On War and Activism

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Charngchi Way

December 9, 2005

First of all, happy birthday.

Thank you.

December 7th is also the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

It’s also the anniversary of the Indonesian invasion of East Timor, authorized by Henry Kissinger, which probably wiped out a third of the population. So, a lot of anniversaries.

WWII is where I want to start. Howard Zinn wrote that “Perhaps the worst consequence of WWII is that it kept alive the idea that war could be just.” You’ve talked about that you are not a pacifist, and you believe that WWII was a necessary thing to beat back the spread of fascism.

Well, that’s a little…. I mean I think WWII could have been prevented. But once it wasn’t prevented, the failure to prevent it, lead to a situation where you either have to allow the triumph of fascism or resist it. So after the failure to prevent it, yes, I thought it was a necessary war. On the other hand, Germany could have been stopped in 1938. They were not ready for war. Hitler wasn’t stopped, mainly because Britain and the United States weren’t that much opposed to him. In fact, they were rather, more or less supported him in many ways.

As far as Japanese fascism is concerned, there is a complicated background. I mean Japan was monstrous aggressors right through the Thirties, but the US was not opposing it, all they wanted was that Japan grant US privileged access to China, and that went on just about two weeks before Pearl Harbor. Japan’s position, which is, from their point of view not irrational, is that they were doing just what the US and Britain has done. I mean, US for 130 years have had the Monroe Doctrine, they are going to take control of the Western Hemisphere, and hadn’t been able to implement it yet, completely, but have done it to a large extent, in (our own case) it depends, to carve out a new order of nations. In fact the US support for that, I mean the US did support it, because its going to be out of US control, but after the Second World War, the US reconstructed it, and openly.

Could that have been prevented, yeah it could have. But once the war took place, my own feeling, I don’t know if my friend Howard Zinn would agree, is that it was a necessary war, once the war started.

A lot of undesirable results happened.

Of course it’s going to happen from war. But what would the alternative have been? Nazi conquest of Eurasia? Not very pretty.

Back to the present, you’ve mentioned as a starting point, that the use of force is only legitimate under two conditions: under the threat of imminent attack, or UN security council authorization.

That’s not my position, that’s international law, that’s everyone’s formal position.

To me, it seems that there is only one condition, which is self-defense.

Not necessarily. The question is whether the security council of the United Nations does have the right to authorize force. Well, that’s a complicated question. There might be conditions…. First of all, it has almost never happened. Try to find an example. But you can imagine conditions under which in might be legitimate, at least I can.

What kind of conditions would they be?

For example, suppose something like Nazi Germany arose in a major power center. Or, take say, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. I mean, that’s a case where they didn’t actually call for, but they came pretty close to authorizing it. Again, I think it could have been reversed without aggression, so I don’t approve of the war, because there was a way to reverse it. But if there hadn’t been a way to reverse it, then it would have been appropriate for the UN to take action. And there are other cases.

Now take the US invasion of South Vietnam. It would certainly have been appropriate for the security council to act to prevent it. Of course they can’t. It is a major power and you can’t do anything about it. Or take, say, the US terrorist war against Nicaragua. The UN tried to intervene, security council, the world court ordered the US to terminate it, US told them to get lost. Nicaragua took it to the Security council, and the Security council passed two resolutions affirming the court’s judgments, the US vetoed them. Okay, that’s the end of that story. The UN could never have authorized force against the United States, because it’s just too powerful. But, those are imaginable cases. If something had happened I would regard it as legitimate.

The international organizations have been in place since WWII to resolve conflicts and prevent the use of force, but they have no enforcement power.

It’s not that they have no enforcement power. They have enforcement power when the US authorizes it. So they have enforcement power against the weak, and against US enemies, otherwise, no. That’s a little over exaggeration, but it’s pretty much the story. I mean the UN has problems, and the problems are right here. Same is true of all this ludicrous talk about UN reform. Yeah, UN could use some reform, but you know, so could Washington, so could most US corporations. But the main problem that’s required for the UN reform is for the US to stop disrupting UN operations. That’s the main problem.

Actually we are seeing it right this minute in Montreal, doesn’t happen to be the UN at this moment, but the international conference on global warming. The US is simply not permitting it to proceed, unilaterally. That’s the problem of international organizations. If the most powerful state blocks their operations, yeah, it’s a problem.

Are there deeper causes for war, or has it always been an interplay of power interests?

Well, you can’t generalize it, you know. Sometimes, there’s a crazy king or somebody. Or take the Crusades, I mean, that was just religious fanaticism. So yes, there are all kinds of reasons, but by and large, aggressive wars have to do with strategic and economic reasons. It’s not a hundred percent.

Orwell said “Wars are mostly internal.” Do you agree with that and can you elaborate on it?

Well, there is a sense in which it’s true. Often there is a major factor internal to the aggressive society. So [the elites] may have to control the population, something like that. That’s often true. In fact, in wars, the outcome is usually the weak and poor suffer in all societies and the powerful make out fine in all societies.

So take say, the Second World War. I mean, there were Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals which tried some people, but the US and Britain pretty much restored the traditional order. In Japan, there was a brief period of democratization, from 1945 to 1947, but the Washington liberals were appalled, instituted was called the “reverse course” in which they essentially ordered the occupation authorities to undermine the democratic institutions in Japan, and to pretty much restore the traditional fascist order. Which is what happened, I mean with a parliamentary system and so on, but it’s the same people, same institutional structures. Same in Germany. Major war criminals were reconstituted, and much of the traditional fascist order was restored. So they didn’t lose, but the people lost massively both in Japan and Germany and many other countries.

You wrote that “Concentrated power pursuits war relentlessly, and very self-consciously.” Now that we have the ability to destroy ourselves many times over, can you ever picture certain power centers curbing their relentlessness in pursuing war?

There have been some efforts. For example, after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world very close to disaster, the Kennedy administration did agree to test ban treaties, and steps to reduce the threat of nuclear war. Prior to that they had been rejecting offers from the Russians. Russians had offered to sharply reduce military capacity if the US would do likewise. And the Russians in fact implemented it in the ’50s and the early ’60s, and the US refused. Kennedy responded by increasing US military power. Then came the missile crisis and a change in policy, and then there were moves to reduce the threat of war, and they were reasonably successful. The Non-Proliferation Treaty, which was signed in 1970 has had effects. It’s reduced the number of nuclear states, they anticipated many more. It’s bad enough, but [they] reduce it.

On the other hand, the NPT is not working. There is a five year review, and the last one in May was a disaster, and the main reason is the US has simply announced it’s not going to satisfy its NPT obligations. The government and the media tried to blame the whole thing on Iran, which has whatever problems it has, but the major problem is the refusal of the nuclear powers, primarily the United States, to live up to their obligations. And the US has now formally stated that it’s not going to do it. So, there goes the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But it was an effort to do exactly what you are saying, to reduce the likelihood of a terminal war. There have been other efforts.

The UN Charter was an effort. In fact, read it, it opens by saying that the human entity has suffered the scourge of devastating war twice in the past generation, we have to put an end to it, and they did try. That’s why Article II bars the use of force in international affairs, for the first time in a major international agreement. And then come the sole exceptions which you mentioned. Well, that’s an effort, a serious effort, on the part of the international society, initiated by the US at that time, to limit the threat of war, maybe eliminate it. It didn’t work, and it didn’t work because the major powers didn’t accept it, primarily and overwhelmingly the United States.

People seem to think that the elites act in an irrational way, but…

Depends on what you mean by irrational.

Right, it’s rational by their structural…

By their structural reasons it’s rational. In fact, take say, the Bush administration. For them, it’s perfectly rational to increase the threat of terror, to increase the threat of nuclear war, to destroy the environment so your own grandchildren won’t survive. All of that is totally rational, because it’s a much lower priority than stuffing the pockets of your rich friends with dollars, and increasing your power. So yeah, it’s rational.

But, does it ever reach a point where the elites have to worry about their own survival?

Yeah. For example, within, say, the business world, there’s some recognition that, you know, you might as well pay attention to whether your grandchildren are going to have a world to live in. So, yes, you have some pressures, the ones I mentioned also had elite support. In fact, after the missile crisis, it was realized in elite circles if we continue with this we are going to blow ourselves up.

Or take say Europe. [In] political science, there’s major thesis, huge discussion about what is called “democratic peace.” Democracies don’t go to war with each other. And the main proof, the main evidence is, well, in democratic Europe, they haven’t had a war since 1945. Was that because of the democracies? I don’t think so. I mean, for centuries, Europe was the most savage place in the world. They had monstrous wars constantly, trying to impose the nation-state system which didn’t make any sense. They stopped in 1945, that’s true. That’s because European elites understood, that the next time they play the game they are all going to be dead. Okay, they decided, okay, games over. We played it for 500 years, can’t do it anymore. So, yes, the elites recognized they better not have anymore wars between Germany and France and England, because the next time is the last.

Can you talk a little bit about imposing the nation-state system with violence and war?

Murderous savagery. I mean, the European history is an example. Take a look at the populations of Europe, very diverse. There are a lot of concerns now about what are called endangered languages, indigenous languages disappearing. And it’s serious. But probably the greatest loss of languages in the last century is right inside Europe. I mean, what we call Italian, most Italians didn’t speak, had to learn a second language if you learned the real one. Same with Germany, same with France, a little bit further back. And that’s a reflection of the diversity of cultures and so on, which you find almost everywhere in the world. I mean, you don’t find it in the United States, but there’s a simple reason for that. The English colonist just wiped everybody out. Okay, you don’t get diversity. You have what amounts to genocide, okay: no diversity. But in societies where you didn’t have mass extermination, there are complex regional, local identities and associations which you just can’t draw lines around it. So to impose that nation-state system did lead to centuries of murderous violence.

In fact, it was that murderous violence that gave Europe it’s comparative advantage. Europe had developed a culture of savagery which was unknown in the rest of the world. When the Europeans then started expanding, they weren’t really winning wars on the base of their military superiority, but on the base of savagery, which others didn’t know how to face. In fact, if you look at military historians, they point out, British ones, main ones, they said well, for the rest of the world war was a sport, for Europe it was a science. And yes, they conquered much of the world, and attempted to impose a nation-state system on it. And you take a look at most of the horrible wars today, they are the results of the drawing of colonial boundaries in an effort to impose the nation-state system. It has almost nothing to do with people’s interests and associations and commitments.

Actually Europe itself is beginning to recognize this, and it’s moving towards a kind of devolution. So in Spain, for example, Catalonia, a vast country, and pretty soon others are going to have a fair degree of autonomy, with their own languages and some degree of local control. In Wales and Scotland there’s a degree of devolution in the languages. Not in Scotland, but in Wales the language is pretty much recovered. It’s a very unnatural system.

In fact the natural system, though nobody likes to hear, is the Ottoman Empire. I mean, the Ottoman Empire was corrupt and brutal, and nobody wants to restore that, but they more or less left people alone. So if you are in the Greek part of the city the Greeks run it, and if you are in the Armenian part the Armenians run it. You don’t have to travel pass two border posts when you go from Istanbul to Cairo to Baghdad. It was just a loose, complex, regional system with a rather high level of local control, and for most of the world that’s exactly what makes sense. To impose a nation-state system on that, it’s going to cause plenty of violence and savagery, and did.

There is a huge amount of historical evidence for it. In fact, the United States itself is an example. There was a nation-state system imposed, a pretty homogenous one, but it was imposed by eliminating an enormous diversity of rather highly developed societies. I mean, it was pretended they were hunter-gatherers wondering around the woods, but we know that that wasn’t true. And [by] conquering half of Mexico, and settling it with the European colonists. Yeah, that way you can impose a nation-state, but we don’t call it violence because we did it, you know. But take a look at the victims, they have a different picture.

Since a military system is totalitarian, how would an anarchist society, a society based on cooperation and free association deal with external threats?

You can’t give a general answer. It depends on the nature of the external threats. So take say, the one example of a more or less anarchist society that did manage to exist for a while, namely revolutionary Spain in 1936. There was an external threat, several, in fact. The immediate external threat was the Franco invasion from North Africa, with mostly North African troops in fact. There was an invasion, and there was complex interaction. Within about a year, the anarchist society had been destroyed, but not by Franco. It was destroyed by the Russians and the West, who didn’t like each other, but they had a common aim: destroy revolutionary Spain. And they cooperated on that together with Franco nationalists, and after about a year, they succeeded, and then it turned into a conventional civil war.

But, did the anarchist society have a way of surviving that? Well, it’s possible. I mean in fact there were proposals which the government wouldn’t accept, but there were serious proposals. The main one was by one of the leading anarchist activists, thinker in Spain, he was actually Italian, Camillo Berneri, who proposed right away, he said look, conventional war is not going to work, the forces massed against us are far to strong for that. So he suggested a combination of guerilla war and political war. Guerrilla war makes sense. Spain is where it was invented, in fact, in the Napoleonic invasions, and we know now that you can do a lot with it, we’ve seen that. So guerrilla war is local resistance against the occupying armies. And crucially, political war. The base of Franco’s army was North African, and Berneri suggested that the Spanish Anarchists should support the revolutionary movements in Morocco in French and Spanish territories, and support the ones that are trying to overthrow the colonial governments, support land reform. And they existed. There was a nationalist revolutionary movement in Northern Africa which the colonial powers were trying to repress. And it was calling for land reform, getting rid of the imperial powers, things that would have a lot of popular support. Well, Berneri’s proposal is, okay, that’s what we support. Undercut the base of the invading army by giving its own soldiers a reason not to fight, because if they go back home, they don’t have to live under the jackboot of the conquerors, they can run their own lives. It could very well have worked.

Of course that would completely have infuriated the West. I mean, England and France and the United States would have gone berserk, but doesn’t mean it would have failed. They might not have been able to repress an anti-colonial movement in North Africa, which would have indeed undermined the Franco army. Well, okay, that’s a strategy, political warfare and if needed, guerrilla warfare. It’s not a formula for every circumstance, you know, every circumstance you need your own formula. But there are ways to proceed.

I mean nonviolence resistance is often a way to proceed, depends on who you are confronting. If you are confronting people that are going to blow your head off, well, it’s not going to do anything. But to appeal to the humanity of the enemy is sometimes effective. There are lots of ways to proceed.

I read in Politics by Aristotle “Facts, as well as arguments, prove that the legislator should direct all his military and other measures to the provision of leisure and the establishment of peace. For most of these military states are safe only while they are at war, but fall when they have acquired their empire.” Do you think that his statement applies to the modern era, especially in the case of the United States?

There is something to that, I mean, you have to keep the population quiet. We have many examples.

Take, say, the Vietnam War. The US was unable to call a national mobilization. It became a big war, much bigger than expected. If the United States had called a national mobilization, as they did the Second World War, the US would have just walked over Vietnam, wouldn’t have any problem, and the economy here would have improved, under quasi-command economies you can get enormous economic growth. During the Second World War, which was a semi-command economy in a mobilized public, it was the greatest period of economic growth in American history.

That could have happened in the Sixties too, but they couldn’t do it. There was too much popular opposition to the war, so they could not carry out a national mobilization. As a result, they had to fight what’s called a “guns and butter” war. You know, okay, produce guns, but we would also have to have butter for the population. Well, that turns out to be not good for the economy, it lead to stagflation, economic problems, loss of power to economic rivals. Finally the business elites said you got to call it off, which is why after the Tet offensive, Johnson was compelled, in fact, almost ordered by Wall Street, the business interest, to just draw it down. So, yes, it’s an example of where the military leaders have to provide enough to the population to keep them more or less mobilized.

Actually the same thing happened in Nazi Germany. Nazi Germany never became as totalitarian as England and the United States did. In England and the United States it was a kind of voluntary totalitarianism. People were really committed to the war, so they were willing to give up the normal freedoms. You know, you had wage and price controls and so on, and they could carry out very effective mobilization. In Germany, they couldn’t do it, because they didn’t trust the population. They haven’t got that same degree of commitment. So as a result, Nazi Germany had to fight a kind of “Guns and butter” War.

If you read the memoirs of Albert Speer, the economic czar for Hitler, he argues in his memoirs with some credibility that that may have been why Germany lost the war. They were technologically far more advanced. When there was a near equal military battle, Germany always won, the West always lost. On the Russian front, where almost the entire war was fought, the only reason Germany lost was because it was crushed by the massive people in arms, Germany was way more advanced. He argues that they might have won if they didn’t have to carry out this internal policy, similar to Johnson’s in the 1960s. So that’s an illustration of Aristotle’s maxim. Even military leaders, the most extreme, say, Nazi Germany, are going to have to ensure the population are sort of, at least passive, and maybe committed if possible. And that means offering them something.

So do you see the beginning of a fall for the United States?

Well, it really began in the 1960s. The activism of the 1960s was very long, laden coming, but it did come, and it changed the country enormously. For example, not just these issues, but take, say, women’s rights. All kinds of things change quite radically, as a result of the 1960s’ activism.

One of the things that changed was attitudes towards war. So the population just doesn’t support an aggressive war to the extend it did in the 1960s. You can see that in the case of Iraq. Iraq, after all, and they won’t tell you this in the newspapers, it was the first time in history, hundreds of years of European imperialism, counting US as European, that a war was massively protested before it was officially launched. And now there are 2000 or so American casualties, it’s causing an uproar. Didn’t happen in Vietnam, didn’t happen in Korea, and it certainly didn’t happen in the Second World War. I mean the population just won’t accept it anymore. And in the case of Iraq, they just have to lie massively about what’s going on to keep people quiet. So, about a year ago the major study came out of Iraqi casualties, the best estimate was about 100,000, and that’s over a year ago. Well, it was barely mentioned in the United States. In fact, when mentioned, it was just ridiculed. If people knew about it, and knew what lay behind it, they would be much more opposed to the war, but that’s kept quiet.

Take, say, [the] polls in Iraq, and for a long time they published the results, but recently they stopped publishing the results, at least results that had attitudes toward the occupation, but they are being taken, and sometimes they leak. So the British Ministry of Defense did carry about a poll on the countries attitudes toward the occupation, well finally it leaked in England, and to the right wing press, Daily Telegraph, and some of the other press picked it up, but it wasn’t even mentioned in the US. What they found was that over 80 percent of the population wants the occupying force out of the country, 1 percent think that they increase security, and almost half of the population thinks that attack against them are justified. Well, you know if people here knew that, the support for the occupation would go way down, that’s why they don’t report it.

And same with other things, you’ve got to keep the population ignorant because if they know what’s going on, they are not going to tolerate it. I’ve done a lot of work on internal secret declassified documents, the US happens to be a very free society in this respect then most of the world so, have a lot of records. Take a look at declassified documents, secret documents. Why is it kept secret? [It’s] almost never for security reasons, not from the enemy, they mostly know it anyway. It’s mostly a weapon against the domestic population. You don’t want the domestic population to know what you are doing in their name. It’s the main reason for secrecy and obvious the main reason for propaganda. These are attacks on the domestic population. I mean, the elites quite rightly are terrified of democracy. It’s lethal [for them], how could [they] tolerate it? So they do many things they can to undermine it. And one of the things you do is lie, deceive, have secrecy and so on.

But take a look at the American population in the last 40 years, yeah it’s changed a lot, and they know it. There have been a few leaked documents in which they say that we cannot carry out a large scale war, when we fight. Now I am quoting “If we confront a much weaker enemy,” which is the only kind we are ever going to confront, “we must win rapidly and decisively, or else public support will erode.” And in fact, you can see that in Iraq. They thought they would win rapidly and decisively, and when they didn’t, public support erodes exactly as they knew. It wasn’t that way in Vietnam, it went on for years, and public support didn’t erode. Yeah, it’s changed, it’s understood in high places, and indicates that things could change.

In fact, global attitudes are the same, take the Iraq war. Barely mentioned here, but there was overwhelming popular opposition. I mean, Spain, which was considered the great hope for the future because Asnar the prime minister, joined Bush and Blair for the summit declaring war, you know, everybody loving Spain. He came with the support of 2 percent of the population. In fact, in the international polls taken about the war, right before the war, I think the only country that went above 10 percent support was maybe Israel, for their own reasons.

Since I was a teenager I’ve been working for a grassroots Taoist/Confucian movement, and a tendency I’ve experienced is that people who are more privileged tend to be less involved, less willing to accept alternative views, and less generous with their time, energy and resources.

That’s natural. I can tell you about that from personal experience. When I give a talk in Cambridge and when I give a talk in Jamaica Plains, it’s totally different.

I was there, actually (in Jamaica Plains).

Were you there the other night? Try to find that in Cambridge, in Harvard Square.

Why do you think that the privileged people miss the obvious truths?

Well, several reasons. For one thing, the more educated you are, the more indoctrinated you are. After all, propaganda is largely directed towards the privileged. For the mass of the population, there is propaganda, but it’s mostly to try to get them out of our hair, you know, it is distraction. Get them involved in professional sports, or sex scandals, or anything. Just keep them away from us. That’s why the political system in the United States has now degenerated to the point where the only issues that are talked about are what are called “the culture wars.” You know, are we going to give gay rights, this sort of thing. Alright, CEOs don’t care about that, so let’s get the people involved in that, and you have red states and blue states and culture wars and so on. So for the population is mostly distract them.

But for elites, they have to believe. They are the ones who are the managers and the directors, whether it’s political or economic, or doctrinal managers in universities and media and so on. They got to believe. Otherwise they can’t do the job. So they have to be profoundly indoctrinated. Furthermore, it is in their interest to be indoctrinated, they are the ones who gain from these activities.

So there are many factors that lead to a very natural outcome of what you described. Nothing to do about it, and nothing surprising about it. I mean, if we had an educational system, we would teach that in eighth grade.

I was watching Manufacturing Consent, I suppose you still haven’t seen it?


Toward the end you talked about part of what you are doing is giving people a course in intellectual self-defense. Can you kind of describe what…

Well, you know, there are very serious illusions that there are major efforts to instill. And I don’t think they are very hard to dismantle. Almost anything we understand about international affairs is on the level that my 10-year old grandson can figure out, if given a chance. So just give people a chance to figure it out for themselves. Everything we are talking about, for example, is completely obvious. You would see it unless you are deeply indoctrinated not to see it. Okay, just get people to question sensibly, be reasonable, and think through the obvious and so on.

Take, say, the invasion of Iraq. Outside of the West, everybody, including Iraq, everybody just assumes the obvious, the invasion of Iraq was undertaken because Iraq is right at the center of a major oil producing, energy producing region of the world and the US wants to extend control over it. It’s like a truism.

The polls in Baghdad as they had, just takes it for granted. In the West if anybody says that, they are immediately denounced as a conspiracy theorist, or anti-American, or some lunatic tirade. What you are supposed to believe is that the US would have, as they called, “liberated” Iraq, if it was an island in the Indian Ocean producing lettuce. That’s what you are supposed to believe. How much does it take to peel that away? Well, you know, you have to be willing to do it. And people don’t think of it. Once somebody mention it to them it’s kind of obvious. But when you are inundated with massive propaganda on the contrary, it’s not easy to think of it.

For example, take a look at the US media, have you seen anybody say that? I mean, it’s so obvious that a child could see it, have you ever seen it said? Well, you know, if nothing ever said, people don’t think of it. You were there in Jamaica Plains? You remember I started by talking about the polls, well, you know, there’s a reason why those polls are never published, literally. People are not supposed to know that their own attitudes are right in the mainstream. I mean, if you are an individual, you may have your own attitudes, but everything that you are hearing and seeing says you are a nut. So you think, okay, I am a nut. If you knew that’s what the large majority are thinking, people would get together and do something about it.

So, intellectual self-defense is not easy, but it’s not hard either. The instant you get the idea of it, everything falls apart pretty quickly. Unless there are real barriers, and the more educated you are, the more barriers. After all, it is what education is about. Large part of it is about indoctrination.

Do you know who Richard Feynman is? The American physicist?


His writings have had some effect on me personally. He wrote about some of his regrets with his involvement in the Manhattan Project as a graduate student. Kind of what he went in for was that he bought into the propaganda, but also he thought it was a great puzzle to solve, you know, he was a scientist.

It’s a very interesting phenomenon. I’ve looked into that a bit.

I think he is as far away from the mainstream intellectual as you can get.

Well, see, first of all, the sciences are different. What I’ve been describing up till now does not hold for the sciences. In the sciences, when you study physics, you are not taught to copy down what the teacher said and repeat it on the next exam, you are expected to challenge, to think about it, to innovate, stand up and say, “I think you are wrong,” you know, “Do it this way, I have a good idea everybody will like it.” That’s what the education is in the advance sciences.

That’s why, for example, if you take a look at their political attitudes, MIT is much more conservative than Harvard. On the other hand, MIT has been the center of peaceful antiwar activity for 50 years. It is because it is science based. You are allowed, in fact encouraged to think independently. So yes, Feynman is out of the mainstream, but so are most of the natural sciences, because you just have to deal with things differently. If you try to carry out in the sciences the kind of indoctrination that goes on in the soft fields, they would die. They live on challenging, questioning, participation, young people having ideas and so on, that’s what make them survive.

On the other hand if you take a look back at the Manhattan Project, the whole thing, it’s very interesting what happened. There were two phases, a Chicago phase and a Los Alamos phase. The Chicago phase is producing the materials [and] was done first. So they were done and the Los Alamos phase was producing the gun. Take a look at the protest. The beginning of protest, they started in Chicago. There were rumblings in Chicago pretty much after that phase was over. Then you started thinking of, you know, what are we doing? [At] Los Alamos there was nothing. I mean, they had the smartest people in the world living there in a closed environment, most of them politically pretty radical, they came out of the European left and things like that, sitting there, no protest. In fact, no questions.

I was teaching an undergraduate course here on these issues and you know Phil Morrison? Phil Morrison was a physicist here, actually he’s still alive but retired, he was the guy who put the bomb together on Tinian Island, he was in the Los Alamos phase, and I think he was probably communist, certainly on the far left. He described for the class what it was like in Los Alamos. And it was just what Feynman said, you know, he said we were all interested in the technical problem. We didn’t even ask what we were doing. And there was no Chicago phase because they were kept at it till the end. They didn’t know it was going to go off, when it went off. So they were all excited, what Oppenheimer called, you know, a beautiful technical problem or something. So that’s what they were engaged in. And yeah, in that respect, Feynman is correct. A number of people did become pretty active but [there] weren’t many.

Do you see that as a danger? You have a class of technical people who…

Take a look at what happened. We are lucky that the German physicists didn’t get there, they would have done the same thing, would it have been any different?