Until the early 1960s, Noam Chomsky had his academic life as a scholar-intellectual all laid out. Then his plan changed radically: he joined the movement against the Vietnam War, becoming one of its most prominent spokespersons. Norman Mailer, who shared a jail cell with Chomsky after an antiwar demonstration at the Pentagon, described him as a “slim, sharp-featured man with an ascetic expression and an air of gentle and absolute moral integrity.” Chomsky’s participation in such important demonstrations, his work with the national antidraft organization RESIST, and his involvement as an unindicted co-conspirator in the trial of Dr. Benjamin Spock made him a well-known figure in the New Left during the sixties.
Time has not tempered Chomsky’s radicalism. Since the sixties, he has transformed thinking in his chosen field, linguistics, by challenging traditional ideas about language development. And as an activist and writer, he continues to provide an indispensable critical analysis of global politics and United States foreign policy.
Chomsky was born into a scholarly Jewish family at the start of the Depression. His father had emigrated from a small village in the Ukraine to avoid the draft there. A precocious child, Chomsky was able at age ten to read and understand his father’s thirteenth-century Hebrew texts. After earning his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1955, Chomsky began teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the department of linguistics and philosophy.
It wasn’t until a decade later, when the Vietnam War began to escalate, that Chomsky’s involvement with radical politics began in earnest. His essay “The Responsibility of the Intellectual,” first published in 1966 and later reprinted in his book of essays American Power and the New Mandarins, helped define the sixties peace movement. Chomsky’s “new mandarins” were the liberal intellectuals who constructed elaborate justifications for their role in serving giant corporations and the federal government. In Chomsky’s view, they shared responsibility for the Vietnam War.
To Chomsky, the war was not a grotesque aberration in American history, but a predictable episode in the imperialist tradition of a nation that pursues its self-interest as ruthlessly and violently as any great power in history. His anti-establishment critique has left him effectively shut out of mainstream discussion about U.S. foreign policy. The media rarely review his books. He is unwelcome on the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times and Washington Post, and unlikely to appear as an expert commentator on established radio and television shows. It’s no wonder that most Americans know little about Noam Chomsky.
But media neglect hasn’t blunted Chomsky’s determination to continue dissecting U.S. foreign policy and challenging the political and economic orthodoxies of our time.
Chepesiuk: You’re one of the most severe and outspoken critics of U.S. foreign policy, but you’ve been shut out of the mainstream press. Does that frustrate you?
Chomsky: I was on National Public Radio for five minutes in the sixties and maybe an equivalent amount of time in the eighties. But I have constant access to the media in Canada, Europe, Australia, and elsewhere. If I had access to the mainstream American media, I might begin to wonder, Am I doing something wrong? Am I being so supportive of the powers that be that they are willing to let me have access to the media? I would have to question what I was doing.
Chepesiuk: One reason you haven’t been invited to present your views in the mainstream media is because you are considered a “radical.” Are you comfortable with that label?
Chomsky: A radical is someone who tries to get at the root of things. That’s what I try to do.
Chepesiuk: How did your family background shape your political views?
Chomsky: I grew up in the Depression. My family on both sides were immigrants. My parents were teachers and very much a part of the Jewish community. They were Roosevelt Democrats, which is what you’d expect. My father’s side of the family was extremely conservative; for all practical purposes, they lived in the seventeenth century. My mother’s side, which I gravitated toward, was working-class and mostly unemployed. They had little formal education, in the sense of going to school, but were very educated people. In fact, that part of my life was the most lively intellectual atmosphere I’ve ever experienced, including my years at Harvard. They read and went to concerts and represented every brand of radical politics. That had an influence on me.
Chepesiuk: You were part of the Jewish cultural tradition?
Chomsky: Oh, yes. I was part of an immigrant community that hung on to that tradition.
Chepesiuk: But you have been described as a “self-hating Jew” because of your outspoken criticism of Israel and your support of the Palestinian cause. Has that bothered you?
Chomsky: It bothered me when my parents were alive because they lived in the Jewish community and were hurt by all the mud that was thrown at me, even though they agreed with my position. In fact, in Israel, my position is not particularly controversial.
For reasons I don’t entirely understand, ethnic communities in this country regress toward chauvinistic and fanatical aspects of their original cultures. That’s apparently true in the Jewish community, as well. Like an old-fashioned Stalinist, it’s constantly dividing up the world into rigid categories of the acceptable and unacceptable. If you follow the straight right-wing party line in Israel, you’re OK and fit the first category. If you don’t, you fall into one of two categories of the unacceptable: Jewish or non-Jewish. By definition, if you’re non-Jewish and disagree with the right-wing line, you’re an antisemite. If you’re a Jew who dissents, you’re a self-hating Jew.
Chepesiuk: How did you get involved in the antiwar movement?
Chomsky: I got involved in 1964 because I was very much opposed to Kennedy’s war (which had been Eisenhower’s war). I reached the point where I decided I couldn’t keep quiet any longer and I started to give talks wherever I could — churches, peace-group meetings. It was extremely hard because nobody cared. You just couldn’t find an audience. Sometimes four people would show up: the organizers and a couple of drunks off the street.
Chepesiuk: What kept you going and wanting to speak out?
Chomsky: The situation in Vietnam got so horrible that I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror anymore. I thought there was absolutely no hope of any political opposition to the war developing. What was going on over there was no secret. You could read the front page of the New York Times and find out that the U.S. was dropping bombs in South Vietnam. Our culture was very different in those days.
If Americans read today about the U.S. bombing a country the way it did Vietnam in the sixties, they would get very upset about it. But in those days people didn’t bat an eyelash. You couldn’t get two people to sit in a room and talk about Vietnam. There has been a big cultural change since the sixties and it’s a great improvement.
By 1965 I was trying to organize tax resistance and had refused to pay taxes. Within another year, I was involved in practically every kind of activism. There was plenty to do.
Chepesiuk: How did you come to be an unindicted co-conspirator in the Spock trial?
Chomsky: It was a classic example of the total incompetence of U.S. domestic intelligence. The RESIST organization was very public. Our people would enter a town hall and say, “This is what we are going to do.” So it was an open-and-shut case. But the FBI could never figure out who the organizers were, even though their identities were public.
The authorities zeroed in on two incidents: a New York news conference held to announce the Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority and a particular demonstration that involved carrying draft cards into the Justice Department. Anybody involved in those two events was considered a co-conspirator — except they got people mixed up. In fact, throughout the trial the FBI could never get the Jewish names right. They confused me with Herschel Kaminsky. They were after Art Waskow, but picked up Marcus Raskin. Waskow and Raskin didn’t look at all like each other. The whole thing was like a comic opera.
Chepesiuk: What was the outcome of the trial?
Chomsky: The defendants were convicted, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. The judge at the first trial was out of his mind and made all kinds of errors. In the midst of all this, the Tet Offensive happened and it changed everything. After Tet the corporate sector decided that the war had to end because it was becoming too costly; they basically fired Lyndon Johnson and told the government that it had to start pulling out of Vietnam.
That made for an enormous change. Up until December 1967, almost everybody had been a hawk. Starting in February 1968, everybody who was not a dove was saying they had been all along. If you look at the Kennedy-era intellectuals, they have two versions of what happened: the memoirs they wrote before the Tet Offensive and the books they wrote after it. These are radically different. Before Tet, there is no hint that anyone wanted to withdraw from Vietnam. The books after Tet are full of explanations about how Kennedy had plans to withdraw from Vietnam. The game was over by then, of course, and they wanted to cover their asses.
Chepesiuk: As the war got out of control, didn’t U.S. officials constantly lie about their actions in Vietnam?
Chomsky: I don’t think the military lied much, actually. That’s where I disagree with a lot of people.
Chepesiuk: But isn’t that why so many Americans got disillusioned with the war?
Chomsky: The idea that the government and the military lied is really a media-generated impression. Take the secret war in Cambodia, or the secret war in Laos. Were the bombings secret? I knew all about them.
Chepesiuk: But the average American didn’t know about them.
Chomsky: Yes, but only because the press wasn’t reporting what it knew. To this day we don’t know a lot about the secret bombing of Cambodia for a very simple reason: journalists like Sidney Schanberg, who is supposed to be “the conscience of the press,” were sitting in Phnom Penh, refusing to interview the million and a half refugees who were literally across the street. That’s why we don’t know about the secret war; it’s not because of government lies.
Chepesiuk: But people who say we should have won the war blame the press for what happened in Vietnam.
Chomsky: The press was totally servile. Edward Herman and I wrote a couple of hundred pages about this in Manufacturing Consent. To this day the American press supports state power. For example, when the New York Times reported on the emperor of Japan’s trip to China, it suggested he hadn’t been forthright enough in admitting that Japan was guilty for its actions in China during World War II. Right next to that story was one about Vietnam that told how President Bush was not going to insist on retribution against Vietnam for all the crimes that country had committed against us.
Talk about war guilt! If the emperor of Japan had gone to China and said, We forgive you guys for allowing us to invade you, but we don’t insist on retribution, that would have been regarded as a reversion to Nazism. But the elites here accept that we are Nazis, that we are permitted to attack a country, wipe it out, destroy a couple of million people — and then be magnanimous enough not to insist on retribution! Find someone who questions that in the press. I don’t think any totalitarian state in history ever achieved this kind of servility.
Chepesiuk: You’ve written that the U.S. never ended its efforts to win the war in Vietnam, and that the war was an extension of what the U.S. has been trying to do since 1945 — establish a world imperial economy dominated by U.S. capital.
Chomsky: That’s hardly even arguable. It’s stated in the open record, in the public documents. The U.S. elite knew in 1945 that they were in a position of unimaginable power, one without historical precedent. They wanted to organize the world in the interest of the force they represented — namely, the U.S. corporate sector.
The first step was to reconstruct the industrial societies of Japan and Germany, which were then under U.S. control. All industrial societies, including the minor ones like France and England, had to be returned to conservative business rule. That meant wartime collaborators, including outright war criminals, had to be put in power. The antifascist resistance had to be destroyed, the labor movement undermined. That was done everywhere, including throughout the third world.
The next step was to organize the restructured world. The U.S. was the only productive economy at that point; we had a huge surplus of goods but no one to buy them. The U.S. elite worried about how to overcome the problem. One way was to implement the Marshall Plan. Another was to reconstruct the old colonial relationships, so that there could be triangular trading patterns: the U.S. would use dollars to purchase raw materials from the colonies. So if we bought, say, rubber from Malaya, Britain would get the dollars because the British would sell Malaya something or other, and then Britain would use the dollars to buy U.S. manufacturing exports. That was the rough idea.
The third world had to be returned to the state it had been in before World War II. Africa had to be “exploited” for the reconstruction of Europe. Latin America was to belong to the U.S. Southeast Asia had to fulfill its main function as a source of raw materials. That meant any kind of radical nationalism in the third world was intolerable and had to be stopped. This was the basis for intervention in Vietnam. If a nationalist movement tried to get its own way, or worse, looked like it was going to be successful, it had to be extinguished — or else other nationalist movements might get the same idea. That’s the history of the post-World War II period.
There was more protest against the Gulf War than against any other U.S. military action in history. . . . Can you remember another instance where the American people protested a war before it began?
Chepesiuk: So the Vietnam War was not an aberration in American history?
Chomsky: It was not an aberration, but it got out of hand. They expected it to be a small war.
Chepesiuk: During the late sixties and early seventies, it looked to many activists like America was on the brink of civil war. Did you share that sentiment?
Chomsky: The Pentagon certainly did. In fact, one part of the Pentagon Papers that, surprisingly, has not received a lot of attention has to do with the post-Tet period. The Pentagon Papers show that in early 1968 the Joint Chiefs of Staff were very concerned about sending another couple of hundred thousand troops to Vietnam, because they thought they might have to use them here in the U.S. to quell civil disorder. No one really wants to comment on that because it reveals how effective the protest movement was. The people aren’t supposed to know they can be effective. But if there hadn’t been a movement, the U.S. would probably have ended up using tactical nuclear weapons, or at least escalating the war.
Chepesiuk: How would you explain the eclipse of the peace movement? It seemed to have disintegrated by the end of the Vietnam War.
Chomsky: That’s just propaganda! It was big in the seventies, and much bigger in the eighties, when it began to include broader sectors of the American public and become more deeply rooted in American life. For example, when Ronald Reagan took office, he published a white paper — like Kennedy’s 1961 white paper on Vietnam — that was a precursor to a possible invasion of Nicaragua and the sending of troops to El Salvador.
But the public reaction was enormously negative, so he had to back down. He went the clandestine route and developed a secret international terror network, since the public wouldn’t tolerate anything overt. That’s because the antiwar movement was so vast it covered most of the country. So any talk about the demise of the movement is nonsense; it’s still strong.
Chepesiuk: But it seems to lack the cohesion of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Today the movement seems fragmented.
Chomsky: But things have changed. Suppose the Anita Hill episode had happened thirty years ago; no one would have given a damn. Or suppose the Columbus quincentennial had happened in 1962; it would have been a celebration of the “liberation” of the hemisphere. But it wasn’t, and that’s because of the enormous changes in public attitude on every issue.
Chepesiuk: Then why was there so little protest against the Gulf War?
Chomsky: There was more protest against the Gulf War than against any other U.S. military action in history. There was a huge protest against the Gulf War before it started. Can you remember another instance where the American people protested a war before it began? In the case of Vietnam, there were two hundred thousand troops stationed there and we had been bombing the country for five years before there was major protest.
Chepesiuk: Your essay “The Responsibility of the Intellectual” defined the sixties peace movement as much as any document of that period. Does that essay still have relevance today?
Chomsky: There is nothing particularly profound about that essay. It points out something that goes back to the origins of history: the fact that any system of power has a priesthood — a group that guards the official doctrine and tries to indoctrinate the people. You go back far enough in history and you find it was a religious priesthood. Today it’s a kind of secular priesthood. The people who obtain wealth and privilege within a system are overwhelmingly system supportive; that is, they sell out to the power. They are the so-called respected intellectuals. Then there are people of integrity who take justice and honesty seriously and try to break free of the power.
Chepesiuk: The mass media are a classic example of what you’re talking about, aren’t they? There’s a select group of journalists in Washington who represent and are a part of the Washington elite.
Chomsky: But it’s also true of the universities and many other areas of American society. The mass media are simply a more visible example.
The sixties created a mass movement involving a lot of young people [that] had an enormous impact on this society and on other countries. . . . Of course, the elites in this country hate it, and they are the commissars who control the writing of history.
Chepesiuk: It’s fashionable now to denigrate the sixties. I ran across a statement from sociologist Daniel Bell, who said, “The decade represented the last gasp of American romanticism gone sour by rancor and impatience.” Is there any merit to Bell’s critique?
Chomsky: It’s nonsense. In 1959 Daniel Bell wrote a book called The End of Ideology in which he predicted there was never going to be any more protest; in effect, it was going to be the end of history. Then the country blew up — despite his analysis.
The sixties created a mass movement involving a lot of young people, so naturally it had a lot of freaky things about it. But it had an enormous impact on this society and on other countries. Daniel Bell probably didn’t like what happened.
Today there is much more concern over oppression and questions of peace and justice. There is more respect for other cultures. Of course, the elites in this country hate it, and they are the commissars who control the writing of history. The U.S. has more provisions for freedom of speech than probably any other country. But there has never been a country that allows any kind of true democratic involvement on the issues.
Chepesiuk: What kind of society would you like to see?
Chomsky: I would like to see a society where the public plays a meaningful role in public policy. That includes everything from how to run the local schools to where resources should be invested. That requires a lot of functioning organizations. People can’t do it individually; they have to be organized. I would like a society in which workers have control of factories and the community controls what’s in the community — pretty much what the old-fashioned anarchists described.
Chepesiuk: What do you see in your future?
Chomsky: I don’t think I’ll be doing anything different. Over the last few years, there have been some wins, but mostly losses on the issues I think are important. So I see a lot of things to fight for in the coming years. Which is what I plan to do.
This interview is excerpted from Ron Chepesiuk’s upcoming book Sixties Radicals, Then and Now: Candid Conversations with Those Who Moved an Era, to be published in early 1995 by McFarland. The interview took place in 1992, which, in Chomsky’s words, “would explain the choice of references (not that anything is different now).”