Russil Wvong / Politics / Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky: A Critical Review

by Russil Wvong

Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Areas of agreement
2.1. Good guys vs. bad guys
2.2. US narcissism
2.3. The Vietnam War and Latin America
2.4. The problems of the Third World

3. Areas of disagreement
3.1. Capitalist democracy and revolution
3.2. The US, the USSR, and revolutionary violence
3.3. Complexity of international politics
3.4. Brainwashing
3.5. Misrepresentation

4. Other criticism of Chomsky

1. Introduction

Noam Chomsky is a distinguished American linguist who has also written and lectured extensively on US foreign policy, particularly on the Vietnam War and US support for brutal dictatorships in Latin America. His argument -- shocking to readers who encounter his writings for the first time -- is that US foreign policy during the Cold War, supposedly based on opposing the Soviet Union and promoting democracy, has in reality been aimed primarily at serving the economic interests of the American elite. Chomsky provides detailed examples and quotes to support his argument. His writing is also noteworthy for its strong sense of moral outrage and its heavy sarcasm. Many people on the left, particularly the radical left, regard him as an authority on US foreign policy; this opinion is confirmed, if anything, but the right wing's vitriolic denunciations of Chomsky.

I'm certainly not a distinguished intellectual, I'm just a computer programmer. I'd also describe myself as neither left wing nor right wing (although I have friends across the political spectrum, and of course the Canadian political spectrum is somewhat to the left of the American political spectrum). But I have read pretty extensively about 20th-century history, and from what I can tell -- in particular, from having read The Chomsky Reader and Deterring Democracy -- I'd say that Chomsky is not a reliable source of historical information. When reading Chomsky, you should be very careful to check his version of what happened against other sources.

If you're looking for other sources of information on international politics and world history, I'd recommend the following books:

I've been having a lengthy discussion recently with John Caruso, which was certainly very educational for me: John was able to correct a number of my misconceptions about Chomsky's views, and I was motivated to read The Chomsky Reader. I thought it might be useful to put up a summary of my arguments on the web, since there doesn't seem to be much in the way of rational criticism of Chomsky: he's either ignored or vilified. I've included references to what rational criticism I could find in the last section of the article.

In this article I've attempted to respect Chomsky's point of view, even if I disagree with it, and to take his arguments seriously, without resorting to strawman or ad hominem attacks. My apologies in advance for any errors of fact or interpretation. If you'd like to post comments or criticism, there's a link at the bottom of the page.

(Given Chomsky's brilliance and rhetorical skill, I have no doubt that he could turn me into "liver paste," as the Economist once said of Chomsky and his opponents. But even if I'm as dumb as a rock, and morally deficient to boot, that doesn't prove that Chomsky is right.)

For the original discussion, see

2. Areas of agreement

I'd first like to summarize where I agree with Chomsky's point of view, based on what I've read, before discussing where I disagree with him. My understanding of Chomsky's views is based primarily on The Chomsky Reader and Deterring Democracy.

Where I agree with Chomsky:

2.1. Good guys vs. bad guys

The standard "good guys vs. bad guys" view of US foreign policy during the Cold War is too simplistic. In particular, unlike Hitler, the Soviet leadership was not planning the military conquest of the world. George Kennan discusses this in his lecture on "American Diplomacy and the Military":

One category of these [far-reaching mistakes after World War II] consists of the ones I pointed to in the first of these lectures. These were the mistakes involved in attributing to the Soviet leadership aims and intentions it did not really have: in jumping to the conclusion that the Soviet leaders were just like Hitler and his associates, that they were animated by the same lusts for military conquest, that they had the same sort of timetables for external military aggression, and that they could be met and dealt with effectively only in the same way that Hitler had to be met and dealt with.

This view was given sustenance by the fact that at the end of the Second World War the Russians did not demobilize their armed forces to anything resembling the degree we did. They left a ground force establishment in eastern and central Europe far greater than anything that confronted them on the western side. They frightened everybody by behaving with great ruthlessness and brutality towards the peoples of the eastern and central European countries they occupied. They were wily and secretive in their dealings with us; and it was clear that they hoped, by various devices of political influence and authority, to extend their dominant influence, if not their direct power, as far as they could into Western Europe--and this at the expense of the freedoms of the Western European peoples themselves. The period I am speaking about was, after all, still the Stalin era.

All these things were evidence, indeed, of no friendly feelings towards ourselves on the part of the men in the Kremlin. They were evidence that we and the Western Europeans had on our hands a great and serious competitor for influence, and indeed for power, over the European continent and other parts of the world. But they were not proof that the Russians wanted another war. They were not proof that it was by the launching of their armed forces on some all-out attack against Western Europe or Japan that the Soviet leaders intended to extend their influence. Yet these were the conclusions we jumped to. The consequences have been far-reaching.

The second of our great postwar mistakes had to do with our embracing the nuclear weapon as the mainstay of our military posture, and the faith we placed in it to assure our military and political ascendancy in this postwar era. We made the primitive error of supposing that the effectiveness of a weapon was directly proportionate to its destructiveness--destructiveness not just against an enemy's armed forces but against its population and its civilian economy as well. We forgot that the aim of war is, or should be, to gain one's points with the minimum, not the maximum, of general destruction, and that a proper weapon must be not only destructive but discriminating. Above all, we neglected to consider the strong evidence that the nuclear weapon could not be, in the long run, other than a suicidal one, partly because of its very destructiveness, together with the virtual certainty that others would develop it, but also because of its probably environmental effects. And by this commitment to a weapon that was both suicidal and unsuitable to any rational military purpose we incurred, in my opinion, a heavy share of the blame for leading large parts of the international community into the most dangerous and fateful weapons race the world has ever known.
["American Diplomacy and the Military", 1984, reprinted in American Diplomacy 1900-1950]

This isn't to say that the Soviet Union wasn't militarily capable of invading Western Europe. Historian Jerald Combs:
Soviet mobilization in 1948 and afterward did indeed provide the capability of an attack on Western Europe. Nikita Khrushchev admitted in his famous speech of 1960 that the Soviet armed forces (and therefore presumably the army as well) nearly doubled between 1948 and 1955. Western intelligence certainly detected a growth in the Soviet army in Eastern Europe and the Western zones of the Soviet Union during that time. In 1948, three of the four mechanized Soviet armies stationed in Eastern Europe were cadred at about 1/3 of their TO/E manpower (but 100% of their armament, including tanks). By May 1949 all of those divisions were at 70% of their manpower, a level at which they could either go into combat immediately at this reduced strength or be quickly brought up to full strength by mobilization. Western intelligence also saw the deployment of ten armies (40 divisions) in the Western zones of the Soviet Union to support the 25 divisions in East Germany and Poland, although they did not have clear knowledge of how much the divisions in the western Soviet Union were building up. By 1952 all of the Soviet divisions in East Germany were at close to 100% of their manpower. This was clearly a transition from an occupation to an offensive army that had both the manpower and armament to invade Western Europe, whether or not Stalin had any intention to do so and whether or not, if he did so, he would have considered it a defensive measure against the superior U.S. atomic force. Meanwhile, NATO did not have more that 18 ready divisions in Western Europe at any time during this period, so it posed no military threat whatever to the Soviet sphere.

Acheson and Nitze did not fear an immediate Soviet invasion of Europe in 1948, and they only temporarily feared in 1950 that the Soviets might use their conventional superiority in Europe and the diversion of the Korean War to take Berlin or some other limited object in Europe. They did fear however, that once the Soviets had accumulated a hundred or so atomic bombs (perhaps by 1954), even if those could be delivered only by one-way suicide attacks on American cities, the Soviets might think that even though such an attack would not defeat the United States, the potential damage and casualties might be enough to deter the Americans from launching their superior nuclear force in response to a mere conventional attack in Europe. (By the way, NSC-68 said only that the Soviets might think the U.S. would be deterred from a nuclear attack in response to a conventional invasion of Europe, not that it actually would be.) Readers will have to decide for themselves whether that was a rational fear, but I think there is no question that the Soviets had or were developing the capabilities that Nitze and Acheson thought they were.
[From a discussion of John Lewis Gaddis's We Now Know on the H-DIPLO mailing list:]

2.2. US narcissism

The US is extremely prone to self-flattery and self-deception in thinking of itself as the virtuous champion of democracy and human rights everywhere, and in believing that its moral principles are universal principles which can be applied everywhere. This crusading tendency makes it appear ridiculous and hypocritical, given past US history; it's also very dangerous. Kennan gives many examples of this. For example:

In the third [Walgreen Lecture, given in 1951] I talked about our relations, respectively with China and Japan over the half century from 1900 to 1950. My conclusion was that these relations had reflected a curious but deeply-rooted sentimentality on our part towards China, arising evidently from the pleasure it gave us to view ourselves as high-minded patrons, benefactors, and teachers of a people seen as less fortunate, and less advanced, than ourselves. And I could not help seeing in this self-indulgence a form of national narcissism--of collective self-admiration--to which it seemed to me, many Americans were prone. This tendency, I thought, could only conceal deep subconscious feelings of insecurity--a need for reassurance about outselves--something that contrasted very sharply with our pretentious external behavior.

I then turned, in that same lecture, to our negative and critical attitudes towards Japan, which were of course the mirror image of the patronizing and protective attitudes we adopted towards China. Our grievances against Japan seemed to be centered largely on the positions Japan then occupied on the mainland of northeastern Asia--predominantly in Korea and Manchuria. We saw these positions as legally and morally wrong, because in the formal sense these were not Japanese territories the Japanese were occupying. I took issue with this view, charging that we were trying to apply our own legalistic and moralistic standards to a situation to which they were in reality very little relevant, and argued that instead of setting ourselves up as judges over the morality of others, we would have done better to search for a stable balance of power among the various nationalistic forces active in that region--the Russians, the Chinese, and the Japanese--among whom there was really very little to choose from the standpoint of moral quality. In trying to dig the Japanese out of the positions they occupied on the Asian mainland, we were ignoring, I thought, the strong possibility that if we succeeded in doing this, what filled the resulting vacuums might well be some form of power even less to our liking than the Japanese we had removed. This proved actually to be the case.

It is worth recalling, in that connection, that the lectures I am talking about were delivered during the Korean war; and I could not help but see, in the unhappy position in which we then found ourselves on the Korean peninsula, a form of ironic punishment for our earlier lack of understanding for Japanese interests and for our insistence on removing the Japanese from their position there when we had no hopeful alternatives to suggest. I tried to point out, on the strength of this example, that our choices in foreign policy were not always between good and evil, but more often the greater and the lesser of two evils.
["Reflections on the Walgreen Lectures", 1984, reprinted in American Diplomacy 1900-1950]

Ronald Steele, Walter Lippmann and the American Century, on the dangers of universal intervention:

... At Tehran Stalin had made it clear that he intended to incorporate the Baltic states into the Soviet Union and ensure that Poland would never again fall into anti-Soviet hands. He wanted, in other words, a Russian sphere of influence. The Americans professed to be shocked by such a cynical notion, conveniently ignoring their own privileged zone in Latin America and the Pacific. But to Lippmann it seemed clear that the Soviets could not be denied dominant influence in an area they deemed vital to their security. The United States might be very powerful, but it simply could not set up governments everywhere in the world corresponding to its notions of propriety.

"We must not make the error of thinking that the alternative to 'isolation' is universal 'intervention,' " he wrote shortly after FDR's return from Tehran. "A diplomacy which pretended that we were interested in every disputed region everywhere would easily disrupt the alliance [between the US and the USSR]." In answer to those who saw the proposed United Nations as an instrument for containing Russia, he insisted that peace had to rest on great-power cooperation and respect for spheres of influence. It was "not only unavoidable but eminently proper that each great power does have a sphere in which its influence and responsibility are primary." To deny that reality would be simply to indulge in "the pretense, wholly illusory and dangerously confusing, that every state has an identical influence, interest, power and responsibility everywhere." Events were pushing Lippmann beyond the thesis of U.S. Foreign Policy, where he had argued that Eastern Europe should be neutralized. Now he realized that, like it or not, the region would fall under control of the dominant power--and that meant the Soviet Union.

2.3. The Vietnam War and Latin America

The Vietnam War and US intervention in Central and South America during the Cold War was clearly immoral. My judgement differs from Chomsky's in being based primarily on the consequences of US actions -- the deaths of millions -- rather than US motives (or both motives and actions). See Stanley Hoffman's March 27, 1969 letter in the New York Review of Books, and Chomsky's reply. Hoffman writes:

2) We do disagree on the subject of American objectives in Vietnam. Professor Chomsky believes that they were wicked; I do not. I believe that they were, in a way, far worse; for often the greatest threat to moderation and peace, and certainly the most insidious, comes from objectives that are couched in terms of fine principles in which the policy-maker fervently believes, yet that turn out to have no relation to political realities and can therefore be applied only by tortuous or brutal methods which broaden ad infinitum the gap between motives and effects. What matters in international affairs, alas, far more than intentions and objectives, is behavior and results. Because I do not believe that our professed goals in Vietnam were obviously wicked, Professor Chomsky "reads this as in essence an argument for the legitimacy of military intervention." If he had not stopped his quotation of my analysis where he did, he would have had to show that my case against the war is exactly the opposite: "worthy ends" divorced from local political realities lead to political and moral disaster, just as British resistance to the American revolution was bound to get bankrupt. What Vietnam proves, in my opinion, is not the wickedness of our intentions or objectives but the wickedness that results from irrelevant objectives and disembodied intentions, applied by hideous and massive means. It has its roots, intellectual and emotional, in elements of the American style that I have been at pains to analyze in detail. The Americans' very conviction that their goals are good blinds them to the consequences of their acts. To focus on intentions is to prolong a futile clash of inflamed self-righteousness; to focus on behavior and results could get us somewhere.
Robert Asprey describes Chomsky's leading role in opposing the Vietnam War:

Increasingly influential and strident voices were questioning not only the conduct but the very raison d'etre of the war. In February 1967, Noam Chomsky's explosive essay, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals," appeared in the New York Review of Books and thereafter was widely circulated--one of the "... key documents in the intellectual resistance to the Vietnam War," in that it called for the nation's intellectuals, who passively opposed American participation in the war, to become engage--in David Schalk's term--and even embrigadeor counterlegal if necessary "... to speak the truth and to expose lies." In this watershed essay, Chomsky blasted such "establishment intellectuals" as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Walt W. Rostow, McGeorge Bundy, and Henry Kissinger
... for their abandonment of the critical role that should fall to them because of their privileged status. These academics who had entered politics displayed a kind of "hypocritical moralism" that hid American imperialism with pieties and masked and apologized for aggression, especially American aggression in Vietnam.
[War in the Shadows, 1994]
Note that Kennan, Morgenthau, and Lippmann also opposed the Vietnam War. Kennan gave televised testimony against the war in 1966. Asprey quotes Lippmann:

Other influential voices added to the fire of protest, a debate characterized in British Prime Minister Harold Wilson's words by "... great passion, great feeling, and great emotion." In early 1967, Walter Lippmann challenged the desire of such Congressional hawks as Mendel Rivers "... to flatten Hanoi if necessary and let world opinion go fly a kite." If the United States adopted genocide as a national policy, Lippmann wrote, it would find itself dangerously isolated. It would not only earn the suspicion and hatred of neutrals but even of allies: "... We would come to be regarded as the most dangerous nation in the world, and the great powers of the world would align themselves accordingly to contain us." The President [Lyndon Johnson], Lippmann went on, found himself confronted

... with the agonizing fact that limited war has not worked because limited war can be effective only for limited objectives. The reason why the President is confronted with the demand for unlimited war is that he has escalated his objectives in Vietnam to an unlimited degree.
[War in the Shadows]

2.4. The problems of the Third World

We ought to be doing what we can to help overcome the poverty and misery of people in poor countries. Orwell describes the motivation behind popular revolution, in particular the anarchist revolution during the Spanish Civil War:

What are the workers struggling for? Simply for the decent life which they are more and more aware is now technically possible. Their consciousness of this aim ebbs and flows. In Spain, for a while, people were acting consciously, moving towards a goal which they wanted to reach and believed they could reach. It accounted for the curiously buoyant feeling that life in Government Spain had during the early months of the war.
["Looking Back on the Spanish War"]
For more discussion, see the Global Issues FAQ.

3. Areas of disagreement

Where I disagree with Chomsky:

Finally, and perhaps most seriously, I would expect that when a writer quotes someone, the quote should fairly represent what the other person is saying. Chomsky does not appear to adhere to this rule.

3.1. Capitalist democracy and revolution

From what I can tell, Chomsky believes that capitalist democracy is fundamentally unjust. Creating a just society requires radical change, even revolutionary change, to bring about true socialism -- based on popular control rather than state control -- and this can only be done through popular struggle, not by reforming the existing system. This is similar to Marx's critique of capitalism, but Chomsky is also anti-Leninist (comparable to Rosa Luxemburg), that is, opposed to state power replacing the power of capital.

Turning to the relation between equality and freedom, allegedly inverse, we also find nontrivial questions. Workers' control of production certainly increases freedom along some dimensions -- extremely important ones, in my judgment -- just as it eliminates the fundamental inequality between the person compelled to sell his labor power to survive and the person privileged to purchase it, if he so chooses. At the very least, we should bear in mind the familiar observation that freedom is illusion and mockery when conditions for the exercise of free choice do not exist. We only enter Marx's "realm of freedom" when labor is no longer "determined by necessity and mundane considerations," an insight that is hardly the precept of radicals and revolutionaries alone.
["Equality" (1976), reprinted in The Chomsky Reader]
If this is what's wrong with capitalist democracy, what kind of society does Chomsky have in mind instead? He believes that we can learn a great deal from the Spanish anarchist movement:

During the months following the Franco insurrection in July 1936, a social revolution of unprecedented scope took place throughout much of Spain. It had no "revolutionary vanguard" and appears to have been largely spontaneous, involving masses of urban and rural laborers in a radical transformation of social and economic conditions that persisted, with remarkable success, until it was crushed by force.
["Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship" (1968)]
For a description of the Spanish civil war, including a sympathetic description of the anarchist movement, see George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

What are the conditions required for such a revolution?

A real libertarian socialist revolution requires substantial preparation on the part of very large sectors of the population, which are prepared to take over management of production, distribution, and communities, to develop federal arrangements, and in general to create institutions of meaningful democracy that would offer the population at large means for controlling their own lives and communities and work and for participating in the formation of public policy in broader domains.
[1987 interview with James Peck in The Chomsky Reader]
This is a process which may take decades to occur.

Inequality, both within societies and internationally, is certainly a terrible problem, and I'm sympathetic to Chomsky's point of view, but I'm afraid I disagree. Orwell shared Chomsky's belief that capitalism is inherently unjust, but he also recognized the improvement of the position of the working classes within the liberal democracies, which has softened the problem of class conflict:

One of the most important developments in England during the past twenty years has been the upward and downward extension of the middle class. ...

The British working class are now better off in almost all ways than they were thirty years ago. ... However unjustly society is organised, certain technical advances are bound to benefit the whole community, because certain kinds of goods are necessarily held in common. A millionaire cannot, for example, light the streets for himself while darkening them for other people. Nearly all citizens of civilised countries now enjoy the use of good roads, germ-free water, police protection, free libraries and probably free education of a kind.
["England Your England" (1941), reprinted in A Collection of Essays]

I'm not convinced that revolutionary change is likely to lead to a more just society than welfare-state liberal democracy. From what I know of twentieth-century history, revolution has more often led to autocracy and terror than to utopia. The Spanish anarchist movement is probably the most important counter-example, but it only lasted for a short time. The Chinese Communists under Mao provide a very different example: they've been able to rebuild China, but with a horrific cost in human life. For example, 15-30 million died in the famine of the early 1960s following the Great Leap Forward; millions more died during the early revolutionary terror and during the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

There are fates that are much worse than capitalist democracy. I think this has to be kept in mind when thinking about whether to aim for reform or revolution. Orwell, despite being a committed socialist opposed to capitalism, saw totalitarianism as clearly worse than capitalist democracy:

If one must worship a bully, it is better that he should be a policeman than a gangster. Wallace is still governed to some extent by the concept of "not done." In No Orchids anything is "done" so long as it leads on to power. All the barriers are down, all the motives are out in the open. Chase is a worse symptom than Wallace, to the extent that all-in wrestling is worse than boxing, or Fascism is worse than capitalist democracy.
["Raffles and Miss Blandish" (1944), reprinted in A Collection of Essays]
I haven't given up on liberal democracy and the welfare state.

3.2. The US, the USSR, and revolutionary violence

In Chomsky's view, the Cold War was not really a bipolar conflict, but rather a triangular conflict in which the US and the USSR, although supposedly opposed to each other, in fact had a common interest in crushing any kind of popular revolution within their respective spheres of influence; the Cold War was a useful justification for this.

    A       B

This is similar to the Spanish civil war, where A is the Nationalists under Franco, B is the liberal/Communist government, C is the revolutionary anarchists. The anarchists were crushed by the liberal/Communist government, their supposed allies.

There was a similar triangular conflict in China, with A being the Japanese, B being the Nationalists (KMT) under Chiang Kai-shek, and C being the Communists under Mao Zedong.

In the Cold War, A is the US (bourgeois liberal capitalism), B is the USSR (Leninist dictatorship), and C is popular revolution. Specifically:

Putting second-order complexities to the side, for the USSR the Cold War has been primarily a war against its satellites, and for the US a war against the Third World. For each, it has served to entrench a particular system of domestic privilege and coercion.
[Deterring Democracy, 1989]
In Chomsky's view, the US and USSR were both ruthless and morally bankrupt, with the US being no less evil than the USSR, despite the fact that the USSR was totalitarian and the US was a capitalist democracy.

Here I disagree pretty strongly. First, I think the Cold War was certainly primarily a conflict between the US and the USSR. The nuclear arms race, in which the arsenals of both sides were built up to completely insane levels, provides grotesque but concrete evidence. (See the quote from George Kennan in section 2.1.) Why did the US deploy nuclear weapons in the first place? Western leaders -- including the UK and France, not just the US -- reacted to Stalin as though he were a second Hitler, seeking world conquest; they believed that the Soviet armies, which had not been demobilized after World War II, were a threat to Western Europe. And they felt that their conventional forces weren't strong enough to resist a Soviet invasion. (See Blundering into Disaster, by Robert McNamara, for an account of the nuclear arms race.)

(As an aside, it's unclear to me what Stalin's intentions actually were. George Kennan, an expert on the Soviet Union, believed that the Soviet leaders were primarily defensive. Douglas Macdonald argues in a 1995 International Security article that the "traditionalist" view of Cold War history, which saw the USSR as expansionist, was correct: see "Communist Bloc Expansion in the Early Cold War".)

Second, was there really no significant difference between the objectives of the US and USSR? Both sought to maintain or increase their power, but in addition, both also sought to replicate their domestic economic and political systems abroad: capitalist democracy in the case of the US, totalitarianism in the case of the USSR. As Orwell pointed out, unfair as capitalist democracy is, it still has laws; hypocritical though it is, it still respects human life. For example, John Lewis Gaddis describes how the Cold War was shaped by the behavior of the occupying armies in Germany:

... There were large numbers of communist party members throughout Germany at the end of the war, and their prestige - because of their opposition to the Nazis - had never been higher. Why did the Germans so overwhelmingly welcome the Americans and their allies, and fear the Russians?

It has long been known that the Red Army behaved brutally toward German civilians in those parts of the country that it occupied. This contrasted strikingly with the treatment accorded the Germans in the American, British, and French zones. What we did not know, until recently, is that the problem of rape was much larger than once thought. Red Army soldiers, it now appears, raped as many as two million German women in 1945 and 1946. There was no significant effort to stop this pattern of behavior or to discipline those who indulged in it. To this day, surviving Soviet officers tend to recall the phenomenon much as Stalin saw it at the time: troops that had risked their lives and survived deserved a little fun.

Now, obviously rape in particular, and brutality in general, is always a problem when armies occupy the territory of defeated adversaries. Certainly Russian troops had good reason to hate the Germans, given what they had done inside the Soviet Union. But these semisanctioned mass rapes took place precisely during the period when Stalin was trying to win the support of German people, not just in the east but throughout the country. He even allowed elections to be held inside the Soviet zone in the fall of 1946, and suffered keen embarrassment when the Germans - the women in particular - voted overwhelmingly against the Soviet-supported candidates.

The incidence of rape and brutality was so much greater on the Soviet than on the Western side that it played a major role in determining which way the Germans would tilt in the Cold War that was to come. It ensured a pro-Western orientation among all Germans from the very beginning of that conflict, which surely helps to explain why the West German regime was able to establish itself as a legitimate government and the East German regime never could. This pattern, in turn, replicated itself on a larger scale when the West Europeans invited the United States to organize the NATO alliance and include them within it. The Warsaw Pact, a Soviet creation imposed on Eastern Europe in reaction to NATO, operated on quite a different basis.
["On Moral Equivalency and Cold War History" (1996)]

A third point: in political writing, there's always the danger of partisanship blinding one to the truth. Orwell describes this in his essay "Notes on Nationalism":

The point is that as soon as fear, hatred, jealousy and power worship are involved, the sense of reality becomes unhinged. And, as I have pointed out already, the sense of right and wrong becomes unhinged also. There is no crime, absolutely none, that cannot be condoned when "our" side commits it. Even if one does not deny that the crime has happened, even if one knows that it is exactly the same crime as one has condemned in some other case, even if one admits in an intellectual sense that it is unjustified -- still one cannot feel that it is wrong. Loyalty is involved, and so pity ceases to function.
["Notes on Nationalism" (1945)]
Chomsky certainly condemns the crimes committed by both the US and the USSR, but I have the impression that he's less inclined to condemn violence and terror when it's carried out by revolutionary movements.

Kant's remarks [defending the French Revolution] have contemporary relevance. No rational person will approve of violence and terror. In particular, the terror of the postrevolutionary state, fallen into the hands of a grim autocracy, has more than once reached indescribable levels of savagery. Yet no person of understanding and humanity will too quickly condemn the violence that often occurs when long-subdued masses rise against their oppressors, or take their first steps toward liberty and social reconstruction.
["Language and Freedom" (1970), reprinted in The Chomsky Reader]
Nathan Folkert (formerly a Chomsky supporter) points out that Chomsky described China under Mao in quite positive terms during a panel discussion on revolutionary violence in 1967, saying that it had achieved a just society, at least to some extent []. I was also quite surprised to see him refer to China's invasion and occupation of Tibet in these terms:
There are various harsh things that one might say about Chinese behavior in what the Sino-Indian Treaty of 1954 refers to as "the Tibet region of China" ....
["The Responsibility of Intellectuals" (1967)]
I hope it's not too presumptuous of me to say that this phrasing suggests it wasn't an invasion.

Of course, this was in 1967. More recently, Chomsky does say:

The centerpiece of the accusation [in the "Black Book of Communism"] was the Chinese famine of 1958-61, which accounted for 1/3 of the grim total. Of course, no one supposed that Mao literally murdered tens of millions of people, or that he "intended" that any die at all. Rather, these crimes were the outcome of institutional and ideological structures of the Maoist system, as discussed in the primary scholarly work on the topic by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and his colleague Jean Dreze. These charges are unchallenged, and rightly so. I will not elaborate because I have done so elsewhere in a ZNet commentary in January 2000, reprinted and extended in Rogue States.
It's a somewhat qualified statement, but Chomsky does acknowledge the millions that died during the famine (15-30 million, according to Maurice Meisner in Mao's China and After).

3.3. Complexity of international politics

Based on reading Morgenthau and Kennan, I'd say that international politics is a complex subject, not one that's intuitively obvious; and one that's made even more complex by the development of nuclear weapons. Chomsky disagrees, and argues that US foreign policy is easily explained as being driven by elite self-interest.

Chomsky discusses his view that international politics is relatively straightforward, in the interview with James Peck in The Chomsky Reader:

JP: Do you think people are inhibited by expertise?

NC: There are also experts about football, but these people don't defer to them. The people who call in talk with complete confidence. They don't care if they disagree with the coach or whoever the local expert is. They have their own opinion and they conduct intelligent discussions. Now I don't think that international or domestic affairs are much more complicated. And what passes for serious intellectual discourse on these matters does not reflect any deeper level of understanding or knowledge.

For a counter-argument, see Chapter 2 of Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (first edition published in 1948; I'm using the sixth edition, from 1985).

The most formidable difficulty facing a theoretical inquiry into the nature and ways of international politics is the ambiguity of the material with which the observer has to deal. The events he must try to understand are, on the one hand, unique occurrences. They happened in this way only once and never before or since. On the other hand, they are similar, for they are manifestations of social forces. Social forces are the product of human nature in action. Therefore, under similar conditions, they will manifest themselves in a similar manner. But where is the line to be drawn between the similar and the unique?

This ambiguity of the events to be understood by a theory of international politics--it may be pointed out in passing--is but a special instance of a general impediment to human understanding. "As no event and no shape," observes Montaigne, "is entirely like another, so also is there none entirely different from another: an ingenious mixture on the part of Nature. If there were no similarity in our faces, we could not distinguish man from beast; if there were no dissimilarity, we could not distinguish one man from another. All things hold together by some similarity; every example is halting, and the comparison that is derived from experience is always defective and imperfect. And yet one links up the comparisons at some corner. And so do laws become serviceable and adapt themselves to every one of our affairs by some wrested, forced, and biased interpretation." It is against such "wrested, forced, and biased interpretation" of political events that a theory of international politics must be continuously on guard.

We learn what the principles of international politics are from comparisons between such events. A certain political situation evokes the formulation and execution of a certain foreign policy. Dealing with a different political situation, we ask ourselves: How does this situation differ from the preceding one, and how is it similar? Do the similarities reaffirm the policy developed previously? Or does the blending of similarities and differences allow the essence of that policy to be retained while, in some aspects, it is to be modified? Or do the differences vitiate the analogy altogether and make the previous policy inapplicable? If one wants to understand international politics, grasp the meaning of contemporary events, and foresee and influence the future, one must be able to perform the dual intellectual task implicit in these questions. One must be able to distinguish between the similarities and differences in two political situations. Furthermore, one must be able to assess the import of these similarities and differences for alternative foreign policies.

Morgenthau gives a number of examples, e.g.
In 1512, Henry VIII of England made an alliance with the Hapsburgs against France. In 1515, he made an alliance with France against the Hapsburgs. In 1522 and 1542, he joined the Hapsburgs against France. In 1756, Great Britain allied itself with Prussia against the Hapsburgs and France. In 1793, Great Britain, Prussia, and the Hapsburgs were allied against Napoleon. In 1914, Great Britain joined with France and Russia against Austria and Germany, and in 1939 with France and Poland against Germany.

... What is the meaning of those shifts in British foreign policy?


The first lesson the student of international politics must learn and never forget is that the complexities of international affairs make simple solutions and trustworthy prophecies impossible. Here the scholar and the charlatan part company. Knowledge of the forces that determine politics among nations, and of the ways by which their political relations unfold, reveals the ambiguity of the facts of international politics. In every political situation contradictory tendencies are at play. One of these tendencies is more likely to prevail under certain conditions. But which tendency will actually prevail is anybody's guess. The best the scholar can do, then, is to trace the different tendencies that, as potentialities, are inherent in a certain international situation. He can point out the different conditions that make it more likely for one tendency to prevail than another and, finally, assess the probabilities for the different conditions and tendencies to prevail in actuality.

Second, Chomsky argues that international politics is primarily driven by the interests (particularly the economic interests) of elites. From Deterring Democracy:

... the political leadership has undermined possibilities for political settlement and fostered conflict in regions where such conflict could lead to a devastating nuclear war, and has sometimes come all too close--notably the Middle East. These consistent patterns make no sense on the assumption that security policy is guided by security concerns. Case by case, they fall into place on the assumption that policy is driven by the twin goals of reinforcing the private interests that control the state, and maintaining an international environment in which they can prosper.
For a counter-argument, see "Economic Theories of Imperialism" in Chapter 5 of Morgenthau, in which Morgenthau refutes economic explanations of international politics. In particular:

What Professor Schumpeter has said of the Marxist theory of imperialism holds generally true: "A series of vital facts of our time seems to be perfectly accounted for. The whole maze of international politics seems to be cleared up by a single powerful stroke of analysis." The mystery of so threatening, inhuman, and often murderous a historic force as imperialism, the theoretical problem of defining it as a distinctive type of international politics, the practical difficulty, above all, of recognizing it in a concrete situation and of counteracting it with adequate means--all this is reduced to either the inherent tendencies or the abuses of the capitalist system. Whenever the phenomenon of imperialism presents itself for either theoretical understanding or practical action, the simple scheme will provide an almost automatic answer that puts the mind at ease.

So what's wrong with the theory?

All economic explanations of imperialism, the refined as well as the primitive, fail the test of historic experience. The economic interpretation of imperialism erects a limited historic experience, based on a few isolated cases, into a universal law of history. It is indeed true that in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries a small number of wars were waged primarily, if not exclusively, for economic objectives. The classic examples are the Boer War of 1899-1902 and the Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay from 1932-35. The main responsibility of British mining interests for the Boer War can hardly be doubted. The Chaco War is considered by some to have been primarily a war between two oil companies for the control of oil fields.

But during the entire period of mature capitalism, no war, with the exception of the Boer War, was waged by major powers exclusively or even predominately for economic objectives. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the Franco-German War of 1870, for instance, had no economic objectives of any importance. They were political wars, indeed imperialistic wars, fought for the purpose of establishing a new distribution of power, first in favor of Prussia within Germany and then in favor of Germany within the European state system. The Crimean War of 1854-56, the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, the Turko-Italian War of 1911-12, and the several Balkan Wars show economic objectives only in a subordinate role, if they show them at all. The two world wars were certainly political wars, whose stake was the domination of Europe, if not of the world. Naturally, victory in these wars brought economic advantages and, more particularly, defeat brought in its wake economic losses. But these effects were not the real issue; they were only by-products of the political consequences of victory and defeat. Still less were these economic effects the motives that determined in the minds of the responsible statesmen the issue of war and peace.

The economic theories of imperialism are thus not supported by the experience of that historic period which they suppose to be intimately connected, if not identical, with imperialism; that is, the period of capitalism. Furthermore, the main period of colonial expansion which the economic theories tend to identify with imperialism precedes the age of mature capitalism and cannot be attributed to the inner contradictions of the decaying capitalist system. In comparison with those of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, the colonial acquisitions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are small. ...

[Discussion of precapitalist empires.] All these imperialisms of precapitalist times share with those of the capitalist period the tendency to overthrow the established power relations and put in their stead the dominance of the imperialistic power. Yet those two periods of imperalism also share the subordination of economic objectives to political considerations.

... We have seen that imperialism is not determined by economics, capitalist or otherwise. We shall see now that capitalists per se are not imperialists. According to the economic theories and, more particularly, the "devil" theory, capitalists use governments as their tools in instigating imperialistic policies. Yet the investigation of historic instances cited in support of the economic interpretation shows that in most cases the reverse relationship actually existed between statesmen and capitalists. Imperialistic policies were generally conceived by the governments who summoned the capitalists to support these policies. Thus historic evidence points to the primacy of politics over economics, and "the rule of the financier ... over international politics" is indeed, in the words of Professor Schumpeter, "A newspaper fairytale, almost ludicrously at variance with fact." Yet, far from being the instigators, capitalists as a group--aside from certain individual capitalists--were not even enthusiastic supporters of imperialistic policies. The literature and policies of the groups and political parties representing the capitalist element in modern societies are a testimony to the traditional opposition of the merchant and manufacturing classes to any foreign policy that, like imperialism, might lead to war. As Professor Viner has stated:

It was for the most part the middle classes who were the supporters of pacificism, of internationalism, of international conciliation and compromise of disputes, of disarmament--in so far as these had supporters. It was for the most part aristocrats, agrarians, often the urban working classes, who were the expansionists, the imperialists, the jingoes. In the British Parliament it was spokesmen for the "moneyed interests," for the emerging middle classes in the northern manufacturing districts and for the "City" in London, who were the appeasers during the Napoleonic Wars, during the Crimean War, during the Boer War, and during the period from the rise of Hitler to the German invasion of Poland. In our own country it was largely from business circles that the important opposition came to the American Revolution, to the War of 1812, to the imperialism of 1898, and to the anti-Nazi policy of the Roosevelt administration prior to Pearl Harbor.
From Sir Andrew Freeport in the Spectator at the beginning of the eighteenth century to Norman Angell's The Great Illusion in our time, it has been the conviction of the capitalists as a class and of most capitalists as individuals that "war does not pay," that war is incompatible with an industrial society, that the interests of capitalism require peace and not war. For only peace permits those rational calculations upon which capitalist actions are based. War carries with it an element of irrationality and chaos which is alien to the very spirit of capitalism. Imperialism, however, as the attempt to overthrow the existing power relations, carries with it the inevitable risk of war. As a group then, capitalists were opposed to war; they did not initiate, and only supported with misgivings and under pressure, imperialistic policies that might lead, and many times actually did lead, to war.
As an aside, what does drive international politics, if not economic interests? Here's my attempt at a 60-second summary of Politics Among Nations. (Of course, this is vastly oversimplified; I'd highly recommend reading the book.)

3.4. Brainwashing

Chomsky argues that in the bourgeois democracy of the US, the American elite only maintains its legitimacy through a kind of self-brainwashing which differs from Soviet totalitarianism only by being more subtle and more effective. Orwell sees a much more radical difference between totalitarianism and liberalism:

This kind of thing [Fascist propaganda] is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. ...

I know it is the fashion to say that most of recorded history is lies anyway. I am willing to believe that history is for the most part inaccurate and unbiased, but what is peculiar to our own age is the abandonment of the idea that history could be truthfully written. In the past people deliberately lied, or they struggled after the truth, well knowing that they must make many mistakes; but in each case they believed that "the facts" existed and were more or less discoverable. And in practice there was always a considerable body of fact which would have been agreed to by almost everyone. If you look up the history of the last war [WWI] in, for instance, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, you will find that a respectable amount of the material is drawn from German sources. A British and a German historian would disagree deeply on many things, even on fundamentals, but there would still be that body of, as it were, neutral fact on which neither would seriously challenge the other. It is just this common basis of agreement, with its implication that human beings are all one species of animal, that totalitarianism destroys.
["Looking Back on the Spanish War" (1943)]

I think it should be pretty clear that there's a wide range of intellectual opinion in the US, including Chomsky himself. See the New York Review of Books:

I think there is a tendency to ignore evidence which conflicts with one's existing beliefs, but this is a universal human tendency which we all need to bear in mind, it's not something unique to bourgeois liberal intellectuals or the US. William James writes:

The observable process which Schiller and Dewey particularly singled out for generalization is the familiar one by which any individual settles into new opinions. The process here is always the same. The individual has a stock of old opinions already, but he meets a new experience that puts them to a strain. Somebody contradicts them; or in a reflective moment he discovers that they contradict each other; or he hears of facts with which they are incompatible; or desires arise in him which they cease to satisfy. The result is an inward trouble to which his mind till then had been a stranger, and from which he seeks to escape by modifying his previous mass of opinions. He saves as much of it as he can, for in this matter of belief we are all extreme conservatives. So he tries to change first this opinion, and then that (for they resist change very variously), until at last some new idea comes up which he can graft upon the ancient stock with a minimum of disturbance of the latter, some idea that mediates between the stock and the new experience and runs them into one another most felicitously and expediently.

... Loyalty to [existing beliefs] is the first principle--in most cases it is the only principle; for by far the most usual way of handling phenomena so novel that they would make for a serious rearrangement of our preconceptions is to ignore them altogether, or to abuse those who bear witness for them.
["What Pragmatism Means", reprinted in Pragmatism]

Obviously this applies to crazed right-wingers who abuse Chomsky, but I hope it's not too presumptuous for me to suggest that it may apply to Chomsky as well. (Again, this is a universal human tendency, not a particular intellectual weakness of Chomsky; I'm certainly not exempt, as John Caruso has pointed out.)

Bearing James's comment in mind, my preferred method of checking the reliability of a historical source is to "triangulate" by looking up what other sources have to say about the same events.

As an aside, I would also suggest that anyone who wants to be well-informed about international politics should switch off their TV. Even the best-intentioned TV news director isn't capable of presenting the complexities of international politics on TV. There's vast differences between a print medium, such as books, newspapers, or newsgroups, and a visual medium, such as TV, when it comes to discussing complex issues. See Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves To Death (and also Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place).

3.5. Misrepresentation

Perhaps the biggest problem I have with Chomsky is that he's an unreliable source of historical information (and because of what he says about the self-brainwashing of US intellectuals, the reader isn't highly motivated to go look at other sources). In particular, as a reader, I usually assume that if a writer provides a selective quote from someone else, it should provide a reasonably accurate summary of what the other person said.

Chomsky doesn't appear to adhere to this rule.

This means that it's necessary to check his references very carefully. I assume not everyone who reads Chomsky does this.

Orwell describes the phenomenon of extreme partisan writing in "Notes on Nationalism":

Much of the propagandist writing of our time amounts to plain forgery. Material facts are suppressed, dates altered, quotations removed from their context and doctored so as to change their meaning. Events which it is felt ought not to have happened are left unmentioned and ultimately denied.
["Notes on Nationalism" (1945)]
Chomsky doesn't alter dates or deny events occurred, but he does appear to omit material facts and take quotations out of context.

As Stanley Hoffman puts it in a 1969 letter to the New York Review of Books: Chomsky has a tendency

to draw from an author's statements inferences that correspond neither to the author's intentions nor to the statements' meaning ...
I assume (given Chomsky's intellectual stature) that he's not being consciously dishonest, that it's simply an example of William James's observation about one's existing beliefs driving one's interpretation of evidence. But in Chomsky's case, it seems pretty extreme.

There's a February 26, 1970 letter to the New York Review of Books by Samuel Huntington, with a response by Chomsky, which gives an example. ("After Pinkville" is reprinted in The Chomsky Reader.)

In response to "After Pinkville" (January 1, 1970)

To the Editors:

In the space of three brief paragraphs in your January 1 issue, Noam Chomsky manages to mutilate the truth in a variety of ways with respect to my views and activities on Vietnam.

Mr. Chomsky writes as follows:

Writing in Foreign Affairs, he [Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist." The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by "direct application of mechanical and conventional power...on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city...."

It would be difficult to conceive of a more blatantly dishonest instance of picking words out of context so as to give them a meaning directly opposite to that which the author stated. For the benefit of your readers, here is the "obvious conclusion" which I drew from my statement about the Viet Cong:

...the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation.
By omitting my next sentence--"Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation"--and linking my statement about the Viet Cong to two other phrases which appear earlier in the article, Mr. Chomsky completely reversed my argument.
Chomsky's response includes the following remarkable sophistry:

... I did not say that he "favored" this answer but only that he "outlined" it, "explained" it, and "does not shrink from it," all of which is literally true.
Another example: Chomsky's widespread quotation of PPS 23. Here's what Chomsky writes, in What Uncle Sam Really Wants:
Kennan was one of the most intelligent and lucid of US planners, and a major figure in shaping the postwar world. His writings are an extremely interesting illustration of the dovish position. One document to look at if you want to understand your country is Policy Planning Study 23, written by Kennan for the State Department planning staff in 1948. Here's some of what it says:

we have about 50% of the world's wealth, but only 6.3% of its population....In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.... To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives....We should cease to talk about vague and ... unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
PPS 23 was, of course, a top-secret document. To pacify the public, it was necessary to trumpet the "idealistic slogans" (as is still being done constantly), but here planners were talking to one another.
[What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1993)]
(The last paragraph is what originally set off alarm bells in my head: when I started reading Chomsky, I'd already read a lot of Kennan's writings, so by way of triangulation I looked up George Kennan in the index of Turning the Tide and found this quote. In his lectures and writings, Kennan argues constantly against trumpeting of idealistic slogans, so to me, this raised a red flag.)

This quote is very widespread on the web, as evidence of the malign nature of US foreign policy.
Chomsky's quote of PPS 23 makes it appear that Kennan is arguing that human rights are unimportant compared to the task of maintaining US wealth. (This makes Kennan appear to be an amoral monster.)

I looked up PPS 23. In fact, Kennan was arguing that human rights were irrelevant in the Far East -- regardless of US policy -- because of the problems of population growth and food supply, particularly in China and India; that many countries in Asia would probably fall into the Soviet sphere of influence; that US wealth would arouse envy and resentment; and that the US needed to focus on keeping Japan and the Philippines in the US sphere of influence, to prevent a future attack from the Pacific.

I think Kennan's point of view, although pessimistic, is a reasonable one. The objective was to prevent a future attack from the Pacific; what else was the US going to do, impoverish itself so as to avoid being envied and resented? (Kennan's comment about US wealth was correct: at the end of World War II, the US produced roughly 50% of world manufacturing output.)

I don't think everyone will agree with my interpretation (John Caruso didn't), so I'll include the full text below and let you judge for yourself.

I've set up a separate web page which discusses the PPS 23 quote.

The complete text of the section of PPS 23 from which Chomsky is quoting is given here. The complete paper was published in 1976 in Foreign Relations of the United States 1948, Vol. 1, No. 2.


My main impression with regard to the position of this Government with regard to the Far East is that we are greatly over-extended in our whole thinking about what we can accomplish, and should try to accomplish, in that area. This applies, unfortunately, to the people in our country as well as to the Government.

It is urgently necessary that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples.

Our political philosophy and our patterns for living have very little applicability to masses of people in Asia. They may be all right for us, with our highly developed political traditions running back into the centuries and with our peculiarly favorable geographic position; but they are simply not practical or helpful, today, for most of the people in Asia.

This being the case, we must be very careful when we speak of exercising "leadership" in Asia. We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have the answers to the problems which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples.

Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.

For these reasons, we must observe great restraint in our attitude toward the Far Eastern areas. The peoples of Asia and of the Pacific area are going to go ahead, whatever we do, with the development of their political forms and mutual interrelationships in their own way. This process cannot be a liberal or peaceful one. The greatest of the Asiatic peoples--the Chinese and the Indians--have not yet even made a beginning at the solution of the basic demographic problem involved in the relationship between their food supply and their birth rate. Until they find some solution to this problem, further hunger, distress, and violence are inevitable. All of the Asiatic peoples are faced with the necessity for evolving new forms of life to conform to the impact of modern technology. This process of adaptation will also be long and violent. It is not only possible, but probable, that in the course of this process many peoples will fall, for varying periods, under the influence of Moscow, whose ideology has a greater lure for such peoples, and probably greater reality, than anything we could oppose to it. All this, too, is probably unavoidable; and we could not hope to combat it without the diversion of a far greater portion of our national effort than our people would ever willingly concede to such a purpose.

In the face of this situation we would be better off to dispense now with a number of the concepts which have underlined our thinking with regard to the Far East. We should dispense with the aspiration to "be liked" or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brothers' keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and--for the Far East--unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.

We should recognize that our influence in the Far Eastern area in the coming period is going to be primarily military and economic. We should make a careful study to see what parts of the Pacific and Far Eastern world are absolutely vital to our security, and we should concentrate our policy on seeing to it that those areas remain in hands which we can control or rely on. It is my own guess, on the basis of such study as we have given the problem so far, that Japan and the Philippines will be found to be the corner-stones of such a Pacific security system and if we can contrive to retain effective control over these areas there can be no serious threat to our security from the East within our time.

Only when we have assured this first objective, can we allow ourselves the luxury of going farther afield in our thinking and our planning.

If these basic concepts are accepted, then our objectives for the immediate coming period should be:

(a) to liquidate as rapidly as possible our unsound commitments in China and to recover, vis-a-vis that country, a position of detachment and freedom of action;
(b) to devise policies with respect to Japan which assure the security of those islands from communist penetration and domination as well as from Soviet military attack, and which will permit the economic potential of that country to become again an important force in the Far East, responsive to the interests of peace and stability in the Pacific area; and
(c) to shape our relationship to the Philippines in such a way as to permit the Philippine Government a continued independence in all internal affairs but to preserve the archipelago as a bulwark of U.S. security in that area.

Of these three objectives, the one relating to Japan is the one where there is the greatest need for immediate attention on the part of our Government and the greatest possibility for immediate action. It should therefore be made the focal point of our policy for the Far East in the coming period.

4. Other criticism of Chomsky

Long articles: Brad DeLong is a liberal-minded economist who worked in the Clinton Administration. He comments on What Uncle Sam Really Wants:

The book began with a sketch of the history of U.S. foreign relations since World War II. By the second page Chomsky was in the middle of a brief discussion of planning for the postwar period. Four paragraphs were devoted to NSC 68--the end-of-the-1940s policy planning document that proposed building a military strong enough to confront the Soviet Union on any continent, and settling down for a long Cold War of unlimited duration. But NSC 68 was exhibited in a vacuum. There was not a word about the gradual shift in the late 1940s of U.S. policy from Rooseveltian cooperation with Stalin to Trumanesque confrontation, not a word about escalation of tensions--the fate of former German prisoners returned by the western allies to Stalin, the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, the disputes over German reconstruction ending in the Soviet blockade of Berlin--and not a word about how NSC 68 had no prospects of becoming policy until Josef Stalin took off the leash and Kim Il Sung began the Korean War.

... In my view, the first duty that any participant in any speech situation has: to tell it like he or she thinks that it is, not to try to suppress big chunks of the story because they are inconvenient in the context of your current political goals. You can't show only half (or less than half) the picture. That's an act of intellectual authoritarianism, an attempt to lower the level of the discourse, an attempt to keep people from knowing things that are not "good" for them--an intellectual foul.

A user-contributed comment from Dan Hardie:

There is a key passage in George Orwell, in his finest essay, 'Looking back on the Spanish War', in which he comments that a British and German historian in the twenties, discussing WW1, would have had some profound differences but would have been prepared to each cite some of the same material, however much they would have disagreed with it. He contrasted this with the collapse in intellectual honesty in the Thirties and Forties, when many intellectuals would refuse to admit the existence of any facts which were inconvenient to their chosen ideological standpoint. The same with Chomsky. You can read the works of a Marxist historian like Edward Thompson and derive a rightwing argument from the evidence he has uncovered: Corelli Barnett did so in his Thatcherite polemic 'The Audit of War'. You can be a leftist, as I am, and find plenty of scholarly merit in the works of right wing historians:if you want to criticise the hysteria of right-wing European politicians before 1914, read Norman Stone's 'Europe Transformed', written by a thoroughly conservative author.

But what Chomsky is doing is not writing history: he is merely a schoolboy debating star citing any fact which may be grist to his mill and hiding all the difficult evidence well away from his impressionable audience.

Clare Spark argues that Chomsky misrepresents Walter Lippmann, concluding:

I am not an uncritical acolyte of Walter Lippmann, but I do not see how any democrat can fail to worry about the state of culture and education during the period when Lippmann was a public intellectual, or the terrible decline of standards today. I do think that it behooves scholars, as a matter of ethics and professionalism, not to distort the views of their opponents. Finally, if others on this list know of other refutations of the Chomsky claim that Lippmann is an antidemocrat and mind-manager, arch manufacturer of consent, I would like to know about them. If there are none or few, then this matter should be widely publicized, for Chomsky's bitter and negative views of American identity and U.S. foreign policy have had a broad impact on college youth and many an autodidact.
Bruce Sharp discusses Chomsky's writings on Cambodia:

Having reread Chomsky's comments on Cambodia, having heard him speak, and having seen the documentary about the good professor, I have no doubt that he is a man of honor and great integrity.

However, he knows nothing about Cambodia.

No... that isn't true. The truth is much worse. He knows just enough about Cambodia to sound knowledgable to all of the people who really don't know anything about Cambodia....

How could Chomsky have so seriously misjudged the nature of the Khmer Rouge? One reason is what I would refer to as the "The Curse of the Generalist." Chomsky writes about events all over the world. Can one person really understand all of the intricacies of the politics and history of any one country? Probably. But can one person understand the intricacies of ten countries? fifty? two hundred? No.

There are conflicting accounts of the history of any country and any event. How can a person who does not have specialized knowledge of a given country evaluate which of those accounts is accurate?

In Chomsky's case, he does not evaluate all sources and then determine which stand up to logical inquiry. Rather, he examines a handful of accounts until he finds one which matches his predetermined idea of what the truth must be. He does not derive his theories from the evidence. Instead, he selectively gathers "evidence" which supports his theories and ignores the rest.

In 1996, Ada Aharoni, an Israeli peace activist, asked why Chomsky opposed the Middle East peace process:
Chomsky's criticism of the Peace Process as damaging the Arab cause implies an attack on the wisdom and integrity of most of the Arab governments, as well as on Mr. Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians, since they accept and are actively involved in the Peace Process. They find this process in agreement with Arab aspirations, and are not convinced by Chomsky's line of cynical and destructive criticism, nor his role of a self-appointed defender of Arab interests.
Adrian Hastings, a British theologian and activist, reviewed Chomsky's book The New Military Humanism: Lessons from Kosovo:

What is most striking to a Balkanist about this book is what is left out. There is no discussion of the character, aims, and methods of Milosevic, no attempt to place the war in Kosovo in the context of a decade of wars - in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia - and very little attempt even to portray what had actually happened in Kosovo in the twenty years before 1999. If anyone suffers from the disease of seeing the world as so centred in Washington that nothing else really matters, that person is Chomsky. It is a little surprising to find that the names of Sarajevo, Vukovar and the like never appear. Where he does refer to previous events in ex-Yugoslavia he often gets them wrong, uncritically accepting Serbian propaganda or using any conceivable quote to hammer the West.
Christopher Hitchens criticized Chomsky's comments on the September 11 attack, in which Chomsky said that the US bombing of al-Shifa in 1998 had killed tens of thousands of people.

Leo Casey, a teacher in New York, follows up on Chomsky's response to Hitchens:

since those drugs were important for the health of Sudanese people, it follows, according to Chomsky, that tens or hundreds of thousands of Sudanese have died as a result of loss of life-saving drugs caused by the 1998 bombing. The pharmaceuticals produced in the factory were, by the Sudanese government's own accounts, basic and widely used anti-malarial, antibiotic and veterinarial drugs. In his reply to Hitchens, Chomsky cites an article in the British Observer which makes much of the fact that the factory was producing the anti-malarial drug most widely used throughout the world for the last half century, chloroquine, so let's examine the case that might be made here. Chloroquine is an inexpensive drug, available widely throughout tropical regions where malaria is endemic; it is comparable, both in availability and cost, to aspirin in the U.S. and Europe. As a matter of fact, North Americans and Europeans visiting tropical areas usually take chloroquine or a close but more expensive relative as a prophylactic. There are scores of countries that produce chloroquine and its relatives, so even if the United Kingdom where to refuse the Sudanese government's request to import it from there following the bombing of the factory, there would be little difficulty in finding another source. Moreover, since the discovery of large deposits of oil in its southern region, Sudan has become a major oil exporting nation with a substantial oil-based income; it regularly spends large amounts of that income in the pursuit of its genocidal war against the Sudanese Africans in the south of its country, as well as opposition groups in the north. It would be a relatively simple matter for it to replace the chloroquine produced in that factory, should it have the will to do so.

Chomsky's response to Casey includes the following comment. (The rhetorical technique used here -- "I won't raise the question of whether this person is X" -- is called praeteritio; thanks to Joseph Michael Bay for identifying it.)

Considering this question, we can ask whether Casey is indeed expressing "racist contempt" for the victims. I won't suggest an answer, for one reason, because the attitudes of a single person are of little moment.
There's a further response from Casey,, and another from Chomsky,

(As an aside, in December the New York Review of Books published an account of the decision to bomb al-Shifa, written by two former National Security Council staff members, Daniel Benjamin and Stephen Simon. The primary evidence used to justify the decision was the presence of EMPTA in a soil sample taken from al-Shifa, indicating VX nerve gas production. There's an article in the Nonproliferation Review, by Michael Barletta, which notes that this is not definitive proof.)

Carlin Romano reviews Chomsky's book 9-11 in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

When a mainstream news article supports some point of his, he cites it as though no further proof were necessary. He summarizes reports about the Sudan attack, for instance, with the addendum that these "accounts are by respected journalists writing in leading journals." But when mainstream articles more typically challenge his view, they're worse than false - they're corrupt.

In similar style, Chomsky traditionally launches ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with him, often suggesting that anyone who can surf the Net knows that he's right. As fellow top linguist George Lakoff once told the New York Times, "He's a genius, and he fights dirty when he argues." In this volume, Chomsky knifes the immensely more thoughtful philosopher Michael Walzer, who urges confrontation with and rejection of "all the arguments and excuses for terrorism." Rather than accept Walzer's stance as a considered moral position - the view that a ban on killing innocents should anchor any coherent morality - Chomsky disingenuously writes, vis-a-vis Walzer's position: "[I]n effect, this translates as a call to reject efforts to explore the reasons that lie behind terrorist acts that are directed against states he supports." Chomsky both reverses Walzer's call to confront such reasons and slimes him as duplicitous at the same time.

Rajeev Advani discusses Chomsky's misrepresentation of Amartya Sen's work on famine in China and chronic undernourishment in India:

The chief culprit, in Sen's view, is the dearth of adversarial politics and social programs in India, all of which bear no strict positive or negative correlation with capitalism. In substantiating the latter part of this claim Dreze and Sen resort to a cross-country analysis, discarding the common dogma that capitalist economies are systematically averse to social programs:
Public support in these different forms [educational and health services] has played a major part in combating endemic deprivation not only in economies that are commonly seen as 'interventionist' (e.g. China, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Sri Lanka) but also in the market oriented economies with high growth (e.g. Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea)." (Sen, Hunger and Public Action pg. 258)
Given the preceding it is clear that Sen never stated, and in fact refutes, the claim that the "ideological predispositions" of democratic capitalism disabled India's ability to combat endemic deprivation. We can only conclude that Chomsky deliberately misrepresented Sen's work in order to guard a vacuous claim.
Nathan Folkert, formerly a Chomsky supporter, discusses Chomsky's willingness to excuse violence, terror, and atrocities when committed by postrevolutionary states, such as China under Mao and North Vietnam, and concludes:

The mainstream media and other commentators commonly refer to Chomsky along the lines of being "a Sixties figure", "a leading anti-war intellectual of the Vietnam era", or some other such characterization generally made to contrast past respectability with current marginalization. Even Hitchens went out of his way recently to praise Chomsky's past views while attacking his current ones as "robotic" or "mindless" or something similar, if I recall correctly. My question is: if these were his views in 1967 -- views which are transparently sympathetic to totalitarianism and practically agnostic on the issue of whether revolutionary terror is immoral -- why was he ever taken seriously as a moral figure at all? I'm no longer vain enough to try to excuse my past support for Chomsky on some imagined degeneration of his arguments from when they used to persuade me (mainly his critique of the Gulf War). Rather, I must admit that I was swayed by sophistry, by my own ignorance and vanity, by undeserved righteousness, by his cleverness, and by anything but reason, objectivity, and concern for the truth, apparently, as it was not hard to find.
Finally, Talene maintains a list of criticisms of Chomsky's political writings.

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Created: 2001/11/28
$Date: 2004/02/25 18:22:22 $