Is no one else tired of alternate history politics? You know, how you caused the Iraq War because you voted for Nader in 2000? I would rather jump into a pool of sludge than read more on that one. The entire enterprise is suspect because it involves just making stuff up and once you go there the sky’s the limit so you can blame anyone for anything. That’s why this tactic never dies. We are spared Al Gore in the present instance, but the price is steep.
Now Noam Chomsky has brought a cudgel to this fight. Trust me, it’s a blunt instrument.
Back in ’68, Chomsky says, “the ultraleft faction of the peace movement” caused the election of Richard Nixon by “minimizing the comparative danger” of a Nixon presidency, thereby making the huge strategic mistake of foisting Nixon on the world, prolonging the Vietnam War by “six years” and causing senseless deaths and untold suffering because we voted our hearts, not our minds.
Fortunately for those of us who were running around doing stuff in the antiwar movement and not voting Democrat, not a word of this is true.
The first fail is this: Nixon could not have been defeated even if every last member of “the ultraleft faction of the peace movement” had voted for the Democrat Humphrey, along with all their friends and relations. The devil is in those pesky electoral votes. The difference of .7% in popular vote ballooned to an electoral defeat of 301 to 191 to 46 (George Wallace), so Humphrey would have needed to pick up a bunch of states with 79 electoral votes to get to 270.
Let’s look at one of them: California. This state has a lot of data, a lot of 3rd party candidates and is favorable for Chomsky’s argument since Nixon’s victory margin there was only three percentage points. (His margin was closer in only 5 states totaling 84 electoral votes but greater in 26 others.) Nevertheless, Humphrey came up short by 223,346 votes. Now, if all the votes for all 3rd party candidates are thrown in with an equal number for their friends and family, and if this total is doubled again to account for ultraleft abstentions, Humphrey still loses California by over 10,000 votes. Chomsky’s LEV argument fails the test of arithmetic.
Really? How was it that the combined antiwar forces of 1968 could not marshal another couple hundred thousand votes (if they got their heads on straight) and could only muster 52,000 votes for all the third parties in a very contested election? Well, we didn’t have the vote. The voting age was 21. If you graduated high school after 1965 you were too young to vote in 1968. That was almost everybody in the movement. Repeat: the antiwar movement could not have saved Humphrey if it wanted to, because we didn’t have the vote. Fail.
The second fail is the preposterous charge of extending the war by 6 years. The war only lasted 6 more years under Nixon/Ford, so the Democrat, if elected, would have had to declare not just immediate but instant withdrawal. As we shall see, that is an otherworldly conjecture. Why not just claim to shorten the war by several years? This is not the only time this brief reads like a really sloppy first draft and makes an unforced error.
Chomsky himself has noted elsewhere the manner in which the decision to withdraw from Vietnam was actually made by the rulers of America. Sorry, but background. The single most important event of the Vietnam War occurred on January 31, 1968: the Tet Offensive. An armed insurrection broke out in every major town and every provincial capital and in Saigon itself, where the US Embassy was breached and partly overrun. Though this insurrection was short-lived and massively attacked with the full might of the assembled US military; although the insurrectionary forces were at least savagely repressed if not obliterated almost everywhere, and though it took years to rebuild the networks that were sacrificed in those few days; and notwithstanding the fact that the “insurrection” failed to mobilize any segment of the South Vietnamese society in noticeable let alone decisive numbers and relied instead of members of the NLF; nevertheless, the Tet Offensive is widely understood as one of the greatest military victories of history because it destroyed the will of the American people to pursue the war.
Many colonial powers have endured uprisings by subject peoples and continued more or less unfazed, like the British in India and the French in Algeria, at least for a while. But in America we were fed, for years, the lie that the war was being won and pacification of local hamlets and villages was happily proceeding. The end was in sight. So the shock of Tet in America was total. Suddenly a lot of people stopped believing anything the government said about Vietnam.
President Lyndon Johnson also stopped believing what he heard about Vietnam and in the wake of Tet instructed his new Secretary of Defense, an old pal and Democratic Party fixer going back to Truman, to assess the government’s ability to field the 205,000 more troops requested by Gen. Westmoreland as the way to put Tet behind them and go on winning the war. That was the official task but Johnson was tired of hearing totally different stories from different parts of his government and wanted to put the entire security cabinet, as the Israelis would call it, in the same room where they would be forced to arrive at an agreed assessment with no chance of weaseling out later. After three days the new Secretary of Defense concluded there was no way whatsoever to win the war and the US should adopt the strategy called “Vietnamization,” the effort to turn over fighting to the armed forces of the puppet government Washington had been propping up for over a decade. Everyone understood this could not be an overnight affair like evacuating Dunkirk, for dozens of reasons. Everyone also knew Vietnamization would never work and the real point was to disguise defeat. Whole books have been written about this. Allies had to be placated and lies prepared not just for our own but also the people of the unfortunate countries who followed the US down this rabbit holes and provided troops, like Australia and South Korea, the latter providing 50,000. Withdrawal was never going to happen in less than years, on purpose. Total fail #2.
Oddly, Chomsky’s brief never mentions by name the person we should have voted for back when we doomed the Vietnamese to six more years of war in our ultra-left fever. This is at least consistent with Chomsky’s past practice regarding Humphrey. Between when he started writing on social and political issues in February of 1967 with the explosive publication of “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” and the 1968 election Chomsky penned five important essays that established him forever as a leading American intellectual, scourge of the Vietnam War, and a man who names names. A man who would out the head of his own department in writing as no more than an academic war profiteer.
In those essays he mentions Humphrey twice, both times in passing. First:
[T]he Vice President tells us that we are fighting “militant Asian Communism” with “its headquarters in Peking” and adds that a Viet Cong victory would directly threaten the United States[.]
This is so beyond stupid that the old Chomsky, who knew when a thing spoke for itself, made no comment. Walter Lippmann, a right-wing commentator, did point out that this bespoke an unseemly lack of confidence in the US Navy. In the second mention in this blistering political year, discussing moral choices, Chomsky puts Humphrey in some spotty company thinking very bad thoughts, but also in passing, like Dante might mention some subsidiary clod shivering in a corner of some circle of hell:
Suppose that it were in the American “national interest” to pound into rubble a small nation that refuses to submit to our will. Would it then be legitimate and proper for us to act “in this national interest”? The Rusks and the Humphreys and the Citizens Committee say “Yes”. Nothing could show more clearly how we are taking the road of the fascist aggressors of a generation ago.
Is this really everything Chomsky wrote about the Man who Might Have Stopped the War? When an endorsement, in Chomsky’s mind at least, might have mattered? Yes. That is all.
We have seen that it was mathematically impossible for Humphrey to win California, one of his better states. We have seen that the decision to exit Vietnam was taken at the level of the deep state with not an elected official in the room. Further, that the necessity to mask defeat birthed Vietnamization, which allowed for blaming everything on the hapless South Vietnamese Army as it visibly disintegrated. All this would take time. Nobody cared.
It is clear that for something other than the slow-assed withdrawal outlined above to occur Humphrey would have had to take on the entire establishment. The final fail is that Chomsky does not argue what he must: that there was something known about Humphrey’s character at the time that might make such a head-on challenge to his own administration plausible. Who, then, was Hubert Humphrey?
First, as Chomsky notes above, Humphrey was first and foremost an anti-Communist. And not just in words: He made his bones in Minnesota politics by helping to destroy the Farmer-Labor Party and fold it into the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party. This meant wiping out pockets of radicalism left over from the titanic victory of the Teamsters Strike of 1934, often with the use of thugs. In national politics he sponsored a bill to make membership in the Communist Party illegal, sponsored other outlandish pieces of anti-communist legislation, voted to establish detention camps for people like us, was a founder of the anti-communist Americans for Democratic Action and was at least as full-throated an anti-communist with credentials rivaling Nixon’s.
Second, he was an order-taking schnook, and everybody knew it. It is said he advised LBJ early on that Vietnam was a loser but lost his taste for that truth when LBJ froze him out for a couple of months. Since Humphrey considered Johnson’s favor his only possible road into the White House, in the time-honored way of American politicians he proceeded to say exactly what he was told to say for the next four years, never mind that he didn’t believe it. He thus became the Administration’s foremost spokesperson on the war and gave an astonishing 400 speeches defending the Administration’s Vietnam policy.
Robert Kennedy, smelling blood because Clean Gene McCarthy almost handed Johnson his ass in the 1968 New Hampshire primary, entered the race and chased Johnson out within weeks. Before the public announcement that he would not run Johnson coldly told an ashen-faced Humphrey he would have to run against Kennedy and Humphrey, knowing he was dead meat, obeyed. Only Kennedy’s assassination saved him from utter humiliation. He took not one step to distinguish himself from Johnson’s Vietnam position during the entire campaign.
By the record, no one (except his lawyer) ever considered him a man whose thoughts or actions on the war need be discussed. Everything Chomsky himself said about Humphrey during these tumultuous times is quoted in full above. Gabriel Kolko in Anatomy of a War mentions only “Hubert Humphrey’s faltering campaign for the presidency.” In Fred Halstead’s highly detailed history of the antiwar movement Out Now he is again mentioned only once, in passing, as the evident choice of the Democratic Party machine while Jerry Rubin’s index citations run to half a column.
It is not real to think that such a man might impose his will on the machinery of state and speed up the withdrawal from Vietnam. If Chomsky has reasons to believe this, he has kept them to himself. Nothing in history and nothing in Humphrey’s character bears him out. Third and final fail.
Do you still think I have missed the boat? Let’s finally then let the candidates speak for themselves on Vietnam. Here are their respective positions as delivered from the podium during their acceptance speeches.
“Let those who believe that our cause in Vietnam has been right — and those who believe it has been wrong — agree here and now: Neither vindication nor repudiation will bring peace or be worthy of our country.
The question is: What do we do now?
No one knows what the situation in Vietnam will be on January 20, 1969.
Every heart in America prays that, by then, we shall have reached a cease-fire in all Vietnam, and be in serious negotiation toward a durable peace.
Meanwhile, as a citizen, a candidate, and Vice President, I pledge to you and to my fellow Americans, that I shall do everything within my power to aid the negotiations and to bring a prompt end to this war.”
“We shall begin with Vietnam.
We all hope in this room that there is a chance that current negotiations may bring an honorable end to that war. And we will say nothing during this campaign that might destroy that chance.
But if the war is not ended when the people choose in November, the choice will be clear. Here it is.
For four years this Administration has had at its disposal the greatest military and economic advantage that one nation has ever had over another in any war in history.
For four years, America’s fighting men have set a record for courage and sacrifice unsurpassed in our history.
For four years, this Administration has had the support of the Loyal Opposition for the objective of seeking an honorable end to the struggle.
Never has so much military and economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively.
And if after all of this time and all of this sacrifice and all of this support there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership — not tied to the mistakes and the policies of the past. That is what we offer to America.
And I pledge to you tonight that the first priority foreign policy objective of our next Administration will be to bring an honorable end to the war in Vietnam. We shall not stop there — we need a policy to prevent more Vietnams.”
Can’t tell the difference? Neither could we.
The paucity of effort Chomsky expends on this surreal exercise in alternate history politics is notable. He isn’t really trying. He never mentions Humphrey by name. He fact-checks nothing. He does not even appear to know what a Hobson’s Choice is. That’s because all the thinking, if you want to call it that, was done long ago when Chomsky joined the Democrat’s team and stopped thinking about how to actually forge political independence.
The genius of the Democrats is that they will cheerfully allow you to say anything at all, as a Democrat, so long as you toe the line on election day. No harm, no foul. Hence the livelihoods of predictable shills like Rachel Maddow, Thom Hartmann, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzales.
It is slightly different with Chomsky because he has maintained the step of organizational independence from the Democrats, does not suggest that the Democrats can be reformed or taken over, and yet still demands we vote for them if a vote against them might actually hurt. He has, by his own admission, voted in this manner for the last 17 presidential elections. In practice he is a Democratic Party dues cheater pretending a political independence he has never demonstrated.