In May 1969, the critic Lionel Abel published an essay in COMMENTARY taking forceful issue with a new book, American Power and the New Mandarins, by Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT who was then only beginning to make a name for himself as an influential left-wing scourge of American “imperialism.” The immediate subject of Chomsky’s book was the American intervention in Vietnam, but his intent was to place this conflict within a much broader context—namely, the supposedly uninterrupted history of American malefaction on the world scene. (Chomsky did not spare his own kind, either: he attacked American intellectuals, the “new mandarins” of his title, for what he saw as their shameful, passive complicity in their government’s evil deeds.)
Abel’s essay, entitled “The Position of Noam Chomsky,” focused devastatingly on the chief moral underpinning of Chomsky’s argument: namely, that America’s wanton and self-interested resort to force in foreign lands robbed it of any standing or credibility in the struggle it professed to be waging against Communist totalitarianism. Along the way, Abel also dealt in passing with Chomsky’s distorted version of a speech given by President Harry Truman at Baylor College linking economic freedom with political freedom, a speech interpreted by Chomsky in his book as a thinly veiled justification for the global spread of American-style capitalism by any and all means.
Abel’s essay elicited a lengthy response from the aggrieved Chomsky, to which Abel responded vigorously in turn. But this was not the end of the matter. In a subsequent issue of the magazine, the political historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., then an eloquent defender of cold-war anti-Communism, lit into Chomsky’s response, with specific reference to Truman’s disputed speech at Baylor College. Schlesinger’s critique drew forth yet another outpouring from the voluble Chomsky. The series of exchanges and sub-exchanges ended with a final comment by Schlesinger in which the historian curtly dismantled several additional Chomskyan claims. Chomsky has not yet replied.
This riveting intellectual feud took place over 35 years ago. But the central issues debated by Abel, Chomsky, and Schlesinger—in a nutshell, whether American power is a force for good or for ill in the world, and whether the means deployed by America are proportionate to the ends—are still very much alive today as we enter the fourth year of our war in Iraq and as the Chomskyan position still informs the mindset of many educated Americans. As this weekend’s reading, we offer the full text of these remarkable items from our archive.