Watergate: Small Potatoes

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from Radical Priorities, 1981

John Dean’s list of enemies has elicited indignation and flippancy. Justifiable responses, no doubt, but inadequate ones. Suppose there had been no Thomas Watson [of IBM] or James Reston [of the New York Times] or McGeorge Bundy on the White House hate list. Suppose that the list had been limited to true political dissidents, antiwar activists, radicals. Then, one can be sure, there would have been no front page story in the New York Times and little attention on the part of the respectable political commentators. But the gang of petty thieves who had taken temporary control over the state executive violated the rules of the game. They were attacking the political center. Their targets included the rich and respectable, spokesmen for official ideology, men who are expected to share power, to design social policy and mold popular opinion. Such people are not fair game for persecution at the hands of the state.

The reaction to the Watergate affair in general exhibits the same moral flaw. What CREEP was trying to do to the Democrats is insignificant in comparison with the bipartisan attack on the Communist Party in the post-war era. Judicial and other harassment of dissidents and their organizations is the common practice, whoever happens to be in office. Serious civil rights or antiwar groups have regularly discovered government provocateurs among their most militant members.

Watergate is different only in that some of the familiar bipartisan tactics were applied against one of the two components of what has occasionally been called “the Property Party,” one of the two candidate-producing organizations that masquerade as political.

A true hypocrite might argue that the state attack on political dissent has generally been within the bounds o the law — at least, as the courts have interpreted the constitution — whereas the Watergate antics were plainly illegal. But surely it is clear that those who have the power to impose their interpretation of “legitimacy” will so construct and construe the legal system as to permit them to root out their enemies.

The mistake of the Watergate conspirators was that they failed to heed the lesson of the McCarthy hearings twenty years ago. It is one thing to attack the Left, the pitiful remnants of the Communist Party, a collapsing liberal opposition that had capitulated in advance by accepting — in fact, creating — the instruments of postwar repression, or elements in the bureaucracy that might impede the state policy of counterrevolutionary intervention and enforcement of global order; it is something else again to turn the same weapons against the U.S. Army. Having failed to make this subtle distinction, McCarthy was quickly destroyed. Nixon’s cohorts, as recent exposures have amply demonstrated, have fallen into the same error of judgment.

The Watergate caper and the sordid story that has since been revealed are not without significance. They indicate, once again, how frail are the barriers to some form of fascism in a state capitalist system in crisis. Fortunately for us and for the world, McCarthy was a mere thug and Nixon’s mafia overstepped the bounds of acceptable trickery and deceit with such obtuseness and blundering vulgarity that they were quickly called to account by powerful forces.

Nixon’s front men now plead that in 1969-70 the country was on the verge of insurrection and that it was therefore necessary to stretch the Constitutional limits. The turmoil of those years was largely a reaction to U.S. efforts to crush the forces of revolutionary nationalism in Indochina. The basic premises of that policy are largely shared by most of the enemies on the Dean-Colson list. And the conditions, domestic and international, that have led successive Administrations to guide “Third World Development” into the particular channels that suit the needs of industrial capitalism have not changed. There is every reason to suppose that similar considerations will impel their successors to implement the same policies, choosing their domestic enemies more judiciously and preparing the ground more thoroughly.

The reaction to Watergate illustrates the dangers well enough. In the midst of the Watergate exposures, Ambassador Godley testified before Congress that 15,000-20,000 Thai mercenaries had been employed by the U.S. in Laos, in direct and explicit violation of Congressional legislation. The confirmation of Pathet Lao charges that had been largely ignored or ridiculed in the West evoked little editorial comment or public indignation, though it is a far more serious matter than anything revealed at the Ervin hearings.

Liberal commentators sigh with relief that Kissinger has barely been tainted — a bit of questionable wiretapping, but no close involvement in the Watergate shenanigans. Yet by any objective standards the man is one of the great mass murderers of modern times. He presided over the expansion of the war to Cambodia (with consequences that are now well-known) and the vicious escalation of the bombings of Laos, not to speak of the atrocities committed in Vietnam as he sought to achieve a victory of some sort for imperial power in Indochina. But he wasn’t implicated in the burglary at the Watergate or the undermining of Muskie, so his hands are clean.

If we try to keep a sense of balance, the exposures of the past several months are analogous to the discovery that the directors of Murder, Inc. were also cheating on their income tax. Reprehensible, to be sure, but hardly the main point.