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Modified 1999-07-03
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My Allergic Reaction to Noam Chomsky

Bradford DeLong
October 23, 1998


Dear ____,

You had expressed disbelief at my strong and negative reaction (based on memories of the 1970s, when he seemed both in person and in print to be mocking those trying to alert the outside world to the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia) when the name "Noam Chomsky" was raised. You said that Chomsky was one of the most intelligent, hardest-working, incisive, and moral voices on the left today.

And you suggested that I give him another chance.

So the next time I stopped by Cody's, I picked up one of Chomsky's books: his (1992) What Uncle Sam Really Wants (New York: Odonian Press: 1878825011).

But I only got to page 17. Then I put the book down--with my strong negative allergic reaction confirmed.

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.

I found this absence of any attempt to sketch the context disturbing.

After a discussion of George Kennan, Chomsky wandered off into three pages on "study groups" of the "State Department and the "Council on Foreign Relations" who sought to plan for U.S. postwar economic domination of the "Grand Area." He makes no contact with Bretton Woods, no contact with the founding and the initial policies of the World Bank and the IMF, no contact with those--like, say, Harry Dexter White--who actually made the policies that governed the postwar reconstruction of the global economy.

Why not devote your--very limited--space to discussing the views of those who actually had influence, and did make policy?

Chomsky then turned to political events in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He began by making it sound as though first the U.S. armies conquered North Africa and Italy, and only then did Roosevelt decided to put fascists like Darlan and Badoglio back into power. The real history is more complicated: overextended U.S. forces fearful of German counterstrikes (Kasserine Pass, Anzio) and a willingness to make deals with the little devils in order to get into a better position to fight the biggest devil. I think that Roosevelt's decision to back Darlan and Badoglio was a bad mistake, but I also know that it didn't happen the way that Chomsky implies that it did.

I know that Chomsky's relation of the history of the Anglo-American reconquest of the Mediterranean from Hitler is not "as it really happened." But many of Chomsky's readers will not. And it makes me wonder: whenever we reach an issue that I do not know deeply, what things that I would like to know is Chomsky going to try to keep me from noticing?

Chomsky then moves on to how "CIA subversion" dispersed and suppressed the "anti-fascist resistance" in Italy, Greece, and Korea. No mention is made of the likely character of the regimes that would have come to power in the absence of U.S. support for the right. Now this is a big mistake, for it is hard to look at postwar Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and North Korea and avoid the conclusions that (a) people there lived worse and suffered more than the people of Italy, Greece, and South Korea; and (b) governments like those in the first three would have held power in the second three were it not for U.S. intervention. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. support for the right in Italy, Greece, and South Korea "expanded the cage" relative to what would have happened otherwise.

Now it is possible to avoid this conclusion. It is possible to make the case that U.S. intervention in Italy, Greece, and South Korea was destructive. But such a case needs to be backed by a powerful argument that "antifascist" Italy, Greece, or South Korean governments would have been very different from the actual governments of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, or North Korea; or by a powerful argument that if U.S. policy had been less confrontational then Stalin would have been content with an independent but "Finlandized" eastern Europe.

Chomsky makes no such argument.

Now let me make it clear what I am objecting to. I am not objecting--at least not objecting here and now--to claims that U.S. foreign policy in the late 1940s was disastrous because:

Indeed, I agree with one and a half of those three points. (Indeed, Dean Acheson himself agreed with at least one of them.) Smart and thoughtful people whom I respect believe in all three of them. People are allowed to follow different paths and reach different analytical conclusions than I do without provoking in me a profound allergic reaction.

What I object to is that Chomsky tears up the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his. He makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to understand what the live and much-debated points of contention might be.

What I object to is the lack of background, to the lack of context. In telling the history of the Cold War as it really happened--even in ten pages--there has to be a place for Stalin, an inquiry into the character of the regimes that Stalin sponsored, and an assessment of Stalinist plans and expectations. But Chomsky ruthlessly suppresses half the story of the Cold War--the story of the other side of the Iron Curtain.

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.

In a world in which there are lots of people who try to tell it as it really happened, why should I spend any time reading someone who tries to tell it as it didn't happen?

And then there were the passages that I could not take to be anything other than casual lies:

So by page 17 I had had more than enough.

 

Sincerely yours,

 

Brad DeLong


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Dear Mr DeLong

I refer to a page you have posted on your site, detailing your "allergic" reaction to Noam Chomsky and his book "What Uncle Sam Really Wants".

I feel compelled to advise you that your reaction to Chomsky and his methods is very revealing and instructive, although not in the way you obviously intended.

I read "My Allergic Reaction..." with great care, and it seems to me that you have missed the point of Chomsky's main thesis entirely. Furthermore, your reaction to his thesis is entirely predictable, according to models outlined by himself and central to his media analysis.

You are clearly set in your ways. You expect any and all accounts of the Cold War to be a litany of Soviet crimes and America's noble efforts to thwart the global threat. You might perhaps allow that U.S. planners made mistakes, due to naiveti or tactical error. Nevertheless, Soviet tyranny is central to your understanding of U.S. policy throughout the post war period. This is what you mean by the "context": a grim elucidation of the totalitarian regimes in the USSR and the Warsaw pact. Of course, no-one can deny the Stalinists their place in the list of tyrannies. But the "context" which concerns Chomsky and that which you find so disturbing is the grim elucidation of the totalitarian regimes sponsored by the US. (I can see your head shake in incomprehension.)

Had you read beyond page seventeen (I suspect that perhaps you did) you might have grasped the thrust of Chomsky's thesis; that US policy was informed by principles other than "containment" or "rollback", principles that required little or no modification when the Soviet empire collapsed, and that are easily demonstrated today by the actually existing facts.

You missed the point in the Seventies also. Chomsky was merely trying to decipher the tortured logic that rendered the ongoing atrocities in East Timor and elsewhere totally invisible to the pundits festooning themselves with moral outrage over the Khmer Rouge. In my opinion, he succeeded. I suspect your allergy will safely immunise you from any impulse to investigate for yourself the articles and books he, and others, published at the time.

I can see that your are comfortable with your world view, and that you dispensed with Chomsky quite to your satisfaction. Seventeen pages is all that was required! So be it. You are clearly an intelligent man. I'm sure you could furnish me with a myriad of facts to support the proposition that human rights, economic development, and democratisation truly are "the focus of a substantial chunk of U.S. post-war policy." Such facts reside for eternity in the handsome tomes that adorn your library. Such facts are extruded on demand by esteemed policy think tanks. Comforting indeed.

"...it is a strange-disposed time: But men may construe things after their fashion, Clean from the purposes of the things themselves." You may by now be wondering why I have bothered to harangue you at all. I guess I'm wondering that myself. Professor Chomsky needs no champion and it would be unfair to accuse you personally of complicity in the macabre travesties of "democracy" that the US loves so much in places like Columbia, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Indonesia, Burma, Costa Rica, Bolivia, The Philippines etc. And yet...

What do you believe in, Mr DeLong? That "Free Markets" and liberal democracy go hand in hand? That American ideals and values have shaped the world into a better place? That (to quote Kissinger) "America is a beacon of liberty for all mankind"? Do any of these statements need qualification?

I would suggest that the leafy glades of Academe is not the place to test the veracity of these assumptions. Perhaps Haiti would be more suitable? Haiti, nurtured in the soft bosom of American benevolence for almost a century and, inexplicably, still a picture of total destitution. Maybe poor brown people in these hot places simply don't know what's good for them, and will continue to throw themselves in front of American-made bullets until it finally dawns on them that Washington loves them.

I'm confident you will never "lower the level of the discourse" by questioning the eternal verities of US benevolence. In the meantime, for most of the world, America has become truly the dark cloud that covers the earth. This is great for Monsanto, Wal-Mart, and McDonalds, even for S

Contributed by Simon Kisby (cisbio@freeuk.com) on July 2, 1999.


You miss the point completely.

I think there should be a debate about the Cold War--about whether American policy was destructive (I think in many cases yes, in more cases no) and was driven by an inordinate fear of Communism (I think in general yes).

But you can't have this debate if you pretend that Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong didn't exist--if you pretend that there never was a Great Purge or a Great Leap Forward, and that the really-existing-socialist regimes of Eastern Europe were benevolent stewards responsive to the will of the people.

They weren't. You can't tell the history of the Cold War without talking about the regimes on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

That's objectionable--and that's what I object to.

Contributed by Brad DeLong (delong@econ.berkeley.edu) on July 28, 1999.


It's possible that you are hung up on the Stalin thing because you define the cold war as a (partially reasonable) response by the U.S. to the dangerous moves by Stalin. Chomsky sees the cold war as a species of domestic propaganda necessary to rediscipline a population that had become organized in the 1930s and had to be conditioned to accept a pliant side roll in American politics while the "power elite" consolidated its hold on much of the world left in ruins by the war. These folks wanted to enjoy their new position without being bothered by demands for silly reforms from the lower orders. So, in order to enjoy this vast booty, the upper echelons would need a plausable foe to terrify the public in the latest in a long line of "red scares" aimed at the domestic population. The stick man Stalin became a convenient boogy-man with which to frighten the public. The fact that he was a tyrant ruling over a shattered empire almost erased from the face of the earth and barely able to extend his reach to the domains granted him by Roosevelt and Churchill, without hope of conceivably threatening the mighty U.S. needn't stand in the way of his usefulness as a propaganda device. Meanwhile the domestic agenda of discrediting the New Deal and purging the CIO and the militant industrial unions (labeled communists)could proceed. Stalin just isn't central to the cold war in this sense, just as the Kaiser wasn't central to the Red Scare of 1918.

Contributed by Kevin Lindgren (lindgrenkevin@netscape.net) on November 27, 1999.


Rightwing Americans seem to get their history from the vile Stephen E. Ambrose, who devotes much space in his 'history' of D-Day to the thesis that the British troops that day lacked the 'guts' of the Americans- but oddly, Ambrose manages to omit those pieces of data, eg casualty figures or the opinions of German officers, which would enable his readers to form their own opinions.

Chomsky would no doubt object to being bracketed with a Nixon apologist like Ambrose, but actually his historical technique is much the same.As far as I can see, this is DeLong's key objection to Chomsky. It is not that he holds views on the Cold War, which as DeLong himself says, many intelligent and admirable people also hold. It is rather that he outlines these views in works which purport to be historical but which carefully omit the strongest contrary evidence, the hardest counter-arguments, to the views Chomsky himself holds.So....minimal discussion of the Stalinist purges; no mention of the military imbalance between the Red Army of the 1940s and the purely European armed forces of the period;no discussion of whether the 'Peoples' Republics' of Eastern Europe might somehow have been rather more oppressive than, say, modern day Italy......and so on.

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, discussign 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.

And one last point: one of DeLong's most virulent critics informs us Stalin was a 'stick figure...a boogy-man (sic)'.Is that what you call a genocidal dictator responsible for the most extensive system of concentration camps in history, in command of the twentieth century's most successful army?

Contributed by Dan Hardie (dehardie@aol.com) on December 2, 1999.


Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
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