Time for a U.S. Truth Commission
by Robert Parry
from The Consortium magazine, February 17, 1997
There is a cynical old saying that the victors write the history. For
those of us brought up on Westerns which made the Indians the aggressors
and the U.S. cavalry the peacekeepers, we know there's something to that.
But it is perhaps one of the cruelest ironies of the long Cold War that
it is the American people -- the supposed victors -- who are seeing their
own history sanitized and miswritten.
Even as the archives of ex-Communist nations are opened, even as truth
commissions wring the painful reality out of ex-rightist regimes, the American
people are the ones most thoroughly kept in the dark about the unsavory
secrets of the past half century. When bits and pieces of that history do
leak out or are forced out by diligent journalists, the stories often are
constructed narrowly, denied by the government or attacked by major media
outlets. The larger picture is never brought into focus.
It is as if the final price for winning the Cold War is our confinement
to a permanent childhood where reassuring fantasies and endless diversions
protect us from the hard truth of our own recent history.
This American historical juvenility is in marked contrast to other countries
which are coming to grips with horrible historical events. In January, for
instance, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission announced that
ex-policemen had confessed to the torture-murder of black activist Steve
Biko in 1977 and a wide range of other brutal apartheid-related crimes.
In Argentina, human rights activists continue to press for the identification
of hundreds of children who were stolen from women "disappeared"
by the military's Dirty War in the mid-to-late 1970s. Sometimes, the babies
were literally ripped from the women's wombs by Cesarean sections before
the mothers were sent to their deaths, along with as many as 30,000 other
But the U.S. government continues to conceal its complicity in these
crimes, as well as its role in the decades long orgy of murder, torture
and rape against hundreds of thousands of civilians who perished in Guatemala,
El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua. In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration
even supported the Argentine military as it trained the Nicaraguan contra
rebels in Honduras.
Over the past year, however, evidence has dribbled out that the CIA
and the Pentagon contributed directly to these and other human rights violations.
In January, The Baltimore Sun discovered a 1983 CIA manual that taught psychological
torture techniques to five Latin American security forces. "While we
do not stress the use of coercive techniques, we want to make you aware
of them and the proper way to use them," the manual coyly advised.
Yet, in the major U.S. media, the CIA's torture manual did not rate
as front-page news. The Washington Post stuck its pick-up of the story on
A9 and the New York Times ran its version on Al l. Both newspapers played
up the fact, too, that the CIA had revised the manual in 1985 to discourage
use of these "coercive techniques," although the methods were
still described, including how to induce "physical weakness" by
subjecting the victim to extremes of heat and cold and deprivation of food
But the manual was only watered down in 1985 be cause of a controversy
that erupted in October 1984 around stories that I wrote for The Associated
Press on the CLA's so-called "assassination" manual for the contras.
That "psychological operations" manual advocated "selective
use of violence" to "neutralize" civilian opponents and arranging
other deaths for political advantage.
The Baltimore Sun's new torture disclosures also follow the Pentagon's
admission last year that the U.S. Army's School of the Americas used manuals
that advocated torture, murder and coercion. Those Pentagon manuals were
prepared in 1982 for training of Latin American officers at the school which
has graduated some of the Hemisphere's worst human rights abusers, including
El Salvador's "death squad" commander Roberto D'Aubuisson and
Panama's Manuel Noriega. Clearly, these manuals were not isolated incidents,
or simple "mistakes."
Indeed, the evidence points to conscious U.S. complicity in widespread
human rights violations. Yet not a single U.S. official has been held to
account for involving the United States in these serious offenses against
Ronald Reagan remains a Republican political icon, whose name will be
affixed to a major new trade building in Washington. Yet, even before his
election, Reagan was defending the Argentine military and minimizing its
bloody reign. He declared in one radio commentary that President Carter's
human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian, "should walk a mile in the
moccasins" of Argentina's generals before criticizing them.
Once in office, Reagan dispatched senior advisers to coordinate strategies
with the Argentine dictators and South Africa's apartheid regime. He sent
millions of dollars in weapons to the armies of El Salvador, Guatemala and
Honduras despite their wanton slaughter of civilians.
When the CIA-contra "assassination" manual surfaced in 1984,
he dismissed it as "much ado about nothing."
Still, while the Reagan administration might have been particularly
grievous, many of its predecessors share in the blame, too.
Currently, the African-American community is pressing for a thorough
investigation into cocaine trafficking by the CIA-backed contras. Without
doubt, U.S. officials implicated in the drug trade deserve punishment.
But in our view, the problem is even worse than that. What we see is
a long-term pattern of collaboration with -- and cover-up of -- crimes that
stagger the human imagination and shame the nation. Perhaps, the time has
come for the United States to have its own truth commission, a body of citizens
who will piece together the real historical record of the past half century.
Then, maybe, the Cold War's victors will finally get to write the history.
The Consortium is an independent investigative magazine published biweekly.
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