Richard Falk on the Vietnam War, Revolution in Iran, and Genocide in Gaza

Faramarz Farbod: You have taught at Princeton University for four decades; you were the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in Israel (2008-2014); and you are the author of numerous books about global issues and international law. In preparation for this conversation, I have been reading your autobiography, Public Intellectual: The Life of a Citizen Pilgrim (2019). Tell us about yourself and how you became politically engaged in your own words.

Richard Falk: I grew up in New York City in a kind of typical middle-class, post-religious, Jewish family that had a lot of domestic stress because I had an older sister with mental issues who was hospitalized for most of her life. This caused my parents to divorce because they saw the issues in a very different way. I was brought up by my father. He was a lawyer and quite right-wing, a Cold War advocate, and a friend of some of the prominent people who were anticommunists at that time, including Kerensky, the interim Prime Minister of Russia after the revolution between the Czar and Lenin. My father had a kind of entourage of anti-communist people who were frequent guests. So, I grew up in this kind of conservative, secular environment, post-religious, post any kind of significant cultural relationship to my ethnically Jewish identity.

I attended a fairly progressive private school that I didn’t like too much because I was more interested in sports than academics at that stage of my life. I managed to go to the university and gradually became more academically oriented. I was jolted into a fit of realism by being on academic probation after my first year at the University of Pennsylvania. That scared me enough that I became a better student. I went to law school after graduating from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in economics. But I knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer in the way my father was. So, it was a very puzzling time. I studied Indian law and language to make myself irrelevant to the law scene in the US. I never thought of myself as an academic because of the mediocre academic record I had managed to compile. When I graduated from law school, I was supposed to go to India on a Fulbright, but it was canceled at the last minute because India hadn’t paid for some grain under the Public Law-480 program [commonly known as Food for Peace signed into law by President Eisenhower in 1954 to liquidate US surplus agricultural products and increasingly used as a policy tool to advance US strategic and diplomatic interests with “friendly” nations]. It turned out Ohio State University was so desperate to fill a vacancy created by the sickness of one of its faculty that they hired me as a visiting professor. I realized immediately that it was a good way out for me. I managed to stay there for six years until I went to Princeton for 40 years.

I became gradually liberated from my father’s conservatism and achieved a certain kind of political identity while opposing the Vietnam War. That took a very personal turn when I was invited to go to Vietnam in 1968. There I encountered the full force of what it meant to be a Third World country seeking national independence and yet be opposed by colonial and post-colonial intervention. I was very impressed by the Vietnamese leadership, which I had the opportunity to meet. It was very different from the East European and Soviet leadership that I had earlier summoned some contact with. They were very humanistic and intelligent and oriented toward a kind of post-war peace with the US. They were more worried about China than they were about the US because China was their traditional enemy. But it made me see the world from a different perspective. I felt personally transformed and identified with their struggle for independence and the courage and friendship they exhibited towards me.

FF: What did you teach at Princeton University?

RF: My academic background was in international law. Princeton had no law school, so in a way, I was a disciplinary refugee. I began teaching international relations as well as international law. The reason they hired me was that they had an endowed chair in international law instead of a law school and they hadn’t been able to find anyone who was trained in law but not so interested in it. They tracked me down in Ohio State and offered me this very good academic opportunity. They invited me as a visiting professor first and then some years later offered me this chair which had accumulated a lot of resources because they had been unable to fill this position and I was able to have a secretary and research assistants and other kinds of perks that are not normal even at a rich university like Princeton. I felt more kind of an outsider there in terms of both social background and political orientation, but it was a very privileged place to be in many ways that had very good facilities, and I was still enough of an athlete to use the tennis and squash courts as a mode of daily therapy.

FF: Why would the Vietnamese leadership invite you to come to Vietnam to meet them? Was it because you were a professor at a prestigious university, which gave you an elite status, or was it something else?

RF: I think it was partly because of my background. I had written some law journal articles that had gotten a bit of attention, and somebody must have recommended me. I don’t know. I was somewhat surprised. I was supposed to go with a well-known West Coast author considered a left person, but she got sick, and I was accompanied by a very young lawyer. So, I was basically on my own, inexperienced, and didn’t know what to expect. It seemed a risky thing to do from a professional point of view because I was going as an opponent of an ongoing war. There was a 19th-century law that said if you engage in private diplomacy, you’re subject to some kind of criminal prosecution. I didn’t know what to anticipate. But it turned out this was at a time when the US was at least pretending to seek a peaceful negotiation to end its involvement. So, when I came back, because I had these meetings with the Prime Minister and others who had given me a peace proposal that was better than what Kissinger negotiated many deaths later during the Nixon presidency, the US government rather than prosecuting me, came to debrief me and invited me to the State Department and so on, which was something of a surprise.

FF: Did the State Department take this peace proposal seriously?

RF: I don’t know what happened internally in the government. I made them aware of it. It was given a front-page New York Times coverage for a couple of days. There was this atmosphere at that time, in the spring of 1968, that was disposed toward finding some way out of this impasse that had been reached in the war itself. The war couldn’t be won, and the phrase of that time was “peace with honor” though it was hard to have much honor after all the devastation that had been carried out.

FF: What were the elements of that peace proposal given to you that were striking to you?

RF: The thing that surprised me was that they agreed to allow a quite large number of American troops to stay in Vietnam and to be present while a pre-election was internationally monitored in the southern part of Vietnam. They envisioned some kind of coalition government emerging from those elections. It was quite forthcoming given the long struggle and the heavy casualties they had endured. It was a war in which the future in a way was anticipated; the US completely dominated the military dimensions of the war, land, sea, and air, but managed to lose the war. That puzzle between having military superiority and yet failing to control the political outcome is a pattern that was repeated in several places, including later in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is a lesson the US elites can not learn. They are unable to learn because of the strength of the military-industrial-congressional complex. They can’t accept the limited agency of military power in the post-colonial world. Therefore, they keep repeating this Vietnam pattern in different forms. They learned some political lessons like not having as much TV coverage of the US casualties. One of the things that was often said by those who supported the war was that it wasn’t lost in Vietnam; it was lost in the US living rooms. Years later, we heard the same concerns with “embedded” journalists with combat forces, for instance, in the first Gulf War. It was a time when they abolished the draft and relied on a voluntary, professional armed forces. They did their best to pacify American political engagement through more control of the media and other techniques. But it didn’t change this pattern of heavy military involvement and political disappointment.

FF: This pattern maybe repeating itself in Gaza as we speak. But I would like to ask you a follow up question. You said that the reason essentially for the persistence of that pattern is the existence of a powerful military-industrial-congressional complex. Are you assuming that the US political leadership is wishes to learn the hard lessons but gets blocked by the influence of this complex? Could it be that the US ruling class is in fact so immersed in imperial consciousness that it cannot learn the right lessons after all? When the US leaders look at debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam, don’t they seek to learn lessons to pursue their imperial policies more effectively the next time? Which of these perspectives is closer to reality in your thinking?

RF: The essential point is that the political gatekeepers only select potential leaders who either endorse or consider it a necessity to go along with this consensus as to putting the military budget above partisan politics and making it a matter of bipartisan consensus with small agreements at the margins about whether this or that weapon system should be given priority and greater resource. Occasionally one or two people in Congress will challenge that kind of idea but nothing politically significant in terms of friction. There’s no friction in terms of this way of seeing the projection of US influence in the post-colonial world.

FF: Let’s assume that’s correct, and I think you’re right about that. But why is that the case? Is it because the US political class knows that a modern capitalist political economy and state needs this military industrial complex as a kind of floor to the economy, that this floor needs to exist, otherwise, if you remove it, stagnationist tendencies will prevail? Is this military industrial floor a requirement of modern US capitalism? Is that why they’re thinking in this way?

RF: It is a good question. I’m not sure. I think that the core belief is one that’s deep in the political culture. That somehow strength is measured by military capabilities and the underrating of other dimensions of influence and leadership. This is sustained by Wall Street kind of perspectives that see the arms industry as very important component of the economy and by the government bureaucracy that became militarized as a consequence first of World War Two and then along the Cold War. It overbalanced support for the military as a kind of essential element of government credibility. You couldn’t break into those Washington elites unless you were seen as a supporter of this level of consensus. It’s similar in a way to the unquestioning bipartisan support for Israel, which was, until this Gaza crisis, beyond political questioning, and still is beyond political questioning in Washington, despite it being subjected for the first time to serious political doubts among the citizens.

FF: I think you’re right. There is a cultural element here as well in addition to the uses of military Keynesianism for domestic economic reasons and for imperial reasons to project power. I want to ask you one final question about your reflections on Vietnam. What was the quarrel about from the US perspective? Why was the US so keen on having decades of engagement after the French were defeated in early 1950s all the way to mid 1970s? Why did the US engage in such destructive behavior?

RF: I think there are two main reasons. Look at the Pentagon Papers that were released by Daniel Ellsberg; they were a study of the US involvement in Vietnam.

FF: In 1971.

RF: Yes in 1971, but they go back to the beginning of the engagement. The US didn’t even distinguish between Vietnam and China. They called the Vietnamese Chicoms in those documents. Part of the whole motivation was this obsession with containing China after its revolution in 1949. The second idea was this falling dominoes image that if Vietnam went in a communist direction, other countries in the region would follow and that would have a significant bearing on the global balance and on the whole geopolitics of containment. The third reason was the US trying to exhibit solidarity with the French, who had been defeated in the Indochina war, and to at least limit the scope of that defeat and assert a kind of Western ideological hegemony in the rest of Vietnam.

FF: I think Indonesia was probably more important from the US perspective. Once there was a successful US-backed coup d’etat in 1965, some in the US argued that perhaps it’s over. The US has won and achieved its strategic objectives by securing Indonesia from falling in the image of the falling dominoes. The US could have gotten out of Vietnam then. But it didn’t. Maybe this was because of concerns about losing credibility. Do you have any thoughts on this matter?

RF: Yes, that’s a very important observation and it’s hard to document because people don’t acknowledge it fully. The support that the US and particularly CIA gave to the Indonesian effort at genocidal assault on the Sukarno elements of pro-Marxist, anti-Western constituents there resulted in a very deadly killing fields. Indonesia was from a resource and a geopolitical point of view far more important than Vietnam. But Vietnam had built-up a constituency within the armed forces and the counterinsurgency specialists that created a strong push to demonstrate that the US could succeed in this kind of war. The defeat which eventually was acknowledged in effect was thought correctly to inhibit support within the United States for future regime changing interventions and other kinds of foreign policy.

FF: Let’s move on to another politically engaged episode in your life. You were engaged with the revolutionary processes in Iran in late 1970s. You even met Ayatollah Khomeini in 1978 in a three-hour-long meeting prior to his departure from Paris to Iran in early 1979 when he founded the Islamic Republic and assumed its Supreme Leadership until his death in 1989. What were your thoughts about the Iranian revolution? And what are your reflections today given the vantage point of 45 years of post-revolutionary history? Also tell us what were your impressions of Ayatollah Khomeini in that long meeting you had with him?

RF: My initial involvement with Iran was a consequence of several Iranian students of mine who were active at Princeton. Princeton had several prominent meetings in 1978 during the year of the Revolution. As a person who had been involved with Vietnam, I was approached by these students to speak and to be involved with their activities. They were all at least claiming to be victims of SAVAK, the Iranian intelligence service under the Shah that was accused of torturing people in prison. I was convinced that after Vietnam, the next place the US would be involved in a regressive manner would be in Iran in support the Shah. Recall that Henry Kissinger in his book on diplomacy says that the Shah was the rarest of things and an unconditional US ally. By that he meant that he did things for Israel that were awkward even for the US to do and he supplied energy to South Africa during the apartheid period. This sense that there would be a confrontation of some sort in Iran guided my early thinking. Then I also had this friendship with Mansour Farhang, who was an intellectual opponent of the Shah’s regime [and later the revolutionary Iran’s first ambassador to the UN] and represented the Iranian bazaari [pertaining to the traditional merchant class] view of Iranian politics that objected to the Shah’s efforts at neoliberal economic globalization. All that background accounted for my invitation to visit Iran and learn first-hand what the revolution was about.

I went with the former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark and a young religious leader. Three of us spent two quite fascinating weeks in Iran in the moment of maximum ferment because the Shah left the country while we were there. It was a very interesting psychological moment. The people we were with in the city of Qazvin on the day the Shah left couldn’t believe it. They thought it was a trick to get people to show their real political identity as a prelude to a new round of repression. During the Carter presidency, the US was very supportive of the Shah’s use of force in suppressing internal revolt. They had an interval at [the September 1978] Camp David talks, seeking peace between Egypt and Israel, to congratulate the Shah on the shooting of demonstrators [on 8 September in Jaleh Square] in Tehran. That was seen as the epitome of interference in Iran’s internal politics.

After our visit, we met many religious leaders and secular opponents of the Shah’s government. It was a time when Carter sent the NATO General Huyser to Iran to try to help the armed forces. Because our visit went well, we were given the impression that as a reward for our visit we would have this meeting with Khomeini in Paris, which we did. My impression was of a very severe individual, but very intelligent, with very strong eyes that captured your attention. He was impressive in the sense that he started the meeting by asking us questions – quite important ones as things turned out. His main question was: Did we think the US would intervene as it had in the past in 1953 against Mossadeq? Would the US repeat that kind of intervention in the present context? He went on to add that if the US did not intervene, he saw no obstacle to the normalization of relations. That view was echoed by the US ambassador in Iran, William Sullivan, during our meeting with him. Khomeini objected to speaking of the Iranian revolution and insisted on calling it the Islamic revolution. He extended his condemnation of the Shah’s dynasty to Saudi Arabia and the gulf monarchies arguing that they were as decadent and exploitative as was the Shah. He used a very colorful phrase that I remember to this day, which was the Shah had created “a river of blood” between the state and society. His own private ambition was to return to Iran and resume his religious life. He did not want to be a political leader at that point at least or he may not have understood the degree of support that he enjoyed in Iran at that time. He did go back to the religious city of Qom and resumed a religious life but was led to believe that Bazargan, the Prime Minister of Iran’s interim government, was putting people in charge of running the country who were sacrificing revolutionary goals.

FF: When you met Ayatollah Khomeini, were you aware of the series of lectures he had given in the early 1970s in Najaf while in exile in Iraq that were smuggled via audio cassettes into mosque networks inside Iran and later published as a book titled Islamic Government: Governance of the Jurist? Some people knew that he had those ideas about an Islamic state, but he did not talk about it in Paris. Did he talk about it when you met him?

RF: He didn’t talk about it. I was superficially familiar with it. Among the people we met in Tehran was a mathematician who was very familiar with that part of Khomeini’s writing and was scared by what it portended. Of course, Khomeini, as I said, did not anticipate or at least said he did not anticipate his own political leadership, and may have regarded that vision in his writing as something he hoped to achieve but did not necessarily think of himself as the agent of its implementation. I have no idea about that.

FF: In retrospect, what are your general reflections looking back on Iran’s revolution?

RF: One set of reflections is the revolution’s durability. Whatever failures it has had, it has successfully resisted its internal, regional, and global adversaries. If it had not been tough on its opponents, it probably would not have survived very long. The comparison, for instance, with the Arab Spring’s failures to sustain their upheavals is quite striking, particularly with Egypt when comparing the failure of the Egyptian movement to sustain itself with the Iranian experience and resistance.

The second thing is disappointment at the failure to develop in more humane directions and the extreme harshness of the treatment of people perceived as their opponent. In that sense, there is no doubt that it has become a repressive theocratic autocracy. But countries like Israel and the US are not completely without some responsibility for that development. There was a kind of induced paranoia in a way because they had real opponents who tried to destabilize it in a variety of ways. The West encouraged Iraq to attack Iran and gave it a kind of green light. The attack involved the idea that they could at least easily control the oil producing parts of Iran, if not bring about the fall of the Khomeini-style regime itself. As often is the case in the US-induced use of force overseas, there are a lot of miscalculations, probably on both sides.

FF: The US has viewed Iran ever since its revolution as a threat to its geostrategic interests. I think that the “threat” is more the deterrence power of Iran, in other words, Iran’s ability to impose a cost on US operations in the region, oftentimes targeting Iran itself. And of course, Israel, too, is in alliance with the US. Do you agree with this assessment that there is basically no threat to the United States from Iran aside from Iran’s ability to impose costs on US operations in the region, oftentimes against Iran itself?

RF: I completely agree with that. Iran had initially especially at most an anti-imperial outlook that did not want interference with the national movement. Of course, it wanted to encourage Islamic movements throughout the region and had a certain success. That was viewed in Washington as a geopolitical threat. It was certainly not a national security threat in the conventional sense. But it could be viewed as a threat to the degree to which US hegemony could be maintained in the strategic energy policies that were very important to the US at that time.

FF: Let’s shift to Palestine-Israel. What is the appropriate historical context for understanding what happened on Oct. 7 and what has been taking place since then in Gaza and the West Bank? We know that the conventional US view distorts reality by talking about this issue as if history began on 7 October with the Hamas attack on southern Israel.

RF: This is a complicated set of issues to unravel in a brief conversation. But there is no question that the context of the Hamas attack is crucial to understanding its occurrence, even though the attack itself needs to be problematized in terms of whether Israel wanted it to happen or let it happen. They had adequate advance warning; they had all that surveillance technology along the borders with Gaza. The IDF did not respond as it usually does in a short period. It took them five hours, apparently, to arrive at the scene of these events. On the one side, we really don’t know how to perceive that October 7 event. We do know that some worse aspects of it, the beheading of babies, mass rapes, and those kinds of horrifying details, were being manipulated by Israel and its supporters. So, we need an authoritative reconstruction of October 7 itself.

But even without that reconstruction, we know that Hamas and the Palestinians were being provoked by a series of events. There is a kind of immediate context where Netanyahu goes to the UN General Assembly and waves a map with Palestine essentially erased from it. To Netanyahu, this is the new Middle East without Palestine in it. He has made it clear recently that he is opposed to any kind of Palestinian statehood. So, one probable motivation was for the Palestinians to reassert their presence or existence and resolve to remain.

The other very important contextual element is the recollection of the Nakba or catastrophe that occurred in 1948 where 750,000 Palestinians were forced to flee from their homes and villages and not permitted to return. The Israeli response since October 7 gives rise to a strong impression that the real motivation on its part is not security as it is ordinarily understood but rather a second Nakba to ethnically cleanse and to implement this by the forced evacuation and unlivability of Gaza carried out by what many people, including myself, have regarded as a genocide.

The Israeli argument that they are entitled to act in self-defense seems very strained in this context. Gaza and the West Bank are from an international law point of view occupied territories; they are not foreign entities. How do you exercise self-defense against yourself? The Geneva Accords are very clear that the primary duty of the occupying power is to protect the civilian population. It is an unconditional duty of the occupying power, and it is spelled out in terms of an unconditional obligation, to make sure that the population has sufficient food and medical supplies, which the Israeli leadership from day one excluded. They tried to block the entry of food, fuel, and electricity and have caused a severe health-starvation scenario that will probably cost many more lives than have already been lost.

FF: Not to speak of another violation by Israel: As an occupying power it is prohibited from transferring its own population to the territories that it has been occupying.

RF: Yes.

FF: Of course, Israeli expansionism in terms of its settlements, practically does away with the viability of the idea of a two-state solution, unless somehow, they can be forced to remove all the settlers and dismantle the major settlement blocks in the West Bank.

Let me get your thoughts on the following. It seems Israel used October 7 as an excuse to carry out a speedier mass expulsion campaign rather than to continue with the slower ethnic cleansing that oftentimes characterize its actions in various decades in the period of Israeli control over these territories. We can point to 1948 and 1967 as two other occasions when Israel took advantage of historical moments and expelled many Palestinians. Post-Oct. 7 may be the third historical moment in which Israel is behaving in this manner. Do you agree with this assessment?

RF: Absolutely. The only thing I would add is that the Netanyahu coalition with religious Zionism as it took over in Israel in January of 2023 was widely viewed, even in Washington, as the most extreme government that had ever come to power in Israel. What made it extreme was the green lighting of settler violence in the West Bank, which was clearly aimed at dispossessing the Palestinian presence there. They often at these settler demonstrations would leave on Palestinian cars these messages: “leave or we will kill you.” It is horrifying that this dimension of Israeli provocation has not been taken into some account.

FF: Yes, we see that in the West Bank since October 7. By now some 16 villages have been depopulated, several hundred Palestinians killed, and close to 6000 arrested by the Israeli Offensive (not Defensive) Forces who often act alongside armed settlers who enjoy impunity in terrorizing the Palestinians.

Well, thank you, Richard, for joining me in this conversation. I found it to be very interesting.

RF: Thank you and I also found your questions very suggestive and a challenge.

Faramarz Farbod, a native of Iran, teaches politics at Moravian College. He is the founder of Beyond Capitalism a working group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley PA and the editor of its publication Left Turn. He can be reached at Read other articles by Faramarz.