If you take any two historical events and you ask whether there are similarities and differences, the answer is always going to be both “yes” and “no.” At some sufficiently fine level of detail there will be differences, and at some sufficiently abstract level there will be similarities. The question we want to ask in the two cases we are considering, Central America and Vietnam, is whether the level at which there are similarities is, in fact, a significant one. And I think the answer is that it is.
The level at which there are similarities is the level at which we consider U.S. intervention, its consequences, and, particularly, its sources in domestic institutions. At this level of discussion, I think we find quite substantial similarities. They are essentially the following:
(1) United States intervention was significant and decisive.
(2) The effects of intervention were horrifying.
(3) The roots of this intervention lie in a fixed geopolitical conception that has remained invariant over a long period and that is deeply rooted in U.S. institutions.
What I would like to sketch out, in the brief time I have, is what I think a full inquiry into this topic would reveal. I’ll start by talking about the geopolitical conception. And I’d like to stress that, in my opinion, if you don’t understand this geopolitical conception, the chances that you’ll understand what is happening in the world are relatively slight; whereas if you do understand it, quite a lot of things fall into place, and you could even get a reputation as a good prophet. I will then consider what this geopolitical conception has entailed for Vietnam, and what it means today and in the likely future for Central America.
Before doing this, I would like to try to set this off against what one might call an official view, or maybe, less kindly, a party line, which pretty much dominates the interpretation of these issues. It’s expressed, for example, with regard to Vietnam, when we read that the U.S. intervention in Vietnam began with “blundering efforts to do good,” although it became a “disaster.” That’s Anthony Lewis in the New York Times. Or when we read that our involvement began from “an excess of righteousness and disinterested benevolence.” That’s John King Fairbank, the leading Asia specialist at Harvard, who points out further that what he calls our “defense” of South Vietnam was misconceived and not properly developed. Or, again, when we read that this “defense of South Vietnam” was a “failed crusade,” “noble” but “illusory,” and undertaken with the “loftiest intentions.” That is Stanley Karnow in the best-selling companion volume to the PBS television series, which is highly acclaimed for its critical candor and is now under attack by the right wing for not having been sufficiently servile, only obedient.
Notice that these few comments are from the critics, from the doves. It would be hard, within the mainstream, to find people in scholarship or the media who were harsher critics of the war than Anthony Lewis, John Fairbank, or even Stanley Karnow, who is also considered dovish and critical.
The reason I picked those examples is because the rest follows a fortiori. The spectrum of debate within the mainstream extends from that position over to the position of Ronald Reagan and Norman Podhoretz, and in fact you can see a difference, but not much. That’s the spectrum of discussion and if you don’t accept it, you’re pretty much outside of civilized company. This official view is what I would like to contrast with what appears to be the real world.
In the real world, U.S. global planning has always been sophisticated and careful, as you’d expect from a major superpower with a highly centralized and class conscious dominant social group. Their power, in turn, is rooted in their ownership and management of the economy, as is the norm in most societies. During World War II, American planners were well aware that the United States was going to emerge as a world-dominant power, in a position of hegemony that had few historical parallels, and they organized and met in order to deal with this situation.
From 1939 to 1945, extensive studies were conducted by the Council on Foreign Relations and the State Department. One group was called the War-Peace Studies Group, which met for six years and produced extensive geopolitical analyses and plans. The Council on Foreign Relations is essentially the business input to foreign policy plainning. These groups also involved every top planner in the State Department, with the exception of the Secretary of State.
The conception that they developed is what they called “Grand Area” planning. The Grand Area was a region that was to be subordinated to the needs of the American economy. As one planner put it, it was to be the region that is “strategically necessary for world control.” The geopolitical analysis held that the Grand Area had to include at least the Western Hemisphere, the Far East, and the former British Empire, which we were then in the process of dismantling and taking over ourselves. This is what is called “anti-imperialism” in American scholariship. The Grand Area was also to include western and southern Europe and the oil-producing regions of the Middle East; in fact, it was to include everything, if that were possible. Detailed plans were laid for particular regions of the Grand Area and also for international institutions that were to organize and police it, essentially in the interests of this subordination to U.S. domestic needs.
Of course, when we talk about the domestic economy, we don’t necessarily mean the people of the United States; we mean whoever dominates and controls, owns and manages the American economy. In fact, the planners recognized that other arrangements, other forms of organization, involving much less extensive control over the world would indeed be possible, but only at what from their point of view was the “cost” of internal rearrangements toward a more egalitarian society in the United States, and obviously that is not contemplated.
With respect to the Far East, the plans were roughly as follows: Japan, it was understood, would sooner or later be the industrial heartland of Asia once again. Since Japan is a resource-poor area, it would need Southeast Asia and South Asia for resources and markets. All of this, of course, would be incorporated within the global system dominated by the United States.
With regard to Latin America, the matter was put most plainly by Secretary of War Henry Stimson in May 1945 when he was explaining how we must eliminate and dismantle regional systems dominated by any other power, particularly the British, while maintaining and extending our own system. He explained with regard to Latin America as follows: “I think that it’s not asking too much to have our little region over here which never has bothered anybody.”
The basic thinking behind all of this has been explained quite lucidly on a number of occasions. (This is a very open society and if one wants to learn what’s going on, you can do it; it takes a little work, but the documents are there and the history is also there.) One of the clearest and most lucid accounts of the planning behind this was by George Kennan, who was one of the most thoughtful, humane, and liberal of the planners, and in fact was eliminated from the State Depatment largely for that reason. Kennan was the head of the State Department policy planning staff in the late 1940s. In the following document, PPS23, February 1948, he outlined the basic thinking:
We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population…. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity…. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction…. We should cease to talk about vague and…, unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
Now, recall that this is a Top Secret document. The idealistic slogans are, of course, to be constantly trumpeted by scholarship, the schools, the media, and the rest of the ideological system in order to pacify the domestic population, giving rise to accounts such as those of the “official view” that I’ve already described. Recall again that this is a view from the dovish, liberal, humane end of the spectrum. But it is lucid and clear.
There are some questions that one can raise about Kennan’s formulation, a number of them, but I’ll keep to one: whether he is right in suggesting that “human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization” should be dismissed as irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy. Actually, a review of the historical record suggests a different picture, namely that the United States has often opposed with tremendous ferocity, and even violence, these elements — human rights, democratization, and the raising of living standards.
This is particularly the case in Latin America and there are very good reasons for it. The commitment to these doctrines is inconsistent with the use of harsh measures to maintain the disparity, to insure our control over 50 percent of the resources, and our exploitation of the world. In short, what we might call the “Fifth Freedom” (there were Four Freedoms, you remember, but there was one that was left out), the Freedom to Rob, and that’s really the only one that counts; the others were mostly for show. And in order to maintain the freedom to rob and exploit, we do have to consistently oppose democratization, the raising of living standards, and human rights. And we do consistently oppose them; that, of course, is in the real world.
This Top Secret document referred to the Far East, but Kennan applied the same ideas to Latin America in a briefing for Latin American ambassadors in which he explained that one of the main concerns of U.S. policy is the “protection of our raw materials.” Who must we protect our raw materials from? Well, primarily, the domestic populations, the indigenous population, which may have ideas of their own about raising the living standards, democratization, and human rights. And that’s inconsistent with maintaining the disparity. How will we protect our raw materials from the indigenous population? Well, the answer is the following:
The final answer might be an unpleasant one, but… we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government. This is not shameful, since the Communists are essentially traitors…. It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communists.
Well, who are the Communists? “Communists” is a term regularly used in American political theology to refer to people who are committed to the belief that “the government has direct responsibility for the welfare of the people.” I’m quoting the words of a 1949 State Department intelligence report which warned about the spread of this grim and evil doctrine, which does, of course, threaten “our raw materials” if we can’t abort it somehow.
So it is small wonder, with this kind of background, that John F. Kennedy should say that “governments of the civilmilitary type of El Salvador are the most effective in containing Communist penetration in Latin America.” Kennedy said this at the time when he was organizing the basic structure of the death squads that have massacred tens of thousands of people since (all of this, incidentally, within the framework of the Alliance for Progress, and, in fact, probably the only lasting effect of that program).
In the mid-1950s, these ideas were developed further. For example, one interesting case was an important study by a prestigious study group headed by William Yandell Eliot, who was Williams Professor of Government at Harvard. They were also concerned with what Communism is and how it spreads. They concluded accurately that the primary threat of Communism is the economic transformation of the Communist powers “in ways which reduce their willingness and ability to complement the industrial economies of the West.” That is essentially correct and is a good operational definition of “Communism” in American political discourse. Our government is committed to that view.
If a government is so evil or unwise as to undertake a course of action of this sort, it immediately becomes an enemy. It becomes a part of the “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” to take over the world, as John F. Kennedy put it. It is postulated that it has been taken over by the Russians if that’s the policy that it appears to be committed to.
On these grounds one can predict American foreign policy rather well. So, for example, American policy toward Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution could have been predicted by simply observing that Nicaragua’s health and education budget rose rapidly, that an effective land reform program was instituted, and that the infant mortality rate dropped very dramatically, to the point where Nicaragua won an award from the World Health Organization for health achievements (all of this despite horrifying conditions left by the Somoza dictatorship, which we had installed and supported, and continued to support to the very end, despite a lot of nonsense to the contrary that one hears). If a country is devoted to policies like those I’ve just described, it is obviously an enemy. It is part of the “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” — the Russians are taking it over. And, in fact, it is part of a conspiracy. It is part of a conspiracy to take from us what is ours, namely “our raw materials,” and a conspiracy to prevent us from “maintaining the disparity,” which, of course, must be the fundamental element of our foreign policy.
If you want to know why we are committed to destroying Nicaragua you can find the answer, for example, in a section of an Oxfam report that came out just a few weeks ago. It was written by Oxfam’s Latin America Desk Officer Jethro Pettit, based on an interview with Esmilda Flores, a woman peasant, on a cooperative.
“Before the revolution, we didn’t participate in anything. We only learned to make tortillas and cook beans and do what our husbands told us. In only five years we’ve seen a lot of changes — and we’re still working on it!” Esmilda Flores belongs to an agricultural cooperative in the mountains north of Esteli, Nicaragua. Together with seven other women and fifteen men, she works land that was formerly a coffee plantation owned by an absentee landlord. After the revolution in 1979, the families who had worked the land became its owners. They have expanded production to include corn, beans, potatoes, cabbages, and dairy cows. “Before, we had to rent a small plot to grow any food,” Flores said, “And we had to pay one-half of our crop to the landlord! Now we work just as hard as before — both in the fields and at home — but there’s a difference, because we’re working for ourselves.” … There has been a profound shift in cultural attitudes among women as a result of their strong participation in Nicaragua’s social reconstruction. Women have taken the lead in adult literacy programs, both as students and teachers. They have assumed key roles in rural health promotion and in vaccination campaigns.
Well, it is obvious that a country of this sort is an enemy — that is, part of the “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” — and that we have to take drastic measures to ensure that the “rot does not spread,” in the terminology constantly used by the planners. In fact, when one reads reports of this kind or looks at the health and education statistics — the nutritional level, land reform, and so on — one can understand very well why American hostility to Nicaragua has reached such fanatic, almost hysterical, levels. It follows from the geopolitical conception previously outlined.
The people who are committed to these dangerous heresies, such as using their resources for their own purposes or believing that the government is committed to the welfare of its own people, may not be Soviet clients to begin with and, in fact, quite regularly they’re not. In Latin America they are often members, to begin with, of Bible study groups that become self-help groups, of church organizations, peasant organizations, and so on and so forth. But by the time we get through with them, they will be Soviet clients. The reason they will be Soviet clients by the time we get through with them is that they will have nowhere else to turn for any minimal form of protection against the terror and the violence that we regularly unleash against them if they undertake programs of the kind described.
And this is a net gain for American policy. One thing you’ll notice, if you look over the years, is that the United States quite consistently tries to create enemies (I’m not being sarcastic) if a country does escape from its grip. What we want to do is drive the country into being a base for the Russians because that justifies us in carrying out the violent attacks which we must carry out, given the geopolitical conception under which we organize and control much of the world. So that’s what we do, and then we “defend” ourselves. We engage in self-defense against the Great Satan or the Evil Empire or the “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy.”
More generally, the Soviet Union plays the same kind of game within its own narrower domains, and that in fact explains a good bit of the structure of the Cold War.
Well, what has all of this meant for Indochina and Central America? Let’s begin with Indochina.
Now remember I’m talking about the real world, not the one in the PBS television series and so on. In the real world what happened was that, by 1948, the U.S. State Department recognized, explicitly, that Ho Chi Minh was the sole significant leader of Vietnamese nationalism, but that if Vietnamese nationalism was successful, it could be a threat to the Grand Area, and therefore something had to be done about it. The threat was not so much in Vietnam itself, which is not terribly important for American purposes (the Freedom to Rob in Vietnam is not all that significant); the fear was that the “rot would spread,” namely, the rot of successful social and economic development. In a very poor country which had suffered enormously under European colonialism, successful social and economic development could have a demonstration effect. Such development could be a model for people elsewhere and could lead them to try to duplicate it, and grandually the Grand Area would unravel.
This, incidentally, is the rational version of the Domino Theory. There’s another version which is used to terrify the population. You know, Ho Chi Minh will get into a canoe and land in Boston and rape your sister and that sort of thing. That’s the standard one used to terrify the population and then people make fun of it afterward, if something doesn’t work out.
But there’s also a rational version of the Domino Theory which is never questioned in planning documents because it’s plausible, rational, and true. That is, successful social and economic development in one area may have a demonstration effect elsewhere, and the rot may spread. Incidentally, it is for this reason that the United States typically demonstrates what looks like such fanatic opposition to constructive developments in marginal countries. In fact, the smaller and less significant the country, the more danagerous it is. So, for example, as soon as the Bishop regime in Grenada began to take any constructive moves, it was immediately the target of enormous American hostility, not because that little speck in the Caribbean is any potential military threat or any of that sort of business. It is a threat in some other respects: if a tiny, nothing-country with no natural resources can begin to extricate itself from the system of misery and oppression that we’ve helped to impose, then others who have even more resources may be tempted to do likewise.
The same thinking explains the extraordinarily savage American attack on Laos in the 1960s. It was the heaviest bombing in history, up until the Cambodian bombing a few years later, and it was unrelated to the Vietnam war, as the State Department conceded. The bombing was in fact directed against a very mild sort of a revolution that was developing in northern Laos, and that had to be stamped out. Laos was barely a country. Many of the people there didn’t even know they were in Laos. But when those things came from up above and started shooting at them, and when they had to hide in holes in the hills or caves for two years, they learned something about their country. They also learned something about the world, something that educated Westerners do not understand, or pretend not to understand. We had to destroy Laos because if a development can take place in such a marginal, backward country as this, then the demonstration effect would be even more significant. Again, that is predicable, and it follows from the geopolitical conception that I’ve described.
Well, we recognized that we had to prevent the rot from spreading so we had to support France in its effort to reconquer its former colony, and we did so. By the time the French had given up, we were providing about 80 percent of the costs of the war and in fact we came close to using nuclear weapons toward the end, by 1954, in Indochina.
There was a political settlement, the Geneva Accords, in 1954, which the United States bitterly opposed. We immediately proceeded to undermine them, installing in South Vietiam a violent, terrorist regime, which, of course, rejected (with our support) the elections which were projected. Then the regime turned to a terrorist attack against the population, particularly against the anti-French Resistance, which we called the Viet Cong, in South Vietnam. The regime had probably killed about 80,000 people (that means we had killed, through our planes and mercenaries) by the time John F. Kennedy took over in 1961. This assault against the population, after several years, did arouse resistance — such acts have a way of doing that — and, by 1959 the anti-French Resistance received authorization from the Communist leadership, after several years and after tens of thousands of people were murdered, to use violence in self-defense. Then the government, which we had established, immediately began to collapse because it had no popular support, as the United States conceded.
By 1959 the Resistance began to receive some support from the northern half of the country in retaliation against the violence unleashed by the American-organized attack against the population of the southern part. The government we had installed to carry out this attack and to block the political agreements quickly began to collapse as soon as resistance began. Then Kennedy had a problem. It’s important to realize how he handled this. This is one of the dissimilarities between Vietnam and Central America to which I’ll return. In 1961 and 1962 Kennedy simply launched a war against South Vietnam. That is, in 1961 and 1962 the U.S. air force began extensive bombing and defoliation in South Vietnam, aimed primarily against the rural areas where 84 percent of the population lived. This was part of a program designed to drive several million people into concentration camps, which we called “strategic hamlets,” where they would be surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire, “protected,” as we put it, from the guerrillas whom, we conceded, they were willingly supporting. That’s what we call “aggression” or “armed attack” when some other country does it. We call it “defense” when we do it.
This was when the “defense” of South Vietnam escalated, with this attack in 1961 and 1962. But that again failed. The resistance increased, and by 1965 the United States was compelled to move to an outright land invasion of South Vietnam, escalating the attack again. We also initiated the bombing of North Vietnam, which, as anticipated, brough North Vietnamese troops to the south several months later.
Throughout, however, the major American attack was against South Vietnam. When we began bombing North Vietnam in February 1965, we extended the bombing of South Vietnam which had already been going on for several years. We extended the bombing of South Vietnam to triple the scale of the bombing of North Vietnam, and throughout, it was South Vietnam that bore the main brunt of the American war in Indochina. We later extended the war to Cambodia and Laos.
The result of all of this is often called a defeat for the United States, but I think that is misleading. The result was, in fact, a partial victory for the United States, a not insignificant victory. And we can see this if we look back at the reasons that explain why the war was fought. The United States did not achieve its maximal aims, that is, we did not succeed in bringing Vietnam to the happy state of Haiti or the Dominican Republic. But we did succeed in the major aims.
As far as the major aims were concerned, the American war was a smashing success. For one thing, there was a huge massacre. The first phase of the war, the French war, probably left about half a million dead. From 1954 to 1965 we succeeded in killing maybe another 160,000 to 170,000 South Vietnamese, mostly peasants. The war, from 1965 to 1975, left a death toll of maybe in the neighborhood of 3 million. There were also perhaps a million dead in Cambodia and Laos. So altogether about 5 million people were killed, which is a respectable achievement when you’re trying to prevent any successful social and economic development. Furthermore, there were well over 10 million refugees created by the American bombardment, which was quite extraordinarily savage, not to mention the murderous ground operations.
The land was devastated. People can’t farm because of the destruction and unexploded ordnance. And this is all a success. Vietnam is not going to be a model of social and economic development for anyone else. In fact, it will be lucky to survive. The rot will not spread. We also made sure of that by our actions in the surrounding areas, where we buttressed the American position.
American liberals, incidentally, supported the war almost throughout, contrary to current distortions. Look back to 1965, for example, when we backed a coup in Indonesia which led to the massacre of maybe 700,000 people, mostly landless peasants, within a few months turning the country into a “paradise for investors.” This was called a “gleam of light in Asia” in one New York Times article, and in general was much applauded by American intellectuals, who explained that these wonderful events proved the wisdom of our policy in Vietnam, which encouraged the Indonesian generals to do their work.
Similarly, when we were supposedly reeling under the effects of the alleged Vietnam defeat, we still felt powerful enough to support a military coup in the Philippines, overthrowing Philippines “democracy,” what there was of it, and installing a Latin American torture-and-terror-type regime, which we then massively supported. That again is complementary to destroying Vietnam: building a base of support in Indonesia, the Philippines, and elsewhere, where of course you massacre, you torture, and use terror and so on. But that does guarantee that the rot will not spread. There will be no Domino Effect of successful development emanating from Vietnam, and, in that sense, it is a very major victory for the United States.
The post-war U.S. policy has been designed to insure that it stays that way. We follow a policy of what some conservative business circles outside the United States (for example, the Far Eastern Economic Review) call “bleeding Vietnam.” That is, a policy of imposing maximum suffering and harshness in Vietnam in the hope of perpetuating the suffering, but also insuring that only the most harsh and brutal elements will survive. Then you can use their brutality as a justification for having carried out the initial attack. This is done constantly and quite magnificently in our ideological system. We are now supporting the Pol Pot forces; we concede this incidentally. The State Department has stated that our reason for supporting the Democratic Kampuchea Coalition, which is largely based on Khmer Rouge forces, is because of its “continuity” with the Pol Pot regime; therefore we support it indirectly through China or through other means. This is part of the policy of “bleeding Vietnam.” Also, of course, we offer no aid, no reparations, though we certainly owe them. We block aid from international institutions and we’ve succeeded in blocking aid from other countries.
For example, one of the side effects of the U.S. war against Indochina was that we pretty much destroyed the buffalo herds. This is a peasant society and buffalo are the equivalent of tractors, fertilizers, etc. The Washington Post published some pictures of peasants pulling plows in Indochina–that’s to prove the brutality of the Communists. The pictures they published in this case were probably fabrications of Thai intelligence, but they could have obtained accurate pictures because the buffalo were indeed destroyed.
India tried to send, in 1977, 100 buffalo, a very small number, to Vietnam to try to replenish these losses. We tried to block it by threatening to cancel Food for Peace aid to India if they sent the 100 buffalo. The Mennonites in the United States tried to send pencils to Cambodia; again the State Department tried to block it. They also tried to send shovels to Laos to dig up the unexploded ordnance. Of course, we could do it easily with heavy equipment, but that we are plainly not going to do. We didn’t even want to send them shovels.
In Laos the agricultural system was devastated — in fact, largely wiped out in many areas–by the intensive bombing. So, not surprisingly, there was massive starvation afterward, attributed, in the United States, to the evil nature of the Communists. The United States has diplomatic relations with Laos. We have an embassy there. And of all of the countries with food reserves that have diplomatic relations with Laos, we are the only nation that didn’t send them food at the time of the worst period of starvation. We have the largest rice surplus in the world.
In fact, a protest began over this during the Carter administration. You’ll recall that human rights was “the soul of our foreign policy” at that time, so something had to be done since there was a certain amount of publicity over this. So it was announced with great fanfare and self-congratulation that we were sending a tiny quantity of rice; it was minuscule. Even that was a fraud. It turned out later that that amount of rice was simply deducted from a contribution to a United Nations program that was indirectly going to end up in Laos. So it ended up as a zero contribution. It’s hard to imagine the degree of hypocrisy of these policies and the rhetoric used to surround them. You’d need a powerful imagination event o dream up examples like these.
Carter, incidentally, once explained in a news conference what he was up to. This was in 1977, when he was giving one of his sermons about human rights. He was asked, what about Vietnam? And he said that we owe Vietnam no debt because the “destruction was mutual.” You can walk around the streets of Boston and see what he means. The fact that a president said this is not terribly surprising — one doesn’t expect anything more. What is interesting and significant is that this statement aroused no comment. This statement is easily worthy of Hitler or Stalin, yet it aroused no comment in the United States among the articulate intelligentsia, press, or anyone else. It’s just accepted that we owe Vietnam no debt because the “destruction was mutual.”
Let’s turn to Central America, that is, “our little region over here that never has bothered anybody,” as Henry Stimson put it. Major U.S. military intervention in Central America began 131 years ago, in 1854, when the United States navy bombarded and destroyed San Juan del Norte, a port town in Nicaragua. This town was in fact captured for a few days by contras from Costa Rica about a year ago. The press made a big fuss about it, but they failed to note the historical antecedents. Our bombing and destruction of the town was not a capricious act. It was an act of revenge. What had happened in 1854 was that a yacht owned by the American millionaire Cornelius Vanderbilt had sailed into the port and an official had attempted to levy port charges on it. So, in revenge, the navy burned the town down to the ground.
Well, that was our first military intervention in Nicaragua and there have been many since. In the first third of this century, we sent military forces into Cuba, Panama, Mexico, and Honduras and occupied Haiti for nineteen years. There, under President Wilson, we reinstituted slavery, burned villages, destroyed, tortured, and left a legacy which still remains, in one of the most miserable corners of one of the most miserable regions in the world. Woodrow Wilson, the great apostle of self-determination, celebrated this doctrine by invading Mexico and Haiti, and by launching a counterinsurgency war in the Dominican Republic, again with ample destruction and torture. This intervention led to a long-lasting military dictatorship, under Trujillo, one of the worst dictators we managed to establish in this region. The United States invaded Nicaragua repeatedly, finally leaving behind a brutal, corrupt, and long-lasting military dictatorship, the regular consequence of U.S. intervention.
In the post-World War II period, there have been military interventions in many places, in Guatemala, for example, several times. In Guatemala, in 1954, we managed to overthrow and destroy Guatemala’s one attempt at democracy. There was a New Deal-style, reformist-capitalist democratic regime which we managed to overthrow, leaving a literal hell-on-earth, probably the country which comes closest in the contemporary world to Nazi Germany. And we repeatedly intervened to keep it that way.
In 1963 there was concern in Washington that there might be another election, and Kennedy therefore supported a military coup. By the late 1960s, the terrorism that we were supporting had aroused resistance, and so we sent Green Berets to lead a counterinsurgency campaign which left many thousands dead; maybe 8,000-10,000 people died. It was recorded by the vice-president of Guatemala that American planes based in Panama carried out napalm raids in Guatemala at that time. Well, that calmed things down for a while.
In the late 1970s things erupted again. At that time the United States was somewhat restricted in direct participation in the massacre by Congressional human rights legislation. Incidentally, you commonly read in the press and elsewhere that the United States stopped military aid to Guatemala in 1977. That’s apparently false. Military aid continued at approximately the normal level — barely below the normal level. But we couldn’t send the Green Berets. We couldn’t participate as actively as we would have liked.
In the next stage of what the conservative Catholic hierarchy called “genocide,” thousands of people were killed, mostly Indians. Since we couldn’t do it ourselves we used proxies, Argentine neo-Nazis, and particularly Israel, which was available for the purpose, and did a very effective job. Israel’s role was widely praised in the West, I should say. The London Economist, for example, commented rather favorably on Israel’s success in helping to organize major massacres, and contrasted it with the relative American failure in El Salvador at the same time. The scale is essentially unknown, but just to give you one figure, it’s now estimated, from this period alone, that about 100,000 children have lost one or both parents.
That was Guatemala. There was also military intervention in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Grenada. A twenty-year war of terrorism was waged against Cuba. Cuba has probably been the target of more international terrorism than the rest of the world combined and, therefore, in the American ideological system it is regarded as the source of international terrorism, exactly as Orwell would have predicted. And now there’s a war against Nicaragua.
The impact of all of this has been absolutely horrendous. There’s vast starvation throughout the region while crop lands are devoted to exports to the United States. There’s slave labor, crushing poverty, torture, mass murder, every horror you can think of. In El Salvador alone, from October 1979 (a date to which I’ll return) until December 1981 — approximately two years — about 30,000 people were murdered and about 600,000 refugees created. Those figures have about doubled since. Most of the murders were carried out by U.S.-backed military forces, including so-called death squads. The efficiency of the massacre in El Salvador has recently increased with direct participation of American military forces. American planes based in Honduran and Panamanian sanctuaries, military aircraft, now coordinate bombing raids over El Salvador, which means that the Salvadoran air force can more effectively kill fleeing peasants and destroy villages, and, in fact, the kill rate has gone up corresponding to that.
At the same time, the war against Nicaragua has left unknown thousands killed, these added to the 50,000 or so killed in the last stages of the Somoza dictatorship. Since we overthrew the democratic government of Guatemala in 1954, according to a Guatemalan human rights group in Mexico (none can function in Guatemala) about 150,000 people have been murdered, again primarily by U.S.-backed forces and sometimes with direct U.S. military participation. These figures kind of lose their meaning when you just throw numbers around. You see what they mean when you look more closely at the refugees’ reports: For example, a report by a few people who succeeded in escaping from a village in Quiche province where the government troops came in, rounded up the population, and put them in the town building. They took all the men out and decapitated them. Then they raped and killed the women. Then they took the children and killed them by bashing their heads with rocks. This is what our taxes have been paying for–sometimes by means of our proxies–since the successful overthrow of Guatemalan democracy, where we have effectively preserved order since.
I might mention that the 1954 American-instigated coup was referred to by John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state, as a “new and glorious chapter” in the “already glorious traditions of the American States.”
Virtually every attempt to bring about any constructive change in this U.S.-constructed Chamber of Horrors has met with a new dose of U.S. violence. The historical record is one of the most shameful stories in modern history and naturally is very little known here, though in a free society it would be well understood and taught in elementary school in all of its sordid and gruesome detail.
Throughout this period the public pose has always been that we are defending ourselves. So, in Vietnam, we were defending ourselves against the Vietnamese when we attacked South Vietnam. It’s what Adlai Stevenson at the United Nations called “internal aggression,” another phrase that Orwell would have admired and one that we use quite commonly. “Internal aggression,” meaning aggression by the Vietnamese against us and our clients in Vietnam — and we’ve often had to defend ourselves against that kind of internal aggression. Nicaragua today is another case. So, for example, when our mercenary army attacks Nicaragua, we argue that this is defense — that we are defending Mexico, Central America, and ultimately ourselves from Russian imperialism or “internal aggression.”
Well, it’s interesting to look at that in the light of history. Virtually everything that is now happening has happened before, in corresponding or very similar forms. Our historical amnesia prevents us from seeing that. Everything looks new and therefore we don’t understand it. It must just be a stupid error.
So, for example, in the late 1920s President Coolidge sent the marines once again to Nicaragua. At that time we were defending Nicaragua against Mexico; now we are defending Mexico against Nicaragua. At that time we were defending Nicaragua against Mexico, which was claimed to be a Bolshevik proxy, so we were defending Nicaragua against Russian imperialism when we sent the marines that time, eventually ending up with the establishment of the Somoza dictatorship. President Coolidge, in fact, said, “Mexico was on trial before the world,” when he sent the marines into Nicaragua at that time. Notice that the bottom line remains the same as the cast of characters changes: Kill Nicaraguans.
What did we do before we had the Bolsheviks to defend ourselves against? For example, when Wilson sent the marines to Haiti and the Dominican Republic, that was before the Bolshevik revolution, so we couldn’t be defending ourselves against Russian imperialism. Well, then we were defending ourselves against the Huns. The hand of the Huns was particularly obvious in Haiti. The marine commander there, a man named Thorpe, explained that “the handiwork of the German” was evident here because of the kind of resistance that the “niggers” were putting up. Obviously, they couldn’t be doing it on their own so there must be German direction. The same sentiments were expressed throughout. So, for example, in the Dominican Republic the resistance was being carried out by the people whom Theodore Roosevelt had, during an earlier intervention, called “damned Dagoes,” or by “spiks,” “coons,” “nigs” in the terms that are regularly used to describe the people against whom we’re defending ourselves, the perpetrators of “internal aggression.”
Well, let’s go back a little further, because self-defense is deeply rooted in American history. In the nineteenth century, when we were wiping out the Native American population, we were defending ourselves against savage attacks from British and Spanish sanctuaries in Canada and Florida and therefore we had to take over Florida, and we had to take the West to defend ourselves from these attacks. In 1846 we were compelled to defend ourselves against Mexico. That aggression began deep inside Mexican territory, but again, it was self-defense against Mexican aggression. We had to take about a third of Mexico in the process, including California, where the explanation was that it was a preemptive strike. The British were about to take it over, and, in self-defense, we had to beat them to it. And so it goes, all the way back. The Evil Empire changes, but the truth of the matter remains about the same. And if American history were actually taught, people would know these things. This is the core of American history.
Let me return finally to Kennan’s formula, “human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization,” considering now Latin America. I want to consider the question that I raised before: are they really irrelevant to our policy the way he suggested they ought to be? Let’s take a closer look.
Take human rights. Now actually, that’s an empirical question. You can study how American foreign policy is related to human rights, and it has been studied for Latin America and elsewhere. The leading American specialist on human rights in Latin America, Lars Schoultz, has a study published in Comparative Politics (January 1981), in which he investigated exactly that question. He asked how the human rights climate in a country was correlated with American aid. He chose a very narrow conception of human rights, what he called “anti-torture rights,” that is, the right to be free from torture by the government and so on. He found that there is a relationship between human rights and American foreign policy: namely, the more the human rights climate deteriorates, the more American aid increases. The correlation was strong. There was no correlation between American aid and need. This aid included military aid and it went on right through the Carter administration. To use his words, “Aid has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments which torture their citizens,” to the “hemisphere’s relatively egregious violators of fundamental human rights.” This might suggest that Kennan understated the case: human rights are not irrelevant; rather, we have a positive hatred of them. We send aid to precisely those governments which torture their citizens, and the more effectively they do so, the more we’ll aid them. At least that’s what the evidence shows in this and other studies.
A correlation isn’t a theory. It’s not an explanation. We still need an explanation, and a number of them come to mind. One possible explanation is that the American leadership just likes torture. So the more a government tortures its citizens, the more we will aid them. That’s a possible explanation but it’s an unlikely one. The real explanation is probably Kennan’s: that is, human rights, are irrelevant. What we like is something else. There have been other studies that suggest a theory to explain the correlation.
There’s one by Edward Herman, who investigated the same sort of thing that Schoultz did but on a worldwide basis. Herman found the same correlation: the worse the human rights climate, the more American aid goes up. But he also carried out another study which gives you some insight into what’s really happening. He compared American aid to changes in the investment climate, the climate for business operations, as measured, for example, by whether foreign firms can repatriate profits and that sort of thing. It turned out there was a very close correlation. The better the climate for business operations, the more American aid — the more we support the foreign government. That gives you a plausible theory. U.S. foreign policy is in fact based on the principle that human rights are irrelevant, but that improving the climate for foreign business operations is highly relevant. In fact, that flows from the central geopolitical conception.
Now how do you improve the business climate in a third world country? Well, it’s easy. You murder priests, you torture peasant organizers, you destroy popular organizations, you institute mass murder and repression to prevent any popular organization. And that improves the investment climate. So there’s a secondary correlation between American aid and the deterioration of human rights. It’s entirely natural that we should tend to aid countries that are egregious violators of fundamental human rights and that torture their citizens, and that’s indeed what we find.
Well, so much for human rights. What about raising the living standards? In Latin America there has been economic growth. If you look, the Gross National Product keeps going up but at the same time, typically, there is increased suffering and starvation for a very large part of the population. So, in one case, Brazil, the most important Latin American country, there has been what was called an “economic miracle” in the last couple of decades, ever since we destroyed Brazilian democracy by supporting a military coup in 1964. The support for the coup was initiated by Kennedy but finally carried to a conclusion by Johnson. The coup was called by Kennedy’s ambassador, Lincoln Gordon, “the single most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century.” We installed the first really major national security state, Nazi-like state, in Latin America, with high-technology torture and so on. Gordon called it “totally democratic,” “the best government Brazil ever had.” And that, in turn, had a significant domino effect in Latin America; Brazil is an important country. Well, there was an economic miracle and there was an increase in the GNP. There was also an increase in suffering for much of the population. And that story is duplicated throughout much of Latin America, where the United States has succesfully intervened, from Haiti to the Dominican Republic, to Nicaragua and Guatemala and so on.
So much for the second element, raising of living standards. What about democratization? Well, we’ve repeatedly intervened to overthrow democratic governments. This is understandable. The more a country is democratic, the more it is likely to be responsive to the public, and hence committed to the dangerous doctrine that “the government has a direct responsibility for the welfare of the people,” and therefore is not devoted to the transcendent needs of Big Brother. We have to do something about it. Democracy is okay but only as long as we can control it and be sure that it comes out the way we want, just as the Russians permit what they call “democratic elections” in Poland. That is the typical history. So, in Guatemala the government was democratic but out of control, so we had to overthrow it. Similarly in Chile under Allende. Or take the Dominican Republic, which has long been the beneficiary of our solicitous care. Woodrow Wilson began a major counterinsurgency campaign which ended in the early 1920s and which led to the Trujillo dictatorship, one of the most brutal and vicious and corrupt dictatorships that we have supported in Latin America. In the early 1960s it looked as though there was going to be a move toward democracy. There was, in fact, a democratic election in 1962. Juan Bosch, a liberal democrat, was elected. The Kennedy administration was very cool. The way it reacted is interesting. (You have to understand that the United States so totally dominates these countries that the U.S. embassy essentially runs them.) The American embassy blocked every effort that Bosch made to organize public support. So, for example, land reform, labor organizing, anything that could have developed public support against a military which was pretty certain to try another coup — any such effort was blocked by the Kennedy administration. As a result, the predicted military coup took place and Washington, which was essentially responsible for the success of the coup, shortly after it recognized the new government. A typical military dictatorship of the type we like was established. In 1965 there was a coup by liberal, reformist officers, a constitutionalist coup, which threatened to restore democracy in the Dominican Republic, so we intervened again. That time we simply sent troops. A bloody and destructive war took place, many thousands of people were killed, and we again succeeded in establishing a terror-and-torture regime. The country was also, incidentally, brought totally within the grip of the U.S. corporations. The Dominican Republic was virtually bought up by Gulf & Western and other corporations after the coup. The country was totally demoralized. It was, in fact, subjected to terror and suffering, crushing proverty and so on. So then we could have elections, because it was guaranteed that nothing would happen. They can even elect social democrats for all we care, the basic results having been achieved. The government would never be able to accomplish anything for its population, that is, for that part of the population which had not been killed or fled. In this region about 20 percent of the population has come to the United States, and in places where they have easier access, such as Puerto Rico, the figure is about 40 percent.
Well, let’s turn to El Salvador in connection with our attitude toward democratization. There were democratic elections in El Salvador in 1972 and 1977. In both cases the military intervened to abort them and installed military dictatorships. The people in Washington could not have cared less. There was no concern whatsoever. There were also the regular atrocities throughout this period, arousing little concern in Washington. However, there were developments, two in fact, that did elicit concern in the late 1970s. One was that the Somoza dictatorship fell in 1979. There is much mythology about this, but the fact of the matter is that Carter supported Somoza till the very end, even after the natural allies of the United States, the local business community, turned against him. That was a danger sign and it worried the United States with regard to El Salvador. There was another development that was even more dangerous. There were the beginnings of popular democratic organizations within El Salvador of the sort I mentioned earlier: Bible study groups turning into self-help groups, peasant cooperatives, unions, all sorts of organizations which seemed to be establishing the basis for a functioning democracy.
Now, anybody who thinks, realizes that democracy doesn’t mean much if people have to confront concentrated systems of economic power as isolated individuals. Democracy means something if people can organize to gain information, to have thoughts, for that matter, to make plans, to enter into the political system in some active way, to put forth programs and so on. If organizations of that kind exist, then democracy can exist too. Otherwise it’s a matter of pushing a lever every couple of years; it’s like having the choice between Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola. In El Salvador there were dangerous moves in this direction in the 1970s with the development of what were called “popular organizations,” and therefore something had to be done about them because there might be real democracy. We plainly can’t tolerate that.
These two development did lead to some action on the part of the United States. In October 1979 the United States supported a reformist coup which overthrew the Romero dictatorship. There was in fact considerable fear that he was going to go the way of Somoza. What happened then? The United States insisted that some of the harshest and most brutal military elements be predominantly placed in the junta. The killing rapidly increased right after the coup. By early 1980, the left Christian Democrats, socialists, and reformist military elements had been eliminated from, or had simply fled from, the junta, and the country was in the hands of the usual thugs that we install in our domain. Duarte came in at that time as a useful cover, to preside over one of the great Central American massacres. The archbishop, Archbishop Romero, pleaded with Carter not to send military aid. The reasons were the following: he said that military aid would “sharpen the repression that has been unleashed against the people’s organizations fighting to defend their most fundamental human rights.” Therefore he asked Carter not to send military aid.
Well, of course, that was the very essence of American policy: namely, to increase massacre and repression, to destroy the popular organizations, and prevent the achievement of human rights, so naturally the aid flowed and the war picked up steam. Archbishop Romero was assassinated shortly afterward. In May 1980, under Carter remember, the war against the peasantry really took off, largely under the guise of land reform.
The first major action was a joint operation of the Honduran and Salvadoran armies at the Rio Sumpul, where about 600 people were killed as they tried to flee into Honduras. That massacre was suppressed by the American press for about fifteen months, though it was published in the world press and the church press, right here in Cambridge, for example. In fact, U.S. press coverage during 1980 was unbelievably bad. In June 1980 the university in San Salvador was attacked and destroyed by the army. Many faculty and students were killed and much of the university facilities were simply demolished. In November the political opposition was massacred. Meanwhile the independent media were also destroyed.
We don’t believe in censorship in the United States. We get very irate when governments like Nicaragua impose censorship on a paper that is supporting a military attack against Nicaragua. Of course, we would never do that. If some unimaginably huge superpower were attacking the United States and a newspaper here was supporting the attack, we would certainly not impose censorship (that is true: its employees and management would be in concentration camps). We don’t like censorship. What we like is something different. What we like is what we did in El Salvador. That is, the way you get rid of the independent press is not by censorship — there isn’t any censorship in El Salvador. Rather, you blow up the newspaper offices. You take the editor and murder him after hideous torture, and pretty soon you don’t have any independent press to censor. Well, that’s what happened under the Carter administration, so now there’s no censorship.
This war had a number of significant successes. The popular organizations were destroyed; therefore we can now permit democratic elections — now that there is no concern anymore that they might mean something. These elections are carried out in “an atmosphere of terror and despair, of macabre rumor and grisly reality.” That was the assessment by the head of the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group, Lord Chitnis, with regard to the 1984 elections in El Salvador — rather different from the media coverage here, as you may recall. The point is that once the basis for democracy has been destroyed, once state terrorism has been firmly established, then elections are entirely permissible, even worthwhile, for the sake of American public opinion. The contrast between our alleged concern for elections today and our actual concern for elections in the 1970s is, again, instructive. Well, that was a success, namely destroying the popular organization and so on. There was also, however, a failure.
The failure was that people began to join the guerrillas. There were only a few hundred guerrillas when all of this began. They grew to many thousands during this period. Of course, that’s proof that the Russians are coming — anyone who understands the United States knows that. And, in fact, that is very similar to Vietnam in the 1950s. If you think through what I’ve just described, what happened in El Salvador under Carter and what happened in Vietnam under Eisenhower are very similar.
Well, meanwhile, we stepped up our war against Nicaragua, not because Nicaragua is brutal and oppressive. Even if you accept the harshest criticisms that have even a minimal basis in reality, by the standards of the governments that we support Nicaragua is virtually a paradise. But we attack Nicaragua precisely because it is committed to a model of development that we cannot tolerate. Of course this is presented as defense against the Russians, and as proof that it’s defense against the Russians we note that the Nicaraguans receive weapons with which they can defend themselves against our attack. Foreign Minister d’Escoto pointed out that it’s like “a torturer who pulls out the fingernails of his victim and then gets angry because the victim screams in pain.” Actually, a closer analogy would be to a thug who hires a goon squad to beat up some kid in kindergarten whom the thug doesn’t like, and then begins whining piteously if the child raises his arms to protect himself. That would be a pretty accurate analogy to what’s happening there.
I should say at this point that this is nothing new. This shameful picture should remind us that our intellectual culture is really founded on the twin pillars of moral cowardice and hypocrisy. People like Reagan and Shultz are absolutely nothing new. This was recognized long ago, at the time when the Founding Fathers were expounding the doctrine of the natural rights granted by the Creator to every person, while they were bitterly deploring their own “enslavement” by the British tax collectors — “enslavement” is the term they commonly used. Samuel Johnson commented at the time, “Why is it that we hear the loudest yelps for freedom from the drivers of Negroes.” And Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, added that, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice will not sleep forever.”
Reagan’s problem in El Salvador is very similar to Kennedy’s in South Vietnam twenty years ago. There was severe internal repression in both cases, which was very successful in destroying popular organizations, killing a lot of people, and so on. However, the internal repression did elicit resistance which the state that we had installed was unable to control. Kennedy simply attacked South Vietnam with bombardment and defoliation. And Reagan has been trying to do the same in El Salvador for the last couple of years, but he has not quite been able to. He has been blocked by domestic opposition. He has therefore been forced to use more indirect measures. These have certainly succeeded in killing many people and causing vast misery, but not yet in crushing the resistance. We are still short of air force bombings.
I’ve mentioned some of the similarities. What are the differences? Well, the main difference is that the United States has changed. The United States has changed a lot over the last twenty years. When Kennedy attacked South Vietnam there was no protest, virtually none. That was in the early 1960s when Kennedy began the direct military acts against South Vietnam. When Johnson escalated the attack against South Vietnam to a full-scale land invasion, there was also very little protest. In fact, protests reached a significant scale only when several hundred thousand American troops were directly engaged in the war against South Vietnam, a war which by then extended well beyond that country.
In contrast, Reagan’s attempt to escalate the war in El Salvador has met with considerable popular opposition here. And that’s significant. In fact, that’s one of the most significant facts of contemporary history.
I quoted before some of the official views about the Vietnam war, from the liberal doves: “excess of righteousness and disinterested benevolence,” and so on and so forth. However, there was also a quite different view, a popular view. As recently as 1982, polls indicate that about 70 percent of the American population regarded the Vietnam war not as a “mistake,” but as “fundamentally wrong and immoral.” Many fewer “opinion leaders’ expressed that view, and virtually none of the really educated class or articulate intelligentsia ever took that position. That, incidentally, is quite typical. It’s typical for educated classes to be more effectively controlled by the indoctrination system to which they are directly exposed, and in which they play a social role as purveyors, hence coming to internalize it. So this degree of servility to the party line is not unique to this example. But the point is there’s a split, a very substantial split, between much of the population and those who regard themselves as its national leaders. That is even given a technical name — it’s called “Vietnam syndrome.” Notice the term, “syndrome,” as applied to disease. The disease is that a lot of people are opposed to massacre, aggression, and torture, and feel solidarity with the victims. Therefore something has to be done about that. It was assumed in the early 1980s that the disease had been cured, and by reading the productions of the educated classes you could certainly have believed that. But in fact the disease was never very widespread among the educated classes. However, among the population, it remains widespread and it’s a problem — it impedes, it inhibits direct intervention and aggression.
Whether this opposition, which is quite real, can become sufficiently organized and effective to block further escalation — I don’t know. It could be that the current level of attack on the population of Central America will suffice to achieve the major American military ends. What is clear, however, is that we’re living through another chapter in a sordid and shameful history of violence and terror and oppression.
Unless we can muster the moral courage and the honesty to understand all of this, and to act to change it, as we indeed can, then it’s going to continue and there will be many millions of additional victims who will face starvation and torture, or outright massacre, in what we will call “a crusade for freedom.”