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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 should like to question Noam Chomsky’s bald assertion that intellectuals, even in government service, should always and unhesitatingly speak the truth the whole truth, and nothing but the truth….

Let me propose a hypothetical situation involving, say, Mr. Intellectual N. Govt, a widely-known scholar and Presidential assistant during the present Vietnam war. Suppose the administration receives notification through unimpeachable channels that the National Liberation Front is willing to go much farther than Hanoi would approve in accepting participation in a coalition government in South Vietnam, and that the administration responds positively, agreeing to a timetable for withdrawal of American troops shortly after the formation of such a government. Suppose further that the NLF has stipulated that these negotiations must be carried on in the strictest secrecy for fear of Hanoi’s reaction; that the NLF has, in fact, said that any hint on the part of the American government or press that a settlement is in the offing will result in the immediate suspension of the negotiations.

Now, suppose some enterprising reporter for The New York Times has gotten wind of the proceedings and demands that our Mr. Govt confirm or deny his information. What would Mr. Chomsky have poor Mr. Govt do? Would he have him “speak the truth and expose lies,” thereby ending the chance for a settlement of the war? Or might Mr. Chomsky condone a little white lie here, and might he even hope that the Times would withhold its reporter’s hunch from its readers for the time being?

To make the analogy complete, I suppose it should be hypothesized that Mr. Govt himself is in disagreement with the administration’s decision and feels its negotiations with the NLF will lead to disaster (for Mr. Chomsky was particularly disgusted that Mr. Schlesinger was “quite happy to lie in behalf of a cause which he knows to be unjust.”) I admit that the hypothesis is farfetched, although Mr. Chomsky and I might think it far-fetched for different reasons. Nevertheless, as intellectuals (e.g., subscribers to The New York Review), can we be content with Mr. Chomsky’s simple-minded rule of thumb? He might answer that my analogy is fallacious because the ending of the war is a “just” cause while the Bay of Pigs invasion was “unjust.” But Mr. Chomsky has already ruled out subjective notions of truth or justice as well as “good intentions”—for example, in his comment on Heidegger. And if he says there is only one correct evaluation of the justice of a cause, to which he, of course, is privy…well, we have heard such claims before.

Fryar Calhoun

Princeton, N.J.