Joe Tropea: How did you first become aware of the Catonsville Nine action or the members of that action?
Noam Chomsky: Well I knew some of the members, but life was so hot and heavy in those days, I can’t really remember when I first learned of it. Whether it was before hand, or when it took placeÉ.
JT: Had you known particular members of the action?
NC: Some of them, yeah. ‘Cause we were involved in lots of similar things.
JT: What does the term Catholic Left or Religious Left mean to you?
NC: Well of course there has been a very significant Catholic Left for a long time, Dorothy Day, Catholic Worker movement, and so on. It began to take on a much broader significance in the 1960s as a result of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII, and the moves of the Latin American bishops to adopt what they called the preferential option for the poor, and that brought together many strands: the worker priests in France, the activists in the Latin American church, groups like Catholic Worker and so on. But in Latin America it was a major movement, called Liberation Theology, which effectively was committing a heresy — serious heresy. It was trying to get people to take the gospels seriously, and that is real heresy. The gospels are a radical pacifist text essentially, and in fact that’s why Christians were persecuted so badly in the first few centuries of Christianity. Up until the emperor Constantine took it over, and turned it into the religion of the powerful and the rich. So the cross, which was the symbol of suffering and the poor, was placed on the shields of the Roman Empire. And from then on, essentially, the church has been the church of the rich and the powerful. And the gospels as a heretical document. I mean you can mouth the words, but you’re not supposed to think about it.
Actually there’s a marvelous literary portrayal of this is Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, the Grande Inquisitor section, which describes Jesus coming back to earth, and the Grande Inquisitor finds out about it, and calls Jesus before him and sentences him to death. Because what he’s doing is undermining authority and power, and it’s subversive, and he would destroy a civilization which is based on absolute obedience to higher authority, and people being controlled by imagery, and illusion, and so on. So this guy is really dangerous, and you’ve gotta get rid of him. That essentially captures the mentality of the actual churches that developed, while the Latin American bishops in particular were going back to Christianity, organizing peasants, and base communities to read the gospels, to think about what the meaning was, how they might take their lives into their own hands and so on. And the idea of a preferential option for the poor is really shocking to the powerful. So in fact, the Catholic Left developed in this context.
The response on the part of the U.S. government was just extreme violence. So if you look at the famous, or infamous, School of the America’s, now renamed, which trains Latin American officers, they publicly take credit for the fact that the U.S. army helped defeat Liberation Theology. And it defeated it by extreme violence. So in El Salvador for example, the decade was framed by the assassination of an arch-bishop while he was reading mass in 1980, and the murder of six leading Jesuit intellectuals in 1989. Had [their] brains blown out by elite forces, armed and trained by the United States, killing tens of thousands of the usual victims in between. Reagan carried out a real, major war against the church. That was one stream. The other stream was the Vatican, which undermined Liberation Theology at every point — much as the Grand Inquisitor explained and for essentially the same reasons. Well that’s the broader context. The Catholic Left developed in the United States partly in that context, partly from its own initiatives.
JT: Some of the members of the Catonsville Nine had done work in Guatemala, and actually had just returned from Guatemala. Are you, were you familiar with their experiences?
NC: Yeah. In fact they’ve written about it. The Melvilles [Thomas and Marjorie]. But Guatemala was the most, out of all the cases of U.S. violence in the region, which are phenomenal, Guatemala was the worst. I mean it started not withÉ having nothing to do with Catholics. Guatemala had traditionally had a brutal dictatorship, which the U.S. welcomed and supported. In 1944, there were what one Guatemalan poet called ÒTen Years of Spring.Ó There was a beginning of democratic society, elections, some social justice organizing and so on, mass popular movement, very popular government. The U.S. was bitterly opposed to it. And then in 1954, the Eisenhower administration basically invaded, organized a military coup, and succeeded in over throwing the democratic government and installing a military dictatorship which since then, has just been a continuous horror story. What the Melvilles and others describe, bits and pieces of it, hundreds of thousands of people slaughtered, all kind of viciousness and terror. By the time that Liberation Theology coalesced in the ’60s, it was becoming interpenetrated with the church’s efforts to bring the gospels to the people, which is as I say an extreme heresy, and did illicit even greater violence. Reagan to his dismay was inhibited a little by Congress from directly supporting the worst killers and murderers. So they, although he did publicly support them and praise them, so they had to turn to surrogates: Israel, Taiwan. The Reagan administration constructed an array, a terrorist network of terrorist states. Other countries may hire individual terrorists, we hire terrorist states. And they implemented the atrocities which in the highlands amounted to virtual genocide, maybe actual genocide.
All of this is, this is not really debatable. It was all brought out in the truth commission reports that studied it later of course complete impunity, and total impunity for the outsiders like in the United States who were responsible for it. In fact it’s all been wiped out of history. We have a highly sanitized history, which excludes the crimes that we commit. So, they don’t exist. In fact, to give you an example from this morning, I had an interview on BBC, which I suppose they’ll play one of these days, and interviewer happened to bring up what I wrote about Cambodia. So I pointed out, yeah, I wrote about Cambodia, and the point that I made was that people should tell the truth. Here’s an enemy that’s carried out monstrous crimes. Okay, tell the truth about it. But I said that was paired, everything I wrote was paired, with the discussion of East Timor. There were two major atrocities going on at that part of the world, same part of the world, same years, both horrendous, and I did a detailed analyses of both of them. And what we discovered was, not surprisingly, that in the case of the enemy atrocities which we couldn’t do anything about nobody had a suggestion. It was huge outrage of vast lying on a level which would have impressed Stalin, to make it seem worse than it was, and so on. On the other hand, the atrocities that we were responsible for, and we could do everything about, we could stop ’em in five minutesÉ silence, evasion, denial. The interviewer didn’t even know what I was referring to. Which is correct. Britain and the United States were the primary agents responsible for actions about as close to genocide as anything in the late 20th century, so of course we know nothing about it. Why should we? We’re supposed to be upset about other people’s crimes.
Actually, The Guardian, you know the liberal newspaper, a series of interesting articles now, they’re lamenting the fact that the West is losing its influence in the world. And can no longer be in the forefront of defending human rights, and the highest values and so on, because of these bad forces that are taking over. And one of the authors, a decent person, calls himself a friend of the Liberal International Order, talks about the thirty glorious years that we’ve just had. What happened in these, what he’s referring to of course is the Soviet Union’s collapse. But what happened in these thirty glorious years? Well they begin, the late ’70s, with the coming in of the Argentine dictatorship. The most vicious of all the national security states in Latin America began with Kennedy’s initiation of the Brazilian dictatorship, and swept through, a plague repression of the hemisphere, the worst of it all was Argentina — greatly loved by the Reagan administration. In fact, they brought the worst killer to Central America to direct and teach the Contras techniques of torture and massacre. So it begins with the Argentine dictatorship, then comes Reagan’s terrorist wars in Central America, killed hundreds of thousands of people, left four countries in ruins. It includes Reagan’s support for South Africa in violation of congressional conditions apart from what was going on in South Africa that meant killing about a million and a half people in the surrounding countries. ‘Cause we had to defend ourselves from the Nelson Mandella and the African National Congress, which was identified by Washington as one of the worst terrorist, one of the more notorious terrorist groups in the world. We’re relieved to know that Mandella was taken off of the terrorist list a few months ago. So we had to defend ourselves from the notorious terrorist Mandella, and therefore kill a couple of million people in Southern Africa, and on and on. Those are the glorious years.
Well that makes sense from the point of view of Western, liberal, humanists. Since these are all our crimes, they didn’t happen. But what made it thirty glorious years is that an enemies crimes were ended. So fine, it’s thirty glorious years. And that encapsulates liberal, intellectual, humanist opinion very elegantly. And you see it over and over. I mean, Jane Meyer, who’s one of the people who’s done the best chronicling of torture in Guantanamo, and so on, just has a new book, she had an article in New York Review of Books, in which she talked about the horrors of the Bush administration, torture and so on. And she said during the War on Terror, America lost its way. What way did it lose? Did it lose the way that the Melville’s are talking about? There was no torture before Bush? What was going on in El Salvador and Guatemala?
In fact in, just to take one example — one in 1986 — one of the most spectacular events took place that I know of. A prison, political prison in El Salvador, the U.S. run government had arrested the entire civil rights group. There was a functioning civil rights group, so they arrested ’em all, and threw them into prison. Somebody smuggled in a camera, somehow. And they took videotapes of prisoners, I think over 400 prisoners, who, on camera, so they could be identified, they were in prison, you know, torture chamber, described their torture, including, at the hands, of an American, North American major. Somehow they smuggle it out of the prison. Detailed personal accounts taken by lawyers, of hundreds of prisoners, the way they were tortured in prison. It was circulated through the American press. It wasn’t reported, and nobody knows about it. But we didn’t lose our way then. Notice that, that was a war on terror. Bush didn’t declare the War on Terror in September 2001. He redeclared it. Reagan had declared a war on terror, when he came into office. That’s the core of U.S. policy, was going to be a war on terror, that plague of the modern age, and return to barbarism in our times, all the same rhetoric. But that’s wiped out of history. That’s airbrushed out. Why? Because Reagan’s War on Terror became a massive terrorist war. Of which one of the main targets was the church, in fact. The Romero assassination, and the assassination of the Jesuits illustrates, with plenty more. Uh, but that’s airbrushed out. ‘Cause we did it, so it didn’t happen. So we had thirty glorious years, and now we’ve lost our way because of Bush.
JT: When did you begin speaking out against the Vietnam War? And did you find it difficult to do as someone working in academia?
NC: I began too late. That’s one thing I’m sorry about. I began around 1964. Kennedy invaded South Vietnam in 1962. That was after six or seven or eight years of establishing a Latin American style terrorist state in the late ’50s, which had probably killed 70 or 80 thousand people by then, something like that. But I didn’t do anything about it. Kennedy came in, the U.S. was no longer able to control the southern insurgency, it was southern, no North Vietnamese. As if for some reason, North Vietnamese are not allowed to be in Vietnam, let’s put that aside. It was southern, they knew it. It was a mass political force that they couldn’t control, so Kennedy sent the American Air Force to start bombing rural South Vietnam, authorized napalm, started chemical warfare, destroyed crops and ground cover, started rounding people up in to what amounted to concentration camps, called Òstrategic hamletsÓ — the story was to protect them from indigenous guerrillas, who the U.S. knew perfectly well they were supporting. But I didn’t do anything. It was not until 1964 when there were the beginnings of real, large-scale escalation that I started trying to talk about it.
And it was very hard. I’d give talks in somebody’s living room let’s say, or maybe in a church where there were four people you know, the minister, the organizer, somebody who wanted to kill me, and a drunk who came in off the streets. That would be a typical talk. And this, here, right here, at MIT, if we wanted, there was small group of students interested, we wanted to have a meeting on Vietnam, it would have to be on Vietnam, and ten other topics you know, in the hope, of maybe bringing, filling half a classroom. And it went on like that for a while. In 1965, a friend, and a artist friend and I be trying to organize a national tax-resistant movement, which we did, but we couldn’t get a lot of participation. And a year later, in 1966, more active resistance began, support for draft resistance, other kinds of resistance, and went on from there. By 1967, ’68 it had built up into a substantial movement. But remember, that’s after five, or six years of invasion. At that time there were over half a million American troops there, South Vietnam had been practically destroyed, the word spread to the rest of Indochina, way beyond anything that happens yet in Iraq, far beyond. And yes by that time, you got a substantial anti-war movement and significant resistant activities were taking place. And we know they were effective.
One of the most interesting parts of the Pentagon Papers was so interesting — it’s also airbrushed out of history — is the last few months. The coverage of the last few months of the period, it covers up to, goes up to mid-1968. In January 1968, an event took place of really historic proportion. I don’t know of anything else like it. It’s what’s called here the Tet Offensive. The term is interesting. It was a Tet uprising, but if people in a country, rise up against an American invasion, that’s an offensive, because we’re there by right, and they’re not there by right. So it’s the Tet offensive. Putting that aside, the Tet offensive as it comes down in history, was an uprising, all over the country, coordinated. This is a country which was totally infiltrated, say over half a million American troops, 50,000 South Koreans, other mercenaries, huge client army, every village infiltrated, taken totally by surprise, there were no northern Vietnamese. They were around the edges of the country, apparently trying to draw American troops out from the center. This just huge uprising, the only way the United States could put it down was by massive violence. And it scared the devil out of planners here, and the business world too. Put pressure on Johnson to pull out, because of it getting too costly, but one thing Johnson wanted to do, was send a couple hundred thousand more troops. And there was, the Joint Chiefs didn’t like it, they said that they would need troops for civil-disorder control in the United States if they escalated, they were afraid of an uprising among young people, women, minorities, a big civil disorder that they wouldn’t be able to control. So they’d need the troops here, so they didn’t want to send them to Vietnam. That tells you something about how seriously they were taking the protest. They significantly inhibited the escalation of — it was bad enough, you know, probably killed four million people in Vietnam, but it could have been worse. In fact it’s likely, Dan Ellsberg has worked on this particularly that looks as though the Nixon administration, soon came in, was contemplating using nuclear weapons but was deterred by the threat of rising public protest inside the United States you can’t prove it until, at least until they release a lot more documentary evidence, but it looks like it.
JT: To what extent do you believe actions like the Catonsville Nine legitimized the antiwar movement, or even helped to end the war?
NC: It was a very courageous action. Civil disobedience is a tactic, it’s not a principal. And the point of the tactic is, I think at least, is to encourage others to move a little farther. So, if we go this far, maybe other people will think about it, and be inspired, and they’ll do a little more than they were doing. It was the same with tax resistance, simple form of resistance. Somebody does that maybe, I’ll do something else, and all of these things contributed — Catonsville Nine as well — to energizing people, to make ’em think, to undertake activism of the kind that they might not have contemplated otherwise. So in ways that I don’t think you can really measure precisely, it contributes to building up a public force which puts constraints on government violence.
JT: How would you assess the actions of the Catholic Left [draft board raids] versus actions taken by organizations like the Weather Underground?
NC: Weather Underground didn’t think through what they were doing. I spent a lot of time trying to convince young people not to join the Weather Underground. I mean, you can argue about whether the Catholic Left had the right tactics or not, but the Weather Underground was, I think, no justification for their tactical choices. I mean, you can understand their mood, there was a mood of real desperation, especially among young people feeling like we’ve tried everything, nothing’s worked, we’ve gotta go all out. The actions were completely counterproductive for themselves, for their effect on others. Remember, such actions are, and a lot of ’em really thought they were bringing about a revolution. They were living in a delusional world. The U.S. was not in a state where it was going to be a revolution. They were living in a completely delusional world, of a kind that teenagers might live in, very desperate, very angry, and picked tactics that were harmful, and caused themselves lots of harm as well. I think the Catholic Left, some of the actions are debatable, but, they’re not in that category.
JT: Do movements need recognizable figures to lead them? I guess what I’m really asking is, is there a danger of becoming a celebrity of the Left?
NC: Well, you know, it’s kind of inevitable in a celebrity run culture that people will be picked out and identified as leaders, but yeah, it’s a negative factor. I’m sure the Berrigans [Dan and Phil] would have been the first to say that, there’s nothing special about them, they’re doing these things because others are making it possible. I mean if you think about, say, the Civil Rights movement, what mainly comes to mind is Martin Luther King. Who was a person of great significance undoubtedly, but, again, I presume, he would have been the first to say, that he’s able to lead demonstrations and give speeches because SNCC workers are riding freedom buses, and sitting-in on lunch counters, and facing violence everyday of the week and they’re organizing activities. Mass popular movements will sometimes, somebody will show up, to appear to be a leader. It’s dangerous, and very often, the leader’s cynical, and is using it to gain power, and to crush the ideals of the mass movement. It’s what Lenin was doing in 1917 for example. But, sometimes it’s authentic, like Civil Rights movement, or the Berrigans. But it shouldn’t be emphasized. The apparent leadership is riding a wave of popular activism.
JT: What can Americans concerned about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan learn from the Baltimore Four and Catonsville Nine?
NC: The one thing they can learn is how much those actions civilized the country. Opposition to aggression is far higher now than it was in the 1970s. I mean you constantly read that there’s no protest over Iraq like there is over Vietnam, I mean that’s got the story backwards. You take the Vietnam War at any, at a stage where it was comparable to the Iraq war today, there was almost no protest. When there were 150,000 American troops in Vietnam, and 4,000 casualties, protest was very slight. In fact, the reason it hasn’t gone further in Iraq is because the government’s afraid. The Iraq War’s the first war in Western history that I can think of where there was massive protest before it was officially launched. I stress the word officially because later we learned that it had already been launched in secret by Bush and Blair. But the official launching of the war took place after the massive protests, which are an inhibiting factor. And they continue to be an inhibiting factor. And that’s the basic lesson. State violence is going to continue. But it can be inhibited either by making the country more democratic, which is a long way off, or else by just posing threats that the power system is unwilling to face.