Noam Chomsky on Obama’s Foreign Policy, His Own History of Activism, and the Importance of Speaking Out
AMY GOODMAN: Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with leaders of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia last week to increase support for a new round of United Nations-imposed sanctions on Iran over its uranium enrichment program. While the Obama administration intensifies its efforts to win Chinese and Russian backing for tougher sanctions, France and Finland have indicated the European Union could consider unilateral measures against Iran if a UN resolution fails to materialize.
Well, as the United States, the EU and Israel step up the pressure on Iran, we spend the hour with the world-renowned linguist and dissident, Noam Chomsky, whose latest speech begins with a critical look at US policy towards Iran. An internationally celebrated professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Chomsky is the author of over a hundred books on linguistics, mass media, American imperialism, and US foreign policy. The New York Times called him perhaps “the most important intellectual alive today,” but his opinions are rarely heard in the mainstream media.
Well, I had a wide-ranging conversation with Professor Chomsky at Harvard Memorial Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts just a week ago. He talked about antiwar activism, the lessons of Vietnam, President Obama’s foreign and national security policies, and also the risks that Noam Chomsky himself took as an activist and someone who has consistently spoken truth to power.
We begin with an excerpt of Chomsky’s speech, a critique of the Obama administration’s push for tighter sanctions against Iran.
NOAM CHOMSKY: My favorite newspaper, the London Financial Times, a couple of days ago identified Obama’s major foreign policy problem today as Iran. The occasion for the article was Hillary Clinton’s failure to convince Brazil to go along with the United States on calling for harsher sanctions and President Lula’s insistence that there should be engagement with Iran, commercial relations, and so on, and that it has a right to enrich uranium for producing nuclear energy, as do all signers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Well, it was reported here, too, of course, and Lula’s position was considered sort of paradoxical. Why is he not going along with the international community, with the world? It’s an interesting usage, which is a very striking reflection of the depth of the culture of imperialism. Who is the international community? Well, it turns out, if you look, that the international community is Washington and whoever happens to agree with it at the moment. The rest are not part of the world. They’re kind of in opposition.
Well, in this case, Lula’s position happens to be that of most of the world. You can think it’s right or wrong or whatever, but just as a matter of fact, for example, it’s the position of the former non-aligned countries, the majority of countries of the world and the large majority of their populations. They have repeatedly and vigorously supported Iran’s right to enriched uranium for peaceful purposes, reiterating that it’s a signer of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which does grant that right. So they’re not part of the world.
Another group that’s not part of the world is the population of the United States. The last polls that I’ve seen, a couple of years ago, in those polls a considerable majority of Americans agreed that Iran has a right to develop nuclear energy, but of course not nuclear weapons. And in fact, as the poll demonstrated, the opinions of Americans on this issue were almost identical with opinions of Iranians on a whole range of issues. And, in fact, when the poll was presented in Washington at a press conference, the presenter pointed out that if people were able to make policy, could be that these tensions and conflicts would be resolved.
Well, that was a few years ago. Since then, there’s been a huge mass of propaganda about the threat of Iran and so on. And it’s very likely, I would guess, that if the poll were taken today, those figures for the American population would be different. But that was 2007, three years ago. So, at that point, Americans were not part of the world. Most of the majority of people of the world were not part of the world. And Lula, by repeating their view, is also not part of the world. Could be added that he’s almost surely the most popular political figure in the world, but that doesn’t mean anything, either.
So, what about the conflict with Iran and the threat of Iran? Nobody in their right mind wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons, or anyone, for that matter. So, on that, there’s complete agreement. And in fact, there are significant problems about proliferation of nuclear weapons. It’s not a joke. And Obama’s vision forcibly includes, stresses the need to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to reduce or maybe remove nuclear weapons. Well, that’s the vision. What’s the practice?
Well, the practice became clear a couple of months ago. Once again, the Security Council passed a resolution, 1887—I think it was October—calling on—with criticism of Iran for not living up to commitments that were demanded by the Security Council and also calling on all states to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty and to solve all their conflicts within the framework of the Non-Proliferation Treaty without any threats of force. Well, that particular part of the resolution was not exactly headlined here, for a simple reason: it was directed at two countries, the two countries that are regularly threatening the use of force, the United States and Israel. The threat of force is in violation of the UN Charter, if anybody cares about that stale old stuff, even older than the ’60s. But that’s never mentioned. But every—just across the spectrum here, almost everyone insists that—the usual phrase is “we must keep all options open.” That’s a threat of force.
And the threat of force is not just idle. So, for example, Israel is sending its nuclear submarines into the Gulf, firing distance—they’re undetectable, basically—into areas where they could fire nuclear missiles—of course, Israel has plenty of nuclear weapons—fire them at Iran. The US and others are—its allies are carrying out field operations, you know, the exercises, plainly aimed at Iran. And there’s a little hitch, because Turkey is refusing to go along, but that’s what they’ve been trying to do. So there are regular threats, verbal and in policy. Israel actually is sending the nuclear submarines and other warships through the Suez Canal, with the tacit agreement of Egypt, the Egyptian dictatorship, another US client in the region. Well, those are all threats—constant, verbal, actual.
And the threats do have the effect of inducing Iran to develop a deterrent. Whether they’re doing it or not, I don’t know. Maybe they are. But if they are, the reason, as I think almost all serious analysts would agree, is not because they intend to use nuclear weapons and missiles with nuclear weapons. If they even loaded a missile was nuclear weapons, assuming they had them, the country would be vaporized in five minutes. And nobody believes that the ruling clerics, whatever one thinks about them, have a kind of a death wish and want to see the entire country and society and everything they own destroyed. In fact, US intelligence figures pretty high, who have talked about it, estimate the possibility of Iran ever actually using a nuclear weapon is maybe one percent, you know, so low that you can’t estimate it. But it’s possible that they develop them as a deterrent.
One of Israel’s leading military historians, Martin van Creveld, a couple of years ago, after the invasion of Iraq, wrote in the international press that of course he doesn’t want to see Iran have nuclear weapons, he said, but if they’re not developing them, they’re crazy. The US had just invaded Iraq, knowing that it was totally defenseless. It was part of the reason why they felt free to invade. Everybody can understand that. The Iranian leaders could certainly understand it. So, therefore, to quote van Creveld again, “if they’re not developing a nuclear deterrent, they’re crazy.”
Well, whether they are or not is another question. But there’s no doubt that the hostile and aggressive stance taken by the United States and its Israeli client are a factor in whatever planning that’s going on in top Iranian circles as to whether to develop a nuclear deterrent or not.
AMY GOODMAN: MIT Professor Noam Chomsky, speaking recently at Harvard University. When we come back from our break, I interview him about President Obama’s foreign policy. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to Professor Noam Chomsky. I interviewed him at the Harvard Memorial Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I began by asking him for his assessment of President Obama’s foreign policy.
NOAM CHOMSKY: When Obama came into office, or when he was elected, one high Bush official—I think it was Condoleezza Rice—predicted that Obama’s foreign policy would be a continuation of Bush’s second term. The first and second term of Bush were quite different. The first term was aggressive, arrogant, kicking the world in the face, even allies, and it had such a negative effect—this is in action as well as manner—that US prestige in the world sank to the lowest point it’s ever been. That was really harmful to the interests of those who actually set foreign policy—business world and corporate interests and, you know, state planners and so on. So there was a lot of criticism of Bush right from the mainstream in the first term. Well, you know, the second term was somewhat different. For one thing, some of the most extreme figures were kicked out. Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, a couple of others, were sent off to pasture. They couldn’t get rid of Cheney, because he was the administration, so can’t dismantle it. But a lot of the others went, and policy shifted more towards the norm, to the more-or-less centrist norm. And a little talk about negotiations, I mean, less aggression, and so on. And a more polite attitude toward allies. So that was more acceptable, and fundamentally it didn’t change, but it was more acceptable. And this prediction was that that’s what Obama would do. And I think that’s pretty much what happened.
In fact, there’s a pretty interesting characterization of this, which sort of captures it, I think, pretty well. It’s anachronistic, but I think it applies. Back in 1962, at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the world really was coming, you know, dangerously close to a nuclear war, which would have been sort of the end—most dangerous moment in history, Arthur Schlesinger called it, Kennedy’s adviser—right at the peak of the missile crisis, US planners were considering measures which they knew might destroy Europe, and in fact, in particular, Britain. So they were kind of playing out these scenarios which led to the destruction of Britain, but they—and taking them very seriously, in fact taking the steps towards it. But they didn’t let Britain know. Britain is supposed to have a special relationship with the United States, and the British were pretty upset. They couldn’t find out what was going on. The prime minister, Macmillan, all he could find out was what British intelligence was picking up. So here they’re—the best and the brightest are making plans that might well lead to the destruction of Britain, but they’re not telling them.
At that point, a senior adviser—I think it was probably Dean Acheson—of the Kennedy administration entered the discussion, and he defined the special relationship. He said the special relationship with Britain means that Britain is our lieutenant; the fashionable word is “partner.” And the British, of course, like to hear the fashionable word. Well, that’s pretty much the difference between Bush and Obama. Bush simply told them, “You’re our lieutenant. You do what we say, or you’re irrelevant.” In fact, that’s the word that I think Colin Powell used at the UN. “Do what we say, or you’re irrelevant. You’re just our lieutenant, and forget about it.” They don’t like to hear that. What they like to hear is “You’re our partner.” You know, “We love you.” And then, back in secret, we treat you as our lieutenant, but that’s OK. And I suspect that that’s the main difference.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the antiwar movement in the United States? You’ve long been a participant in it, very active in Vietnam right up until today. But where do you see it in relation to the person that many of them devoted tremendous efforts to elect?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, you know, there—actually, my view, which is not the standard one, is that the antiwar movement is far stronger now than it was in the ’60s. In the 1960s, there was a point, 1968, ’69, when there was a very strong antiwar movement against the war in Vietnam. But it’s worth remembering that the war in Vietnam started—an outright war started in 1962. By then, maybe 70,000 or 80,000 people had already been killed under the US client regime. But in 1962, Kennedy really opened an outright war, you know, sent the American Air Force to start bombing South Vietnam—under South Vietnamese markings, but everybody knew, it was even reported—authorized napalm, authorized chemical warfare to destroy crops and ground cover, started open—started the programs which drove ultimately millions of people from the countryside into what amounted to concentration camps, to try to—the words were “to protect them from the guerrillas,” who the government knew perfectly well they were supporting. Same kind of things you read now in Afghanistan, if you bother to read the fine print about the conquest of Marjah. But we had to drive them into concentration camps to protect them from the people, the guerrillas, they were supporting. That’s a war. You know, it’s a serious war.
Protest was zero, literally. I mean, it was years before you could get any sign of protest. I mean, those of you who are old enough may remember that in Boston, liberal city, in October 1965—that’s three years after that, hundreds of thousands of American troops rampaging the country, you know, war spread to North Vietnam and so on—we tried to have our first public demonstration against the war on the Boston Common, usual demonstration place. This is October 1965. I was supposed to be one of the speakers. I couldn’t say a word. It was broken up, you know, violently. A lot of students marched over trying to break it up, hundreds of state police there. The next day, the Boston Globe, most liberal paper in the country, you know, devoted its whole front page to denouncing the demonstrators, not the ones who were breaking it up. You know, a picture of a wounded soldier in the middle, that sort of thing. Well, that was October 1965, you know, hundreds of thousands of troops there, war escalating beyond. Well, finally, after years, in 1968, you got a substantial antiwar movement, ’67, ’68. By then, South Vietnam was gone. It was virtually destroyed. And the same was true of much of the rest of Indochina. Well, the war did go on for a long time, with horrible effects, and we were unwilling to face the fact, even to report the fact. But nevertheless, the antiwar movement did have an effect very late.
Well, compare Iraq. There were huge protests before the war was officially launched. I mean, we now know that Blair and Bush were simply lying when they said that they were trying to work for a diplomatic settlement. They had already started the war. OK, that came out in the famous Downing Street memos in England, but it hadn’t been officially announced, so—but there were huge demonstrations. And I think they had an effect. The US war in Iraq was horrible enough, probably killed about a million people, drove a couple of million out of the country, devastated the country, destroyed it, horrible cultural destruction and so on. It was pretty awful. Could have been a lot worse. It’s not what the US did in South Vietnam. Nothing like it. You know, no saturation bombing with B-52s, chemical warfare and so on. And I think it was retarded by the antiwar movement. The population here had just become more civilized. That’s one of those grim effects of the 1960s.
AMY GOODMAN: And Afghanistan?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Pardon?
AMY GOODMAN: And Afghanistan?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Afghanistan is an interesting case. I mean, Afghanistan was sold here as a war to retaliate—a just—it’s always called a “just” war—to prevent terror, you know, retaliate against a terrorist attack. I mean, it’s such a standard view that to take it apart, you know, requires more time than I’d be allowed. But the fact of the matter is that that was not the goal of the war.
I mean, if the goal of the war was to isolate al-Qaeda, eliminate terror, there were straightforward ways to proceed. I mean, if you go back to that time, the jihadi movement itself was highly critical of the 9/11 attack. There were fatwas coming out from the most radical clerics, and, you know, Al Azhar University, the main theological center, denouncing al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and the terrorist attacks—it’s not Islamic, we wouldn’t do that, and so on. Well, if you wanted to end terror, the obvious thing to do at that point is to isolate al-Qaeda, to try to gain support, even from the jihadi movement, and of course from the population they’re trying to mobilize. You know, terrorists regard themselves as a vanguard. They’re trying to mobilize others to their cause. I mean, every specialist on terrorism knows that. So you could have done it then, and you could have proceeded to identify the perpetrators, which, incidentally, they couldn’t do because they didn’t know who they were, and that was conceded later. But they could have tried to identify them, bring them to justice, you know, to trials—with fair trials and not torture, but fair trials, which would have probably sharply reduced, if maybe not—maybe even have ended Islamic terrorism.
Well, they did the opposite. What they tried to do is to mobilize the population and mobilize the jihadi movement to support al-Qaeda. That’s exactly the effect of first invading Afghanistan and later invading Iraq. And it’s also the effect of Guantánamo and Bagram and the other torture centers. I mean, everyone who’s involved in them, you know, seriously, knows, yeah, they created terrorists.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Obama should have these Guantánamo prisoners tried in New York?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, it depends whether we want to be—regard ourselves as a civilized country or as a rogue state. If you want to be a rogue state, you know, do whatever you like. You know, kill them, torture them, whatever. If you want to be part of the civilized world, and also if you want to reduce the appeal of the extreme jihadi movement, then try them in civilian courts.
In fact, the very fact that they’re in Guantánamo is outlandish. First of all, what’s Guantánamo? I mean, Guantánamo was taken from Cuba a century ago at gunpoint. They said, “Give us Guantánamo, or else.” Cuba was under military occupation. It’s called a treaty, but, you know—OK. And the treaty of Guantánamo, if you want to call it that, allowed Guantánamo to be used as a calling station for the Navy. Well, you know, it’s not what it’s being used for. In fact, as you know perfectly well, it was used for Haitian refugees. When Haitians were fleeing from the dictatorships that the US was supporting, the US refused to permit them political asylum. It claimed that they were just economic refugees. The Coast Guard tried to stop them, and if any got through, they sent them to Guantánamo. OK, now you know what they’re being used for.
Actually, what they are being used for is to create terrorists. It’s not my opinion; that’s the opinion of the main US interrogators, people like Matthew Alexander, who actually has an article on it in the same issue of National Interest that I mentioned. He said, yeah, it’s a great way to create terrorists. It inspires terrorism all over, and it turns many of these people there into terrorists, if they were picked up for whatever reason it was.
So, yes, if you want to—if your goal is to reduce the threat of, say, Islamic terrorism and to become part of the civilized world, you have civilian trials, just as those who are in Guantánamo—first of all, most of those who are in Guantánamo, I mean, it’s kind of outrageous anyway. They’re like some fifteen-year-old kid who was found holding a rifle when the US was invading his country. That’s a terrorist. OK, but that’s a large part of maybe almost all of what’s in Guantánamo. But if you want to—but what should have been done with them, if the goal was to be civilized and to reduce terrorism, is to put them in prison in the United States. There’s no security problem. You know, they’re not going to get out of a maximum-security prison, and they don’t have some magic way of spreading poison around the world or anything. But, of course, the government didn’t want to do that, because they had no evidence.
And if they were—they were sent to Guantánamo so that they could, it was hoped, be free from US jurisdiction, so you could play that—you could pretend that they weren’t under your US jurisdiction, so the laws didn’t apply. Well, the Supreme Court finally, after a long time, kind of whittled away at that and said, yes, they have the right of habeas corpus. The Bush administration accepted that; Obama doesn’t. Obama—the Obama administration is trying to overturn a decision by a right-wing Bush judicial appointee that the Supreme Court decision holds for Bagram, the torture center in Afghanistan. And the Obama administration is trying to override that, so that that means that the Supreme Court decision is just a joke. If you want to torture somebody, don’t send them to Guantánamo, because the Supreme Court said you can’t torture them there; let’s send them to Bagram. So if you pick somebody up in Yemen or, you know, wherever you pick him up, and you want them not to be subject to international law, also US law, OK, send him to Bagram. That’s the Obama administration position.
I mean, it’s for reasons like these that even the most hawkish anti-terrorism specialist, people like Michael Scheuer, who was in charge for the CIA of following Obama for years, he says that al-Qaeda’s—Osama bin Laden’s best ally is the United States. You know, we’re doing exactly what he wants. What he wants is he’s trying to sell a line to the Muslim world, you know, these guys are on a crusade, they’re trying to kill us, we’ve got to defend ourselves. And the US is acting, you know, as if they’re under command. Yeah, we do everything he wants.
AMY GOODMAN: MIT Professor Noam Chomsky in a public conversation at Harvard University. If you want a copy of today’s program, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. We’ll come back to our conversation after break. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to the conclusion of our public conversation with Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. We were speaking at Harvard Memorial Church in Cambridge, Massachusetts. We talked about the risks he took as an antiwar activist. But first, I asked him about what he thought of the Obama administration, what it should be doing with Israel and Palestine.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Israel-Palestine happens to be a particularly easy case. I mean, there has been an overwhelming international consensus for thirty-five years on how to settle the problem—short term, at least—namely, a two-state settlement on the international border, which everyone agrees on, with, the phrase was, “minor and mutual modifications.” That was US official policy until the US departed from the world in the early ’70s, as it did. That’s just overwhelming. I mean, there was a Security Council resolution in 1976 calling for a two-state settlement. The US vetoed it. And it just goes on from there. I won’t run through it, but if you get ’til today, there’s just overwhelming agreement. I mean, it includes all the Arab states for a long time. It includes Iran, the Organization of Islamic States. It includes Hamas. You know, in fact, everybody, except the United States and Israel.
So, what has Obama had to say about this? Well, it’s interesting. He has this great vision, but if you look—if you go below the vision and take a look at the words, it’s a little different. So his only word so far—there are two, really. One is to politely ask Israel to stop expanding settlements. Well, first of all, that’s meaningless. The issue is the existence, not the expansion of the settlements. But furthermore, those words were also meaningless. He was quoting Bush. In fact, he was quoting the—what’s called the Road Map, the official—you know, supposedly the agreed-upon scenario for moving forward. He was quoting it. OK, that’s meaningless, but that’s part of his great vision.
The other part, which is more interesting, was a few days after he took office, and he gave his one, and so far only, serious talk about Israel-Palestine. That’s when he was introducing George Mitchell as his negotiator, which is a good choice, if he’s given any leeway. And Obama explained what he was going to do. He said—this was his, you know, being very forthcoming to the Arab world. He said, well, there’s a constructive proposal on the table, the Arab peace proposal—you know, pat people on the head for producing it. And then he went on to say, “Well, it’s time for the Arabs to live up to their peace proposal. They should start normalizing relations with Israel.” Well, you know, Obama is literate, intelligent. I suppose he chooses his words carefully. He knows perfectly well that that was not the Arab peace proposal. The Arab peace proposal re-endorsed the longstanding international consensus and said, in the context of a two-state settlement, the Arab states will proceed even beyond to normalize relations with Israel. Well, Obama picked out the corollary, but omitted the substance, which is a way of saying we’re going to maintain our rejectionist stance. Couldn’t have been clearer. And that’s what’s happened.
With regard to his repetition of the call to stop expansion of settlements, he did go a little bit farther—not he, but his spokespersons in press conferences. They were asked, is the administration going to do anything about it if Israel rejects it? And they said, “No, it’s purely symbolic.” In fact, explicitly said that the administration is not going to do what George Bush the 1st did. George Bush the 1st had some light taps on the wrist if Israel continued to reject what the US was asking for. Clinton pretty much withdrew that, and Obama withdrew it totally. He said, “No, this is just symbolic.” Well, that’s telling Benjamin Netanyahu, “Go ahead and do what you like. We’ll say we don’t like it, but there will be a wink saying, yeah, go ahead. Meanwhile, we participate in it. You know, we send you the arms. We give you the diplomatic support and a direct participation.” That’s the vision. You know? It could hardly be clearer.
Now, what can we do about it? Well, you know, we can get the United States to join the world. In this case it’s literally the whole world. Just accept—join the world and accept the international consensus and stop the direct participation in violating it—I mean, what Israel is doing. And I should have said what the US and Israel are doing. Everything Israel does is a joint operation. They can’t go beyond what the US permits and participates in. So what the US and Israel are doing in Gaza and in the West Bank is destroying the hope of the—for realization of the international consensus.
And there’s no alternative around, I should say, with regard to a lot of the anti-—to pro-Palestinian—you know, supporters of the Palestinians. In fact, some of the leading Palestinian activists themselves are saying, well, we ought to give up on the two-state solution and just let Israel take over all the territories, maybe annex them, and then there will be a civil rights struggle and like an anti-apartheid struggle, and that can work like South Africa. That’s just blindness. That’s not going to happen. The US and Israel are not going to permit that to happen. They’re going to continue with exactly what they’re doing: strangling Gaza, separating it from the West Bank, in violation of international agreements, and in the West Bank take over whatever they want.
AMY GOODMAN: As you look out on folks here, many young people, many students, I was wondering if you could reflect on your career at the moments when you had to make a decision about whether to take a risk that might risk your position or your standing in some way, when you felt—what you say to people when it comes to issues of courage.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, you know I don’t like to talk about myself. It’s not important. But since you ask, a couple of times. The first time—I mean, I had been a political activist all my life, you know, since childhood. I mean, you talked about my newsstand and so on. But with regard to, say, really doing something, say, becoming involved with the nonexistent antiwar movement, the first time was around 1962. You could see what was happening in 1962. It wasn’t really concealed. And I decided to try to get involved in organizing antiwar activism. Now, that wasn’t risky, but it meant giving up a lot. You cannot put—I don’t have to tell you—you can’t put one toe in this. If you get into it, it’s a full-time occupation.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you a tenured professor at the time? You—1956, you went to MIT. You were teaching.
NOAM CHOMSKY: Nineteen fifty-five. I forget what year it was. But it wasn’t a consideration. In fact, it may be odd for you to think about, but MIT in the 1960s had two interesting characteristics. One was it was almost entirely funded by the Pentagon. In fact, I was in a lab which was 100 percent funded by the three armed services. Two, it was the main center of antiwar resistance. I’m not talking about dissent or, you know, protest. I’m talking about resistance, you know, organizing resistance activities, illegal activities. And the Pentagon didn’t care much, because, contrary to what a lot of people believe, one of the main functions of the Pentagon is just to provide a cover for the way the economy functions. The way the economy functions, it’s—you know, people like to claim it’s a free market economy, but, you know, most of it comes out of the state sector—I mean, computers, internet, airplanes, you know. The idea is the public is supposed to pay the costs and take the risks, and if anything works out, you hand it over to private enterprise. That’s called the free market. And the way it—when the economy was mainly electronics-based, the Pentagon was the cover. So, you know, you got to do this because the Russians are coming. But they actually didn’t really care what you were doing. I mean, it’s an interesting story. Anyhow, so, yeah, maybe I was tenured, maybe not, but it didn’t matter.
I got involved in 1962, and what that meant—so, like, if I’d give a talk in a church, which I sometimes did, it would mean four people—you know, the minister, the organizer, a drunk who walked in off the street and a guy who wanted to kill me. That was a talk in a church. And that went on for a couple of years. The only really risky step—
AMY GOODMAN: Are you suggesting the antiwar movement during Vietnam was mainly alcoholic?
NOAM CHOMSKY: Right. Don’t tell David Brooks.
In 1966—in 1965, I tried to organize—a friend of—an artist friend of mine, since died, tried to organize a national tax resistance. Well, we got somewhere, so that’s taking, you know, sort of a mild risk. But in 1966, there were the stirrings of an effort to organize more serious resistance.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you not pay your taxes?
NOAM CHOMSKY: I didn’t pay my taxes for years. But what—you know, it’s—I mean, there is a—how the IRS reacted is kind of interesting. In my case, of course they can get the money, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: And did they just take it out of your salary?
NOAM CHOMSKY: They just took it. I got a nasty letter from them from some computer. But in some cases, they randomly, as far as I could tell, you know, they took people’s houses. People went to jail, and so on. So there’s a kind of a risk associated with it. But more serious was support of direct resistance, support for resisters, deserters, and so on and so forth. That began around 1966. It became public in 1967. And that did carry potential penalties. I mean, actually my wife—we had three kids. She went back to college after seventeen years, because we expected I’d probably end up in jail. And I came pretty close. I mean, I was—a trial was announced in ’68, which I was the main defendant. I was saved, as were others, by the Tet Offensive. The Tet Offensive came along in January 1968, and it convinced the business world in the United States that the US shouldn’t—that this was just becoming too costly.
AMY GOODMAN: What were you charged with?
NOAM CHOMSKY: The charges were conspiracy to, you know, resist the draft or overthrow the government or something or other. The conspiracy trials are kind of an interesting story. I could talk about them, but it was real, you know. If it hadn’t been for the Tet Offensive, I probably would have spent a couple years in jail. But—
AMY GOODMAN: Did you go through the trial?
NOAM CHOMSKY: The trials were called off right after the Tet Offensive. There was one that was underway, but—you know, the Spock trial, where they picked all the wrong people, but—and that was overturned on appeal, but mainly because of the Tet Offensive. I mean, the business world just said, “Look out.” In fact, what they did—what happened in 1968 is that a group of so-called wise men—you know, big shots from Wall Street and so on—went down to Washington and basically gave the President marching orders. It was a very real power play. Johnson was told, “Stop the bombing of North Vietnam. Don’t run for office again. And begin negotiations and start to withdraw.” And he followed orders, to the letter. Then Nixon came along and did it a different way. But the visible escalation of the war declined. Visible, I say, because some of the worst atrocities were in 1969, and then it went off to Cambodia and Laos, where it was even worse. But that was kind of invisible. It still is. But it kind of tempered at that point, and one of the things that was done was to call off the trials, because there was an effort on the part of the government to sort of make peace, you know, make peace with the students. And that was an interesting story, too. But that ended the trials.
But yeah, that was—yeah, it was risky. Civil disobedience is—it’s no fun. You know, I mean, you can’t really say it’s risky. So, maybe you get maced or beaten or something like that, spend a couple days in jail, but—not the pleasantest experience, but it’s not the kind of risk that dissidents take in other countries. But yeah—but that’s the kind of decisions you have to make. You just can’t become involved part-time in these things. It’s either serious and you’re seriously involved, or, you know, you go to a demonstration and go home and forget about it and go back to work, and nothing happens. I mean, things only happen by really dedicated, diligent work. I mean, we’re not allowed to say nice things about the Communist Party, right? That’s like a rule. But one of the reasons why the New Deal legislation worked, you know, which was significant—you know, just changed the country—was because there were people who were there every day. Whether it was a civil rights issue, a labor rights issue, organizing, anything else, they were there, ready to turn the mimeograph machines—no internet—organize demonstrations. They had a memory. You know, the movement had a memory, which it doesn’t have now. Now everyone starts over from fresh. But it had a kind of a tradition, a memory, that people were always there. And if you look back, it was very heavily Communist Party activists. Well, you know, that was destroyed. And it’s one of the—the lack of such a sector of dedicated, committed people who understand that you’re not going to win tomorrow, you know, you’re going to have a lot of defeats, and there’ll be a lot of trouble, you know, and a lot of things will happen that aren’t nice, but if you keep at it, you can get somewhere. That’s why we had a civil rights movement and a labor movement and so on.
The lesson that we ought to learn, there was a split in American public opinion, very sharp split, very visible, in the early ’70s, between elite opinion—you know, newspapers, Harvard faculty and so on—on the one hand, and the general population, on the other. Not the antiwar movement, the general population. In elite opinion, articulate opinion—and that you can read, so it’s easy to document—the most extreme condemnation of the war was that it was a mistake which proved to be too costly. OK, that’s about as far as you can go. Among the public, about 70 percent, in polls, said it’s not a mistake, it’s fundamentally wrong and immoral. OK? It’s a very sharp and significant split. And I think the lesson we ought to learn is, to bring it to today, that, say, when Obama is praised for opposing the war in Iraq because he thought it was a mistake, we should recognize that to be on a par with Nazi generals after Stalingrad who thought that the two-front war was a mistake. The issue isn’t was it a mistake; it’s whether it’s fundamentally wrong and immoral. Well, that’s the lesson that has to be drawn. That’s what the public probably already understands, but we have to do something with them and organize with them.
AMY GOODMAN: I’ll just say one thing. There’s this quote that I’ve been trying to find out who said it. “I think back on my life over all the times I thought I went too far, and I realize now I didn’t go far enough.” I don’t think Noam Chomsky said that.
AMY GOODMAN: World-renowned linguist and dissident, Noam Chomsky, speaking at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts at an event sponsored by the Harvard Extension International Relations Club. Oh, about 800 people packed Memorial Church.