Truth and Consequences: Historical Inquiry and the Nuclear Arms Race

Noam Chomsky

Radical History Review, 44 (Spring 1989), pp. 138-144

Dear Carolyn:

I think the questions you raise about my writings on the Cold War and the arms race are to the point, but that they are also readily answered.

Your basic criticisms, as I understand them, are the following:

1. It is implausible to claim that officials are lying about the Soviet danger and that they don’t take it seriously.

2. While my approach makes sense of the public documents, it doesn’t account for the fact that the internal documents also stress the Soviet and other threats to American security.

3. My attempt to portray the US-Soviet conflict as a “non-event” is directly contradicted by the way everyone talks, across the spectrum, about strategic weapons.

4. My framework doesn’t explain the existence of strategic nuclear weapons.

5. My debunking of Kissinger “highlights the fragility of [my] own presentation.”

6. Contrary to my practice, the left should concede that the US and the Soviet Union are hostile to one another.

Let me comment on these points in turn.

Point one. I thoroughly agree, and have always insisted, that it is implausible to claim that officials are typically lying, though as we agree, some do, sometimes. Thus, point one is simply a misunderstanding; correspondingly, point two is invalid. My approach interprets the secret documents just as it interprets the public documents, and in fact I’ve relied on them quite heavily; if, as you say, this account makes sense of the public documents, and the secret documents are essentially like the public ones in the respects in question, then it follows, simply as a matter of logic, that my approach makes sense of the secret documents.

Let us consider what is at stake here, because this is the heart of the matter. You and I agree that much of what is asserted in the public and secret documents is sheer nonsense. Let’s be concrete. Take one of the examples you mention, Guatemala 1954. NSC 54195419/1 and the secret discussion published in FRUS along with it are full of ranting about Guatemalan aggression and its threat to US security, about how we can violate international law by interfering with shipping on grounds of “self-preservation” (so serious is the threat to our existence), about how the New York Times is “following the Communist line,” etc. We agree that this discussion barely reaches the level of lunacy. You don’t actually suggest an answer to this, but as far as I can see, there are only two possible answers: the answer I have always given, to which I return; the answer that asserts that they are lunatics.

We agree, I presume, that the latter is implausible, just as implausible as the claim that they are lying in secret, or in public for that matter. We are left, then, with the answer I’ve always given, which I believe is the correct one.

Before proceeding with it, I should observe that I also assume that the participants were serious about other things in the secret material in question — for example, that Guatemala must be deterred from “subversion,” such as allegedly “inspiring” a strike in Honduras; that “the essence of the matter” is “a hostile government in Guatemala,” which we have every right o overthrow since we cannot tolerate any such thing; that we have a right to block the “Communist conspiracy” in the western hemisphere, even if it shows itself only by gaining political power through legitimate means; etc. In short, I do believe that they were quite serious in expressing an extreme version of what later was called “the Brezhnev doctrine.” Furthermore, I believe that they were quite serious in the followup document NSC 5432, in which they discoursed at length on how we must block “nationalistic regimes” that are responsive to popular pressures for raising living standards and diversification of production, how we must take control of the Latin American military to ensure that they will intervene to block any unwholesome developments once they have developed a proper “understanding of, and orientation towards US objectives,” etc. And I believe that the Kennedy liberals were quite serious in expanding on this in other secret documents, explaining how the role of the military is to overthrow civilian governments if they depart from the path we regard as proper, and that the basic “root” of our policy toward Latin America is the economic root — investment, trade, etc., which must be preserved, by force if necessary, if elected governments are too democratic and responsive to domestic needs. Little of this appears in the public record, but I assume that it is meant just as seriously as what does appear in the public record. That is why I have always taken secret documents very seriously, with regard to Indochina, the Cold War, Middle East policy, etc.

Turning to the question of how sane and moderately intelligent people can believe such lunacy, I think there is a simple answer: in political as in personal life, it is very easy to come to believe what it is convenient and useful to believe. There is an array of institutional structures with institutional imperatives, and they require certain actions and policies, within a range of course, for the preservation of power and privilege. Hence there will be institutional managers who will carry out these policies. Since very few people can do one thing and believe another, these managers will internalize the beliefs that are appropriate; if they don’t, they’ll be replaced by others. In the present case, we are speaking primarily of state and ideological managers, who have certain tasks to perform in the interest of domestic power: they must mobilize a public subsidy for R&D and high tech industry and ensure it a state-guaranteed domestic market; they must insure that as much as possible of the international system is open to US economic penetration and political control, with no “nationalistic regimes” to bar our way; they must keep the domestic population quiescent and obedient; and so on. For those purposes, the Soviet menace (and surrogates such as Qaddafi, etc.) are essential; therefore we must believe that they threaten our existence — those who do not, simply cannot be part of the system.

I know of no other explanation for the fact that systematically, sane and moderately intelligent people in politics and the academic world come to believe what you and I agree to be fantasies, sometimes lunatic fantasies. Furthermore, this explanation accords well with what we know generally about belief systems and how they develop. It’s not that people sit down quietly and determine what is true, and then decide to act on it. Rather, quite typically, they decide what they want to do for the purpose at hand, and devise a belief system that explains that it is only right and just, which they then believe passionately. There are people who follow the former course; we call them “heroes,” or “dissidents,” and they usually pay for it. Those who “make it” are the ones who follow the latter course. In fact, there is a selection process beginning in kindergarten and extending through the faculty clubs , executive suites and corridors of state power, which guarantees that only those who can accord with the institutional imperatives will fill the institutional roles.

These matters are basically familiar and suffice to undermine your criticism (and I note again that you offer no alternative account of how moderately intelligent people come to believe utter nonsense).

To see more clearly what is at stake, consider a corporation managed, say, by Smith. When Smith is interviewed, he says, with passion and feeling, that his task is to produce the best possible goods at the cheapest possible cost and under the optimal working conditions, because of his profound devotion to humanity. In fact, Smith is working to increase profit and market share. Smith might, of course, be a pure cynic, but that is unlikely. Typically, Smith will believe every falsehood he produces so they are not lies, however ridiculous they may be. If Smith were to try to act on the expressed convictions, he would quickly be eliminated or disciplined,; the discipline of the market would normally suffice, or sterner measures would be adopted if not. Again, we are dealing with institutional facts.

Turning to the state, exactly the same is true. The Cold War is, in my view, just as I described it: it has a functional quality for the state managers and the interests they represent, on both sides. For the US, the major concern has been to maintain a global system open to US economic penetration and political control. True, state managers would have liked to incorporate the USSR within this system, and it will remain an enemy, as even tiny corners of the world might be, as long as this goal is not accomplished. Furthermore, the Soviet Union impedes US designs elsewhere through deterrence and assistance to targets of US subversion and intervention. These facts, which I have always emphasized, respond directly to your third point, and explain my complete accord with the recommendation under point six (unnecessary because no one holds the position in question). Surely the US-Soviet conflict is not a “non-event.” The West was extremely hostile to the Bolsheviks (not the least the US), for the usual reasons. Whatever one thinks of Lenin et al (I return to this), it was a “nationalistic regime” that was not responsive to the requirements of western power and privilege, and for this reason alone has been an enemy, even more so in the post-World War II period, for the reasons mentioned. Surely the conflict with this enemy is not a “non-event,” and no one has to be induced to recognize that the hostility has been deep.

Let me again stress that I do not claim, and have repeatedly denied, that “these officials are lying.” Some are, but that is not my point, and I have always been careful to deny it, stressing, rather, that it is very easy to come to believe what must be believed, in political as in personal life. I have also stressed that all of this is of very limited importance, once we escape a traditional trap of historians: being mesmerized by the great and powerful, as personalities. They are usually boring and uninteresting, even silly people. Their significance comes from their institutional roles, and it is these that we should investigate. When we do, all becomes clear.

The same is true of domestic policies. State managers are doubtless convinced that they are working for the good of the common people. Typically, they are working in the interests of domestic power — in the US, business interests. If they fail in this task, they will be displaced.

The same is true when we turn to strategic issues. There are two fundamental factors that drive the Pentagon system: the need to compel the public to subsidize high tech industry (computers, electronics generally, etc.), and deterrence. The latter means, in effect, that we must deter any interference with the policies of intervention and subversion to which the US is committed. This requires an awesome military presence, particularly because we are a global power, and intervention often must take place in areas where we lack conventional force advantages. No one must get in our way if we decide on a show of force in southeast Asia or the Gulf, or closer to home. Of course, the facts cannot be perceived in these terms, so we are confronting the global enemy; and those who say so are not lying, though their statements are false, for the familiar reasons.

Hence your fourth point is just not true. Strategic weapons fulfill just the purposes I have written about, and documented, while security managers quite honestly believe — nonsensically — that they are guarding the US from destruction by the global enemy while they often act to diminish our security.

Turning to the Kissinger phenomenon, the last point on the list, it fits quite naturally into this pattern. I think your rendition of my views here is a bit misleading. It isn’t just my opinion that Kissinger has a limited grasp of world affairs and produces material that one wouldn’t accept from an undergraduate; rather, it is a conclusion, based on more than ample evidence. There’s a big difference between opinion and conclusion. How do we explain, then, Kissinger’s success? Exactly in the terms I outlined, I think. He was a competent middle-level manager, who was an expert in exactly the terms he described: able to articulate the consensus of the powerful.

Finally, you say that I don’t specify the reasons for the Soviet maintenance of their empire. That’s not quite true, though I haven’t dwelt on the matter. To oversimplify again (I’ve discussed it in more nuance elsewhere), ever since the Bolshevik coup of 1917, the USSR has been dedicated to the destruction of socialism at home and blocking it anywhere else; that was the essence of the Lenin-Trotsky domestic program, and is inherent in the Leninist version of Marxism. Hence, it is entirely natural that the USSR would intervene, where possible, to block indigenous popular forces with socialist or populist goals, whether it is Spain in the late ’30s, workers councils in Hungary, or whatever. Such developments elsewhere could cause real problems within their own dungeon.

Furthermore, as far as Eastern Europe is concerned, there are strategic and historical reasons, of an obvious nature, to explain why any Russian government will maintain an iron grip as long as West Germany is part of a hostile military alliance.

Apart from this, the ruling military-bureaucratic elite has a stake in directing resources toward means of violence and control, for controlling the internal empire and the subject populations, and enhancing their own status in various elite conflicts. The mechanisms are vastly different from those here, but the ultimate results are often not very different. And they, of course, need the US threat to mobilize their own populations, just as we need the Soviet threat to mobilize ours. In this sense, the Cold War is a system of tacit cooperation among bitter enemies, with considerable functional utility for each.

I think, then, that your criticism is invalid, and that the account I’ve given is essentially correct, in general outline, and in detail. If not, I’d of course be interested in knowing why, and changing my point of view.