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Chomsky and the Vietnam War By: Oliver Kamm
oliverkamm.typepad.com | Thursday, February 17, 2005


In my comment about Noam Chomsky earlier this week, I advanced three propositions. First, his central political notion is not about Vietnam, or Timor, or Palestine: it is that the US is equivalent to Nazi Germany. Secondly, his handling of source material is dishonest. Thirdly, these characteristics are not recent developments, but date back to his earliest political writings. In this post I shall provide an example that illustrates all these points simultaneously.

In American Power and the New Mandarins (1969, p. 21), Chomsky cites an article by the political scientist Samuel Huntington from Foreign Affairs, July 1968, entitled “The Bases of Accommodation”:

[Huntington] explains that the Viet Cong is ‘a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist’. Evidently, we must therefore ensure that the constituency – the rural population – ceases to exist. A Himmler or a Streicher would have advanced one obvious solution. This liberal socialist [sic – evidently a typographical error for ‘social’] scientist, however, suggests another: that we drive the peasants into the cities by force (’urbanisation’), putting off until after the war the ‘massive government programmes’ that ‘will be required either to resettle migrants in rural areas or to rebuild the cities and promote peacetime urban employment’. This policy may prove to be ‘the answer to “wars of national liberation”’ an answer that we have ‘stumbled upon’ in Vietnam, ‘in an absent-minded way’.

Chomsky is not always easy to decipher, owing to his imprudent partiality for attempted irony, but the message here could scarcely be cruder. Huntington’s recommendations are in aim if not method the equivalent of the Final Solution.

Chomsky returned to the point in an article entitled ‘After Pinkville’ in The New York Review of Books, 1 January 1970 (link requires subscription):

It is important to understand that the massacre of the rural population of Vietnam and their forced evacuation is not an accidental by-product of the war. Rather it is of the very essence of American strategy. The theory behind it has been explained with great clarity and explicitness; for example by Professor Samuel Huntington, Chairman of the Government Department at Harvard and at the time (1968) Chairman of the Council on Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group, in effect the State Department task force on Vietnam. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he explains that the Viet Cong is "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist." The conclusion is obvious, and he does not shrink from it. We can ensure that the constituency ceases to exist by "direct application of mechanical and conventional power…on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city," where the Viet Cong constituency—the rural population—can, it is hoped, be controlled in refugee camps and suburban slums around Saigon.

Huntington commented on Chomsky’s claims thus (NYRB, 26 February 1970):

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

…the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist. Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation.

By omitting my next sentence — "Peace in the immediate future must hence be based on accommodation"—and linking my statement about the Viet Cong to two other phrases which appear earlier in the article, Mr. Chomsky completely reversed my argument. (Incidentally, the phrase "direct application of mechanical and conventional power" is not mine, but one which I quote from Sir Robert Thompson. Mr. Chomsky, however, does not see fit to recognize these distinctions of authorship.)

Mr. Chomsky's further effort to say that I favor demolishing Vietnamese society and "eliminating the people" in order "to crush the people's war" is totally false and misleading. My article described the urbanization produced by the escalation of the war between 1965 and 1968 and the extent to which this "American-sponsored urban revolution" undercut the "Maoist-inspired rural revolution." It concluded from this fact that peace would require compromise and accommodation on both sides. To eliminate Viet Cong control in the areas where they have been strong, I said, "would be an expensive, time-consuming and frustrating task." Instead of attempting this, we should aim at a political reintegration of the country which "clearly will depend, however, upon the recognition and acceptance of Viet Cong control of local government in these areas. It is here that accommodation in the most specific sense of the word is a political necessity." This is, in a nutshell, the thesis of the article, and it is well reflected in its title, "The Bases of Accommodation," which Mr. Chomsky somehow forgot to mention.

Chomsky, in short, was caught using a technique he has often used since (I shall give further examples in later posts). He runs separate passages together, adding tendentious interpolation, in order to give a false account of the argument he claims to be presenting. It is intellectual dishonesty of a high order. If you are summarising someone else’s argument – especially an argument you are criticising – you are duty-bound to give an accurate account of it. Ellipses must not be used to omit relevant material; interpolations must be aids to clarity of exposition and not editorial devices; passages must not be shorn of context that would alter their meaning. Chomsky’s political writings are littered with violations of these conventions.

It’s interesting to note Chomsky’s response to the exposure. He goes on and on, without ever dealing with the charge that he has taken separate passages, one of them not even written by Huntington, and presented them as continuous prose thereby giving an exactly false account of the argument he affects to be summarising. And then, suddenly, he gives what we must assume is his case for the defence (emphasis added):

Mr. Huntington further claims that I said he "favors" eliminating the Viet Cong constituency by bombardment, whereas he only states that such "forced-draft urbanization" may well be "the answer to 'wars of national liberation' " that we have stumbled upon in Vietnam. The distinction is rather fine. One who insists on it must also recognize that I did not say that he "favored" this answer but only that he "outlined" it, "explained" it, and "does not shrink from it," all of which is literally true.

Chomsky is frequently regarded as a voice of conscience, especially by those who haven’t read him. What he actually represents is the continual assertion of outlandish analogies – centrally, that the US equals Nazi Germany - that gain rhetorical power only from being conveyed with a straight face and an affectation of remorseless logic. When that logic is exposed, as in this case, as intellectual legerdemain, he retreats to pitiful, pleading casuistry.

I have picked on this example (which I have raised before on this site) first because it’s extreme, secondly because it comes from his earliest period as a political polemicist, thirdly because it deals specifically with the subject of Vietnam - and finally because Chomsky’s dishonesty is not just an idiosyncrasy; it has consequences.

A recent highly sympathetic biography of the Marxist theorist Ralph Miliband, author of The State in Capitalist Society among other works, (Michael Newman, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left, 2002) contains an account of a proposed visit by Samuel Huntington to fulfil a speaking engagement at Sussex University, where Miliband was teaching, in June 1973. Miliband’s biographer writes (p. 172):

After a visit to Vietnam in 1967 [Huntington] had submitted a classified document to the US State Department and had then published a condensation of this in an article entitled “The Bases of Accommodation” in Foreign Affairs July 1968. All this might have passed unnoticed, but Noam Chomsky had then condemned the article in his book, American Power and the New Mandarins. The essence of the case against Huntington was that he had taken issue with the argument that wars against national liberation movements could not be won by bombing. A euphemism for bombing was “the direct application of mechanical and conventional power” and Huntington argued that if this took place “on such a massive scale as to produce a migration from countryside to city, the basic assumptions underlying the Maoist doctrine of revolutionary war no longer operate.”

In a further example of Orwellian language he argued that the way to win a war against a rural revolutionary movement was by “forced draft urbanization and modernization”. Chomsky’s interpretation of this was that Huntington was advocating saturation bombing which was a war crime under Nuremberg principles.

So an argument that accommodation is a political necessity is transmuted into public consciousness as a call for policies that echo Himmler and Streicher. The intermediary for this shameless distortion is Noam Chomsky. Miliband’s biographer recounts (without any sense of disquiet) the subsequent ugly campaign on campus to intimidate Professor Huntington and have his invitation withdrawn. It’s encouraging to learn that The Guardian, then a liberal newspaper, wrote a leading article on the affair entitled “Closed minds at Sussex”. Miliband, on the other hand, commended the suppression of free speech at Sussex, in his capacity as one of the founders of an organisation called – no, really – the Council for Academic Freedom and Democracy.

Miliband’s conduct would have been disgraceful even if Chomsky had given an accurate account of Huntington’s views. But of course Chomsky did not: he manipulated Huntington’s argument in order to render it falsely, and Miliband swallowed it.

The fabrication still surfaces, incidentally. Here is a passage from a breathless essay from 2003 by the novelist Arundhati Roy, entitled “The Loneliness of Noam Chomsky”:

Huntington — famous today for his essay "The Clash of Civilizations?"— was at the time Chairman of the Council on Vietnamese Studies of the Southeast Asia Development Advisory Group. Chomsky quotes him describing the Vietcong as "a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist". Huntington went on to advise "direct application of mechanical and conventional power"— in other words, to crush a people's war, eliminate the people. (Or, perhaps, to update the thesis — in order to prevent a clash of civilizations, annihilate a civilisation.)

Roy’s final sentence is a scandalous interpolation, but she knows no better. Chomsky is her source, and Chomsky’s is her method.

UPDATE: I ought to have mentioned, for the benefit of those who wish to keep track of Chomsky's writings, that the essay "After Pinkville" was also included in his book At War With Asia: Essays on Indochina (1971). Curiously - for it is a period piece - a new edition of the book has just been published.


Read Oliver Kamm's weblog at http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog.


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