Cold War: Fact and Fancy

The Home Front

The Global System

excerpted from the book

Deterring Democracy

by Noam Chomsky

Hill and Wang, 1992, paper

... worship of the state has become a secular religion for which the intellectuals serve as priesthood. The more primitive sectors of Western culture go further, fostering forms of idolatry in which such sacred symbols as the flag become an object of forced veneration, and the state is called upon to punish any insult to them and to compel children to pledge their devotion daily, while God and State are almost indissolubly linked in public ceremony and discourse ... such crude fanaticism rises to such an extreme in the United States, as an antidote to the unique freedom from state coercion that has been achieved by popular struggle.

... the striking correlation between US aid and human rights abuses that has been noted in several studies. The reason is not that US policymakers like torture. Rather, it is an irrelevance. What matters is to bar independent development and the wrong priorities. For this purpose it is often necessary (regrettably) to murder priests, torture union leaders, "disappear" peasants, and otherwise intimidate the general population. Governments with the right priorities will therefore be led to adopt such measures. Since the right priorities are associated with US aid, we find the secondary correlation between US aid and human rights violations. And since the conclusions are doctrinally unappealing, they pass into oblivion.

A second consequence is the general US opposition to social reform, unless it can be carried out in conformity to overriding US interests. While this is occasionally possible in the Third World, such circumstances are rare, and even where social reform could be pursued along with subordination to US interests (Costa Rica is a noteworthy example), Washington reacted with considerable ambivalence. A third consequence is the extreme elite hostility to democracy. The reason is plain: a functioning democracy will be responsive to appeals from the masses of the population, and likely to succumb to excessive nationalism.

A leading authority on Native Americans, Francis Jennings, once observed: "In history, the man in the ruffled shirt and gold-laced waistcoat somehow levitates above the blood he has ordered to be spilled by dirty-handed underlings." We will not be able to face the problems that lie ahead realistically unless we come to grips with these striking and pervasive features of our moral and intellectual culture.

Central America has been a foreign policy obsession throughout the eighties, and the effects are evident. Before this grim and shameful decade, Central America had been one of the most miserable corners of the world. That its fate might teach us some lessons about the great power that has long dominated the region and repeatedly intervened in its affairs is a thought foreign to the minds of the important people, and it is understood that they are not to be troubled by such discordant notes. Thus in the New York Times Magazine, James LeMoyne ruminates on the deep-seated problems of Central America, recalling the role of Cuba, the Soviet Union, North Korea, the PLO, Vietnam, and other disruptive foreign forces. One actor is missing, apart from the phrase that in El Salvador, "the United States bolstered the Salvadoran Army, insisted on elections and called for some reforms." In another Times Magazine story, Tad Szulc gives a similar treatment to the Caribbean, observing that "the roots of the Caribbean problems are not entirely Cuban"; the "Soviet offensive" is also to blame, along with the consequences of "colonial greed and mismanagement" by European powers. The US is charged only with "indifference" to the brewing problems.

In a later Times Magazine story, Stephen Kinzer concedes that in Guatemala-which he had offered as a model for the errant Sandinistas-the progress of "democracy" leaves something to be desired. To be sure, there are some encouraging signs; thus murders by the security forces we bolster have declined to perhaps two a day: definitely an improvement over the period when Reagan and his cohorts were enthusiastically hailing Lucas Garcia and Rios Montt, whom Kinzer now describes as "two of the most ruthless military presidents" (in fact, mass murderers). But Kinzer, who knows the role of the US in Guatemala well, also knows the rules of decorum: in his version, Guatemala's democratic interlude of 1944-54 ended for some unstated reason, and the subsequent US role, until today, receives no mention whatsoever. We find again only an oblique reference to general indifference: "rich countries-notably the United States-welcomed, and in some cases helped to force the transitions to civilian rule in Latin America," but without sufficient commitment or recognition of "longer-term challenges." If in Guatemala "more people are unemployed, and more people now eat out of garbage dumps, than ever in memory," if the army maintains its vicious and murderous regime, if the military and super-rich who rule behind a thin civilian facade persist in what the Catholic bishops call the "inhuman and merciless" abuse of the impoverished peasants, then it must be a reflection of their inherent worthlessness. Surely no respectable person could imagine that the United States might share some responsibility for instituting and maintaining this charnel house.

The practice is virtually a literary convention. Reporting the Bosch-Balaguer 1990 election campaign in the Dominican Republic, Howard French tells us that Juan Bosch, "a lifelong Marxist," "was removed from office in a military coup shortly after winning the country's first free elections, in 1963," and that his rival, Joaquin Balaguer, defeated Bosch in the 1966 presidential election. Omitted are a few pertinent facts, among them: that there had been no prior free elections because of repeated US interventions, including long support for the murderer and torturer Trujillo until he began to interfere with US interests; that the "lifelong Marxist" advocated policies similar to those of the Kennedy Democrats; that the US was instrumental in undermining him and quickly backed the new military regime; that when the populace arose to restore constitutional rule in 1965, the US sent 23,000 troops on utterly fraudulent pretexts to avert the threat of democracy, establishing the standard regime of death squads, torture, repression, slave labor conditions, increase in poverty and malnutrition, vast emigration, and wonderful opportunities for its own investors, and tolerating the "free election" of 1966 only when the playing field had been leveled by ample terror.

Even such major atrocities as the slaughter in Cambodia that the US conducted and presided over in the early 1970s have faded quietly away. As a matter of routine, when the New York Times reviews the horror story of Cambodia, it begins in April 1975, under the heading "The Cambodia Ordeal: A Country Bleeds for 15 Years." No one bled, apparently, from the time of the first sustained US bombings in March 1969 through April 1975, when 600,000 people were killed, according to CIA estimates.

The moral cowardice would be stunning, if it were not such a routine feature of intellectual life.

Returning to Central America, a decade ago there were glimmerings of hope for constructive change. In Guatemala, peasants and workers were organizing to challenge one of the most primitive oligarchies on the face of the earth. In El Salvador, Church-based self-help groups, unions, peasant associations and other popular organizations were offering a way for the general population to escape grinding poverty and repression and to begin to take some control of their lives and fate. In Nicaragua, the tyranny that had served as the base for US power in the region for decades was overthrown in 1979, leaving the country in ruins, littered with 40,000 corpses, the treasury robbed, the economy devastated. But the National Guard was driven out and new popular forces were mobilized. Here too there was hope for a better future, and it was realized to a surprising degree, despite extreme adversity, in the early years.

The Reagan Administration and its liberal Democrat and media accomplices can take credit for having reduced these hopes to ashes. That is a rare accomplishment, for which history will assign them their proper place, if there is ever an honest accounting.

With regard to the political system, the Reagan era represents a significant advance in capitalist democracy. For eight years, the US government functioned virtually without a chief executive. That is an important fact. It is quite unfair to assign to Ronald Reagan, the person, much responsibility for the policies enacted in his name. Despite the efforts of the educated classes to invest the proceedings with the required dignity, it was hardly a secret that Reagan had only the vaguest conception of the policies of his Administration and, if not properly programmed by his staff, regularly produced statements that would have been an embarrassment, were anyone to have taken them seriously. The question that dominated the Iran-Contra hearings-did Reagan know, or remember, what the policy of his Administration had been? - was hardly a serious one. The pretense to the contrary was simply part of the cover-up operation; and the lack of public interest over revelations that Reagan was engaged in illegal aid to the Contras during a period when-he later informed Congress-he knew nothing about it, betrays a certain realism.

Reagan's duty was to smile, to read from the teleprompter in a pleasant voice, tell a few jokes, and keep the audience properly bemused. His only qualification for the presidency was that he knew how to read the lines written for him by the rich folk, who pay well for the service. Reagan had been doing that for years. He seemed to perform to the satisfaction of the paymasters, and to enjoy the experience. By all accounts, he spent many pleasant days enjoying the pomp and trappings of power ... It is not really his business if the bosses left mounds of mutilated corpses in death squad dumping grounds in El Salvador or hundreds of thousands of homeless in the streets. One does not blame an actor for the content of the words that come from his mouth. When we speak of the policies of the Reagan Administration, then, we are not referring to the figure set up to front for them by an Administration whose major strength was in public relations.

The political and social history of Western democracies records all sorts of efforts to ensure that the formal mechanisms are little more than wheels spinning idly. The goal is to eliminate public meddling in policy formation. That has been largely achieved in the United States, where there is little in the way of political organizations, functioning unions, media independent of the corporate oligopoly, or other popular structures that might offer people means to gain information, clarify and develop their ideas, put them forth in the political arena, and work to realize them. As long as each individual is facing the television tube alone, formal freedom poses no threat to privilege.

One major step towards barring the annoying public from serious affairs is to reduce elections to the choice of symbolic figures, like the flag, or the Queen of England-who, after all, opens Parliament by reading the government's political program, though no one asks whether she believes it, or even understands it. If elections become a matter of selecting the Queen for the next four years, then we will have come a long way towards resolving the tension inherent in a free society in which power over investment and other crucial decisions-hence the political and ideological systems ~s well-is highly concentrated in private hands.

... while the substance of democracy was successfully reduced during the Reagan era, still the public remained substantially out of control, raising serious problems for the exercise of power.

The Reagan Administration faced these problems with a dual strategy. First, it developed the most elaborate Agitprop apparatus in American history its Office of Public Diplomacy, one major goal being to "demonize the Sandinistas" and organize support for the terror states of Central America. This mobilization of state power to control the public mind was illegal, as a congressional review irrelevantly observed, but entirely in keeping with the advocacy of a powerful and intrusive state that is a fundamental doctrine of what is called "conservatism." The second device was to turn to clandestine operations, at an unprecedented level. The scale of such operations is a good measure of popular dissidence.

Clandestine operations are typically a secret only from the general population at home, not even from the media and Congress, pretense aside. For example, as the Reagan Administration turned to the task of dismantling J the Central American peace accords immediately after they were signed in August 1987, the media and Congress chose not to know that illegal supply flights to the Contras almost tripled from the already phenomenal level of one a day as Washington sought desperately to keep its proxy forces in the field in violation of the accords, so as to maximize violence and disruption, and to bring the people of Nicaragua to understand that removal of the Sandinistas was a prerequisite to any hope for decent survival.

It was never seriously in doubt that congressional liberals and media doves would support measures of economic strangulation and low-level terror guided by these principles until Nicaragua achieved "democracy"-that is, until political power passed to business and land-owning elites linked to the United States, who are "democrats" for this reason alone, no further questions asked. They can also be expected to lend at least tacit support to further Washington efforts to undermine and subvert any government that fails to place the security forces under effective US control or to meet roper standards of subservience to domestic and foreign business interests.

A government turns to clandestine terror and subversion, relatively inefficient modes of coercion, when it is driven underground by its domestic enemy: the population at home.

The Reagan era largely extended the political program of a broad elite consensus. There was a general commitment in the 1970s to restore corporate profitability and impose some discipline on an increasingly turbulent world In the US variety of state capitalism, that means recourse to military Keynesian devices at home, now adapted to the decline in US power and therefore with a right-wing rather than liberal slant, the "great society" programs being incompatible with the prior claims of the important people. Abroad, the counterpart is large-scale subversion and international terrorism (whatever term is chosen to disguise the reality). The natural domestic policies were transfer of resources to the rich, partial dismantling of the limited welfare system, an attack on unions and real wages, and expansion of the public subsidy for high-technology industry through the Pentagon system, which has long been the engine for economic growth and preserving the technological edge.

A congressional study released in March 1989 shows that the average family income of the poorest fifth of the population declined by over 6 percent from 1979 through 1987, meanwhile rising by over 11 percent for the richest fifth; these statistics are corrected for inflation and include welfare benefits. For the poorest fifth, personal income declined by 9.8 percent while rising by 15.6 percent for the richest fifth of the population. One reason is that "more jobs now pay poverty level wages or below," the chief economist of the House Ways and Means Committee commented. The National Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions released a study showing that health care for children in the US had declined to its lowest point in ten years, with appalling statistics. For example, the proportion of low birth weights (which contribute to the unusually high infant mortality rates) is 1.7 times as high as in Western Europe; for Black children the proportion is far worse.

The consequences for one wealthy city are outlined by columnist Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe. He notes that UNICEF ranks the US second to Switzerland in per capita GNP and twenty-second in infant mortality, with a worse record than Ireland or Spain-a decline from its 1960 position of tenth. For African-Americans, the rate is almost double the US average. In the Roxbury section of Boston, populated largely by ethnic minorities, the rate is almost triple the US average, which "would rank Roxbury, supposedly part of the world's second-richest nation, 42nd in infant mortality." Though Boston is one of the world's great medical centers, Roxbury's infant mortality rate is worse than that of Greece, Portugal, the Soviet Union and all of Eastern Europe, and much of the Third World. A Harvard medical school expert on infant mortality, Paul Wise, commented: "The only place where you see social disparities like you see in the US infant-mortality rate is South Africa," the only other industrialized nation without guaranteed health care. Jackson continues:

Long before pregnancy, women are outside the loop on nutrition and health education.... While the leaders in Washington are puffing their chests this week over the tearing down of walls in Europe, vast and growing numbers of African Americans, Latinos, Cambodians, Haitians and Vietnamese are blocked from hospitals and clinics by lack of money, health insurance or language.

Facts such as these, which can be duplicated throughout the country, provide a most remarkable commentary on the variety of state capitalism practiced in what should be by far the richest country in the world, with incomparable advantages, frittered away during the Reagan years even beyond the disgraceful norm.

The spirit of these years is captured by Tom Wolfe, who depicts them as "one of the great golden moments that humanity has ever experienced." So they doubtless were for the important people for whom he speaks.

Reagan's greatest accomplishment is supposed to be that he made us "feel good about ourselves," restoring the faith in authority, which had sadly flagged. As the editors of the Wall Street Journal put it, "he restored the efficiency and morale of the armed services [and] demonstrated the will to use force in Grenada and Libya"-two military fiascos, but no matter. We were able to kill a sufficient number of people and are once again "standing tall," towering over the upstarts who had sought to overcome us but succumbed to the cool courage and "the strength of the Cowboy"- the words of British journalist Paul Johnson, while swooning over the manliness of his idol Ronald Reagan, who had in reality shown the courage of a Mafia don who sends a goon squad to break the bones of children in a kindergarten. With these achievements, Reagan overcame our "sickly inhibitions against the use of military force," Norman Podhoretz intoned.

Sponsorship of state-guided international terrorism and economic management designed for short-term gain for the wealthy are the most notable features of the Reagan era, but there are others. In this brief review, I have not even mentioned what may be the most dangerous legacy of Reagan, Thatcher, and the rest. Coming generations are going to face problems that are quite different in scale and complexity from any that have arisen before. The possible destruction of a physical environment that can sustain human life in anything Like its present mode is one of the most dramatic of these, along with the proliferating threat of weapons of mass destruction and continuing conflicts among adversaries with increasing capacity to cause terrible damage. That these problems have a solution is not so obvious. That exaltation of greed to the highest human value is not the answer is quite obvious. Tales about private vices yielding public benefits could be tolerated in a world Living less close to the margin, but surely can no longer. By celebrating the ugliest elements of human nature and social life, the Reaganites have set back, by some uncertain measure, the prospects for coming to terms with grave dilemmas and possible catastrophes.

Coming generations will pay the costs. That is the legacy of these years even if we permit ourselves not to see the misery and torture of our victims throughout much of the world.

Short of a real counterrevolution, reversing many social and political gains of the past and imposing novel repressive patterns, the United States cannot adopt these forms of authoritarian state-corporate rule.

Faced with such problems, the traditional method of any state is to inspire fear. Dean Acheson warned early on that it would be necessary "to bludgeon the mass mind of 'top government"' with the Communist threat in order to gain approval for the planned programs of rearmament and intervention. The Korean War, shortly after, provided "an excellent opportunity .. . to disrupt the Soviet peace offensive, which . . . is assuming serious proportions and having a certain effect on public opinion," he explained further. In secret discussion of Truman's proposal for intervention in Greece and Turkey (the Truman Doctrine), Senator Walter George observed that Truman had "put this nation squarely on the line against certain ideologies," a stance that would not be easy to sell to the public. Senator Arthur Vandenberg added that "unless we dramatize this thing in every possible way," the public would never understand. It would be necessary to "scare hell out of the American people," he advised. The public was fed tales much like those used to bludgeon the mass mind of recalcitrant officials, in a style that was "clearer than truth," as Dean Acheson later said approvingly. As a new crusade was being launched in 1981, Samuel Huntington explained: "You may have to sell [intervention or other military action] in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet Union that you are fighting. That is what the United States has done ever since the Truman Doctrine." An important insight into the Cold War system, which applies to the second-ranked superpower as well. By the same logic, it follows that "Gorbachev's public relations can be as much a threat to American interests in Europe as were Brezhnev's tanks," Huntington warned eight years later.

One persistent problem is that the enemy is hard to take seriously. It takes some talent to portray Greece, Guatemala, Laos, Nicaragua, or Grenada as a threat to our survival. This problem has typically been overcome by designating the intended victim as an agent of the Soviet Union, so that we attack in self-defense. The Soviet threat itself has also required some labors, ever since the first major call for postwar rearmament. and "rollback" and break-up of the Soviet Union, in NSC 68.

The basic problems are institutional, and will not fade away.

In the early post-World War II period, US planners hoped to organize most, if not all, of the world in accord with the perceived needs of the United States economy. With 50 percent of the world's wealth and a position of power and security without historical parallel, the "real task" for the US was "to maintain this position of disparity," by force if necessary, State Department Policy Planning chief George Kennan explained.

Long before the Cold War, H.L. Mencken commented: "The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." The Soviet hobgoblin has served admirably for the domestic and international designs of US elites, who are far from overjoyed to see it fade from view.

The US alone boycotted a UN disarmament conference in New York in 1987 to consider how reduction of armaments might release funds for economic development, particularly in the Third World.

Deterring Democracy

Index of Website

Home Page