You had expressed disbelief at my strong and negative reaction (based on memories of the 1970s, when he seemed both in person and in print to be mocking those trying to alert the outside world to the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia) when the name "Noam Chomsky" was raised. You said that Chomsky was one of the most intelligent, hardest-working, incisive, and moral voices on the left today.
And you suggested that I give him another chance.
So the next time I stopped by Cody's, I picked up one of Chomsky's books: his (1992) What Uncle Sam Really Wants (New York: Odonian Press: 1878825011).
But I only got to page 17. Then I put the book down--with my strong negative allergic reaction confirmed.
The book began with a sketch of the history of U.S. foreign relations since World War II. By the second page Chomsky was in the middle of a brief discussion of planning for the postwar period. Four paragraphs were devoted to NSC 68--the end-of-the-1940s policy planning document that proposed building a military strong enough to confront the Soviet Union on any continent, and settling down for a long Cold War of unlimited duration. But NSC 68 was exhibited in a vacuum. There was not a word about the gradual shift in the late 1940s of U.S. policy from Rooseveltian cooperation with Stalin to Trumanesque confrontation, not a word about escalation of tensions--the fate of former German prisoners returned by the western allies to Stalin, the Soviet coup in Czechoslovakia, the disputes over German reconstruction ending in the Soviet blockade of Berlin--and not a word about how NSC 68 had no prospects of becoming policy until Josef Stalin took off the leash and Kim Il Sung began the Korean War.
I found this absence of any attempt to sketch the context disturbing.
After a discussion of George Kennan, Chomsky wandered off into three pages on "study groups" of the "State Department and the "Council on Foreign Relations" who sought to plan for U.S. postwar economic domination of the "Grand Area." He makes no contact with Bretton Woods, no contact with the founding and the initial policies of the World Bank and the IMF, no contact with those--like, say, Harry Dexter White--who actually made the policies that governed the postwar reconstruction of the global economy.
Why not devote your--very limited--space to discussing the views of those who actually had influence, and did make policy?
Chomsky then turned to political events in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. He began by making it sound as though first the U.S. armies conquered North Africa and Italy, and only then did Roosevelt decided to put fascists like Darlan and Badoglio back into power. The real history is more complicated: overextended U.S. forces fearful of German counterstrikes (Kasserine Pass, Anzio) and a willingness to make deals with the little devils in order to get into a better position to fight the biggest devil. I think that Roosevelt's decision to back Darlan and Badoglio was a bad mistake, but I also know that it didn't happen the way that Chomsky implies that it did.
I know that Chomsky's relation of the history of the Anglo-American reconquest of the Mediterranean from Hitler is not "as it really happened." But many of Chomsky's readers will not. And it makes me wonder: whenever we reach an issue that I do not know deeply, what things that I would like to know is Chomsky going to try to keep me from noticing?
Chomsky then moves on to how "CIA subversion" dispersed and suppressed the "anti-fascist resistance" in Italy, Greece, and Korea. No mention is made of the likely character of the regimes that would have come to power in the absence of U.S. support for the right. Now this is a big mistake, for it is hard to look at postwar Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and North Korea and avoid the conclusions that (a) people there lived worse and suffered more than the people of Italy, Greece, and South Korea; and (b) governments like those in the first three would have held power in the second three were it not for U.S. intervention. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. support for the right in Italy, Greece, and South Korea "expanded the cage" relative to what would have happened otherwise.
Now it is possible to avoid this conclusion. It is possible to make the case that U.S. intervention in Italy, Greece, and South Korea was destructive. But such a case needs to be backed by a powerful argument that "antifascist" Italy, Greece, or South Korean governments would have been very different from the actual governments of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, or North Korea; or by a powerful argument that if U.S. policy had been less confrontational then Stalin would have been content with an independent but "Finlandized" eastern Europe.
Chomsky makes no such argument.
Now let me make it clear what I am objecting to. I am not objecting--at least not objecting here and now--to claims that U.S. foreign policy in the late 1940s was disastrous because:
- that there was a real possibility for a continuation of wartime good feeling had the U.S. been less confrontational
- that Stalin might well, if properly placated, have been willing to accept Finland-like regimes all along his borders
- that ramping up the U.S. to fight the Cold War did immense damage to American democratic institutions and liberties.
Indeed, I agree with one and a half of those three points. (Indeed, Dean Acheson himself agreed with at least one of them.) Smart and thoughtful people whom I respect believe in all three of them. People are allowed to follow different paths and reach different analytical conclusions than I do without provoking in me a profound allergic reaction.
What I object to is that Chomsky tears up the trail markers that might lead to conclusions different from his. He makes it next to impossible for people unversed in the issues to understand what the live and much-debated points of contention might be.
What I object to is the lack of background, to the lack of context. In telling the history of the Cold War as it really happened--even in ten pages--there has to be a place for Stalin, an inquiry into the character of the regimes that Stalin sponsored, and an assessment of Stalinist plans and expectations. But Chomsky ruthlessly suppresses half the story of the Cold War--the story of the other side of the Iron Curtain.
In my view, the first duty that any participant in any speech situation has: to tell it like he or she thinks that it is, not to try to suppress big chunks of the story because they are inconvenient in the context of your current political goals. You can't show only half (or less than half) the picture. That's an act of intellectual authoritarianism, an attempt to lower the level of the discourse, an attempt to keep people from knowing things that are not "good" for them--an intellectual foul.
In a world in which there are lots of people who try to tell it as it really happened, why should I spend any time reading someone who tries to tell it as it didn't happen?
And then there were the passages that I could not take to be anything other than casual lies:
That (doomed) postwar partisans trying to fight guerrilla wars against Soviet rule in Ukraine, Belorus, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere were "armies that had been established by Hitler." (Instead they were by and large people--a good chunk of them fascists and anti-semites-- who wanted to be ruled by neither Hitler nor Stalin. Nationalist partisans fought the Nazis when they occupied eastern Europe, and fought the Soviets when they moved in.)
That the "liberal extreme" of postwar American policymaking was the George Kennan who sneers at "vague... and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization." (No one who has read any of the documents can believe that. The liberal extreme--in fact, the vital center for much of the immediate post-WWII period--was the position that Kennan was arguing against in the passage Chomsky quotes: the position held by those who did care deeply about human, rights, economic development, and democratization., and who made them the focus of a substantial chunk of U.S. postwar policy.)
That "free trade is fine for economics departments and newpaper editorials, but nobody in the corporate world or the government takes the doctrines seriously." (How does he know better than I do what I--or Lloyd Bentsen, Bob Rubin, Larry Summers, or Laura D'Andrea Tyson--takes seriously?)
So by page 17 I had had more than enough.