Truman's Speech & Noam Chomsky
To the Editor:
There are familiar forms of self-righteousness in which people become so suffused with the virtue of their cause that they cease to care about intellectual honesty. Dr. Chomsky, I fear, has succumbed to this malady of moralism. “It is the responsibility of intellectuals,” he wrote in his most celebrated essay, “to speak the truth and to expose lies.” Having said this, he seems to feel licensed to forget or distort the truth whenever it suits his polemical convenience. He begins as a preacher to the world and ends as an intellectual crook.
Since Dr. Chomsky unwisely continues to labor the point, let us go on with the example he raised in his sermon in the October COMMENTARY [“Vietnam, the Cold War & Other Matters”]: the nature of the speech Harry S. Truman gave at Baylor University in Texas on March 6, 1947. In American Power and the New Mandarins Dr. Chomsky twice (pp. 268, 319) printed a series of what he represented as direct quotations from what he called this “famous and important” speech: “All freedom is dependent on freedom of enterprise. . . . The whole world should adopt the American system. . . . The American system can survive in America only if it becomes a world system.” The purpose of these Truman “quotations” was to prove that the United States had long been “using its awesome resources of violence and devastation to impose its passionately held ideology and its approved form of social organization on large areas of the world” (p. 318).
Of course President Truman never spoke the words thus attributed to him, and reviewers quickly caught Dr. Chomsky out in his scholarly fakery. But this exposure has evidently not perturbed Dr. Chomsky in the slightest. He now concedes that he lifted his “quotations” from D. F. Fleming and J. P. Warburg; but he still insists that they are “accurate and perceptive” paraphrases of the Baylor speech, that they “convey the essence of Truman’s remarks.” The Baylor speech still seems to him dramatic proof of the American drive for world economic empire.
What, in fact, did President Truman say at Baylor? The speech is readily available in the volume of his Public Papers for 1947, pages 167-172. Anyone interested in testing Dr. Chomsky’s capacity for intellectual honesty should examine the full text. Far from a Presidential response to the expansionist demands of American capitalism, the speech is an earnest plea to the American business community not to return to its economic nationalism of the days before the Second World War. Its specific objective is to persuade American businessmen that they will not suffer from the reduction of trade barriers and, in particular, that they should support American membership in the International Trade Organization, then in process of formation. It is all a quite conventional and even routine argument in the spirit of Cordell Hull, Will Clayton, and the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act for economic multilateralism and a freely trading world.
Truman began with a statement of his theme:
The three—peace, freedom, and world trade—are inseparable. The grave lessons of the past have proved it. . . . We know today that we cannot find security in isolation. If we are to live at peace, we must join with other nations in a continuing effort to organize the world for peace. . . . Our foreign relations, political and economic, are indivisible. We cannot say that we are willing to cooperate in the one field and are unwilling to cooperate in the other.
He reminded his audience of the dangers of economic nationalism and of consequent economic conflict:
One nation may take action in behalf of its own producers, without notifying other nations, or consulting them, or even considering how they may be affected. It may cut down its purchases of another country’s goods, by raising its tariffs or imposing an embargo or a system of quota on imports. And when it does this, some producer, in the other country, will find the door to his market suddenly slammed and bolted in his face. Or a nation may subsidize its exports, selling its goods abroad below their cost. When this is done, a producer in some other country will find his market flooded with goods that have been dumped. In either case, the producer gets angry. . . .
He appeals to his government for action. His government retaliates, and another round of tariff boosts, embargoes, quotas, and subsidies is under way. This is economic war. In such a war nobody wins. . . . As each battle of the economic war of the thirties was fought, the inevitable tragic result became more and more apparent. From the tariff policy of Hawley and Smoot, the world went on to Ottawa and the system of imperial preferences, from Ottawa to the kind of elaborate and detailed restrictions adopted by Nazi Germany.
Truman then contended that the world had reached another turning-point like 1920, when it could move either toward economic nationalism or toward economic internationalism.
In this atmosphere of doubt and hesitation, the decisive factor will be the type of leadership that the United States gives the world. We are the giant of the economic world. Whether we like it or not, the future pattern of economic relations depends upon us. The world is waiting and watching to see what we shall do. The choice is ours. We can lead the nations to economic peace or we can plunge them into economic war. There must be no question as to our course. We must not go through the thirties again.
Next, in the policy section of the speech, he advocated American participation in a projected new organization to be established within the United Nations: the International Trade Organization.
This organization would apply to commercial relationships the same principle of fair dealing that the United Nations is applying to political affairs. Instead of retaining unlimited freedom to commit acts of economic aggression, its members would adopt a code of economic conduct and agree to live according to its rules. Instead of adopting measures that might be harmful to others, without warning and without consultation, countries would sit down around the table and talk things out. In any dispute, each party would present its case. The interest of all would be considered, and a fair and just solution would be found. . . . If the nations can agree to observe a code of good conduct in international trade, they will cooperate more readily in other international affairs. Such agreement will prevent the bitterness that is engendered by an economic war. It will provide an atmosphere congenial to the preservation of peace. As a part of this program we have asked other nations of the world to join with us in reducing barriers to trade.
With this last proposal, Truman was entering the hard part of his argument; for then, as now, the idea of reducing trade barriers struck terror through large segments of the American business community. The rest of his speech was designed to persuade businessmen that such reduction would be in their long-term interest:
There is one thing that Americans value even more than peace. It is freedom. Freedom of worship—freedom of speech—freedom of enterprise. It must be true that the first two of these freedoms are related to the third. For, throughout history, freedom of worship and freedom of speech have been most frequently enjoyed in those societies that have accorded a considerable measure of freedom to individual enterprise. Freedom has flourished where power has been dispersed. It has languished where power has been too highly centralized. So our devotion to freedom of enterprise, in the United States, has deeper roots than a desire to protect the profits of ownership.
He warned the American business community that, if the world moved toward economic nationalism, the United States would be forced to intensify government controls over business.
The pattern of international trade that is most conducive to freedom of enterprise is one in which the major decisions are made, not by governments, but by private buyers and sellers, under conditions of active competition, and with proper safeguards against the establishment of monopolies and cartels. . . . If this trend [toward economic nationalism] is not reversed the Government of the United States will be under pressure, sooner or later, to use these same devices to fight for markets and for raw materials. And if the Government were to yield to this pressure, it would shortly find itself in the business of allocating foreign goods among importers and foreign markets among exporters and telling every trader what he could buy or sell, and how much, and when, and where. . . .
Fortunately, an alternative has been offered to the world in the Charter of the International Trade Organization that is to be considered at Geneva in the coming month. . . . This program is designed to restore and preserve a trading system that is consistent with continuing freedom of enterprise in every country that chooses freedom for its own economy.
He went on to explain that American business would have to make certain sacrifices if it hopes to enjoy the benefits of a freely trading world.
If these negotiations are to be successful, we ourselves must make the same commitments that we ask all other nations of the world to make. We must be prepared to make concessions if we are to obtain concessions from others in return. . . . The program . . . means that exports will be larger. It also means that imports will be larger. Many people, it is true, are afraid of imports. . . . I said to the Congress, when it last considered the extension of the Trade Agreements Act, and I now reiterate, that domestic interests will be safeguarded in this, process of expanding trade. But there still are those who sincerely fear that the trade agreement negotiations will prove disastrous to the interests of particular producing groups. I am sure that their misgivings are not well founded.
He concluded with a summation:
The policy of reducing barriers to trade is a settled policy of this Government. It is embodied in the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act, fathered and administered for many years by Cordell Hull. It is reflected in the Charter of the International Trade Organization. . . . [To] those among us—and there are still a few—who would seek to undermine this policy for partisan advantage and go back to the period of high tariffs and economic isolation, I can only say this: Times have changed. Our position in the world has changed. . . . Isolationism, after two world wars, is a confession of mental and moral bankruptcy.
Several things can be said about this speech. It embodies, of course, a shallow interpretation of world events. Few today accept the Cordell Hull theory that economic nationalism was the main cause of the Second World War, or that economic internationalism offers a sure way to peace. Many of us have come to doubt the automatic value of the reduction of trade barriers in all places and all circumstances. The special needs of economic development, for example, may well argue for non-reciprocal tariff concessions to developing countries in order to give their manufactures preferential treatment as well as for controls by such countries to regulate the use of their own foreign-exchange earnings and to limit the repatriation of profits to other countries.
Yet saying these things hardly makes the Truman speech, as Dr. Chomsky implies, the great war-cry of a rampant American imperialism mobilizing its resources of violence and devastation to impose its ideology and its economic organization on large areas of the world. The ideological passage, for example, is hardly so ferocious as Dr. Chomsky claims. Indeed, it is characteristic of Dr. Chomsky’s unbeatable instinct for distortion that he can write in the October COMMENTARY: “Truman argued that freedom of enterprise is one of those freedoms to be valued ‘even more than peace.’” What Truman actually said, as the reader will have observed, was that Americans valued freedom even more than peace, and he made it clear that he meant above all intellectual and religious freedom. His sentence relating freedom of speech and freedom of worship to freedom of enterprise is moderately stated and historically defensible. Does Dr. Chomsky really quarrel with such platitudes as “Freedom has flourished where power has been dispersed. It has languished where power has been too highly centralized”?
But the most perplexing thing of all is why Dr. Chomsky gets so excited over the prospect of America’s joining the International Trade Organization, which after all was the point of the Truman speech. Why does he regard the Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act as so sinister and vicious an arrangement? (This extravagant reaction to innocuous phenomena is typical of Dr. Chomsky; recall his statement in American Power and the New Mandarins that Senator Mike Mansfield—Mike Mansfield!—is “the kind of man who is the terror of our age.”) And why does he suppose that the ITO and the Trade Argeements Act express the imperialist will of the American business system?
He does all these things, I guess, because he is an ignorant man who has read superficially in American history and has taken from Professor William Appleman Williams and his disciples the notion that the policy of the open door—i.e., of economic multilateralism—has been the chosen instrument of American business in its presumed quest for world economic domination. Of course, as any freshman knows, American business and its political representatives have been characteristically protectionist rather than multilateralist on questions of international trade. Herbert Hoover condemned the reciprocal trade idea in 1932 as “a violation of American principles.” When the trade agreements bill passed the Congress in 1934, only two representatives of the party of business voted for it in the House and only three in the Senate. Dr. Chomsky’s uncritical adoption of the Williams thesis requires him to believe (as his footnote on the Far Eastern policy of the 30′s makes evident) that, in his conduct of foreign policy, Franklin Roosevelt was striving to serve the very moneyed interests who were fighting him so savagely in domestic politics. Does not this proposition strain even Dr. Chomsky’s limitless credulity?
I continue to believe that Dr. Chomsky is putting us on. If he really regards the Trade Agreements Act and the ITO as so iniquitous—as expressions of an American determination to use “its awesome resources of violence and devastation,” etc.—how does he propose that international trade should be organized? Does he want the United States to repeal the Trade Agreements Act and to resign from the ITO? If economic multilateralism is so horrible, does Dr. Chomsky favor economic nationalism? If a freely trading world is such a bad thing, does he want bilateralism? managed trading? autarky?
One’s suspicion is that Dr. Chomsky has no idea what he is talking about. As his persistence in the distortion of the Truman speech shows him an intellectual crook, so his refusal to confront, or even acknowledge, the serious issues involved in Truman’s support of the ITO in this “famous and important” speech shows him an intellectual phoney.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
New York City
[Professor Chomsky's reply will appear in a future issue—Ed.]