Noam Chomsky – the deranged Marxoid from MIT – is enjoying a kind of revival with recent interviews in the New York Times and a book review of his latest screed that while dismissing its lunatic conclusions pays it respect as an argument that should be taken seriously. (?!!!) The Bush-hating Times no doubt finds rationality in Chomsky’s devil theory of history which casts America as the Great Satan and all purpose explanation of what’s wrong in the world.
It seems an appropriate time, therefore, to take a look at one of his earlier books -- and one of the few that comes close to actually being a book – and not just an interview collection of “Chomsky Says.” This 1985 text Turning the Tide covers a variety of topics including the arms race, nuclear freeze movement and domestic policy. But most of its focus is on US policy toward Latin America – especially Ronald Reagan’s successful efforts to halt communist subversion and expansion in Central America -- which he refers to as an American “terror war.” Actually Chomsky has the annoying habit of referring to almost everything the US does internationally as a “terror war” or “terrorism” or “state terrorism,” greatly diminishing the impact or validity any of his points may have.
Turning the Tide is divided into five chapters. The first three concentrating on Central America tend to overlap and repeat themselves—in fact much of his work is highly repetitive. They include such choice section headings as: “The planning of [US] state terror, “Planning for hegemony,” “The system applied: Torturing El Salvador,” “Torturing Nicaragua,” “Torturing Hispaniola,” and most creatively, “Torturing Guatemala.” Chomsky, it seems is fascinated by the alleged “torturing” of entire countries.
In the fourth chapter he focuses on national security policy and describes “The race to destruction,” and the “drift toward global war” which according to Chomsky is a “result of US government programs that have little to do with security, but are deeply rooted in the structure of power in our society...” One section is titled: “Containing the anti-Fascist resistance: From death camps to death squads” and describes his standard US-Nazi analogy. To Chomsky anyone the US opposes (or is opposed to the US) is anti-Fascist ipso-facto because the US and its allies in his view are Fascist.
His final chapter turns from foreign policy to the domestic US scene and “the dedicated efforts that have been taken by dominant elites to overcome the democratic revival of the 1960’s…” Chomsky believes his fellow counterculture pseudo-Marxist radicals were the vanguard of this “democratic revival.”
While Chomsky dishes a great deal of dirt on all prior US presidents, Reagan – who Chomsky considers a simpleton likening his pronouncements to the “random babbling of a young child”-- was nevertheless far more evil in intent and results than all his predecessors and deserves special opprobrium.
With regard to Reagan and Central America, Chomsky’s main thesis is that Reagan was simply continuing a long-term policy on behalf of evil American economic elites to suppress the region’s indigenous people and control its “vast” natural resources— apparently often in the strategically significant form of bananas. In Chomsky’s world the more insignificant the country, the more important it is to the evil elites who dominate US foreign policy – “the weaker and poorer a country is, the more dangerous it is as an example.” This theory of the “dangerous example” animates much of his views on US policy toward the hemisphere.
In Chomsky’s mind, despite the strategic oil resources of the Middle East, mineral wealth of Africa, and other valuable resources of the Far East, the US has spent “billions of dollars” and immense effort to rape, murder and pillage the people of Latin American countries such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, that by his own admission could disappear and American business would never notice.
Why American elites would spend decades and billions of dollars in savage wars of repression to destroy countries when they could more easily and cheaply gain their resources through trade is never really addressed. But according to Chomsky these insignificant countries were close to home and were in the process of creating successful alternative models of economic development that didn’t require US business and investment.
Chomsky of course disregards the fact that all socialist experiments have been proven total disasters and have brought only food rationing, repression, death and famine to the guinea pig populations who suffered under them. In his view the potential success alone of these “dangerous examples” was a mortal threat to elite American interests requiring an unrelenting and savage US response.
One of the first things one is struck by when reading Chomsky is the propagandistic nature of his effort and his shrill, pedantic and often times snide tone. His work is also extraordinarily dense and generally a chore to read. He packs detailed anecdotes, facts and figures among his diatribes in an almost overwhelming manner. The sympathetic reader’s conclusion: there is simply so much evidence; Chomsky must be a genius and his conclusions irrefutable. Chomsky’s intent may also be to inundate his critics in order to produce sheer physical and mental exhaustion if not ultimately ideological surrender.
In Turning the Tide Chomsky focuses most of his one-sided ire at US actions in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but also delves on Guatemala and Hispaniola (Haiti and Dominican Republic), detailing an alleged pattern of savage US intervention and rabid, systematic looting and domination. In chapter 2 he describes his important Fifth Freedom theory which provides the intellectual framework for much of his foreign policy analysis.
To the Four Freedoms articulated by Franklin Roosevelt (freedom of expression and religion and freedom from want and fear) Chomsky adds what he considers the American elite’s secret yet overriding Fifth Freedom – “the freedom to rob and exploit.”
To him the “preservation of the Fifth Freedom, by whatever means are feasible” is a “guiding geopolitical conception” in US planning. But this idea is even more than a planning premise. To Chomsky this evil secret principle is “an invariant core, deeply rooted in the basic institutions of American society.” It virtually defines US foreign policy. Hence all US actions in Latin America are seen through the prism of his Fifth Freedom thesis.
He also picks and chooses quotes and references to show a uniform thought process in a homogenous, unified American business-government elite. To Chomsky there are no competing interests or internal political debates in the United States; only one state-business conglomerate with a fixed, eternal goal of domination.
And while this Fifth Freedom supposedly is a secret principle, Chomsky selectively accesses some previously classified US government documents to buttress his argument that all US policy is based on this principle. Most significant in his writings is his extensive George Kennan misquote from State Department Policy Planning Study 23.
In the real world (rather than Chomsky’s delusion one) the passage Chomsky quotes from explains Kennan’s realpolitik approach to preserving US national security interests and containing of Soviet communism in the Far East. But this widely used quote is taken out of context and misinterpreted. By omitting key elements, Chomsky grossly distorts Kennan’s intent and globalizes his conclusions.
Chomsky quotes Kennan as follows:
"…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 without positive detriment to or 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…We should cease to talk about vague and -- for the Far East -- unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of standards of living, 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."
Despite the fact that Kennan argues against being “hampered by idealistic slogans” in this secret document, Chomsky immediately notes that “the idealistic slogans’ must constantly be trumpeted by US elites in public in order to pacify the domestic population…” But that is Chomsky speaking not Kennan. By describing Kennan’s ideas this way, Chomsky makes it appear that Kennan is arguing that human rights are just US slogans and should be ignored in order to maintain US wealth.
Unfortunately when reading Chomsky the truth is almost invariably lost in what Chomsky dishonestly leaves out of his quotes. In this case it is an entire paragraph detailing Kennan’s pessimistic but realistic view that US wealth would provoke envy and resentment no matter what we did and that because of problems of population growth and food supply (especially in India and China) that many countries in Asia would fall into the Soviet sphere regardless of US policy or focus on human rights. To Kennan global wealth disparity was a sad fact of life not a goal to achieve.
Kennan’s stated emphasis in the paragraph leading to the above quote is: “It is urgently necessary that we recognize our own limitations as a moral and ideological force among the Asiatic peoples.” As such he urges restraint in our policies toward Asia and counsels the US to leave most of mainland Asia alone and focus on keeping Japan and the Philippines firmly in the US sphere as bulwarks of US security in Asia. A foreign policy realist Kennan argued regularly against the trumpeting of idealistic slogans in favor of pursuing realistic politics. These are far from the views presented by Chomsky.
Immediately following the Kennan quote Chomsky uses a quote from the 1984 bipartisan Kissinger Commission report that states “the international purposes of the United States in the late 20th century are cooperation, not hegemony or domination; partnership, not confrontation; a decent life for all, not exploitation.” But since this was in a public document, the quote is spun by Chomsky as an example of the public trumpeting of insincere “idealistic slogans.”
For Chomsky there is a quote to fit his every argument, even if he has to twist or parse the quote to make it fit or simply define it as he wishes. He accepts at face value those statements that he agrees with or that support his point directly, and when they do not, he simply discounts or interprets them as examples of disinformation.
If one is able to get beyond all this the next hurdle one faces is that despite his intellectual pretensions Chomsky is not a reliable source of historical information or a serious political scientist. On the contrary, a reader would be well served to fact check every citation and find proper context whenever reading Chomsky. A linguist by training, he is extremely adept at pointing out sometimes valid omissions and inaccuracies in the works of his opponents, but considering his own highly selective use of citations as noted above, one-sided analysis, conclusion by inference and association as well as outright distortion and omission of fact---it is surprising so many on the left and elsewhere consider him a serious academic.
Chomsky’s sloppy use of citations and documentation is a serious flaw in his work and hampers the readers’ ability to confirm or evaluate the context or validity of his research. In one example on page 4 of “Turning the Tide,” Chomsky states that “the United Fruit Company client took power [in Honduras] in 1932 ‘and hand-in hand with United Fruit ruled his country for the next seventeen years.’” Who actually said this? We don’t know. His source is the 1985 book “The end and the beginning: the Nicaraguan Revolution” written by John Booth. But no where does Chomsky say who the quote came from or why it is authoritative rather than simply conjecture or opinion.
Sometimes Chomsky’s quotes contradict his main points; as when he is arguing that the malevolence of the US embargo against the Sandinistas is “fully in accord with our operative values, throughout our history.” But his source, James Austin of the Harvard Business School, admits in the same quote that the worse effects of this embargo are on the “US-made potable water system and Nicaraguan hospitals which rely on US equipment.” (Italics added).
Apparently Chomsky misses the irony of including admissions of US-made potable water systems and the supply of US medical equipment to augment claims of our historically “inhumane” and “morally reprehensible” actions against the poor people of Nicaragua. How does Chomsky reconcile his view of our perennial aggression against Nicaragua with the fact that Nicaragua’s medical system and water supply was almost all made in the USA? He doesn’t seem even to notice the contradiction.
One of Chomsky’s key techniques is to make the US operate in a global vacuum so it appears omnipotent and omni-malevolent. Hence for Chomsky the world revolves simply and entirely around the United States which is guilty of most of the world’s ills. Other countries, including those of Western Europe and especially the Soviet Union are but a backdrop or bit players in a historical drama totally dominated by the American colossus.
This may be due to the fact that as one reviewer notes “Chomsky is a critic, not a policy-maker, a whistle-blower rather than a strategist furnished with alternatives.” But this is an understatement. Part of Chomsky’s worldview is based on the idea that self-criticism is the highest form of moral value. Of course this self-criticism applies to criticizing ONLY the United States ad nauseum as the “proxy self” but not to Chomsky ever criticizing himself or the left when it is wrong. His continuing apologetics for Cambodia’s genocidal communist leader Pol Pot is a case in point.
Most of the other countries Chomsky discusses, such as Vietnam, Nicaragua, Cuba, etc. are never anything more than innocent victims of American “savagery.” Their actions are wholly reactive to US initiatives. They never have any autonomous foreign policies. His is a negative-ethnocentrism on a grand scale. There is never mention of the plans or stratagems of countries other than the US or those controlled by the US such as Israel or our “neo-Nazi” South American allies. Often he refers to the Soviet bloc as “so-called” communist states.
When he does mention a geopolitically significant country such as the Soviet Union it generally is to systematically apologize and rationalize its perceived negative behavior and show the hypocrisy of US policy toward the “alleged” enemy. Rarely does Chomsky acknowledge, much less describe in detail, any evil conducted by the Soviet Union, Castro or the Sandinistas such as the millions tortured and murdered in the Soviet Gulag or Stalin’s purges, Castro’s soccer field show trials and mass executions or Sandinista atrocities.
Though he occasionally makes a denunciation of the Soviets it is usually done simply pro-forma and as a way to create a moral equivalence between the US and USSR. As when he states about the Soviet Union on page 218: “Reagan’s Evil Empire is exactly that, as is its American counterpart.” More often the Soviet Union is described as well-intentioned and acting defensively, whereas the US is always cynical and malevolent.
In chapter four Chomsky does a few references to Soviet flaws but also quotes Soviet leaders or the state press with a total lack of critical analysis. This approach contrasts sharply with the critical if not hostile and disbelieving approach he takes with almost all US government, media or business sources and statements.
On page 179 he quotes Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko as saying “we are prepared to go even further—to agree on banning in general the use of force both in space, and from space against earth.” While taking Gromyko’s obvious propaganda statement at face value he then refers to the Reagan administration as being “strongly opposed to this hopeful development.”
He then quotes without questioning Radio Moscow (the Kremlin’s official state controlled media) as saying that the Soviet idea is “to conclude an agreement to prevent militarization of outer space…” Of course to Chomsky unlike his view of US statements, Soviet statements are never considered simply as ‘the trumpeting of idealistic slogans.” Shortly thereafter Chomsky refers to an “evasive” Times report on the same topic—evasive because it did not see the Soviet proposal and US reaction in the same pro-Soviet light as Chomsky. When US press reports what Chomsky believes is correct he describes it as “accurate,” but when it does not, he calls it an example of the US propaganda press and refers to it as “evasive,” “self-censoring” or “misleading.”
In his arrogant and delusional perspective only Chomsky sees the truth which is obscured by American “corporate propaganda” and “self-censorship.” The majority of Americans are simply pawns and dupes.
In chapter five he argues that there has been an orchestrated massive campaign to squelch the “democratic revival” of the 1960s. The fact that the supposedly repressed counter-culture leftists he speaks of gradually came to dominate academia, the media and much of mainstream American popular culture since the 1960s appears irrelevant to him. In fact he denies this reality as vehemently as he denies the atrocities of Cambodia’s “killing fields.”
Instead he uses his “propaganda model” to show that Americans are systematically kept from hearing the truth through a corporate-controlled propaganda conspiracy, despite the fact that that his own popularity among the intellectual “avant-garde” seems to disprove his thesis.
So Chomsky argues that from the 1960s onward the “business classes moved effectively to extend their already massive (italics added) dominance over universities and the media…” Adding that “well-funded reactionary jingoist (“conservative”) journals are now widespread in an effort to counter threats to intellectual independence…” But, if there is such massive “business” dominance over the universities and media, why is there a need for such a campaign to counter “threats of intellectual independence?” Conveniently according to Chomsky, it is because that dominance is “always deemed inadequate” by the generic and all-encompassing US elite he simply calls “business.” As with the US itself, nothing is ever enough for these business elites – their voracious appetite for total control is insatiable.
Meanwhile he claims that the paranoid vision of “Marxist-controlled” universities is “comical” but not limited to the “totalitarian right,” noting a New York Times Book Review article written by a person Chomsky describes a “respected liberal intellectual historian” (identified in the footnotes as John Patrick Diggins) that also argues that Marxism “has come close to being the dominant ideology in the academic world.” Yet rather than analyze or and refute the arguments made by this “respected liberal intellectual,” Chomsky simply dismisses them as “so remote from reality as to defy rational discussion.” Many points that contradict Chomsky’s views are discarded that way.
Chomsky adds that Diggins’s view “can only be understood as a reflection of the fear that if heresy is granted even a tiny opening, all is lost.” Why this respected liberal intellectual would suffer from such a paranoid fear, is left unexplained. This condescending dismissal without discussion of the counterarguments of opposing views is another major flaw in Chomsky’s pseudo-scholarly approach.
Chomsky’s faults also include his obsessive need to revel in ad-hominem attacks, overstatement and misstatement. He refers to even the most innocuous foes as a “fanatics,” the slightest inaccuracy in opponent’s argument as “frauds” and “lies.” But his obsession with exaggeration and hyperbole is most troubling.
Beginning in the first pages of “Turning the tide” Chomsky uses an overwhelming and repetitively mind-numbing number of graphic anecdotes describing alleged massacres, tortures and murders by Nicaraguan anti-communist rebels (“contras’) or by Central American governments allied with the US. These often unsubstantiated vignettes are always brutal and disturbing. He provides lurid details about decapitations, bloody rapes and the sadistic butchering of children.
On page 11 he quotes from a report that a witness had returned to a battlefield and found what the Contras had allegedly done to one victim including “cut his throat, then cut open his stomach and left his intestines hanging out on the ground like a string.” They also reportedly opened up another victim “and took out his intestines and cut off his testicles.”
Beyond the gruesome descriptions though, when we look at his source, we find it was a “fact-finding mission” conducted by a US law firm representing ‘Nicaraguan interests.” Chomsky uses that euphemism to avoid saying the firm represented the Sandinista government. The “report” could thus be seen as part of the firm’s public relations effort on behalf of the Sandinistas and probably should not be considered impartial or credible.
Later Chomsky notes that a mother describes how her husband, a lay pastor, and her five children were kidnapped and when she found them the next day “they were all cut up. Their ears were pulled off, their throats were cut, their noses and other parts cut off.” Since Chomsky is writing about Contra atrocities one assumes this is simply another example, but this is never stated directly. And worse yet, there is no direct citation for this quote. As is the case for many of Chomsky’s quotes and references, there are specific citations above and below this quote but nothing to determine where this specific quote came from. It is virtually impossible to correctly identify many of Chomsky’s references.
The citations he does use correctly are often from mainstream leftist newspapers such as the UK’s Guardian, or obscure local sources such as a Peruvian church-based publication or other leftist “human rights groups.” Never does he acknowledge that these may be questionable, or biased sources. Yet, according to Tim Brown a fellow of Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, many of these so-called atrocities were deliberate fabrications and deserved a much more skeptical reading. He states:
"I was personally witness to literally hundreds of instances in which international human rights activists condemned alleged human rights violations by anti-Communist guerrillas that were later proven to have been fabrications. Recently, the former military commander of the FMLN of El Salvador has explained very carefully and on the record to me just how this was done and how easy it was for them to manipulate the American human rights establishment because their fabrications were always accepted without question by their American sympathizers."
"His comments are corroborated by the written contemporary record. According to existing archives, a very high percentage, perhaps 40%, of all official FMLN members were assigned by the party to human rights missions, including the planting of fabricated stories, because the FMLN understood that they might never win militarily but could do so on the political front. This made their propaganda war even more important than their military effort. That they were so successful in doing so was a direct function of the willingness of their sympathizers to accept their fabrications or exaggerations without checking the sources."
Chomsky can certainly fall into this category.
And apparently these alleged crimes by US proxies are always brutal and gratuitously sadistic. None of America’s victims are simply shot or executed. They are all systematically tortured and destroyed in ways Nazis would be proud. And this is not surprising since according to Chomsky many of America’s “allies” in Latin America and elsewhere are in fact Nazis or neo-Nazis as when he refers to our “various clients, particularly Argentine neo-Nazis” (when Argentina was under military rule).
Thus equating the US and Nazi Germany in Chapter four Chomsky actually details his view that the US conspired with German Nazis to create a new post-war global fascist alliance. On page 200 he states “The postwar US project of crushing the anti-fascist resistance [all communists automatically fall into this category] with Nazi assistance establishes a direct link between Nazi Germany and the killing fields in Central America.” In developing this conspiracy Chomsky generally ignores the decisive American role in defeating Nazi Germany as when he notes “US solicitude and care for useful Nazi gangsters as Europe was liberated from Hitler.” As if Europe was “liberated” by itself.
And of course according to Chomsky, these Central American killing fields are always attributed somehow – though never quite sure how — to the US. When he can’t make some sort of direct connection between the actual perpetrators and the US or US forces he simply defaults to referring to “US proxies.” Thus he constantly refers to “US-backed” “US-supplied” or “US- trained” forces. Sometimes even the simple use of “US-made” equipment (such as a radio) by any of these “proxies” is enough to infer American complicity in war crimes.
On page 6 Chomsky cites Charles Clements, a “committed pacifist” and former US Air Force pilot who had been sent to a psychiatric hospital after refusing to fly missions in Vietnam, as a witness to many of these types of US proxy atrocities in El Salvador in 1982-83. Chomsky speaks for Clements throughout. He begins by noting “the strafing by US-supplied [Italics added] jets aimed specifically against defenseless peasants.”
This is followed by stating that the “worst atrocities were carried out by US-trained elite battalions…and by air and artillery units employing tactics designed by US forces in Vietnam and taught by US advisors.” According to Chomsky, simply being US–trained or using basic military tactics employed and taught by the US, any alleged atrocities conducted by Salvadorian forces were directly attributable to the US.
He adds further that that Clements, “using a US-made scanner…could hear the voices of American advisers directing troops on their mass murder mission.” Since none of this a quote, Chomsky cleverly and disingenuously confuses what Clements actually said with Chomsky’s own interpretation and commentary and totally obscures the distinction between what may have been normal combat and alleged war crimes.
As the above noted example demonstrates, he rarely substantiates how the forces in question were US-backed or trained. An expert propagandist, Chomsky will often mingle truth with half-truth with generalization and inference. As with the above-noted example he will also make references to actions of specific US-trained battalions in El Salvador after describing numerous alleged brutalities by other un-named “US-backed” forces. The reader is expected to assume they’re all the same.
Chomsky’s work is littered with left wing sources such as the Nation, the Guardian or openly Marxist human rights groups. When “mainstream” or reputable media, academic or other sources contradict his worldview, he simply reverts to his argument that we can’t believe these sources.
When referring to Nicaragua, he revels in alleged “contra’ crimes as well as the Crimes of the prior dictator Anastasio Somoza, but ignores the thousands of Nicaraguans who were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by their new communist masters as they attempted to protect their private property, or who simply committed the crime of owning private property. In “Remembering Sandinista Genocide,” Jamie Glazov writes:
According to the Nicaraguan Commission of Jurists, the Sandinistas carried out over 8,000 political executions within three years of the revolution. The number of "anti-revolutionary" Nicaraguans who had "disappeared" in Sandinista hands or had died "trying to escape" were numbered in the thousands. By 1983, the number of political prisoners in the Sandinista’s' ruthless tyranny was estimated at 20,000. Torture was institutionalized.
Chomsky also fails to note that unlike the Somoza regime, the Sandinistas did not leave the native populations on the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua in peace. All Nicaraguans were forced to take part in their Marxist experiment. Glazov adds:
"Thus, in perfect Khmer Rouge style, the Sandinistas inflicted a ruthless forcible relocation of tens of thousands of Indians from their land. Like Stalin, they used state-created famine as a weapon against these "enemies of the people.”
The Organization of American States and the Nicaraguan Human Rights organization have found that a large number of clandestine cemeteries from the Contra War period have been excavated in Nicaragua and several hundred bodies exhumed and examined by forensic pathologists. In every case the bodies were confirmed to be the remains of victims of Sandinista Army atrocities.
These include documented examples of clandestine cemeteries at Jalapa, Corinto Finca, Cerro de Mocoron, Santa Matilde, Cano del Aislado, Murra, and Loma Chata. There are many others. Yet Chomsky conveniently ignore this evidence condemning the Sandinistas.
After communism’s global collapse there have been scores sources painting a clearer picture of the scale of leftist deception and delusion regarding the real effects of decades of socialist experimentation. Unfortunately, Chomsky continues to ignore the evidence.
The fact is that in this political work (as opposed perhaps to his actual specialty in linguistics) Chomsky is not an academic or a fair-minded intellectual. He does not research evidence and then find a model that best describes it. Instead, he is a propagandist who has created his fanciful models such as the Fifth Freedom and propaganda model, and simply looks for evidence to support it, ignoring, discarding or dismissing all other contrary evidence. The evidence he does use is highly selective, often taken out of context, uncritical when referring to America’s enemies and disingenuous and misleading when applied to the US. Too often it is impossible to confirm what sources he was using.
In typical propagandist style, he seamlessly co-mingles many elements of fact and truth with speculation, conjecture, misquotes, interpretation and commentary, never identifying where one ends and the other begins. Focusing almost exclusively on monolithic US actions and flaws he creates a virtual parallel universe that ignores the true motivations and intentions of adversaries, simplifies and demonizes US motives and intentions and provides a thoroughly one-sided and distorted reality. Sadly, many on the left live in this Chomsky fantasy world.
Paul Crespo is a political analyst, columnist and former member of The Miami Herald editorial board. An adjunct faculty member in the political science department at the University of Miami, he is also a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, DC. He served as a US Marine Corps officer on three continents. A graduate of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, he has advanced degrees from London and Cambridge Universities in the UK.