raises doubts as to Chomsky’s mental balance.

Chomsky, the champion of freedom of speech, wrote admiringly of his conversation with the director of “the major newspaper of North Vietnam” without, apparently, asking about other newspapers with dissenting views–or even modest disagreement with the Party line. Was there any part of the press or other media independent of Communist control? It never occurred to him to ask, apparently, and the great free speech champion ignored the subject entirely. In a country where millions suffered–and continue to suffer–repression of free speech to a degree infinitely greater than anything that happened later to Faurisson [a French Holocaust denier notoriously defended by Chomsky -- Benjamin] in France, Chomsky managed to remain completely silent on the question of basic human rights.

The conceit that Chomsky supported “the Vietnamese people” or “the revolution” but not the regime cannot be maintained. He describes with adoration his conversations with, among other high-ranking officials, Premier Pham Van Dong. And he accepted without question the Premier's ridiculous assertions that “South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos will be neutral” after the expected reunification of the country.

He visited a hospital. It was wonderful. He visited a math class, a linguistics seminar. All equally wonderful. He writes with approval of the “achievements of the North Vietnamese in the economic field.” He looks at the phenomenon of a free agricultural market alongside the state market,and concludes that “there is little incentive for the peasants to use the free market” because the state set agricultural prices artificially high. Most peasants, he says, have joined the cooperatives, “the advantages of joining being obvious.” Not a sign of coercion here!

Chomsky tells us that “there appears to be a high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels.” One wonder what the evidence for that “democracy” might have been.

He goes on to explain in some detail how the Party utilizes central economic planning, and cites with approval the analysis by Le Duan–head of the Party–of the central role of the Party in managing and directing the economy. Chomsky often likes to smear those who disagree with him as Stalinists and neo-Nazis, with such lines as “a Stalinist would be proud.” Here the Stalinists actually were proud–and Chomsky gave them his approval. He goes so far as to say that Hanoi was successfully applying Mao’s principles of development.

It is at this point that the only modest disagreement surfaces between Chomsky and his government hosts: Chomsky endorses the elimination, in the long run, of “party direction” in favor of “direct popular control at all levels.” He gives no indication as to how this might happen.

There follows a discussion of the North Vietnamese “land reform” after 1954. Citing reports from the Manchester Guardian, he says that the land reform “took a fearful toll; it was a chaotic affair, with thousands of people using the opportunity to pay off old scores, and thousands were killed in an eruption of violence and terror.” But it was all worth it, says Chomsky, for the hope it gave peasants of a new society. North Vietnam has succeeded, he says, “in resolving successfully an extremely difficult problem of agricultural production.” It is not a question of human rights; as with Soviet Five-Year Plans, it is merely a question of production. The human toll is irrelevant. And of course, in Chomsky’s version, the brutality of the process had nothing to do with government policy.

We can be sure that there is another side to the “land reform” story that Chomsky will not reveal, that he wishes to consign to the memory hole: here is a slightly different description, found at

The Hanoi dictatorship instituted the Soviet and Chinese collectivization models as its disastrous "land reform program." A "Population Classification Degree" of March 2, 1953, assigned everyone to categories invented by the Soviets in the 1920s, e.g. "landlord" and "agricultural worker." Notwithstanding the fact that the average landlord in North Vietnam owned less than two acres of rice land, somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 North Vietnamese were denounced as class enemies and shot.

During this period Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues were so impressed by Mao's large-scale class genocide that they brought in Chinese Communists to help them sort out who should live and who should die. Bui Tin, a former North Vietnamese official, described the case of Mrs. Nguyen Thi Nam. Although her sons were Communist Party officials, "the Chinese adviser concluded that she was a cruel landowner who had to be eliminated." This case was brought to Ho Chi Minh's attention, but he refused to intervene. "Mrs. Nam was quickly condemned to death on the advice of Mao Tse-tung's representative, who accused her of deceitfully entering the ranks of the revolution to destroy it from within."

Some peasants used the land reform process to settle scores, but as the imprisonment and murder grew in scale many were frightened into resistance. On November 2, 1956, villagers rebelled in Nghe-An, near Ho's birthplace,forcing the regime to send in the 325th Division of the People's Army to crush them.

As in Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao's China, in Ho's North Vietnam the land reform terror was called off when it had served its purpose of atomizing society and cementing the control of the communist party. Ho Chi Min admitted that "errors" had been made, but blithely dismissed the victims of the mass murder: "One cannot waken the dead."

The atrocities of the North Vietnamese government appalled many intellectuals, including some in the Communist Party. Their protest took the form of articles in two publications, Nhan Van ("The Humanities") and Giai Pham ("Masterpieces"), from which the so-called Nhan Van-Giai Pham Affair (1956-58) took its name. The regime cracked down on the dissidents, but could not kill the spirit of dissent. Nguyen Chi Thien began composing poetry critical of the regime, which was privately circulated. The authorities jailed him in 1961.

In testimony before the U.S. Congress in 1995, the poet described what happened: "In 1961 Ho Chi Minh himself signed a decree ordering the re-education of several hundred thousand people, consisting of those who had served in the military or government of the Bao Dai regime, and those in the general population who were discontented with the regime, including Buddhist monks, Catholic priests, lay Catholics, bourgeois capitalists and intellectuals. They were all corralled in hard labor camps…The vast majority of these people were never brought to trial and their fate depended entirely on the dispositions made by the Public Security cadres."

Released in 1963, Nguyen Chi Thien was arrested again in 1966 and was imprisoned until 1977. Like Solzhenitsyn in the Gulag, he had to compose his work and commit it to memory. Whether he was in the city jail of Hoa Lo (the "Hanoi Hilton" where many American POWs spent time) or hard labor camps in the countryside, he spent days reciting his poems to himself. His greatest fear was that if he lost his memory his life's work would be obliterated.

After being released in 1977, he lived with a friend and wrote down almost400 poems from memory. He chose Bastille Day, 1979 (July 14) to smuggle his work to diplomats in the French Embassy in Hanoi. Unfortunately, the Vietnamese security detail standing guard deterred him. Two days later,pursued by another security detail, he plunged into the British embassy, shouting in English, "I am not a madman, I am a poet and I have something important to give to you." To their credit, three British diplomats shut out the Vietnamese guards and asked him what he wanted. He gave them his manuscript and three photographs of himself, to establish that he did not seek to hide in anonymity. On leaving the embassy he was arrested. He spent 12 more years in prison and composed a second collection of poems. In 1991 he was released and emigrated to the United States.
To sum up: Chomsky, the famous dissenter and champion of human rights,visited a totalitarian country and found no dissent; and the absence of basic human freedoms did not concern him in the least. The “libertarian socialist” had nothing but good things to say about the imposition of economic, cultural, and political institutions that were and continue to be repressive, cruel, and coercive. The “independent thinker” lavished his praise on the most brutal Stalinist and Maoist policies.

So why does anyone take him seriously?
I must confess, as I read this I began to seethe with anger. Nothing is uglier than hypocrisy, especially when it results in murder; and the spectacle of this grinning clown, this king of the useful idiots, this wretched apologist for tyranny and slaughter parading himself around North Vietnam, armed with his suffocating moral self-adoration, adorning himself with the honorable title of dissident while the true dissidents, the true martyrs to human freedom, were condemned to silence and death by the very government he was busy aggrandizing; is as much of a monument to intellectual evil as the worst apologists for Hitler and Stalin. Chomsky is merely one in a long continuum of Potemkin intellectuals who began as gadflys and ended as cheerleaders to mass murder. It is up to us to see that history judges him as harshly as it has his fellow travelers.