To the Editor:
I have just read Lionel Abel’s article, “The Position of Noam Chomsky” [May], and, quite coincidentally, I had just finished reading the May 5 issue of I. F. Stone’s Weekly. . . . It is curious to compare the following statements:
Abel: “. . . when the South Koreans were invaded by an army from the North they were defendded by American troops under a United Nations flag, and . . . air power in that action played no major role” (emphasis added).
Stone: “In the Korean war U.S. planes levelled literally everything above the 38th Parallel. No country has ever been so completely destroyed by bombing as was North Korea” (emphasis added).
Since Mr. Abel makes so much of Professor Chomsky’s “superficiality” (the last thing I would have accused him of, having waded diligently through many of his conscientious, heavily-researched pieces in the New York Review of Books), I do not think it is petty of me to ask Mr. Abel to clear up the unambiguous discrepancy between his view of air power in the Korean war and Mr. Stone’s
From past experience, I would put my money on Mr. Stone. The point is not a minor one. In fact, it goes to the very heart of Mr. Abel’s own credibility.
University of South Florida
To the Editor:
I consider the transformation of Chomsky’s “by accepting the presumption of legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one’s humanity” into Abel’s “Evidently he [Chomsky] thinks that one should be so indignant about the war as to be incapable of giving reasons against it” to be a tendentious misreading.
E. Boston, Massachusetts
To the Editor:
Lionel Abel stated that Norman Mailer “has expressed the view that the arguments for and against the Vietnam war are fairly equal.” The quotation that followed, from The Armies of the Night, was intended as evidence against Noam Chomsky’s assertion that rational debate over the war “insults beyond measure the victims of our violence and our moral blindness.” Contrary to Mr. Abel’s intent, however, Mailer’s words, given their context, served to support Chomsky. If I remember the book correctly, Mailer mused over the arguments quoted by Mr. Abel while he was in jail. But does a man voluntarily submit to arrest because, after rationally assessing two nearly equal arguments, he finally opts for one? The implication of the passage, I think, is that the rational arguments, pro and con, over the war fail to deal with the reality of the situation, which is that our participation is a moral crime.
It is a moral crime because we are destroying hundreds of thousands of human beings, along with their land and their culture, with some of the most hideous instruments of torture ever devised. I recently saw a photograph of a Vietnamese child with his jaw burned away and his eyesight gone. His face had been literally melted by napalm. God knows how many other such survivors there are. Yet Mr. Abel can say: “I think the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—to suppress the Center rather than the Right—was far worse than our military action in Vietnam, though there has hardly been any shooting in Czechoslovakia . . .” (emphasis added). In the face of such a value system I can only agree with Chomsky that to engage in rational debate over this issue is to turn human suffering into an abstraction, and thereby to forfeit one’s own humanity.
Mr. Abel writes:
I am simply not going to agree with Eugene Prange that I misread the following remark of Professor Chomsky: “by accepting the legitimacy of debate on certain issues, one has already lost one’s humanity.” Among such issues Professor Chomsky included the Vietnam war. But where one cannot debate, one can only fight. I think Professor Chomsky chose, and wisely, to debate. And I do not think in so choosing he lost his humanity. Does Professor Chomsky think he did? Did Mr. Prange?
Mr. Stevenson has taken me up on my statement that air power played no major role in the Korean war. To be sure, I did not state this as an absolute fact. I said that as I recollected the war, air power had not played a major role in it. I mainly objected—one can consult the text—to Professor Chomsky’s characterization of North Korea, which started the war, as a “helpless Asian country.” Now as to the facts: I think the bombing of North Korea was serious and severe and that it probably led to the bombing policy we have pursued in Vietnam. But in any case, whatever be the truth of I. F. Stone’s contention about the bombing, I do not think it shows that air power as used by the United States played a major role in the Korean war. Unless I am very much mistaken, the main propaganda of the Communists against us was not that we used air power or dropped napalm or bombed civilians, but that we used germ warfare. Now as to the credibility of I. F. Stone: this hack journalist wrote a book in 1952, published by the Monthly Review Press, one of whose main aims was to suggest—though not to assert—that South Korea actually began the war by invading the North. Among the typically crooked sentences in the book—which yet never succeed in being clever—there is the following: “Whether on June 25 the North attacked without provocation or went over to the offensive after an attack from the South, the attempt to pick that tempting plum solved many political problems on the anti-Communist side.” The double-talk in the sentence is obvious.
Miss Rachelle Marshall, pointing to Mr. Mailer’s arrest near—or away from—the steps of the Pentagon, asks: “Does a man voluntarily submit to arrest because, after rationally assessing two nearly equal arguments, he finally opts for one?” The answer is: if the matter is important and the man is rational, yes. I suggest that Miss Marshall renew her reading of the arguments Socrates gave in prison for and against submitting to the verdict of the Athenian court. About our policy in Vietnam, Miss Marshall has this to say: “It is a moral crime because we are destroying hundreds of thousands of human beings along with their land and their culture and with some of the most hideous instruments of torture ever devised.” Now one might commit a moral crime against a single person and without destroying his land or his culture, and without using the “most hideous instruments of torture ever devised.” The immorality of an act is not shown by the kind of evidence Miss Marshall is interested in and has chosen to point up. And probably all serious political action has involved some element of moral crime. Was not politics called a pact with the devil? It is to be noted, too, that one of the serious goals of socialism has been the final elimination of politics from life. If politics could be as moral as Miss Marshall would like, why would we want to be rid of it?
[An exchange between Noam Chomsky and Lionel Abel will appear in September—Ed.]