Chomsky at MIT: Between the war scientists and the anti-war students

by Chris Knight on December 23, 2016


It is now fifty years since Noam Chomsky published his celebrated article, ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’. Few other writings had a greater impact on the turbulent political atmosphere on US campuses in the 1960s. The essay launched Chomsky’s political career as the world’s most intransigent and cogent critic of US foreign policy – a position he has held to this day.

No one could doubt Chomsky’s sincerity or his gratitude to the student protesters who brought the war in Vietnam to the forefront of public debate. On the other hand, he viewed the student rebels as ‘largely misguided’, particularly when they advocated revolution. Referring to the student and worker uprising in Paris in May 1968, Chomsky recalls that he ‘paid virtually no attention to what was going on,’ adding that he still believes he was right in this. Seeing no prospect of revolution in the West at this time, Chomsky went so far as to describe US students’ calls for revolution as ‘insidious’. While he admired their ‘challenge to the universities’, he expressed ‘skepticism about how they were focusing their protests and criticism of what they were doing’ – an attitude that led to ‘considerable conflict’ with many of them. [1]

As is well known, Chomsky’s university was the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught and researched linguistics in one of its research laboratories funded by the military. Although he sometimes understates MIT’s military role, Chomsky has never made a secret of its Pentagon connections. Referring to the 1960s, he explains that MIT was ‘about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab. If you take a look at my early publications, they all say something about Air Force, Navy, and so on, because I was in a military lab, the Research Lab for Electronics.'[2]

By the late 1960s, MIT’s various laboratories and departments were researching helicopter design, radar, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the ongoing war in Vietnam. In Chomsky’s words: ‘There was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. … In fact, a good deal of the [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.'[3] One of the radical student newspapers of the time, The Old Mole, expressed things still more bluntly:

‘MIT isn’t a center for scientific and social research to serve humanity. It’s a part of the US war machine. Into MIT flow over $100 million a year in Pentagon research and development funds, making it the tenth largest Defense Department R&D contractor in the country. MIT’s purpose is to provide research, consulting services and trained personnel for the US government and the major corporations – research, services, and personnel which enable them to maintain their control over the people of the world.'[4]

In the light of this, it is hardly surprising that, according to one former MIT student, ‘most radical students, as well as many liberal students, wanted first and foremost to stop the war research.'[5] But in 1969, in a contribution to an official MIT report, Chomsky took a significantly different position. Echoing the language of defense and deterrence favoured by the university’s military scientists, he proposed that, rather than closing down the military laboratories, ‘they should be restricted to research on systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character.’ One of the leading student activists at MIT at the time, Michael Albert, later described Chomsky’s cautious position as, in effect, ‘preserving war research with modest amendments.'[6] I should point out, however, that despite their disagreements, Albert remains supportive of Chomsky to this day, as do other student radicals who have known Chomsky personally over the years.

Back in 1969, MIT’s student radicals were keen to take direct action against the university’s war research by, among other things, occupying the office of its president, Howard Johnson. Again, Chomsky took a different position and at one point, according to one of his academic colleagues, he joined with other professors in standing in Johnson’s office to prevent the students from occupying it.[7]

MIT’s radicals not only organised occupations, they also organised a mass picket of the university’s nuclear missile laboratories. Determined to put a stop to this kind of disruption, the university eventually had six students sentenced to prison terms.[8] One of these students, George Katsiaficas, served time for the crime of ‘disruption of classes’. To this day, he remains indignant about his treatment and says that the phrase, the ‘banality of evil’ – famously used by Hannah Arendt to describe Nazi war criminals – applies equally to President Howard Johnson. Adopting a quite different tone, however, Chomsky told Time magazine that Johnson was an ‘honest, honourable man’ and it seems he even attended a faculty party held to celebrate Johnson’s success at containing the student protests.[9]

Chomsky has acknowledged that some students did suffer from incidents ‘that should not have happened’. But, while student leader Michael Albert described MIT as another ‘Dachau’ whose ‘victims burned in the fields of Vietnam’, Chomsky has again and again come to the university’s defence.[10] In view of the imprisonments, expulsions and job losses suffered by MIT’s radicals, it is hard to know what to make of Chomsky’s claim that MIT’s anti-war activists ‘had no problems’ from the university. Nor is it easy to recognise his description of MIT as ‘one of the most free universities in the world’ with ‘the best relations between faculty and students than at any other university.'[11]

Still more puzzling was Chomsky’s attitude when Walt Rostow visited MIT in 1969. Rostow was one of those prominent intellectuals whom Chomsky had so eloquently denounced in his ‘Responsibility of Intellectuals’ article. As an adviser to both President John Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson, Rostow had been one of the main architects of the war in Vietnam. In particular he was the strategist responsible for the carpet bombing of North Vietnam.

Against this background, it was hardly surprising that when Rostow arrived at MIT, his lecture was disrupted by students furious at his presence on their campus.[12] Far from associating himself with such student rage, however, when Chomsky heard that Rostow was hoping to return to his former job at MIT, he actually welcomed the prospect. Then, when he heard that the university was poised to reject Rostow’s job application for fear of more student disruption, Chomsky went to Howard Johnson and threatened to lead MIT’s anti-war students to ‘protest publicly’ – not against – but in favour of Rostow being allowed back to the university.[13]

Rostow wasn’t the only powerful militarist at MIT to receive support from Chomsky. Twenty years later, he was, as he says, ‘one of the very few people on the faculty’ who supported John Deutch’s bid to become university President.[14] Deutch was particularly controversial because, as MIT’s radical newspaper, The Thistle, explained, he was both an ‘advocate of US nuclear weapons build-up’ and ‘a strong supporter of biological weapons, and of using chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency.’ In fact, by the late 1980s, Deutch had not only brought chemical and biological weapons research to MIT, he had apparently ‘pressured junior faculty into performing this research on campus’.[15]

Fearing that the university was about to become even ‘more militaristic’, MIT’s radicals – with the notable exception of Chomsky – joined others on the faculty to successfully block Deutch’s appointment. Then, later, when President Clinton made Deutch No.2 at the Pentagon and, in 1995, Director of the CIA, student activists demanded that MIT cut all ties with him. Chomsky once again disagreed, The New York Times reporting him as saying of Deutch that ‘he has more honesty and integrity than anyone I’ve ever met in academic life, or any other life…. If somebody’s got to be running the CIA, I’m glad it’s him.'[16] And, of course, the most remarkable thing about all this is that, throughout this entire period, Chomsky was churning out dozens of brilliantly argued articles and books denouncing the CIA and the US military as criminals, their hands dripping in blood.

One way of making sense of Chomsky’s various contradictory positions is to view them in the light of the public statements made by MIT’s managers at the height of the student unrest in 1969. At this time, President Howard Johnson described his university as ‘a refuge from the censor, where any individual can pursue truth as he sees it, without any interference.'[17] Underlying such statements was Johnson’s anxiety lest MIT’s military scientists suffer ‘interference’ from protesting students and Johnson himself wasn’t too consistent in defending this position, readily abandoning it when he declined Rostow’s request to return to MIT. Unlike Johnson, however, Chomsky stuck to the university’s principles. He remained true to the MIT’s non-interference stance, even to the point of defending the right of a potential war criminal, John Deutch, and an actual ‘war criminal’ (Chomsky’s description of Walt Rostow) to hold important posts at the university.[18]

Part of the explanation for all this may have been Chomsky’s reluctance to fall out with fellow faculty members, especially those with whom he associated regularly. As he remarked at one point, ‘I’m always talking to the scientists who work on missiles for the Pentagon.'[19] In 1969, one MIT student is reported to have justified his opposition to the university’s military research on the grounds that ‘one doesn’t have the right to build gas chambers to kill people’, adding that ‘the principle that people should not kill other people is more important than notions of freedom to do any kind of research one might want to undertake.'[20] Chomsky, by contrast, extended the principle of academic non-interference to unusual lengths. It was crucial to him that MIT held strictly to the management ideal of the university as ‘a refuge from the censor’. After all, a less libertarian policy might have undermined his own conflicted position as an anti-war campaigner working in a laboratory funded by the US military.

None of this makes Chomsky’s opposition to US militarism any less genuine or admirable. If anything, his dissidence was all the more remarkable given the context in which it was expressed. My aim here is simply to highlight how conflicted Chomsky must have felt, being a committed anti-militarist in an institution so closely associated with a war machine that was inflicting so much death and misery across the globe.

Chomsky’s moral qualms were particularly apparent at the height of the war in Vietnam when, in October 1968, Chomsky told The New York Times that he felt ‘guilty most of the time’.[21] One way to assuage this guilt might have been to resign and, as it happens, around the time that the New York Review of Books published ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ in its February 1967 edition, Chomsky was thinking of doing just that. The March edition of the Review included a letter from Chomsky saying he had ‘given a good bit of thought to … resigning from MIT, which is, more than any other university associated with the activities of the Department of “Defense”‘. However, Chomsky soon had second thoughts which he expressed in a follow-up letter published in the April edition. Whereas in his original letter he had complained that MIT’s ‘involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible’, in the follow-up he claimed – in a surprising about-turn – that ‘MIT as an institution has no involvement in the war effort. Individuals at MIT, as elsewhere, have direct involvement and that is what I had in mind.'[22]

So it appears that, despite his sincere and often courageous opposition to the US military, Chomsky felt a simultaneous pull in the opposite direction, prompting him to tone down criticisms of MIT in order to protect his ability to continue with the job he loved. My own view is that the intensity of Chomsky’s anti-militarist dissidence can be explained in part by his need to square his continued MIT employment with a political conscience that refused to lie down.

I have no space in a short article to explain how such moral dilemmas influenced not only Chomsky’s political work but also his linguistics. Suffice it to say that Chomsky was hired to work at MIT by Jerome Wiesner, a military scientist who, in the 1950s, was arguing ‘fervently for developing and manufacturing ballistic missiles.’ Wiesner was an adviser to both the CIA and President Eisenhower and it is hard to think of anyone in US academia who was more deeply involved in both the technology and decision making of nuclear war than he was.[23]

Wiesner initially employed Chomsky because, as he said, ‘[we wanted to] use computers to do automatic translation, so we hired Noam Chomsky and Yehoshua Bar-Hillel to work on it.’ In this Cold War period, the US military were investing millions of dollars in linguistic research not only to automatically translate Soviet documents but also to enhance their computer systems of ‘command and control’ for both nuclear war and, later, for the war in Vietnam.[24]

Chomsky, therefore, found himself from the very beginning of his career working in a largely conservative institutional milieu among colleagues more or less happy to conduct advanced weapons research. Given his own political commitments, on the other hand, he needed to ensure that his own particular contribution would not assist the military in any way. He solved this problem by extricating linguistics from practicalities altogether. Language, under Chomsky’s novel definition, became non-communicative, non-social and, in effect, little more than a Platonic abstraction. In short, for fifty years, much of linguistics was driven into an academic dead-end from which it has taken decades to emerge. But all that is another story ….[25]

Chris Knight is author of Decoding Chomsky: Science and revolutionary politics (Yale University Press, 2016).

1. R.Barsky, Noam Chomsky, a life of dissent, p122, 131.

2. G.D.White, Campus Inc., p445.

3. M.Albert, Remembering Tomorrow, p97-99; C.P.Otero, Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics (2004), p216. Of course, any university that restricted its research to the development of military technology would soon run out of new ideas so MIT does a lot of pure science, including linguistics. But, as Michael Albert says, ‘War blood ran through MIT’s veins. It flooded the research facilities and seeped even into the classrooms.’ In the late 1960s, some 500 students worked in MIT’s military laboratories. Most worked in the Instrumentation Laboratories that were part of the engineering school and which, in Chomsky’s words, were only ‘two inches off campus’ with people going ‘between them all the time’. MIT also did military research ‘on campus’ for both the Navy and the CIA. Albert p99; MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, Final Report, p59-69; Works And Days 51-4: Vol. 26/27, 2008-09, p533; MIT Bulletin, Report of the President, 1969, p237-40, 255; The Tech, 31/10/69, p1, 10.

4. ‘Why Smash MIT?’, in I.Wallerstein, The University Crisis Reader, Vol.2 p240-3; Albert p113-4.

5. Stephen Shalom, New Politics, Vol.6(3) No.23.

6. MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, Final Report, p37-8; Albert p98.

7. J.Segel, Recountings; Conversations with MIT mathematicians, p206-7.

8. The Tech, 14/12/71, p8 and The Tech, 4/8/72, p1.

9.; Time, 21/11/69 p68 and 15/3/71 p43; H.Johnson, Holding the Center, p202-3.

10. N.Chomsky, Chomsky on Democracy and Education, p311; Albert p9, 16. Chomsky’s ambivalence about any kind of illegal or confrontational action at MIT was shown again, in 2011, when the university cooperated with the prosecution of Aaron Swartz for the ‘crime’ of downloading Jstor journals from MIT’s library. Although Jstor agreed to a deal whereby Swartz would avoid prison, MIT apparently rejected this deal and the threat of decades in prison helped drive Swartz to suicide. When asked about this tragic event, Chomsky did say that MIT should have acted differently. However he also implied that Swartz should have been prosecuted – if only for a ‘misdemeanour’ – and he even said: ‘If you take Jstor and make it public, Jstor goes out of business … [and] nobody has access to the journals. … You can’t just liberate things, pretending you don’t exist in the [capitalist] world.’ ‘Noam Chomsky at the British Library’ (video, at 1hr.30mins.); The Boston Globe, 15/1/13; The Atlantic, 30/7/13. See also: ‘Passing Noam on My Way Out, Part 2: Chomsky vs. Aaron Swartz’.

11. The Tech, 14/12/71, p8; N.Chomsky, Class Warfare (1999), p137; White p445-6; R.Chepesiuk, Sixties Radicals, p145; S.Diamond, Compromised Campus, p284-5.

12. D.Milne, America’s Rasputin; The Tech, 11/4/69, p1, 8.

13. Barsky p141; ‘TV debate between Noam Chomsky and William Buckley’.

14. Chomsky, Class Warfare, p135-6.

15. The Tech, 7/3/89, p2, 16 and 27/5/88, p2, 11; The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7.

16. The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7; The New York Times, 10/12/95.

17. MIT Bulletin, Report of the President, 1969, p3.

18. J.Wiesner, Jerry Wiesner, p582; Johnson p189-90; Barsky p141.

19. N.Chomsky, Understanding Power (2013), p10.

20. The Tech, 22/4/69, p1.

21. The New York Times, 27/10/68.

22. New York Review of Books, 25 March and April 1967.

23. The New York Times, 23/10/94; D.Welzenbach, ‘Science and Technology: Origins of a Directorate’, p16, 21; L.Smullin, ‘Jerome Bert Wiesner, 1915-1994, A Biographical Memoir’, p 1, 7-10, 20; D.L.Snead, Eisenhower and the Gaither Report, p189; M.Rosenberg, Plans and Proposals for the Ballistic Missile Initial Operation Capability Progam, piii-iv, 6-11, 17-22.

24. S.Garfinkel, ‘Building 20, A Survey’; J.Nielsen in M.Solovey, Cold War Social Science, p67-75; F.J.Newmeyer, The Politics of Linguistics, p84-6. Wiesner went on to say, ‘It didn’t take us long to realize that we didn’t know much about language. So we went from automatic translation to fundamental studies about the nature of language.’ Wiesner later became critical of US policy on both nuclear weapons and on the Vietnam war but this did not stop him from continuing to oversee MIT’s huge military research program which he, naturally, justified on the grounds of ‘academic freedom’. The Tech, 28/4/72, p5; L.Kampf, ‘The University in American Power’ (audio, at 48mins.).

25. Another academic dead-end, in the form of postmodernism, befell cultural theory and it is notable that MIT also played a formative role in that intellectual disaster. See: B.Geoghegan, ‘From Information Theory to French Theory’, Critical Inquiry 38 (2011).

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Manuel December 23, 2016 at 1:54 pm

Looking forward to your analysis of Chomsky’s theories of linguistics.


Reza December 26, 2016 at 8:58 pm

The author says: “Chomsky, therefore, found himself from the very beginning of his career working in a largely conservative institutional milieu among colleagues more or less happy to conduct advanced weapons research. Given his own political commitments, on the other hand, he needed to ensure that his own particular contribution would not assist the military in any way. He solved this problem by extricating linguistics from practicalities altogether. Language, under Chomsky’s novel definition, became non-communicative, non-social and, in effect, little more than a Platonic abstraction. In short, for fifty years, much of linguistics was driven into an academic dead-end from which it has taken decades to emerge. But all that is another story.”

There are at least three levels of fallacies committed here:
1) Just about every single professional working in just about any university or most other professional settings, has been and is currently, to quote the author, “working in a largely conservative institutional milieu.” We have to look at what the person has done, through their individual input, in order to judge the moral character of any professional. It is a fallacy to focus on the employing institutional leaders’ political tendencies and then go on to over-generalize that every single person working in that institution must by logical necessity have the same exact political tendencies. This is such a cheap shot, it should have been spotted by the author himself and omitted.

Otherwise, the question becomes, What communistic institution does the author work for and is currently accepting applications from the academically-trained professionals?

2) Author says: “Given his own political commitments, on the other hand, he needed to ensure that his own particular contribution would not assist the military in any way. He solved this problem by extricating linguistics from practicalities altogether.”

This is the fallacy of assigning imagined motivation to the subject under study. I could just as justifiably suppose that Chomsky was pursuing a genuine line of questions regarding matters of purely linguistic nature. The author superimposes an imagined motivation onto every single move of the subject under study, with the free ease of a novelist assigning motivation to characters in a story just to create drama and suspense for the reader. In reality, the subject under study could have bad a million other equally plausible motives.

3) Finally, we come to my own area of professional work: actual linguistics. The author says: “Language, under Chomsky’s novel definition, became non-communicative, non-social and, in effect, little more than a Platonic abstraction.”

To non-linguists, this may sound like an intelligent remark from a person linguistically knowledgeable. To an actual linguist, this sounds jarringly ignorant while pretending. The author assumes that there is ONE linguistic theory of things linguistic. There is no such thing. Just as there is no such thing as ONE unifying theory of chemistry or botany or zoology. There are many different areas of linguistics. It is not a unified science. There are many different sub-areas that practicing linguists actually focus on.

Chomsky’s contributions have been mainly in area of syntax. He does not claim to delve into socio-linguistics or pragmatics, for example, nor phonetics or phonology. Chomsky himself (to my knowledge) would not claim that he has come up with the one-and-only linguistic theory that explains all linguistic knowledge, data and insights. Such a theory does not exist, and practicing linguists know this. Chomsky’s focus is specific, and his contributions are specifically in the areas of syntax and universals that can be looked into through a systematic study of syntax and semantics connected to it by extension.


David McDonald January 18, 2017 at 11:15 am

Hi Chris, I’m very interested in your take on Chomsky’s linguistics. I think your analysis of his political work is accurate, although I had no idea of how closely he defended MIT. I read all his articles from the 60’s onward to get a grasp of his political thought when I was researching a take-down of his lesser-evil Hubert Humphrey piece, and what struck me is that he is a denouncer with absolutely no idea of strategy. His advice to the student movement is ludicrous and vapid.

I have read “Why Only Us” and would love to hear your take on it, and your take in general of his linguistics, although I am only layman-competent in that field, if that.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: