• 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 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

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.

To the Editors:

…It is interesting to note how Chomsky mishandles Stevenson and misuses documentation to back up his vilification program. Stevenson had said that the Chinese take-over in Tibet, the Sino-Indian border fracas, the infiltration in Malaya and North Thailand were all signs of China’s growing pains bursting out as a generalized policy of expansionism. Chomsky has some difficulty in denying that China did indeed take over a country that did not want to be taken over when it moved into Tibet several years ago; he allows that it is quite possible that infiltration is going on in North Thailand, and that there is at least a “little reason” to suppose it to be Chinese-inspired; and he justifies the Chinese as against the Indians much as Mao does in a map-filled pamphlet issued by the Peking Foreign Language Press in 1962. But his concrete case against the hypocrite-propagandist Stevenson seems to rest on a statement made by Harry Miller about Chinese involvement in Malaya in 1954. Says Chomsky, those “concerned with the actual events would agree with Miller that ‘Communist China continues to show little interest in the Malayan affair beyond its usual fulminations via Peking Radio…’ ” (Communist Menace in Malaya, Praeger, 1954). Let’s check the integrity of this bit of documentation. In the first place, Stevenson’s comment about Chinese expansionism was made shortly before his death; he refers specifically to a twelve-year period during which he felt the Malaysians had to resist a “national liberation” movement sponsored by the Chinese Communists. Assuming that his twelve-year period fell wholly or largely within the period 1954-1965, we can conclude that he and Miller are talking about different portions of Malaya’s history. But even if the assumption is disallowed, Miller—representative of those who, as opposed to Stevenson, are “concerned with the actual events”—makes it clear again and again that since 1924 the Chinese Communists in China were behind the Communist subversion among the “ethnic” Chinese exported to Malaya. In the second place, Miller is admittedly writing as a journalist, with a personal rather than political surview of a situation he very often sensationalizes; there is certainly no reason to suppose that his concern with actual events was more considered than Stevenson’s. In the third place, Chomsky, in keeping with his practice as already noted, radically and irresponsibly (if not hysterically) changes the meaning and application of Miller’s statement by taking it out of the conditional clause in which it was originally contained: “If Communist China continues to show little interest in the Malayan affair beyond its usual fulminations via Peking Radio the Malayan situation will not be affected considerably.” A conditional statement in 1954 can hardly be used as a considered evaluation of the 1966 political and ideological situation in Malaya. Except of course to Chomsky, who, while he does not actually lie, nevertheless manages to avoid the truth. In attempting to prove Stevenson’s hypocrisy, he irresponsibly exposes his own. What’s to be done with such a scholar as this?… Miller, it may be worth noting, goes on to say that Communist China did (in 1954) show a “tremendous interest” in subverting Indonesia, and that such subversion would merely be the prelude to a like subversion of Malaya. In the fourth place, though Chomsky seems oblivious of the subtlety, expansion need no longer mean taking over the actual government of a country, but simply supplying it with one of your own choosing. Pace Chomsky on Stevenson and Miller.

E. B. Murray
Assistant Professor of English
University of Missouri
St. Louis

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.