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The Responsibility of Intellectuals

In response to:

A Special Supplement: The Responsibility of Intellectuals from the February 23, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

I would like to congratulate The New York Review on its publication [Feb. 23] of the extraordinary article by Noam Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Chomsky’s morally impassioned and powerfully argued denunciation of American aggression in Vietnam and throughout the world is the most moving political document I have read since the death of Leon Trotsky. It is inspiring to see a brilliant scientist risk his prestige, his access to lucrative government grants, and his reputation for Olympian objectivity by taking a clearcut, no-holds-barred, adversary position on the burning moral-political issue of the day, and by castigating the complacent mythology of “specialized expertise” under which many academic intellectuals shrug off the crimes committed by their government, only provided they are not naked enough (e.g., the Dominican intervention) to defy the most accomplished casuistry.

It will be said that Chomsky’s account of American foreign policy is drawn in black and white, and that politics is in reality a spectrum of shades of gray. And this objection would be sound, if Chomsky were writing as a detached observer on Mars. Sure, Viet Cong terrorists have murdered, mutilated, and intimidated their opposition. Certainly, Red China has been far more hysterically aggressive than Chomsky admits (so much as to have frightened their Communist allies, as well as half their own population). But I salute Chomsky for not caring to appear fair to the facts on both sides. For the facts are known well enough by now. It is the moral evaluation of our foreign policy and the decision as to what we are going to do about it that is now in order. At precisely this moment we have the best, perhaps the only, chance to stop the senseless slaughter in Vietnam and achieve a détente with the Communist nations. Why doesn’t President Johnson stop the bombing of North Vietnam, as he promised to do, if only he would receive some sign—when everyone knows he has received all sorts of frantic signs? I hope Chomsky’s indignation will prove infectious, and that he will have convinced many of his fellow scientists that judgments of right and wrong need not and should not be left to technical experts on geopolitics or the theory of thermonuclear games.

Raziel Abelson


Department of Philosophy

New York University