American Power & the New Mandarins (Noam Chomsky) [1967]


The starting point for this book is the assumption that the responsibility of intellectuals – in their positions of power and privilege – is greater than that of ordinary peoples’. It is very much a book concerned with the ongoing American aggression on Viet Nam, yet the edge is directed at Chomsky’s fellow intellectuals, who have failed their duties miserably. In fact, even many in the peace movement seem to think that the war was ”wrong”, ”costly”, ”unwinnable” – without questioning the fundamental right of the US to intervene in another country, without showing the required moral outrage at this supreme act of aggression.

These intellectuals – ostensibly liberal, objective, scientific – are blending into the deep state apparatus. Hence, Chomsky calls them ‘Mandarins’ (imperial China’s bureaucrats). They can be found rationalizing the most barbaric acts, while ignoring the most obvious truths. ‘It is as if the war and they had been waiting for each  other… Fundamental human values never even enter the calculations of the technocrats; human life itself is merely something of instrumental value for higher goals – namely state power and corporate profit. As usual, he expertly traces the historical roots for these pseudo-intellectuals, so keen on serving the powers that be. He finds them in European empires and in imperial Japan, thus proving they are an essential parts of any great powers, especially those that claim to be democratic. ”Pacification programmes”, ”population control methods” and ”strategic hamlets”  have their corresponding counterparts in other empires. Likewise, no empire ever seeks territorial expansion or domination.

The tone of the book is quite sombre and dark. Chomsky, in the midst of the ongoing wars in Indochina and the unrest at home, is pessimistic about the opportunities for revolutionary change. Having read quite a lot of his work, I am guessing that it was during this time of his life that he came to realize that intellectuals are not to be counted on. That he would not be able to convince his fellow academicians – men of fact and scientific minds, men of books and debate – no matter how obvious the truths. In fact, quite the opposite: the more educated classes were easier to convince of the absurd concepts of ”internal aggression”, the ”domino theory”. Maybe that is why his disappointment shines through more strongly here than in any other text.

It is for this reason that one cannot be too hopeful about the prospects of reaching liberal American opinion in any fundamental way, on the central issues of war and peace, freedom, and national self-determination.

All in all, I would disagree with something Norman Finkelstein said at one of his speeches; that you can not read Chomsky’s texts from the early years today. Finkelstein was arguing that, because of their immense level of detail, the texts would quickly lose relevance to their readers. Yet, here I am, year after year, reading these masterfully crafted pieces of commentary on major events in modern history. They are still relevant today, because the world has quickly forgotten the important lessons embedded in them.


Twenty years of intensive cold-war indoctrination and seventy years of myth regarding our international role make it difficult to face these issues in a serious way. There is a great deal of intellectual debris to be cleared. Ideological pressures so overpowering that even their existence was denied must be examined and understood.

Perhaps I should mention that, increasingly. I have had a certain feeling of falseness in these lectures and discussions. …the entire performance is emotionally and morally false in a disturbing way. [Senses the radicalism stagnating into technicalism.] By entering into the arena of argument and counterargument, of technical feasibility and tactics, of footnotes and citations, by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one’s humanity. This is the feeling I find almost impossible to repress when going through the motions of building a case against the American war in Vietnam.

These and a thousand other examples testify to moral degeneration on such a scale that talk about the ”normal channels” of political action and protest becomes meaningless or hypocritical. We have to ask ourselves whether what is needed in the United States is dissent or denazification.

Nor did it improve matters when many civilians witnessed a case in which an ARVN company leader killed a draft dodger, disemboweled him, ”took his heart and liver out and had them cooked at a restaurant,” after which ”the heart and liver were eaten by a number of soldiers.” Such acts cause great difficulties, especially in trying to combat an enemy so vile as to practice ”exemplary Communist behavior.”

In short, along with ”confiscation of chickens, razing of houses, or destruction of villages,” we can also make effective use of 100 pounds of explosives per person, 12 tons per square mile, as in Vietnam, as a technique for controlling behavior, relying on the principle, now once again confirmed by experiment, that satisfaction of desires is a more important motivation in human behavior than abstract appeals to loyalty. Surely this is extremely sane advice. It would, for example, be absurd to try to control the behavior of a rat by winning its loyalty rather than by the proper scheduling of reinforcement […] An added advantage of this new, more scientific approach is that it will ”modify the attitudes with which counterinsurgency efforts are viewed in the United States (when we tum to the United States, of course, we are concerned with people whose attitudes must be taken into account, not merely their behavior). [Author’s emphasis.]

The idea that we must choose between the method of ”winning hearts and minds” and the method of shaping behavior presumes that we have the right to choose at all.

In 1934, Lloyd George stated that ”in a very short time, perhaps in a year, perhaps in two, the conservative elements in this country will be looking to Germany as the bulwark against Communism in Europe… Do not let us be in a hurry to condemn Germany… the Munich agreement was the death knell for the Spanish Republic, exactly as the necessity to rely on the Soviet Union signaled the end of the Spanish revolution in 1937.

When the enemy is a remote technician programming B-S2 raids or ”pacification,” there is no possibility for a human confrontation and the psychological basis for nonviolent tactics, whatever it may be, simply evaporates. A society that is capable of producing concepts like ”unAmerican” and ”peacenik” – of turning ”peace” into a dirty word has advanced a long way towards immunizing the individual against any human appeal.

Indian justice Radhabinod Pal, assessing war guilt of the Japanese at the Toky Tribunal:

The Kaiser Wilhelm II was credited with a letter to the Austrian Kaiser Franz Joseph in the early days of that war, wherein he stated as follows: ”My soul is torn, but everything must be put to fire and sword; men, women and children and old men must be slaughtered and not a tree or house be left standing. With these methods of terrorism, which are alone capable of affecting a people as degenerate as the French, the war will be over in two months, whereas if I admit considerations of humanity it will be prolonged for years.

Cites Japanese political scientists Masao Maruyama on what led to Japanese fascism during WW2:

  • domestic panic and international crises (eg. Manchurian incident, Shanghai incident, withdrawal from the League of Nations)
  • civilian leadership overruled military leaders and ”sold out” Japan at London Naval Conference
  • political assassinations, including PM Inukai

The textile industry [in Japan], which was hit most severely by the discriminatory policies of the major imperialist powers, produced nearly half of the total value of manufactured goods and about two thirds of the value of Japanese goods, and employed about half of the factory workers. Though industrialized by Asian standards, Japan had only about one seventh the energy capacity per capita of Germany…

Japan chose war – as we now know – with no expectation of victory over the United States but in the hope ”that the Americans, confronted by a German victory in Europe and weary of war in the Pacific, would agree to a negotiated peace in which Japan would be recognized as the dominant power in Eastern Asia.

…[Japan] was establishing its own Monroe Doctrine and realizing its Manifest Destiny.

LBJ 1966:

There are three billion people in the world and we have only 200 million of them. We are outnumbered 15 to one. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.

The ”peace movement” has been getting by for too long with cheap jokes about LBJ and with concentration on peripheral issues such as the bombing of North Vietnam. The challenge it now faces is to create the understanding that we have no right to set any conditions at all on a political settlement in Vietnam; that American military forces must be withdrawn from Vietnam, and from the other simmering Vietnams throughout the world…

In fact, few imperialist powers have had explicit territorial ambitions. Thus in 1784, the British Parliament announced that ”to pursue schemes of conquest and extension of dominion in India are measures repugnant to the wish, honor, and policy of this nation.” Shortly after, the conquest of India was in full swing. A century later, Britain announced its intentions in Egypt under the slogan ”Intervention, Reform, Withdrawal.”

It is at times a testimony to the radicalization of Chomsky himself during these formative years:

As I mentioned earlier, I had no intention of taking part in any act of civil disobedience, until that moment. But when that grotesque organism began slowly advancing [troops enclosing on peaceful protesters] – more grotesque because its cells were recognizable human beings – it became obvious that one could not permit that thing to dictate what one was going to do.

Resistance is in part a moral responsibility, in part a tactic to affect government policy. In particular, with respect to support for draft resistance, I feel that it is a moral responsibility that cannot be shirked. On the other hand, as a tactic, it seems to me of doubtful effectiveness, as matters now stand. I say this with diffidence and considerable uncertainty. Whatever happens in Vietnam, there are bound to be significant domestic repercussions. It is axiomatic that no army ever loses a war; its brave soldiers and all-knowing generals are stabbed in the back by treacherous civilians.

Of anecdotal interest for my coming reading of Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Thomas:

Many historians would probably agree with Eric Hobsbawm that the failure of social revolution in Spain ”was due to the anarchists,” that anarchism was ”a disaster,” a kind of ”moral gymnastics” with no ”concrete results”…

…I think Hobsbawm is quite mistaken in believing that the Communist policy ”was undoubtedly the only one which could have won the Civil War.” In fact, the Communist policy was bound to fail, because it was predicated on the assumption that the Western democracies would join the antifascist effort if only Spain could be preserved as, in effect, a Western colony.

Later, Orwell was to make this conclusion explicitly: A government which sends boys of fifteen to the front with rifles forty years old and puts its biggest men and newest weapons in the rear is manifestly more afraid of the revolution than of the fascists.

Franco relied heavily on Moorish contingents, including a substantial number from French Morocco. [The anarchists wanted to spark rebellion in Morocco to disturb these recruits.]

In 1957, President Eisenhower congratulated Franco on the ”happy anniversary” of his rebellion…

Gerald Brenan, The Spanish Labyrinth (1943):

Unable to draw to themselves the manual workers, who remained firmly fixed in their unions, the Communists found themselves the refuge for all those who had suffered from the excesses of the Revolution or who feared where it might lead them. Well-to-do Catholic orange-growers in Valencia, peasants in Catalonia, small shopkeepers and business men, Army officers and Government officials enrolled in their ranks… Thus [in Catalonia] one had a strange and novel situation: on the one side stood the huge compact proletariat of Barcelona with its long revolutionary tradition, and on the other the white-collar workers and petite bourgeoisie of the city, organized and armed by the Communist party behind it.

  • ‘ex cathedra’
  • diffidence = hesitation, humility


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