"Responsibility" by Noam Chomsky, Delivered at March 4, 1969 Protests at MIT

Noam Chomsky. The Science Action Coordinating Committee Papers, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

On March 4, 1969, an extraordinary event took place at MIT. Students and faculty from MIT, Harvard, and other local universities convened to protest the Vietnam War and the perceived complicity of science and scientists with the military industrial complex. Dozens of people spoke, including Lionel Trilling, Howard Zinn, Kurt Gottfried, and George Wald. On the 50th anniversary of this event, we are proud to bring forth a new edition of March 4: Scientists, Students, and Society, bringing the transcripts of this incredible day of protest to a new audience.

Today, in commemoration of this event, we reproduce the transcript from Noam Chomsky's speech. In 1969, he was Professor of Linguistics at MIT. Now, in 2019, he holds a joint appointment as Institute Professor Emeritus at MIT and laureate professor at the University of Arizona.

 

Responsibility

At a very general and abstract level, few will disagree that a man is responsible for the foreseeable consequences of his acts—or of his failure to act. The real questions arise when we ask ourselves: How compelling is the need to act, what forms should action take? The path of least resistance is always to accept the distribution of power as it exists, to ratify and support it either by doing nothing or by lending one’s talents to the implementation of policies that are not questioned or challenged. The cost of this passivity will be borne by the victims of American power—but they are far away, often of another race and culture, and powerless to strike back at us. So when we read, let us say, of the escalation of the American war against Vietnam since last November, of the intensification of bombardment and the sharp rise in U.S. air and ground attacks, of heightened efforts to destroy the political and administrative structure of the [National Liberation Front]. When we read such reports, the easiest course is to turn aside, to trust our leaders, to speak of tragic irony and the painful costs of world leadership.

Since World War II, we have spent over $1 trillion in “defense.” We have successfully defended ourselves against Guatemalans, Iranians, Dominicans, and all too many others who have sought to assert their national independence—to reconstruct their own societies in their own way and on their own terms. We have assigned to ourselves the role of international judge and executioner and have acted accordingly. Where nations have escaped our control—e.g., China and Cuba—we have striven valiantly to strangle economic development by boycott, blockade, and military force.

We have sought the most effective mechanism to ensure the form of stability that we, in our wisdom and benevolence, know to be most desirable. Some feel that we may finally have found the answer. For example, the chairman of the Department of Government at Harvard, who is also chairman of the Vietnam study group of the State Department, believes that “in an absent-minded way the United States in Vietnam may well have stumbled upon the answer to wars of national liberation.” The answer is this: “... if the direct application of mechanical and conventional power takes place on such a massive scale as to produce a massive migration from countryside to city, the basic assumptions underlying the Maoist doctrine of revolutionary war no longer operate.” This subtle and ingenious approach is particularly useful in Vietnam where he describes our problem as follows: “With one half the population still in the countryside, the Viet Cong will remain a powerful force which cannot be dislodged from its constituency so long as the constituency continues to exist.” We therefore ensure that this constituency— the rural population—ceases to exist, by direct application of power on a massive scale. And then, after the war, we will “resettle migrants in rural areas” and promote development, as we have done with such notable success in the countries protected from harm by the Monroe Doctrine.

All of this, of course, with the noblest of intentions. As John Adams once said, “Power always thinks it has a great soul and vast views beyond the comprehension of the weak; and that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all His laws.”

Given the realities of contemporary history, we can believe that we are serving noble ideals only by adopting a view that verges on psychosis. And I believe that we are in the grip of a kind of national psychosis. The man who is now president of the United States warned, in a letter to the New York Times four years ago, that “... victory for the Viet Cong ... would mean ultimately the destruction of freedom of speech for all men for all time not only in Asia but in the United States as well”—nothing less. Perhaps a clearer statement of our purposes in Vietnam is given in a State Department pamphlet from 1951, which emphasizes the psychological effect of the fall of Indochina. “It would be taken by many as a sign that the force of Communism is irresistible and would lead to an attitude of defeatism. ... Therefore Communist forces must be decisively conquered down to the last pocket of resistance.” Recall the context: we are speaking of the destruction of indigenous Vietnamese forces by French colonialism. Such documents make nonsense of the pretense that we are concerned with freedom for the Vietnamese, as do the facts themselves. This kind of paranoia is illustrated by our present Secretary of Defense, who sees us “locked in a real war, joined in mortal combat on the battlefield, each contender maneuvering for advantage,” against an enemy who appears in many guises: Kremlin bureaucrat, Asian peasant, Latin American student, and, no doubt, urban guerrilla at home. Small wonder, then, that Melvin Laird is on record with the advice that “Step one of a military strategy of initiative should be the credible announcement of our determination to strike first if necessary to protect our vital interests.” Compare New York Times military expert Hanson Baldwin, who urges that in the post-Vietnam era we be prepared to “escalate technologically rather than with manpower” as we “bolster governments under attack and secure them against creeping Communism.” Such escalation, he suggests, might involve the use “…of small nuclear devices for defensive purposes” (June 9, 1968). Particularly interesting is the concept of “defensive purposes,” as we bolster a weak government against creeping Communism. As far as I know, ours is the only country where the Minister of War and the leading military expert of the press have spoken in such terms, as it is the only country guilty of international violence on anything like the scale of Vietnam.

Probably the typical figure of the new society is Robert McNamara, a man who showed how to do with superb efficiency that which should not be done at all. McNamara’s views of social organization are most illuminating. “Vital decision-making,” he says, “must remain at the top.” Ultimate control must be vested in the hands of management, which is, “in the end, the most creative of all the arts—for its medium is human talent itself.” This is apparently a divine imperative: “God is clearly democratic. He distributes brain power universally. But He quite justifiably expects us to do something efficient and constructive with that priceless gift. That is what management is all about.” No doubt it is the same divine imperative that leads us to construct and manage an integrated world economy, “no idealistic pipe-dream,” according to George Ball, “but a hard-headed prediction; it is a role into which we are being pushed by the imperatives of our own technology.” The major instrument is the multinational corporation, which Ball describes as “a distinctly American development. Through such corporations [he says] it has become possible for the first time to use the world’s resources with maximum efficiency … But there must be greater unification of the world economy to give full play to the benefits of multinational corporations,” this distinctly American development. It is not difficult to guess to whom these “benefits” will accrue.

The Cold War has provided the psychological environment and guaranteed the financial resources to enable us to enter into the construction of this integrated world system. On the domestic scene this has meant a tendency toward centralization of control in economic institutions and political life. The government has taken on the task of providing a public subsidy for a significant part of the industrial system, its technologically most advanced segment. It has also become the “employer of last resort” for the nation’s engineers, most of whom work in projects funded by the Defense department, NASA, and the AEC. Jerry Wiesner once pointed out that “the armaments industry has provided a sort of automatic stabilizer for the whole economy.” I will omit statistical details. One can go on and on to outline what has aptly been called a kind of “socialism” for the rich and powerful and for segments of the technical intelligentsia.

At the same time, the role of Congress, particularly in the area of foreign policy, has diminished virtually to zero. The House Armed Services Committee described the role of Congress as “that of a sometimes querulous but essentially kindly uncle who complains while furiously puffing on his pipe, but who finally, as everyone expects, gives in and hands over the allowance.” Senator Vandenberg, twenty years ago, expressed his fear that the Chief Executive would become “the number one war lord of the earth.” That has since occurred. The clearest example of all of this was the decision to escalate the Vietnam War in 1965. It now appears that that decision was taken in 1964, perhaps as early as the summer. You recall, of course, the rhetoric of the fall 1964 election campaign. This one incident reveals with perfect clarity the role of the public in decisions about peace and war.

To the system the technical intelligentsia make a very definite contribution, not only by the design of technology and the implementation of policy but also at an ideological level—in protecting policy from criticism by investing it with the aura of science. Weapons cultists bemoan the “flimsy premises involving public world opinion” that stifle innovation. Pacification is “computerized”; its police state measures are described as “experiments with population and resources control methods.” Science magazine publishes technical studies of defoliation, as in the most recent issue, studies that are unexceptional except that they overlook the irrelevant fact that there is a civilization of human beings living in those millions of acres of defoliated land, individuals who have not been asked whether they are amused by the experiments that we have undertaken to carry out with their lives. And applied social scientists decry the anti-intellectual attitudes of those who insist on moral considerations or concern for such sentimental matters as our treaty obligations, when any serious scientist understands that only technical pragmatic considerations of cost and utility are relevant to policy formation. Of course, it is only those intellectuals who conform who achieve the exalted status of responsible thinkers. When George Kennan wrote his famous article advocating containment in 1947, he was lauded as a serious and responsible scholar. When, in 1949, he began to express his view that Russia did not intend to attack the West, that we should try to neutralize Germany rather than rearm it as part of NATO, he became an irresponsible mystic. As Dean Acheson put it, “Mr. Kennan has never, in my judgment, grasped the realities of power relationships but takes a rather mystical attitude toward them.” Had his “mysticism” been heeded, Central Europe—and the whole world—might have been a safer and more healthy place today.

It is in this context that we must consider such matters as the [Anti-Ballistic Missile]. To a large extent, the issue has been discussed as a technical one: will it work, etc. Such discussion is perhaps somewhat beside the point for two reasons. First, the ABM may be even more dangerous if it does work than if it does not. Hubert Humphrey recently pointed out that if the ABM “does achieve an effective missile screen it could release policy-makers from the restraints. imposed by enemy second-strike capacity”—no small consideration in a country as devoted to international violence as ours. Second, the motivation for the ABM is largely political and economic, not technical at all. Insofar as the ABM program serves as a subsidy to the electronics industry, it makes no great difference whether it will work or not. At the meetings of the American Economic Association last year, Walter Adams observed that the current version of the ABM has been estimated to involve 28 private contractors, with plants located in 42 states … and 182 Congressional districts. Given the political reality of such situations and the economic power of the constituencies involved, there is little hope that an interaction of special interest groups will somehow cancel each other out and that there will emerge some compromise which serves the public interest.

And if the ABM is discarded, some equivalent monstrosity will no doubt take its place until some radical change in ordering of national priorities occurs.

It is fashionable to decry such talk as naive and simplistic. It is useful to observe that those who manipulate the process and stand directly to gain from it are much less coy about the matter. Samuel Downer, Vice-President of LTV Aerospace Corporation, explains why “the postwar world must be bolstered with military order”:

It’s basic. Its selling appeal is defense of the home. This is one of the greatest appeals the politicians have to adjusting the system. If you’re President and you need a central factor in the economy, and you have to sell this factor, you can’t sell Harlem and Watts, but you can sell self-preservation, and a new environment. We’re going to increase defense budgets as long as these Russians are ahead of us. The American people understand this.

I have mentioned a number of tendencies in American society, tendencies that, if extrapolated, lead to a garrison state dominating a world empire. These, however, are tendencies. There is no law of nature that guarantees that they will persist. A good deal depends on our conscious choices. The scientists who are called upon to construct the ABM need not do so; the social scientists who are invited to preside over the management of some helpless society—perhaps our own—can refuse. They can organize and encourage others to join them in this refusal. They can also help to create the mass politics that provides the only real hope for restraining and ultimately dispelling the nightmare that they are now helping to create.

They should not underestimate the difficulty of this course. They will find some allies. Let me read you, for example, a few recent remarks by Senator Mark Hatfield:

The universities, by becoming inferior, contracted members of the defense establishment can only increase their participation as the intellectual advocates and architects of the war machine. It is my contention that efforts to examine the debilitating effects of the defense establishment, not only upon society as a whole, but also upon the university itself, are steps toward the reintroduction of human ideals into what is now policy formed mainly by economic considerations.

Well-spoken words. But such allies will be few. And it is reasonable to suppose that if there is any measurable success at organizing scientists in opposition to war and waste, there will be strong opposition to this effort. Effective political action that strikes at deeply entrenched interests can be expected to lead to attempts at repression. How serious these will be, how well they can be resisted, this we cannot predict—as we cannot predict the success that might be achieved at organizing popular forces to reintroduce “human ideals into what is now policy formed mainly by economic considerations,” in Senator Hatfield’s words. There is no point in speculation about such matters. Rather, there is an urgent and desperate necessity for serious commitment and determined action.


Excerpted from March 4: Scientists, Students, and Society, anniversary edition.

Tonight, there will be a film screening and panel to discuss the lessons of March 4 for 2019.