Noam Chomsky interview

Noam Chomsky interviewed by Brian Lehrer

WNYC, June 9, 2009

Transcribed by Ken Levy

(Please note: this is a volunteer transcript of an original audio or video source. It has not been verified by chomsky.info or Noam Chomsky for accuracy. It is recommended that the original source be employed when possible for purposes of citation.)

Lehrer: Noam Chomsky is my next guest. The occasion is the 40th anniversary of his seminal book American Power and the New Mandarins, which moved Chomsky from world-renowned linguist and a founder of cognitive psychology to also world-renowned political commentator. Dr. Chomsky will be speaking Friday night at Manhattan’s Riverside Church in conjunction with the book’s 40th anniversary, a benefit for the Brecht Forum, the political and cultural center in the West Village. Dr. Chomsky, hello, welcome back to WNYC.

Chomsky: Good to be here.

L: Take us back, American Power and the New Mandarins – the new Mandarins were a class of largely liberal intellectuals who you believe were giving Johnson intellectual cover for an Imperialist war in Viet Nam?

C: Actually primarily Kennedy – this was the group that became famous as the action intellectuals, the technocratic elite, they called themselves…[Lehrer interjects]

L: What Kennedy referred to as ‘the best and the brightest’?

C: I don’t know if he used that word but that’s what they were called. And then they stayed on and sort of began to drift away during the Johnson administration but they remained effective and they remain so today. I mean, the same groups, often the same people are still influential and they still regard themselves that way. So for example Zbigniew Brzezinski, who’s very much alive and active is one of those who touted the technocratic elite back in the 1960’s. I suspect he must have been discussed in the book.

L: Well, looking at Kennedy and looking at LBJ – do you believe that they agonized over Viet Nam? Other histories say, you know, they were more interested, LBJ was more interested in Great Society domestic legislation but felt that he had to stop the military march of communism. Or was there more of a clear agenda, as you see it, to spread American power around the world for it’s own sake.

C: Well, I agree with you about Johnson; I think he would have been very pleased to be able to focus on his domestic agenda, which was, we should remember, [unclear] by the activist popular movements that were taking shape and becoming quite effective through the 1960’s and like most government progressive policies, he was riding on that wave and he would have liked to have focussed on that.

‘Stopping the march of communism’ is a kind of a strange phrase. There was no march of communism. Back in the 1940’s, when the United States had to make the decision whether to back France’s effort to re-conquer it’s Indochina colonies or help to support the independence movement as it did in some other places like Indonesia, it was well understood that the Viet Minh, [unclear] Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh were simply the nationalist movement of Indochina. That was understood all the way through. So, right in the Kennedy years the leading US government scholar, Douglas Pike, wrote a major book called Viet Cong, as they were then called, and he simply described them as the only mass-based political party in South Viet Nam. He said to try to deal with them in the political arena would be like ‘a minnow dealing with a whale’. And if you look back now we have a lot more evidence from declassified documents and [unclear] memoirs… [Lehrer interjects]

L: So if Kennedy understood that in that way, what do you think he was after in Viet Nam?

C: Well, if you look back at the records, and in fact I wrote about it as soon as the Pentagon Papers came out – there’s a lot of documentation and since then it’s been much enriched – but there was a concern with what’s called the domino theory. And that actually has two versions. There’s a version for the public and an internal version. The version for the public is, you know: Ho Chi Minh is gonna get into a canoe and come over and, you know, rape your grandmother or something like that… [Lehrer interjects]

L: Well, it was really that the Soviets and the Chinese, country by country the dominos would fall if we allowed them.

C: The Soviets and the Chinese were practically at war by the time Kennedy got involved and they had very little to do with Indochina. It was a nationalist movement. It was understood. But the concern, there was a serious version of the domino theory which is held internally and not just in this case, in case after case it’s the leading motif in forceful intervention – case after case. It’s what Dean Acheson called the ‘rotten apple that might spoil the barrel’ or what Arthur Schlesinger, back in the early ’60’s when Kennedy was coming in and he headed a Latin American mission, he warned that in the case of Cuba, what he warned about is what he called ‘the spread of the Castro idea’ of taking matters into your own hands which may encourage others in the region who suffer similar problems, they’ll do the same and our system of domination will erode. In the case of Indochina it was pretty straightforward. They were concerned that a national movement in Viet Nam may be, you know, whatever it was internally, might be economically successful and socially successful in terms that would appeal to others in the region: Thailand, Indonesia, which was a big concern. Eisenhower had in fact carried out a major intervention in 1958 to try to overthrow the government of Indonesia which was kind of falling out of control. And unlike Viet Nam, Indonesia has very rich in resources. So those are the dominos that might topple. And then there’s what the leading Asia historian, John Dower called the ‘super-domino’: Japan. If country after country started moving in an independent nationalist direction Japan, you know, the super-domino, might decide that it wanted to, as it was called ‘accommodate itself’ to an independent Southeast Asia, in which case, and become its technological/industrial center – which would pretty much mean that the United States would have lost the Pacific phase of the Second World War. That was what Japan was trying to do and the US wanted to stop it. And you know in the 1950’s, in the early ’60’s planners were not ready to lose the Second World War. That’s a constant theme. It was the reason for overthrowing the Allende regime. As Kissinger put it… [Lehrer interjects]

L: When you say the ‘Second World War’ you mean the cold war…

C: No, no. I mean the Second World War, the Pacific phase of the Second World War. The big issue was Japan’s effort to construct what they called a ‘New Order’ in Asia which would drive out the Europeans, and you know the Americans were peripheral… [Lehrer interjects]

L: So it could have happened by other means, you’re saying…

C: I could have happened, yeah, that’s the domino theory. As I say, it’s over and over. So take say..Cuba’s a case in point, where it’s very explicit in the record. Take Chile. Kissinger’s version of it was that, he said Allende could be ‘a virus’ that might spread contagion as far as southern Europe… [Lehrer interjects]

L: A socialist elected president, yes.

C: Well, just a, you know, parliamentary regime moving in a social democratic direction. We don’t want that. In fact Brezhnev agreed – the two of them were concerned about the same spread. That was very common… [Lehrer interjects]

L: Let me bring it up to the present for our few remaining minutes. What do you think of Obama through your lens of New Mandarins? He’s appointed his own class of Ivy League liberal intellectuals. Of course the times are very different. But how similar, how different, in terms of the expression of American power in your opinion?

C: You know, the spectrum is pretty narrow. So whether you’re talking about the technocratic elite of liberal intellectuals or the Straussian neo-cons, they share some fundamental ideas. One idea that they share is that the public has to be kept out of influencing policy. These are elite decisions made by small groups who call themselves ‘the responsible men’ or ‘experts’ or something like that. And you gotta make sure the public doesn’t interfere with them. That’s a very standard theme. In fact it goes back to James Madison and the framing of the constitution. And they also think that it’s their task, at the helm, is to ensure that what are called US ‘interests’, which means the interests of the state-corporate sector and those who dominate it, will be able to flourish around the world, which constantly means preventing dominos from falling, preventing independent nationalist forces from breaking out of control. Now during the Cold War it was indeed associated with the Soviet Union and China but it’s done in a pretty comical way. Actually there’s a wonderful book about it now by James Peck, a very good China scholar, called Washington’s China. It’s the first book to go through, carefully, the national security culture, the declassified documentary record of the national security council and those around it. And it’s very similar all the way through from the ’40’s all the way through Nixon when the record runs dry. They had a conclusion. The conclusion was that China’s an evil force, we gotta stop ’em. And then they shifted the argument, so, depending on the circumstances, so as to lead to that conclusion. And it’s put in terms that sounds almost manic. So just to give you an example in the case of Viet Nam when the US decided to support France, 1950, US intelligence was assigned a task. The task was to prove that Ho Chi Minh was a puppet of either Russia or China or the Sino-Soviet conspiracy, didn’t really matter whom, just a puppet of one of them. Now they worked hard on it. You look through the internal record you see a very extensive effort to try to prove it. Finally US intelligence came up with a conclusion that’s very odd, that the Viet Minh seem to be the only group in Southeast Asia that doesn’t even seem to have contact with either China or Russia, so… [Lehrer interjects]

L: Dr. Chomsky, we have about two minutes left. I’m curious what you think, now, your impact has been after forty years of commenting on American power. Have you had an impact on policy or just on those who read you and listen to you from the outside?

C: Well the latter is what I would hope; it’s for others to judge. But I’m not talking to policy makers. They know what they’re doing. I don’t have to explain anything to them. I think the public should know and act on that knowledge and act to influence policy. And I think, you know, not me, but that’s what happened. The activism of the ’60’s has had a very substantial effect in civilizing the society – the 60’s and the aftermath, because it never stopped. And there are a lot of people who participated in that, and you know, I’m happy to have been able to have been one of them, but there are plenty, plenty. And they’ve just changed the country. I mean just take the last election. I mean I don’t happen to like any of the candidates but the very fact that the Democrats had a woman and an African-American as candidates – that would have been unthinkable in the 1960’s or for that matter the 1980’s. These are just aspects of the process of becoming more civilized…

L: Give me a minute on your impressions of Obama, the most important ones.

C: Well, there was an article by Flint and Hillary Leverett, Iran specialists, in the New York Times, a couple weeks ago, in which they described Obama’s policies as ‘prettified Bush’. I think that’s fairly accurate. He’s pulled back from the more extreme, some of the more extreme stands of the Bush administration which were really off the spectrum and back more towards the normal centrist Democrat. But a lot of the rest is warmed-over Bush. So for example the speech in Cairo, the other day…

L: We have fifteen seconds. Go ahead.

C: Well if you put aside the style, which was different, the content Bush could have said.

L: The views of Noam Chomsky on the 40th anniversary of the publication of his book American Power and the New Mandarins. He will be speaking at the Riverside Church this Friday night at an event that begins at six o’clock, being sponsored by the Mission of Social Justice and Education at the church to benefit the Brecht Forum Cultural Center. For tickets, if you’re interested, you can go to brechtforum.org or call 212-242-4201.

Noam Chomsky, thank you very much.

C: Glad to be with you.

L: Brian Lehrer on WNYC.