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The Ethics of Intervention

In response to:

An Exchange on Liberal Scholarship from the February 13, 1969 issue

To the Editors:

Whether or not one agrees with the substance of Professor Chomsky’s arguments, or with his use of quotations, or with his tendency to draw from an author’s statements inferences that correspond neither to the author’s intentions nor to the statements’ meaning, he has raised so many important issues that I feel almost petty in replying mainly to his comments about my contribution to No More Vietnams? in his letter in your issue of February 13. I appreciate his attempt to understand my position and I applaud his suggestion that the reader should find out for himself. But since he had provided the reader with his interpretation of what I mean, maybe I should, in turn, deal with three areas of apparent contention between him and me.

1) He insists that we disagree on American military intervention and political subversion in general. I insist that we do not. I stand behind my statement: “we must learn to accept violent social and political change.” We should not behave as cosmic Metternichs. When I describe American interventions in Iran or Guatemala as successful, I only mean that they did what they were designed to accomplish. They were effective: just like Soviet interventions in Hungary or Czechoslovakia. But successful is not the same as good. In my opinion, those kinds of American operations should not have been undertaken, both for political reasons—they made the international system more rather than less immoderate—and for ethical reasons, because the means corrupted the ends and entailed costs of value greater than the costs of not resorting to them. These operations were undertaken because of our tendency to feel threatened by any tremor anywhere. What I have called for is a basic distinction between threats to world order that result from inter-state conflicts, as in the Middle East, and outbreaks of domestic violence, which we must learn to live with.

2) We do disagree on the subject of American objectives in Vietnam. Professor Chomsky believes that they were wicked; I do not. I believe that they were, in a way, far worse; for often the greatest threat to moderation and peace, and certainly the most insidious, comes from objectives that are couched in terms of fine principles in which the policy-maker fervently believes, yet that turn out to have no relation to political realities and can therefore be applied only by tortuous or brutal methods which broaden ad infinitum the gap between motives and effects. What matters in international affairs, alas, far more than intentions and objectives, is behavior and results. Because I do not believe that our professed goals in Vietnam were obviously wicked, Professor Chomsky “reads this as in essence an argument for the legitimacy of military intervention.” If he had not stopped his quotation of my analysis where he did, he would have had to show that my case against the war is exactly the opposite: “worthy ends” divorced from local political realities lead to political and moral disaster, just as British resistance to the American revolution was bound to get bankrupt. What Vietnam proves, in my opinion, is not the wickedness of our intentions or objectives but the wickedness that results from irrelevant objectives and disembodied intentions, applied by hideous and massive means. It has its roots, intellectual and emotional, in elements of the American style that I have been at pains to analyze in detail. The Americans’ very conviction that their goals are good blinds them to the consequences of their acts. To focus on intentions is to prolong a futile clash of inflamed self-righteousness; to focus on behavior and results could get us somewhere. I detect in Professor Chomsky’s approach, in his uncomplicated attribution of evil objectives to his foes, in his fondness for abstract principles, in his moral impatience, the mirror image of the very features that both he and I dislike in American foreign policy. To me sanity does not consist of replying to a crusade with an anti-crusade. As scholars and as citizens, we must require and provide discriminating and disciplined reasoning on behalf of our values.

3) I am puzzled by Professor Chomsky’s conception of a mass movement for resistance and social change in this country. Does he believe that the only legitimate form of resistance, for scholars or scientists, is total non-cooperation with the Government, which leaves the Government free to pursue blithely its policies and leaves the non-cooperating scholar or scientist with the comfort of a good conscience at the cost of total ineffectiveness? Does any scholar or scientist who tries to affect Government policy by means other than total repudiation disqualify himself in Professor Chomsky’s eyes? In other words, does he believe that America today is a grievously imperfect but perfectible polity, or that it is so evil that any cooperation with its established institutions is comparable to collaborating with the Nazis? Should the mass movement he calls for be “a genuine revolutionary movement”? In this case, the best arguments about both its futility and its danger in the United States are those presented by Professor Barrington Moore in the previous issue of The New York Review. If the mass movement desired by Professor Chomsky is of the sort that Professor Moore calls for, an attempt at “synthesizing the achievements of liberalism with those of revolutionary radicalism,” then it will be necessary to spend much more time on defining, eclectically and undogmatically, the positive intellectual and political tasks which Professor Chomsky hints at in the last part of his letter, and less time on the negative task of pillorying one’s enemies. The latter is emotionally more satisfying and is necessary as a beginning, but it is the former that ultimately matters. On this I am sure that Professor Chomsky and I will agree.

Stanley Hoffmann

Professor of Government

Harvard University


Noam Chomsky replies:

In the letter to which Professor Hoffmann refers, I offered an interpretation of his remarks in No More Vietnams? on the legitimacy of intervention, explaining in some detail how I was led to it. His letter reinforces this interpretation.

To summarize briefly, Professor Hoffmann’s statements in No More Vietnams? and again in his letter, fall roughly into two categories. In the first category are strong condemnations of “any policy of universal intervention” and the plea that we “learn to accept violent social and political change.” But I also cited many statements in which he merely urges “modesty and limitation” and expresses his belief that “the central problem does not lie in the nature of America’s objectives” but rather in “the relevance of its ends to specific cases.” Our objectives in Vietnam, which he maintains are “worthy ends,” are: protecting the non-Communist majority from an “armed minority” supplied from outside, “buying time” for the countries situated around China, etc. The tragedy is our failure to grasp political realities. He offers the following summary in “one formula”: “From incorrect premises about a local situation and about our abilities, a bad policy is likely to follow.”

The ethical grounds for his argument against our Vietnam policy are those cited once again in his letter, and which I quoted, namely, that the means corrupted the ends and the costs were greater than the costs of non-intervention. In the absence of any other effective agency, it is we who determine the costs. It would follow from all of this that had our premises about the local situation and our abilities been accurate, had the means been less corrupting and the costs (as calculated by us) properly balanced, then military intervention would have been legitimate; all of the objections Hoffmann raises would be met. To this view I counterposed a very different one: that “we have no authority and no competence to make such judgments about Vietnam or any other country and to use our military power to act on these judgments.”

I have no desire to find conflict where it does not exist, but it is clear that these views do differ in a fundamental way and that only confusion can arise from a failure to consider this distinction carefully. In my letter in the New York Review of February 13 I did not try to justify the counterposed view, though I do accept it; rather I attempted to make clear the distinction, which seems to me an essential and important one.

The matter of Iran and Guatemala illustrates my point fairly well. Professor Hoffmann states that he was opposed to these interventions because they made the international system more immoderate, and for ethical reasons: namely, the means corrupted the ends and the costs were greater than the costs of non-intervention. This is very different from a criticism based on the premise that we have no right to use force to overthrow a government (which we freely admit to be popular and properly constituted), even if this action has no international implications and the means do not “corrupt the ends,” and independently of our judgment of the relative costs of intervention and nonintervention—a judgment which, I repeat, we have no competence to make and no authority to act upon. Again, I would like to stress the fundamental distinction between these approaches.

Professor Hoffmann offers the analogy to Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Suppose that we were to read a discussion of intervention by a Soviet scholar in which he distinguishes:

…two kinds of interventions, one of which we have practiced with some proficiency over the years. This category has been what I would call negative interventions. We did not exactly know what we were for, but we did know what we were against. We intervened essentially against a threat, and we have sometimes been quite successful—Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and what have you. As for this category of interventions, I would argue that in the future we at least ought to define more rigorously what it is that so threatens us that we feel we have to intervene either by political subversion or by military action.” [No More Vietnams? p. 284-5, with “Guatemala” and “Iran” replaced by “Hungary” and “Czechoslovakia”]

I would read this as a tempered argument for the legitimacy of intervention, where certain conditions of scale and cost are met, particularly in the context of the remarks just quoted. And I strongly oppose this point of view. Since I see no reason for maintaining a double standard, I feel justified in reaching the same conclusion when “Guatemala” and “Iran” replace “Hungary” and “Czechoslovakia” in the above quotation, which is Professor Hoffmann’s only reference to these interventions.

Professor Hoffmann’s second point is based on a confusion between “objectives” and “professed goals.” Quite illegitimately, Professor Hoffmann uses these concepts as though they were interchangeable, in the case of American policy—a usage that no one would countenance in the analysis of policy in the case of any other power. Thus he is wrong in attributing to me the belief that “our professed goals in Vietnam were obviously wicked.” On the contrary, the goals we profess are as “worthy” as the goals professed by Soviet spokesmen in the case of Hungary and Czechoslovakia (to prevent a fascist takeover, to protect the majority against warlike neighbors, etc.). But the analyst of international affairs does not waste a moment considering the “professed goals” of official Russian spokesmen or other apologists. Rather, he tries to determine their real objectives on the basis of their behavior in this instance, and in its evolving pattern. The analyst who does not adhere to a double standard will approach American policy in exactly the same way. The confusion just noted vitiates Professor Hoffmann’s second comment. Furthermore, he is quite mistaken in saying that had I not stopped my quotations where I did, I would have seen that his case is the opposite of what I claimed. In fact, I quoted directly the very statements to which he alludes as expressing his position.

I disagree with Professor Hoffmann’s proposal that we should not focus on “intentions and objectives” but rather on “behavior and results.” To understand Soviet policy, we must use behavior as evidence for intentions and objectives, distinguishing carefully between “professed goals” and “objectives” as inferred from an evolving pattern of behavior. The same is true in the case of American policy. In the latter case, it is of far greater importance to try to determine both immediate objectives and long-range tendencies for at least three reasons: (1) it is much easier to be deluded about one’s own purity; (2) American force and the willingness to use it is, at the moment, the major factor in international affairs; (3) we have some hope of changing American “intentions and objectives” if we can come to understand them. If we concentrate merely on “behavior and results” and automatically identify “objectives” with “professed goals,” we condemn ourselves to superficiality and political irrelevance.

Professor Hoffmann’s third comment raises important issues, but his reference to my remarks is inaccurate. Nothing I said suggests a policy of “total non-cooperation with the Government” or “total repudiation.” Rather, I proposed that it is possible to undertake “resistance to ominous, deep-seated tendencies in our society.” For example, scientists can organize to refuse to take part in criminal acts, and scholars can strike at one pillar of American counter-revolutionary ideology through more objective work. In fact, one of the examples that I cited was Alperovitz’s work on community development, which involved preparation of Congressional legislation and adaptation of federal programs.

It is far from clear that the alternatives are sensibly to be posed as “reform or revolution.” There is also the possibility of working towards what André Gorz calls “structural reform”: namely, “a decentralization of the decision-making power, a restriction on the powers of State or Capital, an extension of popular power, that is to say, a victory of democracy over the dictatorship of profit” (his italics). As Gorz argues, such reforms may have a potentially revolutionary content. It is impossible to predict whether an attempt to extend democratic decision-making will, if it ever develops on a mass scale, face such repressive force that it leads to a revolutionary confrontation, or whether it will be able to proceed peaceably. The goal of a movement for social change should be to introduce meaningful structural reforms, in this sense, avoiding unnecessary confrontations but remaining committed to the defense of democratic values against repression, if it arises.

I would agree with Professor Hoffmann that “pillorying one’s enemies” is a worthless endeavor. But the study of “counter-revolutionary subordination,” of the subversion of scholarship, of ideological constraints that limit objectivity and distort analysis—this is a task of considerable intellectual interest and great importance. Of even greater importance, no doubt, is the task of moving on to develop the positive intellectual and political effort to which Professor Hoffmann refers. I would certainly hope that insofar as we can come to understand with clarity the nature of our society and its international role, insofar as we can settle on decent principles of international behavior, we can proceed to devise and carry out a program of social and cultural change that will enable us to use our immense resources in a civilized and humane fashion.

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