Killing Hope

by William Blum

excerpted from the Introduction to the Original Edition


It was in the early days of the fighting in Vietnam that a Vietcong officer said to his American prisoner: "You were our heroes after the War. We read American books and saw American films, and a common phrase in those days was 'to be as rich and as wise as an American'. What happened?"

An American might have been asked something similar by a Guatemalan, an Indonesian or a Cuban during the ten years previous, or by a Uruguayan, a Chilean or a Greek in the decade subsequent. The remarkable international goodwill and credibility enjoyed by the United States at the close of the Second World War was dissipated country by country, intervention by intervention.

... The members of [the military-industrial-intelligence complex] ... need enemies - the military and the CIA because enemies are their raison d'etre, industry, specifically the defense contractors, because enemies are to be fought, with increasingly sophisticated weaponry and aircraft systems; enemies of our enemies are to be armed, to the teeth. It's made these corporations wealthier than many countries of the world; in one year the US spends on the military more than $17,000 per hour, for every hour since Jesus Christ was born. The executives of these corporations have long moved effortlessly through a revolving door between industry and government service, members in good standing of the good ol' boys club who continue to use their positions, their wealth, and their influence, along with a compliant and indispensable media, ... to nourish and perpetuate the fear of "communism, the enemy" now in its seventh decade and going strong. Given the nature and machinations of the military-industrial- intelligence complex, interventions against these enemies are inevitable, and, from the complex's point of view, highly desirable.

In cases such as ... Grenada, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, even if the particular target of intervention does not present an immediate lucrative economic opportunity for American multinationals, the target's socialist-revolutionary program and rhetoric does present a threat and a challenge which the United States has repeatedly felt obliged to stamp out, to maintain the principle, and as a warning to others; for what the US has always feared from the Third World is the emergence of a good example: a flourishing socialist society independent of Washington. Governments and movements with such programs and rhetoric are clearly not going to be cold-war allies, are clearly "communist", and thus are eminently credible candidates for the category of enemy.

Inextricably bound up with these motivations is a far older seducer of men and nations, the lust for power: the acquisition, maintenance, use and enjoyment of influence and prestige; the incomparable elation that derives from molding the world in your own beloved image.

In all these paradigms, "communist" is often no more than the name ascribed to those people who stand in the way of the realization of such ambitions (as "national security" is the name given for the reason for fighting "communists"). It is another twist of the old adage: if communists didn't exist, the United States would have to invent them. And so they have. The word "communist" (as well as "Marxist") has been so overused and so abused by American leaders and the media as to render it virtually meaningless. (The left has done the same to the word "fascist".) But merely having a name for something - witches or flying saucers-attaches a certain credence to it.

At the same time, the American public ... has been soundly conditioned to react Pavlovianly to the term: it means, still, the worst excesses of Stalin, from wholesale purges to Siberian slave-labor camps; it means, as Michael Parenti has observed, that "Classic Marxist-Leninist predictions [concerning world revolution] are treated as statements of intent directing all present-day communist actions.'' It means "us" against "them".

And "them" can mean a peasant in the Philippines, a mural-painter in Nicaragua, a legally-elected prime minister in British Guiana, or a European intellectual, a Cambodian neutralist, an African nationalist - all, somehow, part of the same monolithic conspiracy; each, in some way, a threat to the American Way of Life; no land too small, too poor, or too far away to pose such a threat, the "communist threat".

... What then has been the thread common to the diverse targets of American intervention which has brought down upon them the wrath, and often the firepower, of the world's most powerful nation? In virtually every case involving the Third World, ... it has been, in one form or another, a policy of "self-determination": the desire, born of perceived need and principle, to pursue a path of development independent of US foreign policy objectives. Most commonly, this has been manifested in (a) the ambition to free themselves from economic and political subservience to the United States; (b) the refusal to minimize relations with the socialist bloc, or suppress the left at home, or welcome an American military installation on their soil; in short, a refusal to be a pawn in the cold war; or (c) the attempt to alter or replace a government which held to neither of these aspirations.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly that such a policy of independence has been viewed and expressed by numerous Third World leaders and revolutionaries as one not to be equated by definition to anti-Americanism or pro-communism, but as simply a determination to maintain a position of neutrality and non-alignment vis-a-vis the two superpowers. Time and time again, however, ... the United States was not prepared to live with this proposition. Arbenz of Guatemala, Mossadegh of Iran, Sukarno of Indonesia, Nkrumah of Ghana, Jagan of British Guiana, Sihanouk of Cambodia ... all, insisted Uncle Sam, must declare themselves unequivocally on the side of "The Free World" or suffer the consequences. Nkrumah [Ghana] put the case for non-alignment as follows:

"The experiment which we tried in Ghana was essentially one of developing the country in cooperation with the world as a whole. Non-alignment meant exactly what it said. We were not hostile to the countries of the socialist world in the way in which the governments of the old colonial territories were. It should be remembered that while Britain pursued at home co-existence with the Soviet Union this was never allowed to extend to British colonial territories. Books on socialism, which were published and circulated freely in Britain, were banned in the British colonial empire, and after Ghana became independent it was assumed abroad that it would continue to follow the same restrictive ideological approach. When we behaved as did the British in their relations with the socialist countries we were accused of being pro-Russian and introducing the most dangerous ideas into Africa."

It is reminiscent of the 19th-century American South, where many Southerners were deeply offended that so many of their black slaves had deserted to the Northern side in the Civil War. They had genuinely thought that the blacks should have been grateful for all their white masters had done for them, and that they were happy and content with their lot. A Southern physician, Samuel Cartwright, argued that many of the slaves suffered from a form of mental illness, which he called "drapetomania", diagnosed as the uncontrollable urge to escape from slavery. In the second half of the 20th-century, this illness, in the Third World, has usually been called "communism".

... in the 1960s, said the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, J. Edgar Hoover "helped spread the view among the police ranks that any kind of mass protest is due to a conspiracy promulgated by agitators, often Communists, 'who misdirect otherwise contented people'.''

The last is the key phrase, one which encapsulates the conspiracy mentality of those in power - the idea that no people, except those living under the enemy, could be so miserable and discontent as to need recourse to revolution or even mass protest; that it is only the agitation of the outsider which misdirects them along this path.

Accordingly, if Ronald Reagan conceded the masses of El Salvador have every good reason to rise up against their god-awful existence, it would bring into question his accusation, and the rationale for US intervention, that it is the Soviet Union and its Cuban and Nicaraguan allies who instigate the Salvadoreans: that seemingly magical power of communists everywhere who, with a twist of their red wrist, can transform peaceful, happy people into furious guerrillas. The CIA knows how difficult a feat this is. The Agency, ... tried to spark mass revolt in China, Albania, Cuba, the Soviet Union, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe with a singular lack of success. The Agency's scribes have laid the blame for these failures on the "closed" nature of the societies involved. But in non-communist countries, the CIA has had to resort to military coups or extra-legal chicanery to get its people into power. It has never been able to light the fire of popular revolution.

For Washington to concede merit and virtue to a particular Third World insurgency would, moreover, raise the question: Why does not the United States, if it must intervene, take the side of the rebels? Not only might this better serve the cause of human rights and justice, but it would shut out the Russians from their alleged role. What better way to frustrate the International Communist Conspiracy? But this is a question that dares not speak its name in the Oval Office ....

Instead, the United States remains committed to its all-too-familiar policy of establishing and / or supporting the most vile tyrannies in the world, whose outrages against their own people confront us daily in the pages of our newspapers: brutal massacres; systematic, sophisticated torture; public whippings; soldiers and police firing into crowds; hunger, runaway unemployment, the homeless, the refugees, the tens of thousands of disappeared persons ... a way of life that is virtually a monopoly held by America's allies, from Guatemala, Chile and El Salvador to Turkey, Pakistan and Indonesia, all members in good standing of the Holy War Against Communism, all members of "The Free World", that little known region of which we hear so much and see so little.

The restrictions on civil liberties found in the communist bloc, as severe as they are, pale by comparison to the cottage-industry Auschwitzes of "The Free World", and, except in that curious mental landscape inhabited by The Complete Anti-Communist, can have little or nothing to do with the sundry American interventions supposedly in the cause of a higher good.

It is interesting to note that as commonplace as it is for American leaders to speak of freedom and democracy while supporting dictatorships, so do Russian leaders speak of wars of liberation, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism while doing extremely little to actually further these causes, American propaganda notwithstanding. The Soviets like to be thought of as champions of the Third World, but they have stood by doing little more than going "tsk, tsk" as progressive movements and governments, even Communist Parties, in Greece, Guatemala, British Guiana, Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines and elsewhere have gone to the wall with American complicity.

During the early 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency instigated several military incursions into Communist China. In 1960, CIA planes, without any provocation, bombed the sovereign nation of Guatemala. In 1973, the Agency encouraged a bloody revolt against the government of Iraq. In the American mass media at the time, and therefore in the American mind, these events did not happen. "We didn't know what was happening", became a cliché used to ridicule those Germans who claimed ignorance of the events which took place under the Nazis. Yet, was their stock answer as far-fetched as we'd like to think? It is sobering to reflect that in our era of instant world-wide communications, the United States has, on many occasions, been able to mount a large- or small-scale military operation or undertake another, equally blatant, form of intervention without the American public being aware of it until years later, if ever. Often the only report of the event or of US involvement was a passing reference to the fact that a communist government had made certain charges - just the kind of "news" the American public has been well conditioned to dismiss out of hand, and the press not to follow up; as the German people were taught that reports from abroad of Nazi wrong-doings were no more than communist propaganda.

With few exceptions, the interventions never made the headlines or the evening TV news. With some, bits and pieces of the stories have popped up here and there, but rarely brought together to form a cohesive and enlightening whole, the fragments usually appear long after the fact, quietly buried within other stories, just as quietly forgotten, bursting into the foreground only when extraordinary circumstances have compelled it, such as the Iranian hostage crisis which produced a rash of articles on the role played by the United States in the overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953. It was as if editors had been spurred into thinking: "Hey, just what did we do in Iran to make all those people hate us so?"

There have been a lot of Irans in America's recent past, but in the absence of the New York Daily News or the Los Angeles Times conspicuously grabbing the reader by the collar and pressing against his face the full implication of the deed ... in the absence of NBC putting it all into real pictures of real people on the receiving end ... in such absence the incidents become non-events for the large majority of Americans, and they can honestly say "We didn't know what was happening." Former Chinese Premier Chou En-lai once observed: "One of the delightful things about Americans is that they have absolutely no historical memory."

... The de facto censorship which leaves so many Americans functionally illiterate about the history of US foreign affairs may be all the more effective because it is not official, heavy-handed or conspiratorial, but woven artlessly into the fabric of education and media. No conspiracy is needed. The editors of Reader's Digest and U.S. News and World Report do not need to meet covertly with the man from NBC in an FBI safe-house to plan next month's stories and programs; for the simple truth is that these men would not have reached the positions they occupy if they themselves had not all been guided through the same tunnel of camouflaged history and emerged with the same selective memory and conventional wisdom.


from the book
Killing Hope by William Blum
published by Common Courage Press

Killing Hope