The Responsibility of Intellectuals

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The Responsibility of Intellectuals (1967) is an essay by Noam Chomsky about the moral, ethical, and social obligations of the intelligentsia regarding the public policies of American society.[1][2] Dealing with the ideological background justifying the Vietnam War (1955–75), the essay was published in the New York Review of Books (23 February 1967) when American and South Vietnamese violations of human rights began to be reported in the news media of the United States, to the surprise of American society, who, by 1967, had begun to view the war as a military, economic, and political failure.

“The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is a critical examination of the intellectual culture of the U.S., which is largely subservient to power. Chomsky is especially critical of the social scientists and the technocrats who were providing geopolitical and pseudo-scientific justifications for the American and South Vietnamese war crimes committed in prosecuting the war against the civil population of Vietnam, whom they had identified as Communist sympathisers of the Viet Cong and of North Vietnam. That the people who opposed the war on moral grounds, rather than on technical grounds, “often [are] psychologists, mathematicians, chemists, or philosophers . . . rather than people with Washington contacts, who, of course, realize that ‘had they a new, good idea about Vietnam, they would get a prompt and respectful hearing’ in Washington.”

The examination of the moral and ethical stances of the American intelligentsia towards the U.S. war against Vietnam, was inspired by "The Responsibility of Peoples, and Other Essays in Political Criticism" (1957), by Dwight Macdonald (1906–82), about the Second World War (1939–45); in the essay, Chomsky asks: “To what extent were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments? And, quite properly . . . turns the question back to us: To what extent are the British or American people responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians, perfected as a technique of warfare by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, surely among the most unspeakable crimes in history?”

As a critical essay about public policy, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” established Noam Chomsky as the leading public intellectual who spoke against the Vietnam war.

Let me finally return to Dwight Macdonald and the responsibility of intellectuals. Macdonald quotes an interview with a death-camp paymaster who burst into tears when told that the Russians would hang him. “Why should they? What have I done?” he asked. Macdonald concludes: “Only those who are willing to resist authority themselves when it conflicts too intolerably with their personal moral code, only they have the right to condemn the death-camp paymaster.” The question, “What have I done?” is one that we may well ask ourselves, as we read each day of fresh atrocities in Vietnam — as we create, or mouth, or tolerate the deceptions that will be used to justify the next defense of freedom.

— Chomsky, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals”, 1967

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  1. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1967-02-23). "The Responsibility of Intellectuals". The New York Review of Books 8 (3). Retrieved 2009-09-03. 
  2. ^ Chomsky, Noam (23 February 1967). "The Responsibility of Intellectuals". The New York Review of Books. Retrieved 13 December 2009. 

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