Several of the linguists employed at the MITRE Corporation between 1963 and 1965 were kind enough to email their recollections to me in January and February 2018. I was particularly interested in how scientists whose passion was developing linguistic theory, not military technology, felt about working for the Air Force. My impression is that, for understandable moral and political reasons, they tend to play down the Air Force's stated mission to apply insights into language structure to military problems of weapons command-and-control.
Barbara Partee's reminiscences have been the most informative. She started by saying:
Chomsky got lots of funding for research and for supporting graduate students from the Air Force during the same period when a number of us, his graduate students, were working summers at the Air Force-funded MITRE Corporation. It was my understanding that our standard rationalization was that it was better for defense spending to be diverted to linguistic research than to be used for really military purposes. … The summers I worked at MITRE were 1963, 64, and 65. I think we had the most interaction with Chomsky there in 64, when we were working out a real grammar fragment of English; probably also in 1965, as we were further refining our grammar.
In her next email, Barbara recalled:
Chomsky definitely did come out and consult with us at least once, in either my second or third year there, probably third (and last), 1965, when we were trying to clean up our 'MITRE Grammar' which we had written in the summer of 64, and which the two programmers in Don's group, Joyce Friedman and Ted Haines, had worked on programming up over the winter, uncovering various bugs and indeterminacies in what we had written. I remember the term 'Chomsky-adjunction' was coined in our group for the particular proposal Chomsky gave us in discussion for how adjunction should work. …
Really it was in my first summer, 1963 (which I think was the first summer that any of us were there, but I'm not positive), that we had total freedom. Everybody could choose their own topic, as long as it could be related to the goal of eventually getting machines to process English sentences and do some question-answering on topics of potential interest to the Air Force.
I worked on tenses and adverbs, and produced my first LSA talk on the syntax of plain and counterfactual conditionals. But after that first summer, dear Don [Donald Walker, the head of the MITRE project] realized that he'd have to get us to work collectively on producing a grammar and a parser in order to convince the generals that it was valuable to hire us.…
I remember a meeting when Don invited in 'the generals' (I call them that – the guys from the [Air Force] – I have no idea of their actual ranks) to talk with us. We knew that Don's rationalization for hiring us (in reality he just wanted to support us) was that in the event of a nuclear war, the generals would be underground with some computers trying to manage things, and that it would probably be easier to teach computers to understand English than to teach the generals to program. And I remember that in my little presentation I said something honest like that it would probably take 100 linguists 100 years to write a real grammar of English, but that we were happily working towards that goal, and Don had to hop up and talk very fast to recover from that statement.
On the issue of how they felt working for the military, Barbara explained:
I never sensed any discomfort with taking Air Force money, of which Chomsky had a great deal for supporting students at MIT. I had the impression that we all considered it something like benign pacifist sabotage.
She then recalled that she
had a shock … when outside of class one time some political topic came up and Noam said that he was an anarchist, I think, and said something about how awful he considered everything about the American government. … I was totally unready to listen to anything like that. It wasn't until the Vietnam War that I began to appreciate his politics, but I never did become comfortable with his manner of arguing, so totally disparaging of everything that ordinary middle-class people like our family believed. … But for the record, I never heard him say a political word in any linguistics class or linguistics lecture.
In another email, Barbara said:
When I told you about our story of the generals being underground during the war and the computers therefore needing to understand English, really I'm not sure that anybody believed it. If you look at all the ARPA (DARPA) projects funded over the years, lots of them are really basic research that might be somehow be valuable to the military but could be much more widely valuable. …
Jay Keyser, he, like Don Walker, was one of a number of people a little older than us graduate students who was a regular visitor to MIT, even with some temporary office space there. Sometime in the early 1960s, the AFROTC [Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps.] finally caught up with Jay, who had been managing to stay under the radar for some years, and he had to go serve as an Air Force officer (Lieutenant, I think) for a few years. While he was there, he persuaded them that his own research task should be to work on Old English metrics – I no longer remember his lovely story of how he convinced them that that would be in the national interest. And importantly for the rest of us, he persuaded them to let him choose a number of linguistic projects for funding. I went to UCLA in 1965, and in 1966, Robert Stockwell, Paul Schachter, and I got a big grant from the Air Force to write a big transformational grammar of English, synthesizing as nearly as possible everything that had been done in that framework since it began with Syntactic Structures in 1957.
Other linguists working at MITRE agreed with much of Barbara's version of events. Arnold Zwicky added that it was 'colonels we had to impress, not generals' and that he also never heard Chomsky talk politics in his lectures. He also said:
I too was astonished to discover these attitudes (but then became an anti-Vietnam protestor). But it's part of Noam's intense, passionate belief that any position he comes to is the only possible one and that those who believe otherwise are deluded or even evil. (recall the Skinner review.)
Arnold also said:
Believe it or not, Noam really was a consultant. [He] came to MITRE several times to look at the English grammar Barbara Hall (Partee) and I and our group were working on.
When Noam visited, he got a visitor's badge, which committed him to be under the care of a staff member at all times (and stay within the appropriate clearance-color lines on the floor.) I remember this because on at least one of his visits I was the responsible person, and I had to accompany him to the men's room. 'At all times' was meant quite literally.
Another MITRE linguist, Haj Ross, said:
I knew nothing about Noam’s political thinking, till I finally arrived at MIT in January 1964. … [I] was allowed to stay on at MIT in the fall of 1964, as a regular student, I had made it into Valhalla. … I remember, after Jack Kennedy had been shot, arriving at MIT, and going to a course taught by Noam, on politics, perhaps, walking back from building 23 to building 20, and asking Noam what he thought of President Lyndon Johnson and the Great Society, which I was totally enamored of. I remember almost word for word what Noam said: he thought that Johnson’s administration was the largest collection of criminals that had ever infested the White House. I was speechless, I followed Noam’s course, became totally radicalized.
At MITRE I had never had the slightest hint about Noam’s radicalism. I was completely innocent, till that conversation in the halls of Building 20. I must also say that I never had any whiff of military work at MITRE. Maybe we had to wear badges, I have no recollection of that, but what we talked about had nothing at all to do with command and control or Air Force or anything similar. Our talk was about syntax and confusions about semantics.
Thomas Bever, told me:
I do not recall any time when [Chomsky] was cooperating with the Air Force on anything related to the US war effort anywhere. … From the viewpoint of the grad students who were [at MITRE], it was an interesting and well paid adventure. We were given total freedom.
Bruce Fraser recalled:
I don't remember much talk about the implications of the work, the talk was mostly about our various projects. … I do recall that Noam didn't talk with us much about what we were doing. We were graduate students just getting started. I know that he knew that MITRE was Air Force supported, but as I recall, he didn't have any problem with us working with the company. We were doing linguistics, it was the early 60s, and Vietnam was just heating up, as I remember the time.
And Jay Keyser said:
As for interesting discussions about the pros and cons of taking military funding, there just weren't any that I can remember. As I said in my book, MIT was the love child of the War Department. That's how the government supported higher education back then.
I had a lot of interesting conversations with Noam. But they were all about linguistics. If you get a copy of Mens et Mania out of the library, there is an account of my very first professional article and the role that Morris Halle and Noam played in guiding the writing of it.