David Barsamian: Your office here in a new building at MIT is opposite another new one that's called the Center for Learning and Memory. One can only speculate as to what goes on there. But I'd like you to talk about memory and knowledge of history as a tool of resistance to propaganda.
Noam Chomsky: It was well understood, long before Orwell, that memory must be repressed. Not only memory but consciousness of what’s happening in front of you must be repressed, because if the public comes to understand what’s being done in its name, it probably won’t permit it. That’s the main reason for propaganda. Otherwise there is no point in it. Why not just tell the truth? It’s easier to tell the truth than to lie. You don’t get caught. You don’t have to put any effort into it. But power systems rarely tell the truth, if they can get away with it, because they simply don’t trust the public. And this happens every minute. What we were talking about is an example; the appointment of Negroponte is a perfect example. And it just goes on and on.
On May 27, the New York Times published one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever seen. They ran an article about the Nixon-Kissinger interchanges. Kissinger fought very hard through the courts to try to prevent it, but the courts permitted it. You read through it, and you see the following statement embedded in it. Nixon at one point informs Kissinger, his right-hand Eichmann, that he wanted bombing of Cambodia. And Kissinger loyally transmits the order to the Pentagon to carry out "a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves." That is the most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record.
Right at this moment there is a prosecution of Milosevic going on in the international tribunal, and the prosecutors are kind of hampered because they can’t find direct orders, or a direct connection even, linking Milosevic to any atrocities on the ground. Suppose they found a statement like this. Suppose a document came out from Milosevic saying, "Reduce Kosovo to rubble. Anything that flies on anything that moves." They would be overjoyed. The trial would be over. He would be sent away for multiple life sentences–if it was a U.S. trial, immediately the electric chair. But they can’t find any such document. In fact, nobody has even found a document like that connecting Hitler to the Holocaust. Scholars have been working on it for years. I can’t remember an example of such a direct order to carry out what amounted to a huge massacre, way beyond the level of anything we call genocide when other people do it.
Was there any reaction to the Nixon-Kissinger transcript? Did anybody notice it? Did anybody comment on it? Actually, I’ve brought it up in talks a number of times, and I’ve noticed that people don’t understand it. They understand it the minute I say it, but not five minutes later, because it’s just too unacceptable. We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can’t be. So therefore, it didn’t happen. And therefore, it doesn’t even have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history. In your essay "On War Crimes" from At War with Asia, that came out in 1970, you cited Bertrand Russell from the international war crimes tribunal on Vietnam. Russell says, "It is in the nature of imperialism that citizens of the imperial power are always among the last to know–or care–about circumstances in the colonies."
I disagree with him about care. I think they do care, and I think that’s why they’re the last to know. They’re the last to know because of massive propaganda campaigns that keep them from knowing. Propaganda can be either explicit or silent. Silence is a kind of propaganda. So when you’re silent about your own crimes, that’s propaganda, too. And I think the reason for the propaganda, both kinds, is that people do care, and if they find out, they’re not going to let it happen.
In fact, we actually see that right in front of us. You won’t read it in the headlines. But take, say, the recent events in Fallujah in Iraq. There was a marine invasion of Fallujah. They killed nobody knows how many people, hundreds, let’s say. We don’t investigate our own crimes, so we don’t know the numbers. The U.S. had to back off and they won’t say it but effectively conceded defeat and turned the city over to what amounts to the former Saddam army pretty much. Why did that happen? Suppose that there had been a Fallujah event in the 1960s. It would have been settled very simply with B52s, massive ground operations to wipe the place out. Why not this time? Because the public won’t tolerate it now.
In the 1960s, executive power was so extreme, it could get away with just about anything. The public didn’t know, maybe even didn’t care, because it was just taken for granted that it’s our right to massacre and destroy at will. So there was virtually no protest against the Vietnam War for years, and operations like this went on constantly. Not anymore. Now the public won’t tolerate it. Therefore, that’s one major reason why the U.S. cannot carry out the kinds of murderous operations that it was easily able to carry out. I think it’s because the public does care.
I’ve spent a lot of time looking at declassified documents. You take a look at secret documents from the U.S. or, to the extent that I know, other countries. Are they protecting secrets? In a sense, yes. But who are they protecting them from? Mostly the domestic population. A very small proportion of them have anything to do with security, no matter how broadly you interpret it. They primarily have to do with ensuring that the major enemy, namely, the domestic population, does not find out what power systems are doing. And that’s because people in power, whether it’s business power or government power or doctrinal power, whatever, simply are afraid that people do care, and therefore you have to, as Bernays said, consciously manipulate their attitudes and beliefs–for their own good, of course, always for their own good.
[Interview also available here
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First of all, I'm one of the few people who don't agree that the United States lost the war in Vietnam. The United States didn't win its maximal objectives, but it did achieve its major objectives--a substantial victory. There is no way for a huge, powerful state to lose a war against a defenseless enemy. It just can't happen.
A major concern in the late 1940s right through to when Kennedy launched the full-scale war was that an independent Vietnam could be a successful example to its neighbours, such as Thailand and Indonesia, which had major resources, unlike Vietnam. By the mid-1960s, though, South Vietnam, which was the main target of U.S. intervention, had been virtually destroyed, and the chances that Vietnam would ever be a model for anything had essentially disappeared. As Bernard Fall, the respected military historian and Vietnam specialist, put it in 1967, there was every possibility that Vietnam would become "extinct" as a cultural and historical entity.
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Is this new? In the case of Vietnam, we literally do not know within millions
the real number of civilian casualties. The official estimates are around two million, but the real number is probably around four million. As far as I know, there's been only one public-opinion study in the United States that asked people to estimate the number of Vietnamese casualties from the war. The mean answer was a hundred thousand, about 5 percent of the official figure. It's as if in Germany you asked people how many Jews were killed in the Second World War and they said three hundred thousand. We would think there was a big problem in Germany if that's what Germans were thinking.
* * *You are often asked about possibilities for the future. One source of hope in the world today for some people is the World Social Forum, a gathering of tens of thousands of activists from around the world each year. The theme of the forum is "Another world is possible." I'm interested in this formulation. It's not a question but an affirmation. What might another world look like that you would find attractive?
You can start with small things. For example, I think it would be an improvement if the United States became as democratic as Brazil. That doesn't sound like a Utopian goal, does it? But just compare the two most recent elections here and in Brazil. In Brazil, where there are vibrant popular movements, people were able to elect a president, Lula, from their own ranks. Maybe they don't like everything Lula's doing, but he's an impressive figure, a former steelworker. I don't think he ever went to college. And they were able to elect him president. That's inconceivable in the United States. Here you vote for one or another rich boy from Yale. That's because we don't have popular organizations, and they do.
Or take Haiti. Haiti is considered a "failed state," but in 1990 Haiti had a democratic election of the kind we can only dream of. It's an extremely poor country, and people in the hills and the slums actually got together and elected their own candidate. And the election just shocked the daylights out of everyone, which is why in 1991, there was a military coup, supported by the United States, to crush the democratic government. For us to become as democratic as Haiti doesn't sound very Utopian. For us to have a medical care system like Canada's is not reaching for the stars. For us to have a society in which the wealth of the country isn't concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite isn't Utopian.
And you can go on from there to much more farreaching goals. Many of the basic institutions of our society are totally illegitimate. Do corporations have to be controlled by management and owners and dedicated to the welfare of shareholders instead of being controlled by the people who work in them and dedicated to the community and the workers? It's not a law of nature.
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Of course, even though I was trying to find an online transcript from the start to avoid transcribing everything, it's only until I reached the final quote that I found it