Does Noam Chomsky have permanent foot-in-mouth disease? It looks like that. In his latest, he almost outdoes himself. Yet his acolytes still print his nonsensical meanderings. The question, as we shall see, is why. On March 22nd, Lynn Parramore at Alternet posted an interview Chomsky had done with her at the blog of the Institute of New Economic Thinking. Apparently neither Parramore nor Alternet believe in fact checking anything before they post it. Since they do not, then we must.
Parramore asked the professor emeritus about what he sees as continuities in politics and international relations. Citing Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, the esteemed linguist said that a general rule would be “the powerful do what they wish and the weak suffer what they must.” When asked how he saw the rule being modified, Chomsky immediately started in on something that was false in and of itself and even more false as a mode of historical comparison. And Parramore did not just fail to call him out on anything; she never even asked a clarifying question.
Chomsky said that there had been “some steps towards imposing constraints and limits on state violence. For the most part, they come from inside.” He then said that if you looked at the actions Kennedy and Johnson carried out in Vietnam, “they were possible because of almost complete lack of public attention.” He then went on to say that it was hard to stage an anti-war demonstration back in 1966 because it would be broken up with the support of the press.
Where does one begin with such malarkey? First of all, note how the linguist immediately equates what Johnson did in Vietnam with what Kennedy did. Parramore did not ask: But Mr. Chomsky, there were no combat troops in Vietnam under Kennedy, and there was no Operation Rolling Thunder—the greatest air bombing campaign in history—under Kennedy. It was LBJ who instituted both. I, for one, would have liked to hear Chomsky answer that. But it was not to be. In reality, there was not a heck of a lot to protest until after Kennedy was killed.
In fact, the protests really began in 1964. Maybe Chomsky forgot this, but planning began in March at Yale for demonstrations in May. The New York City socialist journal, The National Guardian, then announced its support for this movement. And in May, there were coordinated demonstrations all across the country including New York City, San Francisco, Seattle and Madison, Wisconsin. And, I don’t know how he missed it, but also in Boston. This was two years before Chomsky says it could not be done. That same month, the first draft card burning protest took place in New York City. That fall, Mario Savio began the free speech movement at UC Berkeley. This was a milestone in both campus organization and demonstrations. In December of that year, there was another coordinated series of anti-war demonstrations by several leftist groups. This time they occurred in more than a dozen cities across the country, from San Francisco to, again—need I add—Chomsky’s Boston. Maybe Chomsky was not part of these, and so he thinks they could not have happened without him?
I won’t even begin to enumerate all the demonstrations that took place in 1965. It would take up too much space. But to name just one, the Students for a Democratic Society sponsored a march in April in Washington DC that had 25,000 participants. It was hosted by journalist I.F. Stone and featured entertainers like Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Phil Ochs. But the point is made: this is what a poor and slanted historian Chomsky is.
The reason these demonstrations began to spread that year—and to grow in size and scope—was simple. President Johnson had now openly broken with Kennedy’s policy of no direct American military intervention in Indochina, something that professor James Blight has shown LBJ, in his own words, had been planning to do almost from the week after Kennedy had been killed. (See Blight, Virtual JFK, pp. 304-14) This is what most historians call the cause-and-effect view of historical events. Chomsky can avoid it since he pretty much simply denies the events took place. And the questioner lets his adulteration of history slide.
Chomsky then adds that by 1966, South Vietnam had been pretty much destroyed and the war had spread to other areas of Indochina. Again, to put it mildly, such a general statement is dubious. Operation Rolling Thunder had only been ongoing for a year and those bombing campaigns targeted the North. Further, when the North mounted the Tet Offensive in January of 1968, General Giap’s forces invaded well over thirty cities, all in the South. Therefore, many major population centers were in existence at that time—which was two years beyond when the professor says the country had been pretty much destroyed. What Chomsky is trying to state—that by the first year of Johnson’s escalation the country had been leveled—is pure polemical hyperbole. Which is why polemicists make very bad historians.
The other part of the statement, that the war had spread to others areas, specifically Cambodia and Laos, is, for Chomsky, relatively accurate. Johnson almost immediately exceeded the limits Kennedy had formed in cross-border intelligence operations. (John Newman, JFK and Vietnam, pp. 447-48) But the actual air strikes against Cambodia and Laos did not begin until mid-December of 1965. These were sporadic in nature, and meant to disrupt supply lines into South Vietnam. Johnson’s Ambassador to India, Chester Bowles, visited Prince Sihanouk of Cambodia in December of 1967 to tell him that America had no desire to run any kind of military operations against Cambodia. (William Shawcross, Sideshow, p. 70) As any serious student of the war in Indochina knows, the expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos did not begin in earnest until Richard Nixon was elected president. Within two months of his inauguration, the secret bombing of Cambodia had begun. It would go on for fourteen months. Within a year of its advent, Sihanouk would be deposed. This was the beginning of the rise to power of the Khmer Rouge.
As the reader can see, Chomsky likes to use a loose form of historical revisionism. He transfers events that took place under LBJ to Kennedy; and those that took place under Nixon to Johnson. His is a kind of “anything goes” philosophy of historical study. Chomsky sticks everything into a blender and he comes out with a milkshake. Unfortunately for him, real historians do not work like this. A large part of what people like David Kaiser and John Newman have done is to draw distinctions so that there can be clear discernment of who was responsible for what.
From here, Chomsky does something that is bizarre. He says that the Reagan administration tried to duplicate what Kennedy had done in Vietnam by the issuance of a White Paper about Central America. But somehow the White Paper was proven faulty by the Wall Street Journal and therefore there was no invasion of Central America. First of all, Kennedy never issued any “White Paper” about Vietnam. What I think Chomsky is referring to here is the 1961 Taylor/Rostow report which Kennedy used to debate the merits of American involvement in South Vietnam. Kennedy ended up overruling its recommendations. Against the advice of almost all of his advisors, he refused to enter combat troops into Vietnam. (Newman, p. 138) But prior to that, as Gordon Goldstein notes in his book, Lessons in Disaster, Kennedy had rejected at least seven previous attempts to do the same. (See pp. 47-65) At the same time, Kennedy then dispatched John Kenneth Galbraith to Saigon to write a report to counter Taylor/Rostow. That report was then delivered to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in April of 1962. (David Kaiser, American Tragedy, p. 132) This constituted the beginning of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan. That plan culminated the next year with NSAM 263, which ordered the withdrawal of a thousand advisors. (Newman, p. 407) How one can compare a White House-commissioned and -backed public White Paper with a private trip report that the president himself ended up not just rejecting, but countering—this is Chomsky’s secret.
Unchallenged by Parramore, Chomsky then jumps to the American invasion of Iraq. Here, Chomsky gets even stranger. He actually tries to say that the demonstrations against the Iraq War were successful. No joke. That in some way, President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld were restrained by these protests. Did Chomsky somehow forget ‘Shock and Awe’, Fallujah, Haditha?
It’s a little surprising that Chomsky could write such a thing in the wake of two important articles that were just published at Consortium News about the Iraq War. On March 22nd, Nicolas J. S. Davies wrote an important essay which tries to estimate the total casualties that had been sustained by the Iraq War after 15 years. He came to the conclusion that the figure is about 2.4 million. The number is not final since the war is still going on. The invasion caused an explosion of terrorism and the creation of ISIS which demanded a new battle for Mosul. How can this be considered a success for the pre-war demonstrations? As I argued in my four-part review of the Burns-Novick PBS series The Vietnam War, one can make a cogent argument that the massive 1968-69 anti-war demonstrations did help bring an end to the war because, as Jeffrey Kimball has shown, they discouraged Nixon from implementing his plans for a large expansion of the war effort. But this was almost five years after Johnson committed American combat troops. As a point of comparison, there was one anti-war demonstration in 2008, the fifth anniversary of the Iraq invasion.
The other article at Consortium News is by Nat Parry, the son of the site’s late founder Bob Parry. His article tries to measure just how bad the war has been for Iraq. As Parry notes, at the time of the 2003 invasion, “Iraq was a country that had already been devastated by a US-led war a decade earlier and crippling economic sanctions that caused the death of 1.5 million Iraqis.” But in addition to forgetting that, Chomsky also managed to forget that on the first day of the war America hurled 400 cruise missiles at Baghdad. On the second day, this was repeated. Then an air bombing campaign ensued which entailed 1,700 air sorties. To accompany the invasion, there were 10,800 cluster bombs dropped. Many of these were fired into urban areas in March and April of 2003. In Bush’s mad attempt to kill Saddam Hussein, four bombs were dropped on a residential restaurant, leaving a 60-foot crater.
Although the assault was officially over in April of 2003 and President Bush made his Mission Accomplished speech on May 1st, the war against the resistance was just beginning. Then there was also the residue of the illegal weapons that had been used, like phosphorus and depleted uranium. These kinds of weapons, plus the nighttime bombing that the Pentagon and CIA had kept from the press junkets at Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul, hid the fact that, as Parry describes them, those three cities had been largely reduced to rubble. By 2014, a former CIA Director had conceded that the nation of Iraq had basically been destroyed. As Michael Hayden stated, “I think Iraq has pretty much ceased to exist.” Hayden went on to say that it was now broken up into parts, which he did not think could be placed back together again.
This was not the case with Vietnam. The war ended in 1975 and the country was reunified. Ten years later, Vietnam welcomed American investment. Does anyone think this will happen anywhere in the near future with Iraq? So what was Chomsky talking about with the “success” of those 2003 demonstrations? And the limitations placed on warfare? Can the man be serious?
As I have pointed out previously, Noam Chomsky is not a historian. He is a propagandist. Historians try to find the truth about an historical event or era by sifting through the facts: documents, exhibits and testimony. They then create a thesis by inductive reasoning from the evidence. Chomsky does not do this. He creates a conclusion first, and then grabs onto anything he can think of to sustain it. Which is why, as I have shown, he is easy to disprove.
But for me, that is not the worst part. The worst part are the people (like David Barsamian) and the forums (like Democracy Now) that have allowed him to ramble on, with no checks or balances on his blathering. The man needs an intervention, but none of his backers feel strong enough to give him one. Probably because they have been lulled into a zombie-like state by listening too long to his sputtering pontifications.