This is the second part of my series rebutting the recent qualified defence of Noam Chomsky offered by Christopher Hitchens, in a recent interview with FrontPageMagazine.
I recently looked up some of [Chomsky's] old polemical classics - on the Vietnam war, for example, and on East Timor and on Sharon's conduct in Lebanon in 1982 - and found them still to be highly cogent and lucid. I think even someone who had disagreed with him then would be compelled to say the same.
[Chomsky] was one of the great figures of conscience during the crisis of the 1960s…
This post deals with the first of the points Hitchens raises: Chomsky’s writing on the Vietnam War, the issue on which he first came to public attention as a “great figure of conscience”. The “polemical classic” that Hitchens looked up is almost certainly Chomsky’s first published book on politics, American Power and the New Mandarins, 1969 (and reissued in 2003). The book was highly influential at the time; reading it now demonstrates only that that acclaim was undeserved. All the characteristics of Chomsky’s work that Hitchens criticises now were present then.
The book – a collection of essays and lectures previously published in journals such as Ramparts and the New York Review of Books – contains what is probably the most widely-quoted of all Chomsky’s political judgements, as here in a recent celebratory study of the Vietnam-era peace movement (Michael S. Foley, Confronting the War Machine: Draft Resistance During the Vietnam War, 2003, pp. 192-3):
Intellectuals were not powerless to protest the war effectively; indeed some had been trying to marshal support from their colleagues for a long time. Noam Chomsky, in particular, churned out numerous articles imploring his fellow academics to act…. His most influential essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, which appeared in the New York Review in February 1967 [and is included as a chapter in American Power], moved scores of academics to act in ensuing months. “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies,” he wrote.
I have argued in earlier posts that Chomsky’s political writings fail on precisely the criterion he asserts. So far from speaking the truth and exposing lies, Chomsky is evasive and dishonest in his handling of source material. As we shall see in the next post in this series, those characteristics of his work were clear as far back as the publication of American Power. But first let us look at the political argument of the book, for while Chomsky was a prominent opponent of the Vietnam War, the ideological grounds of his campaigning are less well-known than those of other left-wing opponents.
Those on the democratic Left who opposed the war commonly spoke of a destructiveness born of hubris in the Pentagon and the White House, and moral and strategic failure in the general command. The philosopher Michael Walzer, writing in 1977 in Just and Unjust Wars, expressed this position powerfully on grounds of ethics (p. 299):
[T]he American war in Vietnam was, first of all, an unjustified intervention, and it was, secondly, carried on in so brutal a manner that even had it initially been defensible, it would have to be condemned, not in this or that aspect but generally.
To the radical Left this was insufficient. The argument was that, in the words of the leader of Students for a Democratic Society, Paul Potter, the anti-war movement needed to “name that system” that caused the war, i.e. corporate capitalism and imperialism (though one veteran far-Left figure, the Trotskyite leader Max Shachtman, supported the war). Nominally, Chomsky stood with the radical-Left stance on what he termed a criminal war, but his critique went much further. In his introduction to American Power, he states (p. 17):
We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the United States is dissent – or denazification. The question is a debatable one. Reasonable people may differ. The fact that the question is even debatable is a terrifying thing. To me it seems that what is needed is a kind of denazification. What is more, there is no powerful outside force that can call us to account – the change will have to come from within.
This is an extraordinary passage, and one I consider to be central to Chomsky’s political thinking. In the recently-published Anti-Chomsky Reader, edited by David Horowitz and Peter Collier, the Indochina specialist Stephen Morris contributes a chapter entitled “Whitewashing Dictatorship in Communist Vietnam and Cambodia”, in which he observes:
[D]espite his much-vaunted claims of intellectual independence, we find nothing in Chomsky’s wartime writings about Communist Vietnam that could distinguish him from countless other Marxist ideologues or self-styled “progressives” who had gone on guided tours of North Vietnam and were in thrall to the propaganda machine of the Vietnamese Communists.
This is true, but it overlooks the main point about Chomsky’s critique. Chomsky is not just, or even mainly, a propagandist for totalitarian societies, for the simple reason that his focus is not on those societies in the first place: it is on the United States. The leitmotif of his entire political output, to which he returns again and again, is that the US is morally inferior to Nazi Germany. If you do not believe this to be true, then you are out of step with his central political conceit. As I noted in an earlier essay, when Chomsky refers to Nazi Germany he does so almost invariably in order to draw a comparison with the US – usually a comparison that is unfavourable to the US. This is true throughout American Power, and not only in the passage I have just quoted.
(For febrile rhetoric, incidentally, there is little that could beat that passage. Chomsky asserts without evidence that a hypothesis that almost everyone reading this would regard as patently absurd is “debatable”. He then draws an extravagantly denunciatory inference from what has quite suddenly turned into a “fact”. Let me therefore state the obvious: despite numerous injustices and evils in American society – which at the time Chomsky wrote was only recently emerging from segregation, had 30 years earlier seen the incarceration of its Japanese-American population, and is still marked by great inequality – the US is a constitutional democracy, characterised by the rule of law. It does not practise genocide against any section of its highly polyglot population, and is not comparable to Nazi Germany. If you do not acknowledge this, then you are outside the realms of serious political debate.)
One of the more influential essays in American Power is entitled “The Revolutionary Pacifism of A.J. Muste: On the Backgrounds of the Pacific War”. After quoting another source regarding German conduct in WW1 and the Nazi leadership in WW2, Chomsky states (p. 138):
When we [i.e. Americans] lament over the German conscience, we are demanding of them a display of self-hatred – a good thing, no doubt. But for us the matter is infinitely more serious. It is not a matter of self-hatred regarding the sins of the past. Like the German Kaiser we believe that everything must be put to fire and sword, so that the war will be more quickly finished – and we act on this belief.
So the US is committing acts so heinous as to require greater contrition (which I assume is what he means by his bizarre invocation of “self-hatred” – I know of no such demand made of Germans of the wartime or post-war generations, and certainly wouldn’t regard it as desirable) than that expected of Germany on account of its war crimes.
Or in “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (p. 279):
[O]ne must applaud the insistence of the Secretary of State on the importance of historical analogies, the Munich analogy, for example. As Munich showed, a powerful and aggressive nation with a fanatic belief in its manifest destiny will regard each victory, each extension of its power and authority, as a prelude to the next step.
Even where genuflecting to the obvious inapplicability of his analogy, Chomsky still pushes it (pp. 279-80, emphasis added, given the historical significance of words that will have been carefully chosen):
Of course the aggressiveness of liberal imperialism is not that of Nazi Germany, though the distinction may seem rather academic to a Vietnamese peasant who is being gassed or incinerated.
In his other wartime writings, Chomsky comes back to the same notion. In The Backroom Boys (1973, p. 105), he states:
[A]s [Defence Secretary Robert] McNamara rather prissily explained to a Senate committee, the North Vietnamese leaders’ “regard for the comfort and even the lives of the people they control does not seem to be sufficiently high to lead them to bargain for settlement in order to stop a heightened level of attack”… Any Nazi could have said the same about Winston Churchill.
What is most interesting about American Power is that the book demonstrates, at that early stage in Chomsky’s career as political guru, that his convictions about the Nazi-like (or rather worse-than-Nazi) character of US society and foreign policy are not merely a rhetorical tick but a clear political position. This is clear from the previously-cited essay on A.J. Muste, as I shall now explain.
Muste is a rather obscure name, but he was the grand old man of the US peace movement in the 1960s. A Protestant minister, he travelled politically over several decades from Christian pacifism to Trotskyism and back again. He was a leading figure in the late 1920s and early 1930s in the American Workers’ Party, which was in effect an attempt to create an indigenous and democratic vehicle for Marxist and even Leninist politics. Another leading figure in the AWP was the pragmatist philosopher and interpreter of Marx, Sidney Hook. Hook (a great figure of the anti-totalitarian Left, who is one of my political heroes) had this to say of Muste in his memoir Out of Step (1987, pp. 199-200):
He rarely thought through a position but would adopt one on moral grounds that was rarely affected by the facts in the case. He had been an ardent pacifist. When he became a revolutionary Marxist, he publicly abandoned his pacifism and, among us, his belief in Christianity. He could not have been very well versed in either one or the other, despite his religious training, for when he finally vomited up his hastily swallowed Marxism, he returned to his earlier beliefs with the passion of someone newly converted. It is very rare that, as individuals develop and abandon one position for another in a continuing series of progressions, they return to an earlier view. But it sometimes occurs. In Muste’s case, his early abandonment of pacifism and Christianity could not have been very reflective.
Hook notes that Muste’s real hankering was for martyrdom:
This came to the surface a few years later when, having returned to his early pacifist faith, he bitterly opposed American resistance to Hitler and the Japanese warlords. He conspicuously violated registration laws, sold his home and possessions, delivered eloquent addresses at several public farewell dinners by friends and admirers, and waited in vain for the minions of the state to cart him off to jail. He was thwarted by a sensible bureaucrat, for once, who decided to ignore him. The language in which he denounced “this dirty trick” was positively un-Christian. A.J. never recovered from this indignity, until the days of the Vietnam War when he came into his own.
Not the least of the reasons he came into his own was his adoption by Chomsky, who argued that Muste’s embittered and politically irrelevant opposition to the American war effort of 1941-5 was a viable and far-sighted political strategy! Admittedly, in American Power Chomsky chooses the Pacific War of December 1941 deliberately as a hard test case. He declares (p. 133) that in 1960s America Muste’s “programme of unilateral revolutionary pacifism” is “much too easy to defend”, there being “no particular merit in being more reasonable than a lunatic”. (By lunatic, he means a supporter of nuclear deterrence against the Soviet Union, with particular reference to the Kennedy administration’s stance in the Cuban Missile Crisis. I have never found an acknowledgement in Chomsky’s writings of the White House tapes showing Kennedy’s determination not to inflame the crisis (which he eventually secured a resolution to by implicitly agreeing to the withdrawal of Thor and Jupiter missiles from Turkey). Nor am I aware of any criticism from Chomsky of Castro for urging Khrushchev, in that crisis, to launch a nuclear first strike against the US - an incident noted in John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know, 1997.) But the argument is extraordinary, and – again – ought to be better-known than it is as an example of Chomsky’s political approach.
It is not easy to summarise Chomsky’s argument, because he constantly shies away from explicit policy recommendations. Instead of stating openly that he believes Muste’s espousal of non-violence in the face of Axis aggression to have been right, he concludes (p. 169) with the feeble equivocation:
Whether Muste’s was in fact the most realistic and moral position at the time may in fact be debated, but I think there is no doubt that its remoteness from the American consciousness was a great tragedy.
I don’t regard Muste’s policy prescription as morally and pragmatically debatable; it was wrong. Had it been adopted by the US, it would have been far worse than a tragedy, because it would have been chosen: an abdication of moral responsibility and a dereliction of duty, at least. But at least there was a coherent stance behind it, viz. an absolutist rejection of force, whatever the consequences. Chomsky doesn’t argue that case. Instead he suggests – though always by implication – that, first, Japan was merely acting in accordance with principles that the allied powers had accorded to themselves for many years, and secondly, that Japan’s claims were defensible in the context of that differential treatment.
Chomsky’s account places great stress (p. 139) on the Washington Conference of 1921-2 which set limits on “naval forces” of America, Great Britain and Japan in the ratio of 5:5:3. In Chomsky’s version of history:
In good faith Japan accepted the subordinate role assigned to it and consented, throughout the twenties, to be a well-behaved member of the imperialist club.
Chomsky maintains that the diplomatic constraints imposed on Japan here, and confirmed in the London Naval Treaty in 1930, were responsible for a feeling in later years among the Japanese that they had been “hoodwinked”. Chomsky maintains that this view had “much justice” to it.
Throughout his account of inter-war diplomacy, Chomsky is at pains to present the US as the party responsible, through intransigence, for forcing Japan into a bellicose posture. He asserts (p. 166) that the immediate precursor to war was Cordell Hull’s spurning of Japan’s acceptance of “the principle of non-discrimination in commercial relations” in the Pacific if the principle were applied globally. Chomsky asserts, with a stab at the irony that he is partial to but never succeeds in pulling off:
The qualification was, needless to say, quite unthinkable.
Chomsky’s assessment of the principal impetus to war is, then, the counterpart of his views on the manipulation of democracy domestically by corporations. He argues (p. 170):
This final exchange points clearly to what had been, for decades, the central problem. Japan had insisted that in its plans for ‘co-prosperity’ and then a ‘new order’, it was simply following the precedent established by Great Britain and the United States; it was establishing its own Monroe Doctrine and realizing its Manifest Destiny.
Chomsky’s is a long and tortuous argument, and this is the best sense I can make of it. Chomsky appears to be maintaining that had there been a disinterested, pacific and progressive Western foreign policy, Japan would not have been cornered into war. You do not have to be an apologist for Western policy towards Japan in the 1920s and 1930s – which, with a combination of military weakness and contemptible racism, managed the worst of all possible diplomatic approaches - to find this argument breathtakingly wrongheaded. It is the history of the 1930s as it would have been written if the wrong side had won the war.
There is no mention by Chomsky of the reality of the naval provisions of the Washington Conference. The limits were not on “naval forces”, as Chomsky states, but on battleships and aircraft carriers. The Conference was unable to agree on limits for cruisers and submarines, whereupon – unsurprisingly – these became the main areas of naval expansion over the next few years. More important, Chomsky makes no mention of the fundamentally different political character of the states that were party to the negotiations. The Americans, concerned with a vision of pacific cooperation among states, saw the treaty as a replacement for naval competition. Over the next few years they pursued fanciful diplomatic schemes such as the Kellog-Briand Pact for the abolition of war, and deliberately eschewed military build-up. Japan, on the other hand, saw the treaty provisions as the parameters within which it could legitimately build up military power.
Chomsky’s depiction of Japanese demands as the equivalent of the Monroe Doctrine is not, in itself, an absurd analogy; what is astounding is that he omits altogether the context within which Western policy-making took place in the inter-war years. Britain was desperate to avoid war after the horrors of WW1; America, which had suffered less but was suffused with a belief in the power of negotiation and supranational organisation, was likewise averse to conflict; while Japan explicitly adopted an aggressive and autarkic approach to diplomacy. As the historian Anthony Best observes in his essay “The Road to Anglo-Japanese Confrontation, 1931-1941” (in The History of Anglo-Japanese Relations, 1600-2000, Vol. 2, eds. Ian Nish and Yoichi Kibata, p. 46):
Britain emerged from that war traumatized and desperate for some means to police the world without recourse to conflict; Japan, which had not suffered the slaughter of the Western Front, imbibed the heady brew emanating from Germany that dictated that autarky and authoritarianism were the only ways to survive in a world of eternal strife.
As history, Chomsky’s polemical writings fail. Their besetting flaw is the teleology: everything that happens that is malign is attributable somewhere to the United States. The truth of the matter is that a state prey to the ‘heady brew’ of ideological fanaticism, as Japan was, inevitably posed a threat to the international order.
As politics, Chomsky’s polemics are worse still. Vietnam was the wrong war, fought in the wrong way and with immoral means. Had Chomsky stuck to that point, his writings might have had the force that his one-time admirer Christopher Hitchens detected in them. Instead, those polemics attacked in addition just and necessary wars – the War in the Pacific; Korea – fought with international support for unimpeachable progressive principles. The rest, as they say, is history.
Though not everyone reading this will agree with me, I regard regime-change in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as humanitarian intervention to repel Serb aggression in the 1990s, also to be noble and just causes. Hitchens agrees. They are the issues on which, on his own account, he has parted company with Chomsky. But there was no cause for being in Chomsky’s company in the first place. A man whose political output is, and always has been, devoted to the absurd and malevolent assertion of equivalence between the United States and Nazi Germany is not that type of moral witness.