Jeremy Gordin's review on Politicsweb of my colleague Anthea Jeffery's recent book People's War: New Light on the Struggle for South Africa accuses her of omitting the "moral context" which supposedly caused the Vietnamese to develop their strategy for such a war. Nowhere, he writes, does she mention that the Vietnamese had been "colonised and oppressed" for "literally thousands of years".
Jeffery could no doubt have stuck in a chapter giving all the details of this thousand-year horror, but that history would not justify the merciless brutality which the Vietnamese National Liberation Front used in their quest for power. Nor were the horrors of apartheid any justification for the ruthless disregard for life which the African National Congress (ANC) and its allies in Umkhonto we Sizwe and the South African Communist Party (SACP) used in their quest for hegemonic power.
The "context" of the Nazi rise to power was the vindictive terms imposed upon Germany by the victorious Allies after the First World War. More than three million ethnic Germans were incorporated as a minority in the new state of Czechoslovakia created by the Allies. Germany was itself split in two and the port of Danzig detached from Germany and isolated at the end of a "corridor" designed to give Poland access to the sea.
The folly and injustice of much of this was widely recognised by the British and the French, which helps to explain their policy of appeasement of Adolf Hitler at Munich and earlier. But none of it could justify either what Hitler called his "unshakeable will to wipe Czechoslovakia from the map" or the blitzkrieg he unleashed against the Poles – let alone anything else that he did.
In one of the endnotes to his review, Gordin takes Jeffery and myself to task for being so "unfair" as to "whack the media retrospectively". But we did so at the time, for example in a study of violence published in 1993. Journalists were then indeed "operating in extremely difficult and very confusing conditions", as Gordin argues.
No doubt this was part of the "context" in which they worked. But it did not stop many of them from making political choices. One wrote in February 1990 that he had "worked clandestinely" for the ANC for ten years on the "South African commercial press". The editor of one supposedly "alternative" newspaper admitted that "progressives" had been "silent on certain problems". Many black journalists were terrified to report the truth about the terror that the ANC unleashed in the townships. Many white journalists chose to suppress it.