U.S. Cold War Interventionism, 1945-1990
FEATURED RESEARCH PAPER, 8 Nov 2021
Roger Peace | US Foreign Policy - TRANSCEND Media Service
- Socialist ideas and the Western democratic tradition
- The Bolshevik Revolution and Red Scare
- The third wave of socialism
- Policy alternatives
- US-Soviet relations
- The gathering storm
- The second Red Scare
- The Cold War solidifies
- War and peace in the Nuclear Age
- Greek tragedy: British-American intervention, 1944-49
- Offensive operations in the Soviet bloc, 1949-56
- Iran, 1951-53
- The Congo, 1960
- Indonesia, 1955-65
- Afghanistan, 1979
- Guatemala, 1952-54
- Cuba, 1959-62
- The Dominican Republic, 1960-65
- British Guiana, 1961-64
Luce invoked the ghost of Woodrow Wilson in arguing that a new “international moral order” was both necessary and possible under U.S. leadership. “In 1919,” he wrote, “we had a golden opportunity, an opportunity unprecedented in all history, to assume the leadership of the world – a golden opportunity handed to us on the proverbial silver platter. We did not understand that opportunity. Wilson mishandled it. We rejected it.” Luce advised Americans not to pass up another opportunity, indeed to “accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation of the world and in consequence to assert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such means as we see fit.”
The Soviet Union, in contrast, was devastated by the war, losing an estimated 24 million soldiers and citizens, as compared to 418,500 total U.S. fatalities. The German invasion and occupation destroyed, completely or partially, fifteen large Soviet cities, 1,710 towns, and 70,000 villages, and left 25 million people homeless. The invaders demolished tens of thousands of industrial enterprises, railway stations, electrical generators, oil wells, coal mines, farm machines, and other essentials of a modern industrial society, and slaughtered or carried away millions of farm animals. The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the war and also did the most to defeat the Nazi war machine.
Over the next three decades, however, the whole European imperial system fell apart. Indeed, the very word “imperial” lost its grandeur and became a term of opprobrium. The world that the U.S. sought to lead in 1945 was a cauldron of unrest, filled with destitute peoples, incipient revolts, challenges to economic elitism and racism, and conflicts between ethnic, religious, political, and national groups. U.S. leaders and many citizens were nonetheless confident that the time was ripe for America to take charge, indeed that it was America’s new “manifest destiny” to lead the world. As the historian Melvyn Leffler writes:
In 1945 the United States held a uniquely preeminent position. For many officials, businessmen, and publicists, victory confirmed the superiority of American values: individual liberty, representative government, free enterprise, private property, and a marketplace economy. Given their country’s overwhelming power, they now expected to refashion the world in America’s image and create the American Century.
The idea of U.S. global leadership did not exclude cooperation with other nations nor with the newly formed United Nations, but it did imply that others would follow the U.S. lead and accept its designs. Financially strapped Great Britain, as it turned out, accepted a secondary great power role while cleverly enlisting the U.S. in support of its foreign missions, notably in Greece and Iran. Soviet leaders, on the other hand, were reluctant to accept U.S. global predominance, especially in Eastern Europe, a region deemed vital to Soviet security interests. The latter became a major point of contention among the Big Three as the Second World War drew to a close.
Still, the Cold War was not fated. During the war years, President Roosevelt had worked pragmatically with Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and Churchill in planning and executing the war against Nazi Germany. Roosevelt was well aware of the Soviet government’s internal repression, but he focused on their nations’ common interests in the international arena, and he used his personal charm to create a friendly negotiating climate.
This cooperative approach shifted dramatically when Harry Truman inherited the presidency following Roosevelt’s sudden death in April 1945. Truman adopted a hard-edged, confrontational attitude, treating the Soviet Union as a pariah state and granting it few legitimate security interests. As a senator from Missouri in June 1941, Truman had responded to news of the German invasion of the Soviet Union by saying, “If we see Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible, although I don’t want to see Hitler victorious under any circumstances.”
As president, notes the historian Arnold A. Offner, Truman “likened Russian leaders to Hitler and [gangster] Al Capone, and inveighed against the ‘twin blights’ of Atheism and Communism.” Truman “was less an incipient statesman than an intense nationalist, overly fearful that appeasement, lack of preparedness, and enemies at home and abroad would thwart America’s mission (‘God’s will’) to win the post-World War Two peace on its own terms.” Truman’s lack of training and experience in international diplomacy and geopolitics was exacerbated by his unshakeable belief in American righteousness and his undue confidence that U.S. military superiority could be leveraged into political gains in negotiations. According to the historian George Herring:
Policymaking changed dramatically under Truman’s very different leadership style. Understandably insecure in an office of huge responsibility in a time of stunning change, the new president was especially ill at ease in the unfamiliar world of foreign relations. Where FDR [Roosevelt] had been comfortable with the ambiguities of diplomacy, Truman saw a complex world in black-and-white terms…. He assumed that American ways of doing things were the correct way and that the peace should be based on American principles…. Confused, indeed befuddled, over the emerging conflict with the Soviet Union and embattled on the home front, he found comfort in the certainty of a black-and-white assessment of Soviet intentions and a hard-line foreign policy consisting of tough talk and no concessions.”
Not surprisingly, Truman’s hardline approach toward the Soviet Union strained postwar negotiations. There were many issues to be decided. The victorious allies were in charge of forming new governments in liberated nations and establishing new international economic and political institutions. The Big Three managed to agree on a settlement for postwar Germany, temporarily dividing the country into four occupation zones (with the French included), but Truman was loath to accept a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, notwithstanding his acceptance of British imperial dominion over a much wider swath of lands and peoples in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. In December 1945, Truman told Secretary of State James Byrnes that Russia must be “faced with an iron fist and strong language.”
The Cold War, as such, went well beyond the U.S.-Soviet rivalry. U.S. leaders came to label as “communist threats” virtually any development that challenged perceived U.S. economic, geopolitical, or military interests. These included democratic socialist and communist parties in Europe, land redistribution programs in Latin America, national liberation movements in Asia and Africa, governments that exerted control over their natural resources (e.g., oil), coalition governments that included socialists and communists, and governments that received aid from the Soviet Union. With such a plethora of apparent threats, U.S. leaders operated as if the United States were under siege rather than being the dominant world power that it was. According to Leffler:
The fears that plagued the policymaking community in Washington did not emanate from an unrelieved sequence of hostile Soviet measures. Soviet actions were mixed. But Truman’s advisers, like the president himself, riveted their attention on the more portentous elements of Soviet behavior and dismissed the more favorable signs…. At the end of 1945 these officials interpreted their environment in light of their own needs, fears, and interests. Their apprehensions were largely the result of worldwide conditions – social economic instability, political upheaval, vacuums of power, decolonization – occurring against a backdrop of depression, aggression, and war …
For four decades, a succession of U.S. administrations explained and justified nearly all U.S. foreign policies in the name of “containing communism,” regardless of whether the Soviet Union was involved. In the very first “containment” action in Greece in 1947, the Soviet Union was not involved. The U.S. joined the British in backing a repressive, right-wing Greek government against a communist-led leftist movement that had turned to rebellion after being shut out of the political process. According to Joseph Jones, special assistant to the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs at the time, “That the Greek government was corrupt, reactionary, inefficient, and indulged in extremist practices was well known and incontestable.” The American public, however, was not well-versed on the situation in Greece and President Truman took advantage of this to establish a founding deception of the Cold War, framing the Greek conflict as a mythic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism in order to aid the so-called “democratic Greek government.”
There were profound contradictions in the anti-communist mission of the United States. While rhetorically committed to freedom and democracy, the U.S. supported a host of repressive and dictatorial governments, including at various times, regimes in Greece, South Korea, French-controlled Vietnam (1950-54), South Vietnam (1954-75), Indonesia, Iran, Zaire, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Chile, Pakistan, and the Philippines. The U.S. also covertly aided the overthrow of democratic governments, notably in Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), and Chile (1973), each of which was replaced by a murderous rightist regime fully supported by the United States. The historian Edward Pessen, in his reflective study, Losing Our Souls (1993), recounts the many casualties of the Cold War to which the U.S. contributed:
… at least three million Asian deaths in Southeast Asia, the wounding of millions more, the destruction of much of the Korean countryside [and three million Koreans], and the utter devastation of Vietnam, on which more bombs were dropped than on all the belligerents combined in World War II…. Bloodbaths in Indonesia, the Congo (now Zaire), Angola, Iran, Guatemala, El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina; the killing of thousands of peasants, students, trade unionists, priests, and nuns; the wiping out of entire villages by right-wing governments, police forces, militias, secretive death squads, many of them trained by and in the United States – these were the consequences of our cold war policy.
The Cold War entailed other costs as well. It fostered a terrifying nuclear arms race between the U.S. and Soviet Union, and a near-miss of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. It engendered a military-industrial-political complex that consumed huge amounts of resources and depended on never-ending “threats” from abroad; and it inaugurated the “imperial presidency” in which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), at the behest of the president, secretly carried out sabotage, propaganda, and coup d’états in foreign lands, often without Congressional approval or public knowledge.
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II. Ideological and geopolitical underpinnings of the Cold War
Cold War ideology defined a new role for the United States in the world, a new “manifest destiny” for the nation. Washington policymakers assumed a self-imposed mandate to protect other peoples and nations from “communism” and to lead the world to peace, prosperity and democracy. The Cold War ideological framework drew upon a deeper stratum of “exceptionalist” beliefs in America’s inherent goodness and benefic intentions, to the effect that the U.S. could be entrusted with world power because it would always use that power in benevolent and protective ways. America’s assumed moral superiority was also transferable to its allies and client-states, exalted as the “free world” by mere association with the United States.
Though presented in “fairy tale” terms of good and evil nations, Cold War anti-communist ideology played an important strategic role in the U.S. quest for global predominance. U.S. leaders conflated a variety of challenges to U.S. global interests and influence into a larger-than-life, monolithic “communist threat” that appeared to be everywhere on the rise. This overwrought threat perception, in turn, allowed U.S. leaders to justify U.S. intervention in every corner of the world. U.S. policymakers adopted the maxim that any diminution of U.S. influence anywhere constituted a potential gain for the Soviet Union and “communism.” They deemed the “loss” of even one small country unacceptable, surmising that “communists” elsewhere would be emboldened to knock over more dominoes. It was a perfect formula for unrelieved empire anxiety.
Hyping the “Soviet threat.” First, U.S. Cold War ideology greatly magnified the “Soviet threat,” turning a classic geopolitical rivalry into a mythical struggle between good and evil nations. As described in the U.S. National Security Directive 68 of 1950, “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.” As U.S. leaders saw no possibility of compromise or détente with the Soviet Union (at least for the first 25 years of the Cold War), their mandate was to frustrate “the Kremlin design” and “foster a fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system,” according to the directive. To achieve these goals, a level of militarization just short of war was required, including “the capability of conducting powerful offensive air operations against vital elements of the Soviet war-making capacity.” Ignoring Soviet security fears and interests, the U.S. surrounded the Soviet Union with U.S. military bases and allies, and conducted covert operations within the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe (see section IV).
To be sure, it was easier for U.S. leaders to convince American citizens of the benevolence of U.S. global designs and intentions than to convince the rest of the world. U.S. leaders promoted capitalism as the road to prosperity, yet for many poor peoples and nations on the periphery of industrial production centers – a majority of the world’s population – capitalism was more likely to be associated with economic dependency, exploitation, inequality, and foreign control. The debilitating results of Western European imperialism in Asia and Africa, and of “Yankee imperialism” in Latin America, which conquered foreign markets to serve home industries, were ultimately more convincing to many in the Third World than the plethora of economic development platitudes and propaganda emanating from Washington.
Nor was the capitalist veneration of self-interest seen as superior in concept to the socialist ideals of economic security and greater equality. Jawaharlal Nehru, who led India after independence, testified to socialism’s appeal in a speech before the Lahore Session of the Congress in 1929, saying, “we must realize that the philosophy of Socialism has permeated the entire structure of society the world over, and almost the only points in dispute are the pace and the methods of advance to its full realization. India will have to go that way too, if she seeks to end her poverty and inequality, though she may evolve her own methods and may adapt the ideal to the genius of her race.”
Americans, of course, were inclined to believe that their government and leaders were committed to the promotion of freedom and democracy abroad. Statements to that effect were voiced by the nation’s highest officials, echoed in the mainstream media, and inculcated in the body politic through the educational system, leading to their internalization as American identity. It was thus difficult for many citizens to understand the profound contradiction between the nation’s oft-stated ideals and its actual foreign policy practices; and not a few followed U.S. leaders in ignoring or denying the contradiction, reveling in America’s mythic identity as “leader of the free world.”
Socialist ideas and the Western democratic tradition
Marx spent most of his life in London, where he and his wife, Jenny von Westphalen, raised seven children. His main intellectual quest was to decipher the “laws” of economics underlying capitalism, especially how internal contradictions would eventually lead to capitalism’s collapse and transformation. He postulated an “iron law of wages” that kept workers at bare subsistence level, but this turned out to be a bendable “law” in practice, as labor union pressure and minimum wage laws pushed up average wages over time. Marx spent much of his time educating workers, organizing trade unions, and fostering international socialist solidarity. He addressed the question of whether forceful change was necessary to achieve socialist transformation in a speech in Amsterdam in September 1872:
You know the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries – such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland – where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must someday appeal to erect the rule of labor.
To summarize Marx’s view of social change, the achievement of a socialist society was not predicated on violent revolution, but he judged that force might be necessary in countries where political democracy and the right to organize were denied.
The first and continuing manifestation of socialist ideas was democratic socialism in Western Europe and the United States. It emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to rising inequality and monopoly corporations. In the U.S., socialists joined populists, progressives, labor union advocates, and Social Gospel reformers in calling for governmental restrictions on big business, protection of workers, progressive income taxes, and various social welfare measures. Edward Bellamy, a journalist, authored the best-selling novel, Looking Backward, 2000-1887 (1888), which imagined an ideal socialist society in Boston in the year 2000. Bellamy believed that the state should guarantee “the nurture, education, and comfortable maintenance of every citizen, from the cradle to the grave.” His cousin, Francis Bellamy, a founding member of the Society of Christian Socialists, was the author of the American pledge of allegiance, first published in The Youth’s Companion on September 8, 1892, except that the phrase “under God” was added in 1954.
Over the course of the 20th century, democratic socialist parties formed elsewhere in the world, joining a loose network called the Socialist International. Among the leaders of this organization were prime ministers Willy Brandt of Germany, Olof Palme of Sweden, and Michael Manley of Jamaica. One of more famous socialists was the scientist Albert Einstein. In an article titled “Why Socialism?” published in the Monthly Review in May 1949, he wrote that “the real purpose of socialism is precisely to overcome and advance beyond the predatory phase of human development.” Noting that the application of science and technology has created “a planetary community of production and consumption,” he argued that capitalism was a dysfunctional system:
We see before us a huge community of producers the members of which are unceasingly striving to deprive each other of the fruits of their collective labor – not by force, but on the whole in faithful compliance with legally established rules…. Production is carried on for profit, not for use…. Technological progress frequently results in more unemployment rather than in an easing of the burden of work for all. The profit motive, in conjunction with competition among capitalists, is responsible for an instability in the accumulation and utilization of capital which leads to increasingly severe depression. Unlimited competition leads to a huge waste of labor, and to that crippling of the social consciousness of individuals … [which] I consider the worst evil of capitalism.
Einstein offered a cogent summary of the socialist alternative he envisioned:
I am convinced there is only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.
The Bolshevik Revolution and Red Scare
The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in November 1917 inaugurated a second manifestation of socialism, one more in line with the Russian Czarist tradition than with Western democratic socialism. Promising the impoverished and war-weary Russian people “Peace, Land, Bread,” Vladimir Lenin led a successful revolt against the moderate socialist Kerensky government, which had overthrown Czarist rule only nine months earlier. Almost immediately, the Bolsheviks faced a counterrevolution backed by Western powers, including the United States. Known as the “Midnight War,” U.S., British, French, Canadian and Japanese forces aided White Army counter-revolutionaries. This Western invasion poisoned U.S.-Soviet relations from the outset, especially as President Woodrow Wilson had publicly promised to respect Russian self-determination. Some historians mark the beginning of the Cold War from 1918 rather than the post-World War II period.
In the U.S., a new Communist Party was formed out of the left wing of the Socialist Party on May 1, 1919. Relations between the two leftist parties remained chilly thereafter, though both faced the brunt of conservative intimidation. The first “Red Scare” was prompted by an unrelated series of bombings targeting influential business and political leaders in the spring of 1919. Though the origins of the bombings were unknown, Attorney-General A. Mitchell Palmer suspected leftists and set up an “anti-radical” division in the Department of Justice headed by J. Edgar Hoover. In late 1919 and early 1920, Hoover’s agents conducted raids in some 30 cities and towns, arresting thousands of suspected subversives. Many were detained for months without trial, and 556 resident aliens were deported. Hoover’s “vision of the Communist menace,” notes the historian Ellen Schrecker, “extended far beyond the Communist party to almost any group that challenged the established social, economic, or racial order, and he was to dedicate his entire professional career to combating that menace.”
The “Red Scare” continued at a lower intensity throughout the interwar period. In May 1923, the Chemical Warfare Service of the War Department published a chart showing alleged conspiratorial connections between pacifist, socialist, and women’s groups. At the top, in big black letters, was the heading, “The Socialist-Pacifist Movement in America is an Absolutely Fundamental and Integral Part of International Socialism.” Among the groups identified were the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the National League of Women Voters, and other prominent women’s groups.
The all-purpose anti-communist rationale
In Nicaragua, where the U.S. had militarily intervened on numerous occasions, U.S. leaders justified yet another intervention in December 1926 in the name of fighting Bolshevism emanating from Mexico. Secretary of State Frank Kellogg submitted a report to the Senate on January 12, 1927, titled “Bolshevik Aims and Policies in Mexico and Latin America,” which charged that Bolshevik leaders were intent on destroying “what they term American Imperialism” as a necessary prerequisite to world revolution. Senator William Borah of Idaho found the assertion spurious. He pointed out that unrest in Nicaragua was a product of internal Nicaraguan politics, not foreign subversion. Borah was on target. In truth, the only foreign government intent on manipulating Nicaragua was the United States. As Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds candidly explained in an internal memorandum that same month, “we do control the destinies of Central America and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course.”
The anti-communist mission linked the U.S. to rightist governments across Europe and Latin America. Indeed, U.S. officials looked kindly upon the Fascist government of Benito Mussolini in Italy. In 1935, Henry P. Fletcher, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, praised Italian fascism as a bulwark against “Russian domination of Europe.” Should Mussolini be deposed, he warned, “a reign of terror” would be unleashed, presumably by leftists and communists.
In the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin took over the reins of government after Lenin died in January 1924. Stalin created an absolute dictatorship along with a cult of personality to keep the masses in awe. He set the country on the path of rapid industrialization and provided citizens with a modicum of economic security and free public education, but at significant costs. His program to rapidly collectivize agriculture catalyzed a peasant revolt and a catastrophic famine in the Ukraine in 1932-33 in which millions died. This was followed by the Great Terror, beginning in December 1934, in which Stalin purged suspected opponents of his regime, including former political partners. According to one study, “By the time the purges subsided in 1938, millions of Soviet leaders, officials, and other citizens had been executed, imprisoned, or exiled.”
The third wave of socialism
During the Second World War, communist parties in Europe and Asia were in the forefront of guerrilla resistance to German, Italian, and Japanese occupations. “In many countries,” writes Melvyn Leffler, “Communist leaders appeared as heroes of the resistance, proponents of socioeconomic reform, and champions of their nations’ self-interest.”
Communist membership soared [in Europe]. The Belgian party grew from 9,000 in 1939 to 100,000 in November 1945; in Holland from 10,000 in 1938 to 53,000 in 1946; in Greece from 17,000 in 1935 to 70,000 in 1945; in Italy from 5,000 in 1943 to 1,700,000 at the end of 1945; in Czechoslovakia from 28,000 in May 1945 to 750,000 in September 1945; in Hungary from a few hundred in 1942 to 100,000 in December 1945. In France, Italy, and Finland the Communist vote was already 20 percent of the electorate in 1945; in Belgium, Denmark, Norway, Holland, and Sweden, it was close to 10 percent. These percentages were all the more impressive because of the fractious nature of multiparty politics in most European countries.
In the aftermath of the war, the question of how to reconstruct the devastated economies of Europe was on everyone’s agenda. What rules and principles should guide that effort? In light of the widespread economic hardship that continued after the war, many Europeans were inclined toward socialist ideas that prioritized meeting basic needs. “Many of these peoples,” writes Melvyn Leffler, “had become disillusioned with bourgeois middle-of-the-road parties that had failed to meet their needs in the past.” In October 1945, the French Communist Party won 26 percent of the popular vote and the Socialist Party won another 24 percent, giving the left dominant influence in the governing coalition led by Charles de Gaulle.
The first test was in Italy. National elections for the Italian Constituent Assembly were set for April 1948, and the Popular Democratic Front, an alliance of socialist and communist parties, was leading in the polls. The U.S. employed a variety of means, both overt and covert, to sway the elections. Overtly, to name a few tactics, the State Department warned that Italy would not receive a promised $100 million loan if the Popular Democratic Front won a majority of seats, facilitated a letter writing campaign among Italian Americans, and declared that Italians known to have voted for Communists would not be allowed to enter the U.S. Covertly, the newly created CIA spread “black propaganda” about leftist plots and secretly funded anticommunist parties and politicians. According to CIA agent F. Mark Wyatt, “We had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their political expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets.”
In the incipient global Cold War against the left, Washington officials had few qualms about supporting rightist authoritarian governments. Along with the Greek government, the Truman administration supported the authoritarian rule of Antonio Oliveira Salazar in Portugal, who came to power in 1928. A CIA report in 1949 described Salazar’s government as a “comparatively benevolent dictatorship.” Portugal’s benevolence toward the U.S. consisted of allowing a U.S. military base in the Azores (located in the north Atlantic Ocean). Secretary of State Dean Acheson “was impressed by Salazar,” notes the historian David Schmitz:
In his memoirs, Acheson described Salazar as one of the few people he was immediately drawn to upon first meeting. He had come to power “to run a country that for twenty years had been sinking into economic chaos and political anarchy.” Acheson saw Salazar not as “a dictator in his own right as Stalin was, but a dictatorial manager employed and maintained by the power of the Army … to run the country in the interest of the middle class.”
Such were the Orwellian rationales of U.S. leaders to justify support for dictatorial regimes. Washington officials counted on rightist allies to align with the U.S. against the Soviet Union, sustain the open market capitalist system, and suppress leftist challenges to the American-led world order.
In 1946, the French, having sufficiently recovered from German occupation during the war, set out to reestablish their imperial control over Vietnam, upending Ho Chi Minh’s declaration of independence a year earlier. As with the communist parties of Europe, the communist-led Viet Minh under Ho had led the resistance against foreign occupiers (Japanese and French) and gained great prestige as a result. Ho Chi Minh hoped to build a socialist economy that would meet the needs of the masses. He did not regard his economic plans as a threat to the United States. Indeed, Ho wrote six personal letters to President Truman in 1945-1946, seeking friendship and aid, none of which Truman answered. The U.S. began actively aiding the French in February 1950, joining the side of the oppressor.
The post-colonial world order
Between 1945 and 1975, fifty-two new states in Asia and Africa achieved independence from their European rulers. According to the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian:
In 1946, there were 35 member states in the United Nations; as the newly independent nations of the “third world” joined the organization, by 1970 membership had swelled to 127. These new member states had a few characteristics in common; they were non-white, with developing economies, facing internal problems that were the result of their colonial past, which sometimes put them at odds with European countries and made them suspicious of European-style governmental structures, political ideas, and economic institutions.
George Kennan, as head of the U.S. State Department Policy Planning Staff, wrote a candid internal memorandum on February 24, 1948, in which he acknowledged the gross disparities of the international economic system. However, instead of suggesting ways to ameliorate this condition, he advised his colleagues that harsher measures would be needed in the future to maintain America’s privileged position:
We are deceiving ourselves and others when we pretend to have the answers to the problems which agitate many of these Asiatic peoples. Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction…. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
In practice, “to deal in straight power concepts” meant supporting governments that would maintain systemic economic inequalities and suppress leftist challenges to that order. U.S. officials did not dispense with altruistic and idealistic slogans, however, as these were necessary to convince the American public that U.S. foreign policies were benevolent. On June 24, 1949, President Truman called on Congress to fund a “bold new program” of technical assistance for poor countries, the Point Four program, warning that hungry people might “turn to false doctrines” unless they received help. Congress appropriated $35 million for the program in May 1950 with the stipulation that “recipient nations provide a healthy investment environment for foreign capital,” according to the historian Thomas G. Paterson. Aid programs no less than national security policies were fashioned to secure U.S. interests.
The Non-Aligned Movement and New International Economic Order proposal
In April 1955, a conference of Third World nations was held in Bandung, Indonesia. Organized by leaders of Indonesia, Burma, India, and Pakistan, the conference was attended by representatives from 29 African and Asian nations representing 1.5 billion people, or 54 percent of the world’s population. The representatives stated their commitment to steer clear of Cold War militarism, which they deemed a waste of resources needed for economic development. In 1961, the Non-Aligned Movement was officially established at a conference in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. As a condition for membership, states could not be part of any multilateral military alliance or sign a bilateral military agreement with one of the “big powers.” More than 100 nation-states eventually joined the Non-Aligned Movement. The movement did not presume to tell any nation what kind of economic system it should have, ignoring the economic ideological presumptions of the Cold War.
Third World nations joined together to advocate changes in the global economic system. In 1964, they issued the “Joint Declaration of the Seventy-Seven” (nations) which called for “new attitudes and new approaches in the international economic field.” Ten years later, on May 1, 1974, the UN General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Establishment of a New International Economic Order (NIEO) and an accompanying program of action. The NIEO proposal called for more favorable trade arrangements for underdeveloped nations, better access to international capital, the right to regulate foreign corporations and nationalize foreign properties, and a greater voice in the management of the international economy. The U.S., with the backing of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, successfully resisted this initiative. Prices for Third World agricultural exports continued to lag behind prices for First World manufactured imports. Apart from oil exporters and a handful of rising Asian economies on the Pacific rim, most Third World nations remained underdeveloped and sank deeper into debt in the 1980s.
III. Building the Cold War consensus in Washington
The shift in Washington from cooperation with the Soviet Union to opposition to all things “communist” proceeded in steps over a period of five years. It began in April 1945, when Harry Truman assumed the presidency and adopted a hardline attitude in negotiations with the Soviet Union, reviving pre-World War II antagonism. Key developments thereafter include:
- Diplomat George Kennan’s telegram from Russia in February 1946;
- Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech in March 1946;
- An internal report by Clark Clifford and George Elsey in September 1946 vilifying the Soviet Union;
- President Truman’s call to arms on March 12, 1947 (Truman Doctrine);
- The Second Red Scare (domestic politics);
- Three interrelated international developments in 1948-49 – the Marshall Plan, Berlin airlift, and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – that solidified the Cold War in Europe;
- Heightened fears of the Soviet Union (atomic bomb testing) and China (Communist victory in the civil war), and the adoption of National Security Council Directive 68, leaving no room for compromise;
- The onset of the Korean War in June 1950.
Not all administration officials were ready to forego cooperation with the Soviet Union. The most vocal critic of the Truman administration’s moves toward confrontation was Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace, the nation’s vice-president during Roosevelt’s third term. A passionate humanitarian, Wallace offered an alternative to Henry Luce’s vision of American preeminence, proposing in 1942 “the Century of the Common Man” in which “No nation will have the God-given right to exploit other nations”; and “there must be neither military nor economic imperialism. The methods of the 19th century will not work in the people’s century which is now about to begin.”
Another critic of the emerging Cold War was Eleanor Roosevelt, the former First Lady and a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly. She, too, believed that if the U.S. went “halfway to meet the Russians,” agreements could be reached. She faulted those who created “unrealistic” fears, though she maintained a cordial relationship with President Truman. Through her radio broadcasts, daily newspaper column, and frequent public appearances, Roosevelt encouraged the American public to “think calmly of what will bring the best chance for peace and insist on that policy.” According to the historian Mary Welek, she believed “that the United Nations could bring about a transformation of power relationships, if the major nations would cooperate…. Despite differences, the nations must be willing to coexist, sometimes even to recognize each other’s spheres of influence.”
The presence of Henry A. Wallace, Eleanor Roosevelt, and other critics suggests that the Truman administration had choices as to how to interpret global developments and how to construct U.S. foreign policies. According to the diplomatic historian Fredrik Logevall:
It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the “cold peace” that had prevailed from the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 through the Second World War could have been maintained into the postwar years as well, even if the international system was now a very different entity…. The confrontation resulted from decisions by individual human beings who might have chosen otherwise, who might have done more, in particular to maintain the diplomatic dialogue, to seek negotiated solutions to complex international problems. Had FDR, with his belief that he could work with Stalin and his tacit support for spheres-of-influence agreements, survived into the postwar period, things might well have turned out differently…. American planners from the start defined their policy choices vis-à-vis the Soviet Union in remarkably narrow terms, and there is little evidence they ever gave close consideration of doing otherwise.
- Global New Deal. The Truman administration was not obliged to align U.S. foreign policy with corporate capitalist interests, nor define socialist and communist ideas and leftist movements as national security threats. It could have chosen to promote a Global New Deal, as suggested by Wallace, encouraging economic development in other nations and tolerating socialist-oriented experiments. While corporate profits may have suffered in some countries, U.S. trade would likely have adapted. Adopting the principle of political tolerance, akin to religious tolerance, would have done much to dissipate Cold War fears and restrain aggressive policies and arms buildups.
- Cooperative internationalism. The Truman administration could have chosen to support the United Nations in full measure, as advocated by Eleanor Roosevelt. The U.S. was a founding member, to be sure, but U.S. leaders subsequently brushed aside the international body when U.S. and UN interests did not align. Full support would mean abiding by international prohibitions against aggression, supporting mediation and arbitration, and developing the collective security system set up in the UN Charter – in lieu of acting as a self-appointed world policeman. Developing an international security system would also allow individual nations to reduce military expenditures, thereby making funds available for constructive purposes.
- Peaceful coexistence and détente. The Truman administration could have chosen to meet the Soviet geopolitical challenge by investing in cooperation, offering loans, trade agreements, and mutual restraint in military matters. Peaceful co-existence would require U.S. acceptance of the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe – which the U.S. ended up doing anyway – just as Moscow accepted the U.S. sphere of influence in Latin America, and British influence elsewhere. Beginning in the mid-1950s, the idea of détente, or easing of tension, was promoted by European leaders such as Willy Brandt of Germany. Henry Wallace’s vision of postwar cooperation was partly realized in 1972, as the U.S. embraced détente, signing trade and arms control agreements with the Soviet Union and trade agreements with China. Although détente was partially reversed in the early 1980s, it continued with China and resumed with the Soviet Union in 1986 (due mainly to the efforts of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev). The possibility of peaceful co-existence was always at hand. Indeed, a loan immediately following the Second World War, when the Soviet Union needed it most, would have done much to sustain good relations.
- Containment/encirclement. “Containment,” the policy officially adopted by the Truman administration, looked more like encirclement to Soviet leaders, as the U.S. surrounded the Soviet Union with military bases and allies. In a conversation with Secretary of State Byrnes on May 5, 1946, for example, Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov wondered why the United States “leaves no corner in the world without attention” and “builds its air bases everywhere” from which American warplanes with atomic bombs could strike any city in the Soviet Union. U.S. leaders furthermore applied the policy of “containment” to the Third World, supporting rightist authoritarian regimes that suppressed leftist movements and parties.
- Rollback/subversion. The Truman administration also discretely embraced the rollback of Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, and of leftist movements and governments everywhere in the world. In August 1948, the administration secretly approved NSC 10/2 which authorized covert propaganda, economic warfare, and guerrilla sabotage in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Elsewhere, the U.S. engaged in subversion, aggression, and election manipulation to undermine leftist movements and parties and overthrow left-of-center governments. In 1952, the Republican Party sought to make rollback official U.S. policy, denouncing containment as a “negative, futile, and immoral policy … which abandons countless human beings to a despotism and godless terrorism.” Although containment remained the official U.S. policy, Washington continued to pursue clandestine “regime change” operations around the world.
- Nuclear attack. The most aggressive option open to the Truman administration was a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. In September 1948, President Truman signed NSC-30, directing the U.S. military to be prepared to use nuclear weapons in war, with the final decision resting with the president. The plan, “United States Policy on Atomic Warfare,” concluded that “in event of hostilities, the National Military Establishment must be ready to utilize promptly and effectively all appropriate means available, including atomic weapons, in the interest of national security and must plan accordingly.” Truman nevertheless stated his aversion to using the atomic bomb. At a meeting with U.S. officials on July 21, 1948, he said, “I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to…. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon…. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people…. So we have got to treat this differently from rifles and cannon and ordinary things like that.”
During the Korean War, the idea of using nuclear weapons was moved to the front burner. In a press conference on November 30, 1950, following China’s entry into the war, President Truman said that the United States “will take whatever steps were necessary to meet the military situation, just as we always have.” A reporter asked, “Will that include the atomic bomb?” The president replied, “That includes every weapon that we have.” Asked again, “Does that mean that there is active consideration of the use of the atomic bomb?” Truman said, “There has always been active consideration of its use. I don’t want to see it used. 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.” Later that same day, the White House issued a press release stating that consideration of the use of the atomic bomb “is always implicit in the very possession of that weapon” and that “only the President can authorize the use of the atom bomb, and no such authorization has been given.” If this were meant to relieve public concern about the bomb, it did not, as it made clear there were no institutional checks on the president’s ability to wage a war of annihilation.
During the Second World War, President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, promoted a positive image of the Soviet Union, thinking not only of the wartime alliance but also of the postwar peace. Over the course of the war, the American public gradually moved toward a friendly view of the Soviet Union, first sympathizing with the suffering Russian people, then hailing the Red Army in its fight against the Nazi war machine, then accepting “Uncle Joe” Stalin as a Big Three partner.
On April 25, 1945, with the end of the war in Europe approaching, U.S. and Soviet armies met near the Elbe River, about 80 miles from Berlin. It was a celebratory occasion. Soldiers and officers embraced each other as comrades-in-arms and exchanged souvenirs. They gathered for a ceremony in which Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev presented U.S. General Omar Bradley with a magnificent stallion while Bradley gave Marshal Konev an American jeep. Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the top Soviet general, awarded Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower the highest honor of the Soviet Union, the Order of Victory. Eisenhower, in turn, awarded Zhukov the Legion of Honor.
The official U.S. Army newspaper Stars and Stripes reported on April 28:
There was a mad scene of jubilation on the east and west banks of the Elbe at Torgau as infantrymen of Lieutenant General Courtney H. Hodges, First U.S. Army, swapped K rations for a vodka with soldiers of Marshal Kornian’s Ukrainian Army, congratulating each other, despite the language barrier, on the linkup. Men of the 69th Division sat on the banks of the Elbe in warm sunshine today with no enemy in front of them or behind them and drank wine, cognac, and vodka, while they watched their new Russian friends and listened to them as they played accordions and sang Russian songs. . . . You get the feeling of exuberance, a great new world opening up.
It would be unrealistic to expect this mutual rejoicing in victory to last, but neither was it fated that the U.S. and Soviet Union must square off in a long Cold War. In September 1945, a Gallup poll indicated that a majority of Americans believed that the Soviet Union could be trusted to cooperate with the United States. In October, a group of U.S. Congressmen returned from Russia and reported that the Russian people felt friendly toward Americans, were strongly desirous of peace, and were eager to raise their standard of living. The overriding concern of Soviet leaders, one American correspondent noted, was “security.” Indeed, Stalin had long ago adopted the strategy of “socialism in one country,” which meant prioritizing Soviet security interests above earlier Bolshevik notions of promoting global revolution.
Above all, security to Soviet leaders meant cooperating with the U.S. and Britain in order to prevent Germany from ever threatening the Soviet Union again. “Stalin,” writes Leffler, “had a great deal to gain from a policy of cooperation. Postwar aid would expedite Soviet economic rehabilitation. Even if he was not able to secure loans, he might still extract large reparations from Germany. Most of all, mutual collaboration would mean that he could share in the control of German and Japanese power.” Stalin desperately hoped for a loan from the United States, but this was denied. In contrast, the U.S. provided Britain with a $3.75 billion loan at 2 percent interest, albeit after British leaders agreed to abandon their imperial preference trading system in favor of the U.S.-promoted open-door system.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Stalin took concrete steps to ameliorate the concerns of his wartime allies. As Leffler notes, Stalin withdrew Soviet troops from Denmark, Norway, and Czechoslovakia, “allowed relative free elections in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Berlin during late 1945 and 1946, and he cooperated in the establishment of representative governments in Finland and Austria.” Stalin also refused to support communist groups in Europe. “To the great dismay of the Communists in France, Italy, Spain, and Greece, Stalin discouraged revolutionary action in 1944 and 1945 … To the extent that he communicated with Communists abroad, he insisted that they behave prudently, cooperate with democratic groups, and form coalition or ‘new type’ governments.” The Soviet Union did not even support Mao Tse Tung’s communist revolution in China until after Mao’s victory in October 1949.
Stalin was nonetheless intent on establishing a pro-Soviet government in Poland. As Leffler writes:
German armies had marched through Poland into Russia twice in his lifetime. Before the war, Poland, Romania, and Finland had refused to accede to the Kremlin’s security requirements. During the war, Hungary and Romania fought alongside Nazi Germany, and Bulgaria cooperated with Hitler’s military commanders. Soviet security requirements mandated a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. It would serve as a buffer zone against future invasions, a means to facilitate and control the evolution of German power, and a source of raw materials and reparations for reconstruction.
That Stalin could be ruthless in his pursuit of a Polish client state was clear from the Second World War when Soviet forces executed 14,700 Polish officers and officials in 1940 in what is known as the Katyn massacre. Four years later, the Soviet army waited outside Warsaw while the Germany army annihilated a Polish uprising. Stalin wanted no independent Polish government and military force.
Like the Soviets in Poland, the British intended to maintain their control over Greece. As British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin wrote in a memorandum to the cabinet in mid-1945, “The fundamental assumption of our policy has always been that… Greece must be retained within the British sphere.” President Roosevelt expressed no objection to British domination in Greece. His strategy was to accept both the Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and a much wider British sphere of influence that extended from Greece across the Mediterranean Sea to the oil-rich lands of the Middle East and beyond.
Following Roosevelt’s untimely death, President Truman rejected this Western-favored balance-of-power arrangement and sought to deny Soviet and communist influence everywhere. According to Leffler, “a pattern of actions developed that amounted to containment even before the policy was conceived as such.”
The pattern can be discerned by looking at a few examples of U.S. actions in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. With regard to Germany, the United States and Great Britain rebuffed Soviet desires to participate in the international control of the Ruhr [a rich mining area in western Germany]. Secretary of State Byrnes, Secretary of War [Henry] Stimson, and their expert advisors believed that the resources of this region had to be harnessed to serve the needs of Western Europe and western Germany. Byrnes negotiated an agreement at the Potsdam Conference that limited the reparations the Soviet Union could receive from outside its own zone…. The State Department and the Joint Chiefs of Staff also decided in July 1945 that Soviet overtures for base rights in the Turkish straits must be rejected.
This was containment, to be sure, but also British-American hegemony. The British dominated the Mediterranean, and Britain and the U.S. jointly pursued control over Middle Eastern oil. If the U.S. were to grant Soviet bases in the Turkish straits, wrote Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal in a position paper in July 1945, “Russia might be sorely tempted to combine her strength with her ideology to expand her influence over the earth.” In reality, it was the U.S. and Britain that were expanding their control and influence. On June 1, 1945, the chief of the U.S. State Department’s Petroleum Division informed his British counterpart that “our petroleum policy toward the United Kingdom is predicated on a mutual recognition of a very extensive joint interest and upon a control … of the great bulk of the free petroleum resources of the world.” Rather than work out a deal with the Soviet Union, the U.S. established a new Mediterranean command of twelve warships, a demonstration of force. As Paterson argues, “Russia was not militarily threatening Turkey; rather it was demanding joint control over the strategic Dardanelles – a traditional Russian desire more than a Communist one…. The United States refused to discuss joint Soviet-Turkish control after World War II and encouraged the Turks to be uncompromising.”
The gathering storm
On February 22, 1946, George Kennan, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Moscow, sent a 17-page telegram to the State Department, probing the character of Soviet leaders and peering into the future. He warned of an inherent expansionist tendency in the Soviet Union, based in part on Russian heritage, that must be countered with strong U.S. resistance, albeit “without recourse to any general military conflict.” Was peaceful co-existence possible? On the one hand, Kennan expressed the view that “peaceful and mutually profitable coexistence of capitalist and socialist states is entirely possible.” On the other hand, he wrote:
In summary, we have here a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] US there can be no permanent modus vivendi [and]that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.
In the view of Nikolai Novikov, the Soviet chargé d’affaires in Washington, any inability to maintain the wartime alliance was due, not to Soviet ideology, but to U.S. actions and intentions. In a cable to Moscow on September 27, 1946, Novikov wrote, “The foreign policy of the United States, which reflects the imperialist tendencies of American monopolistic capital, is characterized in the postwar period by a striving for world supremacy. This is the real meaning of the many statements by President Truman and other representatives of American ruling circles; that the United States has the right to lead the world. All the forces of American diplomacy — the army, the air force, the navy, industry, and science — are enlisted in the service of this foreign policy.”
On March 5, 1946, less than one month after Kennan’s internal memorandum, former British prime minister Winston Churchill traveled to Fulton, Missouri, Truman’s home town, to speak on the current situation in Europe. He came not as a representative of his government, then led by the Labor Party, but as a critic of the Labor Party’s emphasis on multilateral security and peacekeeping through the United Nations. He wanted to move the debate to the right, restoring national security prerogatives over collective security, and he wanted the U.S. to partner with Britain. His objective was to lay the groundwork for a British-American military alliance. The means to this end was to raise the specter of communism to new heights.
In his speech, Churchill cited no direct Soviet military threat to the West but charged that Moscow was fomenting subversion through communist groups in countries around the world. “However, far from the Russian frontiers and throughout the world,” he said, “Communist fifth columns are established and work in complete unity and absolute obedience to the directions they receive from the Communist center. Except in the British Commonwealth and in the United States where Communism is in its infancy, the Communist parties or fifth columns constitute a growing challenge and peril to Christian civilization.” Churchill highlighted Soviet control over Eastern Europe, intimating aggressive designs rather than historical security interests. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic,” he said in his most famous line, “an iron curtain has descended across the Continent…. I do not believe that Soviet Russia desires war. What they desire is the fruits of war and the indefinite expansion of their power and doctrines.” The antidote to this presumed Soviet expansionism was an Anglo-American alliance:
If the population of the English-speaking Commonwealths be added to that of the United States with all that such co-operation implies in the air, on the sea, all over the globe and in science and in industry, and in moral force, there will be no quivering, precarious balance of power to offer its temptation to [Soviet-communist] ambition or adventure.
Some U.S. politicians and newspaper editors hailed Churchill’s speech for rousing the American public to dangers abroad, while others expressed concerns that diplomacy and the United Nations were being undercut, that a U.S.-British military alliance against the Soviet Union could lead to war, and that the U.S. would become entangled in upholding the British Empire. In Britain, the idea of an alliance with the U.S. was generally well received, but 105 Labor Party members of Parliament introduced a resolution to censure Churchill for undercutting the British government in making foreign policy. Prime Minister Clement Attlee refused to repudiate Churchill on the grounds that he had spoken only as a private citizen. In the Soviet Union, meanwhile, Churchill’s speech induced “hysteria,” according to a New York Times Moscow correspondent. An article in Pravda, the official newspaper of the Soviet Communist Party, titled “Churchill Rattles the Sabre,” charged that Churchill was inciting nations to war in an attempt to gain Anglo-American domination.
The Clifford-Elsey report
The Truman administration’s first comprehensive assessment of Soviet motivations, intentions, capabilities, and behavior was produced in September 1946 by White House aides Clark Clifford and George Elsey after consulting with the secretaries of State, War, and Navy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and other officials. The report all but rejected the possibility of peaceful coexistence, ironically because the authors believed that Soviet leaders had rejected this possibility. According to Clifford and Elsey:
The fundamental tenet of the communist philosophy embraced by Soviet leaders is that the peaceful coexistence of communist and capitalist nations is impossible. The defenders of the communist faith, as the present Soviet rulers regard themselves, assume that conflict between the Soviet Union and the leading capitalist powers of the western world is inevitable and the party leaders believe that it is their duty to prepare the Soviet Union for the inevitable conflict which their doctrine predicts.
The 80-page report described a range of Soviet activities designed “to strengthen the Soviet Union and to insure its victory in the predicted coming struggle between Communism and Capitalism.” The Soviets, the authors warned, would stir up trouble in every part of the world: “Every opportunity to foment antagonisms among foreign powers is exploited, and the unity and strength of other nations is [sic] undermined by discrediting their leadership, stirring up domestic discord, and inciting colonial unrest.” Most immediately, they wrote, the Soviet government was trying to “gain control of France by political means,” to “win a dominant role in Italian affairs” through communist party gains in elections, to establish a pro-Soviet government in Greece, and to “make Turkey a puppet state which could serve as a springboard for the domination of the eastern Mediterranean.” They also claimed that the Communist Party in the U.S. was actively aiding the Soviet Union by trying “to indoctrinate soldiers … capture the labor movement … [and] cripple the industrial potential of the United States by calling strikes at those times and places which would be advantageous to the Soviet Union.”
“To what extent,” asks Melvyn Leffler, “did the Clifford-Elsey report accurately assess Soviet behavior, explain Russian motivations, and portray Soviet intentions?” His answers, based on expert knowledge of the issues, bear quoting at length:
Clifford and Elsey ignored actions that might have injected hues of gray into their black-and-white characterization of Soviet foreign policy. They neglected to mention that the Kremlin made no objection to the entry of U.S. troops into South Korea, pretty much accepted American domination of postwar Japan, and only feebly protested the American military presence in northern China. They were uninterested in the fact that Soviet armies had withdrawn from Manchuria and that there was scant evidence of any assistance to the CCP [Chinese Communist Party]. They overlooked the free elections that were held in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the relatively representative governments that were established in Austria and Finland. They disregarded the intelligence reports detailing the partial withdrawal of Soviet armies from occupied areas, the large-scale demobilization of Russian troops within the Soviet Union, and the departure of Russian forces from norther Norway and from Bornholm. They failed to acknowledge that Stalin discouraged insurrectionary activity in Europe, offered no leadership to Communist revolutionaries in Southeast Asia, failed to exploit opportunities in Arab lands, and straddled sides between the Nationalists and Communists in China.
Double standards and self-deception repeatedly crept into the Clifford-Elsey report. Truman’s advisers did not ask how America’s questionable record of compliance affected Soviet behavior. They did not acknowledge that [General Lucius] Clay and other War Department officials consistently identified France, not Russia, as the principal source of U.S. problems in Germany. They suspected that any Soviet interest in German unification masked the Kremlin’s quest to gain leverage over all of Germany, but they conveniently dismissed the American desire to dilute Soviet influence in the east and to orient all of Germany to the West. Likewise, Clifford and Elsey pointed to the retention of Russian troops in Iran as irrefutable proof of the Soviet desire to dominate Iran and gain control of Middle Eastern oil. They did not say (and may not have known) that, at the very time they were writing their report, State Department officials and military planners were contending that U.S. troops must remain beyond the stipulated deadlines for their withdrawal in Iceland, the Azores, Panama, the Galapagos, and other locations in order to augment American bargaining leverage for postwar base and military transit rights. Clifford and Elsey also presented a totally misleading rendition of Soviet capabilities. . . .
To emphasize these points is not to whitewash Soviet behavior. Aid from the Kremlin was making it increasingly possible for Communists in Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland to consolidate their control. Russian power hovered over Hungary and Czechoslovakia despite the free elections. The Soviets were maneuvering for influence throughout Germany. They probed in Manchuria and Iran. They condemned British imperialism. They hoped national uprisings would erode Western control of important Third World areas in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. They sought to modernize their military arsenal and were working feverishly to develop their own atomic weapons.
But did these actions amount to a quest for world domination? Clifford and Elsey thought so, although they did not define what they meant by the term. They equated any growth of Soviet influence as signaling a Soviet desire for domination.
The Truman Doctrine
On March 12, 1947, President Truman firmly fixed the Cold War mission into the American consciousness. In seeking Congressional approval of a $400 million aid package to the governments of Greece and Turkey, Truman set out to “scare the hell out of the American people,” as advised by Senator Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan. He did so by artfully connecting the civil war in Greece to Soviet control in Eastern Europe and to a mythical struggle between freedom and totalitarianism, supposedly represented by the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively. This specious framing made it appear that Greece was the immediate target of a grand Soviet-communist plot to take over the world. Addressing the situation in Greece, Truman declared:
The very existence of the Greek state is today threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by Communists … The Greek army is small and poorly equipped. It needs supplies and equipment if it is to restore the authority of the government throughout Greek territory. Greece must have assistance if it is to become a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy. The United States must supply that assistance…. There is no other country to which democratic Greece can turn…. The British Government, which has been helping Greece, can give no further financial or economic aid after March 31…. We have considered how the United Nations might assist in this crisis. But the situation is an urgent one requiring immediate action and the United Nations and its related organizations are not in a position to extend help of the kind that is required.
Truman’s description of the situation in Greece omitted a crucial fact: the Soviet Union was not aiding the Greek communists. Stalin stuck to the agreement that he and Churchill made in October 1944, staying out of Greece. “Containment” of the Soviet Union, in other words, had already been achieved with respect to Greece through a quiet big power agreement. Truman’s ideological paradigm furthermore distorted the facts on the ground. He labeled the Greek government “democratic,” despite the fact that it ruled with an iron fist, and he described the communist-led rebels as being engaged in “terrorist activities,” though repression had pushed them into a state of rebellion. The foreign nation intruding on Greece was not the Soviet Union, but Great Britain, which had sent tanks in December 1944 to crush the Greek left, followed by support for the formation of a despotic rightist government. The United Nations could offer no assistance to the U.S. because the U.S. was acting against the spirit, if not the letter, of the UN in abetting war rather than seeking a mediated solution.
Truman’s speech culminated in an imaginative division of the world into two camps, one ruled by force, the other guided by freedom, a dichotomy presumably mirroring the Soviet Union and United States, respectively:
At the present moment in world history nearly every nation must choose between alternative ways of life. The choice is too often not a free one. One way of life is based upon the will of the majority, and is distinguished by free institutions, representative government, free elections, guarantees of individual liberty, freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from political oppression. The second way of life is based upon the will of a minority forcibly imposed upon the majority. It relies upon terror and oppression, a controlled press and radio; fixed elections, and the suppression of personal freedoms.
Neither the civil war in Greece nor Soviet control in Eastern Europe constituted a national security threat to the United States, but if these developments were seen as part of a grand plot by an expansionist totalitarian power to take over the world, then the picture changed dramatically. Truman made only one reference to “communist” in his speech but he used the word “totalitarian” four times, presumably to connect the alleged “communist threat” to the well-grounded Nazi threat of World War II. According to George Herring, “In portraying the war in Greece as a struggle between Communism and freedom, U.S. officials misinterpreted or misrepresented the conflict, ignoring the essentially domestic roots of the insurgency, blurring the authoritarian nature of the Greek government, and greatly exaggerating the Soviet role.”
The Second Red Scare
Political competition between Republicans and Democrats ratcheted up anti-communist rhetoric and contributed to the Second Red Scare, later known as McCarthyism. The overall effects on policymaking were to encourage militant posturing and discourage negotiation. Talk of negotiations with the Soviet Union was dismissed as “appeasement” or deemed a ruse by Soviet leaders to gain advantage. It would take some 25 years before U.S. leaders would break out of this self-inflicted ideological strait-jacket and negotiate détente with the great communist powers.
Having been harshly criticized as soft on communism, President Truman pushed back by attempting to lead the anti-communist parade. On March 21, 1947, nine days after issuing the Truman Doctrine, the president signed an executive order requiring loyalty oaths from federal employees. This was followed in December by the publication of Attorney General Tom Clark’s “List of Subversive Organizations.” This list was widely disseminated and became the basis for intimidation and purges across the nation. The FBI supplied information on suspected persons to public and private agencies but refused to divulge its sources, thereby making it impossible for the accused to refute the “evidence.” All that was needed to “prove” disloyalty, according to the attorney general, was that the person had been connected in some way to an organization “engaged in propaganda activity of a subversive character.” Notwithstanding this denial of citizens’ political rights, the administration conducted an all-out campaign to celebrate American patriotism in the fall of 1947, sponsoring speaking tours of administration officials, mass gatherings centered around a “freedom pledge,” and a red-white-and-blue Freedom Train that toured the country.
Whatever the motive, the “anti-Communist hysteria” went far afield of any real threat to U.S. national security. Anti-communist rhetoric turned extreme, not merely among far-right groups but also at the highest levels of government. In 1949, Attorney General J. Howard McGrath declared that “there are today many Communists in America. They are everywhere – in factories, offices, butcher stores, on street corners, in private businesses. And each carries in himself the germ of death for society.”
In Great Britain, there was no such anti-communist mania. As Caute points out, the British “kept their heads” during the Clement Attlee era (July 1945 to October 1951):
… teachers and professors were not purged; dismissals in the civil service were few and confined mainly to genuinely sensitive jobs; Parliament did not go witch hunting; there was no Un-British Activities Committee to whip up enmity toward radicals or fellow travelers; no rash of loyalty oaths brought disgrace to the professions; welfare benefits were not denied to Communist veterans or their widows; union officials were not required by law to sign non-Communist affidavits; panels of military officers did not hound industrial workers from their jobs or question them as to how they had voted; seamen were not swept off ships by waves of prejudice; CP [Communist Party] leaders were not sent to prison for being Communists; there was no government list of proscribed organizations…. Need one go on?
Perhaps the scariest part of the Red Scare was FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s plan to imprison some 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty, ostensibly to “protect the country against treason, espionage and sabotage,” as stated in the plan. Hoover sent his plan to the White House on July 7, 1950, just after the Korean War began. The 12,000 names he had collected became part of an index “of which 97 percent are citizens of the United States.” The arrests were to be carried out under “a master warrant attached to a list of names,” and the suspects would be held in “detention in Military facilities.” The prisoners eventually would have the right to a hearing, but the hearings “will not be bound by the rules of evidence,” according to the plan. In September 1950, Congress passed and President Truman signed this draconian measure into law, authorizing the detention of “dangerous radicals” if the president declared a national emergency. When Truman did declare a national emergency in December 1950, however, he invoked only wage and price controls. Congress rescinded the law in 1976.
The Cold War solidifies
With the Cold War ideological paradigm established, a series of decisions and events led to the solidification of the Cold War into antagonistic blocs. In occupied Germany, the U.S., Britain, and France combined their spheres into one zone (West Germany), leaving the east to the Soviet Union. The U.S. approved the Economic Recovery Act, or Marshall Plan, binding Western Europe to the U.S. economically. This was followed by the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a military alliance of the U.S., Canada, and Western European nations. The lingering feeling of wartime camaraderie dried up, replaced by mistrust and animosity. This was not Stalin’s preferred choice, according to Leffler:
Throughout 1946 and early 1947, Stalin still beckoned for cooperation both through his rhetoric and through many (albeit not all) of his actions…. But Stalin always assumed that cooperation would mean the emasculation of German and Japanese power, the preservation of a Soviet sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and the protection of the Soviet periphery from foreign interlopers. By the middle of 1947, these assumptions were no longer operative, and, to understand why, it is essential to look more closely at British and American policies.”
In addition to drawing Western Europe into the U.S. orbit, the Truman administration sought to undermine Soviet control in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself through clandestine operations. On April 30, 1947, George Kennan, head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, proposed a program called “The Inauguration of Organized Political Warfare,” in which he outlined a multifaceted strategy to encourage and support, in the words of George Herring, “a radical program of political warfare using sabotage, guerrilla operations, and propaganda activities to stir up rebellion in Soviet bloc countries and perhaps even the USSR itself.”
On June 5, 1947, Secretary of State George C. Marshall delivered a commencement speech at Harvard University in which he proposed a plan to aid European nations. On the face of it, the purpose of the aid was humanitarian – to help destitute Europeans – but it was also designed to aid the U.S. economy and to secure U.S. geopolitical influence in Western Europe. The plan required governments receiving U.S. aid to purchase goods from the U.S., ship the goods on American merchant vessels, and reduce trade barriers to American corporations. The Truman administration “also sought to use U.S. aid to check an alarming leftward drift in European politics,” notes Herring. “Communists were to be excluded from recipient governments and socialist tendencies in domestic planning curbed.” In other words, democratic communist parties could not participate in governing coalitions, and policies such as the nationalization of industries had to be nixed. The U.S. ambassador in Paris, Jefferson Caffery, bluntly told the French Socialist prime minister Paul Ramadier that there must be “no Communists” in the French government, “or else.”
The proposal to form NATO was first discussed at a meeting of U.S. and Western European representatives in December 1947. The alliance was designed to united the West against the Soviet Union and also to reassure the French that a revived German nation would not threaten France. One nation’s security, however, is another nation’s insecurity where trust is lacking. Alarmed by the prospect of NATO, Moscow not only tightened its grip on Eastern European nations but also made a play for control of West Berlin, which was located within East Germany but administered by Western powers. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets and their East German allies blocked all land access to West Berlin. “The Kremlin made it clear,” writes Leffler, “that its intent was to compel the Americans, the British, and the French to reverse their decisions to merge the western zones of Germany, to create a federal republic, and to reform the German currency. Stalin feared the recrudescence of German power and its incorporation into a Western alliance system.”
NSC 68 and the Korean War
The North Korean attack on South Korea on June 25, 1950, turned the Cold War into a hot war for the U.S. Fighting between North and South Korea had gone on for years beforehand, with both sides engaging in border raids and sabotage. Believing that the attack was directed by Moscow, Truman gained quick approval from the UN Security Council for a defensive military force led by the U.S. to be sent to South Korea. Had the Soviet Union not walked out of the UN over the issue of seating China, the Security Council would never have permitted this action – an indication that the Soviets had not planned the invasion. Yet Stalin did give his approval to North Korean leader Kim II-sung two months before the invasion was launched.
War and peace in the Nuclear Age
Though few Americans grieved for Japanese civilians when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, John Hersey’s 30,000-word article, “Hiroshima,” published in The New Yorker in August 1946, induced sober reflections on the tragedy. The article was so popular that Henry Stimson, former Secretary for War, felt compelled to counter it with an essay published in The Atlantic (February 1947), playing up the alleged military necessity of using the bomb and playing down its harmful and long-lasting effects.
Although Truman resisted advice to use nuclear weapons in the Korean War, he did not forego building an arsenal of nuclear bombs and missiles, and testing them at Pacific islands and the Nevada Test Site, 65 miles north of Las Vegas. Open-air nuclear explosions, it was later found, affected not only people, animals, and the environment downwind from the blasts, but the whole world as air currents carried radioactive contaminants virtually everywhere. According to one report:
A total of 422 nuclear weapons were detonated in the atmosphere by the United States (206 tests) and the Soviet Union (216 tests) before large-scale testing ended with the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty. Yield from the six largest Soviet tests alone totaled 136.9 megatons, or the equivalent of nearly 4,000 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs (36 kilotons)…. The period of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing was marked by significant increases in cancer in young children, who are at greatest risk for carcinogenic effects of exposure to radioisotopes.
There was no “new thinking” about nuclear weapons in the Eisenhower administration any more than in the Truman administration. On March 1, 1954, the U.S. conducted its first hydrogen bomb test at the Bikini atoll in the Marshall Islands. Radioactive particles swept over the islands and also contaminated a small Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon, 85 miles from the testing site. Many of the islanders subsequently developed radiation-linked illnesses, including thyroid cancer and leukemia. One of the Lucky Dragon crew members soon died. In an attempt to calm worldwide fears of nuclear fallout (radiation), U.S. officials read a statement at a press conference on March 31 in which they described the Marshall islanders as “well and happy” and indicated that the Japanese fisherman had experienced only minor problems.
During the 1980s, loose talk by Reagan administration officials of achieving a nuclear war-fighting capability, fighting a “limited” nuclear war in Europe, detonating a “demonstration” nuclear bomb, and surviving a nuclear war catalyzed a new citizens’ movement, the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign, which called for a bilateral (U.S.-Soviet) halt to the production, testing, and deployment of nuclear weapons. By June 1982, resolutions in support of the “freeze” proposal had been passed in 689 city and county councils and town meetings and in one or both houses of fourteen state legislatures. More than 2,365,000 citizens signed petition signatures which were presented to the U.S. and Soviet missions at the United Nations. On June 12, 1982, between 700,000 and 1,000,000 citizens marched through the streets of New York City, converging on Central Park for a peaceful disarmament rally. Polls taken at the time showed public support for the freeze proposal to be between 71 and 76 percent. Although Congress failed to pass the freeze proposal, the freeze movement added significant pressure on the administration to sign an arms control agreement with the Soviet Union in 1987.
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IV. U.S. interventionism run amok
U.S. leaders applied different strategies and combinations thereof to achieve their foreign policy goals. Diplomatic bargaining and economic incentives were the usual fare of international relations. Governments that accommodated U.S. demands were typically rewarded with economic and military aid; hence, U.S. taxpayers funded a number of authoritarian governments around the world. If the ability to compel favorable policies was in doubt, U.S. leaders might covertly manipulate elections to assure that the proper leaders were elected, as was the case of Italy in 1948. According to New York Times correspondent Tim Weiner, “The C.I.A.’s practice of buying political clout was repeated in every Italian election for the next 24 years, and the agency’s political influence in Rome lasted a generation, declassified records show.”
If election manipulation was not feasible or did not produce the desired outcome, U.S. leaders might employ more diabolical covert methods, including assassinations, military coups, and insurgencies. The U.S. organized successful military coups in Iran, Congo, Dominican Republic, Brazil, Indonesia, and Chile, and fomented guerrilla insurgencies in Albania, Guatemala, Laos, Cuba, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua. U.S. leaders much preferred clandestine operations to overt U.S. military intervention, but they were prepared to use U.S. troops and maintained the capability to do so. In 1963, the U.S. maintained 275 major bases in 31 nations with 1.25 million military-related personnel stationed abroad. Apart from wars in Korea and Southeast Asia, U.S. troops were deployed to back a rightist government in the Dominican Republic in 1965, and to overthrow a leftist government in Grenada in 1983.
President Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) opened the door to friendly relations with the Soviet Union and China by instituting détente in 1972, yet he and his Machiavellian national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, orchestrated the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) extended the idea of détente to Cuba and declared in 1978 that human rights “is the soul of our foreign policy,” but nonetheless kept U.S. aid flowing to the oppressive Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran right up to his overthrow in 1979. Carter also secretly initiated covert operations against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan before Soviet troops intervened in December 1979, a policy that had long-lasting blowback effects (see Section V).
A byproduct of America’s covert operations was the dilution of democracy at home. The creation of the CIA under the National Security Act of 1947 provided the president with an army of secret agents and a stash of hidden funds with which to engage in every kind of mischief in other nations. U.S. administrations offered the American public a smorgasbord of lies and “fake news” to cover up their clandestine activities. Often, they kept Congress in the dark as well. It took significant effort just to find out what the U.S. government was doing around the world.
One Church committee report on the overthrow of the Chilean government on September 11, 1973, explained how the CIA moved, step-by-step, from supporting opposition candidates in 1964 to fomenting opposition to the election of Salvador Allende as president in 1970, to plotting the kidnapping of General Schneider (who was murdered), and “finally to advocating and encouraging the overthrow of a democratically elected government.” CIA agents admitted their involvement in the overthrow, but Kissinger insisted that the U.S. had nothing to do with it.
According to former CIA agents Philip Agee, John Stockwell, and Ralph McGehee, the Church committee’s revelations were only the tip of an iceberg of CIA subterfuge. Their exposés of “the company,” with parts redacted by CIA censors, were written in the interest of truth and accountability. McGehee, a 25-year veteran of the agency who was awarded the CIA career intelligence medal upon his retirement in 1976, wrote in the conclusion of his book, Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA (1983):
The CIA is not now nor has it ever been a central intelligence agency. It is the covert action arm of the President’s foreign policy advisers. In that capacity it overthrows or supports foreign governments while reporting “intelligence” justifying those activities. It shapes its intelligence, even in such critical areas as Soviet nuclear weapon capability, to support presidential policy. Disinformation is a large part of its cover action responsibility, and the American people are the primary target audience of its lies.
Accountability was also the goal of a number of truth commissions created in Latin America following eras of repression and civil war, established in Bolivia (1982), Argentina (1983), Chile (1990), El Salvador (1992), Guatemala (1994), Uruguay (1995), Panama (2001), Peru (2001), Ecuador (2007), and Brazil (2012). These commissions reinforced the Frasier committee message that the U.S. was supporting repressive regimes in Latin America. The truth commission in El Salvador determined that U.S.-backed state security forces and associated rightist paramilitary groups were responsible for 85% of assassinations and murders, whereas leftist rebels were responsible for 5%. The Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission found that government and allied forces were responsible for 93% of the violence, as compared to 3% for the rebels. The commission described the operations of the Guatemalan military as “acts of genocide.”
President Bill Clinton, on a visit to Guatemala in 1999, took the unusual step of acknowledging a measure of responsibility. Speaking at the National Palace of Culture just after the release of the truth commission report, Memory of Silence, he said, “For the United States, it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces or intelligence units which engage in violent and widespread repression of the kind described in the report was wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake.”
There were, of course, many U.S. citizens, organizations, and publications intent on exposing the truth about U.S. military and foreign policies. This was more difficult in the early years of the Cold War when public trust in the government was greater and McCarthyism was in its heyday. Notable critics included journalists Helen Mears and I. F. Stone, scientists Albert Einstein and Linus Pauling, public intellectuals W. E. B. Du Bois and Norman Thomas, entertainers Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie, and peace leaders A. J. Muste and Dorothy Day. Mears, who wrote two widely read books on Japan in the 1940s, questioned whether Americans could “reform any nation … when they hardly knew or cared about other nations’ cultures, societies, and particular historical experiences.” Stone, in his four-page I. F. Stone’s Weekly, which ran from 1953 to 1971, was adept at analyzing the plethora of propaganda flowing out of the White House, sorting fact from fiction. The mainstream U.S. press, in contrast, tended to accept the Washington-centered view of the world, framing international developments in terms of whether American was winning or losing influence.
Both during and after the Cold War many scholars have contributed to public accountability through their reflective critiques, constituting a kind of “fifth estate.” Some scholars have focused on specific U.S. interventions. Some have critically assessed particular regions or aspects of U.S. foreign policy. Some have probed the contours of American empire and its accompanying intellectual architecture. Among the latter is Noam Chomsky, who writes of American exceptionalism:
The fundamental assumption that lies behind the imperial grand strategy … is the guiding principle of Wilsonian idealism: We – at least the circles who provide the leadership and advise them – are good, even noble. Hence our interventions are necessarily righteous in intent, if occasionally clumsy in execution…. By virtue of its unique comprehension and manifestation of history’s purpose, America is entitled, indeed obligated to act as its leaders determine to be the best, for the good of all, whether others understand or not. And like its noble predecessor and current junior partner, Great Britain, American should not be deterred in realizing history’s transcendent purpose …”
In contrast to the noble sense of mission invoked by U.S. leaders, William Blum, in The Rogue State: A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower (2000), argues that “the engine of American foreign policy has been fueled not by a devotion to any kind of morality, nor even simple decency, but rather by the necessity to serve other masters.” The other masters include “preventing the rise of any society that might serve as a successful example of an alternative to the capitalist model,” enhancing the domestic military-industrial-political complex, and “extending political, economic, and military hegemony over as much of the globe as possible.”
President Eisenhower, in his farewell speech in January 1961, warned against the undue influence of the “military industrial complex” even though he had presided over a considerable expansion of the military budget and “defense” industries during his eight years in office. He averred that the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties and democratic processes.” This was a clarion call to not let special interests determine military priorities through their campaign contributions to politicians. General Douglas MacArthur, speaking in July 1957, more pointedly warned of the inclination of political and military leaders to imagine monsters abroad in order to justify ever-increasing military budgets at home:
Our swollen budgets constantly have been misrepresented to the public. Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear – kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor – with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.
Space limitations do not permit a comprehensive account of all U.S. interventions during the Cold War. The remaining part of this section and the next two sections offer synopses of eleven interventions in different regions of the world:
- Greece, Albania, and the Ukraine (Europe and the Soviet Union);
- Iran, the Congo, Indonesia, and Afghanistan (Mideast, Africa, and Asia); and
- Guatemala, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and British Guiana (Americas).
Essays on the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Central America wars of the 1980s can be found elsewhere on the U.S. Foreign Policy History & Resource Guide website.
Greek tragedy: British-American intervention, 1944-49
With German forces in retreat in October 1944, rightist and leftist Greek partisans began to clash. British troops arrived in Athens on October 13 and soon intervened on behalf of the right, engineering the formation of a new coalition government under Nikolaos Plastiras. On December 3, Greek police forces fired on peaceful EAM demonstrators in Athens, killing 28. Over the next two months, British forces bombed, strafed, and shot thousands of ELAS fighters and their supporters. The U.S. ambassador to Greece, Lincoln MacVeagh, applauded British actions and President Franklin Roosevelt offered no criticism. Stalin, it should be noted, remained resolutely indifferent to the fate of the Greek communists. Churchill later wrote that Stalin “adhered strictly and faithfully to our agreement of October.”
Griswold and company attempted to form a center-right ruling coalition in order to put a moderate political face on the American intervention in Greece, but the more pressing objective of suppressing the left led rather to U.S. support for right-wing groups, which had no interest in forming a coalition with centrists if they could avoid it. In mid-1947, the Greek government outlawed the Greek Communist Party and arrested its leaders. Tens of thousands of suspected supporters were subsequently arrested and imprisoned. In September, the Athens government suspended key provisions of the Greek constitution guaranteeing press freedom and civil rights. Leftist newspapers and radio stations were shut down. The void was filled by propaganda-laden press releases from Washington. The Truman administration also pressured U.S. publishers to quash critical articles. One potential article describing U.S. embassy support for authoritarian political solutions, slated for publication in the New York Times in late 1948, never appeared in print.
Stamping out “communism”
Rankin and his American colleagues, in other words, preferred a Greek police state under rightist control to fair elections that included communists; and they pushed for continuing the civil war over negotiating a compromise with the communist left, which had been part of the political system in the past. Rankin’s assumption that communism was an illegitimate and alien influence – rather than, say, Americans in Greece – was typical of American officials and repeated elsewhere, including in Vietnam.
The rebels held out for over three years (1946-1949), surviving in mountain sanctuaries. Yugoslavia under Tito provided some military supplies to the rebels – in defiance of Moscow’s wishes – until convinced to do otherwise in 1949 by the promise of U.S. aid under the Marshall Plan. In November 1948, rebel forces were estimated at 23,000, while the U.S.-supplied Greek National Army, advised by more than 100 U.S. military officers, had expanded to 263,000 troops, not including home guard units. In August 1949, the rebels were soundly defeated in a lopsided battle in which 50,000 government troops attacked 7,700 rebels at Vitsi and government warplanes and artillery pounded rebel positions. On October 16, rebel leaders announced a “ceasefire.” The next month, President Truman reported to Congress that victory had been achieved.
Postwar authoritarianism in Greece
The worst of the rightist governments emerged on April 21, 1967, when Greek military officers seized power. Their leader, Colonel Georgios Papadopoulos, had been on the CIA’s payroll since 1952. He announced that the military coup was necessary in order to “save the nation from the precipice of communism.” The right-wing junta subsequently imposed martial law, closed down parliament, suspended the constitution, banned political parties, silenced the press, and placed unions under government control. Within a few months, the junta had imprisoned more than 40,000 people, some of whom were tortured. Through it all, the U.S. backed the Papadopoulos regime. The military junta was ousted in November 1973 and democracy was restored. Papadopoulos and his cohorts were put on trial for high treason and torture. Found guilty, Papadopoulos spent the rest of his life in prison.
Offensive operations in the Soviet bloc, 1949-56
The origins of U.S. covert operations in Eastern Europe go back to May 1945, when General Reinhard Gehlen, a German prisoner of war at the Wörgl POW camp in Austria, approached U.S. officials with an offer. Gehlen had been the commanding officer for Nazi military intelligence on the Eastern Front and had a wealth of knowledge about anti-Soviet partisans in the region, many of whom had collaborated with the Nazi regime as well as participated in mass killings of Jews. Gehlen was willing to share his information and contacts in exchange for dropping all charges of war crimes against him and his associates.
Operation BGFIEND in Albania
The two main opposition groups to the Hoxha government were the Legaliteti, led by King Zog (Ahmet Muhtar Zogolli), and the Balli Kombëtar. The Legaliteti’s sole goal was to restore the monarchy. The CIA deemed Balli Kombëtar “poorly organized” and “confused by its own concurrent double-dealings with Axis and Ally.” Both groups had collaborated with the Nazis during the war. U.S. agents bribed and persuaded the two groups to join forces under a newly formed umbrella group called the National Committee for Free Albania (NFCA). The NCFA made its public debut at a press conference in Paris on August 26, 1949, presenting to the world the U.S. manufactured line that its goals were to establish “fundamental human rights” and “the restoration of full independence.” In fact, the leaders of the NCFA were well-known Nazi collaborators, so well-known, in fact, that the U.S. State Department turned down a number of requests for U.S. entry visas. According to O’Rourke:
Declassified documents from the Nazi War Crimes Act show that the United States conspired with numerous known war criminals as a part of this endeavor. For instance, they encouraged Hasan Dosti to become head of the NCFA … despite knowing that he “served as a Cabinet Minister under the fascists.” Likewise, the CIA collaborated with Shaver Deva despite his behavior during WWII as “a German agent and ‘prize quisling’” who had started “a pro-German movement.”
Following the establishment of NCFA, the next step in the U.S. plan was to initiate a propaganda offensive in Albania, the aim being to increase popular disenchantment with the Hoxha regime. “Toward this end,” writes O’Rourke, “the CIA’s Psychological and Paramilitary Staff funded NCFA publications, launched high-altitude balloon drops of anti-Hoxha leaflets, and created Radio Free Albania.”
Covert operations in the Ukraine
The underground Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) was founded in 1929. Eleven years later, a split occurred and OUN-B was formed under the leadership of Stepan Bandera. In the months leading up to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Nazi leaders provided Bandera with 2.5 million marks to conduct covert operations against the Soviet Union and to form two Ukrainian battalions to assist the German Army. “The Ukrainian auxiliaries,” writes O’Rourke, proved to be willing and ready collaborators for the Nazi mass killing program in Eastern Europe.” At a meeting in July 1941, OUN-B leaders declared that Jews “have to be treated harshly…. we will adopt any methods that lead to their destruction.” In the months following the German invasion, OUN-B forces killed an estimated 12,000 Jewish civilians.
The SSU recruited other former Nazi collaborators, especially Mykola Lebed, who led a group called the Supreme Ukrainian Liberation Council (UHVR). In 1943, during the Nazi occupation, Lebed encouraged the ethnic cleansing of Polish civilians. According to a 1947 U.S. intelligence report, Lebed was a “well-known sadist and collaborator of the Germans.” The U.S. nonetheless conspired with Lebed and later moved Lebed and his family to Munich to avoid extradition by the Soviet Union.
By 1954, most of the clandestine cells in the Ukraine had been discovered and shut down by Soviet authorities. One CIA official was quoted in 1957 as saying that “the path of experience” in infiltrating agents in the Ukraine “has been strewn with disaster.” The official CIA history notes: “At least 75 percent of the 85 CIA agents dispatched under REDSOX disappeared from sight and failed in their missions.” According to O’Rourke:
As in Albania, US planners found that the Soviet security forces in Ukraine always seemed to be one step ahead of them. Indeed, they were. Archival evidence shows that Soviet intelligence officials knew of the Anglo-American connections to Ukrainian nationalists as early as 1946…. In addition to their agents in Ukraine, the Soviet Union also maintained an extensive spy network in the American displaced persons camps and among the Ukrainian émigré community at large.
In 1956, the U.S. ended its subversive covert operations in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, largely because they were practical failures. By then, Stalin had died and the European situation had stabilized into opposing NATO and Warsaw Pact blocs. Though both sides militarized the border, there were no attacks and none were expected. On May 15, 1955, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, United States, and France signed a treaty granting Austria independence and arranging for the withdrawal of all occupation forces. This was a victory for diplomacy.
V. Securing Western influence in Asia, Africa, and the Mideast
In the wake of declining European empires in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, U.S. leaders were keen on maintaining Western influence. The first CIA report on September 3, 1948, “The Break-Up of the Colonial Empires and its Implications for US Security,” warned that the “shift of the dependent areas from the orbit of the colonial powers not only weakens the probable European allies of the US but deprives the US itself of assured access to vital bases and raw materials in these areas in event of war. Should the recently liberated and currently emergent states become oriented toward the USSR, US military and economic security would be seriously threatened.”
Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh no doubt believed that his conflict with Great Britain over oil rights in Iran did not threaten the United States. Yet in 1953, the U.S. joined the British in ousting the democratically elected prime minister of Iran.
Great Britain was the dominant power in the Middle East and fully intended to remain so after the Second World War. “No other area in the world,” writes Melvyn Leffler, “except for the United Kingdom itself, was considered more important than the Middle East.”
The British had extensive petroleum interests in the Persian Gulf, owned the largest refinery in the world at Abadan [Iran], controlled the oil fields in southern Iran, maintained airfields in Transjordan, Iraq, and Cyprus, stationed troops in Aden, Sudan, Eritrea, and Somalia, and possessed a huge military base complex at Suez…. In 1945 there were more than 200,000 troops at the Cairo-Suez base, and close to 100,000 soldiers would remain during the next few years.
Following the war, Soviet troops lingered in northern Iran, apparently to encourage independence movements by Kurdish and Azerbaijani groups – potential friendly allies. The U.S. protested the delay and the UN Security Council passed a resolution on January 30, 1946, demanding Soviet withdrawal. Stalin accommodated and Soviet forces were withdrawn in February. There was no Soviet threat in Iran thereafter.
Iran had a democratic form of government with a popularly elected parliament, a prime minister chosen by the parliament, and a shah (king) who played a nominal role. On April 28, 1951, the parliament chose as prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, a European-educated lawyer and wealthy landowner in his early seventies. His main agenda was the nationalization of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, a policy widely supported in his country. Six weeks earlier, both houses of the Iranian parliament had voted overwhelmingly to support nationalization.
Washington officials justified the covert intervention in the name of fighting the ubiquitous “communist menace,” as protecting British oil rights was inadequate as a reason for overthrowing of a democratic government. At a NSC meeting in March, U.S. ambassador to Iran Loy Henderson asserted that the overthrow of Mossadegh was necessary in order to prevent Iran from falling into communist hands. Though there was no evidence of a communist plot to take over the government, the very possibility of it was enough to compel and justify militant U.S. action. In a typical statement of exaggeration, Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson warned that “if Iran succumbed to the Communists there was little doubt that in short order the other areas of the Middle East, with some 60% of the world’s oil reserves, would fall into Communist control.”
Between March and August 1953, the CIA and MI-6 worked together to carry out a two-part strategy that involved fostering popular opposition to the Mossadegh government and recruiting military leaders along with the Shah to take over the government. The plan was codenamed Operation TPAJAX by the CIA and Operation Boot by Britain’s MI-6. As described by the journalist-turned-historian Stephen Kinzer:
Two secret agents, Donald Wilber of the CIA and Norman Darbyshire of the British Secret Intelligence Service, spent several weeks that spring in Cyprus devising a plan for the coup…. With the cold calculation of the surgeon, these agents plotted to cut Mossadegh away from his people. Under their plan, the Americans would spend $150,000 to bribe journalists, editors, Islamic preachers, and other opinion leaders to “create, extend and enhance public hostility and distrust and fear of Mossadegh and his government.” They would hire thugs to carry out “staged attacks” on religious figures and other respected Iranians, making it seem that Mossadegh had ordered them. Meanwhile, General [Fazlollah] Zahedi would be given a sum of money, later fixed at $135,000, to “win additional friends” and “influence key people.” The plan budged another $11,000 per week, a great sum at that time, to bribe members of the Iranian parliament. On “coup day,” thousands of paid demonstrators would converge on parliament to demand that it dismiss Mossadegh. Parliament would respond with a “quasi-legal” vote to do so. If Mossadegh resisted, military units loyal to General Zahedi would arrest him.
The coup d’état took place on August 19, 1953, following four days of chaos in the streets. The Shah, at the behest of the CIA and MI-6, appointed General Zahedi prime minister and had Mossadegh arrested. There were a number of glitches and the plan nearly failed. In the end, it succeeded not only in ousting Mossadegh but also in replacing the democratic parliamentary system with an authoritarian system under the Shah. In the ensuing weeks, the Shah reversed the nationalization policy and granted U.S.-based oil companies the right to 40 percent of Iranian oil – America’s reward for sabotaging democracy. Initially uncertain about participating in the coup, the Shah quickly became comfortable with tyranny. In the weeks following the coup, hundreds of political activists and party leaders on the left were arrested though they had committed no crime. Mosaddegh was imprisoned for three years, after which he was put under house arrest until his death.
For 26 years following the August 1953 coup, CIA agents worked closely with the Shah’s security and intelligence units (SAVAK) to suppress all political opposition. According to the Israeli intelligence analyst Ervand Abrahamian, “By 1977, SAVAK had 5,300 full-time agents and a large number of part-time informers.” It had the power to “censor the media, screen applicants for government jobs … and use all means necessary, including torture, to hunt down dissidents.” The U.S. never faltered in its support. As the Shah began to lose his grip on the country amid rising protests in 1978, President Carter’s special envoy to Tehran, General Robert E. Huyser, urged Iran’s top military leaders to kill as many demonstrators as necessary to keep the Shah in power.
When the Shah was ousted by an Islamic revolution in early 1979 many Americans could not understand why Iranians appeared to hate Americans – television newscasts showed demonstrators in the streets shouting “death to America.” Few Americans were able to connect the dots between the coup of 1953 and the revolution of 1979. The U.S. media in the intervening years had painted a positive portrait of the impeccably dressed Shah Pahlavi as one who welcomed Western culture and a modicum of women’s rights. The 1953 coup and the Shah’s secret police were swept under the rug. Forty-seven years after the coup, however, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged a measure of U.S. responsibility for the deteriorating relationship between Iran and the United States, speaking before the American-Iranian Council on March 17, 2000:
In 1953 the United States played a significant role in orchestrating the overthrow of Iran’s popular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh. The Eisenhower Administration believed its actions were justified for strategic reasons; but the coup was clearly a setback for Iran’s political development. And it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America in their internal affairs. Moreover, during the next quarter century, the United States and the West gave sustained backing to the Shah’s regime. Although it did much to develop the country economically, the Shah’s government also brutally repressed political dissent. As President Clinton has said, the United States must bear its fair share of responsibility for the problems that have arisen in U.S.-Iranian relations.
The Congo, 1960
Lumumba was born in 1925 in a small village in southwestern Congo and educated at a Protestant missionary school. In 1958, he attended the first all-African People’s Conference in Accra, the capital of Ghana. He came away convinced that the time had come for Africans to run their own affairs. On Congolese Independence Day, he spoke of the possibilities of the future:
We are going to institute social justice together and ensure everyone just remuneration for his labor. We are going to show the world what the black man can do when he works in freedom, and we are going to make the Congo the focal point for the development of all of Africa. We are going to see to it that the soil of our country really benefits its children. We are going to review all the old laws and make new ones that will be just and noble. We are going to put an end to the suppression of free thought and see to it that all citizens enjoy to the fullest all the fundamental freedoms laid down in the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
The CIA was already involved in the Congo, having provided covert payments to political parties and candidates in order to prevent Lumumba’s election in May 1960. Having failed to achieve the desired outcome, the Eisenhower administration proceeded to plot Lumumba’s overthrow. CIA station chief Lawrence Devlin arrived in the capital city, Léopoldville, soon after independence was declared. According to the historian Stephen R. Weissman, “Within a few weeks he was deeply involved in an effort to overthrow the government and assassinate some of its top officials, the first of a series of covert action and related “intelligence” programs that would continue into the 1970s.”
The CIA developed a two-part plan to assassinate Lumumba and overthrow the government, securing a replacement amenable to the West. The CIA sent an agent to the Congolese capital with poison to kill Lumumba, but it was not clear if the assassination attempt was made before the overthrow took place on September 14, 1960. With U.S. and Belgian support, Colonel Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, Chief of Staff of the Congolese National Army, deposed Lumumba in a bloodless coup and installed a new government. Lumumba took refuge at the United Nations headquarters in Léopoldville. He survived that day only to be arrested along with two of his associates on December 1. Mobutu, not wanting to be held responsible for Lumumba’s death, turned Lumumba over to his political enemies in the Katanga province. He was tortured and executed there on January 17, 1961. A U.S. correspondent witnessed Lumumba’s arrival at Lubumbashi:
Lumumba, blindfolded with a grimy bandage, his hands tied behind him, and roped to two of his political lieutenants, was directed down the steps of the plane. Within sight of a large airport billboard proclaiming “Welcome to Free Katanga,” the trembling, stumbling Lumumba and his fellow prisoners fell to the ground in a hail of savage baton, rifle-butt and first blows and kicks from a gauntlet of snarling Katangese.
General Mobutu did America’s bidding and received U.S. support in return. He ordered Soviet diplomats out of the country, dispensed with economic nationalist plans, and later aided U.S. covert operations in Angola. Mobutu also amassed a personal fortune in the impoverished country. President John F. Kennedy, inaugurated in January 1961, continued his predecessor’s support for Mobutu. When Mobutu visited the Washington in May 1963, Kennedy was full of praise. “General,” he said, during a walk in the White House rose garden, “if it hadn’t been for you, the whole thing would have collapsed and the Communists would have taken over.”
In April 1955, Indonesia hosted the Bandung Conference, the first step in the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. In his opening remarks, Sukarno identified the origins of the great “battle against colonialism” in the American War for Independence, “the first successful anti-colonial war in history.” He warned against the continuing danger of neo-colonialism:
I beg of you do not think of colonialism only in the classic form which we of Indonesia, and our brothers in different parts of Asia and Africa, knew. Colonialism has also its modern dress, in the form of economic control, intellectual control, actual physical control by a small but alien community within a nation. It is a skillful and determined enemy, and it appears in many guises. It does not give up its loot easily. Wherever, whenever and however it appears, colonialism is an evil thing, and one which must be eradicated from the earth.
Having failed to oust Sukarno by manipulating elections, the CIA began a propaganda offensive to discredit Sukarno, planting false stories in the press. One such story alleged that Sukarno was having an affair with a female Soviet intelligence agent and that the Soviet government was blackmailing Sukarno. In 1957, the CIA station began secretly aiding and abetting a rebellion led by regional military commanders on the island of Sumatra. According to the international relations scholar John Quigley:
The CIA enlisted all three branches of the U.S. military in the venture: the army training rebel troops, the navy providing offshore backup, and the air force creating and operating a rebel air force. The CIA hired 350 Americans, Chinese, and Filipinos to service and fly transport aircraft and B-26 bombers for rebel operations…. The CIA airdropped supplies to the rebels. CIA director Allen Dulles ran the Indonesia operation, and his brother [Secretary of State] John Foster Dulles was the moving force behind it.
In 1965, a rebellion within the military establishment became an excuse for General Suharto, a pro-American officer, to launch a coup d’état against the Sukarno government. According to the political scientist Peter Dale Scott, the September 30th attack on the military officers was “the first phase of a three-phase right-wing coup,” noting that the generals who were killed in the rebellion were those most loyal to Sukarno and would likely have prevented the coup. Suharto blamed the attack on the left, thus providing the requisite justification for his army to conduct an all-out massacre of suspected leftists, which took more than 500,000 lives. Suharto placed Sukarno under his “protection” and prevented the president from resuming control. In March 1966, Sukarno was forced to sign a Presidential Order assigning Suharto the right to take all measures necessary to preserve national security and stability. One year later, Sukarno was stripped of his presidency and placed under house arrest.
The U.S. supported Suharto’s genocidal campaign against the left in 1965. In 1990, U.S. embassy and CIA officials revealed that U.S. Ambassador Marshall Green had given lists of communists and leftists to the Indonesian military even as the mass murder was underway. Robert J. Martens, a former member of the embassy’s political section, told the Washington Post in May 1990 that the lists were “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.” In October 2017, Vincent Bevins, a journalist based in Jakarta, noted that a “trove of newly declassified diplomatic cables reveals a surprising degree of American involvement in a brutal anti-communist purge in Indonesia half-a-century ago”:
In Indonesia in October 1965, Suharto, a powerful Indonesian military leader, accused the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) of organizing a brutal coup attempt, following the kidnapping and murder of six high-ranking army officers. Over the months that followed, he oversaw the systematic extermination of up to a million Indonesians for affiliation with the party, or simply for being accused of harboring leftist sympathies. He then took power and ruled as dictator, with U.S. support, until 1998….
While the newly declassified documents further illustrated the horror of Indonesia’s 1965 mass murder, they also confirmed that U.S. authorities backed Suharto’s purge. Perhaps even more striking: As the documents show, U.S. officials knew most of his victims were entirely innocent. U.S. embassy officials even received updates on the executions and offered help to suppress media coverage….
It should not be entirely surprising that Washington would tolerate the deaths of so many civilians to further its Cold War goals. In Vietnam, the U.S. military may have killed up to 2 million civilians. But Indonesia was different: the PKI was a legal, unarmed party, operating openly in Indonesia’s political system. It had gained influence through elections and community outreach, but was nevertheless treated like an insurgency.
Washington officials not only tolerated the massacre, but were also pleased with the political outcome. State Department staffer Rob Barrett wrote to Charles Mann of the U.S. Agency for International Development in April 1966, “the trend of Indonesian political development has been drastically altered in the direction favorable to the United States interests in the Far East. The PKI has been eliminated as an effective political force…. The new leaders are trying to integrate the country into the international [capitalist] community. Investment should be encouraged.”
In April 1978, the government of Mohammad Daoud was overthrown by the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), a communist party closely linked to the Soviet Union. Daoud, a Western-educated member of the royal family, was shot and killed along with most of his family. PDPA leader Nur Muhammad Taraki took the reins of government until he, too, was assassinated in October 1979, leaving the presidency to Hafizullah Amin. Soviet leaders were critical of Amin, ironically, because he was overzealous in carrying out the communist program. That program included securing women’s rights, which grated on Islamic fundamentalist beliefs, as well as advancing public education and redistributing lands to peasants, among other modernization reforms; but Amin implemented these reforms in an authoritarian manner, riding roughshod over ethnic, religious, and tribal traditions and local power structures. The KGB (Soviet intelligence agency) station in Kabul pressed Moscow to remove him from office, warning that Amin’s heavy-handedness was causing the party to lose popular support and could lead to the “consolidation of the opposition” against the government.
The covert U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, codenamed Operation Cyclone, gained momentum in the spring of 1979. The Pakistan and Saudi governments agreed to be intermediaries and the CIA found willing allies among Islamic militants known as Mujahideen, or “Soldiers of God.” Mujahideen leaders such as Hekmatyar had been fighting “godless communism” for years. On July 3, Carter signed a presidential “finding” that authorized the CIA to spend just over $500,000 on propaganda and psychological operations, and to provide “unilaterally or through third countries as appropriate support to Afghan insurgents, either in the form of cash or non-military supplies.” The administration had to be cautious about providing weapons to the rebels because of Congress. In January 1976, Congress shut down a CIA operation in Angola after learning that the CIA was sponsoring an unauthorized war. The Carter administration deemed it prudent to provide cash to the Afghan rebels so that they could buy their own weapons.
The Soviet intervention took place on December 24, 1979. Some 30,000 Soviet troops entered Afghanistan, took control of the major urban centers and transportation arteries, and established a new government under Babrak Karmal, a Marxist general. Amin was killed in the presidential palace, though Soviet leaders denied any responsibility for his death.
U.S. support for Islamic guerrillas
On December 26, 1979, two days after the Soviet intervention, Brzezinski wrote a memo to President Carter sketching out a more militant U.S. policy in Afghanistan. “It is essential that Afghanistan’s resistance continues,” he wrote. “This means more money as well as arms shipments to the rebels, and some technical advice. To make the above possible we must both reassure Pakistan and encourage it to help the rebels.” A week later, Brzezinski wrote to State Department officials, “Our ultimate goal is the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. Even if that is not attainable, we should make Soviet involvement as costly as possible.”
In early 1980, Brzezinski personally travelled to the Afghan-Pakistan border near Khyber Pass to meet with Mujahideen leaders. “We know of their deep belief in God,” he told the men through a translator, “and we are confident that their struggle will succeed. That land over there [Afghanistan] is yours. You will go back to it one day because your fight will prevail, and you will have your homes and your mosques back again, because your cause is right and God is on your side.” Of course, it was the U.S. government that was on their side, in conformity with the realpolitik formula: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Carter did not mention that Afghanistan already had a communist government which the Soviets replaced with another. He did not reveal that the U.S. had delivered aid and arms to Afghan Islamic insurgents before the Soviet invasion. Nor did he offer any hint that the U.S.-backed insurgents were intent on turning Afghanistan into an Islamic state similar to Iran (although Sunni rather than Shia). Instead, Carter raised fears of Soviet expansion into the Middle East and vowed to protect the oil-rich region “by any means necessary,” a presidential edict that became known as the Carter Doctrine. The doctrine was aimed at Iran as much as the Soviet Union. It essentially replaced former U.S. reliance on Iran (under the Shah) to police the Gulf with direct U.S. military power and hegemony. As U.S. hegemony always had to be masked as defensive for public relations purposes, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan served this purpose. Carter also declared that the U.S. would “impose stiff economic penalties on the Soviet Union” and boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.
Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev responded by declaring that “the national interests or security of the United States of America and other states are in no way affected by the events in Afghanistan. All attempts to portray matters otherwise are sheer nonsense.” Clearly there was a difference between the Soviet understanding of security, which was limited to its sphere of influence, and the American conception of security, which encompassed the entire globe.
VI. The return of “Yankee imperialism”
For a brief period between 1944 and 1946, U.S. policymakers considered extending the Good Neighbor Policy to include support for democratic governance in the region. In November 1944, the State Department issued Instruction 4616, which informed American diplomats that military dictatorships and unconstitutional governments “are to be deplored”:
While the Department will continue to maintain cordial relations with all established and recognized governments, it is not incompatible with those policies to state unequivocally the self-evident truth that the Government of the United States cannot help but feel a greater affinity and a warmer friendship for those governments which rest upon the … freely expressed consent of the governed.
In February 1946, the State Department took a step further in this direction, advising: “Economic assistance should be given only where it is clear that it will benefit the people of a country generally and will help in the development of democracy and honest government,” and that “no military equipment or assistance should be given except where such a policy is agreed upon by international action, or where it is clearly necessary for reasons of security to the United States.”
This tentative shift in policy orientation in Washington was in keeping with a budding democratic movement that swept Latin America at the end of the Second World War. According to the historian Michael Schmidli:
Propelled by the combined effects of the global struggle against fascism, the relative benevolence of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy, and, to varying degrees in each Latin American nation, the rise of an “emerging middle class and urban working class that joined with students, intellectuals, and in some cases a militant peasantry,” the region witnessed unprecedented demands for democratic reforms. Moreover, the United States actively assisted in the outpouring of Latin American democracy; flush with victory over authoritarian regimes in Europe and Asia, in the heady aftermath of V-J Day [Victory over Japan] a phalanx of hardheaded U.S. diplomats fanned out across the hemisphere, pressure Latin American authoritarians such as Paraguay’s Higinio Moringo and Guatemala’s Jorge Ubico to hand over the reins of power via electoral transitions. As a result, in 1946, Latin American could boast fifteen democracies out of a total of twenty nations – a startling figure considering there had been only four democracies two years earlier.
The onset of the Cold War prompted a reversal of Washington’s tenuous pro-democracy policy. According to David Schmitz, the Cold War paradigm in Washington “ushered back in the positive evaluations of authoritarian governments in the worldwide struggle with the Soviet Union…. They would be wedged into the free world, no matter what their record of abuses.” Such was the case in Nicaragua. The Truman administration initially withheld diplomatic recognition of the Nicaraguan government under Anastasio Somoza García after he ousted an elected president in May 1947. The shunning lasted less than a year, however, as Somoza was deemed a valuable ally in the global war against “communism.”
In March 1953, President Eisenhower approved NSC 144/1 as the basis for U.S. policy toward Latin America. The directive called on the U.S. to mobilize the hemisphere to “eliminate the menace of internal Communism.” In practice, this meant aligning the U.S. with the landed aristocracy and rightist political and military forces that had been crushing leftist and labor reform movements for decades. Military dictators and repressive governments caught on quickly and appealed to the U.S. for aid on the basis of opposing communism. In Cuba, at the suggestion of U.S. ambassador Arthur Gardner, Fulgencio Batista established a special office dedicated to repressing “communists” (Buró de Represión a las Actividades Comunistas), which Batista used to suppress his political opponents. When Vice President Richard Nixon visited Havana in February 1955, he praised Cuba as a “land that shares with us the same ideals of peace, freedom and dignity of men.” In a toast to Batista, he likened the dictator to Abraham Lincoln.
U.S. leaders pursued their anti-communist mission in large part by cultivating ties with Latin American military and security forces, deemed the most anticommunist of institutions. The U.S. offered four kinds of support: funds for military and police forces, U.S. military advisers, the training of Latin American security personnel at U.S. military schools, and the transfer of sophisticated equipment, especially for surveillance purposes. During the 1950s, the U.S. provided $400 million in military assistance to the region and assigned 800 military personnel to work with Latin American officials in order to improve so-called “internal security.” Between 1945 and 1959, the U.S. paid for nearly 8,000 Latin American military personnel to attend U.S. military facilities in either the Panama Canal Zone or the U.S. Equipment included “light weaponry geared toward internal security operations” and “sophisticated intelligence-gathering technology,” notes Schmidli, which repressive governments used in conjunction with “extralegal kidnappings, torture, and disappearances of political opponents.”
U.S. support for repressive regimes did not sit well with many Latin Americans. When Vice President Richard Nixon visited Caracas, Venezuela, in May 1958, his car was assaulted by demonstrators, in part because of past U.S. support for the authoritarian rule of Marcos Pérez Jiménez. Venezuelans had ousted Pérez Jiménez in a bloodless military coup five months earlier. In Cuba, U.S. support for the authoritarian government of Batista backfired when the great majority of Cubans celebrated the overthrow of the Batista government by Fidel Castro’s guerrilla army on January 1, 1959.
The Kennedy administration touted the Alliance program as a Marshall Plan for Latin America, but it was rather a paltry imitation of it. Whereas the Marshall Plan provided outright grants, a large part of Alliance funds consisted of loans that had to be repaid; and the total amount of money was considerably less on a per capita basis. During the 1960s, the region received about $15 billion of the promised $20 billion from the U.S., or about $4 per person. The money stimulated some economic development but not enough to offset population growth and systemic trade inequalities. As Rabe explains, “In order to generate the $80 billion on domestic savings mandated by the Alliance, Latin America needed to sell on the global markets their primary produces – coffee, sugar, bananas, copper, tin, lead, zinc, and oil. But the prices of these tropical foods and raw materials declined in the 1960s even as the prices of imported industrial machinery and finished goods, the very things needed for economic development, rose.” Latin American leaders called for fairer terms of trade, but to no avail.
The optimistic goals for the Alliance were also undermined by increased U.S. military and police aid to the region, which had the effect of strengthening reactionary forces violently opposed to economic reform, especially land redistribution programs. Economic progress as well as democratic governance fell victim to this “internal security” aid. According to George Herring:
U.S. military aid in some ways subverted the Alliance for Progress…. The Kennedy administration expanded military aid by more than 50 percent to $77 million per year. In 1962 alone, more than nine thousand Latin American military personnel trained in such educational institutions as the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia…. Between 1961 and 1963, military coups eliminated six elected governments. The U.S. aid program assisted the growth of military influence, and for the next two decades the military dominated hemispheric politics.
The six military coups took place in Argentina (March 1962), Peru (July 1962), Guatemala (March 1963), Ecuador (July 1963), the Dominican Republic (September 1963), and Honduras (October 1963). In Peru, to take one example, on July 18, 1962, a U.S.-supplied Sherman tank smashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Lima, and a U.S.-trained Peruvian officer informed the elected president that he was being ousted by a military junta. The Kennedy administration withheld diplomatic recognition of the Peruvian government for only one month before restoring diplomatic relations and U.S. aid. According to Schmidli, “during the 1960s, Latin America experienced no fewer than sixteen military takeovers, led by officers who had almost inevitably trained at U.S. facilities.”
In Brazil, the Kennedy and Johnson administrations actively assisted the overthrow of the democratic government of João Goulart, supplying the CIA with about $5 million to destabilize the country. President Goulart had run afoul of U.S. hegemonic designs by promoting economic reforms such as land redistribution and state controls over foreign capital, and by forging an independent foreign policy that recognized and traded with communist countries, including Castro’s Cuba. The coup took place on March 31, 1964, after which President Johnson sent his “warmest wishes” to the new military junta and offered “our intensified cooperation.” There followed a large influx of American advisers and aid that enabled the military junta to more effectively repress dissidents. In the first month alone, notes Odd Arne Westad, “more than 50,000 people were arrested, in the start of a ‘dirty war’ that would last up to the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1985…. In strategic terms, however, the new Brazilian military dictatorship became a close ally of the United States in intervening elsewhere in Latin America.”
Dom Hélder Câmara, the archbishop of Recife, was declared a nonperson by Brazil’s military leaders – the media could not mention his name. The popular archbishop famously remarked: “When I feed the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why so many people are poor, they call me a Communist.”
In 1975, the rightist governments of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Brazil formed Operation Condor, a hemisphere-wide association of regimes dedicated to destroying the left. The central organizer of Operation Condor, Manuel Contreras of Chile, was a paid CIA asset between 1974 and 1977. According to the historian J. Patrice McSherry:
Condor specialized in targeted abductions, disappearances, interrogations/torture, and transfers of persons across borders. According to a declassified 1976 FBI report, Condor had several levels. The first was mutual cooperation among military intelligence services, including coordination of political surveillance and exchange of intelligence information. The second was organized cross-border operations to detain/disappear dissidents. The third and most secret, “Phase III,” was the formation of special teams of assassins from member countries to travel anywhere in the world to carry out assassinations of “subversive enemies.”
Human rights groups in Latin America estimated that Condor commandos “disappeared” hundreds of persons in cross-border operations: 132 Uruguayans, 72 Bolivians, 119 Chileans, 51 Paraguayans, 16 Brazilians, 12 Argentines, and at least one American, Ronni Moffitt, who was assassinated along with Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., in Washington, D.C. on September 21, 1976. “Clearly,” writes McSherry, “Operation Condor was an organized system of state terror with a transnational reach. It was an anticommunist international that went far beyond targeting ‘communists,’ and it signified an unprecedented level of coordinated repression by right-wing military regimes in Latin America.”
With this in mind, on August 23, 1976, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger signed a telegram to U.S. ambassadors indicating that they should express concern to South American officials regarding any activities that “would further exacerbate public world criticism of the governments involved.” This can be read as a suggestion to not engage in assassinations or a warning to not get caught. In any case, Kissinger made no requests to the CIA to investigate Condor missions within the United States, though it was known that two Chilean secret police agents were traveling to Washington on false Paraguayan passports. These were the same men who killed Moffitt and Letelier by planting a car bomb. Following the assassinations, the CIA and State Department delayed and withheld information from the FBI concerning the murders. In an later interview, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Hewson Ryan admitted: “We knew fairly early on that the governments of the Southern Cone countries were planning … some assassinations abroad in the summer of 1976. Whether if we had gone in, we might have prevented this, I don’t know. But we didn’t.”
In the November 1950 elections, former defense minister Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán won the presidency with 65.44 percent of the vote. Árbenz extended the reforms begun under Arévalo to include the redistribution of land to poor peasants. Enacted in June 1952, the Agrarian Reform Law empowered the government to expropriate uncultivated portions of large plantations (greater than 223 acres), to be paid for through 25-year bonds bearing three percent interest. Arbenz himself, a landowner through his wife, gave up 1,700 acres of land. Árbenz explained the need for this reform in a speech in April 1951:
Our task is to work together in order to produce more wealth… but we must distribute these riches so that those who have less – and they are the immense majority – benefit more, while those who have more – and they are so few – also benefit, but to a lesser extent. How could it be otherwise, given the poverty, the poor health, and the lack of education of our people?
Approximately two percent of the Guatemalan population controlled 72 percent of the arable land, while 88 percent of the population held 14 percent of the land. Of the privately held land, less than 12 percent was under cultivation. As the historian Douglas W. Trefzger writes, “In a country where more than two-thirds of the population participated in agriculture, this meant sweeping poverty, malnutrition, and its accompanying health problems. If ever a country needed an agrarian reform to solve its social ills, Guatemala was that country.” During the eighteen months of its operation the Agrarian Reform program distributed 1.5 million acres to some 100,000 families.
Among the lands expropriated by the government were 400,000 acres belonging to the U.S.-based United Fruit Company (UFCO). On the basis of tax declarations, the government offered UFCO $627,572 in bonds in compensation. The U.S. State Department, acting on behalf of UFCO, demanded 24 times that amount. The involvement of the U.S. government in this issue was due in part to personal ties to UFCO. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA director Allen Dulles, had both worked for a New York law firm with close links to UFCO. The Dulles brothers joined UFCO publicists in accusing the Árbenz government of being a “stooge” of the Russians. Undersecretary of State Walter Bedell Smith, who at one time sought a management position at UFCO, wrote to President Eisenhower denouncing Árbenz and his “Communist-administered Agrarian Reform Law.”
The subversion part of the plan centered on Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, a dissident military officer who had attended the U.S. Army’s elite school at Fort Leavenworth and had led previous coup attempts. With financial enticements and virulent propaganda against “godless communism,” Castillo Armas and CIA operatives were able to recruit some 400 to 500 men who were housed, fed, trained, and armed at bases in Honduras, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, countries led by rightist dictatorial regimes. The CIA provided Castillo Armas’s insurgent army with rifles, submachine guns, mortars, bazookas, grenade launchers, ammunition, and rations. Most importantly, under cover of “arms assistance” to Nicaragua and Honduras, the CIA obtained some thirty planes for the planned invasion, including bombers and transport aircraft. American pilots would fly the planes.
Unable to obtain OAS authorization for an overt intervention, the Eisenhower administration proceeded with its covert plans. Although the CIA has yet to declassify all documents regarding PBSUCCESS, including the names of 58 government officials targeted for assassination, the agency prepared a Memorandum in May 1975 providing an overview of the “CIA’s Role in the Overthrow of Arbenz,” which follows:
In August 1953, the Operations Coordinating Board directed [the] CIA to assume responsibility for operations against the Arbenz regime. Appropriate authorization was issued to permit close and prompt cooperation with the Departments of Defense, State and other Government agencies in order to support the Agency in this task. The plan of operations called for cutting off military aid to Guatemala, increasing aid to its neighbors, exerting diplomatic and economic pressure against Arbenz and attempts to subvert and or defect Army and political leaders, broad scale psychological warfare and paramilitary actions. During the period August through December 1953 a CIA staff was assembled and operational plans were prepared.
Following are the specific operational mechanisms utilized by the Agency in the overall missions against the Arbenz government:
- Paramilitary Operations. Approximately 85 members of the Castillo Armas group received training in Nicaragua. Thirty were trained in sabotage, six as shock troop leaders and 20 others as support-type personnel. Eighty-nine tons of equipment were prepared. The support of this operation was staged inside the borders of Honduras and Nicaragua. [1-1/2 lines of source text not declassified] There were an estimated 250 men in Honduras and El Salvador for use as shock troops and specialists, outside of the training personnel that had been sent to Nicaragua.
- Air Operations. The planning for providing air operational support was broken down into three phases; i.e. the initial stockpiling of equipment; the delivering of equipment to advance bases by black flight; and the aerial resupply of troops in the field. Thirty days prior to D-day, a fourth phase, fighter support, was initiated. There were approximately 80 missions flown during the 14–29 June 1954 period, by various type aircraft such as C–47’s, F–47’s and Cessnas which were used to discharge cargo, distribute propaganda and for strafing and bombing missions.
- Clandestine Communications. A clandestine radio broadcasting station was established in Nicaragua. The purpose of these broadcasts was to intimidate members of the Communist Party and public officials who were sympathetic to the Communist cause….
One of the propaganda ploys was to fabricate reports of Soviet arms deliveries to Guatemala by submarine, and then arranging to have a CIA planted cache of Soviet arms discovered and publicized. The mythical arms deliveries were superseded by the real thing when a ship carrying 2,000 tons of Czech weapons and ammunition arrived. This shipment created an international furor and provided clinching proof of what had been the main CIA propaganda theme, that Guatemala under Arbenz had become a Soviet satellite….
On 17–18 June five shock teams trained by the Agency crossed into Guatemala. The turning point came on 25 June when Castillo’s forces repulsed a counterattack and later bombed a fortress in Guatemala City. On 27 June Arbenz resigned …
Although Castillo Armas was given credit for the overthrow of the Árbenz government, his role constituted only one of four parts, the others being U.S. air power, radio propaganda, and the defection of key Guatemalan military leaders, including Air Force Colonel Mendoza Azurdia on June 4, 1954. American pilots flying unmarked planes bombed and strafed the cities of Zacapa, Chiquimula, and Guatemala City. They also flew low over the capital city firing machine guns into the air to terrify the population. These raids (acts of war) ultimately proved more potent in demoralizing government forces than the insurgent army’s invasion on the ground, which ventured no further than Chiquimula, about 25 miles from the Guatemalan-Honduran border. Castillo Armas’s rebel army took control of Chiquimula on June 24 in a clash that took seventeen lives, the costliest battle of the brief war.
During the invasion, the “Voice of Liberation” broadcast false battle reports, creating the impression that thousands of insurgents were on the march. The international press corps was not allowed into rebel areas and thus could not confirm or deny the reports. The main source of “inside” news for the U.S. press was Ambassador Peurifoy who, as Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer write, “dropped tidbits of information, confided private thoughts to the correspondents and drank with reporters at the American Club downtown in the midst of the aerial bombardment. All were struck by his courage; none realized that he knew precisely when the raids were coming and where the bombs or bullets were expected to hit.”
On June 20, three days after the rebel invasion began, the CIA sent a memo to the president explaining how black propaganda and disinformation were playing a key role in the coup:
… the entire effort is thus more dependent upon psychological impact rather than actual military strength, although it is upon the ability of Castillo Armas’ effort to create and maintain for a short time the impression of very substantial military strength that the success of this particular effort primarily depends. The use of a small number of airplanes and the massive use of radio broadcasting are designed to build up and give main support to the impression of Castillo Armas’ strength as well as to spread the impression of the regime’s weakness.
The Eisenhower administration also carried out a disinformation campaign in the U.S. CIA and UFCO worked hand in hand to manipulate public opinion “through fabrication of evidence of the ‘communist menace’ in Guatemala,” writes the historian Gordon L. Bowen. “Indeed, Fruit Company-sponsored information constituted a near monopoly of sources used in American press reports about Guatemala in this era.”
On June 21 and 22, a few days after the invasion began, Guatemalan foreign minister Jorge Toriello appealed to the United Nations to investigate and mediate the crisis, providing documented evidence of foreign air attacks. The U.S. blocked a proposed investigation in a Security Council vote. U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge went beyond denial to warn the Russian delegate Semyon K. Tsarapkin, “Stay out of the Western Hemisphere … Don’t try to start your plans and conspiracies here.”
Árbenz gave up the fight on June 27 when his senior staff reported that his military officers had lost confidence in him. He found refuge in the Mexican Embassy and was later allowed to leave the country along with his top aides. A fractious military junta that included Castillo Armas took power under Peurifoy’s direction.
On September 1, the military junta in Guatemala dissolved and Castillo Armas assumed dictatorial power. To legitimize his authority, a plebiscite was staged on October 10 in which Guatemalans were asked a single question: “Are you in favor of Lieutenant Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas continuing in the presidency of the republic for a term to be fixed by the constituent assembly?” The approval rate was an implausible 99.8 percent. This was proof enough for the Eisenhower administration. Castillo Armas was invited to the White House in November 1955 and given a hero’s welcome. At a state dinner, Vice-President Richard Nixon described the Guatemalan leader as a “courageous soldier” who had led the Guatemalan people in revolt “against Communist rule.”
In 2011, more than half a century after the overthrow, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom apologized for the coup, calling it a “great crime.” In a ceremony at the National Palace in Guatemala City, Colom turned to Mr. Árbenz’s son, Juan Jacobo, and asked for forgiveness on behalf of the state. “That day changed Guatemala,” President Colom said, “and we have not recuperated from it yet. It was a crime to Guatemalan society and it was an act of aggression to a government starting its democratic spring.”
Castro himself was an enigma to Washington officials. Born in 1926, he had grown up in a moderately prosperous family on a sugar plantation in the Oriente Province. He enrolled at the University of Havana law school in 1945 and became active in politics. In early 1952, he campaigned for a seat in the Cuban Congress, but elections were never held, as Batista pulled a military coup. Enraged, Castro organized a group of followers and attacked the Moncada military barracks in the Oriente Province on July 26, 1953. He was captured, tried, and sentenced to fifteen years in prison, but released in 1955 in a government amnesty program. Castro left for Mexico with a few cohorts and began organizing a revolution to topple Batista, named the “26th of July Movement.” He was joined by Ernesto “Che” Guevara, an Argentinian medical student who had been in Guatemala when the Árbenz government was overthrown. On December 2, 1956, Castro, Guevara, and eighty other men landed on Cuba’s eastern shores. Batista’s forces were waiting for them and all but twelve insurgents were killed or captured. The survivors fled to the Sierra Maestra mountains where they found great support among the people.
Castro did not carry out his democratic promise, to the great disappointment of many Cubans, but neither was his revolution a threat to U.S. national security. In mid-April 1959, Castro visited the U.S. at the invitation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Touring the U.S. for eleven days, he visited the Jefferson Memorial and Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home, likening the freedom fighters of the American Revolution to those of the Cuban Revolution. President Eisenhower avoided meeting with the 33-year-old guerrilla in clean fatigues, but Vice President Richard Nixon met with him at the Capitol on April 19. Nixon concluded after the meeting:
Whatever we may think of him he is going to be a great factor in the development of Cuba and very possibly in Latin American affairs generally. He seems to be sincere. He is either incredibly naïve about Communism or under Communist discipline – my guess is the former, and as I have already implied, his ideas as to how to run a government or an economy are less developed than those of almost any world figure I have met in fifty countries.
Castro did seem uncertain about his economic program. On the one hand, he welcomed foreign investment and declared in May, “This is not a Red revolution.” On the other hand, he initiated a land redistribution program that same month affecting 1.7 million acres owned by U.S. citizens and companies. At the time of Castro’s triumph, U.S. investors owned 40 percent of Cuba’s sugar production, 50 percent of its railroads, 90 percent of its utilities, and sizable chunks of Cuba’s arable land. U.S. businesses controlled Cuba’s tourist industry, replete with prostitution and gambling, while the U.S. government controlled the lifeblood of the Cuban economy through quotas on sugar imports. Castro’s Agrarian Reform Law of 1959 established a maximum limit of 3,311 acres for plantations and ranches, affecting wealthy Cubans as well as foreigners. The government offered compensation for confiscated lands in the form of 20-year bonds at amounts based on tax values. One-third of the land was to be distributed to peasants, with the rest managed by state farms and cooperatives.
The American correspondent Herbert Matthews, who continued to visit Cuba in 1959, wrote in July that Castro wanted a social revolution, not a Communist revolution. Washington officials, however, appeared not to distinguish between the two. According to a NSC report in January 1960 reviewing U.S.-Cuban relations in the year 1959:
The period from January to March might be characterized as the honeymoon period of the Castro government. In April a downward trend in U.S. Cuban relations had been evident…. In June we had reached the decision that it was not possible to achieve our objectives with Castro in power…. In July and August, we had been busy drawing up a program to replace Castro. However some U.S. companies reported to us during this time that they were making some progress in negotiations, a factor that caused us to slow the implementation of our program. The hope expressed by these companies did not materialize. October was a period of clarification…. On October 31, in agreement with CIA, the Department [of State] had recommended to the President approval of a program … The approved program authorized us to support elements in Cuba opposed to the Castro government while making Castro’s downfall seem to be the result of his own mistakes.”
Washington’s easiest route to undermining Castro was through economic pressure – making the economy scream. Warned that the U.S. intended to restrict Cuban sugar imports, Castro signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union in February 1960 under which the Soviet Union would purchase 425,000 tons of Cuban sugar that year and Cuba would receive Russian oil. In May, the Cuban government informed the managers of U.S.-owned oil refineries that they would have to process the Russian oil. The refinery owners refused, acting under U.S. government directives. In June, the Cuban government seized the refineries. In July, the Eisenhower administration banned Cuban sugar imports.
U.S. sabotage operations began in October 1959 with air raids from bases in Florida against economic targets, which also killed civilians. In December, with thousands of Cubans making their way to the United States, the CIA began recruiting and organizing the expatriates into anti-Castro units under the aegis of Brigade 2506. Training for an invasion of Cuba began at sites in Florida and Guatemala in March 1960 and intensified in early 1961. Heading the invasion operation was Jacob Esterline, the director of the CIA’s Operation PBSUCCESS in Guatemala in 1954. Another veteran of that operation, E. Howard Hunt, was tasked with forming a government-in-exile to replace the Castro government. To drum up opposition within Cuba, the CIA initiated a radio propaganda program modeled on the Guatemala operation. On September 28, 1960, the CIA airdropped its first supply of weapons and supplies to dissidents, except that the drop missed the designated landing area by seven miles and the items were picked up by the Cuban army. CIA agents also tried to assassinate Castro by poisoning a box of his favorite cigars, the first of at least eight attempts.
The main proponent of the expatriate invasion of Cuba in White House discussions was CIA Deputy Director of Plans Richard Bissell. Although he had no experience in running covert operations, he was confident that the invasion would succeed. Should problems arise, he surmised, he could call for backup U.S. airpower to overwhelm Cuban defenses. The use of U.S. warplanes, however, would expose the hand of the U.S. in the illegal invasion, and President Kennedy was adamantly opposed to this. Kennedy put his personal credibility on the line at a press conference on April 12, 1961, just days before the invasion, stating:
… there will not be, under any conditions, an intervention in Cuba by United States armed forces, and this government will do everything it possibly can, and I think it can meet its responsibilities, to make sure that there are no Americans involved in any actions inside Cuba…. The basic issue in Cuba is not one between the United States and Cuba; it is between the Cubans themselves. And I intend to see that we adhere to that principle. And as I understand it, this Administration’s attitude is so understood and shared by the anti-Castro exiles from Cuba in this country.
The Cuban exiles in Guatemala preparing for the invasion were also confident that their mission would not fail, knowing that the powerful United States was backing them. Alfredo Durán, an early enlistee in Brigade 2506, recalled that “the brigade had a very high morale, which was surprising, because of the terrible conditions in the camps” which included bad food, constant rain, and “mud all over the place.” The CIA also placed great expectations on anti-Castro cells within Cuba, counting on them to rouse the Cuban people against Castro when the invasion came. CIA expectations far exceeded the capabilities of the small dissident groups, as Castro had mobilized impressive defenses and the population was mostly still on his side in early 1961. The CIA also changed its landing site from Trinidad to Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) only one month before the operation was set to take place.
When the expatriate invaders arrived at the Bay of Pigs on April 17, Cuban air and ground forces were ready for them “and the exiles soon found themselves outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered and outplanned by Castro’s troops,” according to a CIA history of the event. “The deteriorating operation convinced President Kennedy to authorize six unmarked fighter jets from the aircraft carrier USS Essex to provide combat air patrol for the Brigade’s aircraft for one hour on April 19,” but only for one hour. Even with additional air support, it is questionable whether the expatriate invaders would have succeeded. They surrendered on April 19. The invasion took the lives of 157 Cuban soldiers, 89 Cuban expatriates, and four American pilots; and 1,197 expatriates were taken prisoner. Durán managed to escaped to the hills for 30 days before being captured and imprisoned. Under an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba in late 1962, he and other members of the brigade were returned to the U.S.
In the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion, Castro aligned with the Cuban Communist Party and the Soviet Union, and officially hailed socialism. Though Fidel’s brother Raúl had long been a member of the Communist Party, Fidel’s 26th of July Movement had kept the Communist Party at arm’s length for more than two years after the revolutionary triumph. On May 1, 1960, Fidel declared Cuba a socialist nation:
We must talk of a new constitution, yes, a new constitution, but not a bourgeois constitution, not a constitution corresponding to the domination of certain classes by exploiting classes, but a constitution corresponding to a new social system without the exploitation of many by man. That new social system is called socialism, and this constitution will therefore be a socialist constitution.
Fidel’s shift was facilitated by the Soviet bloc’s timely actions to save the sugar-dependent Cuban economy and by the fact that the Communist Party, unlike Fidel, had prepared plans for restructuring the Cuban economy. Castro was nonetheless reluctant to cede power to the party. Hence, in March 1962, he purged the party’s leadership and “stressed that Cuban Communism would revolve around his ideas and those of the ‘guerrilla generation,’” in the words of Odd Arne Westad. Most importantly, Castro wanted the Soviet Union to protect Cuba from future U.S. attacks. “It was in self-defense that Fidel sought the Soviet embrace,” writes the historian Piero Gleijeses. “Only strong Soviet support could protect his regime from the United States. The fate of Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala was a bitter reminder of what befell errant presidents in the U.S. sphere of influence.” The Castro government also went on the offensive and began a training program in Havana for Latin American rebels in 1962. “The United States will not be able to hurt us,” Castro explained, “if all of Latin America is in flames.”
Operation Mongoose was apparently not enough. An invasion might be needed as well. On March 5, 1962, the Kennedy brothers sent a memorandum titled “Justification for US Military Intervention in Cuba” to the Joint Chiefs of Staff requesting that an operational plan be drawn up to “provide adequate justification for US military intervention”:
Such a plan would enable a logical build-up of incidents to be combined with other seemingly unrelated events to camouflage the ultimate objective…. Time is an important factor in resolution of the Cuban problem. Therefore, the plan should be so time-phased that projects would be operable within the next few months. Inasmuch as the ultimate objective is overt military intervention, it is recommended that primary responsibility for developing military and para-military aspects of the plan for both overt and covert military operations be assigned the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
On October 14, 1962, after months of speculation, U.S. spy planes confirmed the existence of the missile silos, still uncompleted. Eight days later, the Kennedy administration ordered a naval blockade of the island, described as a “quarantine” (a blockade is an act of war under international law). That same day, Kennedy went on national television to explain his decision and issue a warning to the Soviets: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.” In short, Kennedy threatened a nuclear war if the Soviet Union proceeded. Khrushchev responded that the missiles were “solely for defensive purposes.”
The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a victory for diplomacy, but that was not how the Kennedy administration chose to spin the story for the U.S. media and public. U.S. officials failed to mention the non-invasion pledge and hid the agreement to withdraw U.S. missiles from Turkey; thus it appeared to the American public that Kennedy had stared down the Russian bear and forced the Soviets to retreat. This intentional deception was unfortunate for purposes of history and lessons thereof, as military confrontation rather than diplomatic negotiation was deemed the rescuer. Soviet leaders proved to be reasonable, as did the Kennedy administration in the end. Of course, had President Kennedy made a pledge to not invade Cuba in the first place, there would have been no missile crisis. As the historian Thomas Paterson explains:
Had there been no exile expedition at the Bay of Pigs, no destructive covert activities, no assassination plots, no military maneuvers and plans, and no economic and diplomatic steps to harass, isolate, and destroy the Castro government in Havana, there would not have been a Cuban missile crisis. The origins of the October 1962 crisis derived largely from the concerted U.S. campaign to quash the Cuban Revolution. To stress only the global dimension (Soviet-American competition), as is commonly done, is to slight the local or regional sources of the conflict. To slight these sources is to miss the central point that Premier Nikita Khrushchev would never have had the opportunity to install dangerous missiles in the Caribbean if the United States had not been attempting to overthrow the Cuban government.
The Cuban Missile Crisis did not end the Kennedy administration’s covert actions against Cuba, although a direct invasion was ruled out. “By the end of 1962,” writes the journalist Don Bohning, “the CIA station at an abandoned Navy air facility south of Miami had become the largest in the world outside its Langley, Virginia, headquarters. Thousands of Cuban exiles were on the payroll.” U.S. covert operations against Castro continued until 1965, after which Cuban exile groups independently conducted their work of terrorism, the most infamous example being a bomb attack that killed 73 people aboard a Cuban civilian aircraft on October 6, 1976.
The Dominican Republic, 1960-1965
Trujillo, though an ardent anti-communist, had overplayed his hand as dictator. In March 1956, he ordered the kidnapping and murder of a Spanish student attending Columbia University who had written his PhD dissertation on the Trujillo regime’s human rights abuses. To cover up the crime, Trujillo ordered the American pilot who transported the student killed as well. The Eisenhower administration intended to remove this thorn in its side and presumably gain prestige in doing so.
The U.S. achieved its goal of restoring democracy to the D.R. on that election day, albeit through illegitimate means, but a new problem arose for U.S. leaders. The party that won almost two-thirds of the popular vote, the Dominican Revolutionary Party (PRD), was a left-of-center party. Its leader, Juan Bosch, proposed a land reform program more radical than that of the Árbenz government in Guatemala, and he was determined to protect the basic civil liberties of all citizens, including Communist Party members.
On April 24, Cabral was ousted by a group of military officers who wanted to bring Bosch back to lead the government. Scattered violence broke out between Bosch supporters and opponents. On April 28, President Johnson ordered thousands of Marines into the country. Their official purpose was to maintain order. Their unofficial purpose was to ensure that Bosch did not regain the presidency. Johnson lied outright in telling the American people that the U.S. intervention was necessary to prevent “the establishment of a communistic dictatorship” in the country. The lie was nonetheless effective, being rooted in the well-established anti-communist ideological framework. A U.S. public opinion poll in May found that 76 percent of Americans surveyed supported Johnson’s decision to send troops to the Dominican Republic. The following year, notes Stephen Rabe, “the Johnson administration helped rig the presidential election to guarantee that its candidate, the archconservative Joaquin Balaguer, won. Balaguer, an acolyte of Rafael Trujillo, thereafter provided the Dominican Republic with the anti-Communist stability that the United States desired.”
British Guiana, 1961-64
No country was too small for U.S. intervention. In the case of British Guiana, a South American colony of less than 500,000 people moving toward independence in the early 1960s, the U.S. followed the British in seeking to prevent a leftist leader and party from gaining power. The means to this end involved covert subversion of the economy and manipulation of elections.
Behind the scenes, the Kennedy administration was conspiring to oust Jagan. Secretary of State Dean Rusk sent a message to the British foreign secretary, Lord Home, in February 1962: “I must tell you that I have now reached the conclusion that it is not possible for us to put up with an independent British Guiana under Jagan.” Lord Home replied that overthrowing Jagan would only make things worse and that the British had been able to live with Jagan since his return to government in 1957. Despite the rebuff, the Kennedy administration went ahead and authorized $2 million in August for a CIA covert operation to drive Jagan from power before independence was achieved. Much of the funding went to the British Guiana Trade Union Council, which in April 1963 launched a crippling ten-week general strike. According to the New York Times:
Previously unheard-of radio stations went on the air in the capital, Georgetown. The papers printed false stories about approaching Cuban warships. Civil servants walked out. The labor unions revolted. Riots took the lives of more than 100 people…. The agitation grew throughout 1962 and 1963. “A fire was set in the center of town,” Dr. Jagan said. “The wind fanned the flames, and the center of the city burned. There are still scars. Then they changed their tactics. This is where the C.I.A. support came in full. They imposed a full blockade on shipping and airlines. We were helpless. We had no power.”
The U.S. got want it wanted on December 7, 1964. The PPP won only 24 out of 53 seats in the House of Assembly. The U.S.-backed anti-Jagan parties formed a governing coalition and elected Burnham as premier. In the ensuing months, according to Stephen Rabe:
Burnham developed a personality cult, pillaged the national economy, and trampled on civil liberties and human rights. Burnham and his henchmen also discriminated against Indians, denying Guyana’s majority population political and economic opportunities…. Forbes Burnham would not have had the opportunity to perpetrate his crimes against the Guyanese people had it not been for the political machinations of the John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson administrations.
Looking back on U.S. relations with Latin America at the end of the Cold War, Senator J. William Fulbright commented in The Price of Empire (1989):
Consider what we have done in Latin America. The Bay of Pigs in 1961, and the intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, to cite only two conspicuous examples, were blatant violations of the charter of the Organization of American States. We ignored our treaty obligations and did as we pleased. We paid no attention then, and we pay no attention now when treaties and promises get in our way…. It has always puzzled me, however, that the same senators who thought me naive for objecting to our treaty violations would be seized with moral indignation at real and alleged Soviet violations.
Challenging scholars who have played down the detrimental effects of U.S. policies in the region, Stephen Rabe writes in The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (2012), “The United States was not omnipotent, and Latin American leaders were not mere puppets of the United States. But historians can go too far in denying the realities of the global distribution of power or the active U.S. role in fomenting chaos in the region during the Cold War…. Historical inquiry mandates that both the causes and consequences of decisions be analyzed.”
VII. Post-Cold War perspective
On November 9, 1989, the wall separating East and West Berlin was torn down by Germans on both sides of the divide. It was the beginning of the end of the Cold War. In late December 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved into its former Russian identity, allowing fourteen other republics to go their own way. The Soviet empire was no more.
- misperceived, manipulated, and manufactured alleged “threats” to the nation, especially “communist threats” in the Third World;
- disregarded international prohibitions against national aggression;
- engaged in unnecessary interventions, overt and covert, that produced tragic results for other peoples and nations;
- bolstered repressive regimes and dictators, contrary to human rights principles;
- undermined democratic governments and manipulated foreign elections, contrary to democratic principles;
- propagated lies, deceptions, ideological shibboleths to gain American public support;
- evaded democratic accountability in foreign policymaking; and
- intimidated and debased critics of the Cold War.
Bacevich offers this cogent summary of the Cold War:
Scholars can speculate endlessly about whether the Cold War was inevitable or might have been avoided. What we can say with certainty is this: As it unfolded across several decades, it produced ruinous consequences. It fostered folly and waste on a colossal scale, notably in an arms race of staggering magnitude. It bred hatred, hysteria, and intolerance, creating conditions rife with opportunities for demagogues. It warped political priorities, subordinating the well-being of people to the imperatives of state security. Whether directly or indirectly, it provided a pretext for murder and mayhem, even if the victims tended not to be citizens of the United States or the USSR.
Cite this article:
- Bibliography: Peace, Roger. “Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990.” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2019, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/cold-war.
- Endnotes or footnotes: Roger Peace, “Cold War interventionism, 1945-1990,” United States Foreign Policy History and Resource Guide website, 2019, http://peacehistory-usfp.org/cold-war.
- Updated last on June 1, 2021.
Roger Peace is a diplomatic historian, coordinator of this website, and former community college instructor. He is the author of A Call to Conscience: The Anti-Contra War Campaign (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) and A Just and Lasting Peace: The U.S. Peace Movement from the Cold War to Desert Storm (Noble Press, 1991).
Thanks to readers and commentators Tom Clark, Max Paul Friedman, Jeremy Kuzmarov, John Marciano, Anne Meisenzahl, and Larry Wittner.
Tags: Anglo America, Anti-imperialism, Central America, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, History, Imperialism, Invasion, Latin America Caribbean, Mexico, Nicaragua, Occupation, Panama, Sandinismo, South America, USA
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