36/ Vickery vs. Morris, 1981.
The Editor, Harvard International Review
20 May 1981
The Harvard International Review ? Editor? Ah, yes,
"a sophomore majoring in government." Stephen Morris?
Plainly another sophomore. There must be some mistake I thought
after I had opened the plain brown envelope in which I had expected
to find a discreet shipment from the Venus Adult Entertainment
Shop in King's Cross Sydney.
Then I examined the envelope again. An MIT address in one corner. Oh yes, I mused, Chomsky is up to one of his little jokes again. He is always sending me quaint little papers of which no one has ever heard, like Vietnam Southeast Asia Journal, New England Peacework, The Disciple, and now HIR, and sometimes even clippings from the Boston Globe, which in Canberra is very nearly as exotic as HIR.
Disappointed in not having received the expected hard-core, and with no further mail delivery until the next day, I had to make do with second best, and I started to peruse Stephen Morris' review (HIR Dec - Jan 1981).
It couldn't be very serious, I thought, and HIR must be more careless than most journalism, even sophomoric, since in spite of the dozens, if not hundreds, of photos published since 1975, a photo of Ieng Sary (p.5) was mislabelled "Pol Pot."
I nevertheless experienced a brief first impression that the piece was going to be relatively positive, since in his treatment of the three-fifths of Chomsky's and Herman's book devoted to countries other than Vietnam and Cambodia, virtually the entire content of Morris' critique is terminological quibbling (the accuracy of 'fascist', 'sub - fascist', etc.) indicating failure to turn up serious flaws in the content.
A closer look, however, confirmed that it really was a publication which belonged in the traditional plain brown unmarked envelope. Morris' prattle of Hanoi's "racist pogrom against its ethnic Chinese citizens" (27), which goes far beyond the facts; the slanderous inference of his "final solution" to Vietnam's ethnic Chinese problem (3), and the dolchstoss quality of his assignment of blame for what happened in Indochina ("If and when American radicalism is called to account for the historical consequences of its political stands ..... the historical consequences of the left foreign policy advocacy were quick to manifest themselves in Indochina" ---- p. 3), are part of a 'big lie' technique which smacks of the noxious miasma that oozed out of the east bank of the Rhine in the 1930's.
Beneath contempt, of course, and in the same 1930's tradition, are Morris' personal attacks on writers of whom he disapproves - suggesting that Ben Kiernan is a poor source because he is only a graduate student (like Morris) whose first work appeared in another student publication. At least Kiernan's work was original, and he was not forced, in order to get his name into print, to engage in a hatchet job in a field, say Soviet domestic policy, in which he might be unqualified to judge either primary sources or secondary accounts.
Morris' piece also shows just plain technical incompetence.
One of the first requirements of an honest book review is that it discuss the book written, not some other book which the reviewer would have preferred to see produced. He may state his preference, and indicate a belief that the alternative book would have been better, but he may not criticize the author's alleged treatment of a subject he never intended to treat.
I realize, however, that such practices are common in the academic world, and I was very nearly the victim once myself when a reader of my first published article (in Journal of Asian Studies, 1970, not an undergraduate practice sheet) tried to have it suppressed because I had not written something else.
Thus, contrary to what Morris would have the reader believe, the book does not, and was not intended to, compare "the two categories .... ' free world' and 'the Soviet sphere of influence" (Morris, 5). This is specific in the Preface, xi, where "the Soviet empire and the characteristics and effects of that lesser system of Sun and Planets," (surely ironic enough to indicate that the authors' views of that sphere are less than enthusiastic) is specifically excluded from subjects covered. And to the extent that some direct comparison nevertheless comes up in the course of the argument, the authors' attitude is specific. On p. 39 we find mention of "victims of oppression in Russia, Uganda, or Cambodia"; on p. 72 a sarcastic comment on Soviet indignation over U.S. action in Chile and Vietnam while the Soviet press "find that Russian intervention in Hungary or Czechoslovakia is an expression of the solidarity of the Russian", etc. with those people; and on p. 96 there is a direct comparison in which both ''spheres' are put on an equal (negative) footing: "concern over violence and bloodbaths in Washington (in Moscow and Peking as well) is highly selective".
Nor would the coverage Morris desires be embarrassing for Chomsky and Herman. Of the unpleasant regimes which Morris thinks should be included in the Soviet sphere, the authors, p. 72, also note that violence and terror by Ethiopia, when a Soviet client, would not rate "an indignant factual account in Pravda"; and the Soviet Union itself, along with Uganda and Guinea, are mentioned as "countries outside the U.S. sphere ... that practice torture on an administrative basis" (inside front cover).
If those countries, and others, which Chomsky and Herman also consider oppressive (Rhodesia, South Africa), are not treated in detail, it is because "our primary concern is the United States: its global policies, etc " (xi). What precise grouping of nations would correspond to a Soviet sphere equivalent to the one imputed to the U.S. is an interesting and legitimate question, but out of place as a criticism of their book; and all of Morris' arguments which involve Chomsky's and Herman's supposed neglect of the Soviet Union or its bloc, nearly a quarter of the review, are irrelevant.
Another dishonest and irrelevant point is the assertion that one of Chomsky's main concerns is "the destruction of the state of Israel" (3). I do not know whether that is true or not, but after reading three book-length collections of Chomsky's political writings (besides Political Economy) plus assorted other articles, I do not recall material which would permit such an inference. Critical remarks about Israel, yes, including three brief ones in Political Economy, but surely Morris does not imagine Israel to be such a perfect society as to be beyond criticism.
Like most such treatments of Political Economy, Morris devotes most of his attention to Chomsky's and Herman's discussion of Cambodia, although the section on that country takes up less than one-fifth of the two volumes.
My own area of special interest is also Cambodia, and I will therefore direct the bulk of my remaining remarks to the discussion of that country, merely noting en passant Morris' idiotic convolutions over Indonesia, where use of Soviet arms to massacre alleged communists would apparently make the crime less heinous, and where deaths in Timor may be ignored because it was once a colony of Portugal. Morris' treatment in fact illustrates very well Chomsky's and Herman's point about benign and constructive bloodbaths. The 1965 massacres were approved and those in Timor ignored because it suited American policy. I would also note, with respect to Vietnam, that it is not true that all of the available favorable reports are by foreigners "screened by the Hanoi authorities," etc. (p. 27) We also have numerous accounts by Vietnamese who have returned for visits since 1975 and who are in regular communication with their families.
Getting into the question of sources, Morris objects to Chomsky's and Herman's use of obscure journals and newsletters for the more favorable accounts of Cambodia and Vietnam, and he again unwittingly emphasizes one of the authors' central themes: that objective reporting was not available in mainstream journalism, and information contrary to establishment propaganda could not find publishers except on the fringes.
The sources which Morris prefers for Cambodia are Barron and Paul (B/P), Ponchaud, and the CIA, whose efforts enabled "most people in the Western world" to realize by 1978 that Cambodia was "hell on earth", in contrast to Chomsky and Herman with "their apologies for Pol Pot" (p.30)
Now I was one of those who doubted in 1975-78 that the picture presented by B/P and Ponchaud represented the general situation in Cambodia, and my doubt was based in part on interviews with refugees who had had different experiences. And since, in contrast to knee-jerk reactionaries, I had always seen the legitimacy of the Vietnamese and Cambodian revolutions, I hoped the worst assessments were not true.
Of course, I, and Chomsky, and Kiernan, and others know our hopes were largely mistaken, and that, by 1978, the Khmer Rouge regime had compiled a record for brutality, but that record is not to be found in B/P and Ponchaud.
Contrary to what Morris believes, "the facts about post 1975 Indochina" (p.27) are far from well established, particularly in the case of Cambodia, for which no adequate history of any period has yet been written. Conflicting, apparently first-hand, information still appears nearly every week, and the handful of specialist scholars (not B/P or Ponchaud) are still working to piece together a full descriptive and analytical account of the years 1975-80.
Pace B/P, Ponchaud, Morris, and their ilk, we know that for 1975-76, in particular, and in some large areas up to 1978, the standard propaganda treatment of Cambodia was inaccurate as a general description and that the writings of B/P and Ponchaud, particularly the former, were propaganda pieces, designed to discredit without regard for the truth. In my own case that knowledge is based on five months of working with refugees in 1980.
We know, for example, that in 1975 and 1976, conditions in roughly half the country were quite unlike the B/P - Ponchaud description, and no worse than one would expect in a poor country after a war such as that of 1970 - 75. we also know that Kiernan's 'hypothesis' about the special character of the Northwest (Morris, p.31) was largely true. In 1975 - 75 it was, because of its special historical and economic background, the most oppressive zone for city evacuees, and the zone from which most of the refugees came.
B/P and Ponchaud were particularly inaccurate for those first two years. Moreover, B/P, we can now see, organized their work in cooperation with the CIA as a deliberate disinformation effort (see below), and together with the unavoidable bias of their sources, some of their material, for example their description of the Saang - Koh Thom area south of Phnom Penh (their chap 4), is quite untrue.
Ponchaud is another matter. I would not dispute the truth of any of his specific stories, although there are elements of dishonesty in his presentation. He was, however, in 1976, as obscure, and no more nor less acceptable as a reliable conduit, than say New England Peacework. Claiming peasant ancestry for himself and sympathy for Cambodian peasants, he chose to write, not when Cambodian peasant life was being torn apart by bombs, and shells directed from the U.S. Embassy and Lon Nol Hq., but only when the peasants had won and began to exact revenge.
Or, we might have expected Ponchaud to write about damage to peasant life and agriculture by stupid or vicious communist policies, but one looks almost in vain in his book for peasant testimony. All his witnesses, like those of B/P, are elite or near - elite city people complaining about the rigors of peasant life under emergency conditions and control by a vengeful peasantry.
Moreover, Ponchaud's present activities show even more clearly his fundamental intellectual dishonesty and make one wish to take an even closer look at his earlier work. Working in Aranyaprathet, Thailand, on the Cambodian border in 1979 - 80, he has been collecting and purveying horror stories about Heng Samrin Cambodia which are demonstrably either exceptional rather than typical, or outright lies (for example, those in William Shawcross' "The End of Cambodia ?", New York Review of Books, 24/1/80). The true picture now is much easier to come by than in the Pol Pot years, through access to the country and comparison of stories of more numerous refugees from various backgrounds.
The CIA report which I mentioned above, and my analysis of which is attached, reveals both the collusion between them and B/P and the interesting circumstance that by 1978, when "most people in the Western world," including Kiernan and myself, had come to realize that something was wrong in Cambodia, the CIA had come to realize the potential utility of Pol Pot and colluded in a cover - up of his worst atrocities, prefiguring the moral and international diplomatic support given that regime by the U.S. since 1979.[Footnote 1 (Not in the original): The CIA report was "Kampuchea: A Democratic Catastrophe", National foreign Assessment Center, CIA, Washington, D.C., May 1980; and my critique was published as, Vickery "Democratic Kampuchea: CIA to the Rescue", Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Vol. 14, No. 4, 1982, pp. 45-54. End of footnote] The utility of Pol Pot and the benignity of his worst bloodbath arise from his anti - Vietnamese hyper - chauvinism; and that prejudice is also reflected in the CIA's distortion of the figures to show a worse loss in the first Heng Samrin year than in any Pol Pot year but the first. Thus the Vietnamese, who stopped the massacres, returned virtual complete freedom to the Cambodian populace, restored normal civil life, and pumped in considerable aid from their own poor country are made to appear worse than Pol Pot. To paraphrase Morris, how is material like this possible ? And how can a prestigious research institute of a top university turn out students who prefer propaganda hack work to honest research ? One of my friends asked if I wouldn't take action over Morris' characterization of me as a "Melbourne taxi driver". My response was that nothing libellous had been written since taxidriving is an honest occupation; but after reading Morris I might very well take action if I were ever mistaken for a member of the Harvard Russian Research Center.
Finally, writing as one of the three or four most experienced students of recent Cambodian history who have carried out extensive interviewing of Cambodians who lived through the Pol Pot years, I find that Chomsky and Herman were fully justified in their scepticism of mainline propaganda, and that little in the Cambodia section of their book requires revision in the light of more recent information - on the contrary, their approach is for the most part validated by careful analysis of the much larger body of material available today.
[This letter was not published. Ed.]