Note for readers of Andrew Sullivan: This post is the first in a series of reviews of the character of Noam Chomsky's political writings. It was followed by this post, in which I set out examples of Chomsky's dishonest handling of source material, this one amplifying the point by contrasting his approach to that of genuine historians, this one commenting on the recently-published Anti-Chomsky Reader, this one discussing further Chomsky's unscholarly approach, and most recently this one explaining the background to the vexed question of Chomsky's intervention in the case of the Holocaust denier Robert Faurisson. The Faurisson affair is habitually presented by Chomsky's admirers as a straightforward case of defending free speech even (indeed especially) for those with odious opinions; my post on the matter details what Chomsky actually said and how much he knew about Faurisson's antisemitism. I hope that taken together they will provide some useful background on an undeservedly influential writer on politics, and explain why Andrew is right to feel so strongly on the matter.
The current issue of a US Trotskyite journal called International Socialism Review carries a long interview with Noam Chomsky. I have spent a lot of time reading Chomsky's political works and I'm glad to have done so. The conclusions may be predictable in every essential (and indeed every particular as well), but nestled among the obiter dicta there will almost invariably be something that surprises. So it is in this interview, which contains the following incidental material in an argument about the iniquity of US foreign policy:
On May 27, the New York Times published one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever seen. They ran an article about the Nixon-Kissinger interchanges. Kissinger fought very hard through the courts to try to prevent it, but the courts permitted it. You read through it, and you see the following statement embedded in it. Nixon at one point informs Kissinger, his right-hand Eichmann, that he wanted bombing of Cambodia. And Kissinger loyally transmits the order to the Pentagon to carry out "a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves." That is the most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record.
Right at this moment there is a prosecution of Milosevic going on in the international tribunal, and the prosecutors are kind of hampered because they can’t find direct orders, or a direct connection even, linking Milosevic to any atrocities on the ground. Suppose they found a statement like this. Suppose a document came out from Milosevic saying, "Reduce Kosovo to rubble. Anything that flies on anything that moves." They would be overjoyed. The trial would be over. He would be sent away for multiple life sentences–if it was a U.S. trial, immediately the electric chair. But they can’t find any such document. In fact, nobody has even found a document like that connecting Hitler to the Holocaust. Scholars have been working on it for years. I can’t remember an example of such a direct order to carry out what amounted to a huge massacre, way beyond the level of anything we call genocide when other people do it.
Chomsky's citation is technically accurate. Here is the relevant passage in full from the NYT article (by Elizabeth Becker - available from the paper's archive for a fee):
The telephone transcripts show how frustrated Nixon was becoming with the Vietnam War and his failing effort to withdraw American troops from Vietnam by expanding the war into Cambodia. He became especially angry on Dec. 9, 1970, with what he considered the lackluster bombing campaign by the United States Air Force against targets in Cambodia.
''They're not only not imaginative but they are just running these things -- bombing jungles,'' Nixon said. ''They have got to go in there and I mean really go in.'' Mr. Kissinger then cautioned: ''The Air Force is designed to fight an air battle against the Soviet Union. They are not designed for this war.'' But the president persisted, suggesting that the bombing campaign could be disguised as an airlift of supplies.
''I want them to hit everything,'' he said. ''I want them to use the big planes, the small planes, everything they can that will help out there, and let's start giving them a little shock.'' He ended by saying, ''Right now there is a chance to win this goddamn war, and that's probably what we are going to have to do because we are not going to do anything at the conference table.'' Mr. Kissinger immediately relayed the order: ''A massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.''
Again, everything in that passage is strictly correct; the article is nonetheless a nonsense, written by a correspondent either ignorant or oblivious of political context. Compare it with the fuller account of the same story on the same day in the Washington Post. The context in which Kissinger delivers the President's instructions is ... significant. Again, I quote the relevant passage in full so that readers can judge the context, but I have italicised the relevant information:
The transcripts shed light on the extraordinarily complex relationship between Nixon and Kissinger during a turbulent period in American foreign policy, from the bombing of Cambodia in 1970 to the Yom Kippur war of 1973 and diplomatic breakthroughs with China and the Soviet Union. Even as Kissinger attempted to convince Nixon of his loyalty, he adopted a sardonic tone in conversations with Haig and other aides.
In the March 20 transcript, neither Kissinger nor Haig seems alarmed by threats to bomb Congress or "to go after the Israelis" after "he is through with the Europeans."
"He is just unwinding," Haig told Kissinger. "Don't take him too seriously."
On other occasions, as in December 1970, when Nixon proposed an escalation in the bombing of Cambodia, Kissinger and Haig felt obliged to humor the president while laughing at him behind his back. During that episode, Kissinger was still serving as national security adviser, and Haig was one of his deputies. The Air Force is "not designed for any war we are likely to have to fight," Kissinger told Nixon after the president railed against U.S. pilots for "farting around doing nothing" over Cambodia and "running goddamn milk runs in order to get the air medal." Both men suspected North Vietnamese guerrillas of using Cambodia as a sanctuary and supply line to South Vietnam.
"It's a disgraceful performance," Nixon went on. "I want gunships in there. That means armed helicopters, DC-3s, anything else that will destroy personnel that can fly. I want it done!! Get them off their ass."
"We will get it done immediately, Mr. President," Kissinger replied.
After talking to Nixon, Kissinger got on the phone with Haig to pass on the president's orders for "a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia," using "anything that flies on anything that moves." The transcript then records an unintelligible comment that "sounded like Haig laughing."
Now, the picture this presents of Richard Nixon is appalling, but it accords with what we know of a man who, even if we disregard Watergate, was unfit to be President. Ostensibly thick-skinned, Nixon was sensitive to every perceived slight and imagined insult. He went to pieces under criticism. Few more humiliating moments have occurred in the modern presidency than when, as thousands of anti-war protestors arrived in Washington in 1969, Nixon visited them unannounced early one morning at the Lincoln Memorial, telling them "I want you to know that I understand how you feel" and trying to gain their friendship by asking them about college football. He had no conception of the constraints of office. He was a vulgarian given to crude antisemitic sentiments. In joking that he would put a nuclear bomb under Capitol Hill, he displayed a sense of humour that lacked not only a certain subtlety but indeed any humour. It is little wonder that when discussing him his aides adopted a tone that was, as the Post delicately puts it, "sardonic".
But that's the point. The "anything that flies on anything that moves" remark, in context, is not a literal instruction; it is an ironic rendition by his national security adviser of a Presidential outburst that invites, deserves and receives derision. In the circumstances, Chomsky's horrified description of it as "one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever seen" is, well, one of the most incredible sentences I've ever seen.
It would be tempting to attribute the use Chomsky makes of this material to intellectual idleness and incompetence, but I fear this is too generous a judgement. There's a pattern and a method here. Chomsky's rhetorical attacks on the western democracies, and especially the United States, increasingly outdo anything else to be found in the adversary culture of far-Left politics. Charging President Bush and Tony Blair with war crimes for excising Baathist tyranny from Iraq, and even depicting the Bush administration as (in John Pilger's phrase) "the new Third Reich", may be absurd and offensive, but Chomsky takes hysteria beyond these by now commonplace tropes to a new plane altogether. His effect - and I have to assume his purpose too, for he must be aware he's doing it - is to depict the US as even worse than Nazi Germany.
Look carefully at Chomsky's use of language. His description of Kissinger as Nixon's "Eichmann" - frivolous, repugnant and a gross affront to the victims of the Holocaust as it is - is a mere softener for the assertion that "nobody has even found a document like that connecting Hitler to the Holocaust. Scholars have been working on it for years." That remark is disgraceful. Nobody has found a signed document in which Hitler explicitly orders the destruction of the Jews, but of course scholars have found harrowing documents incontrovertibly "connecting Hitler to the Holocaust". There is for example Himmler's letter of 18 September 1941 to Gauleiter Greiser, party leader for the region that included the Lodz ghetto, declaring with chilling bureaucratic precision:
The Fuehrer wishes the Altreich and the Protectorate to be cleared of and freed from Jews from West to East as soon as possible.
According to the German historian Peter Witte, the letter:
... removes any possible doubt that the decision to set in motion the deportations and hence the 'Final Solution' in the Reich and the Protectorate was presented to Hitler personally and was taken by him personally.
(Both the letter and Witte's judgement on it are cited in Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman's valuable debunking of the Holocaust deniers, Denying History.)
Chomsky is an intelligent man who knows how to use language. In this case he is using language to depict the United States as incomparably evil; in order to do that he must distort not only the US record in foreign policy, but also the historical record of the regime in recent history that really was incomparably evil. And that is what Chomsky does.
Just for sake of argument, put the worst and most literal interpretation you can on Kissinger's Cambodian comment, and make the most damaging assessment of the reasons for America's intervention in Indo-China, while still being faithful to the known facts. Then compare your conclusions with Chomsky's charge that:
I can’t remember an example of such a direct order to carry out what amounted to a huge massacre, way beyond the level of anything we call genocide when other people do it.
Anything? Anything? Way beyond the Shoah? Way beyond Pol Pot?
To describe such notions as those of a crank is to understate their toxicity. To take them seriously requires something more sinister than mere monomania. It's hardly surprising that those who do are to be found among the very worst elements in politics, namely those who believe Nazi Germany has been unfairly condemned by history. Here, for example, is the web site of what used to be known as the Union Movement, and before that - in the 1930s - the British Union of Fascists (BUF). The site reproduces certain disgustingly self-serving remarks made in 1947 by the movement's leader, Sir Oswald Mosley, about what the site coyly describes as "the whole moral issue regarding wartime atrocities, which are committed by all sides" - in other words, exculpation of Nazi atrocities by denying their uniqueness. To introduce this argument - if one can dignify it with that term - these latter-day Mosleyites have found an appropriate dictum, and here it is:
"If the Nuremberg laws were applied today, then every Post-War American president would have to be hanged." - Noam Chomsky