The Decade of Perpetual Crises,
1969 through the 1970s
Part II

excerpted from the book

Confronting the Third World

United States Foreign Policy 1945-1980

by Gabriel Kolko

Pantheon Books,1988


Iran and the Eclipse of American Power

As Washington's attention in the Middle East after 1954 moved principally to the states closer to the Mediterranean, all its objectives and policies in Iran were focused both on and through the Shah. With the Shah now an absolute monarch, it could not have been otherwise. No other nation in the entire postwar era illustrated better the risks to America's power wherever it relied on proxies to advance its interests.


The Shah relied on the military as the basis of his power throughout his career, for the army's role during the 1954 coup was far more crucial than the ClA's, and he carefully filled its upper ranks with loyalists and permitted them to share generously in the corruption that was endemic to his regime. The nationalist middle classes that had supported Mossadegh were antagonistic toward him, and he did nothing to court their favor. But the Shah was also hostile to Shiite traditionalism, by far the largest religion in Iran, and he was prepared to challenge their most sacrosanct beliefs on the inferior status of women. By 1961, when Kennedy came to office, it was clear to the few American officials dealing with Iran that his political base was too narrow, and for several years they actively advocated efforts to reach out to the middle-class intelligentsia that had also supported Mossadegh: junior civil servants and officers, teachers, professionals, and the like. The most immediate threat, they concluded, came not from Russia but from internal upheaval, and until mid-1962 the Shah tolerated a reformist group within his weak cabinet, when he fired his pro-American premier and assumed virtually total power, initiating profound changes reflecting his own ideas and interests.

The Shah wanted modem arms from the United States as well as from other nations, but since he had ceased to be a recipient of military aid the Nixon Administration was willing to sell him what he could afford, especially after 1971. Iran, Washington calculated, would be better able to play the role of an effective proxy but also to help reverse the rising deficit in the American balance of payments, not to mention augmenting its weapons-makers' profits. But in 1969 and 1970 the only way the Shah could get the huge sums he needed for arms was to increase his oil revenues, and given the shift in the world oil market in favor of producers he made the most of it. He initially extracted more money from companies in Iran, but in 1971 he took the lead in organizing the Gulf states to raise their prices sharply, and in January 1973 he announced he would not renew the 1954 agreement when it expired in 1979, in effect nationalizing the oil industry and accomplishing what Mossadegh had unsuccessfully attempted earlier. Much to American distress, the Shah was a leader in raising oil prices until 1976, when demand for Iranian oil fell-but by that time the damage to Western interests had been done. His arms purchases were always linked to oil prices, and ultimately Western consumers paid for them. Meanwhile, he further traumatized Iranian society.

The Shah ordered $135 million in arms in 1970, almost three times that the following year, and $4.3 billion in 1974 after oil prices exploded. In 1977 he ordered $5.7 billion more, or $20 billion for the 1970-78 period, making Iran the purchaser of one-quarter of all American arms sold abroad during that period. Arms salesmen poured into Tehran after 1972 and paid huge commissions to officers who arranged the purchases of their wares, intensifying both corruption and conspicuous consumption. The Shah paid the high prices demanded because he craved arms, and they kept his generals happy, but the arms were far too complex for the military to maintain and operate despite the fact that a large share of the country's skilled labor was diverted into servicing them. To remedy the problem, American military personnel and contract employees, numbering seventy-two hundred by 1977, poured into the nation and became a visible new elite, further testifying to the Shah's dependence on Yankees.

Like every nation undergoing rapid changes, there were economic winners and losers. The biggest gainer of all was the Shah himself, who through state funds and family corporations was estimated in January 1979 to be worth at least a billion dollars and probably much more, and his family at least twice that. Next came the top officers and those industrialists and construction interests with access to state funding, as well as senior civil servants. The life-style of such elements was luxurious and highly noticeable, and it deeply alienated the losers, who comprised the vast majority. Iran's inflation doubled to over 20 percent annually between 1971 and 1975, reaching 50 percent the following year, and expensive food had to be imported in ever-larger quantities because the Shah did nothing to stanch the growing misery in the rural areas-still 58 percent of the population in 1972. On the contrary, he wished to see peasants move to the cites, where they became typical Third World urban poor-unemployed, disoriented, and more miserable than ever in their vast slums. The lower ranks of the military, too, were underpaid and alienated, and the petit bourgeoisie was also unable to maintain its standard of living. All of these increasingly marginalized elements fell under the influence of the mullahs, who excoriated the Shah, modernism, and American predominance with a fearless wrath the Left could never imitate.

The Shah's word was law, and he repressed those who opposed him, not only through SAVAK, the umbrella security organization the CIA had created and Israelis trained, but by systematic control over the press, labor, universities, and any institution capable of undermining his absolute power. SAVAK operated a vast system of informers and agents and used torture routinely, and in 1974-75 had, at the least, some thousands in its prisons-although the opposition claimed twenty-five thousand to a hundred thousand. After 1971, when resistance to the Shah's policies from especially middle-class and educated constituencies began to increase, SAVAK was especially active and brutal, and its close relationship with the CIA further identified the United States with their oppressors in the minds of the population. This linkage actually involved a division of labor: SAVAK told the CIA about Iranian internal affairs, becoming its nearly exclusive source of information, while the CIA agents in Iran concentrated on gathering data on Russia and training SAVAK in a variety of techniques essential to its political work, including torture. The CIA also reported to SAVAK on politics among Iranian students in the United States. In early 1977, after the Carter Administration began proclaiming its adherence to "human rights" abroad, the Shah made cosmetic changes in SAVAK's work but nothing more, and its ties with the CIA continued until his fall.


The Central American Maelstrom

During the 1970s events revealed how the United States invariably created revolutionary conditions and revolutionary movements wherever it profoundly affected social and economic systems-thereby ushering in the end of its own hegemony. After amassing the profits of the region, the United States was now also to harvest the political consequences of the profound traumas that export-oriented development and dictatorial, extremely hierarchical societies had created over three decades.


The Economics of Revolt

The basic economic trend in Central America after 1950 was the intensification of an export-oriented agriculture that recast the demography of the region, changed the land distribution system dramatically, and transformed the economic context in which traditional politics had functioned until then. In largest outline, cotton and then beef production for export altered profoundly the rural societies, above all of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, the four most populous nations, beginning in the late 1950s. Cotton is a capital-intensive crop, efficiently grown only on large farms, employing mainly seasonal labor, and far more profitable than the food staple of the poor, corn. Cotton production in the region increased sixteen times between 1952 and 1978, and while part of the vast acreage it required came from opening new croplands, much also came from cornlands generally employing small peasants. In El Salvador, for example, cotton expanded from a fifth to over a half of the croplands in the two decades after 1950, but corn fell from half to a third. At every stage in this growth, rural labor and small peasants lost access to better ground, either legally or by outright fraud and intimidation, and they either moved into marginal mountain regions or to cities, subsisting as seasonal migratory labor and on the economic fringes of urban society. In Nicaragua under 4 percent of the growers in 1977 accounted for 38 percent of the harvest, and the next 10 percent for 32 percent. Cotton produced desperation, and it affected the displaced peasants profoundly.

By the late 1960s, a world cotton surplus and rising sugar prices led to the diversion of some cottonlands into sugar, which also relies on wage labor rather than small farmers, and even large-scale corn production. But the principal new thrust was toward cattle production, primarily to provide cheap beef for the U.S. fast-food industry, and it in turn required much less labor but far more land than cotton. From 1966 to 1979 beef exports increased eleven times, eventually occupying more land than all other forms of agriculture combined. Although most cattle land was cut from forests, it, too, displaced peasants and deprived them of fuel and other resources. A11 of these changes toward export agriculture, wage labor rather than peasant-based food-oriented production, and urbanization transformed rural conditions in Central America, above all in the most populated states.

While the most profound changes occurred in the attitudes of the masses and were only later to express themselves politically, there are the usual statistical measurements dealing with material conditions. Despite the already high concentration of land in the hands of a small elite, their shares increased in general. In 1970, one-fifth of the region's population received 61 percent of the income, the poorest half 13 percent. Per capita food production fell slightly from 1948 to 1969. In Latin America as a whole, the nations in Central as opposed to South America were, in the aggregate, worst off. In 1970 Honduras had the highest share of households, 65 percent, living below the poverty line, and the same was true for its 45 percent living in destitution. The region's basic services were among the worst in the Western Hemisphere; its hospital facilities were among the lowest, and its illiteracy was among the highest.

U.S. Policies Toward Central America

Washington's policies toward Central America had always been infused with a measure of cynicism, one its contact with successively corrupt regimes over seven decades instinctively reinforced. Internationally, however, its ability to count on the region's loyal UN votes caused U.S. diplomats to reciprocate when it came to overlooking many of the foibles of the successive dictators and flamboyant characters who ran these nations. By the time Eisenhower chose to support the military and dictators in all of Latin America out of choice rather than necessity, the basic pattern of U.S. endorsement of the local oligarchies and military juntas had already become traditional practice; for dictators always welcomed U.S. interests, because by doing so they invariably gained personally.

A major U.S. activity before, during, and after the Alliance period was to make certain that the military and police, as an AlD-sponsored consultant put it in 1973, "can serve as a reliable instrument of constituted political authority."' Events in Guatemala until 1954 alone would have made this fixation inevitable. U.S. officials dealing with the region did not want to see a repetition of it, and their stress on perfecting instruments of control and repression supplemented private investment and trade activities in defining the U.S. role in the region. U.S. training of military personnel therefore prospered, with Somoza's National Guard, some thirty-six hundred of them during 1950 68, the largest number for the region. Assistance to the police forces in various forms also flourished, ranging from training in U.S. police schools to donating equipment to resident police missions. Here Guatemala was the main recipient during the 1960s, and the police program was primarily a political one: "investigating and controlling subversives," as the AlD's police advisers there defined it. It included, as well, providing those in power with skills to handle all political opponents, whatever their ideology, should it prove necessary.


The United States Confronts Central American Revolution

... peasant resistance to land seizures and popular demands for access to vast holdings in local and foreign hands gathered momentum, and while some of it was spontaneous, it was also the result of the changing role of the Catholic Church in the region. Priests and nuns as well as Christian base communities led by laity in remote areas began to apply the liberation theology that was beginning to influence profoundly Church thought in the hemisphere, arousing the wrath of the various regimes. In Honduras, the peasant movement took on major proportions by 1975. Most of the priests who worked with the peasants were foreigners, and in June 1975 two priests were killed along with thirteen peasant leaders, the murder of the latter being a common occurrence by then. Peasant organization and repression went hand in hand throughout the turbulent region, but a combination of Church activism, leftist efforts, and spontaneous peasant actions unsettled the poorest nations, and it created a confrontation between them and their dictatorial rulers that could not be kept out of the U.S. headlines. Central America quickly became intertwined with the new mood of anti-interventionist politics that was emerging in Washington and the nation after the Vietnam trauma.

When Carter took office the question of ending U.S. support for repressive regimes was high on the liberal, antiwar wing of Congress's agenda, which had already written mandatory legislation into military aid measures, and Carter's political tacticians suggested that if he did not co-opt the issue he would end up fighting a continuous battle with the politically most potent section of his own party. Moreover, cutting aid to human rights violators was popular with a large segment of both the public and the press, and in a desire to appear "refreshing," as the architect of the strategy explained it, Carter became an advocate of human rights. The fact that the policy was devised with an eye mainly to domestic politics and opinion soon mired the Administration in contradictions, opening it to criticisms of hypocrisy, though in fact Carter was no more cynical than successful politicians are wont to be. The White House showed this immediately when in early 1977 it opposed mandatory "no" votes on loans to nations violating human rights, a bill that was proposed in Congress. Moreover, when Brazil preempted a possible U.S. condemnation of its human rights record by refusing to accept military sales credits, the Administration realized its symbolism was unlikely to have an impact in curbing repression, and this made its domestic function all the more important. Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala then rejected military aid as well, and modest reductions in aid to Argentina, Ethiopia, and Uruguay only brought U.S. business interests into the picture to oppose the policy.

Since Carter never regarded it as anything more than one of many elements in shaping diplomacy, he decided that in order to avoid complicating U.S. relations with strategically and economically key countries that violated human rights-Iran, Korea, Indonesia, and the Philippines above all-he would focus on that region that presumably could do less damage to U.S. interests should pressures on nations there lead to a deterioration in relations. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua therefore became the main targets of official human rights efforts, less to alter the regimes in those nations than to satisfy the exigencies of American politics by 1979 it was the leading recipient in the region. Guatemala and El Salvador merely turned to Israel and Western Europe for its arms. While the United States' human rights policy was a factor complicating the Administration's policy in Central America, it did not alter its basic objectives which remained exactly the same as they had been under its predecessors.


Washington Confronts the Nicaraguan Revolution

The most obvious case was Nicaragua, where the Somoza family had ruled and bled the nation for over forty years. Their public image made it difficult for any administration to defend it. Organized opposition to the Somozas had been minor until the late 1960s, but it was the aftermath of the 1972 earthquake which greatly accelerated it at just the point that the disaster profoundly added intolerable suffering to the already miserable lot of the masses. Somoza's corruption in the wake of that calamity diverted at least half of the U.S. relief aid, deeply alienating the middle class and the Church, and when they attempted to use the normally rigged 1974 election to mobilize against him, he outlawed their parties and arrested their key leaders. The only option was armed struggle, and this brought the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), founded in 1961 and largely inspired by the example of the Cuban revolution, into the picture after its earlier inconclusive efforts to organize peasants.

The Sandinista revolution was ultimately to be the outcome of a conjunction of factors, the most important being the economic transformation that had taken place since 1960 and the way the Somozas themselves related to it. Throughout the 1970s, but especially after 1977, the standard of living of the population fell, and this, too, conditioned the people to revolt, even where the FSLN and the Church offered no direct leadership. In terms of mobilized forces, the FSLN was principally a student movement, without strong roots among the peasants, who listened to the FSLN organizers and frequently assisted them but never joined the FSLN in large numbers. This fact caused it to split during its early career but later to reemerge with a united front strategy that gathered all anti-Somoza forces around a minimum platform of destroying the dictatorship. The FSLN was by then strong enough to pose an alternative, and the Carter Administration opted to ship Somoza arms quietly in late 1977 as the guerrillas began a modestly successful military offensive. Yet until January 1978, when Somoza had the editor of the major opposition paper assassinated, the FSLN remained an elite rather than a mass movement. The death of Joaquin Chamorro brought the urban masses out to the streets to fight the National Guard in what was largely a spontaneous upheaval, one that was savagely suppressed, but it gave the FSLN a largely self-directing mass base everywhere in the nation, including much of the countryside, as the people quite informally became the organization itself. It capitalized on this to renew the struggle in September 1978, when the population again took to the streets to fight the National Guard, with over three thousand civilian deaths, while the FSLN provided only as much guidance as its still relatively overextended numbers allowed. By then it was clear that the United States had a major challenge on its hands.

The Carter Administration now began to confront the Nicaragua crisis in earnest, and Brzezinski proposed sending more arms to Somoza secretly Instead, Carter sent the dictator a secret letter praising his improved human rights record, hoping he could be cajoled into adopting a flexible political position that might win much of the middle classes away from an alliance with the FSLN. Somoza was in no mood after the September uprising to make concessions, and his brutal suppression of the opposition convinced the Administration that an orderly transition to replace Somoza was essential to head off an FSLN victory. With ample arms and training from Israel and Brazil, and support from Argentina, El Salvador, and Guatemala, Somoza spurned U.S. mediation efforts during the fall of 1978, causing it to stop all economic and military aid, though not the training of his notoriously brutal National Guard-which the United States saw had an important role to play even after Somoza. Meanwhile, the dictator began to double the size of his seventy-five-hundred-man National Guard to confront at least two thousand FSLN guerrillas and, for practical purposes, much of the population. Over the next months the Carter Administration, preoccupied with the Iran crisis, had to consider the real possibility of dominos falling throughout Central America, for successes in Nicaragua had already begun to inspire an upsurge of opposition to the neighboring dictatorships. The Administration's quite justifiable fear was to increase with time, and it considered the orderly replacement of Somoza by non-Left elements as even more imperative.

On May 29, 1979, just after Washington had endorsed Somoza's request to the IMF to replenish his treasury emptied because of arms purchases, the FSLN began a carefully prepared offensive, aided with arms from Costa Rica, Mexico, and Venezuela, as well as Cuba. Within weeks it was clear that it would win because of its popular support, and the United States, whose policy was now being dictated largely by the hawkish Brzezinski, convened the OAS in Washington on June 21 in a last-ditch effort to forestall its victory. "We must not leave a vacuum," Secretary of State Vance warned the meeting, and he proposed sending an OAS delegation to Managua immediately that would arrange a transitional government excluding Somoza but retaining his party, the National Guard as the principal armed force, and all those anti-Somoza conservative elements not aligned in the broad coalition the FSLN had formed-the FSLN to become only one of many groups. It was a plan to preserve, in effect, an oppressive regime without its leader. The United States also called for an OAS peacekeeping force in lieu of its own purely unilateral intervention (which it threatened vaguely at the same time), to police Nicaragua until a new regime was able to do so. For the first time in the OAS's history, the United States both encountered a strong opposing resolution sponsored by thirteen of its twenty-seven members and watched its own basic position rejected entirely. The OAS had escaped its control, eliminating its traditional usefulness in clothing U.S. policy in multilateral garb. It was clear that states like Mexico and Venezuela wanted to see the end of Somoza's system as well as the man. The United States did not, and although it extracted some minor concessions, it was defeated ignominiously.

In a final desperate effort to save the situation, the Administration then sent officials to Nicaragua to seek an accord acceptable to itself directly with Somoza and the FSLN. It was able to persuade Somoza to agree to resign if the FSLN would consent to the preservation and incorporation of a reformed National Guard into the new government, as well as other less audacious but no less obvious and unacceptable efforts to contain, and later destroy, the FSLN. The issue was finally resolved as the National Guard's forces began to disintegrate, and on July 17 Somoza went into exile to spend the estimated $100 million fortune he had accumulated, leaving the Nicaraguan treasury with $3 million in cash and $1.6 billion in foreign debts. The United States' leaders understood full well that unlike Chile, where Allende won office but had no control over the military, the FSLN was now capable of establishing complete power, thereby inflicting the United States with its most important defeat in the hemisphere since January 1959.

The last U.S. hope for success now rested with the diverse members of the Government of National Reconstruction, which took power in July. While the FSLN dominated the five-member ruling junta and retained ultimate control, the ministries went mainly to middle-class political leaders, and even an ex-National Guard officer became minister of defense. In reality, of course the FSLN had led the revolt from the inception without organizing the masses who participated in it into formal membership, but to them the FSLN was both the founder and the symbol of the struggle, and it had both legitimacy as well as a radical social program far more responsive to their aspirations. While the United States drew encouragement from the pluralistic nature of the cabinet, the FSLN went about the task of mobilizing the people who had spontaneously participated in the conflict, providing the bulk of its fighters, into mass organizations firmly committed to its principles. And the Sandinistastas never relinquished control of the army. It was after July 1979 rather than before that the FSLN transformed itself from a vanguard organization (with very real differences within it) into an organized mass movement.

The FSLN's relation to the middle class, however, was not feigned, and maintaining a united front has been an integral aspect of its program to the present, one involving a high economic and political price. The final U.S. effort to save a pro-U.S. regime in Nicaragua and prevent the FSLN from consolidating power was based on the ingenious plan, as the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs described it, "that it is essential to supply aid to keep the monetary/economic system viable and enmeshed in the international economy, and to support the private sector. Failure to do so would leave the private sector abandoned and unable to compete with the currently stronger Sandinista structure." In the three months after Somoza left office the United States gave the new government twenty-six million dollars in food and medical aid as a bait, and the FSLN leadership, despite disagreements, was ready to bite a yet larger hook. Other Western governments joined the strategy, along with the multilateral banks. During the fall of 1979 members of the junta breakfasted with Carter, and a congressional delegation went to Nicaragua after the Executive submitted a bill proposing seventy-five million dollars in economic aid. After adding a proviso that 60 percent of this sum was to be made available to private business, as well as comparable ideological amendments, Congress finally took nine months to pass the bill and appropriate the money. Meanwhile, the new government negotiated with private banks and rescheduled six hundred million dollars of Somoza's debt, preferring more debt rather than to renounce access to the capitalist money market. During its first years the FSLN remained enmeshed, as the United States would have it, but it also staved off more aggressive U.S. actions and gained a respite. Whatever the economic and political wisdom of its decision, which only time will tell, the revolution endured, and with each year became more likely to survive U.S. hostility.


The Central American Balance

Once the magnitude of the crisis in Nicaragua became clear, it was obvious to the Carter Administration that the regimes in the neighboring states, all with comparable problems and with guerrillas active in El Salvador and Guatemala, had to be strengthened quickly lest the entire region go the way of Nicaragua. In Nicaragua the United States had improvised from the beginning of the revolt after decades of support for Somoza, and its humiliating inability to mobilize the OAS, and the virtual impossibility of its acting unilaterally without creating a political explosion at home, finally compelled it to rely on nothing more ingenious than sheer bribery in its attempt to reverse events in Nicaragua. Its policy was confused and unsuccessful, and it sought to avoid similar mistakes in El Salvador.

El Salvador, in certain ways, was objectively more ripe for upheaval than Nicaragua, but compared to the FSLN, its four armed opposition groups in 1979 were far less able, and they were bitterly divided. Nonetheless, there were important parallel urban movements linked to them, and the long record of human rights abuses and repression of labor, especially via "death squads" that terrorized the country, combined with the population's misery to keep renewing the opposition despite its errors. These infamous squads had forced the Carter Administration to cut off military but not economic aid to El Salvador's military regime under General Carlos Romero, and in the fall of 1979 it sought to compel it to create a military and social context better able to head off an imminent guerrilla victory. A young officers' coup on October 15, 1979, very likely encouraged by U.S. officials, greatly eased the U.S. efforts and was used to justify the resumption of military aid and a fivefold increase in economic assistance-while support to Honduras doubled. But the new leaders were both unwilling and unable to contain the cycle of killings that had become routine for the state, and in January 1980 reactionary officers replaced them as well.

What this new group possessed was a superior sense of the reform rhetoric the Americans wished to hear, and three months later they agreed, if only on paper, to a United States-devised land reform program, but they, too, were rightists when it came to practice. On March 24,1980, to make clear who had the power, death squads assassinated Archbishop Romero, and the murderer, a graduate of the police academy in Washington, was never brought to justice. In a cycle of intensifying violence, it was plain that there would be no reform and that armed struggle would eventually end in a victory for the Left, which in January 1980 had managed to unite its military efforts and greatly improve its performance. A mounting struggle continues in El Salvador, but one whose ultimate outcome, like those of the nations around it, has already become highly predictable. The Carter Administration left this legacy for subsequent administrations to confront, but it also made the basic commitment to plunge into the maelstrom as never before.

Nicaragua, like Cuba before it, was of profound significance in the United States' relationship to the hemisphere, and both confirmed that it had irrevocably lost its ability to control the main political developments that grew irresistibly out of the economic policies and social forces it supported. Nor could it stem the political consequences of United States-endorsed structural changes or define alternatives to them, for these impinged on its own basic economic needs and interests as well as those of the classes with which it was aligned. Its Nicaraguan defeat was, ultimately, structurally induced, as was the crisis in El Salvador, and despite the ineptness or confusion of the Left and its problems on the road to power and thereafter, these still did not reverse the main implications of their victories to U.S. hegemony over the hemisphere. Washington's reform pretensions, as the Alliance showed, were hardly more than shibboleths it scarcely believed itself, but they failed to halt the basic radicalization occurring in the hemisphere. In Central America, on the contrary, the very success of its development plans accelerated the destruction of traditional orders, their accumulated effects bringing multiple problems to a head. The United States could exploit the hemisphere's nations, helping to traumatize them, but it could not build stable societies. Nor could it utilize its own military power to undo the successes of the opposition forces, in all their diversity, which had begun to grow out of the social misery that abounded. Whatever its temporary achievements, it now confronted defeat close to home. It was neither politically, economically, nor militarily capable of fighting another protracted war in any nation, nor able to rely on its surrogates and allies to do so. By 1979 it had even lost its capacity to win the acquiescence of the other states in the hemisphere for whatever it wished to do, and there was no question that the resistance to intervention that Vietnam evoked would inevitably repeat itself again both at home and abroad should any administration seek to repeat that experience.

The Sandinista triumph in 1979 and its persistence since then was an event of historic proportions for the U.S. role in the hemisphere because it repeated its failures in Cuba, revealing it could not change its basically exploitive economic relationship to the nations of the hemisphere or discover how to avert the revolutionary consequences of its effects and that of the oppressive societies it sought to sustain. Nor could it find the resources-military, economic, and political-to undo liberation movements once the United States was expelled from a nation. Whether the process would be a short or a long one, Nicaragua confirmed that the Cuban revolution was not an isolated and accidental event but part of an ongoing process-one growing out of irreversible and cumulative structural changes that would increasingly confront the United States with the specter of revolution in the hemisphere.



Comprehending over three decades of intense U.S. activity in the Third World is a major challenge precisely because the causes of America's conduct have grown in complexity. At the inception of the postwar era, whether it was in terms of its relationship to Western European power or its own direct interests, the United States possessed an essentially economic vision of its future role in the Third World. Indeed, despite the serious risks of oversimplification in any monocausal analysis that overlooks crucial nuances in each major region and other sources of America's failures and contradictions, the economic component remains the single most important factor in its postwar conduct in the Third World, even if it is far from being a sufficient explanation.

The significance of economic causes is due not merely to the fact that U.S. Ieaders have found it far easier to articulate their economic as opposed to political goals. But whether a question of U.S. imports and investments, or domino theories linking the stakes in one nation to the stability and control over the surrounding region, economics, to varying degrees, suffuses their policies and action everywhere. Both in practice as well as verbally, this motive holds true with as much consistency today as it did forty years ago because the Third World's intrinsic importance to American economic health has increased since 1970. But assigning a precise weight to economic influences is complicated because the political and military prerequisites for the attainment of its primary objective, which required that those in charge of numerous countries be friendly to U.S. interests and its goal of an integrated world order, had very definite economic but much vaguer and flexible political justifications. These quickly intensified the ideological obfuscation surrounding Washington's purposes. It is essential, therefore, not to confuse the military and political effects of a policy with its basic causes, and sorting out such relationships is the crux to attaining an overall perception of the United States' postwar role in the major Third World regions.

The American commitment to advancing its essentially economic interests was revealed immediately after World War Two, above all in Latin America but also in the Middle East and the Philippines. In these areas the question of communism and the Soviet Union was nonexistent or, at most, marginal; its major problems were with those who, while ideological allies, were also economic rivals. Latin America's preeminent economic importance to the United States made it the single most significant test of Washington's basic goals and assumptions. The Open Door rhetoric of equal treatment for all, which the United States often employed in its statements of aims elsewhere, was irrelevant in explaining the special relationship it sought to build in this hemisphere. Throughout the postwar era, Washington's unwavering hegemonic objective of domination frequently pitted it against key, often ruling, sectors of the Latin American capitalists. Those who accept Open Door phraseology at face value as an adequate description of U.S. purposes ignore both the far deeper American devotion to its own interests in the most classically nationalist sense of that term and the role of its ideology not merely as a reflection of belief but also as a tool to neutralize its reticent allies.

The irony of U.S. policy in the Third World is that while it has always justified its larger objectives and efforts in the name of anticommunism, its own goals have made it unable to tolerate change from any quarter that impinged significantly on its interests. Much of its conflict with political forces m the Third World has arisen from this fact. Only in nations where there has been a strong Left has the United States sometimes allowed strategic and political considerations to define the form and even the ends of its policies and to minimize, at least temporarily, the central importance of its economic purposes.

More vital in causing the United States to waver from the systematic pursuit of its principal interests in the Third World has been its repeated inability since 1949 to reconcile the inherent tension between its diverse aims in every corner of the earth with its very great but nonetheless finite resources. America's formal priorities have generally reflected a relatively logical set of objectives. But its endemic incapacity to avoid entangling, costly commitments in areas of the world that are of intrinsically secondary importance to these priorities has caused U.S. foreign policy and resources to whipsaw virtually arbitrarily from one problem and region to the other. The result has been the United States' increasing postwar loss of control over its political priorities, budget, military strategy and tactics, and, ultimately, its original economic goals.

Until At least 1960. America's leaders always considered their most significant problems to be Europe and the USSR, yet by that time the Third World had already absorbed much of their efforts and money and still was growing in importance. Washington's ingrained unwillingness after 1950 to forgo intervention anywhere led to what has been a consistent but unsuccessful effort to define a military doctrine that overcame the limits of both space and its resources for realizing all its objectives simultaneously. Various concepts of limited war and counterinsurgency were its responses to this challenge. If the Vietnam War was the penultimate consequence of this dilemma, the successive failure of every postwar administration to resolve the frustrations inherent in America's arms and power led to a legacy of political and military difficulties that have often appeared to overshadow the original economic basis of U.S. policies in the Third World. The accumulated contradictions that have emerged from such unresolvable quandaries have eroded persistently the fundamental position of the United States as a world power.

The notion of the credibility of American power, which became increasingly influential in shaping Washington's calculations and actions after 1950, intensified the United States' difficulties in its self-appointed role as the policeman of much of the world. The symbolism and essentially open-ended undertakings inherent in its desire to sustain the confidence of its allies and the fear of its putative enemies has caused the United States to stake its role in the world on controlling events in relatively minor places. As soon as successive administrations concluded that the logic of maintaining power in purely narrow economic terms required it also to pay the necessary military and political overhead charges of empire to keep those friendly to the United States in office, they had no effective means to retain mastery over American priorities and commitments. With the 1958 Lebanon crisis, credibility became a permanent aspect of U.S. strategic calculations, and while it emerged unscathed from that episode and the 1965 Dominican invasion, in Vietnam the unlimited risks intrinsic in such a dangerous approach to local problems arose to produce the inevitable major crisis of American power. Its later application in Angola showed how deeply credibility was embedded in the minds of American leaders and how little they had learned from the Vietnam experience.

Linked to the credibility obsession was the domino theory, which provided a geopolitical justification for intervention and reintroduced an economic rationale insofar as it judged the importance of a nation in its larger regional context, which only made more defensible its involvement in seemingly marginal countries. These two definitions of the nature of the world, more than any others, became successive administrations' most consistent and effective justifications to themselves as well as to the Congress, the media, and the public. The problems inherent in the domino and credibility theories, however, did not disappear simply because they were politically palatable at home. Their real test came not from their frequent successes but from occasional failures, which invariably forced the United States to persist in a futile policy or, as in Vietnam, escalate its efforts. It was at such a point that the dangers of its policy to the rational management of its global system produced the most profound economic and political contradictions in American power both at home and abroad, shattering those priorities for action it had initially believed essential to its success. The United States increasingly staked its future on places secondary to its direct interests but suffused, according to its thinking, with extraordinary symbolic significance.

Since all wars for the United States, if it does not win them quickly, become capital-intensive, imposing an economic and political price beyond its capacity to pay without sacrifices that divide the society, the main challenge confronting America's leaders after the mid-1960s was less the justification for interventionism, on which they agreed, but its viability. Korea and Vietnam both proved that the United States cannot fight a protracted war successfully but that given all of the assumptions, techniques, and goals in its foreign policy, it will not avoid fighting more in the future. America's inability to succeed with its fundamental policy was indisputable by 1969. But the high costs this fact imposed on the health of America's economy and society did not cause its leaders to abandon their global aspirations but only divided them on tactical issues rather than basic principles. The United States' postwar fixation on its credibility, dominos, and the like only produced more and more distractions over essentially extraneous issues and places, making it even less able to cope with the growing major challenges to its hegemony. Increasingly, by the late 1970s it was unable to reverse the successes of revolutionary movements, which grew, paradoxically, out of those exploitive social and economic conditions for which the United States was frequently responsible.

The extent of Washington's growing shortcomings and contradictions magnified as it tied its credibility in more and more nations to its need to maintain its surrogates and proxies in office. That the United States should sponsor and rely upon willing collaborators was essential for it to avoid stretching its own manpower far beyond their capacities. To varying degrees, the policy of aligning itself with cooperative military leaders, the Shah, or dictators in Nicaragua, Cuba, or South Vietnam became the rule rather than the exception early in the postwar era, and it was the inevitable outcome of Washington's belief that it had both the right and the ability to define the politics of any nation it deemed important to it interests. The fundamental, fatal danger of this policy for the United States is that it made its power no stronger than the men and regimes upon whom it depended.

The United States supported repressive constituencies and the socioeconomic conditions they fostered. Although these clients were generally most favorable to American economic interests, such a policy also virtually guaranteed that the United States not only would eventually help to mobilize a nationalist resistance to its local allies but also that such opponents, even if conservative in their social and economic goals, would, by necessity, also have to attack U.S. imperialism. Its intimate symbiosis with the inherently unstable forces of reaction, corruption, and repression in the Third World often resolved short-term challenges to U.S. interests. But in the longer run it compounded the extent to which its credibility would be placed at stake and its economic ambitions frustrated, for its economic hegemony never created political stability because the socioeconomic conditions emerging from export-oriented investment increasingly traumatized those nations in which the U.S. impact was greatest. The multilateral banks' austerity policies, which later paralleled and reinforced its influence, only deepened this pattern.

Ironically, the United States' confrontation with the inevitable political consequences of its surrogates' policies as well as its own economic penetration invariably strengthens the Left and anti-Yankee nationalism. But it has been incapable of perceiving its own role as a major catalyst of radicalization-and eventual challenge to itself. Although its economic and political interventions usually have no significant effect on the United States, which has literally dozens under way in various places at any given time, to a small nation of only minor interest to the United States its impact can be monumental and profoundly affect the quality of its life. But the failure of its efforts in a small country, and Washington's introduction of credibility and domino calculations to parallel its economic losses, potentially can transform only one of its many involvements into a major challenge to itself, such as a Cuba or a Nicaragua. It then opens the temptation to an intervention that, like Vietnam, eventually exacts a very high price from U.S. society and power also.

For innumerable small or poor nations, coping with the United States' real role and potential threat is a primordial issue to them as well as a precondition for obtaining the freedom to shape their own development. Each must tread a difficult path capable of bringing a society out of the institutional legacies that its own exploitive ruling classes as well as the United States or other colonial powers have imposed. At the same time, they have to avoid provoking a direct American intervention that can endanger all hope of change and even traumatize, as in Vietnam or Nicaragua, the entire social and economic fabric of a nation. For while Washington has never sought to allocate to the Third World the central place in its global foreign relations, in reality it has itself played such a role in the affairs of innumerable nations since the late 1950s. The problem of the United States is one of the most crucial obstacles confronting proponents of change in the Third World, and many countries the single most important issue that they must face.

By the mid-1980s the major, growing challenges to U.S. power in Central America, the Philippines, Iran, and elsewhere were the direct outcomes of the contradictions and dilemmas it increasingly confronted throughout the postwar era. Washington's fatal dependency on its own dependent and extremely unstable clients, ironically, merged with the legacy of past failures in Vietnam and elsewhere, the persistent hypnotic spell of credibility and domino theories on the thinking of American leaders, and the economic imperatives that gave rise to U.S. involvement in much of the Third World, to leave America in a fundamental and essentially self-destructive impasse. This was true not only in its relationship to the Third World but also in the basic definition and conduct of its foreign policy. The United States has managed only to compound the social, economic, and political roots of crises in the Third World and the efficacy of its military and political resources for coping with them are now fundamentally in question. Time will only increase the difficulties the United States faces, as it has over the past three decades.

The United States' role in the Third World has not only grown consistently since the early 1950s, but also both the forms its interventions take and the justifications its leaders have employed for them have become far more complex. The fundamental assumption that the United States retains the right and obligation to intervene in the Third World in any way it ultimately deems necessary, including military, remains an article of faith among the people who guide both political parties and they have yet to confront the basic American failures in the past or the reasons for them. Indeed, the extent to which the United States has attained a measure of success until now has both goaded them and minimized their appreciation of the significance of its earlier defeats, causing them to believe they have the ability to triumph in the future. American leaders, in their congenital optimism, have ignored the extent to which their victories, as in Iran or the Philippines, have been transitory, and they have glossed over the potentially decisive costs of just one loss, as in Vietnam, to the health of their entire international position Employing a logic that is ahistorical and irrational, the United States still holds the Soviet Union responsible for the dynamics of change and revolt in the Third World, refusing to see Communist and radical movements-the USSR included-as the effects rather than the causes of the sustained process of war and social transformation that has so profoundly defined the world's historical experience in this century.

Those who run American foreign policy have still to realize that inflation may affect a nation's politics more profoundly than all the radicals in it combined. They often ascribe astonishing powers to the Left despite its repeated failures or frequently inept political talents. The Nixon and Carter administrations increasingly sought to control trends in the Third World via the intermediary of détente and triangulation with China and Russia, as if these two states had the capacity to impose constraints on the dynamics of change in the Third World. But this strategy was testimony to their refusal after three decades of experience to comprehend the autonomous-and eventually more dangerous-nature of local rebellion. One can no longer attribute the origins of conflict and war in the modern era, and the factors that determine their eventual outcome, to the decisions of men and nations. Ultimately such events culminate the way they do because many of the same social and economic forces that created them in the first instance still play decisive roles as wars increasingly become struggles between rival social systems, their capacity to engage in extended struggle, and the political efficacy of the alternatives they present to the masses.

Whether our future will be as crisis-ridden as the past depends greatly on whether the United States can live in a pluralist world and cease to confront and fight most of the movements and developments that have emerged in the postwar era and have become more relevant since the irreversible collapse of Soviet and Chinese pretensions to lead international socialism. In J addition to the many varieties of radicalism and socialism, it now faces all the forms of nationalism that are becoming more powerful in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Can the United States end its purely negative role since 1946 in inflicting incalculably great damage on the many diverse parties of change in the Third World, and cease deforming them by constraining their choice of tactics in their legitimate struggle for power? The United States' role has increasingly become far less one of creating or consolidating those social systems in the Third World it believes congenial with its own interests and needs than in imposing often painful obstacles on the route toward social transformation there. Needed changes will come one way or another, but they would be immeasurably more successful, humane, and faster were U.S. backing for their surrogates and puppets not a constant menace to those seeking to end the poverty and injustice that so blights much of mankind.

At the present time it appears highly likely that America's responses to these questions will reflect its inherited ideology, immense vested interest in the status quo, and past failures, and that they will once again prove negative. The ability of the American political structure to adapt to the monumental changes occurring in international relations, not to mention its domestic needs (which ultimately are far more important to the welfare of its society), has not increased sufficiently despite the significant debate and the few measures of useful legislation the Vietnam War generated. Ultimately, the major inhibitions on the United States remain its incapacity either to fight successfully or to pay for the potentially unlimited costs of attaining its goals in the Third World, and these constraints have grown far more quickly than the process of reason among the leaders of both parties on the grave issues of war and change today. That America's policies and goals have increasingly failed on their own terms, eroding the quality of its domestic life and international strength in the process, has yet to penetrate seriously their thinking, much less their visions of alternatives and readiness to live with the dominant political realities of our era.

The Third World has more than enough problems to confront without also having to face the United States as well. No one nation can regulate the world, and it would be tragic were it to occur even if it were possible. History is full of accounts of those nations that have tried to impose their will and failed. Mankind's problem today is that while there have been many terrible wars between smaller nations, and the French, Chinese, and Russians have also engaged in a number of deplorable interventions against weaker states, only the United States among the major powers has embarked on a very large number of sustained interventions of varying magnitude and remains ready to do so in the future. More important yet, only the United States believes today that it still possesses sufficient material strength to play the role of the world's policeman. Whatever the impact of its failures in Korea and Vietnam but also in many other nations. America's political leadership has not abdicated the basic ideological principle that the United States has both the obligation and the right to intervene aggressively both covertly and, if necessary, overtly in the affairs of nations throughout the Third World. Astonishingly, unlike its allies whose imperialist ambitions have ended, the United States has never confronted seriously the increasing risks of its failure inherent in the sheer complexity and magnitude of its global aspirations and great but nonetheless finite resources, much less calculated carefully the ultimately immense costs of its persistence to long-run U.S. economic and political power and priorities both domestically and in the world.

We live constantly with the tensions and costs of the United States' aggressive foreign policy, which not only affects profoundly the likelihood of war or peace throughout the world but also imposes monumental constraints on urgently needed social and economic changes in the Third World today. To comprehend the origins and character of the events, forces, and decisions that have brought modern history to this dangerous state is not only to understand the recent past but also the causes of today's greatest problems and mankind's prospects for the future.

Confronting the Third World

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US and Third World

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