7 July 2003
My, what short memories we have. In 1954 the French colonialists got their arses kicked by the Vietnamese at Diem Bien Phu and thus began US imperialism’s mission in stemming the ‘red tide’ in South East Asia. But even before the French defeat, the US had been supplying the French with weapons and logistics support as part of its Cold War strategy directed against the USSR and China. But when it became clear that the French were incapable of defeating the Vietnamese liberation movement, the US stepped in to fill the ‘breach’, first with ‘advisors’ and covert operations and over a ten year period from 1954-65, with more and more troops, until finally under the pretext of the Tonkin Gulf incident, the US went to war (although there was never a formal declaration under the War Powers Act). At its height, the US had 500,000 troops in Vietnam and had extended the war into Cambodia and Laos, culminating in Henry ‘Strangelove’ Kissinger’s hideous covert bombing campaign of Cambodia in 1970, which in turn, led to the mass murder of the Pol Pot regime (which ironically, is a direct parallel with the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s).
As with the ‘war on terror’, the ‘war on (godless) communism’ (or, if you prefer, fanatical Islamic fundamentalists) relied on a vast disinformation campaign based on fear and paranoia using the conception of the ‘other’ to put the fear of God into the population. So for example, many of the sci-fi movies that were made in the 1950s about alien invasions were actually bankrolled by the US Department of Defense. All one needed to do was replace the bug-eyed monster with a Communist and well, you get the message.
‘Reds under the bed’, fallout shelters, the ludicrous ‘civil defense’ programme that actually touted the idea that a nuclear war could be survived, the scare tactics rolled out about the Soviet Union’s WMDs, much of which over-estimated the USSR’s nuclear arsenal, was calculated to create an environment conducive to getting the public to accept the US arms build-up and the covert wars that had to be waged because the Communists were so sneaky and devious.
This period is also important because during this time, the arrival of television and sophisticated advertising techniques perfected to sell us soap powder were harnessed by the US state in its war with Communism. The technique of the ‘Big lie’ that demonised not only Communists but also ‘fellow travelers’ came into its own. And the mass media were an intrinsic part of the propaganda war that justified the US occupation of South Vietnam and were totally complicit in promoting the ‘domino theory’ of history. From 1965 to 1970, the US media were only too willing to roll out the message on behalf of the state that in order to defeat the communists, an ever-increasing number of troops were needed in order to win the war against the ‘Reds’.
Again, the parallels with the current situation are all too obvious, verging on the cliché, yet of course, clichés are based on obvious truths and as with the war against communism, rely on a few basic messages designed to reinforce our preconceptions about the ‘other’, repeated ad infinitum. Indeed , the ‘alien’ motif is the common thread which runs through the various US propaganda wars conducted over the decades, stretching back to the very beginnings of the 20th century. Once more, we see the role of racist ideology used as a weapon of state control.
The ‘Red Scares’ following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, saw hundreds of ‘Anarchists’ deported to Italy and other European countries (the ‘Palmer Raids’). The use of private ‘police’ forces, amongst them the Pinkerton Agency and Wells Fargo Company, were used to break strikes and infiltrate ‘subversive’ organisations from the 1920s through the 1930s, culminating with the Cointelpro programme used against the left and the civil rights movement through the 1950s and 60s and the early 1970s. It was only the revelations of the Watergate break-ins that brought a (temporary) halt to the state’s subversion of its own citizens’ rights in the name of fighting ‘ Communism’ and ‘subversion’.
It’s all too obvious that the current assault on civil rights under the guise of fighting ‘terror’ is no aberration, nor is the international propaganda campaign being waged on behalf of the ‘democracies’ some kind of deviation from the norm. Indeed, as I have shown, it has a one hundred-year ‘pedigree’.
Lessons to be learned
The Tonkin Gulf ‘incident’ is important because it is paralleled by the WMD propaganda war that presaged the invasion of Iraq and the central role the mass media played in delivering the ‘message’. The ‘smoking gun’ of an alleged North Vietnamese ‘attack’ on a US warship in the Gulf of Tonkin was used to convince the American public that US troops in large numbers, had to be committed to fight the war on Communism.
Thus the ‘domino theory’ was rolled out which posited the idea that there was a global communist ‘plot’ to take over the ‘free world’. The ‘domino theory’ was based on the idea that first one and then another, country would ‘fall’ to communism, until ‘they’ took over the world and that it had to be ‘nipped in the bud’ before it was too late to stop them.
The direct parallel with the current situation is all too obvious, yet the connection is never made, either in the mass media or as part of what should be our collective memory of events that have had such a fundamental impact on millions of peoples’ lives. And essentially, the same lie has been rolled out in different forms for almost a hundred years.
This of course, is the central dilemma of our times. How is it that the vast store of information available to us and connections that give even the most media-challenged amongst us, access to it all, that the dominant culture has been able to maintain such a constant fiction across the generations?
As I’ve tried to illustrate above, a central theme of persuasion is fear: fear of the unknown, fear of the ‘other’, fear of change. Ideas that threaten the ‘norm’, that upset ‘stability’, things that go to the very heart of everyday existence, are powerful images that evoke equally powerful responses in people. Nobody wants change unless its unavoidable, and even then people will cling stubbornly to the status quo. The ability for the dominant culture in the US to tap into such fundamental emotions and feelings is central to the power of US capitalism to persuade and coerce. From Hollywood to CNN, tools of communication, sophisticated and refined over almost a century, drill directly into the most fundamental feelings we have, and none of us are exempt from this process.
Reinventing the past and the present, using techniques perfected by the advertising industry is powerful medicine. However, it’s not entirely a one-way process as opposition to the war in Vietnam or the rise and (limited) successes of the civil rights movement illustrate. And the revelations of Watergate and malfeasance that went directly to the White House, had a powerful effect on the population which has taken almost twenty years to erase from our collective memory.
In order to restore belief in the ‘system’, in was necessary to firstly, make a ‘break’ with past (the Carter years) and then ‘rehabilitate’ Nixon and his cronies by creating an even bigger and external, evil. This was achieved during Reagan-Bush years by upping the ante with the creation of the ‘Evil Empire’, itself a direct descendant of the ‘bug-eyed-monster’ motif of the 1950s. And popular myth as articulated in the ‘Star Wars’ movie was also appropriated by the state as part of its propaganda offensive to justify yet another round of weapons development leading up to the proxy confrontation with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Ironic that years later, Afghanistan should figure yet again in yet another buildup to war and yet another round of weapons development. As I write, a similar process is being put in place in order to justify an invasion of Iran.
Armed with this foreknowledge, I believe it is possible to mount a counter- propaganda offensive. The fight which is currently being waged in the UK over Blair’s fanatical (and utterly perverted) servility to the US behemoth, is not going away. Indeed, with each passing day, the government appears to be digging itself into a deeper and deeper hole, in spite of the Select Committee report published today which predictably, let the government off the hook. Fundamental questions have been raised which won’t disappear just because Blair says so. The issue of the non-existent WMDs, the increasing popular resistance to USUK occupation of Iraq, the division that currently exists between the UK and the US over how to ‘deal’ with Iran, and the Arab-Israeli situation which threatens to unravel, all point to some fundamental problems with manufacturing the ‘new American century’. To this, we need also to add the increasing gulf between the rest of the world and the US, which no amount of hi-tech weapons will resolve, based as it is, on a complex of intersecting issues; economic competition, the climate crisis, instabilities in the global financial system, the increasing resistance of the poor countries to US hegemony, all conspire to undermine and contribute to the crisis that the leading capitalist nations now face. Now is the time to exploit these weaknesses, which are fundamental fault lines that snake through the myopic vision of the ‘beltway bandits.’