Senator Fulbright was one of the few in the Washington establishment to speak about the Vietnamese and the war in the former Indochina with compassion:
We ought not to be punishing them. Our conscience should impel us to conciliation at every opportunity. The argument that what happened since the end of the war shows the harsh, totalitarian nature of the regime we were fighting misses what is important. The real point is that what happened was largely the result of the war. It destroyed the old traditional government and customs and practices. The war came close, politically if not physically to doing what General LeMay once proposed—bombing them back into the Stone Age. I think what has happened is a direct result of the war and of what we did in that war.
Carter never spoke in such terms. The Vietnam War was "embarrassing"; our reputation was "soiled," our "cleanness and decency" blemished. "Mistakes" had been made. Nothing more need be said. And by and large the new human rights leaders followed Carter's lead. There was a chilling precedent, of course. Europeans spoke tearfully of human rights after the Holocaust and then utterly ignored them in the colonial wars of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. In both cases, the rise of human rights left plenty of room for historical amnesia.
Found in 1917 and the recipient of the 1947 Nobel Peace Prize, the [American Friends Service Committee] AFSC had long been committed to social justice, peace, and humanitarian causes. The Vietnam War posed a particularly acute challenge by bringing up key questions that the human rights movement had assiduously avoided. Should all violence be condemned? Should the response be a call for a plague on both houses? How could one relate the war to other struggles in the Third World, such as the battle against apartheid? The AFSC's executive secretary spelled out the challenge in 1975: "All too frequently, in human experience, wars of liberation have been fought with lofty courage and high idealism only to result tragically and ironically in the rebirth of tyranny with new tyrants in charge." Revolutionary violence would not build a new, just society; but the answer was not to simply denounce violence but to advocate for a kind of revolutionary pacifism. "The necessity to be nonviolent must be urged with passion, and persuasion, not upon the oppressed revolutionaries, but upon those who oppress them, and upon the accomplices of the oppressors." Many of the governments that were fighting rebellions in the Third World were corrupt, vicious states employing far greater violence than that leveled against them. "To put it simply: We believe in nonviolence and in revolution and therefore in the possibility of nonviolent revolution. We understand that the oppressed do not share our faith in nonviolence. We have given them little reason to do so." The task, in part, was to reduce direct American "domination and/or American support for their oppressors, and this, in turn, will serve to minimize the violence which they feel compelled to use to reach their goal." The AFSC did "not support the violent means used by the NLF and Hanoi, but we do support their objective in seeking the liberation of Vietnam from foreign domination…. Clearly one has to distinguish between the violence of the Americans—which is criminal—and that of the people of Vietnam—which, by contrast, is tragic." Few human rights leaders enunciated comparable views.
Over the years Helsinki Watch expanded into regional committees (Americas Watch, Africa Watch, Asia Watch, Middle East Watch), and in 1988 these committees united to form Human Rights Watch. From its beginnings the group has been emblematic of the American human rights organizations that formed in the late 1970s and early '80s. It was not mass based; tactics associated with civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, ad with the earlier struggles to organize labor and to obtain women's suffrage, had no place in its evolving strategies. Rather, it was an elite organization, an NGO with a board of directors and a paid staff quite unlike the movement organizations of a decade before. Its natural constituency was to be found in the worlds of power and influence—among politicians, journalists, jurists, union leaders, and academics. Its principal aim was to pressure the United States and Soviet governments into acting in accord with the organizations human rights objectives. As sociologists like to say, it lived by "tree-topping" tactics aimed at other elites, no grassroots mobilizing of large constituencies. Its leaders were primarily upper-middle-class professionals—from publishing, law, journalism, and Wall Street—with highly developed communication skills and discretionary time and income to devote to international issues. Most of them traveled widely, especially in Europe, and moved amid the elites and intellectuals of many countries. They generally felt comfortable with the idea of multiculturalism and had long supported civil rights.
NSC studies explored how such changes could enable the United States to penetrate closed societies resistant to incorporation in the global market. "Closed" was a marvelously useful word. It could refer to countries seeking greater economic independence from the United States (creeping autarky) or to those continuing their contacts with the Communist bloc. "Closed" might also suggest resistance to American mass-media influence or efforts to control local resources and patterns of investment. As Secretary of State Edmund Muskie said in 1980, "Human rights and closed societies are incompatible… the contrast between our system and the closed societies of our adversaries is dramatically visible." From a national security perspective, no nation could be open if it was free from American influence. And nothing bred closedness faster than revolutions, nationalist movements, expropriation of foreign corporations, and populist authoritarianism.
When European capitalism took the form of imperialism and started to subjugate Africa politically, normal political conflicts of the pre-capitalist African situation were transformed into weakness, which allowed the Europeans to set up their colonial domination.
European superiority over the Arabs in East and North Africa and in the Middle East demonstrates conclusively that modern imperialism is inseparable from capitalism, and underlines the role of slavery in the context of capitalism. The Arabs had acquired Africans as slaves for centuries, but they were exploited in a feudal context. African slaves in Arab hands became domestics, soldiers, and agricultural serfs. Whatever surplus they produced was not for reinvestment and multiplication of capital, as in the West Indian or North American slave systems, but for consumption by the feudal elite. Indeed, slaves were often maintained more for social prestige than for economic benefit.
Africans were quick to appreciate advantages deriving from a literate education. In Madagascar, the Merina kingdom did a great deal to sponsor reading and writing. They used their own language and an Arabic script, and the welcomed the aid of European missionaries. That conscious borrowing from all relevant sources was only possible when they had the freedom to choose.
As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent's raw materials and labor. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct with colonial rule.
The British were the chief spokesmen for the view that the desire to colonize was largely based on their good intentions in wanting to put a stop to the slave trade. True enough, the British in the nineteenth century were as opposed to slave trading as they were once in favor of it. Many changes inside Britain had transform the seventeenth-century necessity for slaves into the nineteenth-century necessity to clear the remnants of slaving from Africa so as to organize the local exploitation of land and labor. Therefore, slaving was rejected in so far as it had become a fetter on further capitalist development; this was particularly true of East Africa, where Arab slaving persisted until late in the nineteenth century. The British took special self-righteous delight in putting an end to Arab slave trading, and in deposing rulers on the grounds that they were slave traders. However, in those very years, the British were crushing political leaders in Nigeria, like Jaja and Nana, who had by then ceased the export of slaves, and were concentrating instead on products like palm oil and rubber. Similarly, the Germans in East Africa made a pretense of being most opposed to rulers like Bushiri who were engaged in slave trading, but the Germans were equally hostile to African rulers with little interest in slaving. The common factor underlying the overthrow of African rulers in East, West, Central, North, and South Africa was that they stood in the way of Europe's imperial needs. It was the only factor that mattered. with anti-slaving sentiments being at best superfluous and at worst calculated hypocrisy.
The purpose of the Urban Areas Act [in South Africa] is to control the influx of Africans into the urban areas; to set apart areas for their accommodation; to direct their labor; and to impose strict regulations for their control and movement. In short, it aims at providing whites with black labor without allowing blacks to acquire residential, social and other rights in the areas where they are employed. Try as they will, the South African whites cannot isolate or circumscribe the black population. The simple truth is that without the participation of the black population the South African economy would fall apart.