Chomsky on War Research at MIT

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

On 25 February 2017, a conference was held in London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Noam Chomsky's landmark article, 'The Responsibility of Intellectuals'.[1] Videos of the event can be found at:

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 that his article was published:

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 counter-insurgency 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 counter-insurgency, 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. 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. [‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ 50 years on, Part 2, 2hrs 14mins.]

(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.[2])

Noam’s opening words echo a familiar theme, expressed with unusual clarity in the following 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.’[3]

So from the moment when he first began working at MIT, in 1955, the university conducted no military work. Chomsky concedes that MIT did administer two specialist military laboratories, but reassures us that these were not 'connected to the campus'. A few sentences later, however, he recalls recommending in 1969 that these same laboratories should be kept on campus instead of being moved away. If this is true, then the military laboratories were officially on campus from the start, Chomsky wanting to keep them there. His reasoning was that if they remained on campus at a time of student protest and upheaval, their presence would be ‘a constant source of educational activity, protest, activism to try to end their activities.’

MIT's value to the Pentagon has always been very clear. For over sixty years, the greater part of MIT's research has been concerned with developing military technology.[4] 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'. Michael Albert, the university's student president in 1969, condemned MIT as another 'Dachau' whose 'victims burned in the fields of Vietnam'.[5] Why would these people say such things if, as Noam says, ‘MIT doesn’t have war work’?[6]

Of course, most of MIT’s military research was conducted not in student labs but in specialised laboratories. In the 1960s, this enabled MIT's managers to describe these laboratories as 'off campus', a term which they liked to use in the hope of dissuading students from protesting against them.[7] Chomsky's line of argument about MIT's innocence turns out to be none other than the victorious management line, which he describes as right-wing. The military labs may have been 'off campus', but as Noam has clarified, in an interview in 2008, 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]

In the face of passionate student protests, the administrative fiction that the military labs were 'off campus' served MIT management well, allowing them to wash their hands of moral and political responsibility for what was going on. According to the 1969 Pounds Commission report, to which Noam refers, some 500 students worked in the military labs, making them very much part of the life of the university.[9]

Adding to this picture, Noam once explained, 'I'm at MIT, so I'm always talking to the scientists who work on missiles for the Pentagon.' In one unusually frank interview, Noam conceded: '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.'[10]

MIT's radical students were certainly not fooled by the management line. They knew 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, which Noam invokes, never discovered this hi-tech, top-secret project. MIT's radical students would not have been surprised. When the commission’s report was released, the leading radicals dismissed the whole thing 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 it 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, version of its report which recommended keeping all the military labs functioning.[14] However he then changed his mind, refusing to sign the final, October, version of the report. His separate statement now recommended that MIT's military labs should not contribute to 'offensive military action', 'counterinsurgency', 'unilateral escalation of the arms race' or 'the actual development of weapons systems'.

This all sounds 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 routinely describe their activities as restricted to defense and deterrence, so what did this add? In any case, most military work at MIT was already restricted to research, not 'the actual development of weapons systems'. Michael Albert is still to this day Noam's close colleague but he has openly criticised his recommendations concerning the military labs as, in effect, 'preserving war research with modest amendments'.[16]

Another student activist from this period, Stephen Shalom, has echoed Albert’s criticisms, saying that Noam’s version of events '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] It is hard to find evidence of any MIT students who supported Noam's position at the time, apart from a couple of people on the Pounds Commission itself.

Equally unpopular was Noam's attitude 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 had 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]

(A student heckles Walt Rostow at MIT, April 1969)

Far from associating himself with this student protest, when Noam 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, 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 presentation to the 'Responsibility of Intellectuals' conference, I discussed two of the most powerful people at MIT during those years, Jerome Wiesner and John Deutch. Both were top specialists in what we now call 'Weapons of Mass Destruction'.[20] 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 at this time. In the 1980s, Deutch brought chemical and biological weapons research to MIT and, according to the radical student journal, The Thistle, 'pressured junior faculty into performing this research on campus'. It seems he was also 'a strong supporter … of using chemical and biological weapons together in order to increase their killing efficiency.' He later became Director of the CIA. Noam tells us that he openly supported Wiesner and Deutch in their bids to become President of MIT.[21]

I’m sure that, privately, Noam never had any illusions about what his university was really up to. As mentioned in my talk, he revealed his troubled conscience in a letter written at the height of the Vietnam War in which he wrote: '[MIT's] involvement in the war effort is tragic and indefensible.’ In the same letter he added: ‘I have 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"'.[22] In the event, as we know, Noam did not resign – becoming instead 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. The Tech, 6/11/69 and 14/12/71, p8 and 4/8/72, p1.
3. Z Magazine, 3 May 2010.
4. The Tech, 15/12/72, p5-6 and 24/2/89; MIT Briefing Book, 2016, p60-5, 79-90.
5. F.D.Scott, Outlaw Territories, p375; ’Interview with Walter Rosenblith’, p22; M.Albert, Remembering Tomorrow, p9.
6. Noam's claim that 'MIT itself doesn't have war work' could not be more mistaken. To this day it still runs the large 'off-campus' Lincoln Lab. Meanwhile 'on-campus', in the 1980s, MIT did work on missile guidance, army helicopters and radar for 'Star Wars' projects. And, in more 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. 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.

7. Science, 9/5/69, p653.
8. Works and Days, Vol. 26/27, 2008-9, p530, 534; S.Bridger, Scientists at War, p159-62, 178.
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; The New York Times, 2/7/71, p12; A.Finkbeiner, The Jasons, p65-6, 75-6; B.Feldman, 'Columbia University's IDA Jason Project 1960s Work - Part 9'; S.Bridger, Scientists at War, Ch.5.
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, 43-50mins.
14. E.B.Skolnikoff, 'Video interview for MIT 150 Infinite History Project', 1hr 40mins; D.Nelkin, The University and Military Research, p81.
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. R.Barsky, Noam Chomsky, a life of dissent, p141; 'TV debate between Noam Chomsky and William Buckley'.
20. The Chicago Tribune, 29/6/69, p24; The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7; The New York Times, 10/12/95.
21. The Thistle, Vol.9 No.7, 'An Open Letter to President Vest' and 'Who is John Deutch?'; Time, 15 March 1971, p43; N.Chomsky, Class Warfare, p135-6.
22. The New York Review of Books, March 1967.