Chomsky v. Buckley

Noam Chomsky v. William F. Buckley, Jr.
By Jeffrey Rudolph (November 2013)

Noam Chomsky, whose 85th birthday is on December 7, 2013, is a leading left-wing public intellectual with a long and impressive publishing record in a range of fields that include linguistics, politics, and philosophy. In fact, according to MIT News, Chomsky’s “3,874 citations in the Arts and Humanities Citation Index between 1980 and 1992 make him the most cited living person in that period and the eighth most cited source overall — just behind famed psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and just ahead of philosopher Georg Hegel.”

William F. Buckley, Jr., who died at the age of 83 in 2008, was a leading right-wing public intellectual who was instrumental in the rise of the modern conservative movement. Buckley founded the influential conservative magazine National Review in 1955, hosted the television show Firing Line from 1966 to 1999, and wrote a newspaper column, On the Right, that appeared in over 300 newspapers (a mainstream media presence denied to Chomsky).

In 2008, George H. Nash, the respected historian of American conservatism, stated that Buckley was “arguably the most important public intellectual in the United States in the past half century.” In 1979, The New York Times Review of Books wrote that “Judged in terms of the power, range, novelty and influence of his thought, Noam Chomsky is arguably the most important intellectual alive today.”

Given that, in my reframing, there can only be one “most important public intellectual in recent history,” let’s judge which of the two thinkers deserves the honorific by comparing their views on three critical issues: 1. The American War in Vietnam; 2. The American civil rights movement; and 3. Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

(A condensed version of this article is available at: )

1.1 The American War in Vietnam: Chomsky

-“There may have been a time when American policy in Vietnam was a debatable matter. This time is long past. It is no more debatable than the Italian war in Abyssinia or the Russian suppression of Hungarian freedom. The war is simply an obscenity, a depraved act by weak and miserable men, including all of us, who have allowed it to go on and on with endless fury and destruction — all of us who would have remained silent had stability and order been secured….The things we have seen and read during these horrible years [related to American war crimes in Vietnam] surpass belief.” (Noam Chomsky, American Power and the New Mandarins, Pantheon Books, New York: 1969, 9-10. Hereinafter, “Chomsky 1969.”)

-A healthy political system would recognize “that what we have done in Vietnam is wrong, a criminal act, that an American ‘victory’ would have been a tragedy. Nothing could be more remote from the American political consciousness.” (Chomsky 1969, 11) 

-“After the first International Days of Protest in October, 1965, Senator Mansfield criticized the ‘sense of utter irresponsibility’ shown by the [anti-Vietnam War] demonstrators. He had nothing to say then, nor has he since, about the ‘sense of utter irresponsibility’ shown by Senator Mansfield and others who stand by quietly and vote appropriations as the cities and villages of North Vietnam are demolished, as millions of refugees in the South are driven from their homes by American bombardment. He has nothing to say about the moral standards or the respect for international law of those who have permitted this tragedy. I speak of Senator Mansfield precisely because he is not a breast-beating superpatriot who wants America to rule the world, but is rather an American intellectual in the best sense, a scholarly and reasonable man — the kind of man who is the terror of our age. Perhaps this is merely a personal reaction, but when I look at what is happening to our country, what I find most terrifying is not Curtis LeMay, with his cheerful suggestion that we bomb everybody back into the stone age, but rather the calm disquisitions of the political scientists on just how much force will be necessary to achieve our ends, or just what form of government will be acceptable to us in Vietnam. What I find terrifying is the detachment and equanimity with which we view and discuss an unbearable tragedy. We all know that if Russia or China were guilty of what we have done in Vietnam, we would be exploding with moral indignation at these monstrous crimes.” (The New York Review of Books, On Resistance, December 7, 1967)

-“We can ask whose ‘interest’ is served…in the attempt to subjugate a small country half way around the world. We can point to the absurdity of the idea that we are ‘containing China’ by destroying popular and independent forces on its borders. We can ask why those who admit that ‘a Vietnamese communist regime would probably be…anti-Chinese’ (Ithiel Pool, Asian Survey, August, 1967) nevertheless sign statements which pretend that in Vietnam we are facing the expansionist aggressors from Peking. We can ask what factors in American ideology make it so easy for intelligent and well-informed men to say that we ‘insist upon nothing for South Vietnam except that it be free to chart its own future’ (Citizens Committee for Peace with Freedom, New York Times, Oct. 26), although they know quite well that the regime we imposed excluded all those who took part in the struggle against French colonialism, ‘and properly so’ (Secretary Rusk, 1963); that we have since been attempting to suppress a ‘civil insurrection’ (General Stillwell) led by the only ‘truly mass-based political party in South Vietnam’ (Douglas Pike); that we supervised the destruction of the Buddhist opposition; that we offered the peasants a ‘free choice’ between the Saigon Government and the NLF [National Liberation Front for South Vietnam] by herding them into strategic hamlets from which NLF cadres and sympathizers were eliminated by the police (Roger Hilsman); and so on. The story is familiar. More important, we can ask the really fundamental question. Suppose that it were in the American ‘national interest’ to pound into rubble a small nation that refuses to submit to our will. Would it then be legitimate and proper for us to act ‘in this national interest’?” (The New York Review of Books, On Resistance, December 7, 1967)

-“Of the realistic options, only [US] withdrawal [from Vietnam] (however disguised) seems to me at all tolerable, and resistance, as a tactic of protest, must be designed so as to increase the likelihood that this option will be selected.” (The New York Review of Books, On Resistance, December 7, 1967)

-“If we can rid ourselves of the naïve belief that we are somehow different and more pure — a belief held by the British, the French, the Japanese in their moments of imperial glory — then we will be able honestly to face the truth in this observation. One can only hope that we will face this truth before too many innocents, on all sides, suffer and die.” (The New York Review of Books, On Resistance, December 7, 1967)

-“Recent history shows that it makes little difference to us what form of government a country has so long as it remains an ‘open society,’ in our peculiar sense of this term — that is, a society that remains open to American economic penetration or political control. If it is necessary to approach genocide in Vietnam to achieve this objective, then this is the price we must pay in defense of freedom and the rights of man…. It is useful to remember, incidentally, that the US was apparently quite willing, as late as 1939, to negotiate a commercial treaty with Japan and arrive at a modus vivendi if Japan would ‘change her attitude and practice towards our rights and interests in China,’ as Secretary Hull put it. The bombing of Chungking and the rape of Nanking were unpleasant, it is true, but what was really important was our rights and interests in China, as the responsible…men of the day saw quite clearly. It was the closing of the open door by Japan that led inevitably to the Pacific war…” (The New York Review of Books, The Responsibility of Intellectuals, February 23, 1967)

1.2 The American War in Vietnam: Buckley

-“The pity is that we are saving our tactical nuclear weapons for melodramatic use, for use, presumably, at the apocalypse towards which we may very well be headed in the long term. Take, for instance, the discussion of the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the defense of Khesanh [a city in South Vietnam]. By this time, so much attention has been given to the plight of Khesanh that to use these weapons, for the first time in military history, in the defense of Khesanh, suggests a mood of total desperation, perhaps even of panic. That interpretation feeds on itself, even as a bear market is said to justify itself. The time to introduce the use of tactical nuclear arms was a long time ago, in a perfectly routine way, then there was not a suspicion of immediate crisis, of panic. In 1964, Senator Goldwater was burned in oil not even for advocating the use of low-yield atomic bombs for defoliation, but for reporting that the plan was under consideration by the Pentagon. Everyone got so worked up at the idea, that nobody thought to ask the question: Why not? The use of limited atomic bombs for purely military operations is many times easier to defend on the morality scale than one slit throat of a civilian for terrorism’s sake…”,3131703 (Feb. 25, 1968)

-“In 1973 we [the US] voted $2.3 billion in aid of South Vietnam’s armed forces. In 1974 we cut the figure in half; in 1975, by another third. Southeast Asia learned what it can mean to rely on the United States…. ‘Finally, however tragic the outcome,’ writes Professor John Roche, who served Lyndon Johnson during his Vietnam years, ‘I will argue to my dying day that this was the most idealistic war we have ever fought, fundamentally a war for an abstraction: the freedom of a bunch of unfamiliar Asians at the end of the world.’ How strange those sounds, which antedated the period during which the American intelligentsia for the most part persuaded itself that the Vietnam War was the high moment of immorality.” (Ten Years After Vietnam, April 20, 1985; Published in: William F. Buckley, Jr., Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist, Random House, New York: 1993, 194-5)

-“We are all being asked to believe that there was something on the order of manifest destiny working for the North Vietnamese. That they really ‘owned’ South Vietnam…[Yet,] The will to resist was there, and for all the talk of South Vietnamese pusillanimity and disorganization and graft, you will find that a far higher percentage of them died or were wounded in the war than Frenchmen defending themselves against Hitler.” (No breast-beating?, April 22, 1975; Published in: William F. Buckley, Jr., A Hymnal: The Controversial Arts, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York: 1978, 31)

-For an engaging 1969 Firing Line debate between Chomsky and Buckley that focuses on the American War in Vietnam, go to:

2.1 The American civil rights movement: Chomsky

-“ From what I could see of the early 60s civil rights activity, it was trying to help with self-organization of poor and oppressed people, and I’m all in favor of that.”–.htm (Jan. 1974)

-“The population has been carefully excluded from political activity, and not by accident. An enormous amount of work has gone into that disenfranchisement. During the 1960s the outburst of popular participation in democracy terrified the forces of convention, which mounted a fierce counter-campaign. Manifestations show up today on the left as well as the right in the effort to drive democracy back into the hole where it belongs….The urgency is for popular progressive groups to grow and become strong enough so that centres of power can’t ignore them. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its core include the labour movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years….The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.” (Oct. 29, 2004)

-“[D]irect action has often been the preliminary to really major changes….In the United States the sit-down strikes of the 1930s were a major impetus for passing significant New Deal legislation….The same was true of, say, the civil rights movements….Rosa Parks insisting on sitting in a bus. Greensboro, North Carolina a couple years later. Black students sitting at a lunch counter, and these things then took off and became major movements with a lot of consequences. Without the direct action that probably wouldn’t have happened.” (June 19, 2013)

-“Students have often been kind of a stimulus and a source for broader activism, but it can’t succeed until it goes well beyond the students. That was the case, for example, for the civil rights movement. Greensboro, North Carolina was students. SNCC spearheaded the civil rights movement with students. The Freedom Riders, not all, but the majority were young people and students. Over time it grew and became a mass popular movement, and had major achievements. Like all movements, it was limited and never achieved its real goals. They were aborted. In fact, right when the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King turned to class issues they were crushed. There are lessons there. And everyone knows Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech in 1963, but not many people know what, in many ways, was a more important ‘I Have a Dream’ speech of his in 1968. The evening that he was assassinated. That evening he spoke to a large crowd. He was in Memphis, Tennessee to support a public workers strike. A sanitation workers strike. He was moving towards establishing a Poor People’s Movement. Not black, Poor People’s Movement, which would address the fundamental issues of housing…There was supposed to be a march on Washington, a ‘poor people’s march,’ which he was to lead. His widow, Coretta King, led the march, and, from Memphis, it went through the places in the South where the major struggles had been. Birmingham, Selma, and so on. Ended up in Washington, and set up a tent city. An Occupy Movement….They were going to appeal to Congress to legislate bills that would deal with the fundamental class issues, like poverty and housing and so on. They were allowed to stay there for a while and then Congress sent in the security forces. They smashed up the tent city in the middle of the night and drove them out of Washington. That’s a part of the civil rights movement that you don’t hear about on Martin Luther King Day, but it’s important. It won major victories, but it couldn’t break through Northern racism and insistence on class privilege.” (June 19, 2013)

-“Victimization increases with poverty, it increases with race. We can’t overlook the fact that despite some progress, racial oppression is still a major feature of American society. It hasn’t gone away. Just take a look at the distribution of people in prison.” (June 19, 2013 Interview)

-“In the 18th Century, the US became probably the most free society in the world, which isn’t saying a lot. But look at the slaves, Native Americans, women. Still, by 18th Century standards, it was pretty free….There are some dimensions of freedom, like say freedom of speech…where the United States is in the world lead—not since the 18th Century, but since the civil rights movement, which changed things [for the better].” (Dec. 21, 2012)

2.2 The American civil rights movement: Buckley

-In 1957, “National Review published what was to become its most infamous piece about race, an editorial titled ‘Why the South Must Prevail.’ Though the piece was not signed, in accordance with the magazine’s policy for editorials expressing the corporate position of the magazine, Buckley had written it…” A portion of the editorial follows: “The central question that emerges . . . is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes — the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists. The question, as far as the White community is concerned, is whether the claims of civilization supersede those of universal suffrage…National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct…It is more important for the community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority….The great majority of the Negroes in the South who do not vote do not care to vote, and would not know for what to vote if they could.” (Carl T. Bogus, Buckley: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism, Bloomsbury Press, New York: 2011, 158-9.)

-“A 1957 editorial written by Buckley, ‘Why the South Must Prevail’ (National Review, 8/24/57), cited the ‘cultural superiority of white over Negro’ in explaining why whites were ‘entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where [they do] not predominate numerically.’ Appearing on NPR’s Fresh Air in 1989 (rebroadcast 2/28/08), he stood by the passage. ‘Well, I think that’s absolutely correct,’ Buckley told host Terry Gross when she read it back to him.”

-“Just months before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, Buckley warned in his syndicated column (2/18/65) that ‘chaos’ and ‘mobocratic rule’ might follow if ‘the entire Negro population in the South were suddenly given the vote.’ In his 1969 column ‘On Negro Inferiority’ (4/8/69), Buckley heralded as ‘massive’ and ‘apparently authoritative’ academic racist Arthur Jensen’s findings that blacks are less intelligent than whites and Asians.”

-Buckley “opposed the new civil rights laws passed under the Johnson administration and wanted even the Reverend Martin Luther King’s nonviolent civil disobedience suppressed.” In August 1967 he wrote, “Repression is an unpleasant instrument, but it is absolutely necessary for civilizations that believe in order and human rights. I wish to God Hitler and Lenin had been repressed. And word should be gently got through to the non-violent avenger Dr. King, that in the unlikely event that he succeeds in mobilizing his legions, they will be most efficiently, indeed most zestfully, repressed.” (John B. Judis, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, Simon and Schuster, New York: 1988, 268-9.)

-“A 1960 National Review editorial supported South Africa’s white minority rule (4/23/60): ‘The whites are entitled, we believe, to preeminence in South Africa.’ In a 1961 National Review column about colonialism — which the magazine once called ‘that brilliantly conceived structure’ (William F. Buckley, John Judis) — Buckley explained that ‘black Africans’ left alone ‘tend to revert to savagery.’ The same year, in a speech to the group Young Americans for Freedom, Buckley called citizens of the Congo ‘semi-savages’ (National Review, 9/9/61).”

-In a Feb. 27,  2008 interview with the New York Times, a Buckley biographer stated the following: “He [Buckley] said it was a mistake for National Review not to have supported the civil rights legislation of 1964-65, and later supported a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whom he grew to admire a good deal, above all for combining spiritual and political values.” “In the 1950s Buckley did indeed support segregationists in the South but later changed his views. He wept when he learned of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black children.” “The magazine [National Review] did take a pro-segregationist stand…” (Note: Considering the magnitude of Buckley’s purported change of opinion on civil rights, it is possible that had he lived longer he may have evolved to hold more of Chomsky’s views.)

-Buckley remained behind the curve on civil rights issues. In a 1986 “Op-Ed article he wrote for The New York Times [Buckley] offered a partial cure for the AIDS epidemic: ‘Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm to prevent common needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of homosexuals’…”

3.1 Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land: Chomsky

-“[The Israeli military] occupation [is] harsh, brutal and oppressive….It’s in gross violation of international law and has been from the outset. And that much, at least, is fully recognized, even by the United States, which has overwhelming and…unilateral responsibility for these crimes. [W]hen [George H. W. Bush] was the U.N. ambassador, back in 1971, he officially reiterated Washington’s condemnation of Israel’s actions in the occupied territories….He criticized Israel’s failure ‘to acknowledge its obligations under the Fourth Geneva Convention as well as its actions which are contrary to the letter and spirit of this Convention.’ That Convention is no minor affair. It’s one of the core principles of international law. It was established in 1949, to formally criminalize the actions…of the Nazis in occupied Europe.” (March 21, 2002)

-“In September 1993, President Clinton presided over a handshake between Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn…The occasion was the announcement of the Declaration of Principles [DOP] for political settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict…Public negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians had opened in Madrid in November 1991, initiated by Washington in the triumphal glow after the first Iraq war. They were stalemated because the Palestinian delegation…insisted on ending Israel’s expansion of its illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories….The DOP…did not include a word about the settlement programs at the heart of the conflict: Even before the Oslo process, the settlements were undermining realistic prospects of achieving any meaningful Palestinian self-determination.” (Sept. 2, 2013)

3.2 Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land: Buckley

-“If Israel’s foreign policy were written in Washington, the Arab countries’ fear of Israeli expansionism would end. We could begin by giving back to Egypt, and to Jordan, most of the territories conquered during the 1967 war, and retained by Israel, as Israeli officials have repeatedly assured us, for reasons of military defense only.” (Israel and American Policy, July 21, 1972; Published in: William F. Buckley, Jr., Execution Eve: And Other Contemporary Ballads, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York: 1975, 200.)

-“[W]hat can’t be disputed is that Israel is, if not the cause of perpetual friction in the Mideast, an unimaginative agent of it….[O]ne has to begin with an absolute given, which is the survival of the Israeli state. But, immediately, one founders on the question: What are the borders of the Israeli state we are determined should survive? And we bump immediately into the question of the Israeli settlements….Unless Israel retreats from the settlements, a coherent Palestinian state cannot evolve…” “[T]he Israeli settlements are a pullulating sore, attracting terrorists, requiring Israeli security, and seeking always, expansion.” US political leaders should make the following clear to Israel: “We cannot promise that the Palestinians will stop their suicide attacks, but we can tell you that the settlements are disruptive of any approach to a strategic arrangement. The settlements are impassable road blocks [to a comprehensive peace deal]. The time then comes to establish that the United States government is not a creature of parliamentary coalitions in Israel, which have given to minority parties unbalanced leverage over government policies. The sooner [president George W.] Bush brings up this point, the sooner we can progress to making policy in that part of the world that earns the respect of the broader community.”
(April 15, 2003)


It is the reader’s decision whether Chomsky or Buckley deserves the title, “most important public intellectual in recent history”. However, it is noteworthy that while Buckley’s moral compass may be disturbing to many readers on the issues of the American War in Vietnam and the American civil rights movement, even he recognized the illegitimacy of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land.

Jeffrey Rudolph, a Montreal college professor, was the Quebec representative of the East Timor Alert Network and presented a paper on its behalf at the United Nations. He was awarded the prestigious Cheryl Rosa Teresa Doran Prize upon graduation from McGill University’s faculty of law; has worked as a chartered accountant at one of the world’s largest public accounting firms; and, has taught at McGill University. He has prepared widely-distributed quizzes on Israel-Palestine, Iran, Hamas, Terrorism, Saudi Arabia, US Inequality, the US Christian Right, Hezbollah, Israeli Ultra-Orthodox, and Qatar.

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