An Exchange on Resistance
Noam Chomsky debates with Chad Walsh and William X
The New York Review of Books, February 1, 1968
To the Editors:

Noam Chomsky's article, "On Resistance" [NYR, December 7, 1967], raises several very important points for anyone who is trying to decide whether to move from "dissent" to "resistance." In particular, I agree with his statement that "...the days of 'patiently explain' are far from over. As the coffins come home and the taxes go up, many people who were previously willing to accept government propaganda will become increasingly concerned to try to think for themselves."

During the past few months I have noticed an undramatic but steady shift of opinion among people I personally know. I am not thinking of those who from the beginning have opposed the Vietnam war but rather of that large number who supported it, though often with increasing misgivings. Many of these people are politically conservative, others apolitical. What I observe is that one by one they are deciding that the war simply isn't worth what it costs. This is not a decision based on absolute moral grounds, but on a pragmatic consideration of how a nation can best use its resources of lives, energy, and money. Coupled with the conviction that the war is more expensive (in every sense) than it is worth goes a growing conviction that America's number one problem is in the cities and the struggle against poverty and racial discrimination, and that no nation has the resources -- and psychological energy -- to tend to its urgent domestic problems while simultaneously fighting a major war half a world away.

I believe that the number of persons who for pragmatic, rather than absolute moral reasons, are turning against the war is very large, and that their numbers are likely to increase. Any strategy of "dissent" or "resistance" which overlooks these potential millions of allies is very shortsighted. It may never be possible, by even the most dramatic examples of "resistance," to convince 51 percent of the American people that the war is "wrong," but I am convinced that by "patiently explaining" it may easily be possible to convince 65 percent that the war is damned foolishness.

I grant that anyone who categorically believes the war to be so monstrous an evil that he must retain his moral purity at all cost is morally justified in taking whatever measures of resistance he can, in order to demonstrate the verdict of his conscience. And young men about to be drafted face this challenge in its starkest form. But I suggest only that in more general situations each person must ask himself, which is more important—to have a pure conscience, or to bring the war to an end?

If the second is more important, the patient effort to win over those millions who view the war in pragmatic rather than moral terms may be more significant than blocking the pathways to Dow interviewers or even than turning the flank of Pentagon soldiers. Sometimes a pure conscience comes at too high a price, if it does not actually help put an end to war.

Chad Walsh
Beloit College
Beloit, Wisconsin

To the Editors:

I write in response to Noam Chomsky's troubled article, "On Resistance." I write as one who has engaged in the particular form of draft resistance Professor Chomsky supports -- it takes its organized form today in the non-cooperative tactics of "The Resistance." I also write as one who has subsequently rejected this form of resistance.

Chomsky's article is unsatisfactory for reasons he himself admits to -- he does not see where resistance is going and he does not believe that the organized draft resistance he discusses will be very effective. I feel the difficulty lies in a too narrow view of resistance: while Chomsky feels the Washington demonstrations and anti-war protest generally are aspects of (or only "symbolize"?) the move "from dissent to resistance," all he writes about is one form of draft resistance and various forms of dissent. Are the current demonstrations a move from dissent to resistance or not? If they are, how is that and are they effective?

The way in which to judge the demonstrations most clearly is to understand what will end the war and to see where demonstrations fit in. The war will end when the American middle class wants it to -- if this grates, remember that the Vietnamese have said as much. The middle class is the majority here and this government and both parties belong to it. What will cause the middle class to want an end to the war will be the conjunction of Vietnamese resistance plus the high cost to the middle class in effort and money to deal with taxes, inflation, disruption, and obstruction at home. As proof, imagine the following: a seemingly indefinite continuation of the Vietnam war and other overseas military "engagements" claiming an increasingly larger proportion of monetary, productive, and human resources; each summer more and better organized ghetto rebellions, forcing the government to devote increasingly greater portions of resources to either repression or a real (i.e., expensive) war on poverty; continuing, larger, and more costly anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations and other acts against the war; more and more colleges and universities—the reproductive organs of business and government -- periodically shut down by students demanding power, or demanding an end to military ties and war research. Now try to imagine the middle class continuing to pay for all this.

I hope I have begun to make several points clear. The first is that the most effective anti-war activities are those which are the most disruptive, the most costly, those which most undermine the authority of the government domestically and in its war policy. In this light the ghetto rebellions must be seen as one of the activities which most affect the war -- and therefore those elements of the white middle class opposed to the war must work to protect participants (whether or not they agree with the aims or means of those involved, I would say). The anti-war and anti-draft demonstrations are also in this category: the Pentagon was not taken, the New York and Oakland induction centers weren't shut down -- but the Washington demonstration cost the government over one million dollars, in New York on one day 4,000 police were deployed to hold 700 demonstrators, and the Oakland demonstration cost over $100,000 and caused the city to seriously consider applying for federal aid. Moreover, the attitude developed and the tactics following from it, the tactics of harassment and disruption, are those which will continue to escalate the cost. To all this should be added the immeasurable affect of the demonstrations on draft-age men who see them, and see that the war mechanism ultimately is upheld by troops and police, that many others "won't go," that the government's authority can be questioned.

Because the above is so, the kind of specific draft resistance Chomsky and "The Resistance" advocate is the least effective -- it causes men to volunteer for prison. I agree with these people that the idea of prison should not be allowed to stop anti-war activity, that we should not be afraid of prison, and that prison can be survived by most, however uncomfortable (I did two stretches before getting out of the Chicago ghetto at 22). But anyone who volunteers for prison is saying he has nothing to do on the outside; you don't see black community organizers burning draft cards, and you don't see the militant white organizers of anti-draft demonstrations doing it much either. These people have something to stay out for, they have a community they are responsible to, they understand the effectiveness of their tactics.

There was a time when I too did not understand this. Less than a year after my second release from prison I tried to disengage from the whole white middle-class shuck which doesn't belong to a black man, and I told my draft board (among others) what to do with my draft card. In subsequent letters to me the board made me understand there is no possibility of withdrawal from conflict -- it was clear I would be given the choice of the Army or prison, and both belong to the middle-class establishment. Since then, for over two years now, I have lived under an assumed name and have done as much of certain political activities as possible.

I am not the only one doing this; I have met others, both black and white. I think we would agree that Chomsky's notion of the alternatives -- the military, prison, or exile -- is too limited, constrained by lack of experience and by lack of a full comprehension of what is to be done. Our attitude is, prison or exile, yes, before the military -- but the cost of trying to catch us will be theirs. We have work to do, or simply lives to live, and don't intend to make their job easier or our lives more miserable (in fact "underground" life is not that difficult to maintain so long as we avoid accidental arrest).

All this argues against the move of white middle-class students to "insist on sharing the fate of those who are less privileged," not only because we remain free to work, but because every man who successfully avoids establishment-made alternatives takes another man with him by example. Moreover, a poor man does not serve in the place of a middle-class man -- another middle-class man does. Selective Service News indicates that 95 percent of the officers and specialists have a college background (the new draft law has a military, as well as a political, point). Middle-class men are not going to turn against the war because their classmates go to prison, but because they do not, thereby placing an undesirable burden on those who lose deferments or do not go into exile or underground. In the end, demonstrations and evasion can mean to the middle class what rebellions and evasion mean to the poor.

Therefore Chomsky and others would be best advised to make them pay the piper, who called the tune. That is what black folks know, who sing and dance all the time.

I trust I will be understood if I use only a trade mark in signing as,

William X
Detroit, California, Canada


Chomsky's response:

Chad Walsh and William X agree that middle-class attitudes will be decisive in determining the outcome of the American war in Vietnam, and that these attitudes will be shaped not by moral but by "pragmatic" considerations, considerations of cost. Yet they arrive at diametrically opposed conclusions regarding the appropriate choice of tactics: Mr. Walsh opposes all forms of resistance and feels that one should try to convince the American people "that the war is damned foolishness," and Mr. X concludes that "the most effective anti-war activities are those which are the most disruptive." Viewing the situation from a rather similar perspective, I nevertheless find myself reaching still different conclusions. This is hardly astonishing. No one can evaluate the effectiveness of various tactics with any precision. Furthermore, no course of action open to us offers much hope of preventing the Vietnam tragedy from assuming still more awesome proportions. We are, unfortunately, discussing tactics of limited effectiveness and partially unpredictable consequences.

I suspect that Mr. Walsh and Mr. X exaggerate the political significance of middle-class opinion. Even if 65 percent, or 99 percent of the American people were convinced "that the war is damned foolishness," there would remain the problem of translating this conviction into politically effective action. It is doubtful that the political system provides this opportunity in a realistic way. Those who feel that an American "victory" in Vietnam would be a political and moral tragedy therefore face two kinds of tactical problem: first, how to bring "pragmatic middle-class opinion" to oppose the war; second, how to give effective political expression to such opposition as exists. I am not convinced that either correspondent is entirely realistic in assessing these matters.

Consider first the matter of dissent. There is no need to try to persuade someone that his taxes are going up, that his neighbor's son was killed, and that he doesn't like it. Rather, I feel, dissent should be concerned with political and moral issues. The American Government no doubt commands the resources to end the war through annihilation, and Mr. Walsh overlooks the fact that those who feel that the war is "damned foolishness" may perfectly well accept this way of bringing it to an end. Suppose, for example, that the military were to decide that the use of tactical nuclear weapons would provide the cheapest means for uprooting the NLF political and administrative structure in the Mekong Delta (with the inevitable solemn statement from Freedom House, applauding this exercise of limited means to show that violence doesn't pay). The purpose of dissent is to mobilize opinion against the use of American force to impose a political solution in Vietnam -- to the hideous extent it is used today, the still more barbaric extent of tomorrow, or, in fact, at any extent at all -- whatever the costs may be. This is the crucial problem that dissent must face with respect to Vietnam as well as the simmering Vietnams throughout the third world. Contrary to Mr. Walsh, then, I feel that dissent should aim to convince the American people that the war is wrong, and to explain why this or any similar use of force is wrong.

Consider next the assumption that opposition to the war will mount as its costs visibly increase. It follows that we should attempt to increase these costs. Resistance, properly conducted, can serve to increase the domestic cost of American aggression, and can therefore help shape the attitudes of the "pragmatic middle classes" of whom Mr. Walsh speaks, as it can help to shape the decisions of those who must calculate these costs in setting the course of American foreign policy. Mr. Walsh is surely wrong in supposing that those who undertake resistance do so to preserve their moral purity. Mr. X's letter is ample testimony to the fact that resistance can be, and I feel quite generally is, undertaken as a political act. One may argue that it is misguided, but not that it is apolitical. Of course, the resister must choose his tactics so as to maximize the probability that the developing opposition will take a civilized form -- in the case of Vietnam, withdrawal rather than annihilation -- and he must accompany his resistance with the kind of dissent that will seek to raise the general level of political and moral consciousness. These, it seems to me, are the conclusions that one should draw from the analysis of the situation that Mr. Walsh proposes.

To me it seems that draft resistance meets these conditions. The principle is clear and unambiguous. An individual's refusal to carry out the criminal acts of his government sets the stage, in the most effective way possible, for the attempt to demonstrate the criminal nature of these acts. Furthermore, the resistance is "costly," both to the Government and to the "pragmatic middle classes." Let us make the matter concrete. Draft resistance is, for the moment, strongest among the students at the top universities. Last month, for example, 320 Law School students and several hundred students at Yale signed "We Won't Go" statements. The Government will soon have to decide whether to draft graduate students. If the resistance continues to grow, the decision will be a costly one, no matter how it is made. It is politically difficult to give students a blanket exemption, for obvious reasons. On the other hand, an attempt to draft students will, if resistance develops, put the Government in the position of tolerating an open violation of the law or of carrying out serious punitive acts against the children of the social and economic elite. One of the costs of the war is the contempt for the Government, for its violence and mendacity, felt by many young people. Punishment of resisters will deepen this disaffection, and may channel it in new directions. Involvement of adults in support of resisters increases the costs still more. If we look beyond Vietnam, the costs may be greater still, not only because of the unpredictable effects of a really large-scale repression of those who are expected to run the society in the coming years, but also because of the "danger" inherent in the fact that a citizen dares to ask whether he should mechanically obey, that he raises questions about the range of meaningful political action.

There are several ways in which one can hope to affect the decisions made by the Government. One way is to try to influence the choice that will be offered by the two major political parties and to exercise this choice on election day. Another, very different approach, is to try to modify the objective conditions that any elected official must consider when he selects a course of action. I do not want to go into the general question of the legitimacy of these alternatives, but rather to make two points. First, those who are committed to the first method will naturally regard political action of the latter sort -- draft resistance, for example -- as a danger, whose cost he must seek to reduce. Secondly, to be realistic, the parliamentary system at the moment offers almost no opportunity for meaningful action on such issues as Vietnam. One cannot be certain, of course. Nevertheless, we might as well face up to the overwhelming probability that the choice in November will be between barely distinguishable policies. McCarthy's candidacy might be important as an educational effort (it can hardly be regarded as a political effort) if McCarthy were to raise serious issues and break free from the narrow limits of what passes for political discussion in this country today, but as yet he has not done so. It is a remarkable fact that in this democracy, not a single public figure, no segment of the mass media, advocates the position which, according to the recent international Gallup polls, is that of the overwhelming majority in most of the "free world"—that the United States should withdraw from Vietnam. The basic issues are not discussed in the mass media and not posed at the polls. These are the realities that we must face in determining an appropriate mode of political action.

To summarize, draft resistance can make use of the inegalitarian nature of American society as a technique for increasing the cost of American aggression, and it threatens values that are important to those in a decision-making position. (One who shares these values must then ask how they benefit our victims, and what price they must pay to secure these values from any risk). It is difficult to judge how heavily such costs will weigh in the balance, but I think it is clear that Mr. Walsh is not justified in contending that the goal of resistance can only be to safeguard one's purity of conscience.

Of course, resistance might backfire; it might lead the "pragmatic opposition" to demand a harsh and brutal victory. However, the danger seems to me slight. There is no reason why a principled and obviously courageous and highly moral act should have this consequence. Rather, I think it is likely to cause others to consider their own complicity, in their work, in their payment of war taxes, in their preservation of the domestic peace that permits the warmakers to operate freely. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that any political act carries with it a potential danger of this sort. For example, it is not unlikely that Johnson would react to a threat at the polls with a sharp escalation, on the theory (probably correct) that this would gain him at least shortterm support. I see no reason to believe that non-violent resistance is more likely to have this consequence than electoral politics. Quite the contrary.

Although I agree with Mr. X that resistance can be an effective political act, I think that his analysis errs in three respects. First, I think he miscalculates the effect that disruptive actions will have on the middle class that he wants to move to opposition. Second, I think he is considering the notion of "cost" in too narrow a sense. And third, I believe that he underestimates the force that the Government commands. As to the first matter, he fails to take into account the strong likelihood that disruptive acts will increase the urge to win the war by pure terror, with, perhaps, a violent repression at home as well. As far as costs are concerned, he considers only the matter of "effort and money." But these, I suspect, are negligible costs when we consider the kinds of disruptive acts that might be carried out by the white middle class, students or adults. The million dollars spent by the Government on October 20 is a trivial sum for the Government -- but the substantially greater sums expended to mount the demonstration are not at all trivial, for the "peace movement." Hence if the criterion is cost in this sense, the demonstration would have to be regarded as a serious setback. In general, I think that the important costs that can be increased by student and middle-class resistance are the more abstract ones discussed earlier. These cannot be calculated in dollars and cents, but they are no less real for that.

As to the matter of Government force, I think it is surely ample to control, with ease, any disruptive acts that can now be foreseen. As Hans Morgenthau observed recently, there has been a qualitative shift in the balance of force between a government and a massed populace, and this disparity can only increase. A report last June by the Institute of Defense Analysis proposed a great many delightful new ideas for "crowd control" (itching powder, "sticky blobs to glue rioters together," chemical agents, "mechanically spread sticky strings, bands or adhesives which might slow the movement of the crowd by linking people together or to themselves," foam generators which lead to "psychological distress through loss of contact with the environment," tranquilizing darts, etc. -- AP report, Nov. 11), which give an interesting portent of what is to come, and a useful insight into university-sponsored research at its best. My guess is that talk of disruptive acts is a fantasy.

I have said nothing about ghetto rebellions. These may affect the war, in one or another way, but they are not acts undertaken with the end of bringing about American withdrawal, and must, I think, be considered in a totally different context.

I do agree with Mr. X in his criticism of the tactic of escalating confrontation proposed by the loosely organized group called "The Resistance." Confrontations will come quickly enough. The real task, for the present, is to organize a base as large as possible of support for resistance -- a proliferation of local resistance support groups linked together in a national network, with participation of white and black resisters, with adult middle-class support on and off campus, substantial financial assistance, and personal involvement by people who feel that resistance can be made politically effective, who feel that they have a moral responsibility to give concrete assistance to those who refuse to serve in Vietnam, who wish to increase the political cost of repression by standing alongside the young men who will inevitably suffer most severely. The national Resist organization (Paul Lauter, director, Room 4, 763 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, Mass. 02139) is attempting to provide the framework for this effort, using as a basis the advertisement for Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority that appeared in this journal on October 12. With all of the necessary qualifications, I feel that involvement in this effort is the most effective form of political action against the war that is now open to a concerned citizen.

One final remark. The Vietnam war is the most obscene example of a frightening phenomenon of contemporary history -- the attempt by our country to impose its particular concept of order and stability throughout much of the world. By any objective standard, the United States has become the most aggressive power in the world, the greatest threat to peace, to national self-determination, and to international cooperation. At the same time, we enjoy a high degree of internal freedom. We can speak and write and organize. Resisters may be punished severely, but they will not be sent to slave labor camps or gas chambers. Given these facts, resistance is feasible even for those who are not heroes by nature, and it is an obligation, I believe, for those who fear the consequences and detest the reality of the attempt to impose American hegemony. Resistance cannot now significantly deplete the manpower pool that makes possible the use of American power for global repression, nor can it, at the moment, significantly impede the research, production, and supply on which this exercise of power rests. But it can contribute significantly toward raising the domestic costs of this attempt and eliminating the apathy and passivity that may permit it to succeed. It therefore has a potential significance that extends far beyond Vietnam. It may help to save other small countries from the fate of Vietnam, and indeed, to save the world from indescribable catastrophe.

P.S. Recent news shows just how timely these issues are. As Secretary Rusk ponders the meaning of the word "will," American bombing intensifies in the North, planes are shot down near the Chinese border, a Russian ship is hit in Haiphong Harbor, and the Justice Department announces the first indictments for support of draft resistance. It seems that we are now at a crucial moment. If the attempt at intimidation succeeds, the Government will feel free to undertake who knows what new folly to try to salvage something from the wreckage of its Vietnam policy. If resistance grows, the Government may be forced to abandon the effort to subjugate Vietnam. The next few weeks may well provide the answer.

We must find a way to demonstrate to the American Government that every attempt to stifle resistance would only cause it to grow, that we will not tolerate the acts that the Government is committing in our name. In response to the announcement of indictments, a statement of support is being circulated nationally. It reads as follows:


We stand beside the men who have been indicted for support of draft resistance. If they are sentenced, we too must be sentenced. If they are imprisioned, we will take their places and will continue to use what means we can to bring this war to an end. We will not stand by silently as the American government conducts a criminal war. We will continue to offer support, as we have been doing, to those who refuse to serve in Vietnam, and to these indicted men and all others who refuse to be passive accomplices in war crimes. The war is illegitimate and our actions are legitimate.

Among the original signers are: Robert McAfee Brown, Noam Chomsky, Frederick Crews, Paul Goodman, Jane Jacobs, Reverend Martin Luther King, David Krech, Denise Levertov, Norman Mailer, Dwight MacDonald, Conor Cruise O'Brien, Grace Paley, Linus Pauling, James A. Pike, Hilary Putnam, Franz Schurmann, Susan Sontag, Arthur Waskow, Howard Zinn.

I hope that many thousands of people will join this statement of support, and more important, will carry on the work that must be done if a still greater catastrophe is to be averted. Now is the time to prove that traditional American ideals are more than rhetoric, and that American society is too healthy to permit this war of aggression to continue.