The Responsibility of Intellectuals
The article was written during the then ongoing Vietnam War, as news of human rights abuses started to return to the United States, and as the war had increasingly become seen as a quagmire. The article is an attack on the intellectual culture in the U.S., which Chomsky argues is largely subservient to power. He is particularly critical of social scientists and technocrats, who he believed were providing a pseudo-scientific justification for the crimes of the state in regards to the Vietnam War. He notes that those who opposed the war on moral rather than technical grounds are "often 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 topic was inspired by articles of Dwight Macdonald published after the Second World War who "asks the question: 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."
The article brought Chomsky to public attention as one of the leading American intellectuals in the movement 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
- Intellectual responsibility – the more general concept found in philosophy
- The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, February 23, 1967
- Letter in response by George Steiner, reply by Noam Chomsky. March 23, 1967
- Letters in response by Fryar Calhoun, E. B. Murray, and Arthur Dorfman, reply by Noam Chomsky. April 20, 1967
- Letter in response by Raziel Abelson. April 20, 1967
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