Double Moral Standards

TOWARDS A NEW COLD WAR: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Got There by Noam Chomsky. Pantheon, $20.50/$8.95 paper.


ON APRIL 30, 1975. SHORTLY after the last American helicopters had lifted off from Saigon with would-be refugees hanging from their skids, the Washington Post published an editorial under the headline “Deliverance.” Noam Chomsky quotes a portion of it in his new book:
For if much of the actual conduct of Vietnam policy over the years was wrong and misguided—even tragic—it cannot be denied that some part of the purpose of that policy was right and defensible. Specifically, it was right to hope that the people of South Vietnam would be able to decide on their own form of government and social order. The American public is entitled, indeed obligated, to explore how good impulses came to be transmuted into bad policy, but we cannot afford to cast out all remembrance of that earlier impulse. For the fundamental “lesson” of Vietnam surely is not that we as a people are intrinsically bad, but rather that we are capable of error—and on a gigantic scale.
In the essays that are collected in Towards a New Cold War, Noam Chomsky’s stated purpose is to deny what the Post said was undeniable— that there was some measure of good, however ill-informed or badly executed, in the decisions that took the nation to war in Vietnam, and in American foreign policy in general. But what makes this tendentious book so intriguing is its flirtation with the other idea mentioned in the Post’s editorial: that America is “bad.”
Fifteen years ago, Noam Chomsky was known as the man who had revolutionized the new science of linguistics with his concept that human beings possess an innate sense of the natural structure of language, which means that children need only be exposed to samples of spoken language to learn how to use that language themselves. (This was opposed to the previous idea that children learned to speak by imitating what they heard, which did not explain how children learned to generate sentences they had never heard spoken.) Since then, he has turned to essays about politics and international affairs. His themes through the years have been remarkably constant, as the essays in this book, originally published between 1973 and 1981, attest. They concern the perfidy of American influence overseas.
One of Chomsky’s basic contentions is that the foreign behavior of the United States reflects neither Woodrow Wilsonlike idealism nor the reasonable responses of a fundamentally isolationist nation to taunts and provocations that may arise overseas. Instead, in Chomsky’s view, policy is determined by the narrow interests of the most powerful figures in the domestic capitalist economy. American corporations need markets, raw materials, room to invest and expand; therefore, Chomsky says, American foreign policy attempts first and last to establish “Grand Areas,” in which American capital may thrive. We have opposed “Communists” in Southeast Asia and elsewhere, he says, not because they oppress their people but because they threaten our markets. We have overlooked the predations of the Shah of Iran, President Somoza of Nicaragua, and General Pinochet of Chile not because we have decided those leaders are the best those countries can hope for but because they are good for the richest and most powerful ofour own countrymen. We assigned ourselves the right to “invade” and “devastate" Vietnam in the early 1960s because of our self-proclaimed and self-justified “doctrine that the United States is entitled to use force and violence to impose order as it sees fit.”
Chomsky couples this with his second theme, which is that we rarely see our foreign activities in all their harsh reality because of an unacknowledged conspiracy of self-interest among those who control public opinion. Nearly anyone who is in a position to speak about publicaffairs, whether in the press, in the universities, or as a politician, has, by reason of his success and prominence, an interest in defending the business-asusual approach. There may be minor disagreements about tactics—for example, quarrels about whether our military approach in Vietnam was effective, or whether the war “cost” more than it would ever be “worth.” But, Chomsky says, very few of those who said we could not win in Vietnam went on to say that we had no right to be there even if we were sure to win. In the years since the war, he says, the intellectual establishment has been rewriting the history of the 1960s, to make sure that our efforts in Vietnam are seen as “blundering efforts to do good,” as Anthony Lewis once put it, and not as cold-blooded acts of aggression in pursuit of economic interest. The effort to rewrite history is crucial, Chomsky says, because the government cannot stand to have its people see the truth. “We are dealing here with a form of taboo,” he says, “a deep-seated superstitious avoidance of some terrifying question: in this case, the question of how private economic power functions in American society.”
He sums up his argument thus in the introduction to the book:
Those who accommodate to the needs of domestic power and serve its interests will tend to dominate the system of communication, education, and indoctrination. ... It would be surprising indeed if this power were not reflected in the mass media . . . What we should expect to find is (1) that foreign policy is guided by the primary commitment to improving the climate for business operations in a global system that is open to exploitation of human and material resources by those who dominate the domestic economy, and (2) that this commitment is portrayed as guided by the highest ideals and by deep concern for human welfare.
Exactly such a pattern of self-interest and pious self-justification is what Americans see with ruthless clarity when they observe the Soviet Union, Chomsky says. If we could only observe ourselves with the same honesty, he says, we would see the same thing.
WHAT EVIDENCE CAN Noam Chomsky offer to support his thesis? In one sense—that of sheer volume—it is impressive. The book has 370 pages of text, plus 106 of footnotes, and its density of detail makes it seem even longer than that. For the most part, the pages are filled with quotes from documents—items from small-circulation magazines that were ignored by the general press, clippings from European news services, citations from suppressed government reports. Chomsky devotes more space to Vietnam than to any other subject, but his essays cover many other portions of the globe, especially Latin America and the Middle East (in which he portrays Israel as intransigent and self-righteously violent, behaving in the Middle East in the same way he says the United States behaves elsewhere).
In certain cases, Chomsky uses his documents to good effect. It is hard to deny his contention that in unofficially but unmistakably blessing the coup in which Ngo Dinh Diem was killed in 1963, the United States was truer to its sense of expediency than to the cause of constitutional government in South Vietnam. The most carefully argued chapter of the book is the last, which concerns “a small and remote place that most Americans have never even heard of.” The place is East Timor, the eastern portion of an island whose western half belongs to Indonesia. In 1975, East Timor declared its independence from Portugal, which had held it as a colony; soon afterward, it was invaded by Indonesia. After four years of struggle, in which, according to Chomsky, as many as one quarter of the nation’s 700,000 people were killed by warfare or by famine, Indonesia finally established its control in 1979. The Indonesian army relied on American-made weapons during this campaign. The American government, Chomsky says, never lost sight of the larger strategic and economic interests that Indonesia represented in the region, and therefore it averted its eyes from East Timor.
Chomsky also demonstrates that members of the press and the academy have generally been quite willing to accept the government’s interpretations of its actions overseas. He describes the effectiveness of the domestic propaganda agencies during World War I, and the zeal with which intellectuals pitched in. (As Randolph Bourne, who did not pitch in, wrote in 1917, in his essay “The War and the Intellectuals,” “it has been a bitter experience to see the unanimity with which the American intellectuals have thrown their support to the use of wartechnique in the crisis in which America found herself.”) Despite all the complaints that the press “undermined" the war effort in Vietnam, Chomsky shows that most newspapers shared the government’s interpretation of our national interests in Vietnam and began complaining only when it seemed that we would lose.
But more often, Chomsky’s argument is strained. Most of the time, he is not “arguing” at all, in the sense of presenting examples and explanations that might persuade a reader who did not happen to agree with his point of view. Instead, these essays assert attitudes— approval for some things, scorn for others—and dare the reader to disagree. A certain author’s work is “drivel”; the U.S. directs most of its assistance to countries where “society as a whole is placed in the hands of a collection of thugs who are willing to sell out to the foreigner for a share of the loot.”
One explanation of such a tone may be Chomsky’s research technique, which seems to begin and end within the confines of the library. No doubt long sessions in the archives add wisdom to any discussion of the origins of our commitment in Vietnam or the human-rights record of the Somoza regime; most reporters pay too little attention to what is in the documents and too much to what today’s interviewee will say. But the pure armchair approach to political analysis, in which the documents are not tempered by the evidence that human witnesses can provide, predictably leads to findings that fit together with suspicious neatness and finality. It is more awkward and time-consuming to seek out those who drafted the official memoranda than to scan the Congressional Record in the microfilm room. It is also possible to arrange interviews in such a way as to get only a one-sided view. But the chances are better that a writer will be jogged by the inconvenient fact, will have to face the weakness in his tidy theory, if he exposes himself to people who will say, “Your idea sounds logical— the only problem is, it didn’t happen that way,” or “That may have been what it looked like, but you don’t understand what we were really trying to do,”
Chomsky also has little interest in specifics, especially of the sort that might support (or challenge) his basic theoretical view. Yes, the essays contain countless details of the diplomatic variety—what Henry Kissinger said on a certain day, what the Paris peace accords really said (all taken, of course, from newspaper clippings and reports in the library). But what about the economic interests that control America and shape its foreign policy? Apart from a page that contains the names of several oil companies and a number of allusions to the Council on Foreign Relations and the Trilateral Commission, the text of the book contains virtually no mention of specific corporations, much less an examination of evidence about how, why, and with what success they dominate American foreign policy. There is no discussion of the sorts of foreign regimes on which they depend, or the circumstances under which they might demand the assistance of American military force. Nor is there any exploration of how, within the government, the economic pressures play themselves out. For the purposes of this book, the American government is a homogenous organization that moves relentlessly and without internal disagreement toward satisfaction of the corporations’ needs. Chomsky concedes that from time to time “second-order” disagreements will arise between one company and another or within the government. He says that to pay attention to these is to indulge in “microanalysis,” which only obscures the larger pattern of events. But where do large patterns come from if not from an accumulation of “microanalyses”? And how convincing is the larger pattern if there are no specific illustrations of its truth?
Similarly, Chomsky posits, as an obvious cause-effect relationship, that poor nations are poor because of their dealings with the United States. Anyone who has lived in those countries or studied their economies knows that they have come out on the short end of too many transactions with Western powers. But anyone with such experience also knows that, at the very minimum, there is room for serious debate about where the largest obstacles to prosperity lie. Chomsky need not end up on the same side of the argument as the English economist P. T. Bauer, who contends that the one thing worse for poor countries than exposure to the West is no exposure; but if he were interested in persuading readers he might at least take this as a worthwhile question, instead of asserting his position and moving on.
As a result of his exclusive reliance on documents and his distaste for “microanalysis,” Chomsky has produced a view of recent history as a seamless web. America’s philosophy in South Vietnam was, as elsewhere around the globe, “to contain and destroy movements that threaten to secede from the Grand Area.” Since the Diem government of South Vietnam enjoyed no legitimacy other than its support by the United States, its requests for American military assistance were fraudulent. Therefore, when the U.S. sent troops, it was “attacking” Vietnam, in what “was, in essence, an American war against South Vietnam, a war of annihilation that spilled over to the rest of Indochina.” For Chomsky, other recent issues are similarly clear-cut. Are human rights in jeopardy in Central America? “The horrors of Guatemala are the direct and natural result of U.S. military intervention within the ideological framework of the Old Cold War.” Is life more attractive now in Thailand than in Vietnam or Cambodia? That only “proves, perhaps, that millions of tons of bombs and napalm are even more harmful than American aid.”
PERHAPS THE PLAINEST illustration of the black-and-white world of Chomsky’s book is the different degree of toleration he extends to two groups of Americans. Of those who devoted themselves to ending the war in Vietnam, Chomsky says not only that they were correct but also that their motivations were pure. (“The ideological system cannot tolerate the fact that there was a principled opposition to the war, primarily among the young, conducted with great courage, conviction, personal cost, and considerable effectiveness,” etc.) As a former member of that camp, I recognize this as the way I and my friends would have most liked to think of ourselves, had we ignored (as many did) the human frailties and mixed motives that lay behind our actions.
Now consider Chomsky’s understanding of those who fought in the war. He sees only hypocrisy in American handwringing over the treatment of pilots who were shot down and held captive by North Vietnam. “As of this moment, the press has not reported the testimony of any POWs who say, I smashed the marketplace of Phu Ly to rubble; I demolished the main hospital of Thanh Hoa; I leveled the city of Vinh.” One can agree with Chomsky about the devastation wrought by the raids and the responsibility borne by those who made the policy without sharing the judgment he passes upon the men who carried it out. If, like those who opposed the war, they were presented as they saw themselves, they might say, “I am doing the job I was trained to do, under circumstances and rules of engagement that make no military sense,” or “I am needlessly risking my life—and have seen my friends be killed—because I have to attack the targets the enemy knows about at times he knows I’m coming.”
The contrast between the protestors and the POWs suggests a more general difference in the standards of morality imposed in this book. Where the United States and its clients are concerned, no judgment is too harsh. Chomsky has xray vision that penetrates the official statements and rationalizations to reveal the cruel truth about the government’s motives. But when discussing other nations, Chomsky reveals a more supple understanding that life can be complicated and true motives difficult to discern. It is this double standard (among many other failings) for which Chomsky condemns Henry Kissinger. In a review of The White House Years, Chomsky remarks that Kissinger tempers his judgment of the Shah with an understanding of the historical circumstances in which he operated—but has no capacity to understand the choices facing the governments that took power in Vietnam and Cambodia after thirty years of war: “[Kissinger says that the Shah was] ‘wrestling perhaps with forces beyond any man’s control’ (as contrasted, say, with the leadership in Indochina after the great peacemaker had completed his work).” Yet Chomsky practices a more extreme version of moral relativism, in reverse.
Chomsky includes the Shah on his list of those whose worst tendencies the United States encouraged. The name Ayatollah Khomeini does not appear in this book, nor is there any discussion of the climate for human rights during his regime. When Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, or the current government of Vietnam do appear in the text, it is usually to demonstrate how profoundly the U.S. damaged peasant societies. My point is not that Chomsky needed to devote this book to a denunciation of the Khmer Rouge but that his avoidance of the subject gives the reader little confidence that a fair-minded inquiry into the origins of repression and violence is under way.
As for the Soviet Union, Chomsky has this—and not much more than this—to say about its activities, in the title chapter: “It goes without saying that Western initiatives are only one element in this race toward disaster.” Elsewhere in the chapter, he alludes to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But when Chomsky mentions Soviet behavior, it is most often to make a point about the United States. This, for example, is the entirety of his discussion of warfare in Eritrea: after denouncing an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that said that the devastation of East Timor was beyond American control, and therefore not part of American guilt, Chomsky says, “One wonders whether Pravda rises to such intellectual heights when it justifies Soviet support for the Ethiopian war in Eritrea.” Several times Chomsky refers to the heavy-handed Soviet system of censorship and propaganda. His purpose is to show how much more effective is the subtler self-censorship of the American intelligentsia. (“Ours is surely a more effective system, one that would be used by dictators if they were smarter.”)
I mention this contrast not to dwell on the merits of the issue but simply to indicate the enormous disappointment of Chomsky’s book. At no point does he apply his formidable powers to ask how nations—all nations—should behave; he is content to demonstrate that the United States has behaved badly. The lesson of recent history, he says, is that “the United States simply had no legal or moral right to intervene in the internal affairs of Vietnam in the first place.” Fine. But why is the principle stated that way—as it is several times—and not like this: “Nations have no legal or moral right to intervene in others’ affairs”? If Chomsky had stated this question of first principle more broadly, he might then have been prepared to deal with the second question: If, in a world of evil and imperfection, one nation breaks the code,what rights do other nations then have in response?
He could have gone further still, to ask whether there is any case in which the people of one nation may feel their economic interests so threatened as to justify a resort to force. Chomsky asserts, without arguing, that foreign policies that arise from economic interests are on their face abusive: perhaps this is so, but it would be interesting to see the chain of logic and distinctions that leads up to that point. It seems likely, without knowing for sure, that Chomsky would say that the Japanese were provoked to attack the United States in 1941 at least in part by our efforts to cut off their supplies of petroleum and steel. On the other hand, he bitterly condemns the American assumption that if the flow of oil from the Middle East were interrupted we would be justified in resorting to military force. What’s the difference between the cases? Where would he draw the line?
Chomsky attacks the hypocrisy of our “human-rights” policy—but what does he suggest in its place? What is the United States to do when operating in a world superpopulated with repressive regimes? If we attempt to dislodge the Shahs and the Somozas, might we bring on something worse? Need we trouble ourselves with such thoughts? Where do we draw these lines? Chomsky draws no lines, for to do so is to acknowledge that sometimes we face choices between an alternative that is bad and one that is worse. For him, it is sufficient to say that we have chosen the bad.
IF THE STYLE OF this book seems so remote from any desire to persuade, and if its focus avoids consideration of the hard choices in foreign policy, what is Chomsky driving at? He mentions briefly that he concentrated on cases such as the wars in Vietnam and East Timor because only a few of the many evils in the world are within our power to influence; there is something to that point. Still, I suspect that we may have here a rare, real specimen of the attitude that neo-conservatives believe is so widespread: the animating feeling of this document is disgust with the United States.
Chomsky is careful to deny, like the Washington Post, that “we as a people are intrinsically bad.” After all, during Vietnam we as a people regarded the war as “immoral, not merely a tactical error.”But the tone of his discussion is unmistakable. It is evident in the throwaway lines: “The United States want to ensure the maximum possible suffering in countries that have been so ignoble as to resist American aggression.”“The lives of the people of Nicaragua naturally count for very little when weighed in the balance against ‘U.S. interests.'” It is even clearer in several equations between the United States and Nazi Germany.
Chomsky quotes the statement of an American academic, Robert Tucker, that “an imbalance of military power, present or prospective, must be met by countervailing military power.” Chomsky responds that “one who is so inclined will have little difficulty in extracting similar pronouncements from the Nazi archives.” He says that The New York Times is hypocritical for condemning the treatment of POWs in Vietnam without mentioning that the pilots “were the instruments of the American policy of massacre and destruction in a foreign land.” He continues, “At precisely the same moral level, the Nazi press might have fulminated—and probably did— over the savage treatment of pilots captured by the European resistance forces.”Note the word “precisely”; its use signals the renunciation of precision and the embrace of unthinking anger.
In the introduction to a book called The Vietnam Legacy, which was published in 1976, Anthony Lake asked “whether the disillusion that leads some of our more intense domestic critics to conclude that the United States is inherently incapable of progressive action abroad will be as dominant an impulse as was the illusion that the United States could afford to ‘bear any burden or pay any price.’ They share one proposition. Both the illusion and the disillusion seem to reflect a belief that the United States must be unique. If it is not the most generous and responsible nation in the world, then it is the worst, whose strength and congenital inability to distinguish between safe and reckless actions, between humanitarian and political/military interventions, make it the most dangerous nation of all.” (Emphasis added.)
The disillusion that Lake described and that Chomsky displays is particularly unfortunate at this moment in history, when its complete opposite seems once again to reign inside the American government. The pronouncements of the administration have suggested that the only perspective worth considering on our actions is our own, and that the only threat to the world’s security is a deficiency in our will and strength. Because we know our motives are good, others will come to share that view. Even Chomsky’s Nazi analogy has its conservative counterpart. Many in the government seem to believe that the world of the early 1980s is the world of the late 1930s, in which any compromise is appeasement and in which the aggressor—in this case Russia—must be confronted sooner rather than later.
If Noam Chomsky is blind to any grounds (other than the resistance to the Vietnam War) for Americans to enjoy self-respect, his ideological opponents are blind to the possibility of national flaw. Both suggest, as Anthony Lake pointed out, that we are different from other countries—far better, far worse. We could use a form of patriotism that left us strong enough to recognize that we might be subject to the same fallibilities as other peoples, without thinking of that recognition as grounds for self-contempt.