War Crimes and Imperial Fantasies

Noam Chomsky interviewed by David Barsamian

International Socialist Review, Issue 37, September–October, 2004

Noam Chomsky, internationally renowned MIT professor, practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice. He is in such demand as a public speaker that he is booked years in advance. And wherever he appears, he draws huge audiences. The New Statesman calls him, “The conscience of the American people.” He is the author of scores of books, his latest is the bestseller Hegemony or Survival. He has done a series of books with David Barsamian. The most recent one is Propaganda & the Public Mind. David Barsamian is the director and producer of the award-winning Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. He interviewed Noam Chomsky at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge on June 11, 2004.

I want to ask you about a painting that hangs in your office. It’s rather gruesome. You’ve commented to me that mostly U.S. citizens don’t seem to know who it is, but most foreigners that come to visit you and see it recognize it immediately.

It’s not exactly accurate. Just about everyone from south of the Rio Grande knows what it is. Almost no one from north of the Rio Grande does. Among Europeans it’s maybe 10 percent. I haven’t tried Asians. Probably not many. It’s actually quite apropos. It’s about the Reagan presidency, and starting slightly before. It’s a picture of the angel of death standing over Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated in 1980. So that’s on Carter’s watch. He was assassinated a few days after he had written a letter to President Carter pleading with him not to send aid to the military junta in El Salvador, which will be used to crush people struggling for their elementary human rights. The aid went. He was assassinated.

Then Reagan took over. The kindest thing you can say about Reagan is he may not have known what the policies of his administration were, but I’ll pretend he did. The Reagan years was a period of devastation and disaster in El Salvador. Maybe seventy-thousand people were slaughtered. The decade began with the assassination of the archbishop. It ended, rather symbolically, with the brutal murder of six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, by an elite battalion, trained, armed, run by the U.S., which had a huge, bloody trail of murders and massacres behind it. The priests are also shown in the picture along with their housekeeper and her daughter, who were also murdered by the same elite battalion, and in between tens of thousands of the usual victims. That was El Salvador. And, as I say, people south of the border know what it is; people north of the border haven’t a clue.

Just imagine that something comparable had happened, say, in Czechoslovakia, that the decade of the 1980s had opened with the murder of an archbishop by forces closely tied to the Russians, an archbishop who was called a voice for the voiceless. Then his successor denounced the Russian government for supporting “a war of extermination and genocide against a defenseless civilian population,” which is what happened in El Salvador, then went on with a war of extermination and assassination, and the decade ended with the blowing out of the brains of Vaclav Havel and half a dozen of his associates, and meanwhile, seventy-thousand other Czechs. Would we know about it? Chances are we wouldn’t, because it probably would have led to a nuclear war and there would be nobody around to know anything. But assuming we survived, yes, we would know about it. That’s a striking difference.

And it illustrates something quite general. When enemies commit crimes, they’re crimes. In fact, we’re allowed to expand them, lie about them, make up stories about them and so on, but surely to get angry and infuriated about them. When we commit crimes, they didn’t happen. And you see that very strikingly in the Reagan worship that has been created as a cult through the 1990s by a massive propaganda campaign. Take a look at what’s happening now. No mention of this.

Of course, in the Latin American press they mention it. In fact, the Salvadoran press condemned Reagan rather sharply. In Nicaragua, even the right wing, pro-Contra press, that was supported and funded by the U.S., condemned Reagan, which is pretty shocking. And, of course, throughout the continent, the same, because his regime was one of murder and brutality and violence, which probably left a couple hundred thousand people dead in Central America alone, hundreds of thousands of orphans, widows, and devastated the countries.

But this can’t be mentioned here, because it didn’t happen. So, for example, there was one well-known specialist in international law, actually, one of the historians of the World Court, who did write a short letter–he sent me a copy of it–to the New York Times after their rapturous editorial about Reagan, in which he said they had omitted to point out that Reagan was the only world figure who had rejected World Court orders. In this case, to terminate an international terrorist campaign against Nicaragua–orders, which, of course, the U.S. disregarded. It also vetoed two Security Council resolutions affirming the Court judgment and immediately went on to escalate the war, for the first time officially authorizing attacks on what the U.S. Southern Command called “soft targets,” undefended civilian targets. A well-known specialist on “democracy enhancement” in Latin America, who regards himself as a neo-Reaganite, accurately pointed out that in per capita terms the death toll in Nicaragua would have been roughly 2.5 million in the U.S., higher than the total number of deaths in all American wars of the twentieth century and the nineteenth century, including the Civil War. But it doesn’t exist. Of course, the letter wasn’t published, but there is also no reference to the Court, the U.S. reaction, the fate of the victims. It just doesn’t matter.

And it gets much worse than that. The person responsible for the war on the ground was the person who was called the proconsul of Honduras. Honduras was the base for the terrorist army attacking Nicaragua. The proconsul was John Negroponte. He had two tasks as proconsul. First, to lie to Congress about atrocities carried out by the Honduran security services so that the military aid could continue to flow to Honduras, not because Honduras is of any significance, but because it was the base for attacking Nicaragua. And second, to supervise the training camps where the mercenary army was being trained, armed, and organized to carry out the atrocities, the terrorist war for which the U.S. was condemned by the World Court and the Security Council, absent the veto.

He’s now the proconsul of Iraq. The Wall Street Journal, to its credit, had an article headed “Modern Proconsul,” pointing out that Negroponte is going to Iraq as a modern proconsul and that he learned his trade in Honduras in the early 1980s. They didn’t go into it, but that’s accurate. In Honduras, I might add, he was in charge of the biggest CIA station in the world. He’s now in charge of the biggest embassy in the world. And all of this didn’t happen and it doesn’t matter, because we did it. And that’s a sufficient reason for effacing it from history.

In between Negroponte’s service in Honduras and his appointment as ambassador to Iraq, he was Colin Powell’s deputy on the National Security Council, and later he was appointed by Bush II as ambassador to the U.N. What you’re saying kind of reminds me of an Orwell quote from 1984. “Everything faded into mist. The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.” We’re sitting here on Friday, June 11, looking at the front page of the New York Times. It’s full of the solemnity and pageantry of a state funeral honoring President Reagan, someone who proudly declared, “I am a Contra,” and then went on to compare the Contras as “the moral equivalent of the founding fathers.” In the front-page story, “Legacy of Reagan Now Begins the Test of Time,” R. W. Apple, Jr., writes, “What will history, with its privileged vantage point far from the heat of partisan battles, conclude about him?”

The only addition one should make to the Orwell quote is that nothing had to be effaced because it was effaced instantly. It didn’t happen. I won’t go into that. But it was all blocked at once. In R. W. Apple’s column, which is typical, you can’t pick Negroponte out; the entire record of Reaganite atrocities is completely effaced. For example, you mentioned that Negroponte went on to become Colin Powell’s deputy.

What was Colin Powell doing, the official moderate, as national security adviser? Well, for one thing, let’s take Africa, which he’s supposed to be concerned with. During the Reagan years, there was a policy called constructive engagement. There was very strong opposition to apartheid. Congress even passed legislation banning aid and support for South Africa. The Reaganites had to find devious ways to get around the congressional legislation in order to in fact increase their trade with South Africa. And the reason was that South Africa was defending itself against what was identified during Powell’s tenure, 1988, as one of the “more notorious terrorist groups” in the world, namely Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress. During those eight years, U.S.-backed South Africa, British-backed as well, killed an estimated million and a half people just in the surrounding countries, Angola and Mozambique, putting aside what was going on in South Africa. That’s in Reagan’s years and with Powell being a high official, in fact, at the end, the national security adviser and Negroponte his associate.

And we can go on to other areas of the world. This was a period of massacre, devastation, destruction, all of which is effaced, not a word.

Apple continues in his column talking about Reagan’s “extraordinary political gifts” that “carried him through” his presidency and “his talents as a communicator, his intuitive understanding of the average American….” One of the things that happened during that period was the invasion of Grenada. I remember you were in Boulder on that day, October 25, 1983, and you began your talk by saying, “The latest U.S. intervention as of this morning is Grenada.” Reagan called the island a “Soviet-Cuban beachhead.”

Again, the kindest thing you can say about Reagan is that he probably didn’t know what he was saying. He was handed his notes by speechwriters, including his jokes, it has been reported. But, again, pretending that he knew, yes, the claim was this was a Soviet-Cuban beachhead because an air base was being built by a couple of dozen Cuban contractors, under British planning and authorization. And the claim was that the Russians, if they could somehow find Grenada on a map, were going to use it as an air base to attack the U.S.

In a sense, Apple is right in saying that Reagan touched a chord in the population. For whatever reason, it’s been a very frightened and terrified country for a long time; there is an undercurrent of fear. And Reagan exhibited it. He was an incredible coward. Somebody who could believe that an air base in Grenada could be used to attack the U.S. does not even reach the level of laughing stock. And it was the same with Nicaragua. Reagan declared a national emergency because the government of Nicaragua poses “an unusual and extraordinary threat” to the U.S. Again, that doesn’t even begin to approach the laugh test. He then explained, after all, they are only “two days’ driving time from Harlingen, Texas.” Those hordes might come soon, waving their copies of Mein Kampf, as George Shultz, the secretary of state, put it. Reagan went on to say, even though we’re facing this immense danger from Nicaragua, I’m going to be brave. I remember Winston Churchill, who said, no matter how great the odds, we have to keep on struggling. So, like Churchill against Hitler, I’m going to defend this country against all odds against the massive Nicaraguan hordes who are about to overwhelm us. Anyone looking at this wouldn’t know whether to laugh or cry. In fact, you have to end up crying, because, of course, it was a way of destroying that country and very seriously harming this one. But the streak of extreme cowardice does run very deep.

After the invasion of Grenada, there was what the New York Times called recently a grand Reaganesque gesture; namely, Reagan stood up and said, we are “standing tall.” six thousand U.S. Special Forces won, I think, eight thousand medals for overcoming the resistance of a couple of dozen Cuban construction workers, meanwhile killing dozens of other American soldiers in the process. The press had to play a role, too. They had to suppress, and did suppress, the fact that Cuba had made offers instantly to negotiate the whole issue. The claim was the U.S. was protecting American students in a medical school. Cuba, said, fine, take over the medical school. All of that had to be suppressed by the press. It was kind of leaked quietly after it was all over and it was too late. But, yes, that was the grand event.

And, of course, the reason for it was not very obscure. Just a couple of days before, there had just been a bombing in Lebanon where 240 American marines were murdered. And they kind of had to cover this up with a grand gesture defending us from destruction by Grenada and then again standing tall. This was typical of what was going on through the Reagan years.

And the idea that he struck a chord among the American people is simply not true. He was not a popular president. In fact, the press sometimes now even has to concede that quietly. Take a look at the Gallup polls. His poll ratings through his years were roughly average, below every one of his successors, except this one. By 1992, a couple of years later, Reagan had become the most unpopular living ex-president apart from Nixon.

Then came the immense propaganda campaign, which has been going on for about ten years, to try and turn him into a semi-divinity. And it’s been played out quite successfully. And as you follow the propaganda campaign and you check the polls, you see that the reverence for the imperial leader has increased roughly as the propaganda campaign mounted. It’s true, people are susceptible to imperial propaganda. This event today in Washington is intriguing. As the Times pointed out, it’s following the script of a three hundred-page book, which spells out in precise detail what happens every minute of the imperial ceremony. There has been nothing like it in American history. There was, of course, a huge reaction to the Kennedy assassination. But that’s totally different: that’s the assassination of a living president.

In comparison to this, there is absolutely nothing until you go back to the outlandish George Washington cult that was cultivated in the early nineteenth century, when Washington was turned into the perfect human being, the most amazing creature who ever walked the face of the earth like what you might find in North Korea about Kim Il Sung. But that was during a period when there was an effort being made to try to create a unified country out of separated colonies. In fact, remember, even the term “United States” was plural, not singular. Until the Civil War, approximately, it was the United States, the states that are united. And the effort to forge a nation was felt to require what by early nineteenth century standards was major propaganda. And it turned Washington into a divine cult figure in a manner that is really embarrassing to read. But from then until the Reagan propaganda–now, of course, with a very sophisticated and huge public relations industry–there is just nothing comparable to it.

Someone who is described as the father of the public relations industry is Edward Bernays. He wrote in the opening lines of his 1928 book Propaganda, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”

He was one of the early founders, gurus, of the public relations industry. Incidentally, we have to place him in the spectrum. He’s way on the left, a Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy liberal, and an active and honored one. So he’s not talking from the right-wing extreme. He’s expressing the standard liberal view, that democracy is an extremely dangerous thing, we must prevent it. By Bernays’ period it was understood, both in Britain and the U.S., that people have won too much freedom for the state to repress them by violence, and therefore, both in Britain and the U.S., the two most democratic countries, there was a growth of the public relations industry, to try to control attitudes and beliefs, since you can’t control people by force. And Bernays was a leading figure.

His first great achievement, that sort of made a star out of him, was a public relations campaign trying to get women to smoke. So he had models walking down Fifth Avenue smoking cigarettes and showing how it makes you beautiful and slim. We can’t estimate how many tens of millions of people he managed to kill by that, but a substantial number. And that put him on the map.

His next famous achievement was Guatemala. He took over, at the request of the United Fruit Company, public relations activities to try to lay the basis for the U.S.-backed invasion, which destroyed an experiment in Guatemalan democracy and opened up forty years of extreme terror and violence. And he’s greatly praised for that. But, remember, all this is at the left, liberal extreme of the spectrum. His background was in Woodrow Wilson’s Committee on Public Information, which is the first official state propaganda agency in the U.S. Its goal was to drive a relatively pacifist population into becoming hysterical anti-German fanatics. It succeeded. And that success impressed a lot of people.

Bernays took that success–and mentions it in the same book, in fact–as the basis of his recognition that you can control and manipulate attitudes and in that way, undermine democracy, what he calls “building democracy,” but it means undermining it. The dean of American journalism, Walter Lippmann, came from the same committee, drew the same conclusions. The business world, of course, did. Adolph Hitler was much impressed by the propaganda and suggested, probably accurately, that the Germans lost the First World War because they could not match Anglo-American propaganda achievements, and he vowed that next time Germany would be ready. It had a big impact on future developments.

Your office here in a new building at MIT is opposite, actually, another new one that’s curiously, called the Center for Learning and Memory. One can only speculate as to what goes on there. But I’d like you to talk about memory and knowledge of history as a tool of resistance to propaganda.

It was well understood, long before Orwell, that memory must be repressed. Not only memory but consciousness of what’s happening in front of you must be repressed, because if the public comes to understand what’s being done in its name, it probably won’t permit it. That’s the main reason for propaganda. Otherwise there is no point in it. Why not just tell the truth? It’s easier to tell the truth than to lie. You don’t get caught. You don’t have to put any effort into it. But power systems rarely tell the truth, if they can get away with it, because they simply don’t trust the public. And this happens every minute. What we were talking about is an example; the appointment of Negroponte is a perfect example. And it just goes on and on.

On May 27, the New York Times published one of the most incredible sentences I’ve ever seen. They ran an article about the Nixon-Kissinger interchanges. Kissinger fought very hard through the courts to try to prevent it, but the courts permitted it. You read through it, and you see the following statement embedded in it. Nixon at one point informs Kissinger, his right-hand Eichmann, that he wanted bombing of Cambodia. And Kissinger loyally transmits the order to the Pentagon to carry out “a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” That is the most explicit call for what we call genocide when other people do it that I’ve ever seen in the historical record.

Right at this moment there is a prosecution of Milosevic going on in the international tribunal, and the prosecutors are kind of hampered because they can’t find direct orders, or a direct connection even, linking Milosevic to any atrocities on the ground. Suppose they found a statement like this. Suppose a document came out from Milosevic saying, “Reduce Kosovo to rubble. Anything that flies on anything that moves.” They would be overjoyed. The trial would be over. He would be sent away for multiple life sentences–if it was a U.S. trial, immediately the electric chair. But they can’t find any such document. In fact, nobody has even found a document like that connecting Hitler to the Holocaust. Scholars have been working on it for years. I can’t remember an example of such a direct order to carry out what amounted to a huge massacre, way beyond the level of anything we call genocide when other people do it.

Was there any reaction to the Nixon-Kissinger transcript? Did anybody notice it? Did anybody comment on it? Actually, I’ve brought it up in talks a number of times, and I’ve noticed that people don’t understand it. They understand it the minute I say it, but not five minutes later, because it’s just too unacceptable. We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can’t be. So therefore, it didn’t happen. And therefore, it doesn’t even have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history, any more than the World Court hearing did.

I suspect if you went to Harvard Law School and you asked students or, for that matter, faculty if they know about the World Court judgment, probably many of them wouldn’t. And if they did know about it they would be unaware of its primary content and import (it is sometimes cited in the international law literature, but almost always with reference to issues outside of its main thrust) even though the Nicaragua team was led by a distinguished Harvard law professor with long government service, who constructed an extremely narrow case because he just wanted to keep to uncontroversial facts so that the case would be won, as it was. Incidentally, when the Court judgment is brought up, that fact is sometimes used by apologists for state violence and atrocities to argue that the Court didn’t really condemn the whole range of U.S. international terrorist activities, just the specific case that was brought before it, which is sort of accurate until you read the Court ruling, which was far broader than the small point that was brought. But try an experiment: Ask at Harvard Law School how many know about that. Ask R. W. Apple if he knows about it. If you kind of stir his memory, he may recall that something like that happened. But this is not insignificant. After all, here is Ronald Reagan, the one world leader who rejected World Court orders not on an insignificant matter–rather, on an international terrorist campaign which practically destroyed a country. And recall that in 1981–not 2001, but in 1981–the U.S. declared that a war on terror was going to be a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy. And it became a massive terrorist war. Gone. Gone. It didn’t happen, can’t talk about it, it doesn’t exist.

In your essay “On War Crimes” from At War with Asia, that came out in 1970, you cited Bertrand Russell from the international war crimes tribunal on Vietnam. Russell says, “It is in the nature of imperialism that citizens of the imperial power are always among the last to know–or care–about circumstances in the colonies.”

I disagree with him about care. I think they do care, and I think that’s why they’re the last to know. They’re the last to know because of massive propaganda campaigns that keep them from knowing. Propaganda can be either explicit or silent. Silence is a kind of propaganda. So when you’re silent about your own crimes, that’s propaganda, too. And I think the reason for the propaganda, both kinds, is that people do care, and if they find out, they’re not going to let it happen.

In fact, we actually see that right in front of us. You won’t read it in the headlines. But take, say, the recent events in Fallujah in Iraq. There was a marine invasion of Fallujah. They killed nobody knows how many people, hundreds, let’s say. We don’t investigate our own crimes, so we don’t know the numbers. The U.S. had to back off and they won’t say it but effectively conceded defeat and turned the city over to what amounts to the former Saddam army pretty much. Why did that happen? Suppose that there had been a Fallujah event in the 1960s. It would have been settled very simply with B52s, massive ground operations to wipe the place out. Why not this time? Because the public won’t tolerate it now.

In the 1960s, executive power was so extreme, it could get away with just about anything. The public didn’t know, maybe even didn’t care, because it was just taken for granted that it’s our right to massacre and destroy at will. So there was virtually no protest against the Vietnam War for years, and operations like this went on constantly. Not anymore. Now the public won’t tolerate it. Therefore, that’s one major reason why the U.S. cannot carry out the kinds of murderous operations that it was easily able to carry out. I think it’s because the public does care.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at declassified documents. You take a look at secret documents from the U.S. or, to the extent that I know, other countries. Are they protecting secrets? In a sense, yes. But who are they protecting them from? Mostly the domestic population. A very small proportion of them have anything to do with security, no matter how broadly you interpret it. They primarily have to do with ensuring that the major enemy, namely, the domestic population, does not find out what power systems are doing. And that’s because people in power, whether it’s business power or government power or doctrinal power, whatever, simply are afraid that people do care, and therefore you have to, as Bernays said, consciously manipulate their attitudes and beliefs–for their own good, of course, always for their own good.

U.S. dedication to democracy is a staple of discourse among elites and in the corporate media. Here and there are acknowledgments that there are occasional mistakes but the doctrine is one of constant good intentions. June 2004 marks the fiftieth anniversary of what you mentioned earlier, Operation Success in Guatemala, the U.S. coup overthrowing the democratically elected government of Jacobo Arbenz. Eisenhower, after the coup, said to the assembled CIA chiefs, “Thanks to all of you. You’ve averted a Soviet beachhead in our hemisphere.” Again connecting beachheads in Grenada with beachheads in Guatemala. Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer wrote a book on the coup called Bitter Fruit. Schlesinger in a Nation article called it “one of the blackest episodes in the CIA’s history.” Could you comment on that? It wasn’t one of the blackest episodes in U.S. history; it was this rogue agency out of control.

That’s a good book. It was written before a lot was known, but it’s basically on target. However, this was not the CIA’s history. It’s the history of the White House. The CIA acted, as it regularly acts, as an agency of the White House to carry out actions where you can have what’s called plausible deniability. Kissinger-style orders are rare. They’re usually given quietly. Actually, this one, too, was given quietly, but it was exposed. The CIA is assigned the responsibility of carrying out the crimes and atrocities. And then if anything goes wrong, you can blame it on the CIA, sort of rogue elements out of control.

But that’s a joke. It’s very hard to find a case where the CIA acted outside presidential authority. And this is a clear case. Eisenhower gave the orders. The beachhead story doesn’t mention the fact that Eisenhower knew perfectly well that his administration had been trying very hard to force Guatemala to accept East European arms. Guatemala had a democratic government. In fact, it was a brief interlude. A Guatemalan poet called it years of spring in a history of tyranny, or something like that. There was a brief interlude of democracy, to which the U.S. was strongly opposed.

After the dictatorship was overthrown in 1944, Guatemala gradually got an authentic democratic government, which had enormous popular support. Schlesinger and Kinzer didn’t know at the time they wrote their book, but since then CIA and other documents have been released. They make it clear that the great fear in the U.S. administration was the enormous popular support that the democratic government had because of its progressive social policies. It was mobilizing peasants for the first time to participate in the political system. And that was just considered a terrible crime, because a real democracy was developing, which might even influence others. So Dulles and Eisenhower, in secret discussions, were profoundly concerned. The main threat they could see in Guatemala was that it might be supporting strikes in nearby Honduras or it might be supporting Jose Figueres, the leading figure of Central American democracy, who was trying to overthrow a dictatorship in Costa Rica, and it might be that Guatemala was supporting it. So those were the threats.

They threatened Guatemala very clearly with attack. Guatemala tried to get military aid from Europe. The U.S. blocked that. Finally, Guatemala made the tactical mistake of accepting military aid from the only country that would give it to it. It happened to be Czechoslovakia. And the U.S. triumphantly discovered that Czech arms were going to Guatemala to defend itself from an attack by the hemispheric superpower, and that was trumpeted as a threat to the U.S. How can the U.S. survive if Guatemala gets a rifle from Czechoslovakia? And it was used as the pretext for the invasion, which of course was covered up. It wasn’t called a U.S.-backed invasion, although that’s in fact what it was.

Incidentally, although we have an enormous amount of information about Guatemala, it is nevertheless limited. Part of the reason is that the Reaganites, who were not conservatives, they were extreme statist reactionaries, believed in a powerful interventionist state, which intervenes massively in the domestic economy and in international affairs. They also had to prevent the public from knowing what it was doing. So one of the achievements of the Reagan administration was to block the regular release of archival records. There are U.S. laws that require the State Department to declassify and release records after a thirty-year period. There are some constraints, but basically to release them. The Reagan administration for the first time blocked that because they didn’t want the public to know what had happened in Guatemala and Iran. So either they destroyed them or they hid them, but they didn’t release them. That was considered so outrageous that the State Department historians, who are a pretty conservative bunch, resigned in protest and made a public protest about it.

This is a kind of a fascist streak in the Reagan administration and their current inheritors, and demonstrates their enormous fear of the public. The public simply must not be allowed to know what happened thirty years ago at that time. That tells us more about their alleged popularity among the public. They hated and feared the public. And rightly, because of the consequences if the hated public did get to know what had happened in Guatemala and Iran. And they were by no means the most extreme cases, I might say. People would learn something about the truth about what the state is up to and wouldn’t accept it.

The coup in Iran occurred the year before, in 1953, Operation Ajax. The newspaper of record also had a role in the 1954 Guatemala coup. The New York Times was contacted by the Eisenhower administration and kept its correspondent, Sydney Gruson, away from the story. And the editors at Forty-third Street went along with that.

The Times also applauded the Iran coup and was a cheerleader for the one in Guatemala. Thomas McCann, the public relations officer of the United Fruit Company wrote an interesting book (An American Company) about this, in which he describes the propaganda efforts led by Bernays to get the public and the press to support the coup. And then he says, well, we’re accused of manipulating the press, but it’s not really fair because, he says, they were “so eager for the experience.” You really can’t blame us for just letting them do what they really wanted to do, namely, to support state violence, terror, overthrow democracy, and institute a vicious and brutal dictatorship. They wanted it, so we helped them. But that’s not our fault. And he’s basically accurate.

Earlier, you mentioned Bernays being a Cambridge liberal. He said that in Guatemala “liberals must play a decisive role.” There is an interesting fellow who turns up in Guatemala right around that time. A young doctor from Argentina, Che Guevara, who is radicalized by his experience in Guatemala.

He was. And, in fact, that’s a little bit like the painting on the wall that you brought up when we began. Maybe people in North America are prevented from knowing the facts, but people in Latin America know. And, yes, Guatemala had a big effect. It had an effect on Cuba. And the facts go all the way to Nicaragua.

So let’s go back to Reagan. The Reagan administration tried to duplicate what Kennedy had done in South Vietnam, but also what Eisenhower had done in Guatemala. So they tried very hard to force the Nicaraguans to receive Soviet arms. They wanted to be able to portray it as a threat, this story about the national emergency. Nicaragua was under attack. You have to remember what was happening. The CIA, meaning the White House, had total control of Nicaraguan air space, and they were using that control to send communications to the terrorist army, which was an odd guerrilla army. It had computers and helicopters. U.S. air cover was able to direct the mercenary forces away from the Nicaraguan army so they could attack undefended targets and not “duke it out” with the Sandinistas. As the head of the Southern Command put it, just attack “soft targets.” Don’t “duke it out with the Sandinistas,” meaning the Nicaraguan army. And they were able to do that, thanks to U.S. control of the air.

Of course, Nicaragua wanted to somehow defend its own air space. They tried to get planes from France and other European powers. The Reaganites put plenty of pressure on the Europeans not to send them arms, because they wanted them to get arms from the Russians. They wanted them to do what Guatemala had done so they could then portray them as an existential threat to the U.S. Well, they didn’t do it; they didn’t fall into the trap. So therefore, the Reagan administration had to constantly invent tales about MiGs being detected in cartons on the waterfront. One of those concocted threats came at a very important moment.

In 1984, Nicaragua carried out a democratic election, the only real democratic election in its history, It was very intensely observed. The professional Latin American Society had a big delegation. It was there for weeks. A British parliamentary human rights group was there as well as a very hostile Dutch government group, and others. They all recognized that it was, by Latin American standards, a free election. In the U.S., the election didn’t happen. It cannot have happened, because the wrong people won. Therefore, it didn’t happen. Incidentally, none of these reports appeared, including even those of the Latin American scholars, the professional association. But what the Reaganites did was conjure up a MiG scare, so any possibility that somebody might have by accident reported the unacceptable election was blocked by a MiG scare. Containers arrived containing MiGs. The reaction to that was quite interesting. The hawks, of course, exulted. For one thing, everyone exulted, because they could suppress the election. The hawks exulted because it proved the U.S. was in danger of destruction by Nicaragua. The doves were kind of cautious. They said, it may be just a ploy, and we don’t really know that there actually were MiGs there. Of course, it was a lie. But they said, to take Massachusetts liberal Paul Tsongas, if there really are MiGs, we will have to bomb Nicaragua, because those planes might be used to attack us.

In other words, if Nicaragua gets planes to defend its air space from a U.S. attack, which was going on, that’s unacceptable. We have to bomb them because they might be used against us. That’s the Left in our sense, the establishment Left. The idea that Nicaragua might have a right to defend itself was literally inexpressible. I once asked my friend, Ry Ryan, who has since died, who was an editor of the Boston Globe and one of the journalists who really did try hard to write about Nicaragua–that’s probably part of the reason why he was kicked out as editor–to check the Globe files–and this is the most liberal paper in the country–and see if he could find any place where anyone ever suggested that Nicaragua has a right to defend itself. He went through the files. He found one draft of an editorial, which I don’t think was published, which mentioned that maybe Nicaragua has a right to defend itself. But you just can’t find that expressed. No country has a right to defend itself against U.S. attack. If it does so, that’s a crime. Eisenhower was able to manipulate the Guatemalans into trying to defend themselves, and that was the justification for destroying them.

Reagan had to invent the air base on Grenada as another existential threat that we could overcome, because then we could attack. Nicaragua is a much worse case. But even the idea that a country might have the right to defend itself against a U.S. attack is unacceptable. We see that going on right now in Guantánamo. So, for example, this morning they said that an Australian citizen being held at Guantánamo–there was a little bit of an international incident about this–will be charged with fighting with the Taliban. That’s a war crime, they say. Whatever you think about the Taliban, what does it mean for the Taliban to be fighting? It means they’re resisting the U.S. attack. The U.S. is invading Afghanistan, it’s bombing them to smithereens in the mountains. And if somebody is found there who sort of survived the bombing, he’s guilty of a war crime because he participated in the defense of a country against a U.S. invasion. Can you find a word anywhere suggesting there is something a little bit odd about this? I can’t.

Just going back to Eisenhower, occasionally you see his farewell address quoted, where he said, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence…by the military-industrial complex.” Forty-plus years have passed since that warning by Eisenhower. The U.S. military has increased exponentially. It now has what Chalmers Johnson calls an empire of bases. What are your views on the military-industrial complex?

I think Eisenhower’s warning was appropriate, but either he didn’t understand or else commentators don’t understand, but the military-industrial complex, as he called it, is actually the core of the modern economy. It’s not specifically military. The reason we have computers, the Internet, telecommunications, lasers, satellites, an aeronautical industry, tourism, run down the list, is because of a technique to ensure that the U.S. is not a free-enterprise economy. Some are more extreme than others in this respect.

So the Reaganites were extreme in opposition to free enterprise, exactly contrary to what’s being said. They virtually doubled import restrictions, more than all American presidents combined in the postwar era. They poured government money into the economy in an effort to carry out the project that was then called “reindustrializing America.” You have to recall that in the early 1980s there was great fear that U.S. industry was being undermined by much more efficient Japanese production. American corporate managers had failed to adopt the modern techniques, such as lean manufacturing, that the Japanese had perfected. And they were, in fact, undermining American industry. Well, you can’t allow that. So the Reaganites poured government money into it to reindustrialize America.

And that’s the way the economy works. The core of it is the state sector. Right where we’re sitting is a good example. What’s MIT? When Eisenhower was making his speech, MIT was working hard, just like Harvard, with government research funds to reduce computers from massive creatures that filled all of these office spaces to something small enough so you could sell it to a company as a mainframe. When they got to that point, right about the time of Eisenhower’s speech, the head of one of the big projects pulled out and formed the first mainframe producer. Meanwhile, IBM was in there learning, on public funds, how to move from punch cards to computers. By the early 1960s, they were able to produce more advanced computers of their own, but not for the public. There is no consumer choice in this. They were doing it for the National Security Agency and other government agencies. In fact, it was years, it was literally decades, before private tyrannies, what’s called free enterprise, were able to take the results of public funding and market them. When Alan Greenspan talks about it, it’s the marvels of entrepreneurial initiative and consumer choice, which was approximately zero throughout the costly and risky period of development.

The same is true of the Internet. It was in the public system for thirty years. We’re supposed to be excited about trade and how wonderful it is. Maybe it is or maybe it isn’t, but trade is based on containers, which were developed at public cost in the U.S. Navy. Dave Noble did a very important piece of work on an important part of the economy, basically, computer-controlled machine tools, which were designed–not as a technological imperative but for doctrinal reasons, as he shows–as a way of deskilling machinists and placing more authority in the hands of managers. The technology didn’t have to be used that way. It could have been used the opposite way, as he points out. But it was used that way, and it was developed within the military, where just about everything innovative was developed in the high tech economy, under military cover.

This has little to do with military industry. In fact, it’s kind of interesting to look at the records of DARPA, the advanced research agency of the Pentagon (previously ARPA). In, I think it was 1971, in the context of a lot of antiwar pressure, Mike Mansfield introduced legislation called the Mansfield Amendment, which required that military funding by the Congress be used for military purposes. You take a look at the ARPA and DARPA reports before and after. They’re interesting. I did it once. Before that, they simply reported what they were doing, namely, creating the economy of the future. After that, the reports are divided sort of into two parts. The first part talks about possible military applications, which mostly are imaginary, and the second part is like the old reports: Here’s what we’re doing. It’s the economy of the future.

It’s going on this minute. MIT has projects right now on efforts to try to control the motions of animals by computers, and maybe even to pick up signals from human brains and translate them into commands to control what other organisms do. This is presented–and maybe people believe it–as the great new frontier in fighting wars. You will be able to get a commander to tell a pilot, just by thinking, “Anything that flies on anything that moves,” or something like that. That’s pretty unlikely. But the point is, it is contributing directly to what may be the next advanced stage of technology and profits. If you walk around MIT today, around Kendall Square, you see small biotech companies, spin-offs of government-sponsored research in what will be the cutting edge of the economy, namely, biology-based industries. If you went around forty years ago (then to the new Route 128), you would have seen small electronics firms, spin-offs of what was then the cutting edge of the economy, electronics, under military cover.

So Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex is not quite what is generally interpreted. In part, yes, it’s military. But a main function of the military, or the National Institutes of Health, or the rest of the federal system, is to provide some device to socialize costs, get the public to pay the costs, to take the risks. Ultimately, if anything comes out, you put it into private pockets. And, again, this has to be done in a way that protects state power and private power from the domestic enemy. You have to say it’s to defend ourselves against Grenada or Russia or Guatemala or somebody. If you get people frightened enough, they won’t notice that their taxes are going into creating the profits of IBM and Merck twenty years from now. Why not tell them the truth? Because then they might not make these decisions.

You might argue that these were good decisions, like it’s nice to have computers. But that’s not really the point. The point is, who should make those decisions? Suppose you would ask people in the 1950s. Suppose there was some pretense among the educated classes or the power system, some belief that we ought to have something like a democracy. So then you would ask people, you would try to get an informed public to decide, do you want computers twenty-five years from now, or do you want health services now and schools today and jobs today and a livable environment for your children? What’s your choice?

I can make my guesses. But the point is that anybody with power was afraid of that choice. They’re deathly afraid of democracy, and therefore you can’t make the choice, and you must manipulate attitudes in the way Bernays described. You must pretend that we’re under threat of attack by Guatemala or Nicaragua if they get a MiG for self-defense against U.S. attack in order to frighten the public into accepting what’s actually happening. That’s the real military-industrial complex.

Returning again to Ronald Reagan, I’m looking at a book by Eqbal Ahmad called Terrorism: Theirs & Ours. The cover shows the great communicator sitting in the White House with Afghan mujahideen. This is not a photograph that is being widely circulated in any of the major media. The Reagan administration was instrumental in supporting the mujahideen, elements of which later morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

They went beyond supporting them. They organized them. They collected radical Islamists from around the world, the most violent, crazed elements they could find, and tried to forge them into a military force in Afghanistan. You could argue that would have been legitimate if it had been for the purpose of defending Afghanistan. But it wasn’t. In fact, it probably prolonged the war in Afghanistan. It looks from the Russian archives as though they were ready to pull out in the early 1980s, and this prolonged the war. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to harm the Russians, not to defend the Afghans. So, the mujahideen were carrying out terrorist activities right inside Russia, based in Afghanistan. Incidentally, those terrorist activities stopped after the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan, because what they were trying to do is just what they say, in their terminology, protect Muslim lands from the infidels. When the infidels pulled out, they stopped carrying out terrorist attacks in Russia from Afghanistan. They’re now carrying them out from Chechnya, where Russia is carrying out a murderous, devastating repression with U.S. support. And, yes, Islamists were brought to Afghanistan. They were armed, trained, directed by Pakistani intelligence mainly, but under CIA supervision and control, with the support of Britain and other powers, for the purpose of trying to harm the Russians as much as possible at that time. And, yes, they morphed into what became al-Qaeda. Eqbal Ahmad recognized right away, and warned–a lonely voice–that the U.S. and its allies were creating a terrorist monster, reviving concepts of “jihad” as “holy war” that had been dormant for centuries in the Islamic world.

Actually, al-Qaeda, if you look back, was barely mentioned in U.S. intelligence reports until 1998. Clinton put it on the map. Clinton’s bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998 effectively created al-Qaeda, both as a known entity in the intelligence world and also in the Muslim world. It was an enormous boost for them. It also put bin Laden on the map. Before that, he was regarded as a kind of minor financier of some kind. But that created him as a major symbol, it led to an increase in recruitment, financing and general support for al-Qaeda-style networks, and it also tightened relations between bin Laden and the Taliban, which had been quite hostile before but they became close after the bombing.

The bombing of Sudan, in particular, infuriated people throughout the Arab world. It’s another one of those things that didn’t happen because we did it. The Clinton administration knew perfectly well that the target was the major producer of pharmaceutical and veterinary supplies for a poor African country. They may have believed it was producing chemical weapons or maybe not–that’s what people discuss–but it doesn’t matter. They knew they were bombing a core part of the pharmaceutical industry. Of course, that’s going to have devastating effects. It was known instantly. We don’t know how much, because, again, we don’t investigate or care about the results of our crimes, which didn’t exist. But the few credible estimates that are available from the German ambassador–in a paper published in the ultra-left Harvard International Review–and another in the Boston Globe by the regional director of the Near East Foundation, who had field experience in Sudan–both estimate several tens of thousands of deaths, which is plausible, maybe more, maybe less.

Here, that’s not an issue. You can read in the New Yorker a distinguished literary critic saying, why does anybody care about this? One person died. No, not one person. One person may have died in the missile attack, but perhaps tens of thousands died as a result. If al-Qaeda blew up half the pharmaceutical supplies in some country that mattered, like, say, the U.S. or England or Israel, we wouldn’t say, oh, well, a minor thing. But when we did it, it didn’t happen, and the consequences didn’t occur. And if anybody even dares to mention them, it just leads to tantrums, because you’re not allowed even to mention the fact that the U.S. can just thoughtlessly–they didn’t even plan to–carry out major crimes. And it did put al-Qaeda on the map.

Osama bin Laden himself was not anti-American until about 1991, when he changed, for several reasons. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia refused to allow him to carry out a jihad against Saddam Hussein. He wanted to lead an attack against Saddam Hussein during the first Gulf War. The Saudis and the U.S. didn’t want him to. He was irritated at that. But the main reason for what he says and what Western experts believe is the same as in Afghanistan. The infidels were occupying Muslim land, namely, Saudi Arabia. He was talking about U.S. bases there. And, of course, Saudi Arabia is vastly more important in their theology than Afghanistan. That’s the site of the two holy cities. Paul Wolfowitz finally agreed that this is correct when they decided to pull out the American bases from Saudi Arabia. He said, well, we have to remove this element that’s supporting al-Qaeda propaganda. It’s more than propaganda; it’s probably belief. So, yes, it then became anti-American, as it had been anti-Russian.

Incidentally, those terrorist attacks in Russia were no joke. They almost led to a Pakistan-Russia confrontation. And those are two nuclear powers. Another achievement of Ronald Reagan was to pretend that the Pakistanis were not developing nuclear weapons. Of course, they were. The U.S. was strongly supporting the vicious Zia ul Haq dictatorship in Pakistan. Among other things, it was developing nuclear weapons. And in order to keep supporting it and maintain their support for the jihadis in Afghanistan, they had to pretend they didn’t know anything about it–which, was, of course, a lie. They knew everything about it. Also, Zia ul Haq was turning Pakistan into a kind of Taliban-style country. He was undermining the educational system, which was reasonably advanced, by allowing Taliban-style types to take over a good part of it. The Reagan administration looked the other way. They didn’t care. As long as they were supporting U.S. goals, fine. Their legacy? We don’t have to wait for history to tell us what it was. You go wherever you like, South Asia, Central America, Africa, Southeast Asia, the Middle East. It’s atrocious.

I interviewed Eqbal Ahmad in August, 1998, a couple of weeks after the Clinton cruise missile attacks on Afghanistan and Sudan, which were, according to the U.S., in response to the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and in Kenya. And he said, “Osama bin Laden is a sign of things to come.” I asked him to explain. And he responded,” The U.S. has sowed in the Middle East and in South Asia very poisonous seeds. These seeds are growing now. Some have ripened and others are ripening. An examination of why they were sown, what has grown, and how they should be reaped is needed. Missiles won’t solve the problem.”

That’s a very perceptive statement, expanding what he had pointed out much earlier. By now there is quite good analytic literature on how they developed. The best book on that is by a British investigator, Jason Burke, called Al-Qaeda. He confirms in detail what Eqbal predicted. He reviews a whole series of acts in the development of al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is not an organization; it’s a loose network of very loosely affiliated, mostly independent organizations that have a kind of a similar ideology. He calls it a network of networks. And as Eqbal predicted, it became a major symbol and bin Laden himself became a major symbol as a result of these bombings. Before, it hadn’t been.

Take a look at Richard Clarke’s book. He says the same thing about U.S. intelligence. Until 1998, there was no special attention to al-Qaeda or bin Laden. They were kind of marginal factors. In fact, they didn’t even use the word al-Qaeda. But, yes, Eqbal is correct. What Burke points out is that every single U.S. act of violence has been a very welcome gift to bin Laden. He says, every use of violence is a small victory for bin Laden. It helps him mobilize the constituency that will, he hopes, join him in seeing the West as crusaders who are trying to destroy the Muslim world, saying, they must defend themselves.

Like the 1998 attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan, the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 again led to a big increase in recruitment and financing for networks of the al-Qaeda style. The war in Iraq had the same effect. Just this morning the State Department conceded that, as they politely put it, they were mistaken, in other words, lying outright, in their report a couple of months ago claiming that terror had been reduced thanks to Bush. In fact, it had sharply increased, they now concede quietly, which had been known before. And one of the reasons for the increase was the war in Iraq. Furthermore, it was predicted in advance that that was going to happen. It wasn’t any surprise. Intelligence agencies and analysts were predicting, if you invade Iraq, you’re going to increase terrorism, for pretty obvious reasons.

There is a kind of an odd charade going on now in the intellectual world and in Washington based on the revelations of Clarke and O’Neill and others that the neocons in the administration ranked invading Iraq higher than the war on terror. The only thing surprising about these revelations is that anybody is surprised. How can you be surprised? They invaded Iraq, after all, knowing that it was very likely to increase the threat of terror. End of story. That demonstrates what their priorities are. Furthermore, they’re perfectly reasonable priorities. They don’t care that much about terror. What they care a lot about–I’ll go back to Chalmers Johnson–is having military bases in a dependent client state right at the heart of the oil-producing region. That’s important. Not because the U.S. wants the oil–it’s going to get it one way or the another on the market–but it wants to control the oil. A totally different matter. Those things are constantly obscured. Control of the oil, it has been known since the 1940s, is a major lever of world control against your enemies. And U.S. enemies are Europe and Asia. Those are the regions of the world that could move towards independence. One of the ways to prevent that is to keep your hand on the spigot. It was understood long ago.

Every four years Americans, those who vote, are faced with what is often called the lesser of two evils as their presidential options. Dave Dellinger, who passed away in May, used to call it “the evil of two lessers.” You say that there is “a fraction” of difference between George Bush and John Kerry. And this raised some eyebrows. I heard, “It sounds like Chomsky is coming out for Kerry.” Could you expand on your position.

There are differences. They have different constituencies. There are different groups of people around them. On international affairs I wouldn’t expect any major policy changes. It would probably be more like back to the Clinton years, when you have sort of the same policies, but more modulated, not so brazen and aggressive, less violent. And I would expect a kind of return to that.

On domestic issues there could be a fairly significant difference–it’s not huge–but different in its outcomes. The group around Bush are real fanatics. They’re quite open. They’re not hiding it; you can’t accuse them of that. They want to destroy the whole array of progressive achievements of the past century. They’ve already more or less gotten rid of progressive income tax. They’re trying to destroy the limited medical care system. The new pharmaceutical bill is a step towards that. They’re going after Social Security. They probably will go after schools. They do not want a small government, any more than Reagan did. They want a huge government, and massively intrusive. They hate free markets. But they want it to work for the rich. The Kerry people will do something not fantastically different, but less so. They have a different constituency to appeal to, and they are much more likely to protect some limited form of benefits for the general population.

There are other differences. The popular constituency of the Bush people, a large part of it, is the extremist fundamentalist religious sector in the country, which is huge. There is nothing like it in any other industrial country. And they have to keep throwing them red meat to keep them in line. While they’re shafting them in their economic and social policies, you’ve got to make them think you’re doing something for them. And throwing red meat to that constituency is very dangerous for the world, because it means violence and aggression, but also for the country, because it means harming civil liberties in a serious way. The Kerry people don’t have that constituency. They would like to have it, but they’re never going to appeal to it much. They have to appeal somehow to working people, women, minorities, and others, and that makes a difference.

These may not look like huge differences, but they translate into quite big effects for the lives of people. Anyone who says “I don’t care if Bush gets elected” is basically telling poor and working people in the country, “I don’t care if your lives are destroyed. I don’t care whether you are going to have a little money to help your disabled mother. I just don’t care, because from my elevated point of view I don’t see much difference between them.” That’s a way of saying, “Pay no attention to me, because I don’t care about you.” Apart from its being wrong, it’s a recipe for disaster if you’re hoping to ever develop a popular movement and a political alternative.