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American Power and the New Mandarins: Historical and Political Essays Paperback – November 14, 2002
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From Publishers Weekly
Whether assessing U.S. policy in the Middle East (Fateful Triangle) or analyzing the events of September 11 (9-11), linguist, intellectual giant and moral authority Chomsky has made a brilliant career out of telling his fellow Americans things they didn't want to hear. And it all began with this collection of provocative essays (first published by Pantheon in 1969), each advancing a cogent, rigorous argument for why we shouldn't have been in Vietnam. In his opening piece, Objectivity and Liberal Scholarship, Chomsky establishes the premise that U.S. presence in Southeast Asia was little more than updated imperialism; that theory informs much of the writing that follows. In The Logic of Withdrawal, Chomsky methodically debunks the accepted reasons for U.S. intervention in a foreign civil war, and in On Resistance, he restates his case even more bluntly, writing that no one has appointed us judge and executioner for Vietnam or anywhere else. If it merely recalled the heady debates of a generation past, this volume would have been well worth reprinting. But at this moment in history, as America teeters on the brink of another war, Chomsky's ruminations about our role on the world stage take on renewed relevance.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Also included is the beautiful essay, "The Responsibility of Intellectuals."
His target was the liberal intelligensia, the "best and the brightest." These brethren (Douglas Pike, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Samuel Huntington, Walt Rostow, Dean Rusk, New York Times correspondent Neal Sheehan et. al), Chomsky shows quite compellingly, helped engineer and/or provided intellectual rationalization for one of the most barbaric wars in human history. These rationalizations were quite openly expressed in the newspapers, journals of opinion, congressional testimony, U.S. AID reports, and so on. They went something like this: We are fighting against the National Liberation Front, the so-called Viet Cong which enjoys great support amongst the South Vietnamese population and has received little aid from the North. The fact that it is to a large extent supported by the population is irrelevant. The NLF threaten our security. No indiginous force in South Vietnam, with the exception of the Buddhists, has any remotely comparable level of support. Therefore, since we can't compete in the political field, in 1954 we violated the Geneva agreements and set up a terror and torture regime in South Vietnam, with large numbers of American "advisors" helping, that used extreme violence to help compensate for its lack of political support. We made sure that the seventeenth parallel, intended in the Geneva accords as only a temporary demarcation line, was made permanent and sabotoged efforts to hold the elections in 1956 for national reunification called for in the accords. We're weak politically but we are unrivaled militarily and in the other resources of violence at our disposal. In the late 50's our response began to elicit a violent reaction from the NLF, the main target of our repression. Our allies are almost always the most feudal, reactionary and brutal elements of South Vietnam, who can never elicit any support amongst the general population. So we have to destroy the NLF, which means to "dislodge it from its constituency" which means we have to destroy its supporters and all of their homes, villages, natural environment, and so on, which means we have to take actions that will perhaps exterminate those supporters, the rural population of South Vietnam. We, who believe in behaviorist psychology, don't see anything wrong with what we are doing and believe it is fundamentally just and in the best interests of the people of South Vietnam who are perhaps somewhat unfit for self-government. We held "free and fair" elections that excluded any "neutralist," communist, socialist, NLF sympathizers and other such rascals from taking part.
The debate in the mainsteam on this issue was between people on the one hand like Joe Alsop on the right, who argued that if America just kept applying more and more military force i.e. tried to wipe Vietnam off the planet it could eventually prevail and on the other hand people on the "left" like Schlesinger Jr. who prayed that this policy would work yet thought it would be too costly in the long run. Chomsky expresses thoughts that would come to any remotely civilized human being upon viewing this spectacle.
Chomsky also devotes an iconoclastic, though at times somewhat ponderously written chapter to the Spanish civil war, a very good chapter on the background to Japan's role in World War Two and demolishes the establishment myths about the Cold War. He urges intellectuals to be iconoclasts, to serve truth and justice, not power and privillege.
Also of some interest is a paraphrase of a quote from Harry Truman by James Warburg that Chomsky quotes. In the first edition Chomsky attributed the quote exclusively to Truman; it was corrected and attributed to Warburg, very similar to Truman's original quote, in the second edition of the book published shortly after. If one reads any serious journal of the Social Sciences or other such fields one often finds a list of errors at the end of even favorable reviews. But the commissars jumped on it and it has been the subject of dozens of articles and hundreds of references over the years. Schlesinger in "Cycles Of American History" declared that Chomsky had fabricated the quote. It is a tribute to Chomsky that they were quite unable to address his main arguments and chose to endlessly quible over the trivial quote (one of the lesser canards about him, behind the one about his support for the Khmer Rouge and the one about his support for Robert Faurisson).
The book is quite powerful in many of its conclusions. A few criticisms: there is extensive use of irony throughout the work, occasionally to the point of excess; while Chomsky eviscerates a half dozen of the "liberal intelligensia", it's difficult for me, as someone who was not alive to witness the war, to know if these voices typify the liberal objections to the war, or if Chomsky has cherry-picked these individuals (obviously Schlesinger was a major voice, but I'm not familiar with the others); if you don't have some conception of the forces behind the Spanish Civil War, the first essay will be somewhat confusing. It was for me, anyway.
Altogether though, particularly in light the U.S. invasion of Iraq, many of Chomsky's ideas have taken on a new urgency. The comparision between Vietnam and Iraq will come very naturally as you read _American Power_. It is well worth our time to make this comparison. Chomsky's thesis is as valid now as it was in 1969.