Chomsky on War Research at MIT

Noam Chomsky's 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', 50 years on, UCL 25/2/17
Noam Chomsky's 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', 50 years on, UCL 25/2/17

On 25 February 2017, a conference was held at University College London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Noam Chomsky's landmark article, 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals'.[1]

During the conference, Noam made the following statement about the military research that was going on at his university, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, around the time when the article was published:

Submitted by hedgehog on March 18, 2017

Actually, contrary to what was often believed, MIT itself did not have war work, war-related work, on the campus. On the campus itself, there was a commission in 1969, The Pounds Commission, which reviewed this quite closely. There was no classified work on campus. There was no directly war-oriented work. Of course, anything that's done has some possible military applications. So work in anthropology, for example, was picked up by the military for counterinsurgency and so on.

MIT did administer two military laboratories, the Lincoln Labs and what was then called the I-Labs, now the Draper Labs, working on counterinsurgency, on the guidance systems for intercontinental missiles and so on. They were administered by MIT but they were not on campus and there was a major struggle about it.

By the time the campus got politicised by the late 1960s, there was significant debate and struggle about the military labs and there were basically two positions. For convenience, the right-wing position was to keep, to move the labs, to break the relation, [the] formal relation, between MIT and the labs. That's the position that actually won.

The left position, of which I was a part in a small group of students was to keep the labs connected to campus. We wanted them to retain the formal relationship. And the reason was very simple. If they were moved off campus formally, everything would proceed exactly as before without visibility. If they were formally connected to the campus, to the academic program, there would be a constant source of educational activity, protest, activism to try to end their activities. Well, that was basically the struggle, the right-wing position won. Now they're formally separated from the campus.

But MIT itself doesn't have war work.[2] In fact the only exception was at that time the political science department, which did have direct involvement in counterinsurgency activity in Vietnam. But that's the kind of struggle that goes on at MIT. It was quite an interesting place in that respect. [3]

Noam's opening words in his statement echo a familiar theme, expressed with unusual clarity in another statement from a 2010 interview: ‘In the 1950s and 1960s, MIT was maybe 90% funded by the Pentagon. But it wasn't doing military work, it was developing the advanced economy of the future.'[4]

So, according to these statements, from the moment when Noam first began working at MIT, in 1955, the university conducted no military work. He concedes that MIT did administer two specialist military laboratories, but reassures us that these 'were not on campus'.

A few sentences later, however, he recalls recommending in 1969 that these same laboratories should not be formally 'moved off campus'. If this is true, then the military laboratories were officially on campus from the start, Noam now wanting to keep them there. His reasoning, he tells us, was that if the special labs were kept on campus during a time of student unrest, their presence would be ‘a constant source of educational activity, protest, activism to try to end their activities'.

Whatever the formal position of these laboratories in 1969, MIT's value to the Pentagon has always been clear. For over sixty years, the greater part of MIT's research has been concerned with developing military technology.[5] For Senator J.William Fulbright, MIT was 'the sixth wall of the Pentagon'. For Walter Rosenblith, MIT's provost during the 1970s, the institution was a 'tower of war research'. For Michael Albert, the university's student president in 1969, MIT was another 'Dachau' whose 'victims burned in the fields of Vietnam'.[6]

Naturally, most of MIT's war research was conducted not in student labs but in specialised laboratories. In the 1960s, this enabled MIT's managers to describe many of these laboratories as 'off campus', a term which made them appear less problematic for the university.[7] So Noam's line of argument about MIT's innocence turns out to be the official management line. The military labs may have been administratively 'off campus', but as Noam clarified in a 2008 interview, some were only 'two inches off campus. The labs right next door were doing classified work and people were between [the campus and the labs] all the time.'[8] According to information from the Pounds Commission report, to which Noam refers, over 500 students and academics worked in the military labs, making them a significant part of university life.[9] In the face of passionate student protests, however, the administrative designation that all the military labs were 'off campus' served MIT management well.

(Police confront student protesters outside one of MIT's nuclear missile laboratories in November 1969. Seven protesters were injured. In order to contain such protests, MIT eventually had six students sentenced to prison terms. The Tech, 6/11/69 and 14/12/71, p8 and 4/8/72, p1.)

Any claim that the labs were completely separate can be dismissed as a convenient management fiction. As Noam once explained, 'I'm at MIT, so I'm always talking to the scientists who work on missiles for the Pentagon.' In another unusually frank interview, Noam conceded that during the 1960s 'there was extensive weapons research on the MIT campus. ... In fact, a good deal of the missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus and in laboratories run by the university.'[10]

MIT's radical students were certainly not fooled by the official management line. They knew all about MIT's work on counterinsurgency, aircraft stabilisation and radar – all very useful for the ongoing war in Vietnam – but could only suspect what else might be going on. We now know that twelve of MIT's top scientists were also involved in designing the McNamara Line, a hi-tech barrier of sensors, mines and cluster bombs dividing North from South Vietnam and intended to defeat the Vietnamese resistance once and for all.[11]THE POUNDS COMMISSION – THE 'SMOKESCREEN'

The Pounds Commission never discovered this hi-tech, top-secret project. MIT's radical students would not have been surprised. When the commission's report was released, MIT's student leaders denounced it as a 'smokescreen'.[12] Years later, Howard Johnson, the MIT President responsible for setting up the commission, conceded as much when he described it as a means of taking 'the steam out of the lab situation'. Noam himself also admits that he was invited to join the commission in order to 'satisfy the radicals' and 'get out of a confrontation' over war research.[13]

Once he was on the Pounds Commission, Noam seems to have signed the initial May 1969 report which said that 'the two special laboratories should continue research on defense problems.'[14] Then, in September, he refused to sign the final version of the report. Meanwhile his separate statement to the commission recommended that the labs should not contribute to 'offensive military action', 'counterinsurgency', 'unilateral escalation of the arms race' or 'the actual development of weapons systems'.

Noam's recommendations all seem quite radical until we read the next sentence which says that the labs 'should be restricted to research on systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character.'[15] The US military, of course, routinely describe their activities as restricted to defense and deterrence, so Noam's advice was not really that radical. Furthermore, most military work at MIT was already restricted to research, not 'the actual development of weapons systems'. Michael Albert, who is still to this day Noam's close colleague, has not hesitated to criticise his 1969 position on MIT's labs, describing it as, in effect, 'preserving war research with modest amendments'.[16]

Another student activist, Stephen Shalom, has also criticised Noam's version of the events of 1969. He argues that Noam's account 'obscures the fact that most radical students, as well as many liberal students, wanted first and foremost to stop the war research and thus to convert the labs to non-military pursuits. We didn't want the war research to go on in divested labs, nor did we want it to go on in affiliated labs. We wanted the war research stopped, period.'[17]A student confronts Walt Rostow at MIT, April 1969

It is hard to find much evidence of radical students who shared Noam's position at this time, apart from the couple of graduate students who were with him on the Pounds Commission. Equally unpopular was Noam's position earlier in 1969 when Walt Rostow, the architect of the blanket bombing of North Vietnam, tried to return to his former post at MIT. Many students must have been inspired by Noam's eloquent denunciations of Rostow in his 'Responsibility of Intellectuals' article and other statements. So it was no surprise that when Rostow returned to the university for just one day in April, his lecture was severely disrupted by students furious at his presence on campus.[18]

Far from associating himself with such student rage, however, when Noam heard that Rostow was hoping to return to his former job at MIT, he seems to have welcomed the prospect. Then, when he heard that the university was poised to reject Rostow's job application for fear of more student disruption, Noam 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.[19] Unsurprisingly, this most unlikely of student protests never took place.

In my contribution to the UCL 'Responsibility of Intellectuals' conference, I discussed two of the most powerful people at MIT, Jerome Wiesner and John Deutch. Both were specialists in what we now call 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'.

In the 1950s and 1960s, Wiesner, the scientist responsible for recruiting Noam to MIT, was probably more deeply involved in the technology and decision making of nuclear war than anyone else in US academia. It was Wiesner, for example, who brought work on nuclear missile guidance to MIT in the 1950s.[20] Then, in the 1980s, it was Deutch who brought work on chemical and biological weapons to the university. As the radical students’ journal, The Thistle, said at the time, Deutch was 'a strong supporter of biological weapons, and of using chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency.' He is also said to have 'pressured junior faculty into performing this research on campus'. Later, in the 1990s, Deutch became second in command in the Pentagon and then Director of the CIA. Both Wiesner and Deutch were, certainly, remarkable figures at MIT. But one of the most remarkable things about them was that they both received Noam's explicit support in their attempts to become President of the university.[21]

I am sure that, deep down, Noam knew perfectly well what his university was up to and didn’t like it. As I mentioned in my talk, he revealed his troubled conscience in a private letter written at the height of the Vietnam War, confiding: 'As to MIT, I think that its involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible.' In the same letter he admitted: ‘I have given a good bit of thought to ... resigning from MIT, which is, more than any other university, associated with activities of the Department of "Defense"'.[22]

In the event, as we know, Noam did not resign. Instead, his solution to the problem of reconciling his conscience with his employment was to become the world's most prominent anti-militarist dissident and scourge of the Pentagon.

Chris Knight

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

1. 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals', The New York Review of Books, 23/2/67.
2. Noam's claim that 'MIT itself doesn't have war work' could not be more unfortunate. In the 1980s, MIT did significant work on missile guidance, army helicopters and radar for 'Star Wars' projects, all, apparently, ‘on campus’. In recent decades, it has done work on military robots, drones, the countering of roadside bombs in Iraq and the development of 'battle suits' for chemical and biological warfare, again all, apparently, ‘on campus’. Meanwhile, the huge 'off campus' military facility, the Lincoln Lab, is still administered by MIT and 'the number of [its] collaborative and research efforts with MIT professors and students is at an all time high'.The Tech, 24/2/89, p5 and 28/2/06, p13; MIT News, 'MIT cheetah robot lands the running jump' (2015) and 'Driving drones can be a drag' (2012); 'Department of Defense announces successful micro-drone demonstration' (2017); MIT Technology Review, 20/3/02; MIT Lincoln Laboratory: technology in support of national security, p ix.3. ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ 50 years on, Part 2, 2hrs 14mins.
4. Z Magazine, 3 May 2010. Noam also understates MIT's war work in these recent interviews: ‘Ralph Nader Radio Hour', Episode 137 and ‘A conversation with Noam Chomsky and Howard Gardiner', YouTube, 1hour 7 to 11mins.
5. The Tech, 15/12/72, p5-6 and 24/2/89; MIT Briefing Book, 2016, p60-5, 79-90.
6. F.D.Scott, Outlaw Territories, p375; 'Interview with Walter Rosenblith', p22; M.Albert, Remembering Tomorrow, p9.
7. Science, 9/5/69, p653.
8. Works and Days, Vol. 26/27, 2008-9, p530, 534.
9. MIT Review Panel on Special Laboratories, Final Report, p59-69.
10. N.Chomsky, Understanding Power, p10; C.P.Otero, Noam Chomsky: Language and Politics, p216.
11. Albert, p97-99; B.Vitale The War Physicists, p9-11, 29-30, 41-5, 158-9; A.Finkbeiner, The Jasons, p65-6, 75-6; B.Feldman, 'Columbia University's IDA Jason Project 1960s Work - Part 9'.
12. The Tech, 21/11/69.
13. H.Johnson, Holding the Center, p174, 191; V.Mehta, John is Easy to Please, p153; N.Chomsky, S.Ghoshroy: 'From the Cold War to the Climate Crisis', YouTube, 43 to 50mins.
14. D.Nelkin, The University and Military Research, p81-2; MIT Review Panel …, p17; E.B.Skolnikoff, 'Video interview for MIT 150 Infinite History Project', 1hr 40mins.
15. MIT Review Panel …, p17, 31, 37–38.
16. Albert p98.
17. S.Shalom, New Politics, Vol.6(3) No.23.
18. D.Milne, America's Rasputin; The Tech, 11/4/69, p1, 8.
19. 'TV debate between Noam Chomsky and William Buckley'; R.Barsky, Noam Chomsky, a life of dissent, p141.
20. The Chicago Tribune, 29/6/69, p24; 'Bigger bang for the buck, A; interview with Jerome Wiesner'.
21. The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7, 'An Open Letter to President Vest' and 'Who is John Deutch?';
The Tech, 7/3/89, p2, 16 and 27/5/88, p2, 11; The New York Times, 10/12/95; Time, 15/3/71, p43; N.Chomsky, Class Warfare, p135-6.
22. The New York Review of Books, 23/3/67.