• Print

The Responsibility of Intellectuals

In response to:

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

To the Editors:

I wish to submit questions for an Intellectual:

  1. Why was bombing Hiroshima a greater crime than the Japanese terror bombing of Chungking and other well-documented atrocities committed during the Thirties? Did the A-bomb victims endure greater pain than the interned WWII civilians and Death March PWs? Does any Hiroshima victim describe suffering equal to that which has been detailed by Sidney Stewart in Give Us This Day?

  2. To what extent is a napalmed civilian more innocent than a nineteen-year-old GI conscript who is maimed by a Viet Cong booby trap? And how many US soldiers is Professor Chomsky willing to sacrifice to avoid any civilian casualties?

  3. Is lying publicly justifiable when lives may be at stake? What basis is there to equate Professor Schlesinger’s role as a semi-official government representative with that of his status as an intellectual?

  4. Does a stated desire for conferences indicate a desire for peace and did the Korean experience offer any lessons? Does not the many recent New Year Truce violations point to the truth (for when the Viet Cong wish to avoid hostilities, they do so exceedingly well, much to the frustration of the US command)?

  5. Why must Professor Rostow offer evidence for Stalin’s (or the Cominform’s) interest in and aid to the Greek rebels, when documents such as Djilas’s book are public knowledge?

  6. Why, in footnote 10, quote Ambassador Kennan’s opinion on the falsity of any particular assumption, or is this opinion more than others evidence as to the truth?…

  7. Why is Communist trouble preferable to the Trujillo type? Does the author insist that the power and influence of the US in Latin America “should wither away” in spite of the probability that events similar to that mentioned by the late Professor Fall in the previous issue of NYR (where he apparently accepts the figure of 50,000-100,000 deaths in North Vietnam in 1956 alone due to the regime’s “excessive zeal”) would occur as a result?…

Arthur Dorfman

Mexico City

Noam Chomsky replies:

Mr. Calhoun is disturbed by what I took to be a truism, namely, that the intellectual (like anyone else) has a responsibility to speak the truth and to expose lies. Let me then add a word of clarification. I would feel no hesitation in saying that it is the responsibility of a decent human being to give assistance to a child who is being attacked by a rabid dog, but I would not intend this to imply that in all imaginable circumstances one must, necessarily, act in accordance with this general responsibility. One can easily concoct imaginary situations in which it would be inadvisable, even immoral to do so. Surely everyone understands that there are no simple formulas that determine proper behavior in all conceivable situations. But from this it does not follow, surely, that one must abandon all concern for standards and general values. In citing Heidegger and Schlesinger, among many others, I was referring to what seems to me a general collapse of standards of intellectual integrity, not to dubious decisions in marginal situations. When Heidegger, in a pro-Hitler declaration, defines “truth” in the manner I quoted, he is explicitly renouncing the general commitment to truth. When an outstanding historian “feels it to be his duty to persuade the world that an American-sponsored invasion of a nearby country is nothing of the sort,’ when he adds that the policy is wrong but only because it won’t succeed, then these facts—and more significantly, the lack of response in the intellectual community—seem to me to indicate a general breakdown of standards, on a frightening scale. I base this judgment, of course, on the assumption that it is reprehensible for a powerful nation to invade a weak and tiny neighbor in order to impose on it an “acceptable” government (though, again, one can imagine circumstances, etc.). This general assumption I did not, and will not defend, just as I would not take the trouble to justify my belief that one should assist a child being attacked by a rabid dog. Rational discussion is useful only when there is a significant base of shared assumptions. Admittedly, no one has formulated with full precision the principle that would lead to condemnation of Hitler’s take-over of the Sudetenland, Russian suppression of the Hungarian revolution, the “successful” Dominican intervention or the “unsuccessful” Cuban one, and other similar events. At this desperate moment, it seems to me that there are more important tasks.

Mr. Calhoun attributes to me the belief “that the ‘right’ or ‘responsible’ course of action is always readily apparent.” I make no such assumption, and do not feel that it is suggested by anything that I said.

Mr. Murray has so confused the issue of Stevenson and Chinese expansionism that I can only suggest to the interested reader that he refer to Stevenson’s statement and my note 21. In brief, Stevenson argues that China is “very aggressive,” as shown by events in Tibet, India, Malaya, and Thailand. The issue is important, and let us therefore be quite clear about it. China’s actions in Tibet, whatever one may think of them, are no proof of aggressive expansionism, unless one wants to say the same of Indian suppression of tribal rebellions, for example. Tibet has been recognized internationally as a region of China. This status has been accepted by India as well as Communist and Nationalist China, and to my knowledge, has never been officially questioned by the United States. Although it is of no relevance to the issue, I should also add that it is a bit too simple to say that “China did indeed take over a country that did not want to be taken over.” This is by no means the general view of Western scholarship. For example, Ginsburgs and Mathos comment that “the March 1959 uprising did not, by and large, involve any considerable number of lower-class Tibetans, but involved essentially the propertied groups and the traditionally rebellious and foraging Khamba tribes opposed to any outside public authority (including sometimes that of the Dalai Lama)” (Pacific Affairs, September, 1959). But whatever the complexities of the situation may be, it does not substantiate the charge of boundless Chinese expansionism.

As to the Sino-Indian border dispute, since Murray takes no exception to my comments I will simply stand on them, nothing only that I referred not to Mao but to Alastair Lamb and the China Quarterly.

I did not state, as Murray claims, that there is “a little reason” to suppose there to be Chinese infiltration in North Thailand, but rather that there is “little reason” to suppose this, a rather different matter. Actually, there appears to be no evidence for it at all. It may be that the North Vietnamese are, as alleged, supporting guerrilla activity in a country which is a major base for an attack on their country. I would like to repeat that it is the sheerest hypocrisy to cite this fact, if it is a fact, as an indication of Chinese aggressiveness.

Hence three of Stevenson’s arguments for “Chinese expansionism” are without force, and we are left with the Malayan insurrection. I said little about this, because of the absurdity of the reference; but since Murray insists on the point, let us see what is involved. The twelve years to which Stevenson refers are undoubtedly the years 1948-1960, the years of the official “Emergency.” By 1960, the whole country was ‘white’ except for areas near the Siamese border. From their refuge in South Thailand… The Communists still continued what by that time had become a hopeless struggle” (Ryan, The Making of Modern Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, 1965). In fact, the situation was essentially in control by 1954. Since Murray quotes Miller’s statement in its entirety, the reader can ascertain for himself that it implies precisely what I said it did, so I will say no more about this. I see no point in giving elaborate documentation to show that Miller’s judgment that China had kept aloof is in fact the general view, since there is no point arguing a position that has never been doubted by any reputable authority. Incredible as it may seem, the most likely explanation for Stevenson’s reference to Malaya is that he was confusing ethnic Chinese with the government of China. And I would like to say again that it is most remarkable, and not a little disturbing, that a person in a responsible position would argue that China is aggressive and expansionist on such “evidence” as that which I have just reviewed.

Mr. Dorfman’s questions deserve a careful answer, though not necessarily by me. But I will try to comment briefly, in sequence.

  1. I stated that Hiroshima and Nagasaki are “among the most unspeakable crimes in history.” I took no position on just where they stand on the scale of horrors relative to Auschwitz, the bombing of Chungking, Lidice, and so on. Others have been less reticent. For example, the leading Asian representative on the Tokyo Tribunal, Justice R. Pal of India, stated in his dissenting opinion that the decision to use the atom bomb “is the only near approach” in the Pacific war to the Nazi crimes. And that “nothing like this could be traced to the credit of the present accused.” For what it is worth, I think that he is right, and that the bombing of Nagasaki, in particular, was history’s most abominable experiment. To argue this point, one would have to analyze the decision to use the bomb and the basis for demanding an unconditional victory in the first place. This is not the place for such a review, obviously, but I do think that an intensive study of this question is an inescapable task for any thinking person in the United States—specifically, for anyone who feels inclined to censure Germany for its failure to face up to the crimes of the Nazi era.
  2. The grisly calculation that Dorfman proposes is not for me to undertake, but rather, for those who support the war. I feel that it is a tragedy for a single American soldier to be killed fighting for a cause so base as ours in Vietnam. There are, however, issues here that should be faced, though this is not the place. One can feel pity for the nineteen-year-old GI or the German boy who was forced to face the murderous flak over London as well as for the civilian victims. But it is too horrible to imagine that Americans will accept as legitimate the mentality of Guernica and Hiroshima—to quote Justice Pal again, the “policy of indiscriminate murder to shorten the war,” “to win the victory by breaking the will of the whole nation to continue to fight.”

  3. I would reply along the same lines as above, to Calhoun.

  4. The Korean experience indicates that both sides will keep fighting as long as they find it militarily advantageous to do so. Surely a stated desire for a conference does not, in itself, indicate a desire for peace (or even for a conference). This is proven, for example, by a comparison of the statements of the Johnson Administration with the acts that it has taken to prevent meaningful negotiations. During the recent truce, according to war correspondents and American government sources, the North Vietnamese sent supplies southward inside North Vietnam, while the U.S. Army set records in resupplying military units in the South, and prepared for a massive attack in War Zone C (for documentation, see I.F. Stone’s Weekly, February 27 and March 6.) I agree that these events “point to the truth.”

  5. It is perfectly clear why Rostow did not refer to Djilas. Djilas’s opinion is that Stalin was “against the uprising in Greece” (Conversations with Stalin, Harcourt Brace, 1962, p. 182), an opinion which he supports by quotes from Stalin in strong opposition to the adventurism of the Greek guerrillas. We may place alongside Stalin’s statements to Djilas the comment by Churchill that Stalin was not aiding the uprising in 1945-46. There are, as I noted, other indications that Stalin was not at all happy about the possibility of a Titoist Balkan federation. As to why Rostow gave no evidence at all for his charge, I can only surmise that the reason is that there is no real supporting evidence, though as I stated, it is “nevertheless conceivable that Stalin supported the Greek guerrillas at some stage of the rebellion.”

  6. I see no reason to apologize for citing the opinion of one of America’s outstanding diplomatic historians, the author of the containment policy in Europe, as providing “interesting commentary” on the post-war European situation.

  7. As in the comment on question 1, I feel entitled simply to avoid the problem of assigning a precise ranking to Trujillo terror relative to the Russian purge, the American attack on South Vietnam, and so on. I suspect that by “Communist terror” Dorfman is referring to Castro’s Cuba. If so, then an answer to the question would require a detailed assessment of the Castro and Trujillo regimes, which I obviously cannot undertake here. But I find it hard to imagine that anyone who has explored the matter can really believe them to be comparable.

Turning to the second part of the question, Bernard Fall accepts the figure of 50,000-100,000 deaths in the course of land reform in North Vietnam, and the figure of 160,000 deaths caused largely by “the crushing weight of American armor, napalm, jet bombers and, finally, vomiting gasses” in South Vietnam (as of 1965—see Raskin and Fall, Vietnam Reader, p. 261). I do not see what bearing these figures have on the question of United States imperialism in Latin America. Of course, every imperialist power has argued that its control was preferable to the lawlessness and immorality that would ensue were it to permit local political solutions. And it is conceivable that in some instances American occupation may have prevented bloodshed, as it is conceivable that converting the United States into a Chinese colony might end American racism. Imperialist apologetics will no doubt be with us as long as one nation has the power to control another. One can only hope that the lessons of history, and the voice of common human decency, will not be totally submerged.

Finally, I would like to reformulate a comment that I made in a letter to George Steiner that was printed in NYR, March 23rd, namely: as to MIT, its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible.” This statement is unfair, and needs clarification. As far as I know, MIT as an institution has no involvement in the war effort. Individuals at MIT, as elsewhere, have a direct involvement, and that is what I had in mind. I do think that such involvement on an individual basis is tragic and indefensible, because the war itself is tragic and indefensible. There are important further questions as to whether or to what extent participation in the coercive activities of governments is consistent with a dedication to the intellectual values that a university should preserve and defend. At the same time, there is a question to what extent, if at all, a university should set conditions on the individual activities of faculty members. These are not simple matters, but I think that they will sooner or later have to be faced.