The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (06. The Cold War)

[I am posting rough drafts of the chapters from a book I am writing about World War II and its moral legacy. My hope in posting these chapters is that I might receive helpful counsel. So, please, read the chapters and let me know what you think. All comments, questions, and challenges are welcome and will be most useful as I revise the chapters this winter and spring.]

6. The Cold War

Ted Grimsrud—January 3, 2011


A crucial step in the American acceleration of the arms race came when the United States decided to proceed full speed ahead in building and deploying hydrogen bombs, a tremendous enhancement of our nuclear weapons arsenal. Early on in the development of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the nuclear physicists realized that they would capable of creating much more devastating types of bombs. However, priorities on speed required a focus on the less powerful bombs. After the Japanese surrendered, American leaders faced the question of whether they would proceed with further development of this new kind of bomb.

Most of the top physicists opposed such development. However, by now the momentum toward American world domination and the militarization of foreign policy moved swiftly, greatly enhanced by the demonization of the Soviet Union. The Truman Doctrine provided a rationale for intensifying the Cold War.

After the Soviets successfully tested their first nuclear bombs in 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), the federal agency charged with overseeing the American nuclear weapons program, strongly recommended that the U.S. step back from the brink of an accelerated arms race and decide not to develop the hydrogen bomb. The AEC’s General Advisory Committee, made up of several of the top physicists who had been involved in the Manhattan Project, issued a report with unanimous assent saying no to the hydrogen bomb: “There is no limit to the explosive power of the bomb except that imposed by the requirements of delivery. The weapon would have an explosive effect some hundreds of times that of present [atomic] bombs. It is clear that the use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable lives; it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.”[1]

The AEC itself voted to affirm the recommendation of its advisory committee and passed the recommendation along to President Truman. Tragically, Truman chose to refuse to accept this decision by the AEC. He formed a new committee made up of AEC chair, David Lilienthal, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson. Johnson, echoing the commitments of the Pentagon now for full speed ahead on weapon development, strongly supported proceeding with the hydrogen bomb, while Lilienthal represented the AEC position.

Acheson became the key figure. Several years earlier he had supported Henry Stimson’s attempt to get the U.S. to cooperate with the Soviets in avoiding an arms race. By 1950, though, partly spooked by the unleashed anti-Communism of American militarists and influenced by new advisers such as Paul Nitze, Acheson had committed himself to the full militarization of American foreign policy and to the State Department itself placing the strong priority on military force over diplomacy.

Consequently, Truman’s ad hoc committee recommended by a 2-to-1 vote to proceed with the hydrogen bomb—and an already rapid process of creating weapons of extraordinarily mass destruction ratcheted up exponentially. Truman gave the “Super” [the term used for the hydrogen bomb] the official go-ahead January 31, 1950. The U.S. decision to proceed with the Super accelerated the arms race almost beyond comprehension. The country would build tens of thousands of hydrogen bombs, creating enough destructive power to wreak one million times the destruction that the first nuclear bomb visited upon Hiroshima.[2]

AEC chair Lilienthal had strongly urged Truman to undertake a careful policy review prior to making a decision of the hydrogen bomb. What precisely are our national priorities and how might our military policy serve those priorities? Instead, the decision was made first—then Paul Nitze, an extreme militarist on Acheson’s staff, was charged with writing up a “policy review” which would be, in effect, a philosophical rationale for the expansion of American military power.

Nitze’s report, known as NSC-68, established the basic foundation for American policy for the decades following. NSC-68 enshrined the paranoia reflected in the Truman Doctrine, asserting that the Soviets were bent on world domination, stating, “the Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith, antithetical to our own, and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.”[3]

NSC-68 claimed that the Soviets would, as soon at it became capable, launch a unilateral attack against the United States. In the meantime, Americans could expect the Soviets to seek dominance in various areas. This report, echoing Truman from 1947, asserted, in effect, that any manifestation of Communism anywhere in the world was a direct expression of Soviet policy. And with these expressions, Americans must resist without compromise or negotiation. Such Soviet aggressiveness place American economic philosophy and democratic polity directly at risk—certainly within the borders of the United States but, more so, everywhere in the world.[4]

As James Carroll summarizes: “Every threat to something called freedom, anywhere in the world, was a mortal threat to the United States.” NSC-68 stated it this way: “The assault on free institutions is worldwide now, and in the context of the present polarization of world power, a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” With its assumption, re-emphasizing the Truman Doctrine, that “free institutions” must be defended with force everywhere in the world, the report committed the U.S. to further expansion of its global system of military bases. Even more fatefully, this report committed the U.S. to continue on its course wherein any perceived “Communist” threat anywhere in the world must be resisted, leading to placing an equal priority on the defense on non-democratic regimes in remote corners of the world as on supporting key allies in western Europe.[5]

As if on cue, the ink was scarcely dry on NSC-68, which at its inception stood as a rather abstract intellectual exercise, when unexpectedly, the United States was thrown into a real life conflict that served to concretize and solidify the analyses of Nitze’s report: a flesh and blood war in the remote east Asian nation of Korea.

NSC-68 had as its main immediate intention a drastic expansion of American military resources. Such an expansion faced strong opposition from many sources in the broader American society. Truman himself, ideologically sympathetic with this paranoid view of the Soviets and, of course, a major contributor to that view, nonetheless was also committed to keeping budgets down. The eruption of war in Korea, and the decision to commit American troops to that war, was, for the supporters of NSC-68, “a fortuitous turn of events.”[6]

As it turned out, in September 1950, three months into the Korean War, Truman ordered that NSC-68 become official policy. The direction NSC-68 intended for American foreign policy became entrenched—aided by the aggressive acts of the Communist forces of North Korea and a paranoid and distorted reaction to the aggression by the U.S.

According to Carroll, “beyond mere mobilization what occurred was nothing less than culture-wide militarization, and it was reflected, first, in the collapse of Truman’s budget restraints. The defense budget in 1951 was $13.5 billion; in 1953 it was more than $50 billion….In fiscal year 1950, the military budget amounted to less than one third of all federal expenditures, and less than 5 percent of the gross national product. By fiscal year 1953, those figures had grown to more than 60 percent and more than 12 percent.”[7] The dominance of the American budget by military spending became a permanent reality.

The war in Korea serves as a paradigmatic example of how the Truman Doctrine would work out in practice. In light of this Doctrine, American leaders would see any advance of Communism as a direct threat to American national security and call for massive military response. The roots to the conflict in Korea went back to at least 1931, when the Japanese began their long and devastating occupation of Korea. The Japanese occupation met with various forms of resistance that tended to exacerbate divisions within Korean society. The conflict that emerged in 1950, like so many other later conflicts that were misunderstood by Americans as expressions of Soviet expansionism, actually was most fundamentally a civil war.[8]

At the end of World War II, in 1945, the U.S. and Soviet Union could not agree on a single government for a unified Korea, so the nation was divided at the 38th parallel—North Korea fell under the rule of a Communist dictatorship led by Kim Il Sung and South Korea under the rule of a right-wing dictatorship led by Syngman Rhee. Neither side was content with this division; both hoped to gain control of the entire nation.

The victory of Communist forces in the Chinese revolution in 1949 complicated the perception of Korea to American policy makers. This victory emboldened the North Koreans to imagine taking the offensive against the South. Contrary to American assumptions, Joseph Stalin was not a strong supporter of this action; he greatly feared drawing the Americans into a conflict so near the eastern part of his empire. Throughout the Korean conflict, the Soviet Union played only a minor role.

In June 1950, the North Korean military crossed the 38th parallel and the war began. The first six months saw some dramatic surges and counter-surges and brought the world to the brink of another nuclear conflagration. In James Carroll’s account, in the end it was mainly Harry Truman’s reluctance to kill millions more civilians that averted that conflagration.

The North Koreans expected that by striking quickly and decisively, they would conquer the South before the Americans could come to their client state’s aid. They almost succeeded, but under the command of famous World War II general Douglas MacArthur, the Americans intervened just in time and pushed the northerners back. The U.S. had gotten United Nations backing for their military intervention, utilizing a moment when the Soviets boycotted the UN Security Council. However, as the command and vast majority of troops came from the U.S., it was clear that the UN involvement would always be minimal.

As the Americans successfully moved north, MacArthur made the fateful decision to continue past the 38th parallel and seek to crush the North Koreans—surpassing the UN mandate he had been given. Then, due to MacArthur’s own hubris[9] and the failures of American intelligence,[10] the American forces pressed on in denial about the possibilities that as they approached the Chinese border they ran the risk of drawing Chinese forces into the conflict. In fact, the Chinese did strike, and routed the Americans, rapidly driving them south.

The Chinese forces surprised the Americans with the effectiveness of their attack, and the Americans panicked. In Carroll’s words, “The panic spread all the way to Washington. The Pentagon rushed to plan for a Dunkirk-like evacuation of the entire U.N. force from Korea. Dean Acheson described what was happening in South Korea as the worst defeat of U.S. forces since the Battle of Bull Run. Nothing like this humiliation had occurred in either World War I or World War II.”[11]

At this point, the conflict came near to triggering an American nuclear bomb attack. Most of Truman’s advisers, even including the supposedly moderate recently appointed Secretary of Defense George Marshall, supported using nuclear weapons—a step that had been prepared for in recent months by the Strategic Air Command (SAC).

As it turned out, even though Truman and others blamed the Soviets for the actions of North Korea, Stalin actually had a very different perspective. As reported by Carroll, “Stalin, as post-Cold War Soviet archives reveal, did not want an American defeat in Korea. He was even prepared to accept U.S. dominance of the peninsula—‘Let the United States of America be our neighbors in the Far East,’ one former KGB official quotes him as having said in the fall of 1950—because he was sure an imminent American defeat would trigger global war. Stalin knew what… SAC was preparing to do.”[12]

Several factors seem to have played important roles in restraining Truman’s hand when he faced the actual decision about whether to go nuclear or not. One of the ironic (in this situation at least) implications of NSC-68 was that if all Communist uprisings were equally threats to American national security, then while on the one hand that would justify involvement in the Korean War it would also, on the other hand, mean that the U.S. must not weaken its capabilities of meeting the Soviet threat elsewhere (read, Europe) by putting too many resources into east Asia.

Also, Truman seems to have recognized that he was in danger of going too far in empowering the military in relation to deployment of nuclear weapons. In the early months of the Korean War he expressed thoughts in a press conference that many interpreted to give the power to decide about using nuclear bombs in the conflict to MacArthur. Trumans seems to have caught himself, and shortly asserted that the decision to use nuclear weapons was to be his alone.

Perhaps the most significant factor for Truman was simply further reflection on the consequences of destroying masses of humanity. Truman stated, “It is a terrible weapon and it should not be used on innocent men, women, and children who have nothing whatever to do with this military aggression. That happens when it is used.”[13] So, Truman made the decision to move the U.S. back from the brink. He thereby reversed the momentum toward seeing nuclear weapons as simply another arrow in the quiver of the war machine.

This is Carroll’s summary: “Just as Truman changed the course of history by deciding to use the atomic bomb in 1945, he changed the course of history again by deciding not to use it in 1950—perhaps ‘the most important point,’ in one historian’s assessment, ‘at which the action of an individual changed the course of nuclear history.’”[14]

When he decided to defy the counsel of his top advisers and not use nuclear weapons, Truman set a couple of crucial precedents. First, he stepped back from engulfing the world in another total war. War could be limited and the big powers could realize that achieving victory could come at too great a cost. Second, Truman reinforced the sense that the use of nuclear weapons should be taboo. The same person who made the ultimate decision to introduce nuclear bombs into actual battlefields now refused to do it again. Carroll again: “American leaders, including Truman himself later in the war, might threaten nuclear use, but they would again and again stop short of ordering it. If Truman had allowed his commanders any use of atomic weapons whatsoever, even if as an act of successful prevention, even if somehow restricted to the battlefield, or even if, by some fluke, concentrated primarily on military targets—there is no doubt that subsequent presidents and other leaders of nuclear powers would have followed suit.”[15]

The United States came very close to using and thereby routinizing nuclear weaponry. In November 1950, in face of unprecedented military defeat, the Americans had in their hands a weapon that promised to stop their enemies cold. And as their commander-in-chief, they had the man who had once before authorized use of this weapon on human populations. When this president, under these circumstances, stepped back from unleashing such destruction, “then the bomb—Nitze notwithstanding—would never again be considered just another weapon in the nation’s arsenal. Or any nation’s.”[16]

As it turned out, the Americans managed through conventional warfare, to stem the tide and retain a foothold in South Korea in face of the Chinese onslaught. Truman fired MacArthur and replaced him with a more competent commander, and the war settled into a World War I-style bloody stalemate for a couple more years until an uneasy truce was achieved in 1953 that restored the 38th parallel as the border between North and South Korea. In the end, about four million Koreans lost their lives in this conflict, 75% of them noncombatants.

Truman did manage to slow the momentum that seemed to be heading toward further direct nuclear destruction. However, the main legacy of the Korean War was to in most respects solidify the influence of NSC-68 on the American nation. It marked the transformation of the State Department’s focus from diplomacy to military action. And it marked a similar transformation of the presidency.

After 1950 and the prosecution of the Korean War, military matters remained the central focus of American presidents. The National Security Council became the locus of executive power in the U.S. Carroll concludes: “the ethos of the Pentagon had overtaken the State Department, and now it overtook the White House. It was not that the Pentagon would be forever in the loop, but that the Pentagon would be the loop. The Pentagon’s business would be the only business that would get the government’s full attention.”[17]

The 1950s—Overthrow

The Truman Doctrine’s invoked the “Soviet threat” as the basis for American armed intervention anywhere in the world in response to alleged threats to U.S. national security. Such intervention in fact became common during the 1950s. I’ll mention just three examples here—none of which, in actuality, had much to do with the Soviet Union. These three occasions of direct American involvement in the quest to overthrow existing governments are revelatory, though, of how the Pax Americana actually took shape on the ground.

The nation of Iran was for a long time part of the British Empire. In 1901, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company established a monopoly over Iranian oil, from extraction through refining and marketing. The British government owned most of this company, and insisted on claiming at 85% of the earnings from the oil, leaving precious little in Iran. “Anglo-Iranian made more profit in 1950 alone than it had paid Iran in royalties over the previous half century.”[18]

In the aftermath of World War II, many people in Britain’s colonial holdings saw the opportunity to move toward independence—including powerful forces in Iran. The Iranian nationalist movement was headed by Mohammad Mossadegh, a committed democrat who became prime minister in 1951. Mossadegh’s program, at its center, embodied a commitment to gain for Iran a fair share of oil revenue as a means of strengthening the nation’s civil society.

Shortly after Mossadegh gained power, the Iranian parliament, with strong support across political factions, moved to nationalize the oil industry. “All of Iran’s misery, wretchedness, lawlessness, and corruption over the last fifty years has been caused by oil and the extortions of the oil company,” on radio commentator declared.[19]

Even though Britain had ruthlessly been expropriating Iranian wealth with little compensation for years, this new nationalization law required the country to repay what Britain had spent on oil infrastructure. “Mossadegh loved to point out that the British had themselves recently nationalized their coal and steel industries. He insisted that he was only trying to do what the British had done: turn their nation’s wealth to its own benefit, and make reforms in order to prevent people from resorting to revolution.”[20]

Nonetheless, these Iranian moves infuriated Britain’s elite. They actively resisted Iran’s efforts to implement the takeover, but without much success. Finally, they decided the only option would be literally to overthrow the democratic government of Iran. However, Mossadegh learned of the plans and threw the British out of Iran. At this point, the tale end of the Truman presidency, the Americans opposed the British coup effort. However, the election of Dwight Eisenhower as president, just weeks after the Britons were expelled, changed the scenery.

Eisenhower’s new Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, had much more sympathy for the British concerns. So the Britons began pushing the allegations that Mossadegh was moving Iran in a Communist direction—a pure fabrication. Iran did have a small Communist party, called Tudeh. Tudeh, like all Iranian political parties, did support the nationalization. But Mossedegh strongly opposed Tudeh’s political philosophy and made a point to keep any Tudeh members out of his government. As a believer in democracy, though, he did allow Tudeh to operate without restrictions. This party, though, had little influence anywhere in the country.[21]

No matter, in the name of the Truman Doctrine and resisting the Communist move for world domination, the U.S. government entered the fray. This was an opportunity for the new American Central Intelligence Agency to try out its covert operations chops. It helped that John Foster Dulles’ younger brother, Allen, was now the director of the CIA. The work of the CIA in the ultimately successful coup was not particularly efficient or effective, but the task was completed and Mossedegh removed from power and placed under house arrest, where he would remain for the rest of his life.

Iran’s monarch, Mohammad Reza Shah, whose power had been greatly reduced by Iran’s democratic transformation, led the new government. The movement toward democracy ended, and Iran began a twenty-five year period of dictatorship. The efforts to devote oil revenues to addressing widespread human needs in Iran also ended, and, as a reward for America’s role in the changes, U.S. oil companies entered Iran in a big way, joining the British.

In time, the oppressiveness of the Shah’s rule (strongly backed by the U.S.—the notorious Iranian secret police, SAVAK, received helpful training by the CIA in torture techniques[22]) ended in an Islamic revolution in 1979. Since that revolution, Iran has emerged as a major American opponent in the Middle East. Instead of accepting Mossadegh’s strong desire for a relationship characterized by mutual respect, the U.S. helped create and sustain decades of misery for the Iranian people and, ultimately, an intransigent enemy.

For the CIA, the successful 1953 coup in Iran became an inspiration to continue on the path of violently subverting unattractive governments. The next opportunity arose within a few months of the conclusion of the Iranian operation—and was much closer to home. Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán became the second elected president of Guatemala in 1951. Thanks to the CIA, he did not finish his term, and his country entered into a long and terrible nightmare of repression and murder that left hundreds of thousands dead.

Guatemala had emerged from generations of dictatorships in 1944 with a commitment to democracy that seemed solid and fruitful. Arbenz, like Iran’s Mossadegh, was a committed democrat who cared deeply about the poverty all too widespread in his country. And also like Mossadegh, Arbenz saw that one important step that his government could take to address the needs of civil society would be to nationalize properties held by foreign corporations.

Arbenz, though, made a tragic mistake when he challenged a powerful American corporation at a time when America had in power a Secretary State, John Foster Dulles, who had himself been a longtime lawyer for that corporation. United Fruit dominated Guatemala, operating free from governmental interference. “It simply claimed good farmland, arranged for legal title through one-sided deals with dictators, and then operated plantations on its own terms, free of such annoyances as taxes or labor regulations.” This system drew Dulles’ support; Guatemala was considered a “friendly” and “stable” country—though one ripe for change given its widespread poverty and political disenfranchisement. The changes that did emerge met with Dulles’ and United Fruit’s disapproval. [23]

After a “people’s revolution” in 1944 and the election of a democratic government, led by Juan José Arévalo, had made major changes. Arévelo’s term lasted six years. During that time, Guatemala’s National Assembly took important steps to provide help for the Guatemalan people—and to challenge to United Fruit’s hegemony. The Assembly established Guatemala’s first social security system, supported trade union rights, established a forty-eight hour workweek, and began modest taxation of large landowners. United Fruit protested. As Stephen Kinzer states, “The company had been setting its own rules in Guatemala for more than half a century, and did not look favorably on the surge of nationalism that Arvélo embodied. It resisted him every way it could.”[24]

At the end of Arvélo’s term, the newly elected Arbenz took office. This transition marked the first peaceful transfer of power in Guatemalan history. Arbenz saw the need to move things even further toward economic self-determination within Guatemala. A key element of his program was a land reform law to allow the government to buy hoarded, uncultivated land and transfer ownership to small farmers who would work the land. United Fruit bore the brunt of this new law, since the company only cultivated about 70,000 of the more than 550,000 acres of workable land it owned. “The company said it needed these vast, fertile tracts for future contingencies. To citizens of a country where hundreds of thousands went hungry for want of land, this seemed grossly unjust.”[25]

With friends in high places, United Fruit quickly draw the American government into the situation. Fresh from the Iranian coup, the CIA welcomed the chance for another opportunity to demonstrate its power. The campaign began with propaganda against Guatemala in the U.S. Again, the Truman Doctrine call to oppose Communism provided the rationale—more urgently in this case because of Guatemala’s proximity to America. The New York Times published a series of articles that warned of Guatemala moving in a Communist direction.

Important politicians joined the chorus, including Massachusetts senator, Henry Cabot Lodge, whose family had been enriched by United Fruit over the years. Another Massachusetts leader, House majority leader John McCormack “rose regularly to deliver chilling warnings that Guatemala’s democratic leaders had become ‘subservient to the Kremlin’s design for world conquest’ and were turning their country into ‘a Soviet beachhead.’”[26]

As with Iran, also in Guatemala, the Communists had only a modest presence. The Party never had more than a few hundred members and in the decade of Guatemalan democracy held at most four seats in the sixty-one seat National Assembly. The Communists had no presence in either Arvélo’s or Arbenz’s cabinet.[27]

However, this lack of direct Communist involvement in Guatemala did not deter American leaders who were committed to crushing this effort at self-determination in their own backyard. The Guatemalan threat lay in its model of self-determination, given its stature as the traditional leader in Central America. The problem was not the spread of actual Communism, but the spread of self-determination represented in these reforms.[28]

So, supported by Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles, the CIA struck, putting “Operation Success” into effect, overthrowing President Arbenz, ending Guatemala’s democratic era, and setting into motion what was probably the worst expression of massive government terrorist violence in the modern history of the western hemisphere. As Kinzer puts it, “by overthrowing [Arbenz], the United States crushed a democratic experiment that held great promise for Latin America. As in Iran a year earlier, it deposed a regime that had embrace fundamental American ideals but that had committed the sin of seeking to retake control of its own natural resources.”[29]

The CIA’s “winning streak” came to an to end when they turned their attention to another attempt to overthrow another government that sought genuine self-determination and freedom from dependence on western corporations and politics. Indonesia, as the Dutch East Indies, had been the scene of terrible fighting during World War II, with millions of casualties. The Allies’ driving the occupying Japanese out, though, created an opportunity for the end of Dutch control and Indonesian self-determination. Independence forces, with their leader, Sukarno, declared for nationhood in 1945. However, the Dutch would not give up their colony and created an armed struggle before they finally relented and allowed the nation its independence in 1949.

Sukarno remained in power the years following independence. In a complicated and challenging environment, he sought both internally to hold together a wide coalition of Indonesian parties and externally to follow a path in international affairs that would foster Indonesian independence from both sides of the American/Soviet Cold War. Indonesia played a major role along with nations such as India, Yugoslavia, and Egypt in what was called the Non-Aligned movement.

Three major elements of Sukarno’s path troubled the United States. One was his role in the Non-Aligned Movement. To many American leaders, if you were not with us, you were against us. They tended to frame this movement as in actuality an insidious way of tilting toward the Soviets. Second, as part of his balancing act within Indonesia, Sukarno did allow the Indonesian Communist Party (the PKI) to play a role—a relatively minor role given the PKI’s small size. Third, Sukarno sought economically to foster Indonesian self-determination and resisted Western corporate influence, including the residue of the Dutch colonial presence.

In light of the CIA’s other successes, Eisenhower authorized an attempt to overthrow Sukarno’s government in 1957. In this case, though, the CIA could not overcome its ineptness to the degree it had in Iran and Guatemala.[30] The coup effort was a dismal failure. Nonetheless, the coup attempt had disastrous long-term repercussions for the Indonesians.

The CIA intervention had the ironic impact of greatly enhancing the status of the Communist PKI in Indonesia, especially among many of the nation’s poorer people. People recognized the PKI as the opponents of the CIA, which made the PKI more attractive. So the PKI grew more powerful, though more as an expression of Indonesian nationalism than as a beachhead for the Soviet Union. In the years following the coup attempt, the U. S. became increasingly involved in the conflict in Vietnam, not far from Indonesia. And Sukarno became increasingly besieged in his efforts to walk the non-aligned path.

So, by the mid-1960s, times seemed right for another attempt at getting rid of the Sukarno government. This time, unlike in 1957, forces within Indonesia took the initiative rather than relying on a direct externally generated CIA intervention. The precise events in October 1965 remain shrouded in secrecy, but when the dust cleared after a supposed coup attempt to overthrow Sukarno allegedly undertaken by a small force of junior military officers said to be sponsored by the CIA, General Suharto stood as the “defender” of the Indonesian government.

Within a short time, though, the true outcome of these events became clear. Sukarno was removed from power and Suharto (who had served both the Dutch colonialists and the Japanese invaders) was established as the supreme ruler of Indonesia—remaining in that role until 1998. Under Suharto’s direction, a massive campaign of utterly destroying all PKI influence was undertaken. As many as one million Indonesians were killed in this campaign, undertaken with the full support of the American government. In fact, American diplomats provided thousands of names of supposed Communist operatives to the Indonesian military—directly leading to the murders of these “Communists.”

Robert Martens, an American diplomat in Jakarta, stated in 1990: “It really was a big help to the army. They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that’s not all bad. There’s a time when you have to strike hard at a decisive moment.” Another American diplomat, Howard Federspiel, said, “No one cared, as long as they were Communists, that they were being butchered.”[31]

This is how former U.S. State Department official William Blum characterized Suharto’s reign several years before he finally stepped down in 1998: “The record of the ‘New Order’ imposed by General Suharto upon the people of Indonesia for almost three decades has been remarkable. The government administers the nation on the level of Chicago gangsters of the 1930s running a protection racket. Political prisoners overflow the jails. Torture is routine. Death squads roam at will, killing not only ‘subversives’ but ‘suspected criminals’ by the thousands. [Here’s one example:] An army officer in the province of Aceh fires a single shot in the air, at which point all young males must run to a central square before the soldier fires a second shot. Then, anyone arriving late—or not leaving home—is shot on the spot.”[32]


If we were to summarize American foreign policy in the era following World War II in relation to the “purpose statements” discussed above in chapter two concerning involvement in World War II, we would have good reasons to say that those purpose statements were stood on their head. If the key bases for selling entering World War II to the American people were self-determination and disarmament “everywhere in the world,” what we see in the years after the War’s conclusion are American policymakers fostering an arms race and striving to deny self-determination (as in Iran, Guatemala, and Indonesia).

Both of these dynamics come together in a tragic and costly way in relation to the small Caribbean island nation of Cuba. After centuries as a Spanish colony, Cuba gained its “independence” following the brief Spanish-American War of 1898. However, for the first half of the twentieth century, Cuba political life was dominated by the Americans. This domination included American support for a series of dictators who ruled Cuba and practiced subservience to the U.S. economic and organized crime interests.

During the 1950s, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista faced increasing unrest with his corrupt and exploitative regime. His hold on power relied heavily on support from the Eisenhower administration—which provided Batista with weaponry and military advisers. Finally, congressional actions forced Eisenhower to withdraw this military support in the late 1950s. An increasingly potent anti-Batista movement moved closer to toppling the dictator. Ironically, his rise to power in 1952 had resulted from a violent military coup, setting the stage for further violence later in the decade.[33]

With Batista weakened by the withdrawal of U.S. support, a guerilla movement led by a young lawyer, Fidel Castro, moved quickly and overthrew the Batista government, driving the dictator into exile, January 1, 1959. Initially, Castro kept his distance from the Cuban Communist Party. But his revolutionary government moved decisively, and violently, to establish itself in power. Many of Batista’s supporters were executed and others driven out of the country. Castro acted to end American corporation’s domination of the Cuban economy and to shut down the Mafia’s gambling institutions.

Analysts still debate how inevitable Castro’s turn toward an alliance with the Soviet Union was. Some argue that his main concerns were with Cuban independence, and that his government’s economic and political actions had most of all to do with eliminating any chance of a Batista return or other ways of allowing the revolution to be subverted by American corporate interests. In this perspective, Castro hoped for a relationship of peaceful coexistence with the American government. Had the U.S. been willing to allow for this, the argument goes, Castro would not have felt the need to turn to the Soviets for support.

As it turned out, from the beginning the U.S. government viewed Castro’s revolution with hostility. Four months after taking power, Castro visited the U.S., hoping for an audience with Eisenhower and a chance to establish a relationship. Eisenhower left town rather than meet with Castro.[34]

Some in the administration urged patience. America’s Cuban ambassador, Philip Bonsal, worked for positive relationships following Castro’s rise to power early in 1959. Bonsal asserted the at this time, Castro was free from Communist domination. In contrast, CIA director Allen Dulles argued from early on that Castro was a threat to the U.S. He saw Cuba “drifting toward Communism,” sentiment echoed by Vice President Richard Nixon, who asserted, Cuba is “being driven toward Communism more and more.”[35]

As was typical, the CIA and the American government in general, when faced with new leadership in a country of interest that sought to challenge the status quo, chose against a path utilizing diplomacy and cultivating common ground. Rather, the government accepted the worst-case scenarios (often based on ignorance) and began to prepare for a hostile and violent response. The CIA began to make plans for how the new Castro government could be overthrown.

The CIA assumed that once their undermining of the government gained momentum, the Cuban people would rise up against Castro. Such an assumption ignored the extreme hostility the population had felt toward Batista and its consequent affirmation of the revolution. In typical CIA fashion, these plans did not remain hidden (in this case, the CIA began to work with Cuban exiles in the U.S., a community Castro had infiltrated). Learning of American violent intentions, Castro turned toward the Soviet Union for aid in enhancing Cuban security, a turn Castro had initially resisted in hopes of retaining Cuba’s independence and developing a positive relationship with the U.S.

As CIA plans found shape, Eisenhower turned the presidency over to John Kennedy. In the first few months of his administration, Kennedy embraced the overthrow plans and “Operation Mongoose” went full speed ahead. A group of anti-Castro Cuban exiles with CIA-supplied training, weapons, and leadership undertook an invasion of Cuba in April 1961, the so-called “Bay of Pigs” action. Once again, the CIA proved inept—unlike with Iran and Guatemala, in this case the luck ran bad instead of good. The invasion was a dismal failure. “The CIA had missed the big picture: the Cuban people had no inclination to overthrow Castro.”[36]

At first, the administration denied that it had been involved in this action—lying even to its own Secretary of State and United Nations ambassador.[37] In time, Kennedy could not hide the evidence that indeed the U.S. had been directly involved and he publicly accepted responsibility for the disastrous action. This public disgrace did not deter Kennedy from supporting continuing efforts to assassinate Castro—all equally ineptly handled.

This recklessness and violent disregard for the integrity of Cuba’s nationhood almost led to a disastrous culmination of the American pursuit of unlimited nuclear war making capability. Within months of the failed invasion, and with Castro being all too aware of the American government’s continued efforts to take his life, Cuba made arrangements with the Soviet Union to have Soviet nuclear weapons stationed in Cuba.

The Soviets hoped both to provide protection to their Cuban allies who had allowed the Soviets to gain a presence in the Americas and to gain the ability to deter an American nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. The Soviet could not at this point come close to matching American delivery capabilities. Only the Americans had intercontinental missiles. For the Soviets, to have the ability to bomb the U.S. through bases in Cuba provided a provocation no greater than the Americans having nuclear weapons based in Turkey and aimed at the neighboring Soviet Union. The Soviets, that is, sought no more than a rough balance of power.

For Castro, the only justification for taking the risk of having Cuba annihilated in a nuclear exchange with the U.S. could possibly have been his strong sense that the U.S. did indeed want to invade Cuba already. He agreed to the nuclear weapon deployment strictly in order to deter that invasion—which, of course, had already been covertly attempted. Castro feared the next attempt would be made with more overwhelming American military force.[38]

Of course, as we have seen throughout this story (and will continue to be the case), American political and military elites were not interested in a balance of power. They sought domination. So, they could not allow this deterrent to exist in the western hemisphere. At this moment, October 1962, the United States moved again to the brink of using nuclear weapons. As with Truman with his advisers a decade earlier, Kennedy’s closest advisers advocated attacking the Cuban missile bases, an act that everyone knew would surely lead to nuclear war.[39]

And, as with Truman a decade earlier, Kennedy managed to withstand the strong pressure toward the unspeakable and step back from the brink. He negotiated with Khrushchev to have the Soviets take their nuclear weapons back while the Americans would (secretly) withdraw a number of their nuclear missiles stationed in Turkey that targeted the Soviet Union.

Though Kennedy did step back from initiating a nuclear conflagration, the person who truly “blinked” in this confrontation was Khrushchev. He agreed to withdraw all the Soviet nuclear weapons in the western hemisphere. Hundreds of American nuclear weapons remained in the eastern hemisphere—plus the U.S. retained an enormous lead in intercontinental weapons delivery capability. That is, clearly the U.S. came through this conflict with its position of superiority strengthened; the Soviets came through the conflict having lost significant face.

Khrushchev and Kennedy each seem to have learned from the crisis (and how they averted destruction through negotiation) that the two nations needed to find ways to turn from the abyss. For the first time, in 1963, the two nations negotiated a treaty that placed some limits on the arms race, establishing a partial ban on nuclear tests. Kennedy also delivered an unprecedentedly conciliatory speech that year. He paid tribute to the Soviets for their suffering in World War II—a speech Khrushchev lauded as the best by an American president since Roosevelt.

However, in the bigger picture, the “Cuban Missile Crisis” led directly to Khrushchev’s removal from leadership in the Soviet Union within two years. The Soviets learned that they had to seek strategic parity with the United States. Clearly, the Americans were ready to use their weapons on the Soviet Union. If there could be no deterrent in Cuba, something else would have to be done. So the Soviets ratcheted up even more intensely their nuclear weapons development. They created a large collection of intercontinental missiles that could directly target the United States. That is, the American response to the Cuban Missile Crisis led directly to a tremendously weakened level the security for the American people.

In the decades following, the American government remained implacably hostile toward Cuba and the Castro government. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, the American government refused to end its material and cultural embargoes of Cuba. This loss of economic support from the Soviet Union and the continued isolation from American economic resources forced Cuba into a challenging path of economic self-determination, a path with some important benefits along with many costs. The American hostility toward the Cubans mostly served to allow the authoritarian Castro government to retain strong support from the Cuban population. Cubans understandably greatly fear what would happen to their country should the Americans somehow forcibly remove Castro from power.

The ability of Cuba to sustain its independence from the United States in face of more than half a century of extreme hostility stands as one of the more remarkable political accomplishments in the world in the post World War II era. For this reason, Cuba and its sustained revolution retain no little cache in the developing world—even as it becomes ever clearer that Cuba’s path stands as almost totally unique in the modern world.


Probably the greatest foreign policy disaster in American history came as a direct consequence of U.S. policymakers disregarding the values expressed in the Atlantic Charter. On August 14, 1941, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt agreed on eight points that would be presented as the core values undergirding their respective nations’ war aims.

Of particular significance is point three: “The President of the United States and [the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom], being met together, deem it right to make known certain common principles in the national policies of their respective countries on which they base their hope for a better future for the world….3. They respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and they wish to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them.”[40]

Given the Atlantic Charter’s wide visibility over the next several years, people throughout the world who sought for an end of colonial domination took this point about political self-determination quite seriously. Certainly, political leaders in the French colony of Vietnam in Southeast Asia noticed this promise for support for self-determination. French domination of Vietnam dated back to the mid-1800s and had always met with strong resistance. Ho Chi Minh became the most important leader of the Vietnamese anti-colonial movement in the twentieth-century. Ho first sought to get American support for Vietnam’s self-determination when he tried to gain an audience with President Woodrow Wilson during Wilson’s participation in the formulation of the Versailles Treaty following World War I. Wilson refused to see Ho.

In 1940, Japan took over control of Vietnam, but retained French administration—overseen by the French Vichy government following France’s surrender to Japan’s German allies. During the war years, the Vietnamese nationalists actively resisted Japan’s occupation, but the Japanese, even so, managed to extract many resources from Vietnam and devastate the economy. Japan’s policies led to an enormous famine that in 1944-45 resulting in as many as two million Vietnamese deaths. During World War II, Vietnamese nationalists worked closely with the American spying agency, the OSS, to rescue American pilots who had been shot down among other activities. Ho Chi Minh actually was formally recognized as an OSS operative.[41]

After being rebuffed by Wilson in 1919, Ho had turned to the philosophy of Leninism because it seemed to take seriously the aspirations of colonized people for self-determination. From that point on, Ho identified with the Communist International. However, his priority was always on Vietnamese independence; the Communism for him served his nationalist aspirations. Ho helped organize resistance to French colonialism, which in time also involved resistance to the Japanese occupation that operated in conjunction with continued French administration of the colonies that made up Vietnam. The political arm of this movement called itself the Viet Minh.

In 1944, Vichy rule in France ended and shortly afterwards, the Japanese formally ended French rule in Vietnam and took over direct control of the colony for the final months of the War. During this time of chaos, the Viet Minh greatly increased their role in public life and managed to gain de facto control of six provinces in northern Vietnam. They created entirely new governments and instituted numerous reforms, including recruiting self-defense forces, abolishing taxes, reducing rents, redistributing land owned by French landlords. They also worked to overcome the famine by distributing rice reserves.[42] They saw this as an opportunity to establish their ability to lead an independent government in hopes that when the War ended they would then be allowed to continue free from colonial domination.

However, these hopes were to be dashed over and over again by the colonial powers and their American allies for years to come. With British and American support, the French sought to reestablish their control over Vietnam. As well, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Chinese forces also were making their presence felt, especially in northern Vietnam.

These efforts at social change in Vietnam gained the sympathy of many Americans stationed in Vietnam—but not with the government back in Washington. An American in Hanoi reported to the State Departments that the Vietnamese “seemed to feel that every American contained within himself all the virtues and accomplishments of the nation they wanted most to emulate.” Those Vietnamese working for independence understood that the U.S. promised the Philippines full independence at war’s end and expected similar support for themselves. “Nowhere did the coming of Americans, in this case a mere handful of them, mean so much to a people as it did to the population of northern Indochina. To [them], our coming was the symbol of liberation not from Japanese occupation but from decades of French colonial rule. For the [northern Vietnamese] government considered the United States the principle champion of the rights of small peoples, guaranteed so promisingly by the United Nations conferences.”[43]

The Viet Minh sought to cooperate with the occupying powers in effecting a peaceful transition to a self-governed Vietnam. They dissolved the Communist Party prior to the January 1946 elections to elect Vietnam’s new government. However, in the French stronghold in the south, participation in the election was banned. The northern two-thirds elected a government dominated by pro-independence forces that over the next six months achieved much.

Historian Marilyn Young summarizes: “Careful rationing and a mass campaign for planting food crops brought the famine to an end by March 1946. It was a stunning achievement, and it joined a growing list of reforms in other areas (literacy, taxation, labor legislation) that were not merely decreed but acted upon. Within six months of taking power, under their own government and without assistance from any foreign country, the people of North and Central Vietnam were free of famine and colonial taxation, and on the way to universal literacy.”[44]

The French, however, simply would not accept the outcome of the election. They retained a strong foothold in southern Vietnam, and insisted on retaining Vietnam as part of the French Empire. However, after negotiations, the French government and the new Vietnamese government agreed on a plan that would allow the French to send fifteen thousand troops to Vietnam where they would be joined by ten thousand Vietnamese troops under French command and oversee a time of transition. Over the next six years, these troops would gradually be withdrawn, so by 1952 a Vietnam free of all foreign troops would be recognized as a “free state” within an “Indochinese federation of the French Union.”[45]

This plan was scuttled by the French military leader in southern Vietnam who announced the establishment of a separate Republic of Cochin China in June 1946. Colonial authorities believed that to recognize the Viet Minh in any way would inevitably lead to driving the French out of Indochina altogether. They concluded that the only way to preserve their new “Republic” was to go to war with the North, which they commenced to do in November 1946.[46]

The crucial step by the Americans in this situation was ultimately to side decisively with the French colonialists. In time, when the French were routed by the Vietnamese, The Americans stepped in and took over the fight themselves. This war operated on simmer from the mid-1950s through mid-1960s and then grew to a full boil in face of the continued success of the Viet Minh in the struggle “for hearts and minds.”

From the beginning of the French/Vietnamese War in late 1946, the Americans were trapped in the emerging Cold War paranoia that we have seen above. Over the next generation, this paranoia reaped its most devastating costs in this conflict in remote Southeast Asia, in another area, like Korea, with no clear connection to America’s genuine national security needs.

Ho Chi Minh and his colleagues had had high hopes that the U.S. might actually be governed by the stated values of supporting self-determination for the world’s peoples. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, even in the stronghold of the Viet Minh in northern Vietnam, the U.S. was held up in the popular consciousness as the model their nation wanted to emulate. When Ho declared Vietnamese independence, he self-consciously alluded to the American Declaration of Independence.

However, because of the Viet Minh’s links with Communism, the U.S. entered this conflict with a strong bias against the independence movement. As well, the U.S. also felt strong pressure from their interests in Europe to keep France in the anti-Soviet bloc of nations in Europe. These dynamics led to an American disposition to support French colonial interests.

The U.S. gave France a direct grant of $160 million to use in its Vietnam conflict and allowed the French to divert millions in economic and military aid intended for French domestic reconstruction. Nonetheless, it was not certain in 1946 that the U.S. would wholeheartedly join with the French in this struggle. The State Department put much effort in trying to discern “how Communist” Ho Chi Minh really was.

According to Young, “over and over, the answer came back that [Ho] was certainly a Communist, but that he put nationalism first, had no known direct ties to the Soviet Union, but was relentless in his pursuit of direct ties to the United States. Almost every American who met with Vietnamese officials in these early years reported back constant appeals for aid, capital, technology—and no signs of a Soviet presence.” In September 1948, the State Department released an analysis of the situation that reiterated the failure to find any evidence of close ties between the Soviets and Vietnamese. A report one month later “was chagrined to find Soviet influence throughout Southeast Asia, but not in Vietnam. ‘If there is a Moscow-directed conspiracy in Southeast Asia, Indochina is an anomaly so far,’ the report concluded.”[47]

However, by this time, with tragic consequences for the people of Vietnam, Truman had issued his “doctrine” and the U.S. was fully committed to fighting Soviet Communism throughout the world. The U.S. would view any and all inclinations toward Communism to be part of the one Communist movement taking its marching orders from the Kremlin. So, in face of all evidence (and lack of evidence), Secretary of State Dean Acheson simply asserted that “all Communists in colonial countries were Stalinists, and as soon as independence was achieved, their objective necessarily becomes subordination of the state to Commie purposes.”[48]

This certainty that the Viet Minh were simply stooges in the Soviet quest for world domination (an ideological certainty, not based on evidence) set the direction of the U.S. policy toward Vietnam. For the next several years, America offered massive amounts of aid to France in the French quest to hold on to their colony. The widespread support throughout Vietnam for independence (support much wider than direct support for the Viet Minh themselves) and the resourcefulness of the Vietnamese military doomed the French struggle.

By 1950, two separate governments claiming sovereignty over all of Vietnam were in place. The government in the South was recognized by the United States and Great Britain. The government in the North, by the Soviet bloc. By this time, the Viet Minh had turned to the Soviets for assistance in their independence quest; yet Soviet assistance to the Vietnamese was much smaller than U.S. assistance to the French. It was mostly an indigenous struggle by the anti-colonialists. Finally, in the spring of 1954, even with all the American support for the French, the Vietnamese won the decisive Battle of Deinbienphu. Despite America pressure to stay in the fight, the French decide to cut their losses and pull out of Vietnam.

As Young writes: “The Vietnamese victory at Dienbienphu summarized the entire war. On the basis of a nationalist appeal that was at the same time revolutionary, the government of Vietnam had organized and inspired a poor, untrained, ill-equipped population to fight and ultimately win against a far better equipped and trained army. It had done so through the integration of political and military struggle and through tactics of the utmost flexibility. Initially, the only way to meet the far superior French forces was through classic guerilla warfare—sharp, fast, disruptive raids. Gradually it became possible to engage in more mobile tactics, engaging units of comparable size and strength, combining the techniques of both guerilla and conventional warfare. Finally, as Dienbienphu, it all came together: the strength necessary to launch what a ‘general counteroffensive’ based on the efforts of thousands of committed peasants whose road building and transport had made the revolution possible.”[49]

Between May and July, 1954, a major conference in Geneva, Switzerland, sought to establish political peace in Vietnam. The conference concluded with a cease-fire signed by the Viet Minh and the French. An agreement was reached that “free general elections by secret ballot” would be held in July 1956. There was to be no increase in troop levels, armament, foreign military aid, or alliance. As well, the 17th parallel boundary between the North and South was “not to be construed in any way as a political or territorial boundary” but a temporary division meant to be ended after the elections. This agreement was signed by all the participants in the conference (French, Chinese, Soviets, and Vietnamese) except one—the United States.[50]

In fact, the Americans had no intention of allowing an independent Vietnam under the leadership of the Viet Minh to come into existence. They set up a puppet government in southern Vietnam, subverted the promised elections, and fostered a low-intensity conflict that echoed the French colonialists a decade earlier—understanding that the only way the southern “republic” could survive would be to defeat the North militarily.

CIA-led covert activities meant to subvert the Geneva Agreements were underway even prior to the signing of the accord, July 21, 1954. These activities, supposedly based on learning from French failures, sought to beat the Vietnamese at their own “military-political-economic” game.[51] As it turned out, though the direct American military intervention began with the intent of learning from French mistakes, this initial action taken by the CIA evolved into a two-decade exercise in mostly precisely repeating the losing strategies of the French.

Blinded by their ideological blinders, U.S. policy makers never discerned the depth of the Vietnamese commitment to the ideals of the Atlantic charter concerning national self-determination. The Vietnamese conflict never was about the U.S./Soviet Cold War to nearly the degree the Americans claimed.

At several key moments, the extraordinary destruction that the western powers visited upon Vietnam could have been avoided. The first came in 1946. If the French had willingly stuck with their commitment to allow an independent Vietnam, the pre-Truman Doctrine Americans probably would have supported such a move. But the French, having been humiliated by their capitulation to the Nazis in 1940, sought to restore some sense of their great power validity and retain control of their empire. Hence, they reneged on their agreements with the Viet Minh.

Then, after the Vietnamese defeated the French in 1954, the great powers in Geneva and created a road map that may well have even at that point led to a united, independent Vietnam and to the end of the bloodshed. This time, the Americans were captive to great power illusions—and refused to cooperate with the agreements the other nations had reached.

Over the next eight years, American intervention did not go well, even as the level of involvement gradually increased. Early in 1963, the Americans faced a crossroads where, had they accurately read the evidence, they could have stepped back and recognized the futility of their efforts to prop up corrupt puppet governments in the South that had little popular support. The Americans could have accepted the will of the majority of Vietnamese people for genuine independence. Even at that point, though the Viet Minh had forged strong links with the Soviets, odds are very high that an independent Vietnam would have sought to have mutual relationships with the nations of the Western world.

Instead, the Americans decided to take the opposite path and greatly heightened their level of involvement. Over the next several years, Vietnam became the largest military engagement for the U.S. in the post-World War II era. From start to finish, this expanded war by the Americans was a disastrous failure.

Even before the American public became widely aware of the extent of American military involvement, government officials realized they fought a losing battle. For the last several years of what turned out to be his failed presidency, Lyndon Johnson’s main motivation in expanding the war effort was to avoid being “the first American president to lose a war.” By the end of his term, Johnson had decided that the war could not be won and tried to ratchet down the war effort. Even so, it took from 1968 to 1975 for the U.S. actually to withdraw.

Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon recognized that domestic opposition to the war required him to continue the reduction of troop levels involved in the war. So he borrowed from the philosophy that governed the British and American area bombing campaigns during World War II and sought to gain a better settlement from the Viet Minh through intensive bombing.

Remarkably, in the few years after 1968, the United States bombed Indochina several time more heavily than the British and U.S. combined had bombed Germany and Japan throughout the entire Second World War (apart from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The bombs failed to achieve American war aims. However, they did devastate Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

American war on Southeast Asia led to the premature end of the presidencies of both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, caused the deaths of millions of Indochinese, destroyed the civil society of Cambodia and created the conditions for the Khmer Rouge genocide, and led to 50,000 American war dead and created widespread lifelong trauma for countless other American soldiers. It finally war ended in 1975.

In reflecting on the moral legacy of World War II, we must recognize the connection between the impact of that war on the U.S. and America’s pursuit of this later war. The key connection surely lies with the militarization of the American federal government. Consequent ideological blind spots prevented American leaders from recognizing the true nature of the conflict in Vietnam and pushed the U.S. into a self-defeating quicksand pit of military intervention.

Latin America

One key element of America’s post-World War II national security regime, as we have seen, was the willingness to project American military force throughout the world. The U.S. overthrew or attempted to overthrow governments as far away as Iran and Indonesia and engaged in full-scale wars clear over in Korea and Vietnam. Prior to World War II, most American military engagements happened in the Western Hemisphere.

However, even with this new global reach, the United States continued to resort to force in Latin America, as we saw with Guatemala and Cuba. The Truman Doctrine spurred worldwide projections of force, but this larger focus did not diminish the use of violence closer to home—all in the name of resisting “Communism.”

Two paradigmatic expressions of American resistance to Latin American people’s attempts to exert more self-determination resulted in enormous long-term suffering. These were the overthrow of the democratically elected Chilean government in the early 1970s and the U.S. sponsorship of the Contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

During the 1950s, the Southern Cone of Latin America, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, and Chile developed democratic traditions. They pursued policies that utilized a strong government sector to encourage wide public participation in economic and political life. In the 1960s and 1970s, these countries became military dictatorships that served corporate interests and disenfranchised large segments of their population.[52]

As with the other countries of Latin America, Chile had a history of long-term struggles between tendencies toward authoritarian rule and toward democracy. By the mid-twentieth century, though, democratic practices had become entrenched. However, tensions continued. In general, though, politics that emphasized broad participation and socialist-tending economic practices were becoming predominant. “By Chile’s historic 1970 elections, the country had moved so far left that all three major political parties were in favor of nationalizing the country’s largest source of revenue: the copper mines then controlled by U.S. mining giants.”[53] The victor in that 1970 election was the candidate the farthest to the left, Salvador Allende, who led a coalition of leftist parties under the umbrella of the Chilean Socialist Party. It was the Socialists’ first presidential victory in Chilean history.

The Nixon administration strongly opposed Chile move to nationalize its copper industry and drive out the American corporations. Allende was a radical but also a strong believer in the democratic process. He rejected the Cuban path to socialism through violent revolution. However, to the Americans, he was simply painted as another Communist and hence a puppet for the Soviets. According to the Truman Doctrine, then, Chile required American intervention.

For political reasons, this intervention remained covert. Nixon gave the CIA directives “to make the economy scream” following Allende’s election. Over the next three years, in various ways the U.S. disrupted Chile’s economy and undermined Allende’s attempts to implement his policies. The Americans also sought to empower forces within Chile hostile toward Allende’s administration.

By September 1971, Chilean business leaders began to plot a regime-change strategy. Led by the CIA-funded National Association of Manufacturers, these leaders decreed that “Allende’s government was incompatible with freedom in Chile and the existence of private enterprise, and that the only way to avoid the end was to overthrow the government.” A “war structure” to work with the military to creative a plan for a new regime.[54]

Nixon had made it clear that he wanted Allende out of office, but it took the CIA several years to find a military leader who would be willing to engineer a coup. Finally, the pieces came into place and the coup happened September 11, 1973. Allende committed suicide rather than allow himself to be executed by the new military dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet. As the historian of the CIA, Tim Weiner summarizes, “The CIA immediately forged a liaison with the general’s junta. Pinochet reigned with cruelty, murdering more than 3,200 people, jailing and torturing tens of thousands in the repression called the Caravan of Death.”[55]

Many years later in congressional testimony, a CIA representative confessed, “There is no doubt that some CIA contacts were actively engaged in committing and covering up serious human rights abuses.” One such “contact” was “Colonel Manuel Contreras, the head of the Chilean intelligence service under Pinochet. He became a paid CIA agent and met with senior CIA officials in Virginia two years after the coup, at a time when the agency reported that he was personally responsible for thousands of cases of murder and torture in Chile. Contraras distinguished himself with a singular act of terror: the 1976 assassination of Orlando Letelier, who had been Allende’s ambassador to the United States….They were killed by a car bomb fourteen blocks from the White House. Contraras then blackmailed the United States by threatening to tell the world about his relationship with the CIA, and blocked his extradition and trial for murder. There was no question at the agency that Pinochet knew and approved of that terrorist killing on American soil.”[56]

Nicaragua did not have the democratic traditions of Chile. American corporations were traditionally even more dominant there, and they had sponsored the Somoza dictatorship since the 1930s. President Franklin Roosevelt had famously said of Somoza, he’s a son of a bitch, “but he’s our son of a bitch.” Somoza’s son and successor was overthrown by a revolutionary group known as the Sandinistas in 1979.

Again, we have a leftist group, certainly inspired by Cuba’s example, but clearly first of all a nationalist and not Soviet-directed Communist movement. James Carroll summarizes: “The Nicaraguan revolution was inspired by a mix of Socialist and Catholic ideology, and the makeup of the commandantes of the Nicaraguan ‘Directorate’ reflected that. Three of the eight members of the ruling junta were Catholic priests, one was a hardcore Marxist, and the others were left-wing nationalists.”[57]

The Sandinistas acted to redistribute land, turning large estates into cooperatives and encouraging peasants to become landowners. Overall, though, the economy after the revolution remained in private hands. The Sandinistas did not censor the media. Due to the profound influence of Catholics who had been shaped by liberation theology, the Sandinistas sought to follow a “third-way” between Marxism and corporate-centered capitalism.[58]

President Jimmy Carter viewed the Sandinistas with suspicion, guided by the usual American hostility toward revolutionary movements and concern about the damage to American economic interests linked with the Somoza regime. However, the Carter administration did not actively work against the Sandinistas in the early months after the revolution. Then, shortly after the Sandinista victory, Ronald Reagan came into power surrounded by advisers who had extreme antipathy toward the Sandinistas—labeling them Communists and warning of Soviet incursions in America’s “backyard.”

Reagan viewed the Nicaraguan revolution strictly through Cold War paranoiac lenses and from the start sought to drive the Sandinistas out of power with whatever means would be necessary. To the Reagan administration, Nicaragua served as an agent for Cuba and the Soviets and was a beachhead for a move to turn the other Central American nations Communist.

Immediately after coming into power, Reagan accelerated the military spending increase begun by Carter—and with it came growth in military aid sent to authoritarian dictatorships in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. These countries serves as bases for an American-led effort to wage war on Nicaragua through Nicaraguan “Contras,” trained by American “advisers.”

In James Carroll’s words, to Reagan, the Contras “were not brutal Somoza loyalists but ‘the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers and the brave men and women of the French Resistance [to the Nazis].’ This American support for the Contras, prompting a huge escalation in their capacity to wage war, fatally undermined the nascent Nicaraguan efforts at economic revitalization. The Reagan administration increased what had been relatively modest support to three of the most repressive regimes in the world, just as their police-state methods reached new levels of savagery, all in the name of staving off the [Communists]. It was the Truman Doctrine carried to its extreme.”[59]

The violence unleashed by the American presence was not limited to the Contra war in Nicaragua. The Sandinista revolution had encouraged anti-dictatorship forces in the other Central American nations. With American aid, the governments of these countries “set death squads loose, killing people by the thousands.”[60] Many of the military actors in this government terror had been trained in the United States, at the infamous “School of the Americas” at Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Unlike with the other covert interventions I have mentioned above (and the many I didn’t mention), this time the involvement of the U.S. in sponsoring great violence became a matter of public debate. Congress actually took action to limit American involvement. As it turned out, the Reagan administration defied the legal restraints, rendering congressional restraint ineffective.

The U.S. successfully undermined Sandinista power, culminating in an election in which the Nicaraguan electorate defeated the Sandinistas in hopes of ending the violence that had devastated their country. The new government essentially returned the Nicaraguan economy to its pre-Sandinista footing, leading eventually to Nicaragua becoming one of the most poverty-stricken counties in the world.

Besides showing the limits of Congress actually restraining presidential-initiated military action, the American involvement in violent resistance to the Nicaraguan government also made clear the impotence of international law in restraining the violence of the United State.

Against international law, the U.S. planted explosives in Nicaraguan harbors. The Nicaraguans took the U.S. to the International Court, and won the case. In 1986, the Court condemned the U.S. for “unlawful use of force.” And, beyond what Nicaragua even asked for, the Court ruled as prohibited any intervention that violates a nation’s sovereignty in its right of “choice of a political, economic, social, and cultural system and the formulation of policy.” Intervention is “wrongful when it uses methods of coercion in regard to such choices.” The Court could not have been more clear in declaring U.S. actions illegal.[61]

The International Court’s ruling, in a clear sense, drew directly on the spirit of the Atlantic Charter of 1941 that outlined the philosophy of international order that the American/ British war effort was intended to serve, for the sake of “a better future for the world.” The Atlantic Charter played an important role in the foundation of the United Nations and the related efforts to build a tradition of international law.

However, the United States openly defied the Court’s ruling concerning its violation of international law in its efforts to undermine Nicaragua’s government. Such defiance symbolically reflects the complete disregard for the values explicitly emphasized in gaining support for World War II.

At the end of the Cold War, the first era following the end of World War II, we are given a sense of how the U.S. itself measured up in relation to the moral criteria used to justify World War II. According to these criteria, established by the U.S. government itself, the moral legacy of the War ended up being one actually of the U.S. rejecting the core moral values the War was said to be fought for.

James Carroll argues that activists’ efforts in the United States to oppose the Reagan administration’s war on Nicaragua actually played a role in pushing Reagan to his surprising level of openness toward the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev’s remarkable initiatives to bring an end to the Cold War.[62] Regardless of how these complicated dynamics might be understood, it is the case that by 1990, the generation of deep enmity that defined American/ Soviet relations came to a close.

At this point, the United States faced another opportunity to show its true colors—and to make clear the moral legacy of World War II. The main stated justification for American militarism and engagement in international conflicts came to an end. The Truman Doctrine no longer was necessary. Its enemy, Soviet Communism, no longer existed. How would the Americans respond to the removal of what they had claimed to be the world’s main threat to peace? Would they tear down their enormous military regime and utilize the opportunity genuinely to move the world toward authentic peaceableness?

[1] Quoted in James Carroll, House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 2006), 172-73.

[2] Carroll, House, 180.

[3] NSC-68, quoted in Carroll, House, 182-83.

[4] Carroll, House, 183.

[5] Carroll, House, 183.

[6] Carroll, House, 186, quoting a history of America’s Strategic Air Command.

[7] Carroll, House, 186, 546.

[8] Bruce Cumings, The Korean War: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2010).

[9] David Halberstam, The Coldest Winter: American and the Korean War (New York: Hyperion, 2007).

[10] Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 55-70.

[11] Carroll, House, 191.

[12] Carroll, House, 192 (Carroll’s italics).

[13] Quoted in Carroll, House, 192.

[14] Carroll, House, 194.

[15] Carroll, House, 194-95.

[16] Carroll, House, 195.

[17] Carroll, House, 193-94.

[18] Stephan Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006), 117-18.

[19] Kinzer, Overthrow, 118.

[20] Kinzer, Overthrow, 118.

[21] Kinzer, Overthrow, 121.

[22] William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 2004), 72.

[23] Kinzer, Overthrow, 130.

[24] Kinzer, Overthrow, 131.

[25] Kinzer, Overthrow, 133.

[26] Kinzer, Overthrow, 134-35.

[27] Kinzer, Overthrow, 135.

[28] Kinzer, Overthrow, 133.

[29] Kinzer, Overthrow, 147.

[30] Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 164-78.

[31] Quoted in Blum, Killing, 194.

[32] Blum, Killing, 197.

[33] Howard Jones, The Bay of Pigs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 10.

[34] Jones, Bay, 11.

[35] Quotes from Jones, Bay, 11-12.

[36] Carroll, House, 258.

[37] Gerry Wills, Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State (The Penguin Press, 2010), 155-56.

[38] Wills, Bomb, 158-59.

[39] Carroll, House, 279.

[40] “The Atlantic Charter.” Accessed online at the U.S. National Archives website, August 19, 2010.

[41] Marilyn Young, The Vietnam Wars 1945–1990 (New York: HarperPerennial, 1990), 10.

[42] Young, Vietnam, 9.

[43] Quotes from Young, Vietnam, 13.

[44] Young, Vietnam, 13.

[45] Young, Vietnam, 14.

[46] Young, Vietnam, 18.

[47] Young, Vietnam, 23.

[48] Quoted in Young, Vietnam, 23.

[49] Young, Vietnam, 35.

[50] Young, Vietnam, 38-40.

[51] Young, Vietnam, 45.

[52] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007), 57-71,

[53] Klein, Shock, 63.

[54] Quotes from Klein, Shock, 70.

[55] Weiner, Legacy, 366.

[56] Weiner, Legacy, 366-67.

[57] Carroll, House, 399.

[58] Carroll, House, 399.

[59] Carroll, House, 399-400.

[60] Carroll, House, 400.

[61] Quotes in Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003), 99.

[62] Carroll, House, 345-417.


Contents of the Entire Book

1 thought on “The Long Shadow: World War II’s Moral Legacy (06. The Cold War)

  1. Pingback: The Moral Legacy of World War II « Peace Theology

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