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‘Losing’ the World: American Decline in Perspective, Part 1

Posted on Feb 15, 2012
emilio labrador (CC-BY)

By Noam Chomsky, TomDispatch

This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch.

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Significant anniversaries are solemnly commemorated—Japan’s attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, for example.  Others are ignored, and we can often learn valuable lessons from them about what is likely to lie ahead.  Right now, in fact.

At the moment, we are failing to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s decision to launch the most destructive and murderous act of aggression of the post-World War II period: the invasion of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina, leaving millions dead and four countries devastated, with casualties still mounting from the long-term effects of drenching South Vietnam with some of the most lethal carcinogens known, undertaken to destroy ground cover and food crops.

The prime target was South Vietnam.  The aggression later spread to the North, then to the remote peasant society of northern Laos, and finally to rural Cambodia, which was bombed at the stunning level of all allied air operations in the Pacific region during World War II, including the two atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  In this, Henry Kissinger’s orders were being carried out—“anything that flies on anything that moves”—a call for genocide that is rare in the historical record.  Little of this is remembered.  Most was scarcely known beyond narrow circles of activists.

When the invasion was launched 50 years ago, concern was so slight that there were few efforts at justification, hardly more than the president’s impassioned plea that “we are opposed around the world by a monolithic and ruthless conspiracy that relies primarily on covert means for expanding its sphere of influence” and if the conspiracy achieves its ends in Laos and Vietnam, “the gates will be opened wide.”


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Elsewhere, he warned further that “the complacent, the self-indulgent, the soft societies are about to be swept away with the debris of history [and] only the strong… can possibly survive,” in this case reflecting on the failure of U.S. aggression and terror to crush Cuban independence.

By the time protest began to mount half a dozen years later, the respected Vietnam specialist and military historian Bernard Fall, no dove, forecast that “Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity… is threatened with extinction…[as]...the countryside literally dies under the blows of the largest military machine ever unleashed on an area of this size.” He was again referring to South Vietnam.

When the war ended eight horrendous years later, mainstream opinion was divided between those who described the war as a “noble cause” that could have been won with more dedication, and at the opposite extreme, the critics, to whom it was “a mistake” that proved too costly.  By 1977, President Carter aroused little notice when he explained that we owe Vietnam “no debt” because “the destruction was mutual.”

There are important lessons in all this for today, even apart from another reminder that only the weak and defeated are called to account for their crimes.  One lesson is that to understand what is happening we should attend not only to critical events of the real world, often dismissed from history, but also to what leaders and elite opinion believe, however tinged with fantasy.  Another lesson is that alongside the flights of fancy concocted to terrify and mobilize the public (and perhaps believed by some who are trapped in their own rhetoric), there is also geostrategic planning based on principles that are rational and stable over long periods because they are rooted in stable institutions and their concerns.  That is true in the case of Vietnam as well.  I will return to that, only stressing here that the persistent factors in state action are generally well concealed.

The Iraq war is an instructive case.  It was marketed to a terrified public on the usual grounds of self-defense against an awesome threat to survival: the “single question,” George W. Bush and Tony Blair declared, was whether Saddam Hussein would end his programs of developing weapons of mass destruction.  When the single question received the wrong answer, government rhetoric shifted effortlessly to our “yearning for democracy,” and educated opinion duly followed course; all routine.

Later, as the scale of the U.S. defeat in Iraq was becoming difficult to suppress, the government quietly conceded what had been clear all along.  In 2007-2008, the administration officially announced that a final settlement must grant the U.S. military bases and the right of combat operations, and must privilege U.S. investors in the rich energy system—demands later reluctantly abandoned in the face of Iraqi resistance.  And all well kept from the general population.

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By chase, February 17, 2012 at 6:49 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yeah take a good look at yourself America war is what you are about and I love you anyway . I drunk the kool aid and voluteered for Vietnam , Nixon started the withdrawal while I was in bootcamp . while on active duty I met guys fresh off out of country and what most told me was “it was all a waste of time” I hope the next president who desires to go to war takes the time to ask a veteran what he thinks

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By ReadingJones, February 16, 2012 at 9:43 am Link to this comment

my child does not attend a public school

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By balkas, February 16, 2012 at 9:04 am Link to this comment

it is of utmost importance to note that american school children are pavlovized
into accepting bill of rights, US constitution, the ‘elites’ as infallible and holy.
so, how could america which god solely bless ever do anything immoral let alone
we need to depavlovize americans and we need to prevent any new pavlovization
of children if we would ever see an america with human face!
remember, this has happened to germans, italians, and japanese since forever and
more so since ‘30s.
however, in germany and italy never so ‘succcessfully’ as in US.
both italy and germany had strong and viable communist and/or socialist parties.
and that explains why mussolini and hitler never got 99% of support like US ‘elite’

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By ReadingJones, February 16, 2012 at 8:20 am Link to this comment

My young daughters seventh grade history text posed
the question “...why did the ordinary Romans reject
their Republic in favor of Tyranny?” The simplified
two part answer—185 years of war from the barbaric
North and the concentration of wealth and power in a
hereditary Senate. Over generations incompetents
ruled the Senate and the competent among the ordinary
citizenry were denied access to wealth and power and
the right to make decisions. Along came a leader who
promised to replace incompetence with competence Quis
custodias, custodiat. (My spell check doesn’t do
Latin.) The 0.1% is increasingly stupid and prone to
making really expensive decisions.

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By diman, February 16, 2012 at 8:09 am Link to this comment

By Vector 56:

“For some reason I can not buy the “1% made us do it” argument. The average American citizen (in my opinion) is just as guilty for the endless carnage as was the average Roman citizen. This “unpopular” position has caused me to be “ejected” from many a blog, but I still insist that 1% to 10% can not control 90% of any population without their cooperation.”

Great point Vector, I’ve seen them patriotic idiots waving their flags on every corner during the Desert Storm and later in 2003 after the invasion of Iraq, all of them proud americans bringing democracy to the unwashed sand people. And look at them now, they are against the war now, but don’t be fooled, they are against the war because America is not winning, not because they genuinely care about some desert brown people and their children.

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By balkas, February 16, 2012 at 7:48 am Link to this comment

i think that chomsky had always been afraid that israel would one day evanesce unless it would become much more civilized, democratic, just, etc.
but having realized that US and/or christo/talmudic crowds of nations would not allow that, he then began to write books about that fact.
he, tho, never said, as far as i know, what was he hoping to achieve by that.
i, on the other hand, thought since late eighties when i finally woke up and started thinking about lot of things, that NC would not achieve a narry
thing by book writing or anything he says. [btw, my awakening came before i ever heard of chomsky]
NC, being ashkenazic jew and zionist, always loved israel. NC concluded that Israel has the right exist; which mean that he approbated and still
approbates ashkenazic enormous crimes against palestinians and wants to reward the war criminals with a state of their own in an area they had no
connection with—save the cultic one.
these facts were always in back of my mind.
but when i read s’mwhere a few yrs ago that NC was against ROR, i, nevertheless, was taken s’mwhat aback
to find out if that was true, i emailed NC about it. he had been s’mwhat ascerbic about my persistence to elicit an explicit answer from him , but in his
fourth and final email to me he admits that he’s against return of the children and grandchildren of the palestinian who were expelled during 46-48
so, he’d allow thousands of the old palestinians [by now 64 years old and older] to return and perhaps allow their children to visit them for a few days
or come to israel for their old folks’ funerals.
and chomsky is not a leftist, but an anarchist.
anarchists miss the obvious: the one and only genetic pool in which we all swim and arise out of. it is this genetic pool that creates homosexuals,
physicists, doctors, scientists, mathematicians, educatros—but, sadly also rapists, robbers, murderers, thieves, satraps, etc., and we must have some
kind of methodology, order, teachings in order to deal with theft, violence, rape, deceiving, etc.
so, whatever we do about such undesirable events, we must employ some kind of order, ideology, schooling, managing/managements, etc.
yes, i do acknowledge that anarchy means no ruling people; however, how about managing, teaching, tutoring, guiding people? thus this order of
things not imply also ruling people? and thus, after all some kind of rule? bozhidar balkas, planet earth

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By vector56, February 16, 2012 at 6:34 am Link to this comment

Of all the so-called Lefty blogs Truthdig is the only place I have seen the words of Noam Chomsky on display. Too many of what is now called “progressive” blogs seem to be nothing more then facades for the Democratic party.

I have seen Buddy Roemer on both MSNBC and Current TV more times than I can count (Republican outsider), but not once have either of these so-called lefty cable stations allowed Jill Stein (Green Party) or Chomsky to have a voice?

That being said, I shall return to the subject. Years ago, I once read something about your “average” Roman citizen that explored (through their words) how they viewed themselves. In the minds of your normal Roman citizen they were not “unjust” people. From their perspective, they were noble, fair, merciful and had a mandate from the Gods to rule over lesser beings. Sounds like anyone we know? Fascinating people those Romans; they could cheer on fellow human beings being slaughtered in the arena (entertainment),totally disregard the humanity of their slaves, while at the same time asking the Gods to show compassion for themselves and their children; selective compassion. American Exceptionalism sounds like a new phrase for a very, very old attitude.

George Carlin once said that “we left a few women and children alive in Vietnam, and we haven’t felt good about ourselves since!”

For some reason I can not buy the “1% made us do it” argument. The average American citizen (in my opinion) is just as guilty for the endless carnage as was the average Roman citizen. This “unpopular” position has caused me to be “ejected” from many a blog, but I still insist that 1% to 10% can not control 90% of any population without their cooperation.

Example: a few years back ran an ad that referred to General Petraeus as “General Betray Us”. Petraeus at the time was arming both sides in Iraq to fan the flames of “civil war” causing the unnecessary deaths of countless Iraqis. The idea was to maintain chaos, while we extracted the oil (30 year contracts). MoveOn had the guts to confront Petraeus, but the corporate media, the Republicans and Democrats cut them to pieces. As I remember Hilary Clinton was one of the first and most vocal defenders of the Petraeus.

The ground is still soaked with blood in Iraq and Afghanistan, now we beat the drums of war for Persian blood.

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By IMax, February 16, 2012 at 5:32 am Link to this comment

Losing’ the World: American Decline


Chomsky has been speaking and writing this same narrative for forty years.  All while the U.S. has grown stronger.  In the 1970’s Chomsky foretold the rise Japan and the fall of the U.S..

And every generation, over thousands of years, has known those who foresaw the end of the world in their lifetime.

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By Lafayette, February 16, 2012 at 2:56 am Link to this comment


The lead articles (in Foreign Policy Mag) are on Israel-Palestine.  The first, by two high Israeli officials, is entitled “The Problem Is Palestinian Rejection”: the conflict cannot be resolved because Palestinians refuse to recognize Israel as a Jewish state—thereby conforming to standard diplomatic practice: states are recognized, but not privileged sectors within them.  The demand is hardly more than a new device to deter the threat of political settlements.

The above is interesting conjecture on the part of Chomsky. It is INDEED at the heart of America’s stance in the Middle East - and the Israeli generals are bullshitting us.

At present, we give Foreign Aid amounting to $3.2B to Israel and half that amount to Egypt (which has been ongoing since the peace agreement negotiated by the Carter administration).

And for what?, one might ask. Our relations with the Netanyahu government are despicable. The money spent in Egypt has not furthered democracy there one iota.

As regards terrorism in the Middle East the underlining recruitment message amongst the young, desperate and impressionable Muslim-youth is the despicable treatment of their “brother” Palestinians. Let us not underestimate the siren-song potency of this message, which fuels the fighting war in Pakistan/Afghanistan and the terrorism beyond.

Were we to conclude a peace in Palestine (meaning between the Israeli and Palestinian “states”) then we shall have accomplished a major objective towards disarming the terrorism movement. Recruitment for fighting the Great Satan (for no apparent reason) would diminish very quickly.

So, why is it that Netanyahu cannot see through the fog to that clear ending. Because he does not want to and neither do the Egyptians. The Palestinians just want to get on with their lives by governing themselves – but it is the Israelis, by means of their West Bank wall that carves into traditionally Palestinian territory to protect the Isreali enclaves that have been built there.

Besides, no one recognizes fully the great advantage a low-cost labor pool would be for Israeli Industry, when such manpower was just on the other side of the border. And, instead of joining the ranks of terrorists, they could set about to working and creating families.

Which is, on paper at least, a win-win solution for both states.

But no, we must continue with Netanyahu’s saber-rattling – he is so boldly stupid enough to strike unilaterally at Iran. Then sit back whilst Iran retaliates and American Jews howl at Obama to “protect Israel”.


There can be no peace in Israel until Netanyahu and his Rabidly Religious Right go. Palestine, like Israel, has a recognized right to exist. That right goes all the way back to the UN’s Partition Plan for Palestine passed in 1947.

As one can see from the plan. The Palestinian State and Israel would be intertwined, meaning that the two would exist in symbiosis. Meaning further that there must be an intimate trust of one another. Thus it is mutual distrust and bad-faith that must be overcome and what has failed to be accomplished over the past 60 years.

Yes, this problem has been festering ever since 1947. Frankly, we are all paying the price in world-wide terrorism exported as a principal byproduct of this one historical conflict seemingly without resolution.

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By Jeff N., February 15, 2012 at 7:46 pm Link to this comment

thank you Noam, laying it all down for us like only you can.

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By prisnersdilema, February 15, 2012 at 5:36 pm Link to this comment

It should be crystal clear from this what the owners of this country plan for us.
Repression, and a police state, suspension of our rights, abject poverty, endless

Justified by fear.

There will be endless focus on insolvable emotional issues that are divisive as a
diversion, but no solutions. There will be lots of talk about cosmetic change, but
that will be all.  Just as Democratization, was used to divert attention from the
larcenies abroad, similar high sounding words will be used to hide the continued
oppression of every social class but one. 

They will justify their continued military aggression, with reason, and logic, to
disguise, their cold blooded and calculated murders. And cover the deaths of our
servicemen and women from DU, with lies, and half truths.

There cannot be a solution, to this countries problems as long as the 1 per centers
remain in control. They will not allow us to vote them out.

They have slavery planned for us all and our children.

There will be those among us whose anger and personal attacks, are always the
indicator of counter intelligence. They are here even on Truth dig. Support each
other and the truth.

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By ardee, February 15, 2012 at 4:02 pm Link to this comment

Considering the disparate standards of living between the industrialized colonial powers and the so-called third world an adjustment was bound to take place.

We are now experiencing that adjustment as the former third world industrializes and the former colonial powers try desperately to retain their advantages.

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By Night-Gaunt, February 15, 2012 at 3:22 pm Link to this comment

The Republic is nearly done. Done in by certain power interests in it like the Romans when their Republic fell an then they had the right gov’t for an Empire they had been steadily building. It isn’t over yet.

The private corporate armies are generally paid better than your run-of-the-mill general infantryman.

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By balkas, February 15, 2012 at 2:36 pm Link to this comment

ah, that domino effect! the first domino to tumble down were n.
american indigenes. their example was too much to bear and it had to be
utterly destroyed!

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By balkas, February 15, 2012 at 2:24 pm Link to this comment

NC says—and i paraphrase—...“ruling class perceives that anything short of total
control amounts to total disaster”
here, i think, NC is reading minds or putting his thoughts in heads of foreign policy
we also do not know what this “total control” and “total disaster represent on the
ground. and i suggest that US planners don’t know for sure what they’ll obtain by any
they probably fly by the seat of their pants. i would suggest that the war planners
would never accept anything less than previously expected or wanted achieved.
so, there is most likely a minimum aim under which US would not go, no matter what
the costs. thanks

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By balkas, February 15, 2012 at 2:00 pm Link to this comment

NC: american decline is real.
but are billionaires, multimillionaires, cia/fbi agents, army echelons,
arms manufacturers, ‘private’ army, taking in now less pay than before
the aggression against iraq or even libya?
if that be about true, s’mbody else is then paying for those armaments,
soldiers, cia agents, and warfare.
so, i conclude that america is rising and falling at the same! thanks

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By balkas, February 15, 2012 at 1:43 pm Link to this comment

NC proceeds from a conclusion that US wanted more than just to
establish some bases [which i, as a member of ‘predicted’ jan
‘03] in iraq; the puppetize, dismember it and keep iraq that way for
decades or even a century.
i, unlike NC, don’t often, if ever, evaluate as true whatever it is US says.

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By John Sullivan, February 15, 2012 at 1:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

America’s Cato.

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