QUESTION: Paradoxically, your political writings and your and your analyses of American imperialist ideology appear to be better known, in France as well as in the United States, than the new discipline which you have created: generative grammar. That poses the question: Do you see a link between your scientific activities — the study of language — and your political activities? For example, in the methods of analysis?
CHOMSKY: If there is a connection, it is on a rather abstract level. I don’t have access to any unusual methods of analysis, and what special knowledge I have concerning language has no immediate bearing on social and political issues. Everything I have written on these topics could have been written by someone else. There is no very direct connection between my political activities, writing and others, and the work bearing on language structure, though in some measure they perhaps derive from certain common assumptions and attitudes with regard to basic aspects of human nature. Critical analysis in the ideological arena seems to me to be a fairly straightforward matter as compared to an approach that requires a degree of conceptual abstraction. For the analysis of ideology, which occupies me very much, a bit of open-mindedness, normal intelligence, and healthy skepticism will generally suffice.
For example, take the question of the role of the intelligentsia in a society like ours. This social class, which includes historians and other scholars, journalists, political commentators, and so on, undertakes to analyze and present some picture of social reality. By virtue of their analyses and interpretations, they serve as mediators between the social facts and the mass of the population: they create the ideological justification for social practice. Look at the work of the specialists in contemporary affairs and compare their interpretation with the events, compare what they say with the world of fact. You will often find great and fairly systematic divergence. Then you can take a further step and try to explain these divergences, taking into account the class position of the intelligentsia.
Such analysis is, I think, of some importance, but the task is not very difficult, and the problems that arise do not seem to me to pose much of an intellectual challenge. With a little industry and application, anyone who is willing to extricate himself from the system of shared ideology and propaganda will readily see through the modes of distortion developed by substantial segments of the intelligentsia. Everybody is capable of doing that. If such analysis is often carried out poorly, that is because, quite commonly, social and political analysis is produced to defend special interests rather than to account for the actual events.
Precisely because of this tendency one must be careful not to give the impression, which in any event is false, that only intellectuals equipped with special training are capable of such analytic work. In fact that is just what the intelligentsia would often like us to think: they pretend to be engaged in an esoteric enterprise, inaccessible to simple people. But that’s nonsense. The social sciences generally, and above all the analysis of contemporary affairs, are quite accessible to anyone who wants to take an interest in these matters. The alleged complexity, depth, and obscurity of these questions is part of the illusion propagated by the system of ideological control, which aims to make the issues seem remote from the general population and to persuade them of their incapacity to organize their own affairs or to understand the social world in which they live without the tutelage of intermediaries. For that reason alone one should be careful not to link the analysis of social issues with scientific topics which, for their part, do require special training and techniques, and thus a special intellectual frame of reference, before they can be seriously investigated.
In the analysis of social and political issues it is sufficient to face the facts and to be willing to follow a rational line of argument. Only Cartesian common sense, which is quite evenly distributed, is needed … if by that you understand the willingness to look at the facts with an open mind, to put simple assumptions to the test, and to pursue an argument to its conclusion. But beyond that no special esoteric knowledge is required to explore these “depths,” which are nonexistent.
QUESTION: In fact I’m thinking of the work which has been able to reveal the existence of “rules” of ideology, inaccessible to the consciousness of those caught up in history; for example, the study which Jean Pierre Faye has devoted to the rise of Nazism. This type of work shows that the critique of ideology can attain intellectual profundity.
CHOMSKY: I do not say that it is impossible to create an intellectually interesting theory dealing with ideology and its social bases. That’s possible, but it isn’t necessary in order to understand, for example, what induces intellectuals often to disguise reality in the service of external power, or to see how it is done in particular cases of immediate importance. To be sure, one can treat all of this as an interesting topic of research. But we must separate two things:
1. Is it possible to present a significant theoretical analysis of this? Answer: Yes, in principle. And this type of work might attain a level at which it would require special training, and form, in principle, part of science.
2. Is such a science necessary to remove the distorting prism imposed by the intelligentsia on social reality? Answer: No. Ordinary skepticism and application is sufficient.
Let us take a concrete example: When an event occurs in the world, the mass media — television, the newspapers — look for someone to explain it. In the United States, at least, they turn to the professionals in social science, basing themselves on the notion, which seems superficially reasonable and in some instances is reasonable within limits, that these experts have a special competence to explain what is happening. Correspondingly, it is very important for the professionals to make everyone believe in the existence of an intellectual frame of reference which they alone possess, so that they alone have the right to comment on these affairs or are in a position to do so. This is one of the ways in which the professional intelligentsia serve a useful and effective function within the apparatus of social control. You don’t ask the man in the street how to build a bridge, do you? You turn to a professional expert. Very well, in the same way you should not ask this man in the street: Must we intervene in Angola? Here one needs professionals — very carefully selected, to be sure.
To make all of this more concrete, let me comment in a very personal way: in my own professional work I have touched on a variety of different fields. I’ve done work in mathematical linguistics, for example, without any professional credentials in mathematics; in this subject I am completely self-taught, and not very well taught. But I’ve often been invited by universities to speak on mathematical linguistics at mathematics seminars and colloquia. No one has ever asked me whether I have the appropriate credentials to speak on these subjects; the mathematicians couldn’t care less. What they want to know is what I have to say. No one has ever objected to my right to speak, asking whether I have a doctor’s degree in mathematics, or whether I have taken advanced courses in this subject. That would never have entered their minds. They want to know whether I am right or wrong, whether the subject is interesting or not, whether better approaches are possible — the discussion dealt with the subject, not with my right to discuss it.
But on the other hand, in discussion or debate concerning social issues or American foreign policy, Vietnam or the Middle East, for example, the issue is constantly raised, often with considerable venom. I’ve repeatedly been challenged on grounds of credentials, or asked, what special training do you have that entitles you to speak of these matters. The assumption is that people like me, who are outsiders from a professional viewpoint, are not entitled to speak on such things.
Compare mathematics and the political sciences — it’s quite striking. In mathematics, in physics, people are concerned with what you say, not with your certification. But in order to speak about social reality, you must have the proper credentials, particularly if you depart from the accepted framework of thinking. Generally speaking, it seems fair to say that the richer the intellectual substance of a field, the less there is a concern for credentials, and the greater is the concern for content. One might even argue that to deal with substantive issues in the ideological disciplines may be a dangerous thing, because these disciplines are not simply concerned with discovering and explaining the facts as they are; rather, they tend to present these facts and interpret them in a manner that conforms to certain ideological requirements, and to become dangerous to established interests if they do not do so.
To complete the picture I should note a striking difference, in my personal experience at least, between the United States and other industrial democracies in this regard. Thus I have found over the years that although I am often asked to comment on international affairs or social issues by press, radio, and television in Canada, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, that is very rare in the United States.
(I exclude here the special pages of the newspapers in which a range of dissenting view is permitted, even encouraged, but encapsulated and identified as “full expression of a range of opinion.” I am referring rather to the commentary and analysis that enters into the mainstream of discussion and interpretation of contemporary affairs, a crucial difference.)
The contrast was quite dramatic through the period of the Vietnam war, and remains so today. If this were solely a personal experience, it would not be of any significance, but I am quite sure it is not. The United States is unusual among the industrial democracies in the rigidity of the system of ideological control — “indoctrination,” we might say — exercised through the mass media. One of the devices used to achieve this narrowness of perspective is the reliance on professional credentials. The universities and academic disciplines have, in the past, been successful in safeguarding conformist attitudes and interpretations, so that by and large a reliance on “professional expertise” will ensure that views and analyses that depart from orthodoxy will rarely be expressed.
Thus, when I hesitate to try to link my work in linguistics to analyses of current affairs or of ideology, as many people suggest, it is for two reasons. In the first place, the connection is in fact tenuous. Furthermore, I do not want to contribute to the illusion that these questions require technical understanding, inaccessible without special training. But I don’t want to deny what you say: one can approach the nature of ideology, the role of ideological control, the social role of the intelligentsia, etc., in a sophisticated fashion. But the task which confronts the ordinary citizen concerned with understanding social reality and removing the masks that disguise it is not comparable to Jean Pierre Faye’s problem in his investigation of totalitarian language.
QUESTION: In your analyses of ideology you have pointed to a “curious” fact: At times certain journals practice a policy of “balance,” which consists of presenting contradictory reports or interpretations side by side. You said, however, that only the official version, that of the dominant ideology, was retained, even without proof, while the version of the opposition was rejected in spite of the evidence presented and the reliability of the sources.
CHOMSKY: Yes, in part because, obviously, privileged status is accorded to the version that conforms better to the needs of power and privilege. However, it is important not to overlook the tremendous imbalance as to how the social reality is presented to the public.
To my knowledge, in the American mass media you cannot find a single socialist journalist, not a single syndicated political commentator who is a socialist. From the ideological point of view the mass media are almost one hundred percent “state capitalist.” In a sense, we have over here the “mirror image” of the Soviet Union, where all the people who write in Pravda represent the position which they call “socialism” — in fact, a certain variety of highly authoritarian state socialism. Here in the United States there is an astonishing degree of ideological uniformity for such a complex country. Not a single socialist voice in the mass media, not even a timid one; perhaps there are some marginal exceptions, but I cannot think of any, offhand. Basically, there are two reasons for this. First, there is the remarkable ideological homogeneity of the American intelligentsia in general, who rarely depart from one of the variants of state capitalistic ideology (liberal or conservative), a fact which itself calls for explanation. The second reason is that the mass media are capitalist institutions. It is no doubt the same on the board of directors of General Motors. If no socialist is to be found on it — what would he be doing there? — it’s not because they haven’t been able to find anyone who is qualified. In a capitalist society the mass media are capitalist institutions. The fact that these institutions reflect the ideology of dominant economic interests is hardly surprising.
That is a crude and elementary fact. What you speak of points to more subtle phenomena. These, though interesting, must not make one forget the dominant factors.
It is notable that despite the extensive and well-known record of government lies during the period of the Vietnam war, the press, with fair consistency, remained remarkably obedient, and quite willing to accept the government’s assumptions, framework of thinking, and interpretation of what was happening. Of course, on narrow technical questions — is the war succeeding? for example — the press was willing to criticize, and there were always honest correspondents in the field who described what they saw. But I am referring to the general pattern of interpretation and analysis, and to more general assumptions about what is right and proper. Furthermore, at times the press simply concealed easily documented facts — the bombing of Laos is a striking case.
But the subservience of the media is illustrated in less blatant ways as well. Take the peace treaty negotiations, revealed by Hanoi radio in October 1972, right before the November presidential elections. When Kissinger appeared on television to say that “peace is at hand,” the press dutifully presented his version of what was happening, though even a cursory analysis of his comments showed that he was rejecting the basic principles of the negotiations on every crucial point, so that further escalation of the American war — as in fact took place with the Christmas bombings — was inevitable. I do not say this only with the benefit of hindsight. I and others exerted considerable energy trying to get the national press to face the obvious facts at the time, and I also wrote an article about it before the Christmas bombings,1 which in particular predicted “increased terror bombing of North Vietnam.”
The exact same story was replayed in January 1973, when the peace treaty was finally announced. Again Kissinger and the White House made it clear that the United States was rejecting every basic principle in the treaty it was signing, so that continued war was inevitable. The press dutifully accepted the official version, and even allowed some amazing falsehoods to stand unchallenged. I’ve discussed all of this in detail elsewhere.2
Or to mention another case, in an article written for Ramparts,3 I reviewed the retrospective interpretations of the war in Vietnam presented in the press when the war came to an end in 1975 — the liberal press, the rest is not interesting in this connection.
Virtually without exception, the press accepted the basic principles of government propaganda, without questioning them. Here we’re talking about that part of the press which considered itself as opposed to the war. That’s very striking.
The same is often true of passionate critics of the war; presumably, to a large extent they aren’t even conscious of it. That applies particularly to those who are sometimes considered the “intellectual élite.” There is, in fact, a curious book called The American Intellectual Elite by C. Kadushin, which presents the results of an elaborate opinion survey of a group identified as “the intellectual élite,” undertaken in 1970. This book contains a great deal of information on the group’s attitudes toward the war at the time when opposition to the war was at its peak. The overwhelming majority considered themselves to be opponents of the war, but in general for what they called “pragmatic” reasons: they became convinced at a given moment that the United States could not win at an acceptable cost. I imagine a study of the “German intellectual élite” in 1944 would have produced similar results. The study indicates quite dramatically the remarkable degree of conformity and submission to the dominant ideology among people who considered themselves informed critics of government policy.
The consequence of this conformist subservience to those in power, as Hans Morgenthau correctly termed it, is that, in the United States, political discourse and debate has often been less diversified even than in certain Fascist countries, Franco Spain, for example, where there was lively discussion covering a broad ideological range. Though the penalties for deviance from official doctrine were incomparably more severe than here, nevertheless opinion and thinking was not constrained within such narrow limits, a fact that frequently occasioned surprise among Spanish intellectuals visiting the United States during the latter years of the Franco period. Much the same was true in Fascist Portugal, where there seem to have been significant Marxist groups in the universities, to mention just one example. The range and significance of the ideological diversity became apparent with the fall of the dictatorship, and is also reflected in the liberation movements in the Portuguese colonies — a two-way street, in that case, in that the Portuguese intellectuals were influenced by the liberation movements, and conversely, I suppose.
In the United States the situation is quite different. As compared with the other capitalist democracies, the United States is considerably more rigid and doctrinaire in its political thinking and analysis. Not only among the intelligentsia, though in this sector the fact is perhaps most striking. The United States is exceptional also in that there is no significant pressure for worker participation in management, let alone real workers’ control. These issues are not alive in the United States, as they are throughout Western Europe. And the absence of any significant socialist voice or discussion is again quite a striking feature of the United States, as compared to other societies of comparable social structure and level of economic development.
Here one saw some small changes at the end of the sixties; but in 1965 you would have had great difficulty in finding a Marxist professor, or a socialist, in an economics department at a major university, for example. State capitalist ideology dominated the social sciences and every ideological discipline almost entirely. This conformism was called “the end of ideology.” It dominated the professional fields — and still largely does — as well as the mass media and the journals of opinion. Such a degree of ideological conformity in a country which does not have a secret police, at least not much of one, and does not have concentration camps, is quite remarkable. Here the range of ideological diversity (the kind that implies lively debate on social issues) for many years has been very narrow, skewed much more to the right than in other industrial democracies. This is important. The subtleties to which you alluded must be considered within this framework.
Some changes did take place at the end of the sixties in the universities, largely due to the student movement, which demanded and achieved some broadening of the tolerated range of thinking. The reactions have been interesting. Now that the pressure of the student movement has been reduced, there is a substantial effort to reconstruct the orthodoxy that had been slightly disturbed. And constantly, in the discussions and the literature dealing with that period — often called “the time of troubles” or something of that sort — the student left is depicted as a menace threatening freedom of research and teaching; the student movement is said to have placed the freedom of the universities in jeopardy by seeking to impose totalitarian ideological controls. That is how the state capitalist intellectuals describe the fact that their near-total control of ideology was very briefly brought into question, as they seek to close again these slight breaches in the system of thought control, and to reverse the process through which just a little diversity arose within the ideological institutions: the totalitarian menace of fascism of the left! And they really believe this, to such an extent have they been brainwashed and controlled by their own ideological commitments. One expects that from the police, but when it comes from the intellectuals, then that’s very striking.
It is certainly true that there were some cases in the American universities when the actions of the students went beyond the limits of what is proper and legitimate. Some of the worst incidents, as we know now, were instigated by government provocateurs,4 though a few, without doubt, represented excesses of the student movement itself. Those are the incidents on which many commentators focus their attention when they condemn the student movement.
The major effect of the student movement, however, was quite different, I believe. It raised a challenge to the subservience of the universities to the state and other external powers — although that challenge has not proven very effective, and this subordination has remained largely intact — and it managed to provoke, at times with some limited success, an opening in the ideological fields, thus bringing a slightly greater diversity of thought and study and research. In my opinion, it was this challenge to ideological control, mounted by the students (most of them liberals), chiefly in the social sciences, which induced such terror, verging at times on hysteria, in the reactions of the “intellectual élite.” The analytic and retrospective studies which appear today often seem to me highly exaggerated and inexact in their account of the events that took place and their significance. Many intellectuals are seeking to reconstruct the orthodoxy and the control over thought and inquiry which they had institutionalized with such success, and which was in fact threatened — freedom is always a threat to the commissars.
QUESTION: The student movement was first mobilized against the war in Vietnam, but did it not quite soon involve other issues?
CHOMSKY: The immediate issue was the Vietnam war, but also the civil rights movement of the preceding years — you must remember that the activists in the vanguard of the civil rights movement in the South had very often been students, for example, SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee), which was a very important and effective group with a largely black leadership, and supported by many white students. Furthermore, some of the earlier issues had to do with opening up the campus to a greater range of thought and to political activity of diverse tendencies, as in the Berkeley free speech controversy.
It did not seem to me at the time that the student activists were really trying to “politicize” the universities. During the period when the domination of faculty ideologues was not yet at issue, the universities were highly politicized and made regular and significant contributions to external powers, especially to the government, its programs and its policies; this continued to be true during the period of the student movement, just as it is today. It would be more exact to say that the student movement, from the beginning, tried to open up the universities and free them from outside control. To be sure, from the point of view of those who had subverted the universities and converted them to a significant extent into instruments of government policy and official ideology this effort appeared to be an illegitimate form of “politicization.” All of this seems obvious as regards university laboratories devoted to weapons production or social science programs with intimate connections to counterinsurgency, government intelligence services and propaganda, and social control. It is less obvious, perhaps, but nevertheless true, I think, in the domain of academic scholarship.
To illustrate this, take the example of the history of the cold war, and the so-called revisionist interpretation of the period following World War II. The “revisionists,” as you know, were those American commentators who opposed the official “orthodox” version. This orthodoxy, quite dominant at the time, held that the cold war was due solely to Russian and Chinese aggressiveness, and that the United States played a passive role, merely reacting to this. This position was adopted by even the most liberal commentators. Take a man like John Kenneth Galbraith who, within the liberal establishment, has long been one of the most open, questioning, and skeptical minds, one of those who tried to break out of the orthodox framework on many issues. Well, in his book The New Industrial State, published in 1967 — as late as that! — where he lays much stress on the open and critical attitude of the intelligentsia and the encouraging prospects this offers, he says that “the undoubted historical source” of the cold war was Russian and Chinese aggressiveness: “the revolutionary and national aspirations of the Soviets, and more recently of the Chinese, and the compulsive vigor of their assertion.”5 That is what the liberal critics were still saying in 1967.
The “revisionist” alternative was developed in various conflicting versions by James Warburg, D. F. Fleming, William Appleman Williams, Gar Alperovitz, Gabriel Kolko, David Horowitz, Diane Clemens, and others. They argued that the cold war resulted from an interaction of great power designs and suspicions. This position not only has prima facie plausibility, but also receives strong support from the historical and documentary record. But few people paid much attention to “revisionist” studies, which were often the object of scorn or a few pleasantries among “serious” analysts.
By the end of the sixties, however, it had become impossible to prevent serious consideration of the “revisionist” position, in large part because of the pressures of the student movement. Students had read these books and wanted to have them discussed. What resulted is quite interesting.
In the first place, as soon as the revisionist alternative was seriously considered, the orthodox position simply dissolved, vanished. As soon as the debate was opened, it found itself lacking an object, virtually. The orthodox position was abandoned.
To be sure, orthodox historians rarely admitted that they had been in error. Instead, while adopting some of the revisionist views, they attributed to the revisionists a stupid position, according to which — to take a not untypical characterization — “the Soviet Government … was merely the hapless object of our vicious diplomacy.” This is Herbert Feis’s rendition of the position of Gar Alperovitz, whose actual view was that “the Cold War cannot be understood simply as an American response to a Soviet challenge, but rather as the insidious interaction of mutual suspicions, blame for which must be shared by all.” Quite typically, the view attributed to the revisionists was a nonsensical one that takes no account of interaction of the superpowers. Orthodox historians took over some elements of the revisionist analysis, while attributing to them an idiotic doctrine that was fundamentally different from what had actually been proposed, and in fact was the mirror image of the original orthodox position. The motivation for this mode of argument is of course obvious enough.
Starting from this slightly revised basis, many orthodox historians have sought to reconstruct the image of American benevolence and passivity. But I do not want to go into this development here. As for the impact of the revisionist analysis, Galbraith again provides an interesting example: I have already quoted his book, which appeared in 1967. In a revised edition, in 1971, he replaced the word “the” by the word “an” in the passage quoted: “the revolutionary and national aspirations of the Soviets, and more recently of the Chinese, and the compulsive vigor of their assertion, were an undoubted historical source [of the cold war] (my emphasis). This account is still misleading and biased, because he does not speak of the other causes; it would also be interesting to see in just what way the initiatives of China were “an undoubted source” of the cold war. But the position is at least tenable, in contrast to the orthodox position, which he gave in the previous edition four years earlier — and prior to the general impact of the student movement on the universities.
Galbraith is an interesting example just because he is one of the most open, critical, and questioning minds among the liberal intelligentsia. His comments on the cold war and its origins are also interesting because they are presented as a casual side remark: he does not attempt in this context to give an original historical analysis, but merely reports in passing the doctrine accepted among those liberal intellectuals who were somewhat skeptical and critical. We are not talking here about an Arthur Schlesinger or other ideologues who at times present a selection of historical facts in a manner comparable to the party historians of other faiths.
One can understand why so many liberal intellectuals were terrified at the end of the sixties, why they describe this period as one of totalitarianism of the left: for once they were compelled to look the world of facts in the face. A serious threat, and a real danger for people whose role is ideological control. There is a recent and quite interesting study put out by the Trilateral Commission — The Crisis of Democracy, by Michel Crozier, Samuel Huntington, and Joji Watanuki — in which an international group of scholars and others discuss what they see as contemporary threats to democracy. One of these threats is posed by “value-oriented intellectuals” who, as they correctly point out, often challenge the institutions that are responsible for “the indoctrination of the young” — an apt phrase. The student movement contributed materially to this aspect of “the crisis of democracy.”
By the late sixties the discussion had gone beyond the question of Vietnam or the interpretation of contemporary history; it concerned the institutions themselves. Orthodox economics was very briefly challenged by students who wanted to undertake a fundamental critique of the functioning of the capitalist economy; students questioned the institutions, they wanted to study Marx and political economy.
Perhaps I can illustrate this once again with a personal anecdote: In the spring of 1969 a small group of students in economics here in Cambridge wanted to initiate a discussion of the nature of economics as a field of study. In order to open this discussion, they tried to organize a debate in which the two main speakers would be Paul Samuelson, the eminent Keynesian economist at MIT (today a Nobel laureate), and a Marxist economist. But for this latter role they were not able to find anyone in the Boston area, no one who was willing to question the neo-classical position from the point of view of Marxist political economy. Finally I was asked to take on the task, though I have no particular knowledge of economics, and no commitment to Marxism. Not one professional, or even semi-professional, in 1969! And Cambridge is a very lively place in these respects. That may give you some idea of the prevailing intellectual climate. It is difficult to imagine anything comparable in Western Europe or Japan.
The student movement changed these things to a small extent: what was described, as I told you, as terror at the university … the SS marching through the corridors … the academic intelligentsia barely survived these terrifying attacks by student radicals … of course, due solely to their great courage. Unbelievable fantasies! Although, to be sure, there were incidents, sometimes instigated by provocateurs of the FBI, as we know now, which stimulated that paranoid interpretation. What a devastating thing, to have opened up the university just a little! But the mass media were hardly touched at all, and now orthodoxy has been reestablished, because the pressure is no longer there. For example, a serious diplomatic historian like Gaddis Smith can now describe Williams and Kolko as “pamphleteers” in the New York Times Book Review.
QUESTION: To what do you attribute this “falling off” of the pressure?
CHOMSKY: To many things. When the New Left developed within the student movement in the United States, it could not associate itself with any broader social movement, rooted in any important segment of the population. In large part this was the result of the ideological narrowness of the preceding period. Students form a social group that is marginal and transitory. The student left constituted a small minority, often confronted by very difficult circumstances. A living intellectual tradition of the left did not exist, nor a socialist movement with a base in the working class. There was no living tradition or popular movement from which they could gain support. Under these circumstances, it is perhaps surprising that the student movement lasted as long as it did.
QUESTION: And the new generation?
CHOMSKY: It is faced with new forms of experience. Students today seem to find it easier to adapt to the demands imposed from the outside, though one should not exaggerate; in my experience at least, colleges are quite unlike the fifties and early sixties. The economic stagnation and recession have a lot to do with student attitudes. Under the conditions of the sixties, students could suppose that they would find means of subsistence, no matter what they did. The society seemed to have sufficient interstices, there was a sense of expansiveness and optimism, so that one could hope to find a place somehow. Now that is no longer the case. Even those who are “disciplined” and well prepared professionally may become well-educated taxi drivers. Student activism has felt the effect of all this.
Other factors have also played a role. There is evidence that certain universities, perhaps many of them, have explicitly sought to exclude leftist students. Even in liberal universities, political criteria have been imposed to exclude students who might “cause problems.” Not entirely, of course, otherwise they would have excluded all the good students. Leftist students also have had serious difficulties in working at the universities, or later, in gaining appointments, at least in the ideological disciplines, political science, economics, Asian studies, for example.
QUESTION: At the time of the French publication of your book Counterrevolutionary Violence (Bains de Sang) there was much talk in France about the fact that the English original had been censored (that is, distribution was blocked) by the conglomerate to which the publishing house belonged; the publishing house itself was closed and its personnel dismissed. The chief editor became a taxi driver and now is organizing a taxi-drivers’ union. French television has cast doubt on this story.
CHOMSKY: That “censorship” by the conglomerate did take place, as you describe, but it was a stupid act on their part. At that level censorship isn’t necessary, given the number of potential readers on the one hand, and on the other, the weight exerted by the enormous ideological apparatus. I have often thought that if a rational Fascist dictatorship were to exist, then it would choose the American system. State censorship is not necessary, or even very efficient, in comparison to the ideological controls exercised by systems that are more complex and more decentralized.
QUESTION: Within this framework, how do you interpret the Watergate affair, which has often been presented in France as the “triumph” of democracy?
CHOMSKY: To consider the Watergate affair as a triumph of democracy is an error, in my opinion. The real question raised was not: Did Nixon employ evil methods against his political adversaries? but rather: Who were the victims? The answer is clear. Nixon was condemned, not because he employed reprehensible methods in his political struggles, but because he made a mistake in the choice of adversaries against whom he turned these methods. He attacked people with power.
The telephone taps? Such practices have existed for a long time. He had an “enemies list”? But nothing happened to those who were on that list. I was on that list, nothing happened to me. No, he simply made a mistake in his choice of enemies: he had on his list the chairman of IBM, senior government advisers, distinguished pundits of the press, highly placed supporters of the Democratic Party. He attacked the Washington Post, a major capitalist enterprise. And these powerful people defended themselves at once, as would be expected. Watergate? Men of power against men of power.
Similar crimes, and others much graver, could have been charged against other people as well as Nixon. But those crimes were typically directed against minorities or against movements of social change, and few ever protested. The ideological censorship kept these matters from the public eye during the Watergate period, although remarkable documentation concerning this repression appeared at just this time. It was only when the dust of Watergate had settled that the press and the political commentators turned toward some of the real and profound cases of abuse of state power — still without recognizing or exploring the gravity of the issue.
For example, the Church Committee has published information, the significance of which has not really been made clear. At the time of its revelations, a great deal of publicity was focused on the Martin Luther King affair, but still more important revelations have hardly been dealt with by the press to this day (January 1976). For example, the following: In Chicago there was a street gang called the Blackstone Rangers, which operated in the ghetto. The Black Panthers were in contact with them, attempting to politicize them, it appears. As long as the Rangers remained a ghetto street gang — a criminal gang, as depicted by the FBI, at least — the FBI were not much concerned; this was also a way of controlling the ghetto. But radicalized into a political group, they became potentially dangerous.
The basic function of the FBI is not to stop crime. Rather, it functions as a political police, in large measure. An indication is given by the FBI budget and the way it is apportioned. Some suggestive information on this subject has been revealed by a group calling themselves the “Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI” who succeeded in stealing from the FBI’s Media, Pennsylvania, office a collection of documents which they attempted to circulate to the press. The breakdown of these documents was approximately the following: 30 percent were devoted to routine procedures; 40 percent to political surveillance involving two right-wing groups, ten groups concerned with immigrants, and more than two hundred liberal or left-wing groups; 14 percent to AWOLs and deserters; 1 percent to organized crime — mostly gambling — and the rest to rape, bank robbery, murder, etc.
Faced with the potential alliance of the Rangers and the Black Panthers, the FBI decided to take action, in line with the national program of dismantling the left in which it was engaged, the national Counter-Intelligence Program known as Cointelpro. They sought to incite conflict between the two groups by means of a forgery, an anonymous letter sent to the leader of the Rangers by someone who identified himself as “a black brother.” This letter warned of a Panther plot to assassinate the leader of the Rangers. Its transparent purpose was to incite the Rangers — described in FBI documents as a group “to whom violent type activity, shooting, and the like, are second nature” — to respond with violence to the fictitious assassination plot.
But it didn’t work, perhaps because at that time the relations between the Rangers and the Panthers were already too close. The FBI had to take on the task of destroying the Panthers itself. How?
Though there has been no systematic investigation, we can reconstruct what seems to be a plausible story: A few months later, in December 1969, the Chicago police conducted a pre-dawn raid on a Panther apartment. Approximately one hundred shots were fired. At first the police claimed that they had responded to the fire of the Panthers, but it was quickly established by the local press that this was false. Fred Hampton, one of the most talented and promising leaders of the Panthers, was killed in his bed. There is evidence that he may have been drugged. Witnesses claim that he was murdered in cold blood. Mark Clark was also killed. This event can fairly be described as a Gestapo-style political assassination. At the time it was thought that the Chicago police were behind the raid. That would have been bad enough, but the facts revealed since suggest something more sinister. We know today that Hampton’s personal bodyguard, William O’Neal, who was also chief of Panther security, was an FBI infiltrator. A few days before the raid, the FBI office turned over to the Chicago police a floor plan of the Panther apartment supplied by O’Neal, with the location of the beds marked, along with a rather dubious report by O’Neal that illegal weapons were kept in the apartment: the pretext for the raid. Perhaps the floor plan explains the fact, noticed by reporters, that the police gunfire was directed to inside corners of the apartment rather than the entrances. It certainly undermines still further the original pretense that the police were firing in response to Panther gunshots, confused by unfamiliar surroundings. The Chicago press has reported that the FBI agent to whom O’Neal reported was the head of Chicago Cointelpro directed against the Black Panthers and other black groups. Whether or not this is true, there is direct evidence of FBI complicity in the murders.
Putting this information together with the documented effort of the FBI to incite violence and gang warfare a few months earlier, it seems not unreasonable to speculate that the FBI undertook on its own initiative the murder that it could not elicit from the “violence-prone” group to which it had addressed a fabricated letter implicating the Panthers in an assassination attempt against its leader.
This one incident (which, incidentally, was not seriously investigated by the Church Committee) completely overshadows the entire Watergate episode in significance by a substantial margin. But with a few exceptions the national press or television have had little to say on the subject, though it has been well covered locally in Chicago. The matter has rarely been dealt with by political commentators. The comparison with coverage of such “atrocities” as Nixon’s “enemies list” or tax trickery is quite striking. For example, during the entire Watergate period, the New Republic, which was then virtually the official organ of American liberalism, found no occasion to report or comment on these matters, although the basic facts and documents had become known.
The family of Fred Hampton brought a civil suit against the Chicago police, but up to the present the FBI involvement has been excluded from the courts, although much relevant information is available in depositions made under oath. If people offended by “Watergate horrors” were really concerned with civil and human rights, they should have pursued the information released by the Church Committee with regard to the affair of the Blackstone Rangers, and considered the possible relevance of this information to what is known concerning FBI involvement in the murder of Fred Hampton by the Chicago police. At least a serious inquiry should have been initiated to examine what seem to be possible connections, and to bring to light the FBI role under Nixon and his predecessors. For what was at issue here was an assassination in which the national political police may have been implicated, a crime that far transcends anything attributed to Nixon in the Watergate investigations. I should recall that the Watergate inquiry did touch on one issue of extraordinary importance, the bombing of Cambodia, but only on very narrow grounds — it was the alleged “secrecy” of the bombings, not the fact itself, that was charged to Nixon as his “crime” in this regard.
There are other cases of this kind. For example, in San Diego the FBI apparently financed, armed, and controlled an extreme right-wing group of former Minute Men, transforming it into something called the Secret Army Organization specializing in terrorist acts of various kinds. I heard of this first from one of my former students, who was the target of an assassination attempt by the organization. In fact, he is the student who had organized the debate on economics that I told you about a little while ago, when he was still a student at MIT. Now he was teaching at San Diego State College and was engaged in political activities — which incidentally were completely nonviolent, not that this is relevant.
The head of the Secret Army Organization — a provocateur in the pay of the FBI — drove past his house, and his companion fired shots into it, seriously wounding a young woman. The young man who was their target was not at home at the time. The weapon had been stolen by this FBI provocateur. According to the local branch of the ACLU, the gun was handed over the next day to the San Diego FBI Bureau, who hid it; and for six months the FBI lied to the San Diego police about the incident. This affair did not become publicly known until later.
This terrorist group, directed and financed by the FBI, was finally broken up by the San Diego police, after they had tried to fire-bomb a theater in the presence of police. The FBI agent in question, who had hidden the weapon, was transferred outside the state of California so that he could not be prosecuted. The FBI provocateur also escaped prosecution, though several members of the secret terrorist organization were prosecuted. The FBI was engaged in efforts to incite gang warfare among black groups in San Diego, as in Chicago, at about the same time. In secret documents, the FBI took credit for inciting shootings, beatings, and unrest in the ghetto, a fact that has elicited very little comment in the press or journals of opinion.
This same young man, incidentally, was harassed in other ways. It appears that the FBI continued to subject him to various kinds of intimidation and threats, by means of provocateurs. Furthermore, according to his ACLU attorneys, the FBI supplied information to the college where he was teaching that was the basis for misconduct charges filed against him. He faced three successive inquiries at the college, and each time was absolved of the charges brought against him. At that point the chancellor of the California state college system, Glenn Dumke, stated that he would not accept the findings of the independent hearing committees and simply dismissed him from his position. Notice that such incidents, of which there have been a fair number, are not regarded as “totalitarianism” in the university.
The basic facts were submitted to the Church Committee by the ACLU in June 1975 and also offered to the press. As far as I know, the committee did not conduct any investigation into the matter. The national press said virtually nothing about these incidents at the time, and very little since. There have been similar reports concerning other government programs of repression. For example, Army Intelligence has been reported to have engaged in illegal actions in Chicago. In Seattle, fairly extensive efforts were undertaken to disrupt and discredit local left-wing groups. The FBI ordered one of its agents to induce a group of young radicals to blow up a bridge; this was to be done in such a manner that the person who was to plant the bomb would also be blown up with it. The agent refused to carry out these instructions. Instead, he talked to the press and finally testified in court. That is how the matter became known. In Seattle, FBI infiltrators were inciting arson, terrorism, and bombing, and in one case entrapped a young black man in a robbery attempt, which they initiated and in the course of which he was killed. This was reported by Frank Donner in the Nation, one of the few American journals to have attempted some serious coverage of such matters.
There is a good deal more of this. But all these isolated cases only take on their full meaning if you put them into the context of the policies of the FBI since its origins during the post-World War I Red scare, which I will not try to review here. The Cointelpro operations began in the 1950s, with a program to disrupt and destroy the Communist Party. Although this was not officially proclaimed, everybody knew something of the sort was going on, and there were very few protests; it was considered quite legitimate. People even joked about it.
In 1960, the disruption program was extended to the Puerto Rican independence movement. In October 1961, under the administration of Attorney-General Robert Kennedy, the FBI initiated a disruption program against the Socialist Workers Party (the largest Trotskyist organization); the program was later extended to the civil rights movement, the Ku Klux Klan, black nationalist groups, and the peace movement in general; by 1968, it covered the entire “New Left.”
The rationale given internally for these illegal programs is quite revealing. The program for disrupting the Socialist Workers Party, which came directly from the central office of the FBI, presented its rationale in essentially these terms:
We launch this program for the following reasons:
(1) the Socialist Workers Party is openly running candidates in local elections throughout the country;
(2) it supports integration in the South;
(3) it supports Castro.
What does this actually indicate? It means that SWP political initiative in running candidates in elections — legal political activity — their work in support of civil rights, and their efforts to change U.S. foreign policy justify their destruction at the hands of the national political police.
This is the rationale behind these programs of government repression: they were directed against civil rights activities and against legal political action that ran counter to the prevailing consensus. In comparison with Cointelpro and related government actions in the 1960s, Watergate was a tea party. It is instructive, however, to compare the relative attention accorded to them in the press. This comparison reveals clearly and dramatically that it was the improper choice of targets, not improper acts, that led to Nixon’s downfall. The alleged concern for civil and democratic rights was a sham. There was no “triumph of democracy.”
QUESTION: It appears that a proposal, containing passages from the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, was distributed in the streets at one time and people refused to sign them, believing them to be left-wing propaganda.
CHOMSKY: Such incidents have been reported from the 1950s, if I recall. People have been intimidated for many years. Liberals would like to believe that all of this is due to a few evil men: Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon. That is quite false. One can trace the postwar repression to security measures initiated by Truman in 1947, and efforts by Democratic liberals to discredit Henry Wallace and his supporters at that time. It was the liberal senator Hubert Humphrey who proposed detention camps in case of a “national emergency.” He did finally vote against the McCarran Act, but said at the time that he found it not sufficiently harsh in some respects; he was opposed to the provision that prisoners in the detention camps should be protected by the right of habeas corpus: that was not the way to treat Communist conspirators! The Communist Control Act introduced by leading liberals a few years later was so patently unconstitutional that no one actually tried to enforce it, to my knowledge. This law, incidentally, was specifically directed in part against trade unions. And together with these senators, many liberal intellectuals implicitly supported the fundamental aims of “McCarthyism,” though they objected to his methods — particularly when they too became targets. They carried out what amounted to a partial “purge” in the universities, and in many ways developed the ideological framework for ridding American society of this “cancer” of serious dissent. These are among the reasons for the remarkable conformism and ideological narrowness of intellectual life in the United States, and for the isolation of the student movement that we discussed earlier.
If these liberals opposed McCarthy, it was because he went too far, and in the wrong way. He attacked the liberal intelligentsia themselves, or mainstream political figures like George Marshall, instead of confining himself to the “Communist enemy.” Like Nixon, he made a mistake in choosing his enemies when he began to attack the Church and the Army. Commonly, if liberal intellectuals criticized him, it was on the grounds that his methods were not the right ones for ridding the country of real communists. There were some notable exceptions, but depressingly few.
Similarly, Justice Robert Jackson, one of the leading liberals on the Supreme Court, opposed the doctrine of “clear and present danger” (according to which freedom of speech could be abridged in cases affecting the security of the state) when applied to Communist activities, because it was not harsh enough. If you wait until the danger becomes “clear and present,” he explained, it will be too late. You must stop Communists before their “imminent actions.” Thus he supported a truly totalitarian point of view: We must not permit this kind of discussion to begin.
But these liberals were very shocked when McCarthy turned his weapons against them. He was no longer playing according to the rules of the game — the game that they invented.
QUESTION: Similarly, I’ve noticed that the scandal involving the CIA did not concern the main activities of the agency, but the fact that it did work which in principle was the assigned sphere of the FBI.
CHOMSKY: In part, yes. And look at the furor that has arisen over the attempts at political assassination organized by the CIA. People were shocked because the CIA tried to assassinate foreign leaders. Certainly, that is very bad. But these were only abortive attempts; at least in most cases — in some it is not so clear. Consider in comparison the Phoenix program in which the CIA was involved, which, according to the Saigon government, exterminated forty thousand civilians within two years. Why doesn’t that count? Why are all these people less significant than Castro or Schneider or Lumumba?
The official who was responsible for this, William Colby, who headed the CIA, is now a respected columnist and lecturer on university campuses. The same thing happened in Laos, though even worse. How many peasants were killed as a result of CIA programs? And who speaks of this? Nobody. No headlines.
It’s always the same story. The crimes that are exposed are significant, but they are trivial as compared to the really serious criminal programs of the state, which are ignored or regarded as quite legitimate.
QUESTION: How do you find all this information? If the newspapers don’t report it …
CHOMSKY: This information is accessible, but only for fanatics: in order to unearth it, you have to devote much of your life to the search. In that sense, the information is accessible. But this “accessibility” is hardly significant in practice. It is politically more or less irrelevant. All the same, on the personal level, the situation for someone like me is of course incomparably preferable in the United States to the totalitarian societies. In the Soviet Union, for example, someone who tried to do what I do here would probably be in prison. It is interesting, and typical, that my political writings critical of U.S. policies are never translated in the so-called Communist countries, though they are, quite widely, in many other parts of the world. But one must be cautious in assessing the political significance of the relative freedom from repression — at least for the privileged — in the United States. Exactly what does it mean, concretely?
For example, last year I was invited to give a lecture at Harvard before a group of journalists called the Nieman Fellows, who come there each year from all over the United States and foreign countries in order to further their education, so to speak. They asked me to discuss Watergate and related topics — the press generally was quite proud of its courageous and principled behavior during the Watergate period, for very little reason, as I’ve just tried to explain. Instead of discussing Watergate, I spoke about the things to which I’ve just alluded, because I wondered to what extent these journalists, who are quite sophisticated and well informed compared to the general population, might know about these matters. Well, none of them had any idea of the scale of the FBI programs of repression, except for one journalist from Chicago, who knew all about the Hampton affair. That had indeed been discussed in detail in the Chicago press. If there had been someone from San Diego in the group, he would have known about the Secret Army Organization, and so forth …
That is one of the keys to the whole thing. Everyone is led to think that what he knows represents a local exception. But the overall pattern remains hidden. Information is often given in the local papers, but its general significance, the patterns on the national level, remain obscured. That was the case during the entire Watergate period, although the information appeared just at that time, in its essentials, and with extensive documentation. And even since then the discussion has rarely been analytic or anywhere near comprehensive, and has not accounted for what happened in a satisfactory manner. What you face here is a very effective kind of ideological control, because one can remain under the impression that censorship does not exist, and in a narrow technical sense that is correct. You will not be imprisoned if you discover the facts, not even if you proclaim them whenever you can. But the results remain much the same as if there were real censorship. Social reality is generally concealed by the intelligentsia. Of course, matters were quite different during the period when there was an enormous popular anti-war and student movement. Within the structure of popular movements there were many possibilities for expressing views that departed from the narrow limits of more or less “official” ideology, to which the intelligentsia generally conform.
QUESTION: What was the reaction of Americans to the statements of Solzhenitsyn?
CHOMSKY: Very interesting — at least in the liberal press, which is what primarily concerns me. Some criticized his extravagances. He went well beyond what they could tolerate. For example, he called for direct intervention by the United States in the USSR — of a sort that could very well lead to war and, far short of that, is likely to harm the Russian dissidents themselves. Also, he denounced American weakness in abandoning the struggle to subdue the Vietnamese resistance, publicly opposed democratic reforms in Spain, supported a journal that called for censorship in the United States, and so on. Nonetheless, the press never ceased marveling at what an absolute moral giant this man was. In our petty lives, we can barely imagine such heights of moral grandeur.
In fact, the “moral level” of Solzhenitsyn is quite comparable to that of many American Communists who have fought courageously for civil liberties here in their own country, while at the same time defending, or refusing to criticize, the purges and labor camps in the Soviet Union. Sakharov is not as outlandish in his views as Solzhenitsyn, certainly, but he too says that it was a great setback for the West not to have pursued the Vietnam war to an American victory. The United States did not act with sufficient resolution, and delayed too long in sending a large expeditionary force, he complains. Every fabrication of the U.S. propaganda apparatus is repeated, just as American Communists who have struggled for civil rights here parrot Russian propaganda. The easily documented fact of American aggression in South Vietnam is not part of history, for example. One must admire Sakharov’s great courage and his fine work in defense of human rights in the Soviet Union. But to refer to such people as “moral giants” is quite remarkable.
Why do they do this? Because it is extremely important for mainstream American intellectuals to make people believe that the United States does not confront any real moral problems. Such problems only arise in the Soviet Union, and the “moral giants” are there to respond to them.
Compare Solzhenitsyn to many thousands of Vietnam war resisters and deserters; many of them acted at a moral level that is incomparably superior to his. Solzhenitsyn resolutely defends his own rights and those of people like him — which is certainly admirable. The resisters and many deserters defended the rights of others — namely, the victims of American aggression and terror. Their actions were on a much higher moral plane. Furthermore, their actions were not merely a response to their own persecution; for the most part they undertook these actions, which led to imprisonment or exile, of their own free will, when they could have easily lived in comfort. Yet we read in the American liberal journals that we can hardly conceive of the moral grandeur of Solzhenitsyn in our society, and surely can find no one like him. A very interesting pretense, with many implications.
It is quite generally claimed now that the American resistance had as its cause the young men’s fear of being drafted; that’s a very convenient belief for the intellectuals who confined themselves to “pragmatic” opposition to the war. But it is an enormous lie. For most of those who were in the resistance from its origins, nothing would have been easier than to escape the draft, with its class bias, as many others actually did. In fact, many of the activists already had deferments. Many of the deserters too chose a difficult and painful course for reasons of principle. But for those who supported the war initially, and who only raised their whisper of protest when the costs became too great, it is impossible to admit the existence of a courageous and principled resistance, largely on the part of youth, to the atrocities which they themselves had readily tolerated. The mainstream of American liberalism does not wish to hear anything about all that. It would raise too many embarrassing questions: What were they doing when the war resisters were facing prison or exile? And so on. So Solzhenitsyn comes to them as a gift of God, which permits them to evade moral questions, “exporting them,” so to speak, and to conceal their own role as people who remained silent for so many years, or finally objected on narrow and morally repugnant grounds of cost and U.S. government interest.
Moynihan, when he was ambassador to the United Nations, produced the same effect when he attacked the Third World. These attacks aroused great admiration here; for example, when he denounced Idi Amin of Uganda as a “racist murderer.” The question is not whether Idi Amin is a racist murderer. No doubt the appellation is correct. The question is, what does it mean for Moynihan to make this accusation and for others to applaud his honesty and courage in doing so? Who is Moynihan? He served in four administrations, those of Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, and Ford — that is to say, administrations that were guilty of racist murder on a scale undreamed of by Idi Amin. Imagine that some minor functionary of the Third Reich had correctly accused someone of being a racist murderer. This manner of shifting moral issues to others is one of the ways to reconstruct the foundations of moral legitimacy for the exercise of American power, shaken during the Vietnam war. Solzhenitsyn is exploited to this end in a natural and predictable way, though of course one cannot on those grounds draw any conclusions in regard to his charges against the Soviet system of oppression and violence.
Think of someone like Angela Davis: she defends the rights of American blacks with great courage and conviction. At the same time she refused to defend Czech dissidents or to criticize the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia. Is she regarded as a “moral giant”? Hardly. Yet I believe she is superior to Solzhenitsyn on the moral level. At least she did not reproach the Soviet Union for not having conducted its atrocities with sufficient vigor.
QUESTION: After what you have said, and what is said about the U.S. intervention in Chile in Uribe’s book,6 there apparently exists a veritable policy of vaccination. Deliberately a major scandal is exploded about a minor event — Watergate, the ITT case in 1973 — in order to better hide and render more acceptable (according to Faye’s definition) the true scandals: political assassinations, the coup d’état of September. You inoculate the public with a minor scandal; then when more serious things happen, the subject has already been deprived of most of its sensation value, its topical importance no longer has the aspect of novelty — the two fundamental criteria for big headlines in the newspapers.7
CHOMSKY: Yes, that is in keeping with what I’ve just said about the liberal press since the end of the war. The government has great need now to restore its credibility, to make people forget history, and to rewrite it. The intelligentsia have to a remarkable degree undertaken this task. It is also necessary to establish the “lessons” that have to be drawn from the war, to ensure that these are conceived on the narrowest grounds, in terms of such socially neutral categories as “stupidity” or “error” or “ignorance” or perhaps “cost.” Why? Because soon it will be necessary to justify other confrontations, perhaps other U.S. interventions in the world, other Vietnams.
But this time, these will have to be successful interventions, which don’t slip out of control. Chile, for example. It is even possible for the press to criticize successful interventions — the Dominican Republic, Chile, etc. — as long as these criticisms don’t exceed “civilized limits,” that is to say, as long as they don’t serve to arouse popular movements capable of hindering these enterprises, and are not accompanied by any rational analysis of the motives of U.S. imperialism, something which is complete anathema, intolerable to liberal ideology.
How is the liberal press proceeding with regard to Vietnam, that sector which supported the “doves”? By stressing the “stupidity” of the U.S. intervention; that’s a politically neutral term. It would have been sufficient to find an “intelligent” policy. The war was thus a tragic error in which good intentions were transmuted into bad policies, because of a generation of incompetent and arrogant officials. The war’s savagery is also denounced; but that too is used as a neutral category … Presumably the goals were legitimate — it would have been all right to do the same thing, but more humanely …
The “responsible” doves were opposed to the war — on a pragmatic basis. Now it is necessary to reconstruct the system of beliefs according to which the United States is the benefactor of humanity, historically committed to freedom, self-determination, and human rights. With regard to this doctrine, the “responsible” doves share the same presuppositions as the hawks: they do not question the right of the United States to intervene in other countries. Their criticism is actually very convenient for the state, which is quite willing to be chided for its errors, as long as the fundamental right of forceful intervention is not brought into question.
Take a look at this editorial in the New York Times, offering a retrospective analysis of the Vietnam war as it came to an end. The editors feel that it is too early to draw conclusions about the war:
Clio, the goddess of history, is cool and slow and elusive in her ways…. Only later, much later, can history begin to make an assessment of the mixture of good and evil, of wisdom and folly, of ideals and illusions in the long Vietnam story…. There are those Americans who believe that the war to preserve a non-Communist, independent South Vietnam could have been waged differently. There are other Americans who believe that a viable, non-Communist South Vietnam was always a myth…. A decade of fierce polemics has failed to resolve this ongoing quarrel.
You see, they don’t even mention the logical possibility of a third position: namely, that the United States did not have the right, either the legal or the moral right, to intervene by force in the internal affairs of Vietnam. We leave to history the task of judging the debate between the hawks and the respectable doves, but the third position, opposed to the other two, is excluded from discussion. The sphere of Clio does not extend to such absurd ideas as the belief that the United States has no unique right to intervene with force in the internal affairs of others, whether such intervention is successful or not. The Times published many letters responding to its editorial, but no letter questioning the alternatives presented. I know for certain that at least one such letter was sent to them* … quite possibly many others.
Note that as the Times sets the spectrum of debate, the position of much of the peace movement is simply excluded from consideration. Not that it is wrong, but rather unthinkable, inexpressible. As the Times sets the ground rules, the basic premises of the state propaganda system are presupposed by all participants in the debate: the American goal was to preserve an “independent” South Vietnam — perfect nonsense, as is easy to demonstrate — and the only question that arises is whether this worthy goal was within our grasp or not. Even the more audacious propaganda systems rarely go so far as to put forth state doctrine as unquestionable dogma, so that criticism of it need not even be rejected, but may simply be ignored.
Here we have a marvelous illustration of the functioning of propaganda in a democracy. A totalitarian state simply enunciates official doctrine — clearly, explicitly. Internally, one can think what one likes, but one can only express opposition at one’s peril. In a democratic system of propaganda no one is punished (in theory) for objecting to official dogma. In fact, dissidence is encouraged. What this system attempts to do is to fix the limits of possible thought: supporters of official doctrine at one end, and the critics — vigorous, courageous, and much admired for their independence of judgment — at the other. The hawks and the doves. But we discover that all share certain tacit assumptions, and that it is these assumptions that are really crucial. No doubt a propaganda system is more effective when its doctrines are insinuated rather than asserted, when it sets the bounds for possible thought rather than simply imposing a clear and easily identifiable doctrine that one must parrot — or suffer the consequences. The more vigorous the debate, the more effectively the basic doctrines of the propaganda system, tacitly assumed on all sides, are instilled. Hence the elaborate pretense that the press is a critical dissenting force — maybe even too critical for the health of democracy — when in fact it is almost entirely subservient to the basic principles of the ideological system: in this case, the principle of the right of intervention, the unique right of the United States to serve as global judge and executioner. It is quite a marvelous system of indoctrination.
Here is still another example along the same lines. Look at this quotation from the Washington Post, a paper that is often regarded as the most consistent critic of the war among the national media. This is from an editorial of April 30, 1975, entitled “Deliverance”:
For if much of the actual conduct of Vietnam policy over the years was wrong and misguided — even tragic — it cannot be denied that some part of the purpose of that policy was right and defensible. Specifically, it was right to hope that the people of South Vietnam would be able to decide on their own form of government and social order. The American public is entitled, indeed obligated, to explore how good impulses came to be transmuted into bad policy, but we cannot afford to cast out all remembrance of that earlier impulse.
What were the “good impulses”? When precisely did the United States try to help the South Vietnamese choose their own form of government and social order? As soon as such questions are posed, the absurdity becomes evident. From the moment that the American-backed French effort to destroy the major nationalist movement in Vietnam collapsed, the United States was consciously and knowingly opposed to the organized political forces within South Vietnam, and resorted to increasing violence when these political forces could not be crushed. But these facts, easily documented, must be suppressed. The liberal press cannot question the ~basic doctrine of the state religion, that the United States is benevolent, even though often misguided in its innocence, that it labors to permit free choice, even though at times some mistakes are committed in the exuberance of its programs of international goodwill. We must believe that we “Americans” are always good, though, to be sure, fallible:
For the fundamental “lesson” of Vietnam surely is not that we as a people are intrinsically bad, but rather that we are capable of error — and on a gigantic scale….
Note the rhetoric: “we as a people” are not intrinsically bad, even if we are capable of error. Was it “we as a people” who decided to conduct the war in Vietnam? Or was it something that had rather more to do with our political leaders and the social institutions they serve? To pose such a question is of course illegitimate, according to the dogmas of the state religion, because that raises the question of the institutional sources of power, and such questions are only considered by irrational extremists who must be excluded from debate (we can raise such questions with regard to other societies, of course, but not the United States).
It is not out of pessimism that I believe in the effectiveness of such techniques of legitimation of U.S. interventions, as a basis for future actions. One must not forget that while the U.S. government suffered a setback in Vietnam, it succeeded only too well in Indonesia, in Chile, in Brazil, and in many other places during the same period.
The resources of imperialist ideology are quite vast. It tolerates — indeed, encourages — a variety of forms of opposition, such as those I have just illustrated. It is permissible to criticize the lapses of the intellectuals and of government advisers, and even to accuse them of an abstract desire for “domination,” again a socially neutral category, not linked in any way to concrete social and economic structures. But to relate that abstract “desire for domination” to the employment of force by the United States government in order to preserve a certain system of world order, specifically, to ensure that the countries of the world remain open insofar as possible to exploitation by U.S.-based corporations — that is extremely impolite, that is to argue in an unacceptable way.
In the same way, the respectable members of the academic world must ignore the substantial documentation concerning the principles that guide U.S. foreign policy, and its concern to create a global economic order that conforms to the needs of the U.S. economy and its masters. I’m referring, for example, to the crucial documentation contained in the Pentagon Papers, covering the late 1940s and early 1950s, when the basic policies were clearly set, or the documents on global planning for the postwar period produced in the early 1940s by the War-Peace Studies groups of the Council on Foreign Relations, to mention only two significant examples. Quite generally, the question of the influence of corporations on foreign policy, or the economic factors in policy formation, are reserved for the barest mention in a footnote in respectable studies of the formation of policy, a fact that has been occasionally studied, and is easily documented when studied.
1. In Liberation (January 1973).
2. See Ramparts (April 1973); Social Policy (September 1973).
3. This appeared in the last number of that journal, which was not able to find financial support and no longer exists. Ramparts, August 1975.
4. See Dave Dellinger, More Power Than We Know (New York: Doubleday, 1975); and N. Chomsky, Introduction to N. Blackstock, ed., Cointelpro (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), for some examples.
5. The New Industrial State (New York: Signet Books, 1967), p. 335.
6. Manuel Uribe, Le livre noir de l’intervention américaine au Chile (Paris: Le Seuil, 1974).
7. Jean Pierre Faye, Le Porrugal d’Otelo: La révolution dans le labyrinthe (Paris: J.-C. Lattés, 1976), contains an analysis of the reporting on the November 1975 coup in Portugal.
*Translator’s note: Noam Chomsky has made available the letter he and Professor Edward S. Herman sent to the New York Times. I would like to take the opportunity to make this letter public at this late date, both for its intrinsic interest and to illustrate the limits imposed on public discussion in our leading newspaper.
April 8, 1975
To the Editor
New York Times
229 West 43rd St.
New York, N.Y. 10036
An editorial in the Times, April 5, observes that “a decade of fierce polemics has failed to resolve this ongoing quarrel” between two contending views: that “the war to preserve a non-Communist, independent South Vietnam could have been waged differently,” and that “a viable, non-Communist South Vietnam was always a myth.” There has also been a third position: That apart from its prospects for success, the United States has neither the authority nor competence to intervene in the internal affairs of Vietnam. This was the position of much of the authentic peace movement, that is, those who opposed the war because it was wrong, not merely because it was unsuccessful. It is regrettable that this position is not even a contender in the debate, as the Times sees it.
On a facing page, Donald Kirk observes that “since the term ‘bloodbath’ first came into vogue in the Indochinese conflict, no one seems to have applied it to the war itself — only to the possible consequences of ending the war.” He is quite wrong. Many Americans involved in the authentic peace movement have insisted for years on the elementary point that he believes has been noticed by “no one,” and it is a commonplace in literature on the war. To mention just one example, we have written a small book on the subject (Counterrevolutionary Violence: Bloodbaths in Fact and Propaganda, 1973), though in this case the corporation (Warner Brothers) that owned the publisher refused to permit distribution after publication. But quite apart from this, the observation has been made repeatedly in discussion and literature on the war, by just that segment of opinion that the Times editorial excludes from the debate.
Edward S. Herman
Professor, University of Pennsylvania