U.S. Cold War Interventionism, 1945-1990


Roger Peace | US Foreign Policy - TRANSCEND Media Service

I. Introduction

II. Ideological and geopolitical underpinnings of the Cold War

    • Socialist ideas and the Western democratic tradition
    • The Bolshevik Revolution and Red Scare
    • The third wave of socialism

III. Building the Cold War consensus in Washington

    • Policy alternatives
    • US-Soviet relations
    • The gathering storm
    • The second Red Scare
    • The Cold War solidifies
    • War and peace in the Nuclear Age

IV. U.S. interventionism run amok

    • Accountability
    • Greek tragedy: British-American intervention, 1944-49
    • Offensive operations in the Soviet bloc, 1949-56

V. Securing Western influence in Asia, Africa, and the Mideast

    • Iran, 1951-53
    • The Congo, 1960
    • Indonesia, 1955-65
    • Afghanistan, 1979

VI. The Return of “Yankee imperialism”

    • Guatemala, 1952-54
    • Cuba, 1959-62
    • The Dominican Republic, 1960-65
    • British Guiana, 1961-64

VII. Post-Cold War perspective

Diego Rivera’s Gloriosa Victoria depicts the aftermath of the U.S.-directed overthrow of the Guatemalan government in 1954. In the center of the painting, US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles shakes hands with rebel leader Castillo Armas. Behind them, CIA director Allen Dulles whispers into his brother’s ear while US Ambassador John Peurifoy hands out money to Guatemalan military officers. The bomb, symbolizing those dropped on Guatemalan cities by U.S. planes, is etched with the face of President Dwight Eisenhower. At right, Archbishop Mariano Rossell y Arellano officiates a mass over the massacred bodies of workers and children. [public domain]

I.  Introduction

The idea that the United States should lead the world, replacing the British Empire, had been advanced by various U.S. leaders and influential citizens since the late 19th century.  This ambition was in keeping with age-old aspirations of great states and empires, and also with the trajectory of U.S. history.  The U.S. expanded across North America in the 19th century, became an imperial power in Asia in 1899, declared Latin America an exclusive sphere of influence in the early 20th century, and became the foremost global economic power prior to the First World War.
Among those promoting the idea of U.S. global predominance was Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life magazines.  In an editorial titled “The American Century” published ten months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (February 17, 1941), Luce called on Americans to “reject isolationism and accept the logic of internationalism.”  This meant, to Luce, not only entering the Second World War on the side of Great Britain and the Soviet Union, but also remaking the world in the image of America after victory was secured.

Henry R. Luce

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.”

Luce assumed that U.S. leadership would be of great benefit to the world, facilitating economic abundance, freedom from tyranny, and justice for all.  In looking at America’s past, he saw no signs of malicious or greedy ambition, only “magnificent purposes,” the most noble of which was the “triumphal purpose of freedom.”[1]  Like many Americans, Luce filtered out episodes of U.S. history that cast a shadow on the American character, not the least being the recent 35-year experiment of U.S. hegemony in Latin America.[2]  That effort incurred such widespread resentment that President Franklin Roosevelt was obliged to renounce military interventionism in the region via the Good Neighbor Policy of 1933.  Would U.S. global leadership produce similar results?[3]
The U.S. emerged from the Second World War an economic powerhouse and military superpower.  The American home front had remained unscathed save for one enemy attack on Pearl Harbor.  The opportunity to establish U.S. global predominance seemed to be at hand in 1945.  The U.S. had six percent of the world’s population but more than half the world’s manufacturing capacity and three-fourths of its invested capital.  U.S. armed forces were stationed around the globe, more than six million strong, U.S. naval ships outnumbered the combined fleets of all nations, and the U.S. Air Force ruled the skies.[4]  The U.S. also had a monopoly on nuclear bombs and had used the fearsome weapons to obliterate two Japanese cities in August 1945.

The Big Three at the Tehran Conference, 1943. Left to right: Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Winston Churchill

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.[5]  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.[6]  The Soviet Union bore the brunt of the war and also did the most to defeat the Nazi war machine.

America’s other major ally, Great Britain, was bombed but not invaded during the war.  The British lost about 450,000 soldiers and civilians, roughly half the number who died in the First World War.  Britain emerged from the Second World War in financial crisis but still in command of an extensive empire that included colonies in Asia and Africa, and spheres of influence in the Mediterranean and Middle East.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill intended to maintain that empire, telling Londoners in November 1942, “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.”[7]

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.[8]

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.

Harry S. Truman

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.”[9]

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.”[10]  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.”[11]

President Truman is flanked by Stalin and Churchill at the Potsdam Conference in Germany on July 17, 1945 [National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)]

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.”[12]

To be sure, the Soviet Union proved to be an obstacle to U.S. global ambitions, but it was hardly the only one.  “Officials in Washington,” writes Leffler, sought “to organize most of the world into an American-led orbit.”[13]  This meant, if possible, establishing pro-U.S. governments and pro-capitalist, open market policies in every corner of the world – a daunting task.  U.S. leaders typically blamed resistance on “communists,” but in truth there were many people, parties, movements, and nations that did not want to be corralled into an American-led orbit or pressed into accepting “free market” economic rules.  Washington policymakers developed what might be called “empire anxiety,” a constant apprehension that other countries would tilt toward socialism, neutralism, or economic nationalism (protectionism), frustrating U.S. ambitions.  They spoke fearfully of “losing” other countries, as if all countries belonged in the U.S. orbit.

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.[14]  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 …[15]

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.”[16]  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.”[17]

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.[18]

Protest during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Oct. 1962

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.

Within the U.S., a virulent anti-communist crusade induced ideological indoctrination and sparked a zealous witch hunt for suspected subversives.  The Communist Party in the U.S., which had previously operated openly and worked in concert with other reform groups, was deemed a national security threat and its leaders were imprisoned.  A toxic form of patriotism seeped into the body politic as various domestic groups pressed their agendas in the name of anticommunism.  Conservative and some liberal politicians gained office by red baiting their opponents, labeling them “soft on communism.”  Business and Republican leaders derided New Deal Democrats as “fellow travelers” of the communists.  Southern white segregationists jumped on the bandwagon to smear the “communist” label on racial justice advocates.  Christian evangelists formed the Christian Anti-Communism Crusade, turning the geopolitical struggle into a holy war.  In 1949, preacher Billy Graham described the U.S.-Soviet rivalry as a “battle to the death … between Christ and Anti-Christ.”[19]
Today, the era of “McCarthyism” is rightly remembered as excessive and abusive in its zeal, but Senator Joseph McCarthy was hardly the only one who pushed the margins of decency.  Less acknowledged in most U.S. history accounts is the misapplication of the “communist threat” in foreign policymaking and the unnecessary carnage that ensued.[20]
The contradictions of U.S. Cold War policy came to a head in the Vietnam War.  Led to believe that the U.S. was fighting to save the “free world” from totalitarian communism, Americans were at a loss to explain why millions of Vietnamese people sided with the communist “dictator” Ho Chi Minh rather than with leaders chosen by the United States.  Nor did the Cold War ideological framework explain why so many leaders of developing countries refused to take sides in the Cold War, maintaining friendly relations with both the Soviet Union and the United States.  Were they victims of communist propaganda, unable to decipher the good guys from the bad guys?  Or were Americans bamboozled by American propaganda?[21]
This essay covers a lot of ground.  The next section examines the ideological and geopolitical underpinnings of the Cold War, including the strategic uses of anti-communism by U.S. leaders, socialist-communist philosophy, and the different manifestations of socialism.  Section III discusses the events and perspectives that led to the Cold War as well as policy alternatives in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  Sections IV, V, and VI offer case studies of U.S. interventions in other countries, highlighting eleven and noting a half-dozen more.  The last section considers the continuity of U.S. foreign policies following the Cold War and recaps what might be gleaned from this essay.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *


II. Ideological and geopolitical underpinnings of the Cold War

U.S. Information Service poster depicting the communist threat to the Philippines, August 1951

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.[22]  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.[23]  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.

The strategic uses of Cold War anti-communist ideology can be broken down into five parts.

Soviet threat perception

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.[24]  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).[25]

Expanding the “communist threat.”  Second, U.S. Cold War ideology broadened the “Soviet threat” into a geographically dispersed “communist threat.”  Hence, in the name of “containing communism,” the U.S. suppressed a communist-led rebellion in Greece, undermined democratic socialist and communist parties in Italy and France, aided French efforts to suppress a communist-led national liberation movement in Vietnam, and covertly overthrew democratically elected governments in Iran and Guatemala which were judged to be too open to communists – all in the first decade of the Cold War.  Although none of these alleged threats arose from the Soviet Union, U.S. leaders connected them to Moscow by ideological commonality.
Making the world safe for capitalism.  Third, U.S. Cold War ideology extolled the virtues of capitalism and disparaged socialism and communism (a variant of socialism) as heretical modernizing doctrines.  As the latter were leftist philosophies, the U.S. Cold War mission took on the character of a global war against the left.  Leftist governments, movements, parties, and individuals were said to be “fellow travelers” of communists by virtue of their common Marxist origins, which in turn made them accessories to the alleged Soviet plot to take over the world.  U.S. leaders furthermore took aim at governments, leftist or not, that exerted control over their own natural resources (economic nationalism), in deference to maintaining the “open market” capitalist world order.
Disguising Pax Americana.  Fourth, U.S. Cold War ideology served as a cover for U.S. hegemonic ambitions.  U.S. leaders surreptitiously transformed and distorted the concept of “national security” to encompass virtually any challenge to U.S. global interests, influence, allies, and “credibility” as a great power.  In truth, U.S. aspirations to power, often described as “leadership,” existed independently of any alleged threats from abroad.  This became clearer in the aftermath of the Cold War, as the pursuit and maintenance of U.S. global hegemony continued and new threats were found to justify it.
Rallying Americans to the cause.  Closely related to the above, U.S. Cold War ideology was immensely useful for mobilizing public support for America’s turbo-charged interventionist role in the world.  The more ominous the specter of “communism,” the less likely Americans would retreat into “isolationism,” question the wisdom of U.S. missions abroad, or withhold their tax dollars from the burgeoning military-industrial complex.  It was also a beguilingly simple ideological framework that allowed Americans to reduce the complexities of the world to a pat formula, easily understood, that verified American righteousness in all cases.  Through patriotic inculcation and intimidation – via loyalty oaths, Congressional investigations, and blacklists – anti-communist ideology became part of American national identity.  Indeed, Americans developed what might be called a national empire-identity complex in which patriotic pride was joined to global predominance.[26]

The “Third World.” The U.S. and its Western European allies were designated the “First World,” the Soviet Union and its allies, the “Second World,” and the many underdeveloped nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, the “Third World.”

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.[27]  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.

It is important to clarify here that the “free market” capitalism promoted by the U.S. abroad was not the same as the reformed capitalism that had developed within the U.S. over the previous half-century, pushed by populist, progressive, socialist, and New Deal reformers.  By the end of the New Deal, the U.S. had a mixed (capitalist-social welfare) economy that included antitrust laws, business regulations, higher taxes on the rich, and socialist-oriented programs such as Social Security.  The difference in the foreign and domestic versions of capitalism is explained by the fact that in the domestic sphere, the federal government challenged and limited corporate power and compensated for its deficiencies to some degree, whereas in foreign affairs, the government worked in tandem with business interests to secure foreign resources and market to the advantage of home industries.[28]
Had U.S. leaders promoted a New Deal type of social welfare capitalism abroad, it is likely that many poor peoples and nations would have been more receptive to U.S. economic prescriptions.  As it was, U.S. officials pushed a hard-edged, austerity-minded capitalism that relegated poor nations to suppliers of industrial nations, sustaining seemingly permanent economic underdevelopment.

Salvador Allende, president of Chile (1970-73)

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.”[29]

American ideals of political freedom and democracy were more welcome the world over, but here the problem was that the U.S. did not always practice what it preached.  The U.S., to its credit, fostered democratic institutions in occupied Japan and West Germany following the Second World War, but elsewhere the U.S. supported numerous repressive regimes, in large part to secure American corporate interests and prevent successful socialist models.  During the first decade of the Cold War, the U.S. took an active part in fostering reactionary governments in Greece, South Korea, Vietnam, Iran, and Guatemala.  It was clear to many that the U.S. prioritized its economic and geopolitical interests – the establishment of pro-U.S. governments – over its ideals of promoting freedom and democracy.

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.”

What was not generally understood was that the foreign policies of each nation were not based on its domestic institutions.
Americans were not misguided in identifying the Soviet Union as a repressive authoritarian state and the U.S. as a democratic one.  What was not generally understood, however, was that the foreign policies of each nation were not based on its domestic institutions; that repression within the Soviet Union did not automatically translate into aggression without; and that democracy within the United States did not exclude aggression, a point clearly proven by the histories of the U.S., Britain, and France.
This point was also proven in Greece some 2,500 years earlier.  The Athenian city-state’s experiment in direct democracy in the 5th century B.C. did not inhibit the Athenians from engaging in ruthless imperialism during its war with Sparta.  Thucydides, in his “Melian Dialogue,” relates the story of how Athenian military leaders demanded that the people on the island of Melos join the Athenian-dominated Delian League.  When Melian leaders refused, arguing that their neutrality posed no threat to Athens, the Athenian army proceeded to slaughter every male and sell the women and children into slavery, after which Athens colonized the island – a genocidal operation, all in all.  The blowback from this Athenian brutality was that a number of other Greek city-states sided with Sparta, a society in which democracy was limited to a council of elders.  It mattered little to the Melians or to other Greeks whether Athens had a democratic culture or not.  What mattered was Athenian foreign policy, or how Athens treated them.[30]
Similarly, with the United States in the Cold War, what mattered most to other nations and peoples was how the U.S. treated them rather than the nature of U.S. domestic institutions.  Third World leaders, much like the Melians, sought to remain nonaligned in the U.S.-Soviet Cold War rivalry and were often critical of U.S. interventionism.  Americans misread these positions as “anti-Americanism,” but this was not necessarily the case.  Many people in other lands admired American culture while opposing U.S. foreign policies, not the least being the egregious U.S. slaughter in Southeast Asia.[31]
The next subsections explore the origins and nature of socialist ideas and their three major historical manifestations:  the Western tradition of democratic socialism that arose in the latter half of the 19th century; the Soviet model of authoritarian socialism that followed the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917; and a third wave of socialist and communist movements and governments that arose in conjunction with the Second World War and decolonization thereafter.  U.S. responses to these developments are woven in, leaving aside the 1945-1950 period for closer examination in Section III.

Socialist ideas and the Western democratic tradition

Early industrialism in Europe under capitalist rules produced many critics in the first half of the 19th century, some of whom identified themselves as socialists.[32]  Among the organizations in London challenging capitalist prerogatives in the 1840s were trade unions, Christian socialists, the Chartist movement, and a group initially called the League of the Just, renamed the Communist League.  At the behest of the latter group, two German intellectuals, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, published the Communist Manifesto in 1848, a year of revolutionary agitation in Europe.
Still in their late ‘20s, the two political philosophers argued for “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” that exploited workers and called on workers (the proletariat) everywhere to unite in socialist solidarity.  “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.  They have a world to win.”  This rousing call to organize was complemented by a 10-point policy agenda that called for the abolition of property in land, a heavy graduated income tax, abolition of all rights of inheritance, the centralization of credit and means of communication and transportation in the hands of the state, the abolition of children’s factory labor, and free education for all children in public schools.[33]
Identifying their perspective as “scientific socialism,” as distinct from utopian socialism and bourgeois socialism, Marx and Engels laid out an historical trajectory that described how the feudal system, with its landed aristocracy and oppressed peasantry, was being superseded by the capitalist system, with its industrial and financial elite and exploited working class.  They predicted an “inevitable” transition to socialism, a stage in which the exploitation of workers would cease and a classless society would begin.  They vaguely outlined a further stage of communism in which scarcity and competition would be completely replaced by abundance and sharing.  Marx later defined the essence of communism as “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” a principle operative in families and some religious orders.[34]
Marx also used the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” in a later writing, by which he meant, at the socialist stage, control of the political system in the hands of the working class rather than in the hands of the capitalist class (the dictatorship of the capitalists); that is, a worker-run state.  Marx never envisioned a tyrant ruling over the masses in the name of socialism.  Marx’s theory was nonetheless vague on how future political structures would function and how those structures would be held accountable to the people.  Given the increase in governmental powers in a planned socialist economy, stronger checks and balances would surely be needed to assure democratic accountability.[35]

Karl Marx with his daughter, Jenny, in London, circa 1866

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.[36]

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.

Democratic socialism

Edward Bellamy

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.[37]

Laurence Gronlund, in The Cooperative Commonwealth (1884), similarly promoted a peaceful, evolutionary approach to socialism within the American context.  Like the socialist Fabian Society in England, which began in 1883, Gronlund argued that the solutions to the exploitation of labor and the maldistribution of income and wealth under capitalism lay in making government the ally of the working people and creating a cooperative commonwealth.  Toward that end, he helped to establish the American Socialist Fraternity in the early 1890s.[38]
The U.S. Socialist Party was founded in 1901.  Within a decade, there were 300 English and foreign-language socialist publications, reaching an estimated audience of two million readers.[39]  In 1912, the party won 1,200 seats in municipal councils, including 79 mayorships.  Presidential candidate and party leader Eugene Debs received six percent of the popular vote in a four-way race that year.  The Socialist Party platform called for the nationalization of key industries such as railroads and for collective ownership of land “wherever practicable.”[40]  In Europe, the socialist-oriented Labor Party in Great Britain, the Social Democratic Party in Germany, and the Socialist Party in France all gained large followings and won seats in national legislatures in the early 20th century.
With the publication of Imperialism: A Study (1902) by British Fabian socialist John A. Hobson, socialist ideas came to encompass a biting critique of imperialism.  Hobson aimed to disabuse his fellow citizens of the notion that the British Empire benefited the people at large, as distinct from special economic interests.[41]  More broadly, socialists argued that the basis of prosperity lay not in capitalism but in scientific and technological advances, and that these would be more productively and beneficially applied in a socialist system.  They held that capitalism skewed the distribution of income and wealth to benefit the few over the many, and misdirected industrial production away from meeting human needs to enterprises such as war industries.  Socialist theorists idealized international worker solidarity across national boundaries, and socialist legislators in Europe were in the forefront of efforts to preserve peace and reduce military expenditures.
Nonetheless, when the First World War broke out in August 1914, all of the European socialist parties fell in line with their respective national war efforts.  Only the U.S. Socialist Party remained steadfast in its opposition to war, a position that the Wilson administration would not tolerate after the U.S. entered the war in April 1917.  While promoting U.S. participation in the name of making the world “safe for democracy,” the Wilson administration suppressed dissent at home.  Under the newly enacted Espionage Act, Debs was sentenced to ten years in prison for telling a crowd in Ohio, it is “the working class who fight all the battles, the working class who make the supreme sacrifices … [Workers] have never yet had a voice in either declaring war or making peace.  It is the ruling class that invariably does both.”[42]

Albert Einstein

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.[43]

The Bolshevik Revolution and Red Scare

V. I. Lenin in Moscow, November 7, 1918

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.[44]

U.S. leaders opposed the Soviet state (formally established on December 30, 1922) not because of any concern for the well-being of Russians or because of any threat to the United States, but because the Russian Bolsheviks embraced a philosophy opposed to capitalism and Western imperialism, and because they initially endorsed a revolutionary strategy.  In March 1919, at the first meeting of the Communist International, or Comintern, held in Moscow, representatives from more than two dozen countries passed a resolution encouraging “proletarian revolution” in other countries, particularly in Germany.  By the summer of 1921, however, with revolutionary fervor in Europe having subsided, delegates to the third Comintern called for “winning the masses over to the side of the proletariat, strengthening working-class unity and implementing united front tactics.”  Communists worldwide, in other words, were encouraged to work in tandem with other reform groups.[45]

U.S. soldiers marching into Vladivostok, August 1918, in the “Midnight War” against the Bolsheviks

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.”[46]

The infamous spider chart produced by the U.S. Army, 1923 (click to enlarge)

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.[47]

Notwithstanding the U.S. Communist Party’s attachment to the Soviet Union, its dedicated activism attracted many idealistic young people during the Great Depression era.  Membership grew from 7,500 in 1930 to 55,000 in 1938, with perhaps 30,000 more unregistered party loyalists.  According to Schrecker, most Communist Party members “did not see themselves as soldiers in Stalin’s army, but as American radicals committed to a program of social and political change that would eventually produce what they hoped would be a better society.”[48]  Communist Party members worked openly with unions, ran candidates for public office in local and state elections, and promoted black civil rights as well as racial integration within the party.  In November 1946, the Communist Party candidate for Attorney General of New York, Benjamin Davis, received 96,000 votes (2%).[49]

The all-purpose anti-communist rationale

As U.S. politics shifted toward the center-left under Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s, U.S. business groups and political conservatives attempted to discredit New Deal programs by identifying them with communism and Soviet-style authoritarianism.  In the 1936 presidential election campaign, for example, the Hearst newspapers assailed President Roosevelt as “the unofficial candidate of the Comintern” and declared that his administration was “leading us towards Moscow.”[50]  In 1938, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was created to investigate disloyalty and subversive activities of “unAmerican” groups.  Led by Rep. Martin Dies, a conservative Democrat from Texas, the committee mainly searched for communists in New Deal agencies.  As Schrecker writes, “For the small-town politicians in the right wing of the Republican party and their conservative southern Democratic colleagues, HUAC’s anti-Communist investigations offered a more effective way to fight the New Deal than opposing its economic and social reforms.”[51]  In 1939, Congress passed the Hatch Act which barred Communists, Nazis, and other “totalitarians” from government employment.
In the international arena, anticommunism offered a new justification for continuing U.S. interventionism and hegemony in the Central America-Caribbean region.  In 1925, for example, when the Mexican government attempted “to reclaim its subsoil rights from U.S. oil and mining companies,” writes the historian Douglas Little, “American officials charged that Soviet subversion was responsible and discussed the possibility of military action against Mexico.”  In reality, the Mexican government’s attempt to gain control over its natural resources had little to do with communism and much to do with resisting economic domination by the United States and its corporate clients.  “American officials,” notes Little, often “misinterpreted indigenous movements for social change as manifestations of a Comintern conspiracy.  Such misperceptions had particularly tragic consequences in Central America.”[52]

Marine cavalry unit in Ocotal, Nicaragua, 1928

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.”[53]

Benito Mussolini, who achieved a fascist dictatorship in Italy in the mid-1920s, was a model for Adolf Hitler who did the same in Germany in the mid-1930s.

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.[54]

Similarly, in Greece, U.S. Ambassador Lincoln MacVeagh urged his colleagues in Washington to support the rightist government of General Ioannis Metaxas who suspended the Greek constitution and instituted a dictatorship in August 1936, citing the threat of communism.  The real threats were labor strikes, protests against the Metaxas dictatorship, and the possibility that the Greek Communist Party would be included in a new coalition government.  The party had won 15 seats in the national legislature in elections held the previous January.  Ambassador MacVeagh was unfazed by the trashing of democracy, writing to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1938, “Mr. Metaxas is quite the best man in Greek political life today.”[55]

Soviet oppression

Soviet propaganda poster, 1933: Marx and Engels are included with Lenin and Stalin as icons of the Soviet state, although the former would likely have condemned Stalin’s oppression.  Note at bottom the transition from turmoil to happiness under Stalin.  [Gustavs Klucis, public domain]

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.”[56]

Soviet authoritarianism and abuses led many Americans to vilify Marxist ideas as the source of these manifested evils, especially as Soviet leaders claimed to be the true representative of Marxism.  Yet Soviet-style socialism did not invalidate originating socialist ideas; nor did it negate the possibility of positive manifestations of socialism elsewhere, nor the possibility of humane reforms within the Soviet Union.
This philosophical point may be understood by comparing Marxism to other important originating ideas such as Christianity and democracy.  The brutal Christian Crusades (1095-1291) and periodic inquisitions did not invalidate the compassionate teachings of the founder of Christianity nor inhibit benign manifestations in other times and places.  Similarly, the cruel turn of the French Revolution of 1789 from “liberty, fraternity, and equality” to rule by terror and the guillotine in less than a decade did not negate its founding ideals.  These ideals survived and France itself eventually found its way to democratic governance.  To what degree the Soviet Union negated the originating ideas of socialism is a matter of debate, but suffice it to say that many socialists in the West believed that the authoritarian state had ranged far afield of humanitarian socialist ideals.  Michael Harrington, who led the Democratic Socialists of America in the 1980s, labeled the Soviet Union “an anti-socialist system of bureaucratic collectivism.”[57]
The Soviet Union was an empire nation.  The Russians had conquered and absorbed peoples to the east, but unlike the U.S. which forcibly removed native inhabitants to reservations as it expanded west, the inhabitants in Russian-dominated areas remained in place, ruled by czars.  Certain regions, such as the Baltic states, became independent after the First World War, only to be absorbed into the Soviet Union at the outset of the Second World War.  Still, Soviet control over subject peoples was less extensive than that of Great Britain and France.  Contrary to U.S. claims, Soviet leaders were not motivated by Marxist ideology to aggressively take over the world.  Rather, they expressed the view that capitalism would eventually fall of its own accord, whether through economic depressions or imperialist wars, and that socialists would be there to pick up the pieces and reconstruct a new world order.  Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto that capitalism produces “its own grave-diggers” in the form a growing impoverished proletariat that would one day gain political power.
This issue came to light in a rather interesting way on November 18, 1956, when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev was quoted in the U.S. press as telling a group of Western diplomats, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side.  We will bury you!” (My vas pokhoronim!)  Not surprisingly, this quotation alarmed Americans and seemed to confirm their worst suspicions about Soviet intentions.  A more accurate translation of the phrase, however, was:  “We shall be present at your funeral!” or “We shall outlive you!”  The latter interpretations were in keeping with the general evolutionary view of Soviet leaders.  Cold Warriors in the U.S. nonetheless found it useful to propagate the first misleading interpretation, plastering Khrushchev’s quote along with menacing pictures of him in advertisements on public buses and trains.[58]

The third wave of socialism

Teenage Italian resistance fighter during the Second World War

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.[59]

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.”[60]  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.[61]

Deterring democracy
In Washington, the Truman administration had no intention of letting democracy take its course in Europe if the results were leftist parties coming to power.  Washington officials claimed that “wherever and however Communists gained power, they would pursue policies that directly or indirectly served the purposes of the Soviet government,” according to Leffler.[62]  Unwilling to accept the premise that socialist ideas and parties were attractive to many citizens, U.S. leaders charged that communist propaganda was at work and set out to make “democracy” conform to American ends.

Alcide de Gasperi, at microphone, addresses a huge crowd in Rome after his party’s electoral victory in April 1948 [AP]

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.[63]  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.”[64]

The gambit succeeded.  The Christian Democracy Party led by Alcide de Gasperi came out on top with 48 percent of the vote as compared to 31 percent for the leftist coalition.  President Truman sent his personal congratulations to CIA director Admiral Roscoe Hillenkoetter.[65]  A month after the election, Truman demanded that Gasperi expel all leftist representatives from his cabinet, but this was not possible in light of the substantial vote for the left.  Gasperi steered a middle course, an indication that the U.S. was not omnipotent over its allies.

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.”[66]

Dictators Antonio De Oliveira Salazar of Portugal (left) and Francisco Franco of Spain (right) gained U.S. support

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.

The Truman administration also lent support to the right-wing dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco in Spain.  Whereas the U.S., Britain, and France had all denounced Franco’s government as pro-Nazi and totalitarian in 1946, by the early 1950s, the Truman administration had come to embrace the dictator in exchange for the right to establish U.S. military bases on Spanish soil.  In 1953, the Eisenhower administration signed a treaty with Spain that stipulated the provision of generous U.S. economic and military aid to the fascist government.  In 1959, President Eisenhower invited Franco to the White House and praised him as “a strong and enduring leader.”[67]
In the colonized lands of Asia and Africa, many people hoped that the United States would live up to its democratic ideals and support their quests for independence from European imperial rule.  In August 1941, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill issued a joint statement known as the Atlantic Charter that guaranteed the right of self-determination for all peoples.  Churchill later backed off from his pledge, insisting that it should not apply to British colonies.  Roosevelt, seeking a middle way, called for an international trusteeship system that would assume control over European colonies after the war.  The idea was endorsed by Stalin at the wartime conference in Tehran in November 1943.  When the Charter of the United Nations was written in 1945, however, Britain and France inserted language that allowed European powers to retain their colonies, even as the charter blithely encouraged “respect for human rights and for fundamental freedoms for all.”[68]

Ho Chi Minh beseeched the U.S. in vain to support Vietnamese independence [Communist Party of Vietnam]

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.[69]  The U.S. began actively aiding the French in February 1950, joining the side of the oppressor.

America’s democratic image also suffered from the creation of a repressive, authoritarian state in South Korea.  Syngman Rhee, who had lived most of his life in the United States, was installed by the U.S. as head of the “Representative Democratic Council” in February 1946.  Together with his American advisors, Rhee created a 25,000-member police force that jailed, tortured, and killed dissidents by the thousands.  The repression grew worse in 1947 and 1948, as Rhee’s street gangs and government-deputized groups terrorized communists, the non-communist left, and labor unions, forcing them underground.  By 1949, when the American occupation ended, South Korea was in the hands of a reactionary government that defied in practice every American statement in support of freedom and democracy.[70]

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.[71]

Many of the newly independent nations chose the path of democratic socialism or just socialism.  Algeria, Burma, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Seychelles, Sudan, and Syria all wrote socialism into their constitutions; for example, “The Arab Republic of Egypt is a democratic, socialist state based on the alliance of the working forces of the people.”[72]  The leading proponent of socialism in Africa, Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania in the 1960s, espoused a vision of communitarian socialism that was rooted in African traditions, cooperative village life, and communal ownership of land, known as Ujamaa (familyhood) in Swahili.  For many, the definition of socialism winnowed down to the basic precept of economic sharing, with each country experimenting how this should be done.  Given that national borders had been imposed by colonial powers, political power struggles were rife, national unity was fragile, and democratic institutions proved difficult to achieve in the emerging nations.
Whether socialist or not, virtually all newly independent nations wanted to prevent foreign exploitation and develop their own national economies; hence, they supported protectionist policies, or economic nationalism.  “From Southeast Asia to the Middle East and to North Africa,” writes Leffler, “Indonesians, Vietnamese, Iranians, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Tunisians clamored for the right to determine their own future or to gain control of their own resources or to expel the formal or informal remnants of the colonial past.”[73]  In short, they did not want “free market” capitalism shoved down their throats.
U.S. leaders viewed Third World economic nationalism as a threat to U.S. interests and global capitalist designs.[74]  A number of administration officials expressed the view that, without guaranteed access to foreign markets, the U.S. domestic economy would sink into another depression.  None were willing to openly admit that the “free market” system they championed was ill-fitted to lift poor nations out of poverty, capitalist modernization theories notwithstanding, which is why so many people in poor countries were attracted to socialist options.  Rather than address the systematic inequalities of the capitalist world order, U.S. leaders focused obsessively on suppressing leftist ideas, movements, parties, and governments.  They also sought to counter the Arab nationalist movement led by Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser during the 1950s and 1960s, which mixed socialism, economic nationalism, and Arab unity across North Africa and the Middle East.

George Kennan

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.[75]

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.[76]  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

All underdeveloped nations welcomed economic aid from the U.S. or the Soviet Union, but few wanted to align with either Cold War bloc.  Most were determined to remain neutral, or non-aligned, to the chagrin of U.S. leaders.

Bandung Conference leaders Jawaharlal Nehru of India, Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia, and Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia, 1955

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.[77]  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.

As with economic nationalism, U.S. leaders generally viewed neutralism as a threat to U.S. global designs.   Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, speaking before an American Legion convention in Miami in October 1955, criticized “the principle of neutrality” as “being indifferent to the fate of others.”  He declared that “except under very exceptional circumstances, neutrality today is an immoral and shortsighted conception.”  The following year, President Eisenhower publicly modified this stance to accept the legitimacy of neutralism, in part because the Soviet Union appeared to be benefiting from America’s intolerant position, and in part because the U.S. itself had avoided military alliances for 150 years.  Yet U.S. policies continued to reflect the presumption that neutralism was a doorway to communist influence and thus should be discouraged.[78]
Neutralism was particularly discouraged in Latin America, a region over which U.S. leaders assumed hegemony.  According to a National Security Council (NSC) report in February 1959, “A defection by any significant number of Latin American countries to the ranks of neutralism, or the exercise of a controlling Communist influence over their governments, would seriously impair the ability of the United States to exercise effective leadership in the Free World, particularly in the UN, and constitute a blow to US prestige.”[79]
The exceptional circumstance was Yugoslavia.  U.S. leaders welcomed the neutralism of Communist Party leader Josip Broz Tito after he broke with Stalin in 1948.  Washington offered aid to the Yugoslavian government to encourage its continuing opposition to the Soviet Union, though Tito had no interest in aligning with the West.  Some insightful Americans such as political scientist Hans Morgenthau suggested in the 1950s that the “Tito option” be applied to Vietnam, considering Vietnam’s traditional adversarial relationship with China, but Washington policymakers rejected this reasonable option in favor of a huge imperial endeavor to carve out a separate, noncommunist nation in the southern half of Vietnam.[80]

NIEO stamps issued by the UN Postal Administration, 1980

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.[81]

Both the Non-Aligned Movement and the NIEO proposal signified a rejection of U.S. global leadership and designs by Third World nations.  The latter also challenged U.S. dominance in the United Nations.  According to the historian Odd Arne Westad, “Since its foundation, Washington had thought of the UN as an extension of its own power, symbolized by the war in Korea, where US troops officially fought against Chinese and Korean Communist forces on behalf of the United Nations.  But the advent of new, independent Third World states began already in 1960 to change the role of the United Nations into a more diverse forum, less susceptible to American influence than before.”[82]  This was evident in voting patterns in the UN General Assembly.  In the 1950s, Third World delegates voted with the U.S. 70 percent of the time; in the 1970s, 30 percent; and in the 1980s, 20 percent.[83]  Though U.S. leaders continued to proclaim leadership of the “free world,” most people therein did not endorse America’s self-centered vision of the “American Century.”
*          *          *          *          *          *          *

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.

Henry A. Wallace, Time, Aug. 9, 1948.

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.”[84]

Wallace believed that cooperation with the Soviet Union could continue if the U.S. extended a hand of friendship.  He ran afoul of the president when speaking at a rally in New York City on September 12, 1946.  Inveighing against those who “try to provoke war between the United States and Russia” and he offered a simple formula for peaceful coexistence:  “Russia must be convinced that we are not planning for war against her, and we must be certain that Russia is not carrying on territorial expansion.”  Following the speech, Secretary of State Byrnes threatened to resign if Truman did not fire Wallace.  Other cabinet members disparaged Wallace as a “fellow traveler,” pointing to communist support for him.  Truman fired Wallace on September 20.[85]  Wallace ran for president under the Progressive Party banner in 1948, garnering only 2.4 percent of the popular vote.

Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN, July 1947 [FDR Presidential Library]

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.”[86]

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.[87]

Policy alternatives

In hindsight, the choices available to the Truman administration can be grouped into six categories, described below from the most cooperative to the most warlike.  In the main, the Truman administration settled on the fourth and fifth options.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.[88]  U.S. leaders furthermore applied the policy of “containment” to the Third World, supporting rightist authoritarian regimes that suppressed leftist movements and parties.
  1. 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.[89]  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.”[90]  Although containment remained the official U.S. policy, Washington continued to pursue clandestine “regime change” operations around the world.
  1. 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.”[91]  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.”[92]

British cartoon by David Lowe, 1946: Truman, In possession of the bomb, makes demands in lieu of negotiating with British and Soviet leaders.

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.[93]

US-Soviet relations

British poster, 1941: “Greetings to the heroic warriors of the Soviet Union from the British allies fighting with them” [UK National Archives]

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.[94]

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.

US and Soviet troops meet at a bridge over the Elbe River near Torgau, Germany April 25, 1945 [NARA]

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.[95]

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.[96]  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.”[97]  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.

Stalin conceived of security in terms of traditional balance of power arrangements.  In October 1944, he and British Prime Minister Churchill, another Old School power broker, agreed to a division of influence in Eastern Europe after the war as follows:  Britain would have 90% influence in Greece; the Soviets would have 90% influence in Romania and 75% in Bulgaria; and influence in Yugoslavia and Hungary would be divided 50-50.[98]  (Poland was not part of this big power agreement.)

Churchill-Stalin percentages agreement, October 1944

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.[99]

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.”[100] 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.[101]

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.

Poland and Greece
By tradition, the nation that liberated a country in a war had the right to form a postwar government, which meant that the Soviet Union was responsible for forming governments in Eastern European nations.  Stalin nonetheless wanted to accommodate his wartime allies and thus, at the insistence of the U.S. and Britain at the Yalta conference in February 1945, agreed to allow democratic elections in Poland.  Roosevelt, for his part, sought to placate Stalin’s security concerns by supporting a center-left coalition in Poland that would pose no threat to the Soviet Union, in contrast to the London-based Polish government-in-exile that was decidedly anti-Soviet.  This was a tacit way of accepting Soviet influence in Poland.
The Yalta agreement required that the Soviet Union reorganize the Provisional Polish government, which had taken charge in December 1944, “on a broader democratic basis with the inclusion of democratic leaders from Poland itself and from Poles abroad.”  Poland was to hold “free and unfettered elections as soon as possible on the basis of universal suffrage and secret ballot.  In these elections all democratic and anti-Nazi parties shall have the right to take part and to put forward candidates.”[102]  The last sentence was important because the Provisional Government used it as a pretext to outlaw all Polish political parties except the Polish peasant party (PSL) and the Government bloc (Communist Party).  Moreover, in the run-up to the elections for the 444-seat unicameral Sejm scheduled for January 1947, there were reports of government intimidation, censorship, imprisonment of dissidents, and even execution of PSL supporters.  The Government bloc won 80 percent of the vote.[103]
The skewed election in Poland caused much consternation in Washington and London.  Yet the Soviet Union was not the only one to manipulate democracy.  In the spring of 1945, the British ousted a conservative government in Greece and installed a more reactionary one headed by Petros Voulgaris, a naval admiral.  The Voulgaris government brutally suppressed the left and outlawed the Greek Communist Party, accusing it of being “supported by Russian sympathy.”  In reality, Stalin held to his agreement with Churchill and stayed out of Greece completely.  He hoped for the same treatment in Poland.  Stalin cabled Churchill, “Poland is to the security of the Soviet Union what Belgium and Greece are to the security of Great Britain.”[104]
“Poland is to the security of the Soviet Union what Belgium and Greece are to the security of Great Britain.” – Stalin to Churchill

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.”[105]  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.[106]

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.”[107]  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.”[108]  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.”[109]

All in all, the U.S. and Great Britain were the dominant players in the international arena – and they intended to keep it that way.  Leffler writes, “No matter how much the two Anglo-Saxon nations might compete for oil concessions, markets, and investment opportunities, U.S. policymakers relied on the British to uphold their common strategic interest in this part of the world.”[110]

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.[111]

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.”[112]

Based in part on a skewed reading of Soviet ideology, U.S. leaders predicted worst case scenarios of Soviet behavior, which included an attack on Western Europe and an invasion of the Mideast.  Indeed, in the summer of 1946, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff drew up a contingency war plan, code-named PINCHER, envisioning a war against the Soviet Union over the Mideast.  Also problematic, according to the historian John Iatrides, was Kennan’s “portrayal of indigenous Communist parties as Moscow’s willing pawns.”  This portrayal “helped strengthen simplistic perceptions that were oblivious to the powerful forces of nationalism in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere, and distorted Washington’s view of the causes of the growing Communist insurgency in Greece.”[113]
The administration’s overwrought portrayal of “communist threats” nonetheless served a useful purpose in justifying the expansion of U.S. power.  According to Melvyn Leffler, the Truman administration planned a global network of bases and airfields immediately after the Japanese surrender in September 1945.  Primary areas for bases, he writes, “stretched to the western shores of the Pacific … encompassed the polar air routes … and projected U.S. power into the Eastern Atlantic (the Azores) as well as the Caribbean and the Panama Canal zone.  Dozens of additional sites were denoted as secondary and minor base areas.”  These overseas bases would “permit the United States to project its power in peacetime and to punish an aggressor in wartime,” quell “prospective unrest in Northeast and Southeast Asia,” maintain “access to critical raw materials,” and “attack the vital regions of any enemy should war seem imminent.”[114]  The goals were to secure U.S. military predominance and a U.S.-led world order congruent with capitalist-market principles.  The requisite defensive justifications followed.

President Truman and Winston Churchill arrive in Fulton, Missouri, March 5, 1946

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.[115]

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.[116]

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.[117]

The Clifford-Elsey report

Clark Clifford, special counsel to the president, Dec. 1947

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.[118]

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.”[119]

The idea that the West might pose a danger to the Soviet Union by encircling it with bases and isolating it economically was deemed “absurd” by Clifford and Elsey, merely a Soviet propaganda theme aimed at rousing Soviet citizens against the West.  “The Soviet Government, in developing the theme of ‘encirclement,’ maintains continuous propaganda for domestic consumption regarding the dangerously aggressive intentions of American ‘atom diplomacy’ and British imperialism, designed to arouse in the Soviet people fear and suspicion of all capitalistic nations.”[120]
The authors held out little hope for easing tensions.  Should the U.S. offer aid to the Soviet Union, they judged that, despite “sentiments of gratitude,” Soviet leaders were “unlikely to be induced by goodwill gifts to modify its general policies.”  Worse still, they argued, the aid “will go to strengthen the entire world program of the Kremlin.”  The only faint glimmer of hope offered by the authors was that someday in the future Soviet leaders would “change their minds and work out with us a fair and equitable settlement when they realize that we are too strong to be beaten and too determined to be frightened.”[121]
The report’s recommendations for meeting the “communist threat” fell just short of war:  an immediate upgrade of U.S. military capabilities, expansion of the U.S. atomic arsenal, the acquisition of more overseas military bases, the provision of military and economic aid to any government deemed threatened by the Soviet Union, and the securing of U.S. influence in “Western Europe, the Middle East, China and Japan.”[122]  Though the Clifford-Elsey report remained classified, it pushed the administration a step further toward open confrontation with the Soviet Union and “communism.”  As such, the report deserves cross-examination.

“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.[123]

The Truman Doctrine

President Truman addresses a joint session of Congress, March 12, 1947 [Truman library]

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.[124]  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 dealt with Eastern Europe rather briefly in his speech, saying that the “peoples of a number of countries of the world have recently had totalitarian regimes forced upon them against their will,” noting Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria.  While it was true that the Soviet Union imposed pro-Soviet governments on these nations, this was technically a right of occupation and the U.S. acted similarly in Japan and South Korea.  Truman also failed to note that America’s allies, Britain and France, imposed their wills on a far greater number of people in their African and Asian colonies.  Indeed, at that very time, the French were engaged in a colonial war to restore their imperial control in Vietnam.[125]

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.”[126]

The president’s call to action followed:  “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures…. The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms.  If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world – and we shall surely endanger the welfare of our own nation.”[127]
By this invocation, Truman extended U.S. “national security” to the world.  Henceforth, the loss of U.S. influence anywhere would presumably constitute a threat to U.S. national security.  Political commentator Walter Lippman called it a “strategic monstrosity,” which it was if examined from the vantage point of legitimate national security requirements; but it was rather a clever design if global hegemony was the goal.[128]  U.S. interventionism in any part of the world could now be justified in the name of protecting “free peoples,” later described as the “free world.”  Historically, the Truman Doctrine built on earlier interventionist rationales:  the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine of 1904, which declared the right of the U.S. to “exercise international police power” in order to correct “chronic wrongdoing” in the Western Hemisphere; and Woodrow Wilson’s declaration in April 1917 that the U.S. must enter the Great War in order to make the world “safe for democracy.”[129]
Polls taken after Truman’s speech showed public opinion more favorable than not, but nonetheless uneasy about the prospect of war.  On the one hand, 58% of Americans agreed that the U.S. needed to take “a strong stand in European affairs,” as compared to 32% who said that the U.S. should try to get out of European affairs.  On the other hand, 63% said that the “problem of aid to Greece and Turkey” should be turned over to the United Nations, implying a diminished role for the U.S. and a more peaceful, conflict-resolution approach.[130]  The editors of The Christian Century, a liberal Protestant magazine, speculated that the Truman Doctrine “may lead this nation down a long an blood-soaked road.”[131]
Some members of Congress recognized the unpalatable policy implications of the Truman Doctrine.  Senator Robert Taft of Ohio voiced his objection to “the policy of dividing the world into zones of political influence, Communist and anti-Communist,” warning that this could lead to war.  Senator Glen Taylor of Idaho was prescient in predicting that passage of the Greek-Turkish aid bill would set “the pattern all over the world.  The Royalists, the dictators, the Fascists, and just plain exploiters will cry out that they are threatened by communism, and move up to the trough.”  Senator Claude Pepper of Florida along with Eleanor Roosevelt criticized Truman’s marginalization of the United Nations.  Pepper and Taylor introduced a Senate resolution to forbid U.S. aid to Greece except under UN auspices, but the proposal was tabled.[132]
Though Truman succeeded in persuading a majority of members of Congress to approve the aid package to Greece and Turkey, his hyperbolic rendition of the “communist threat” came back to haunt him.  Having raised the specter of communism as a global menace, some members of Congress asked why Truman had not asked for more aid for Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces fighting Mao Tse Tung’s communist army in China.  Acheson had no answer except to say, “You must approach each situation as it occurs, in light of the facts of that situation.”[133]  Following Mao’s announcement of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949, Republicans had a field day hounding Truman for “losing China.”

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.

According to the historian David Caute, “Truman came under increasing attack from the anti-Communist coalition of embittered Southern Democrats and anti-New Deal Republicans who had been growling and snarling in the wings since the Congressional elections of 1938.”  Republicans invoked the danger of “communism” in the 1946 Congressional election campaigns.  On the eve of the November election, House Republican leader Joseph W. Martin declared, “The people will vote tomorrow between chaos, confusion, bankruptcy, state socialism or communism, and the preservation of our American way of life.”  He pledged to give priority to “cleaning out the Communists, their fellow travelers and parlor pinks from high positions in our Government.”[134]
In Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy accused his Democratic senatorial opponent of being “Communistically inclined.”  In California, Richard Nixon put out the message, “A vote for Nixon is a vote against the Communist-dominated PAC [Political Action Committee of the Congress of Industrial Organizations] with its gigantic slush fund.”  Nixon accused his Democratic opponent, incumbent Representative Jerry Voorhis, of consistently voting “the Moscow-PAC-Henry Wallace line.”  The Republican strategy worked.  Nixon won easily, 65,586 to 49,994, and Republicans captured a majority of House seats.  The Democratic Party’s share fell from 242 seats in 1944 to 188 in 1946.[135]

FBI director J. Edger Hoover, testifying before HUAC in 1947, declares that the Communist Party USA is seeking to overthrow the U.S. government [AP photo]

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.[136]

In the 1948 presidential election campaign, Truman took the advice of Clark Clifford, co-author of the Clifford-Elsey report, to “identify and isolate” Henry A. Wallace, the Progressive Party presidential nominee, “with the communists.”  Administration officials accused Wallace and the Progressive Party of being tools of Moscow.  As Truman told a gathering at a St. Patrick’s Day dinner, “I do not want and I will not accept the support of Henry Wallace and his Communists.”[137]  No doubt, Truman wanted to distinguish himself from the “radical” Wallace, but in doing so, he detached his party from the sharp critique of capitalism’s deficiencies that had prompted earlier Progressive and New Deal era reforms.  His own Fair Deal reform proposals of September 1945 went nowhere in the conservative political climate he helped to foster.  It appears that Truman’s main interest in rallying the public against “communism” was to break the “isolationist” spirit that inhibited an American global interventionist foreign policy.  Internationalist-minded Republicans shared this goal but were also intent on crippling the domestic social welfare state.

McCarthyism as seen by cartoonist Herb Block

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.”[138]

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?[139]

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.

Senator McCarthy was censured by the Senate in December 1954 after presenting fake evidence of alleged communist infiltration in the Army Signal Corps, but the anti-communist mania did not end there.  In 1955, the Pentagon produced a pamphlet titled “How to Spot a Communist,” reprinted in popular magazines, which advised citizens to pay close attention to words that would indicate a proclivity for communism; for example:  “Even a superficial reading of an article written by a Communist or a conversation with one will probably reveal the use of some of the following expressions: integrative thinking, vanguard, comrade, hootenanny, chauvinism, book-burning, syncretistic faith, bourgeois-nationalism, jingoism, colonialism, hooliganism, ruling class, progressive, demagogy, dialectical, witch-hunt, reactionary, exploitation, oppressive, materialist.”  The pamphlet added that while “all of the above expressions are part of the English language, their use by Communists is infinitely more frequent than by the general public.”[140]

The Cold War solidifies

Following the induction of West Germany into NATO in early May 1954, the Soviet Union and Eastern European countries, including East Germany, established the Warsaw Pact, thus dividing Europe into opposing military blocs.

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.”[141]

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.”[142]

The Soviets clamped down.  In February 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, which had won 38 percent of the vote in the 1946 elections, took charge of the government, fearing defeat in the upcoming May 1948 elections.  When protests erupted on the streets, Soviet tanks rolled in to establish order.  Democracy was crushed.  In June, President Truman approved NSC 10/2 which gave the green light to CIA subversion in Eastern Europe, including “sabotage” and “assistance to underground resistance movements.”  NSC 20, signed on November 24, 1948, furthermore specified:  “Place the maximum strain on the Soviet structure of power and particularly on the relationships between Moscow and the satellite countries.”[143]  Aggressive rollback policies belied the administration’s official doctrine of “containment.”
The Marshall Plan, NATO, and the Berlin Airlift

George C. Marshall at Harvard, June 5, 1947 [Marshall Foundation]

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.”[144]

Marshall extended the offer of U.S. aid to the Soviet Union and Eastern European nations, and Soviet leaders were initially interested.  However, at a meeting in Washington called by Marshall on May 28, 1947, U.S. officials decided that for Eastern European countries to take part in the program, they would have to open their economies to “broad European integration,” which meant the West.  Upon learning of this decision, Nikolay Novikov, the Soviet ambassador to the U.S., reported to Moscow that the Marshall plan was yet another device “to bring European countries under the economic and political control of American capital.”  After an initial period of indecision, Stalin resolved to prevent Eastern European countries from participating in the Marshall Plan.  “Using the pretext of credits,” he told a visiting Czech delegation, “the Great Powers are attempting to form a Western bloc and isolate the Soviet Union.”[145]
To obtain Congressional approval of the Marshall Plan, administration officials went all out to raise the specter of communism in western Europe, surpassing their previous effort to secure aid for Greece and Turkey.  The fact that the Soviet Union had indirectly supported a coup in Czechoslovakia on February 25, 1948, and had also invited Finland to participate in a mutual defense treaty provided administration officials with enough grounds to make the case that communism was on the march in Europe.  Upcoming elections in Italy were deemed a referendum on whether “communist aggression” would succeed, as if the election of a popular coalition of leftist parties was equivalent to a military attack by the Soviet Union.  Former Secretary of State James Byrnes, speaking at the Citadel in South Carolina on March 13, raised the possibility of a clash between the U.S. and Soviet Union if the leftist coalition won.  “There is nothing to justify the hope that with the complete absorption of Czechoslovakia and Finland the Soviets will be satisfied,” he said.  His speech was widely published.[146]
Two days later, on March 15, Marshall testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warning that “totalitarian control” had tightened over Eastern Europe and that “other European peoples face a similar threat of being drawn against their will into the communist orbit.”  On March 17, President Truman addressed Congress and the nation via radio, denouncing the Soviet Union’s “ruthless course of action and the clear design to extend it to the remaining nations of Europe.”  The following day, the State Department publicized diplomatic dispatches from Athens erroneously reporting that three Soviet-supported brigades in the Balkans were poised to attack Greece.
On March 19, Marshall spoke again, likening the current situation to that which existed in 1939, when he had “watched the Nazi government take control of one country after another until finally Poland was invaded in a direct military operation.”  He urged speedy approval of the Marshall Plan.  On March 25, Navy Secretary John Sullivan added a more direct national security threat, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee that submarines “belonging to no nation west of the ‘iron curtain’ have been sighted off our shores.”  The statement made the headlines in the Washington Times Herald, “Russian Subs Prowl West Coast Waters.”  That same day, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal presented to the Senate Armed Services a proposal to increase the military budget by 30 percent for the following year.[147]
All of this hype belied the fact that the Soviet Union made no aggressive moves against the West whatsoever.  It was typical propaganda, turning a potential threat into an immanent military threat, while hiding U.S. aggression (sabotage operations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union).  Overwhelmed by the administration’s public relations offensive, Congress passed the Marshall Plan (Foreign Assistance Act of 1948) on April 3.  The vote was 329 to 74 in the House, and 69 to 17 in the Senate.  President Truman immediately signed the measure into law.  All told, between 1948 and 1951, the U.S. funneled about $12 billion in U.S. aid to Western European nations.  Of that amount, roughly $2 billion was used to procure American tobacco.[148]  In 1952, the European Recovery Act was transformed into a military aid program.

The Berlin Airlift: A C-54 cargo plane arrives with goods for West Berliners

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.”[149]

To break the blockade, the U.S. and Britain organized a massive airlift of food and supplies to 2.5 million West Berliners that lasted almost eleven months.  The Soviet Union made no effort to shoot down the slow-flying cargo planes flying over East Germany.  With the signing of the NATO pact on April 4, 1949, the Berlin blockade seemed pointless and the Soviets ended it on May 12.  The NATO pact initially included Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Great Britain, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the United States.  President Truman welcomed it as “a shield against aggression.”[150]  All in all, the Berlin blockade was a high-stakes diplomatic gamble, not a test of military strength.

NSC 68 and the Korean War

The exultation among Western leaders at backing down the Soviets over West Berlin and establishing NATO was short-lived.  In August 1949, the Soviet Union successfully tested a nuclear bomb and two months later, Mao Tse Tung’s communist forces declared victory in the Chinese civil war.  Insecurity was now heightened on the U.S. side.  The Truman administration commissioned another assessment of Soviet intentions and capabilities.  The result was NSC 68, presented to the president in April 1950.
NSC 68 reiterated the ideological paradigm set forth in the Clifford-Elsey report and the Truman Doctrine, charging that the Soviet Union was animated by a fanatical ideology to impose its “absolute authority over the rest of the world,” and that Soviet leaders would pursue this goal through every available means, including “political aggression” – an oblique reference to democratic elections in which leftists won the popular vote.  The authors recommended a mixture of containment and rollback policies:  “block further expansion of Soviet power … induce retraction of the Kremlin’s control and influence, and … foster the seeds of destruction within the Soviet system [so] that the Kremlin is brought at least to the point of modifying its behavior to conform to generally accepted international standards.”  Truman signed the report in September, making it official policy.[151]

Korean War map (June 1950 – July 1953)

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.[152]

The first contingent of U.S. forces was dispatched to Korea on June 29, without the approval of Congress.  To get around the Constitutional mandate that only Congress can declare war, Truman called the intervention a “police action.”  Immediately after U.S. troops departed, opinion polls indicated that 78 percent of Americans approved of the president’s decision, as compared to 15 percent who disapproved.  A Gallup poll nonetheless found that 53 percent of Americans believed the war in Korea would lead to World War III.  The Soviet Union, however, steered clear of direct involvement.  American men of draft age were conscripted to fight the war and over 36,000 U.S. soldiers died in it.  By January 1953, American public support for the war had declined to 50 percent, while 36 percent said it was a mistake to get involved in Korea.[153]  The three-year war took the lives of three to four million Koreans and produced six to seven million refugees – a horrendous toll.
The Korean War ended in a truce in July 1953.  Later dubbed the “Forgotten War,” the Korean War has never been forgotten in Korea, and it was not forgotten in the U.S. in the decade that followed.  In deference to the “Korean syndrome,” President Lyndon Johnson promised the American people in the 1964 election campaign that “our boys” would not be sent to fight in another Asian land war – in Vietnam – a promise he failed to keep.[154]

War and peace in the Nuclear Age

One year after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, John Hersey tells the personal stories of six survivors

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.

The Nuclear Age was said to make war between great powers “unthinkable,” but in actuality, the Joint Chiefs of Staff submitted an atomic war plan to the president in the spring of 1948.  The plan predicted that a 30-day U.S. nuclear attack on the Soviet Union would kill 2.7 million people and destroy 30 to 40 percent of Soviet industrial capacity.  The president signed a modified version of the plan in September.  Outside the secretive executive branch, an open public discussion took place as to whether the U.S. should bomb Russia back to the Stone Age before the Soviets acquired their own bomb, which was expected.  Lt.-General James H. Doolittle, speaking on his own in April 1949, stated that the U.S. must “be prepared, physically, mentally and morally, to drop atom bombs on Russian centers of industry at the first sign of aggression.”  He did not elaborate on exactly what Soviet actions would be considered aggression.
Such talk prompted General Dwight Eisenhower to say in St. Louis, “I decry loose and sometimes gloating talk about the high degree of security implicit in a weapon that might destroy millions overnight.”  General Omar Bradley, Army Chief of Staff, speaking February 4, 1949, captured the larger perspective:  “Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.  We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than about living.”
In line with Bradley’s comments, scientists Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein launched the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists in 1946 to warn the public of the dangers of nuclear weapons.  Einstein, as chair of the committee, declared that scientists “must let the people know that a new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive.”  The group joined with the World Federalist Association and peace advocates in pressing the U.S. government to place its monopoly of nuclear weapons under international control, but proposals to this end ultimately fell prey to Cold War distrust.  In January 1950, President Truman announced his decision to develop a hydrogen bomb, many times more powerful than the 15-kiloton bomb dropped on Hiroshima.  Einstein warned, “general annihilation beckons.”[155]

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.[156]

“Castle Bravo,” the 15 megaton nuclear explosion in the Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954, was 1,000 times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb

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.[157]

The Japanese were the first to organize en masse against nuclear weapons.  Following the Lucky Dragon incident, a petition against nuclear testing garnered some 32 million signatures within one year.  A global halt to nuclear weapons testing was proposed by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a step toward ending the nuclear arms race and preventing nuclear proliferation.  On July 11, 1955, British philosopher Bertrand Russell issued a manifesto signed by Einstein and six other scientists urging “peaceful means for the settlements of all matters in dispute” between nations.  There would be no victors in a nuclear war, explained Russell, but the human race could be exterminated by radioactive fallout.  The American public was sufficiently concerned with the dangers of open-air nuclear testing that Democratic presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, proposed a ban on hydrogen bomb tests as part of his campaign platform in 1956.[158]
President Eisenhower and Secretary Dulles viewed the growing anti-nuclear sentiment with consternation.  At a White House meeting in September 1956, the president acknowledged “the rising concern of people everywhere over the effect of radiation from tests … and their extreme nervousness over the prospective consequences of any nuclear war.”  At a NSC meeting in May 1957, Dulles noted that “world opinion was not yet ready to accept the general use of nuclear weapons,” and “that all this would change at some point in the future, but the time had not yet come.”[159]
Only weeks later, on June 3, 1957, a NSC report confirmed the administration’s intention to keep its options open:  “It is the policy of the United States to place main, but not sole, reliance on nuclear weapons; to integrate nuclear weapons with other weapons in the arsenal of the United States; to consider them as conventional weapons from a military point of view; and to use them when required to achieve national objectives.”  The administration’s reticence to recognize the danger of nuclear fallout was evident when it sent 3,000 armed forces personnel to witness a nuclear explosion at the Nevada Test Site on August 31, 1957.  These and other “downwinders” paid dearly for the illusion of national security.[160]
In November 1957, the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, or SANE, made its debut with an advertisement in the New York Times calling for an immediate suspension of nuclear testing by all countries followed by arms control talks.  By the summer of 1958, SANE had some 130 chapters and 25,000 members.  Other activists, inspired by the example of Gandhi, initiated civil disobedience actions by illegally entering the Nevada test site and sailing a ship, the Phoenix, into the U.S. test zone in the Pacific.  They formed the Committee for Nonviolent Action thereafter.[161]
Contemptuous of the anti-nuclear peace movement, military officials pressed President Eisenhower to use nuclear weapons to prevent Communist China from taking over Taiwan in 1958.  In response to Communist forces shelling the island in August, General Lawrence S. Kutner, the top Air Force commander for the Pacific, sought authorization “for a first-use nuclear attack on mainland China at the start of any armed conflict,” according to the New York Times.  “To that end, he praised a plan that would start by dropping atomic bombs on Chinese airfields but not other targets, arguing that its relative restrain would make it harder for skeptics of nuclear warfare in the American government to block the plan.”  The plan, OPS PLAN 25-28, adopted by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in May 1958, provided a basis for attacking China with 10 to 15 kiloton tactical nuclear weapons – Hiroshima-sized nuclear bombs – “to destroy the war-making capability” of China.  President Eisenhower, however, chose to continue presidential authority over the use of nuclear weapons.  China, in any case, pulled back from its attack in September, ending the crisis.[162]
From November 1958 to September 1961, the U.S. and the Soviet Union agreed to a nuclear testing moratorium. There followed a Partial Test Ban Treaty signed by the U.S., the Soviet Union , and Britain in 1963, which banned above-ground tests. The treaty was an environmental and health victory, but it did not stop nuclear weapons testing or the arms race, as more tests were conducted underground.  SANE and other groups such as Women Strike for Peace continued to organize public opposition to the nuclear arms race throughout the long Cold War.

Vermont contingent in the massive demonstration for a nuclear weapons freeze, New York City, June 12, 1982 [outrider.org]

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.[163]  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.

Over the course of the Cold War, a number of arms control treaties were signed, including the Antarctica Treaty of 1961, Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963, Latin American Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty of 1967, Outer Space Treaty of 1967, Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, Seabed Arms Control Treaty of 1971, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaties (1972 and 1979), and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

IV. U.S. interventionism run amok

Judging by U.S. actions, the overarching U.S. foreign policy goals during the Cold War were to bring as many nations as possible into the U.S.-led orbit, dubbed the “free world,” to sustain and expand the open market capitalist world order, which also benefited the U.S. economy, and to roll back the influence of the Soviet Union and communist and leftist parties everywhere in the world.  This was an empire-sized agenda and it kept Washington bureaucrats anxiously engaged in the internal affairs of many nations.
Contrary to official rhetoric, U.S. policies were not aimed at supporting democratic institutions, human rights, political stability, or even U.S. national security, as U.S. leaders put American lives at risk in pursuit of global hegemony.  The Cold War has been described as a moral struggle for the “soul of mankind,” but the U.S. often acted without moral scruples.  The U.S. partnered with former Nazi officials in conducting covert operations against the Soviet bloc; aided French imperialism in Vietnam; plotted the assassination of leaders in the Congo, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic; covertly aided the overthrow of democratic governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Chile; overtly invaded the Dominican Republic and Grenada in defiance of international norms; and regularly provided arms and aid to repressive, right-wing regimes around the world.[164]  While Americans held up their nation as a democratic “city on a hill” for all nations to emulate, the reality was that the U.S. often imposed or facilitated, not democracy, but authoritarian rule as the guarantor of the “open market” capitalist system and U.S. influence.
The record of U.S. foreign policies during the Cold War is not well known by most Americans.  This is partly due to selective memory conforming to nationalist beliefs in American benevolence, and partly to the fact that many U.S. interventions were carried out in secret and kept hidden from the public for decades afterward.   Policy analyst Chalmers Johnson argues that U.S. leaders have exercised a kind of “stealth imperialism” in carrying out policies without public knowledge.  “Most Americans,” he writes, “are probably unaware of how Washington exercises its global hegemony, since so much of this activity takes place either in relative secrecy of under comforting rubrics” such as protecting freedom and promoting democracy.[165]
The international relations scholar Lindsey O’Rourke, in Covert Regime Change: America’s Secret Cold War (2018), identifies 70 “regime change” U.S. interventions during the Cold War, of which 64 were conducted covertly through the CIA.  She includes in her definition of a regime-changing covert operation any mission aimed at “assassinating a foreign leader, sponsoring a coup d’état, meddling in a democratic election, or secretly aiding foreign dissident groups.”  Of the 64 covert interventions, five involved assassination plots, 13 involved U.S.-backed military coups and insurrections (9 succeeded), 16 were directed at manipulating elections (12 resulted in the U.S.-backed candidate winning), and 14 instigated sabotage and destabilization operations in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.[166]
More than two-thirds of 64 U.S. covert operations during the Cold War were aimed at undermining rather than supporting democracy abroad.
According to O’Rourke, “The United States supported authoritarian forces in forty-four out of sixty-four covert regime changes, including at least six operations that sought to replace liberal democratic governments with illiberal authoritarian regimes.”[167]  In these six cases – Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Brazil (1964), Indonesia (1965), and Chile (1973) – the U.S. not only undermined democracy but also aided and abetted repression, torture, and execution of political opponents.
Why did U.S. leaders subvert democracy in other countries?
Simply put, they did not trust the people to choose the “right” leaders.  The “right” leaders were those who protected foreign (U.S.) private investments, suppressed leftist parties, and aligned with the U.S. in international forums.  As this American agenda did not conform to the popular will in other countries, Washington officials conspired with select groups – economic elites, rightist political and military leaders, and police and military establishments – to establish the “right” leadership.  “In most Cold War interventions,” notes O’Rourke, “U.S. leaders believed that an authoritarian regime would be most likely to pursue their interests.”  At a White House meeting on June 27, 1970, in which plots to prevent the election of Socialist Party leader Salvador Allende in Chile were discussed, National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger explained, “The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.  I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”[168]

Salvador Allende during his inaugural parade, Santiago, Chile, Nov. 3, 1970 (photo by Naul Ojeda)

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.”[169]

CIA operatives also manipulated elections in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s, secretly providing cash contributions to the conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) so as to diminish the electoral prospects of the Japanese Socialist Party.  U.S. Ambassador to Japan Douglas MacArthur later claimed that “the Socialists in Japan had their own secret funds from Moscow” and that U.S. covert funding for the LDP helped to “project American power.”  The LDP ruled Japan without interruption for 38 years.[170]  In Lebanon, CIA agents doled out funds to pro-Western politicians to sway national elections in 1957.  After managing to “rig the election,” as U.S. Ambassador Richard Parker described it, the Eisenhower administration sent 14,000 U.S. troops to Lebanon to protect the pro-Western government of Camille Chamoun from internal dissent.[171]

Political scientist Dov Levin identified 62 U.S. interventions in foreign elections between 1946 and 1989

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.[172]  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.[173]

The operative principle for all U.S. covert actions was and is “plausible deniability,” meaning that U.S. agents covered their tracks and U.S. agencies denied responsibility, attributing results to other parties.  Secrecy was needed not only to achieve the particular objectives of the mission, but also to hide the operations from the American public and to avoid international censure.  The charters of the United Nations and the Organization of American States explicitly prohibit the intervention of one nation in the affairs of another nation.  The exposure of U.S. covert operations would identify the United States as the rogue nation it was, rather than the world leader it claimed to be.  Baring the truth would also make U.S. leaders look hypocritical when they condemned Soviet intervention in Eastern Europe and “communist aggression” elsewhere.  How could the Eisenhower administration, for example, condemn North Vietnamese “aggression” against South Vietnam if the world knew that it was attempting to destabilize governments in Eastern Europe nations and the Soviet Union, overthrow governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Laos, and manipulate elections in Indonesia, Japan, and Lebanon?[174]
Different administrations had their own styles, of course, and the Cold War itself varied in intensity over the course of 45 years.  Yet the administrations reputed to be most inclined toward easing international tensions – the Kennedy, Nixon, and Carter administrations – did so only to a limited degree and hid their more aggressive policies.  During John F. Kennedy’s 34 months in office, he oversaw 163 major CIA covert operations, as compared to 170 during the Eisenhower administration’s eight years.[175]  According to the historian Stephen Rabe, “Kennedy and his advisers used a variety of political, economic, and military tools to undermine constitutional regimes throughout the Western Hemisphere…. Despite its public commitment to democracy and reform, the Kennedy administration frequently demonstrated that it preferred anti-Communist authoritarians over left-leaning leaders who respected constitutional processes.”[176]

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shaking hands with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976

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.[177]  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.[178]  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 mockingly accurate description?

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 such effort began in the fall of 1973.  Representative Donald Fraser of Minnesota, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on International Organizations, began hearings on how U.S. foreign aid affected human rights in eighteen countries.  The subcommittee’s 54-page report, titled “Human Rights and the World Community:  A Call for U.S. Leadership,” criticized “the prevailing attitude [that] has led the United States into embracing governments which practice torture and unabashedly violate almost every human rights guarantee pronounced by the world community.  Through foreign aid and occasional intervention – both overt and covert – the United States supports those governments.”[179]  Congress subsequently banned U.S. military aid to a number of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, and Guatemala, citing gross human rights violations.
Another effort focused on U.S. covert activities.  In January 1975, a bipartisan, eleven-member Senate committee was created to investigate “the extent, if any, to which illegal, improper or unethical activities were engaged in by any agency or by any persons … on behalf of the federal government.”  Known as the Church committee, after Senator Frank Church of Idaho, the committee met for fifteen months, received testimony from 800 individuals, and issued a series of reports on its findings that totaled 110,000 pages.  The reports revealed that 75% of the CIA’s covert operations had never been approved or reviewed by Congress, and that many of the activities were “highly improper.”  The latter included plots to assassinate foreign leaders, including Patrice Lumumba of the Congo, Fidel Castro of Cuba, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, and the Diem brothers of Vietnam.  The committee also unearthed the CIA’s Operation CHAOS, which involved illegally conducting surveillance and collecting information on 7,200 U.S. citizens from 1967 to 1973, and Operation MK-Ultra, in which “the CIA undertook programs for testing chemical and biological agents on unwitting Americans, sometimes with tragic consequences.”[180]

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.[181]

Two accountability measures came out of the Church committee hearings.  One was an Executive Order issued by President Gerald Ford in 1976 prohibiting “political assassination.”[182]  The second was a Congressional amendment in 1976, introduced by Senator Dick Clark of Iowa, prohibiting U.S. support for paramilitary activities in Angola, which Congress had never approved.  In the 1980s, however, Congress repealed the Clark Amendment and the CIA produced an “assassination manual” for the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan rebels, albeit focused on killing lower-level government officials and employees, including teachers and nurses, rather than top Nicaraguan officials.[183]

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.[184]  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):


Ralph McGehee, former CIA agent and author [See 13-minute YouTube interview]

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.[185]

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.”[186]

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.”[187]

I. F. Stone [Dagobah website]

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.”[188]  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.[189]

Both during and after the Cold War many scholars have contributed to public accountability through their reflective critiques, constituting a kind of “fifth estate.”[190]  Some scholars have focused on specific U.S. interventions.[191]  Some have critically assessed particular regions or aspects of U.S. foreign policy.[192]  Some have probed the contours of American empire and its accompanying intellectual architecture.[193]  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 …”[194]

Philip Agee’s scathing exposé, Inside the Company: CIA Diary (1975), was an instant best-seller and eventually published in over 30 languages

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.”[195]

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.”[196]  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.[197]

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

Great Britain had been the dominant foreign influence in Greece since the 19th century.  During the Second World War, Greece was invaded by Italian forces in October 1940, then by German forces in April 1941.  The Greek government surrendered, but resistance to Axis occupation continued under two guerrilla groups:  the National Popular Liberation Army (ELAS), which was aligned with the Communist Party (KKE) and the National Liberation Front (EAM), and the National Republican Greek League, which was aligned with conservative and rightist parties.  The British Foreign Office supplied both guerrilla groups with small arms and aid in their common effort to defeat the Axis powers.

Unarmed protesters at an EAM demonstration lying dead in front of the Greek Parliament building in Athens, while others run for their lives, Dec. 3, 1944 [Kathimerini (Greek newspaper)]

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.”[198]

In the spring of 1945, the British ousted the Plastiras government and installed a more conservative successor headed by Petros Voulgaris.  A wave of repression followed.  “Throughout the countryside,” writes the historian Lawrence Wittner, “right-wing mobs brutalized or killed leftists, republicans, and their families.  National guardsmen attacked left-wing editors and smashed their printshops…. Still clinging to their fragile legality, the remnants of the EAM protested ineffectually and called for reconciliation; increasingly however, their constituency resorted to violent retaliation, fled to the hills for safety, or dissolved under government persecution.”[199]
Under these repressive conditions, the KKE boycotted national elections held in the spring of 1946.  The elections resulted in an even more ruthless government under Panagis Tsaldaris.  Ambassador MacVeagh wrote to Secretary of State Dean Acheson in August, “Not only thousands of communists … but thousands of centrists and republicans as well … are being equally terrorized by what I called ‘disreputable” royalist elements in effective if not open alliance with the Government.”[200]  The KKE organized a new resistance army, the Democratic Army of Greece, in December 1946, followed by the formation of a “Mountain Government” under the leadership of Markos Vafiadis. As Greece descended into civil war, Acheson instructed MacVeagh on January 21, 1947, that “groups prepared to cooperate with the communists should be regarded as disloyal, contaminated, or politically immature elements,” unworthy of participation in a governing coalition.[201]
The following month, the financially strapped British asked the U.S. for active assistance in managing Greece, which is to say, suppressing the left.  President Truman, in appealing to Congress for aid to Greece on March 12, falsely portrayed the country as a domino ready to fall to the Soviet Union.
Despite the president’s public assurances that most U.S. aid would be used for civilian purposes, Under Secretary of State Will Clayton told the House Committee on Foreign Affairs that “approximately half” of U.S. funding would go toward arming the Greek military.  To reassure Congress that the money would be spent well, Acheson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the U.S. would place Americans in “the essential key ministries” of the Greek government.  British forces in Greece declined from about 15,000 troops to about 5,000 by the end of July 1947.[202]
So began the transfer of British influence to American control over the Greek government.  U.S. control was exercised by the American Mission for Aid to Greece (AMAG), headed by Dwight Griswold, who took charge in June 1947.  Within a year, AMAG had grown to 1,216 employees, nearly half of whom were Americans and mainly military men.  A New York Times story on October 17, 1947, labeled Griswold the “most powerful man in Greece.”[203]  In November, AMAG official Horace Smith informed the State Department, “we have established practical control … over national budget, taxation, currency issuance, price and wage policies, and state economic planning, as well as over imports and exports, the issuance of foreign exchange and the direction of military reconstruction and relief expenditures.”[204]

Suspected leftists await trial in a military court during the Greek Civil War [Macedonia State Archives]

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.[205]

Stamping out “communism”

U.S. policies in Greece grew harsher as the civil war continued.  Karl Rankin, the U.S. chargé d’affaires in Athens, wrote to Washington on May 15, 1948, reiterating that the central American goal was “stamping out the Communist revolt and influence in Greece” and that there must “be no leniency toward the confirmed agents of an alien and subversive influence.”  He advised the State Department that there should be no “promise of general elections carried out under a government which would include, if not Communists, at least certain champions of compromise and reconciliation between the East and the West.”  The introduction of moderate politicians, he continued, would provide “a renewed opportunity for the Communist and Communist-front organizations … to carry on open as well as clandestine propaganda and sabotage.”[206]

Refugee children fleeing across the border, 1948 [Macedonia State Archives]

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.

Before the infamous U.S. “pacification” programs in Vietnam were created, America’s allies in Greece were implementing such programs.  By November 1947, Griswold reported, the Greek army had forcibly evacuated 310,000 people to “safe areas.”  The suspected rebel supporters lived behind barbed wire enclosures and were afforded no legal right to appeal their fate.  Those judged by the government to be rebels were executed.  Between December 1944 and September 1949, the Greek government executed 3,136 persons.[207]  Despite concerns raised by a United Nations investigating commission, Ambassador Henry F. Grady, who replaced MacVeagh in July 1948, argued against limiting these political executions.  The U.S. “task,” he wrote on August 21, 1948, was “to see that nothing prevents Greeks from finishing [a] job well started or robs their victory of its effectiveness.”[208]

Greek insurgents [Truman library]

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.[209]

All in all, the Greek civil war took the lives of more than 50,000 combatants – 36,839 insurgents and 14,356 government troops – and displaced more than 500,000 civilians.  At least three U.S. military officers died in battle, contrary to official claims that U.S. advisers were not participants.[210]

Postwar authoritarianism in Greece

The end of the civil war did not mean an end to the political left in Greece, nor to U.S. involvement.  On March 5, 1950, elections for the national legislature resulted in a victory for centrist parties, which won 133 seats, as compared to 61 seats for the rightist Populist Party and 22 seats for the leftist Democratic Front.  “The ascendancy of the center,” notes Wittner, “came under immediate attack.  Powerful forces … plotted feverishly to secure a right-wing alternative.”  U.S. General James Van Fleet viewed with alarm the inclusion of the left in the Greek legislature, warning the State Department that “the Communists and fellow travelers have gradually regained their morale and influence and many are now in important positions.”[211]
The State Department agreed with Van Fleet and lent its support to right-wing politicians.  In March 1952, the U.S. embassy in Athens announced its opposition to proportional representation in Greek elections – a democratic system employed across Europe – and threatened to cut off U.S. aid if it were not changed.  Faced with this ultimatum, the centrist government reluctantly agreed to a district by district plurality system that undermined (leftist) minority representation.  Rightist parties subsequently gained a majority of seats in Parliamentary elections in November 1952 and the U.S. thereafter supported a succession of right-wing governments.[212]

Georgios Papadopoulos, military junta leader, 1967-1973

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.[213]

President Bill Clinton seemed blissfully ignorant of this history when visited Greece in November 1999, intent on securing a bilateral treaty enabling closer cooperation between the FBI and Greek security forces. He was met in Athens by 10,000 protesters who had not forgotten the U.S. role in supporting dictatorship and terrorism.[214]

Offensive operations in the Soviet bloc, 1949-56

No sooner had the Marshall Plan been initiated to tie Western Europe to the United States than U.S. officials began plotting to undermine Soviet control in Eastern Europe.  Rather than being part of America’s defensive “containment” policy, U.S. covert interventions were part of its offensive roll-back strategy.  Placed in historical context, they may be seen as part of an offensive “domino theory,” in which the U.S. sought to build on its successes in Italy (elections in April 1948) and Greece (civil war victory in October 1949), moving on to undermine communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself.[215]
On June 18, 1948, the Truman administration authorized National Security Directive 10/2, establishing the innocuously named Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) to carry out a wide range of sabotage and paramilitary activities behind the “iron curtain.”  Headed by George Kennan, the OPC siphoned off about five percent of Marshall Plan funds for clandestine purposes.[216]  A top-secret 1949 Policy Planning Staff Paper, titled “U.S. Policy Toward the Soviet Satellite States in Eastern Europe,” declared, “Our overall aim with respect to the satellite states should be the gradual reduction and eventual elimination of preponderant Soviet power from Eastern Europe without resort to war.”[217]  The NSC 68 directive of 1950 declared that the U.S. “should take dynamic steps to reduce the power and influence of the Kremlin inside the Soviet Union and other areas under its control.  The objective would be the establishment of friendly regimes not under Kremlin domination.  Such action is essential to engage the Kremlin’s attention, keep it off balance, and force an increased expenditure of Soviet resources in counteraction.”[218]  Congressman Charles Kersten put the matter simply in mid-1951:  “We have the opportunity of taking the offensive in the Cold War.  Let us make some trouble for Joe Stalin in his own backyard!”[219]
Between 1949 and 1956, the OPC and CIA conducted covert operations in six Eastern European nations – Albania, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania – and six Soviet Republics – Ukraine, Russia, Byelorussia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.  The OPC merged with the CIA in 1952.

General Reinhard Gehlen [German Federal Archives]

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.

The U.S. Army not only agreed to the Gehlen’s offer but also began rebuilding his organization under U.S. auspices.  According to O’Rourke, “Gehlen’s organization grew to include hundreds of ex-Nazis, who provided key intelligence, contacts to right-wing émigré groups throughout Eastern Europe, logistical support, and labor for America’s covert rollback missions.  Over the next decade, the US government spent at least $200 million and employed around 4,000 staff to rebuild Gehlen’s organization.”[220]  The main agents of recruitment were Eastern European émigrés who had left their homelands and were living in Displaced Person camps in Allied-occupied zones in Germany, Austria, and Italy.  There were some 2.3 million displaced persons living in the American-occupied zone of Germany alone.[221]
What U.S. officials did not know was that the Soviet Union had infiltrated virtually all anti-Soviet émigré and nationalist organizations, including the Russian Liberation Movement, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the Latvian Daugavas Vanagi, and the Albanian Balli Kombëtar.  Partly because of this, and partly because U.S.-backed groups were tainted by their Nazi collaboration, all of the U.S. covert missions failed to do more than cause minor disruptions.

Operation BGFIEND in Albania

The first U.S. covert operation in Eastern Europe focused on Albania, a small country wedged between Greece and Yugoslavia that shared no border with the Soviet Union.  The British were already operating there and the U.S. followed their lead.
In early 1946, the British launched a covert destabilization campaign aimed at toppling the Soviet-backed Albanian government of Enver Hoxha and replacing it with a pro-Western, royalist faction.  The operation involved recruiting and organizing émigré units, then transporting them into Albania where they could conduct sabotage, organize resistance, and incite general rebellion.  In June 1949, the U.S. joined the effort in a covert operation codenamed BGFIEND.  An Anglo-American Special Policy Committee was created to oversee the operation,  On July 1, 1949, the CIA Office of Confidential Funds approved $900,000 for BGFIEND.[222]

Communist leader and dictator Enver Hoxha ruled Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985

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.”[223]  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.”[224]

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.”[225]

The third step was to recruit and train more Albanian émigrés to infiltrate into Albania.  The training took place in British-owned Malta and at a U.S. military base near Heidelberg, Germany.  The agents were infiltrated by land, sea, and air (parachute drops).  Albanian security forces, however, seemed to know the time and place of every arrival.  “Indeed,” notes O’Rourke, “one study found that of forty-nine Albanian agents that had been infiltrated by the United States between November 1950 and October 1951, only two were still alive and in contact with the control center in Athens by the end of 1951.”[226]
Suspicion grew in Washington that there was a spy in the Special Policy Committee.  In July 1951, evidence pointed to Kim Philby, a high-level British intelligence officer serving in Washington.  He was dismissed from his position and returned to England (where he was cleared of charges in 1955 only to admit to spying for Moscow years later).  Yet the clandestine missions continued to fail.  The Hoxha government publicly announced each time agents were captured or killed.  On October 24, 1951, for example, the government radio station reported that “thirteen spies dropped by parachute on Albanian territory by the United States Espionage services” had been killed.  In 1954, the Hoxha government put on trial eight captured agents, publicly revealing the details of American covert operations.[227]
The public exposure of these “covert” missions allowed the world to see that the U.S. was doing exactly what it was accusing the Soviet Union of doing, attempting to subvert other governments.  The credibility of the U.S. was also undermined by its alliance with Nazi collaborators, particularly in Albania where NCFA leader Hasan Dosti was commonly known as a “war criminal” responsible for large-scale massacres and imprisonments during the Second World War.  Having failed to achieve anything but embarrassment, Washington officials canceled the mission in Albania in April 1956.[228]
One odd twist to the story is that in August 1968 Albania broke with the Soviet Union, cutting its ties with the Warsaw Pact.  Thereafter it aligned with China, patched up an old quarrel with neighboring Yugoslavia, and made overtures to the West, asserting its neutrality in the Cold War.[229]  In hindsight, U.S. leaders might have succeeded in drawing Albania out of the Soviet bloc by offering aid and trade opportunities rather than fomenting sabotage.

Covert operations in the Ukraine

U.S. covert operations in the Soviet republic of Ukraine were similar in many respects to the operations in Albania.  U.S. agencies recruited and trained émigrés from the Displaced Persons camps and sent them into the country to conduct sabotage, organize rebellion, and pump out anti-government propaganda.  What was different about the Ukraine was that there was long-standing resistance to Soviet authority which the U.S. hoped to tap.

Ukraine became an independent nation after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 (click to enlarge)

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.[230]

American intelligence agents with the Strategic Services Unit (SSU was a precursor to the CIA) first met with Ukrainian émigré groups in April 1946, according to a declassified CIA history of the mission written in 1971.  The SSU’s first task was to gather intelligence about the history and motivation of Ukrainian émigré groups, as “American intelligence was woefully ignorant of the different Ukrainian groups and their aims.”  The Gehlen organization helped identify contacts and make connections.  The Americans soon came into contact with Bandera, described by U.S. agents as “the personality of the Ukrainian émigré community.”  Soviet leaders wanted Bandera extradited to the Soviet Union in order to put him on trial for treason and war crimes, but the U.S. would not allow it, as this would undermine émigré confidence in the U.S. mission.[231]  The U.S. was about to take over what Nazi Germany had started.

Mykola Lebed

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.[232]

CIA covert plans for Ukraine were approved in Washington in the summer of 1949.  The plans called for recruiting and training Ukrainian field agents, placing them inside the Soviet Ukraine though air drops and other means, and providing logistical support for the Ukrainian resistance movement.  The U.S. provided sabotage equipment, specialized arms, printing presses, medical supplies, radios, and more.  The CIA mainly worked with Lebed’s UHVR while the British ran complementary missions to support Bandera’s OUN.  The first covert airdrop of agents into Ukraine occurred in September 1949.  “The Soviets quickly eliminated the agents,” according to the CIA history.  Many more agents were subsequently killed.  Nevertheless, in October 1950, CIA analysts saw encouraging signs in the formation of underground cells, a purported Ukrainian Insurgent Army that had raided Communist Party installations, and the distribution of anti-Soviet propaganda.[233]  What the CIA analysts did not seem to recognize was that the great mass of Soviet people, including Ukrainians, would never follow a band of traitors who had fought with the Nazis in the Great Patriotic War.

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.”[234]  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.[235]

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.

U.S. propaganda nevertheless continued through Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (aimed at the Soviet Union).  Whether or not it inspired opposition to Soviet-backed governments, it certainly gave the latter an excuse to suppress reform movements.  When the Socialist Workers Party rose up against the Hungarian government in October 1956, Soviet General Pytor Lashchenko declared the uprising a “counter-revolutionary rebellion that was actively supported by the most reactionary forces of international imperialism,” meaning the U.S.[236]  U.S. propaganda appeared to inspire false hopes among Hungarian reformers, though a direct U.S. intervention was not contemplated in Washington.[237]
In hindsight, it may be seen that U.S. covert operations in the Soviet bloc were inimical to peace and global stability.  They dangerously increased tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union at a time when both nations were racing to develop nuclear weapons.  U.S. aggression, moreover, belied all U.S. propaganda against Soviet subversion and aggression.
*          *          *          *          *          *          *

V.  Securing Western influence in Asia, Africa, and the Mideast


Decolonization, 1944-1975 (click to enlarge)

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.”[238]

According to the historian Michael J. Sullivan, the U.S. goal was to become the “hegemonic successor to earlier imperialist powers.”[239]  Hence, the U.S. followed the British into Iran (and into Greece, Albania, and British Guiana), and the French into Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  Across the world, Washington officials sought to prevent newly formed nations from choosing leftist leaders, adopting economic nationalist policies, or developing friendly relations with the Soviet Union.
U.S. involvement in Vietnam was the most infamous effort of the U.S. to control developments on the other side of the world.  Leslie Gelb, who headed the team that compiled the Pentagon Papers between 1967 and 1969, was struck not so much by the lies of successive presidents revealed in the Papers, but “that our leaders, from Truman onwards, didn’t know hardly anything about Vietnam and Indochina.  They were ignorant.”[240]  Indeed, they seemed to be intentionally ignorant, having adopted a faulty and simplistic ideological blueprint that divided the world into saints and sinners.  As Arnold Offner writes, “In Washington, ideological predispositions blinded policymakers to the actual political dynamics of East Asia.”[241]
Alongside Vietnam was Laos, where U.S. intervention escalated from election manipulation to massive aerial bombing attacks.  As in Vietnam, U.S. leaders sought to exclude communists from political participation in the Laotian government.  The communist-led Pathet Lao, like the Viet Minh, had led the fight against French colonialism and garnered significant popular support as a result.  In anticipation of National Assembly elections scheduled for April 24, 1958, the Eisenhower administration launched Operation Booster Shot, a covert operation that distributed money and aid to rural communities in an effort to win votes for U.S.-backed candidates.  Despite this foreign interference, the Pathet Lao won nine seats and other leftist parties won four, enough for a majority in the 21-seat assembly.
Having failed to deny communists political power through the ballot box, the Eisenhower administration began organizing a rebellion in an area inhabited by the Hmong ethnic group.  Under the Kennedy administration, the CIA expanded its operations, creating the U.S.-directed Armée Clandestine.  The CIA brought in some 20,000 Thai soldiers and other foreign mercenaries to beef up the 30,000-strong Hmong army.  Although Kennedy signed an international agreement in July 1962 guaranteeing Laotian neutrality, the CIA’s secret war continued.  In 1964, with the Pathet Lao now aided by North Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson began massive bombing attacks, turning the country into a moonscape.  From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed country per capita in history.[242]  America’s anti-communist mission took an immense toll on the Laotian people who, like the Vietnamese, posed no threat to Americans.
With regard to the Middle East, the U.S. began exerting its influence in the early 1950s.  The U.S. gradually superseded Great Britain as the dominant foreign nation in the region, engaging in a variety of covert and overt actions.  U.S. leaders generally rationalized their actions as a protective response to the threat of “International Communism,” as President Eisenhower described it in January 1957.  According to Thomas Paterson, however, “many Arabs saw neither a direct nor indirect threat from Soviet/Communist aggression; they saw Western meddling and sphere-of-influence building.”[243]  That perception was on target with respect to U.S. and British actions in Iran.

Iran, 1951-53

Iran, at the crossroads of the Old World [U of Texas Libraries]

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.[244]

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.

Dr. Mohammad Mossadegh

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.

Iran produced about one-third of the Middle East’s total oil output at the time, some 600,000 barrels a day.  Yet Iran received less than 20 percent of the profits and Iranian oil workers were treated poorly, living in shanty towns without running water or electricity, subject to extreme heat and floods.  “With the oil revenues,” explained Mossadegh in a speech at The Hague in June 1951, “we could meet our entire budget and combat poverty, disease, and backwardness among our people…. The nationalization law provides that 25% of the net profits on the oil be set aside to meet all the legitimate claims of the [Anglo-Iranian Oil] company for compensation….”[245]
The British met the challenge with a two-pronged strategy; on the one hand, negotiating with the Mossadegh government to retain British oil rights; on the other hand, employing British intelligence services, MI-6, to lay the groundwork for Mossadegh’s ouster.  The CIA was already conducting a covert campaign, codenamed Operation TPBEDAMN, to undermine the communist-led Tudah Party.  In June 1951, the CIA Office of National Estimates produced a report foreseeing that a “semi-dictatorial” regime led by Shah Reza Pahlavi could reverse the nationalization and allow the British oil company to remain in Iran.[246]
U.S. negotiators, meanwhile, attempted to resolve the conflict, suggesting that Iran and the British oil company split profits 50-50, similar to deals made by the U.S. with the governments of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.  The Iranian government, however, rejected the offer as it would allow Britain to retain the rights to underground resources.  The talks collapsed at the end of August 1951.[247]  The British responded with a punishing oil embargo, blocking the sale of Iranian oil in world markets and causing turmoil in the Iranian economy.  The Iranian government, in turn, sent troops to seize the huge Abadan refinery.  British leaders determined that Mossadegh must go.
The Churchill government in London (Winston Churchill became prime minister again in October 1951) decided that the United States needed to be involved in the overthrow.  British foreign minister Anthony Eden broached the idea with U.S. officials in November 1952.  Outgoing President Truman left the matter for incoming President Dwight Eisenhower, who quickly approved it.  In early February 1953, Eden sent a delegation to Washington to begin the planning.

US Ambassador to Iran Loy Henderson met with Mossadegh on Jan. 28, 1953, to discuss the oil issue [The Mossadegh Project]

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.”[248]

Fomenting a coup

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.[249]

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his wife, Sorraya, adopted modern Western dress and styles, but remained Old World monarchs

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.

The Eisenhower administration was pleased with its handiwork.  Vice President Richard Nixon visited Iran in December 1953 to bestow America’s blessings on the Shah.[250]  The Shah visited the White House three times during the Eisenhower years.  In February 1955, Iran joined Turkey, Iraq, and Pakistan in the U.S.-sponsored Baghdad Pact, a network of U.S. military allies on the Soviet Union’s southern border.  In 1959, Iran and the U.S. signed a bilateral defense pact.  The value of Iran to the U.S. as a military ally, economic partner, oil dispenser, and loyal friend of the United States outstripped any concern in Washington for Iran’s lack of democracy.  At a NSC meeting on June 18, 1959, Eisenhower expressed the view that people in the Middle East “simply cannot understand our ideas of freedom and human dignity.”[251]  It was a remarkable statement.  More likely, Iranians could not understand how the U.S. preached the gospel of freedom and democracy while aiding the forces of authoritarianism and repression.

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is welcomed to the U.S. by President John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson, April 1962 [Kennedy Presidential Library]

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.[252]

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.[253]

The Congo, 1960

The decline and exodus of European colonial powers in Asia and Africa in the 1950s and 1960s left the door open for many new experiments in nation building.  For the Belgian Congo, a huge colony containing more than two hundred ethnic groups, independence came on June 30, 1960.  In the lead-up, there were riots and violent clashes with Belgian authorities, but no war of liberation.  Parliamentary elections were held on May 22, 1960, with twenty-eight parties vying for 127 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 84 seats in the Senate.  The Mouvement National Congolais (MNC) won a plurality with 23.4 percent of the vote.  Party leader Patrice Lumumba was selected prime minister despite Belgian attempts to block him.[254]

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:

Patrice Lumumba, 1960

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.[255]

However noble these ideals, the new nation was beset with severe problems from the outset.  In July 1960, only weeks after Independence Day, the southern province of Katanga, which held more than half the country’s mineral wealth, seceded from the union with the help of a Belgian mining company, Union Minière du Haut-Katanga.  Lumumba appealed to the United Nations to intervene to help put down the rebellion and evict the foreign Belgian forces in the country, but the UN Security Council turned down the request.  Lumumba, in desperation, let it be known that he was thinking of asking the Soviet Union for assistance.  He insisted that “African nationalists reserve the right to be friendly with anybody we like according to the principles of positive neutrality.”
Although, under international law and long-standing precedent, every nation had the right to establish diplomatic and trade relationships with every other nation, Washington officials were of the view that any Third World ties with the Soviet Union constituted a threat to U.S. hegemony, euphemistically described as “security.”  Already by 1960, Third World nations were forming the Non-Aligned Movement, indifferent to U.S. warnings against economic nationalism and friendly diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.  At the end of July, CIA director Allen Dulles told the National Security Council that it was “safe to go on the assumption that Lumumba has been bought by the Communists” and that this “fits with his own orientation.”[256]

Lawrence Devlin, CIA station chief in the Congo, early 1960s [NY Times]

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.”[257]

On August 18, Devlin cabled CIA headquarters:  “Embassy and Station believe Congo experiencing classic Communist takeover Government.”  At a NSC meeting the same day, Undersecretary of State Douglas Dillon remarked that Lumumba “was working to serve the purposes of the Soviets.”[258]  In short, Washington officials convinced themselves that a “communist threat” lurked in the Congo, and thus they could get rid of Lumumba in good conscience.
Ousting Lumumba

Col. Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, 1960

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.[259]  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.[260]

President Mobutu Sese Seku of Zaire (formerly the Congo) meets with President Nixon at the White House on Oct. 10, 1973 [NARA]

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.”[261]

In November 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson offered military support for Mobutu in response to a rebellion in the Oriental Province.  The CIA organized a mercenary army and provided planes to crush the rebellion.  The intervention was denounced by African leaders Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya, and Morocco’s King Hassan II.  U.S. ambassador to the UN, Adlai Stevenson, met their objections with hypocritical denial.  “From the beginning,” he said, “we have been opposed – and remain opposed – to foreign intervention in the internal affairs of the sovereign and independent state of the Congo.”  Mobutu established a military dictatorship in 1965 and remained in power until 1997.[262]

Indonesia, 1955-65

Indonesia is an archipelagic nation located between Australia and Southeast Asia.  It was colonized for over three hundred years by the Netherlands and known as the Dutch East Indies.  In 1942, Japanese forces occupied the island nation and imprisoned Dutch administrators.  Japanese authorities proclaimed Indonesia liberated and mobilized the population in support of the Japanese war effort.  In the process, they nurtured Indonesian nationalist leaders such as future president Sukarno.[263]  Japanese rule grew harsh as the war turned against them.  A United Nations report in 1947 estimated that three million people on the island of Java and one million on other islands died as a result of famine, forced labor, and lack of medical care.[264]
With the defeat of the Japanese in September 1945, the Dutch attempted to reassert their control over Indonesia, aided by the British.  Sukarno led an Indonesian guerrilla movement in the fight for independence.  After four years of war, the Dutch gave up and Indonesia declared its independence on December 27, 1949.  Sukarno became the first president.  His vision of nation-building involved a combination of national unity, socialist economics, and religious tolerance in a Muslim-dominated nation.  In matters of foreign policy, he disdained imperialism and advocated neutralism in the Cold War.

Sukarno speaking at opening session of Bandung conference, April 1955

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.[265]

Sukarno’s views did not comport with those of American leaders half a world away.  In November 1953, the Eisenhower administration issued a top-secret national security directive, 171/1, with respect to Indonesia that identified a “pro-Communist inclination” among some Indonesian leaders and a popular communist base of about 10 percent of voters.  Noting that Indonesia “is inhabited by 80,000,000 people, and is a producer of rubber, tin and petroleum,” all needed by the West, the report stated:  “The loss of Indonesia to Communist control would have serious security implications for the United States and the rest of the free world.”  The “courses of action” outlined in the directive began with a warning to “avoid the appearance of interfering in Indonesian internal affairs,” though that is exactly what the U.S. planned to do, and called for “the elimination of Communist influence from the Indonesian Government” by supporting non-communist and anti-communist groups, including “important parts of the armed forces.”[266]
The first U.S. foray into Indonesia was a CIA effort to sway parliamentary elections in 1955 by funding opposition Islamic parties.  Sukarno’s Indonesian National Party (PNI) won a bare plurality with 22.3% of votes.  On the left, the Communist Party received 16.4%, and the Socialist Party (which opposed the Communist Party), 2.0%.  Three Islamic parties collectively garnered 43.3% of the vote, signifying a challenge to the secular-oriented PNI.[267]  Sukarno turned to the Communist Party and other smaller parties to maintain his governing coalition.

President Dwight Eisenhower and Sec. of State John Foster Dulles in 1956 [NARA]

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.[268]

Faced with this foreign-supported rebellion, Sukarno declared martial law in March 1957.  In November, an assassination attempt on his life failed but killed six schoolchildren.  In February 1958, dissident commanders on the island of Sumatra linked up with civilian politicians and formally declared their intention to overthrow the Sukarno government in Jakarta.  Civil war broke out in April 1958.  At a news conference on April 30, 1958, President Eisenhower was asked about Sukarno’s charge that American planes were bombing Indonesia.  “When it comes to intrastate difficulty anywhere,” he said, “our policy is one of careful neutrality…. As for any United States pilots, every rebellion that I have ever heard of has its soldiers of fortune.”  When a reporter asked Secretary Dulles about Americans being soldiers of fortune in Indonesia, he said, “We have no legal obligation to control the activities of Americans of this character.”[269]
The U.S., in fact, was running regular bombing raids, one of which mistakenly hit a crowded marketplace, killing a number of people.  On May 18, 1958, the Indonesian military shot down a B-26 bomber and captured the pilot after his parachute got tangled in a coconut tree.  The pilot was identified as an American, Allen Lawrence Pope.  The Eisenhower administration initially denied involvement, but documents on Pope showed that he was based at the U.S. Clark Air Force base in the Philippines.  The Indonesian government charged that he was a CIA operative, which was correct.  The CIA was supplying both planes and pilots to the rebels.  Soon after the incident, with CIA’s cover blown, the Eisenhower administration pulled back from direct U.S. military involvement.[270]
The civil war in Indonesia continued for more than three years, ending with the surrender of the last band of rebels in August 1961.  During those years, Sukarno became more authoritarian; for example, he replaced half the members of parliament with his appointees and banned Islamic parties that had joined the rebel political front.  The U.S., meanwhile, increased its contacts with rightist military leaders.  A U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff memo in 1958 noted that the Indonesian Army was “the only non-Communist force … with the capability of obstructing … PKI [Indonesian Communist Party].”[271]
The 1965 coup

General Suharto presides at officers’ funeral, Oct 5, 1965

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.[272]

An unknown Indonesian man is captured by soldiers, 1965 [Russell Knight, Getty]

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.”[273]  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.[274]

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.”[275]

Invasion of East Timor
Suharto ruled Indonesia with full U.S. support until 1998.  He was never held accountable for the 1965 mass murders, nor for another round of atrocities committed in East Timor in 1975.  As East Timor, which shares the island of Timor with Indonesia, emerged from its status as a Portuguese colony, the possibility of a leftist government prompted Suharto to launch a massive invasion of the country.  According to the East Timor government, “During the invasion mass killings and rapes took place:  60,000 Timorese were dead by mid-February.  A puppet Provisional Government of East Timor was installed in mid-December.”
On December 6, 1975, one day before the invasion began, President Gerald Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger met with President Suharto in Jakarta.  The U.S. Embassy recorded the conversation.  Suharto:  “We want your understanding if we deem it necessary to take rapid or drastic action.”  Ford:  “We will understand and will not press you on the issue.  We understand the problems you have and the intentions you have.”  Kissinger:  “It is important that whatever you do succeeds quickly.”  Following the invasion, the U.S. blocked UN Security Council action against Indonesia.  The UN General Assembly nonetheless passed a resolution deploring the invasion, citing “the inalienable right” of the people of East Timor “to self-determination.”[276]

Afghanistan, 1979

By 1978, much had changed in the international arena.  The Soviet Union and China had become rivals, fighting a brief border war in 1969; Cold War tensions between the U.S. and the great communist powers had eased during a period of détente that began in 1972; and the U.S. had lost the war in Vietnam, a 21-year effort to establish a separate, non-communist nation in the southern half of the country.  U.S. policymakers nevertheless remained committed to limiting Soviet influence and to undermining leftist parties and governments around the world.  The U.S. covert intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 was aimed at making trouble for the Soviets in their own backyard as well as asserting greater U.S. influence in the region.

Landlocked Afghanistan lies west of Iran and south of the Soviet Union (1980s)

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.[277]  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.[278]

In Washington, U.S. officials viewed the volatile political situation in Afghanistan as an opportunity to sow unrest in the Soviet client state, not unlike U.S. covert actions in Eastern Europe during the early Cold War period.  On February 21, 1979, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the architect of the U.S. intervention, directed National Security Council (NSC) intelligence coordinator Paul Henze to develop a “coherent and systematic plan.”  In early March the CIA presented the NSC with a set of options ranging from anti-government propaganda to “sponsorship of large-scale insurgency to bring about a change in government in power in Kabul” (capital city).   The latter option initially appeared overly ambitious but after an anti-government revolt in the western city of Herat in mid-March, it looked more promising to U.S. policymakers.  The CIA reported on March 23 that insurgencies have “now grown into serious threats to the survival of the Soviet-backed regime,” adding that the situation could deteriorate for the Afghan government to the point that “only massive Soviet military intervention ” could save it.  The latter possibility did not deter Brzezinski.  In a memo to Vice-President Walter Mondale that same day, he wrote that “we can and should … be building a public record to head off possible Soviet intervention or reap the propaganda benefits if it should occur.”[279]
Brzesinski had a larger view of U.S. strategic interests.  The U.S., in his grand design, should couple its hushed-up covert intervention with a loud propaganda campaign that challenged the Soviet Union to hold fast to the non-intervention principle established in international law.  If the Soviet Union refrained from intervention, this could enable the U.S.-backed insurgents to win their battle for regime change, thus transforming a Soviet client state into a likely U.S. ally.  If the Soviets did intervene and suppress the rebellion, then the U.S. would be able to tarnish the Soviet Union as a totalitarian aggressor, confirming U.S. Cold War ideological presumptions, and most importantly, justify a buildup of U.S. military power in the region, ostensibly to defend against further Soviet aggression.  The latter was deemed necessary, not because of events in Afghanistan, but because of the Islamic revolution in Iran that ousted the Shah on February 11, 1979.  The sudden loss of a dependable U.S. client state in the region produced anxiety in Washington, though the new government of Ayatollah Khomeini had no interest in aligning with the Soviet Union.  In preparation for an international summit in Vienna in June, Brzezinski prodded President Carter to “make clear we have a vital interest ” in the Persian Gulf and “will act firmly and expeditiously to protect” the region.  The Persian Gulf stretches the length of Iran’s southern coast but does not touch land-locked Afghanistan.[280]

National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and President Jimmy Carter at a daily briefing, 1979

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.”[281]  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.

As with other covert interventions, the administration hid its actions under a smokescreen of rhetoric.  State Department spokesman Hodding Carter told the press on August 4, 1979, “We expect the principle of nonintervention to be respected by all parties in the area, including the Soviet Union.”[282]  U.S. actions, in fact, were exactly opposite this principle.  In early September, CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner requested “funds for the Pakistanis to purchase lethal military equipment for the insurgents.”[283]  The following month, the U.S. covertly provided Pakistani intermediaries with $772,000 in cash and an equivalent amount of military equipment for distribution to the rebels.[284]
Soviet intervention

Soviet tank secures a roadway

Babrak Karmal assumes the presidency

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.[285]

The Soviet invasion was essentially a client state operation in which the Soviets replaced one communist government with another.  It was not unlike the U.S. invasion of Panama a decade later, when the U.S. replaced one client (Manual Noriega) with another.  To be sure, the Soviet invasion was a major blunder, as it sparked resentment and resistance to the new Soviet-backed government as well as to foreign meddling in general.  In hindsight, U.S. assistance to the Mujahideen was also a blunder, as it stoked radical Islamic militancy and nurtured leaders such as Osama bin Laden who later became America’s number one enemy.
Both Soviet and U.S. leaders feared the spread of Islamic militancy sparked by the Iranian Revolution that erupted in early 1979.  On January 16, after fifteen months of strikes and protests, Reza Shah Pahlavi left Iran, opening the way for Islamic religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini to take control of the government.  Khomeini called the U.S. “the great Satan,” the Soviet Union, “the lesser Satan,” and Israel, “the little Satan.”[286]  On April 1, Iranians voted in a national referendum to become an Islamic republic that combined an elected parliament with a religious Supreme Leader.  To U.S. leaders, the Iranian revolution signified a major geopolitical loss, as Iran under the Shah had been a loyal client state and military ally.  For Soviet leaders, the danger was closer to home.  They worried that the Iranian Revolution would embolden the large Muslim populations in the Soviet Union’s southern republics and in neighboring Afghanistan, undermining Soviet authority and influence.  Soviet leaders also suspected that the U.S. might try to replace its lost influence in Iran by gaining a foothold in Afghanistan.  According to declassified documents, Amin reached out to the American chargé in Kabul, J. Bruce Amstutz, in early October 1979.  “The Afghan president made clear to me,” Amstutz wrote to the State Department, “that he is open to see any designated USG mission chief.”[287]

U.S. support for Islamic guerrillas

A group of Afghan rebels at the Khanday Khula camp in Pakistan near the Afghan border, July 3, 1980 (AP photo)

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.”[288]

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.”[289]  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.

In Iran, meanwhile, on November 4, 1979, nationalist radicals in Tehran seized the U.S. embassy and took Americans hostage, demanding the return of Shah Pahlavi from the United States to stand trial for his crimes against the people.  The U.S. refused, especially as the Shah was undergoing cancer treatments.  The Iranians released fourteen hostages for various reasons but kept the remaining 52 Americans in captivity for the next 444 days.  An abortive U.S. rescue attempt failed in a desert storm.  President Jimmy Carter, in his State of the Union address on January 23, 1980, placed Iranian hostage crisis and Soviet intervention in Afghanistan at the top of his rhetorical agenda:  “These two acts – one of international terrorism and one of military aggression – present a serious challenge to the United States of America and indeed to all the nations of the world. Together, we will meet these threats to peace.”[290]

A hand-crafted Afghan rug tells the story of the U.S.-backed guerrilla war against the Soviets, 1979-89

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.[291]

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.”[292]  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.

The war that the U.S. helped foment in Afghanistan expanded in the 1980s.  Congress approved nearly $3 billion in covert aid for the Mujahideen guerrillas, more than all other CIA covert operations combined that decade.  The Reagan administration provided sophisticated weaponry, including high-quality anti-aircraft missiles that could pierce the heavy armor of Soviet helicopters, enabling the guerrillas to keep Soviet forces bogged down.  In April 1988, with Mikhail Gorbachev at the helm in the Soviet Union, a peace accord was signed followed by the withdrawal of Soviet troops between May 1988 and February 1989.  The decade-long war took a heavy toll on the Afghan people, with military and civilian deaths estimated at 500,000 to 1.2 million.  The Soviets suffered over 14,000 fatalities.  Washington officials deemed their handiwork successful.  Yet they learned few lessons from the Soviet experience, as the U.S. found itself in a similar quagmire after invading the country in November 2001.[293]
*          *          *          *          *          *          *

VI. The return of “Yankee imperialism”

“Yankee imperialism” is a pejorative term used by Latin Americans to refer to U.S. military interventionism and economic domination in their region.  During the first one-third of the 20th century, the U.S. operated under the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (1904) which declared the right of the U.S. to intervene in other nations in the Western Hemisphere in order to prevent “chronic wrongdoing.”  Protests by Latin Americans eventually led to a shift to the Good Neighbor Policy of 1933, which promised an end to U.S. military interventionism.  The U.S. nonetheless remained committed to supporting strongman governments that protected private U.S. investments.

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.[294]

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.”[295]

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.[296]

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.”[297]  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.”

Paralleling U.S. acceptance of right-wing dictators was a growing distaste for tolerant liberal governments.  Policy planner George Kennan, following his only trip to Latin America, wrote in March 1950 that “it is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal government if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communists.”  Similarly, a State Department report in December 1952 expressed concern that too many leaders in Latin America were “immature and impractical idealists” who lacked “the disposition to combat extremists within their ranks, including communists.”[298]

U.S. Southern Command area of responsibility

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.”[299]  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.[300]

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.”[301]

Assault on VP Richard Nixon’s limousine in Caracas, Venezuela, May 13, 1958

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.

After a brief period of indecision, U.S. leaders responded to the Cuban Revolution in three ways:  by organizing covert operations to overthrow the Castro government; by increasing “internal security” aid to other Latin American governments so as to prevent similar revolutions; and in March 1961, by launching the Alliance for Progress program to boost economic development.  “Through the Alliance for Progress economic program,” notes Stephen Rabe, “Kennedy sought to immunize Latin Americans against the appeals of communism by transforming the traditional socioeconomic structure of the region within one decade.”[302]

Off to a good start: Jacqueline and John Kennedy address an audience at La Morita Resettlement Project in Venezuela to commemorate the Agrarian Reform Program.  Venezuela President Rómulo Betancourt sits to the right of President Kennedy.

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.[303]

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.[304]

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).[305]  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.”[306]

Brazilian president Joao Goulart was overthrown by a U.S.-backed military coup in 1964

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.”[307]

Brazilian Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara (1974)

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.”[308]

Senator J. William Fulbright, having watched the Alliance for Progress program turn for the worse, commented that “we have made ourselves the prisoners of the Latin American oligarchs who are engaged in a vain attempt to preserve the status quo – reactionaries who habitually use the term ‘communist’ very loosely, in part out of emotional predilection and in part in a calculated effort to scare the United States into supporting their selfish and discredited aims.”[309]

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.”[310]

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.”[311]

A State Department analysis of Operation Condor on August 2, 1976, noted that the “right-wing regimes” participating in Condor resented human rights criticism aimed at them, some of it coming from Washington.  The regimes suspected that the U.S. had “‘lost its will’ to stand firm against communism because of Viet-Nam, détente, and social decay.”  Although the U.S. had done much to help these rightist authoritarian governments establish themselves, U.S. foreign policy was undergoing a reevaluation at the time, with Congress placing restrictions on foreign aid to countries that egregiously abused human rights.  The analysis, written by Assistant Secretary for Latin America Harry Shlaudeman, stated that the U.S. was a “casual beneficiary” of Operation Condor “for reasons that are too obvious to need elaboration here,” but cautioned that revelations of state-sponsored assassinations could hurt the image of the United States.[312]

Quilt depicting Augusto Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship in Chile, on display at the Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, CA, spring 2020 (photo by curator Gabriela Martínez)

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.”[313]

Guatemala, 1952-54

In 1944, Juan José Arévalo won the Guatemalan presidency in a free and fair election, ending 13 years of dictatorial rule under Jorge Ubico.  Arévalo initiated a series of progressive reforms designed to institutionalize democratic structures and advance economic and social progress such as minimum wage laws, labor protections, increased educational funding, and expanded suffrage.  Though his reforms were relatively moderate, a number of coups were attempted during his presidency, mostly led by conservative military officers with the backing of large landowners and employers.[314]

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.[315]  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?[316]

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.”[317]  During the eighteen months of its operation the Agrarian Reform program distributed 1.5 million acres to some 100,000 families.

Árbenz the politician

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.”[318]

In the eyes of U.S. officials, the Árbenz government had committed two sins.  It had allowed communists to participate in the political affairs of the nation, legalizing communist parties in 1952, and it had expropriated land owned by a U.S.-based corporation.  The communist Guatemalan Workers Party (PGT) held only five of 58 seats in the Guatemalan Congress, but Árbenz’s kitchen cabinet included advisors from the PGT, including José Manuel Fortuny who helped write a new labor code.  This was enough for U.S. officials to claim communist “aggression” in Guatemala, though the Soviet Union was not involved.[319]
In truth, democratic elections in Guatemala had produced a government committed to acting in the interest of the impoverished masses, and this is arguably what frightened U.S. leaders.  If the Árbenz government’s reforms were successful in meeting the basic needs of the population, this would establish an attractive left-of-center economic model for other poor countries, an alternative to permanent underdevelopment under “free market” capitalist rules.  Such hegemonic concerns could not be said in public, of course.  Instead, U.S. officials engaged in a barrage of fear-mongering propaganda, linking Árbenz’s egalitarian reforms to an alleged communist takeover of the government and an impending “Soviet beachhead” in Guatemala.
Covert plans and initial operations
In September 1952, President Truman approved a CIA covert plan, codenamed PBFORTUNE, aimed at overthrowing the Guatemalan government.  As word of the plan began to seep out, however, Truman put it on hold, lest U.S. machinations be exposed.  Interventionism, after all, contravened both U.S. (Good Neighbor) policy and international law.  President Dwight Eisenhower, upon entering office in January 1953, revived the plan and renamed it PBSUCCESS.  In August, the Eisenhower administration budgeted $2.7 million for a mixture of covert actions involving psychological warfare, subversion, and assassinations.  The assassination of Guatemalan officials was to be carried out “either in conjunction with the operation or in the event of its failure,” according to the historian Nick Cullather, who wrote a history of the covert operation for the CIA.[320]

Carlos Castillo Armas, rebel leader

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.[321]

On December 16, 1953, newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy met with Árbenz for six hours, revealing nothing about the CIA plan.  Peurifoy reported to the State Department six days later that he was convinced that “Communists will continue to gain strength here as long as [Árbenz] remains in office.”[322]  His implicit message was to proceed with the covert operation.  Peurifoy came to Guatemala after his first appointment in Greece in 1950, where he was a willing ally of the government’s repression following the civil war.  In Guatemala, he secretly recruited military officers to join the coup d’état, offering bribes, military advancements, and an end to the U.S. arms embargo once Árbenz was removed from office.[323]
In late January 1954, a Panamanian diplomat revealed the CIA plot to Árbenz and provided him with a trove of documents.  Árbenz passed the documents on to the Guatemalan press, which published them on January 29 under banner headlines.  The documents identified training bases in Nicaragua and implicated the “government of the North” in staging a rebel invasion of Guatemala.  The U.S. State Department labeled the charge “ridiculous and untrue,” and restated its vacuous mantra, “It is the policy of the United States not to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations.  This policy has repeatedly been reaffirmed under the present administration.”  The U.S. media reinforced the lies.  Following the administration, Time magazine called the charge “completely fanciful” and countered that the Árbenz government was trying to “divert attention from Guatemala as the Western Hemisphere’s Red problem child.”[324]
While preparations for the invasion continued, Secretary of State Dulles attempted to carve out a legal path for U.S. intervention in Guatemala.  At an OAS meeting in Caracas in March 1954, Dulles pressed Latin American delegates to support a resolution that would outlaw “communism” in the hemisphere, thereby providing an opening for the U.S. to argue that U.S. intervention in Guatemala was necessary in order to oust the “communist” Árbenz government.  The Latin American delegates, however, including those of dictatorial governments, resisted the measure largely because they recognized that the U.S. would be able to unilaterally intervene in any country in the hemisphere simply by labeling it “communist.”  Dulles attempted to buy votes and bribe his way to passage of the measure, promising concessions worth millions of dollars to individual countries.  “Nonetheless,” notes the historian Max Paul Friedman, “amendments pushed through by Latin American diplomats transformed the interventionist American resolution into a strong statement against intervention.”[325]  Latin American delegates voted 17-1 (with two abstentions) to amend the U.S. resolution to require OAS consultation before any action was taken, thus ruling out unilateral U.S. intervention.
The overthrow

CIA director Allen Dulles

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 …[326]

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.[327]

Disinformation campaigns
The CIA launched a clandestine radio campaign, the “Voice of Liberation,” seven weeks before the invasion.  Operating out of Opa-Locka (Miami), an American actor turned CIA agent, David Atlee Phillips, worked with three Guatemalans to produce material for radio stations.  Transmitters installed in Nicaragua and Honduras were powerful enough to reach across Guatemala and compete with the government’s radio station on the same channels.  Announcers claimed that their radio stations were deep in the Guatemalan jungle, which the U.S. press duly reported.[328]
On the eve of the invasion, the Árbenz government arrested more than one hundred anti-government activists.  Although there was no evidence of torture or murder, Secretary Dulles issued a statement to the international press on June 15 that “a reign of terror” had begun in Guatemala.[329]  The Philadelphia Inquirer, among other U.S. newspapers, followed suit, editorializing, “In recent weeks, the Communists – the real government – have been building up a reign of terror and suppression that sent hundreds fleeing across the borders to safety.  And now they are streaming back into their own country with the avowed purpose of smashing the Russian plot and liberating Guatemala from the most dangerous threat the Western Hemisphere has had to face.”[330]

U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala John Peurifoy

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.”[331]

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.[332]

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.”[333]

The U.S. media followed Washington in judging that the Árbenz government’s importation of arms from Czechoslovakia in mid-May 1954 confirmed that Guatemala was in the Soviet camp.  This was a biased interpretation, to be sure, as the Guatemalan government, like every government, had the right to purchase arms from any other nation, particularly in response to a foreign-supported insurgency.  Moreover, as a June 1954 CIA report noted (declassified in 2003), “An abundance of information from many sources shows that Guatemala has attempted to obtain arms, airplanes, and military equipment in almost every European country and in the United States over the past several years.”  Guatemala’s attempts to purchase arms from the U.S., Canada, Britain, Switzerland, Belgium, and Italy were all blocked by the U.S. before the government turned to Czechoslovakia.[334]
Legitimating the intervention

Guatemalan Foreign Minister Jorge Toriello

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.”[335]

On June 22, Senator Lyndon Johnson of Texas introduced a concurrent “sense of the Congress” resolution stating that the U.S. must “prevent interference in Western Hemisphere affairs by the Soviet Communists.”  The fact that the Soviet Union had supported Guatemala’s appeal for mediation at the UN led Johnson to declare that this amounted to “open, flagrant notice that Communists are reserving the power to penetrate the Western Hemisphere by every means – espionage, sabotage, subversion, and ultimately open aggression.”[336]
In the House, Representative Jack Brooks of Texas endorsed the Johnson resolution with flair, declaring that “a Communist-dominated government in Guatemala is only 700 miles from Texas – only 960 miles, or a few hours’ bomber time, from the refiners, the chemical plants, and the homes of my own Second District in Texas.”  The resolution passed unanimously in the House and received only one negative vote in the Senate.  The dissenter, William Langer of North Dakota, argued in part that the U.S. ought to be “committed to the principle that every sovereign nation has a right to determine for itself its own form of government.”[337]

The recently enthroned military junta, including Castillo Armas (next to driver), being driven into Guatemala City by a CIA agent [Hub of History]

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.[338]  A fractious military junta that included Castillo Armas took power under Peurifoy’s direction.

The reaction to the overthrow across Latin America was one of anger.  Street protests erupted in Mexico, Honduras, Panama, Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and elsewhere.  In Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, national legislatures enacted resolutions condemning U.S. aggression.  The Uruguayan delegate to the UN General Assembly warned that U.S. “aggression” against Guatemala constituted a “very serious precedent for the American countries.”  Costa Rica’s democratic president José Figueres denounced the U.S. for misreading the Árbenz government and “seeing communists everywhere.”  Ecuador’s president, José María Velaco Ibarra, opened the country’s next session of Congress with a speech warning against letting the ideological nature of a government become grounds for outside intervention, as this would mean the end of national sovereignty.[339]
In the U.S., Life magazine (July 5, 1954) interpreted the protests as a sign that Latin Americans had fallen prey to communist propaganda, editorializing that “world communism was efficiently using the Guatemalan show to strike a blow at the U.S…. in the form of Red-run anti-U.S. demonstrations which loudly supported Guatemala and waved the bloody shirt of Yankee imperialism from Mexico to Santiago.”[340]  Secretary of State Dulles claimed on July 12, 1954, that the “people of Guatemala have now been heard from…. Led by Colonel Castillo Armas, patriots arose in Guatemala to challenge the Communist leadership – and to change it.”  The future, he added, now “lies at the disposal of the Guatemalan people themselves.”[341]  To Dulles and company, Árbenz was a “communist,” communism was an alien ideology forced on the good but ignorant people of Latin America, and the United States had the responsibility and right to remove this alien cancer, no less than defending the hemisphere from a Soviet military attack.
The Castillo Armas government
If the “communist threat” in Guatemala was unreal, so was U.S. support for freedom and democracy in the aftermath of the coup.
On July 19, 1954, less than a month after the coup, Castillo Armas announced the formation of a “National Committee of Defense Against Communism,” followed two weeks later by a Preventative Penal Law Against Communism that established the death penalty for alleged crimes that could be construed as “sabotage,” including union activities.  The National Committee of Defense was given the right to place citizens under arrest without charges for up to six months.  The new government also reversed the expropriation of United Fruit lands and cracked down on the banana workers’ union.  A law was passed restricting the right to vote to literate citizens.  The government also ordered the banning and burning of “subversive” books, including Victor Hugo’s famous Les Miserables.[342]

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.”[343]

The reality was that the U.S. had orchestrated the overthrow of a democratically elected president and undermined its progressive economic policies, leaving in place a dictatorial regime, political repression, and unrelieved economic oppression.  The latter conditions catalyzed three decades of civil war and brutal state violence beginning in 1966.  Human rights groups estimate that between 1954 and 1990, the succession of repressive military regimes in Guatemala murdered more than 100,000 civilians.[344]

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.”[345]

Diego Rivera’s Gloriosa Victoria (complete), painted in 1954, soon after the overthrow of President Jacobo Árbenz

Cuba, 1959-62

Only ninety miles from Key West, Cuba was the most important client state of the United States prior to January 1, 1959.  On that day, Fidel Castro and his guerrilla army marched through Havana amid cheering crowds, having routed the hated dictator, Fulgencio Batista.  Washington officials were wary of Castro at the time, but not unduly alarmed.  A NSC report on “U.S. Policy toward Latin America,” dated February 16, 1959, stated, “None of the Latin American nations faces an immediate threat of overt Communist aggression or takeover.”[346]

Castro as a young man, photo accompanying his 1953 “History Will Absolve Me” speech turned into a booklet distributed in Cuba

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.

Batista reported that Castro had been killed, but New York Times correspondent Herbert Matthews found him very much alive and interviewed him at a mountain hideout in February 1957, providing North Americans with their first glimpse of this bearded revolutionary who some compared to Thomas Jefferson.  Matthews wrote that Castro’s “program is vague and couched in generalities, but it amounts to a new deal for Cuba, radical, democratic, and therefore anti-Communist.  The real core of its strength [speaking of 26th of July Movement] is that it is fighting against the military dictatorship of President Batista.”[347]  The U.S. State Department verified the latter point in March 1958, estimating that “some 80 percent of the Cuban people” opposed the Batista regime.  Recognizing that their dictator in Havana might not last, Washington officials cut off arms to Batista and searched for a replacement, which proved futile.[348]
Castro was acutely aware of the historical domination of the U.S. over Cuba.  The U.S.-Batista alliance, notes Odd Arne Westad, prevented Cubans from “carrying out the social and economic reform that Castro thought necessary.  The promise of the Cuban revolution was that Cubans – and eventually all Latin Americans – could by themselves overthrow U.S. control and create truly independent states.”  Castro expressed his social welfare orientation in his “History Will Absolve Me” speech on October 16, 1953, at the age of 27, declaring “man’s inalienable right to a decent living,” thus extending the “unalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” written into the U.S. Declaration of Independence, to the economic realm.[349]
In his victory speech at Santiago de Cuba on January 4, 1959, Castro declared that his revolution “will not be like 1895 when the Americans came and took over, intervening at the last moment, and afterwards did not even allow Calixto Garcia to assume leadership, although he had fought at Santiago de Cuba for 30 years.”  Castro also promised, “Nor will it be like 1933, when the people began to believe that the revolution was going to triumph, and Mr. Batista came in to betray the revolution, take over power, and establish an 11-year-long dictatorship…. The function of the military is not to elect governments, but to guarantee laws and to guarantee the rights of the citizens.”[350]

Fidel Castro shakes the hands of well-wishers after his arrival at National Airport in Washington, April 15, 1959 [Photo by Henry Burroughs, AP]

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.[351]  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.[352]

Vice President Richard Nixon meets with Fidel Castro in Washington, April 19, 1959 [UPI]

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.[353]  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.[354]

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.[355]  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.”[356]

Why intervene?
Why did Washington officials want to oust Castro?   At that time, Castro was not a communist; the Soviet Union had no bases or missiles in Cuba; and Che Guevara, Castro’s right-hand man, was ensconced in the government bureaucracy rather than agitating for revolution abroad (he would leave Cuba in 1965).  The Eisenhower administration was no doubt apprehensive about future possibilities, but its decision in 1959 to oust Castro was based on Cuba’s economic nationalist policies.  As Secretary of State Christian Herter said in a letter to President Eisenhower on November 5, 1959, Cuba’s economic policies, “if emulated by other Latin American countries, would have serious adverse effects on Free World support of our leadership.”  To allow Castro to proceed would create a situation in which “the United States cannot hope to encourage and support sound economic policies in other Latin American countries and promote necessary private investment.”[357]

Cuba sugar cane cutters, circa 1960 [coldwarstudies.com]

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.

The Soviet Union stepped in at that critical moment to purchase an additional 700,000 tons of sugar for the year, saving the Cuban economy.  In October, the Castro government nationalized 382 big businesses, including banks and manufacturers of sugar, liquor, beer, perfume, soap, and textiles.  The U.S., in turn, imposed an embargo on U.S. exports to Cuba except for food and medicine.  In December, Cuba negotiated a multilateral trade agreement with the Soviet Union, Eastern European countries, and Mongolia for the purchase of 4 million tons of sugar in 1961.  China also provided a modest amount of aid to Cuba. [358]  All in all, Cuba found a way to survive economically without U.S. trade and investment.
Undaunted, U.S. officials pursued more aggressive strategies.  Between October 1959 and mid-April 1961, Washington officials planned and implemented various covert operations aimed at sabotaging the economy, overthrowing the government, and assassinating Castro.  To be clear, Cuba posed no military threat to the U.S. or to its neighbors.  Its differences with the U.S. were over Cuban nationalization of private U.S. properties.  The U.S., in undertaking aggressive actions against Cuba, acted illegally under international law, a fact well understood by U.S. officials, as their missions were undertaken in stealth in order to allow for “plausible deniability.”

CIA paratrooper training for Brigade 2506 [CIA]

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.[359]

Cuba did not respond to U.S. aggression with aggression of its own but rather took the matter to the United Nations, lodging a complaint against the U.S. on July 11, 1960.  The Cuban delegate denounced U.S. support for “counter-revolutionary” elements and terrorist bombings, providing the Security Council with documentation of the effects.  On September 26, 1960, Castro elaborated on these charges in a four-hour speech before the UN General Assembly.  Turning to U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, he said, “May I take this opportunity of telling His Excellency the Representative of the United States that there are many mothers in Cuba still awaiting his telegrams of condolence for their children murdered by the bombs of the United States.”  Lodge categorically dismissed all accusations of U.S. intervention.[360]
Bay of Pigs invasion

CIA Deputy Director Richard Bissell

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.[361]  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.[362]

Brigade 2506 insignia

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.”[363]  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.[364]  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.

Senator J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, was one of the few in Congress to learn about the invasion plan.  He met with Kennedy to advise against it.  “He made a powerful case against it, talking about things like treaties and international law,” noted the historian-in-the-White House Arthur Schlesinger in a reflective discussion.  “Needless to say, Fulbright was a lone wolf speaking in that final meeting to decide to go ahead.  He can’t have been too popular with Bissell.”[365]
On the morning of April 15, six Cuban expatriate pilots flying unmarked U.S. B-26 bombers set out to destroy the 30-plane Cuban air force, striking two airfields, three military bases, and the Antonio Maceo Airport.  The Kennedy administration’s pre-arranged cover story for the press was that a defecting Cuban Air Force pilot had done the damage before flying to Miami.  The cover was blown, however, when close-up photos of the plane shown to reporters revealed that it was a different type than those of the Cuban air force.  Fearing further exposure of America’s invisible hand, Kennedy cancelled air strikes planned for the next day.

Cuban expatriates taken prisoner following the invasion, April 17, 1961 [latinamericanstudies.org]

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.[366]  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.[367]  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.[368]

Fidel at Playa Girón with Captain Osmany Cienfuegos and militia [Granma]

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.[369]


Soviet poster in the 1960s: “Long live the eternal, indestructible friendship and cooperation between the Soviet and Cuban peoples” [public domain]

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.[370]  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.”[371]  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.”[372]

Continuing U.S. covert operations and the Cuban Missile Crisis
Notwithstanding the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the Kennedy administration remained intent on bringing down the Castro government.  On April 19, 1961, the very day the invasion collapsed, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the president’s brother, wrote a memo to the president urging a new campaign against Castro.  The following day, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara requested that the Department of Defense “develop a plan for the overthrow of the Castro government,” although not a direct invasion.  In November 1961, Kennedy approved Operation Mongoose, a multi-faceted plan of economic sabotage and assassination plots.  The operation was coordinated by a top-level interagency group headed by Robert Kennedy.  “My idea,” said Robert Kennedy on November 3, “is to stir things up on the island with espionage, sabotage, general disorder, run and operated by the Cubans themselves with every group but Batistaites and Communists.”  He added that he did “not know if we will be successful but we have nothing to lose in my estimate.”[373]

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.

Operation Northwoods proposed a number of CIA covert actions that could be blamed on Castro, thereby justifying a U.S. invasion.
Codenamed Operation Northwoods, the memo contained an appendix of suggested actions that could provide the requisite justification for a U.S. invasion.  Most of these involved using CIA agents to carry out some kind of sabotage or terrorism then blaming Castro.  Suggestions included arranging a “’Remember the Maine’ incident,” in which CIA agents sank a U.S. ship then blamed Cuba.  Other suggestions were to set off a bomb at the U.S. Guantanamo base in Cuba; “develop a Communist Cuban terror campaign in the Miami area, in other Florida cities and even in Washington”; “sink a boatload of Cubans enroute to Florida (real or simulated)”; and “foster attempts on lives of Cuban refugees in the United States even to the extent of wounding in instances to be widely publicized.”  Whatever the catalyst, the goals were “to place the United States in the apparent position of suffering defensible grievances from a rash and irresponsible government of Cuba and to develop an international image of a Cuban threat to peace in the Western Hemisphere.” The United States, according to the memo, would “respond by executing offensive operations” and “commence large scale United States military operations.”[374]
In Moscow, Soviet leaders weighed Castro’s request for defense assistance against the risk of war.  The fact that the U.S. had recently signed an agreement with Turkey to deploy fifteen U.S. nuclear-tipped, intermediate-range Jupiter missiles aimed at the Soviet Union, starting on June 1, 1961, tilted the scales in favor of secretly placing Soviet missiles in Cuba.  The decision was made in the spring of 1962 and construction of missile sites in Cuba began in July.  Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev publicly denied their existence, of course, just as President Kennedy denied any U.S. plans to invade Cuba.

Aerial photograph of Medium Range Ballistic Missile Launch Site 1 near San Cristóbal, Cuba, taken on October 25, 1962 [Kennedy library]

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.”[375]

Kennedy ordered an armada of U.S. warships to form a blockade in the Atlantic Ocean, 500 miles from Cuba, so as to intercept some 25 incoming Russian ships and submarines.  If the Soviet ships proceeded without stopping for inspection, or if Soviet submarines did not surface, firing could begin.  On October 24 and 25, a number of Soviet ships suddenly turned back while others submitted to inspection and were allowed to proceed.  The crisis continued as U.S. reconnaissance flights over Cuba indicated that construction of the missile sites was nearing completion.  Kennedy considered an air attack but stepped back from this option after diplomatic channels opened a path to a negotiated compromise.
On October 28, the parties reached an agreement.  The U.S. would promise not to invade Cuba and would remove its missiles from Turkey, albeit after a one-year delay, while the Soviet Union would pull its missiles out of Cuba and destroy the missile sites.  Castro did not like the deal and declared that he would not allow international inspectors to set foot in Cuba, but the missile removal process proceeded and was monitored by U-2 flights from the air instead.[376]
The resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis was a victory for diplomacy, but that was not how President Kennedy spun the story for the American press

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.[377]  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.[378]

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.”[379]  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

In May 1958, Vice President Richard Nixon undertook a goodwill tour through Latin America.  In Venezuela, his motorcade was pelted with eggs and rocks.  In Peru, he was shouted down by university students who also lobbed rotten tomatoes at him.  In Paraguay, a government crackdown on protesters was required to smooth the way for the visiting U.S. dignitary.  In marked contrast to Nixon’s “diplomatic Pearl Harbor,” as Walter Lippmann called the tour, Fidel Castro received a hero’s welcome when he visited Venezuela in January 1959.  Many Latin Americans viewed Castro as a “freedom fighter,” an inspirational leader who had challenged the “colossus of the north” and successfully overthrown a U.S.-backed dictator.[380]
The Cuban Revolution challenged the U.S. self-image as leader of the “free world.”  In its aftermath, the Eisenhower administration was determined to restore a measure of credibility to America’s off-stated pronouncements in support of freedom and democracy.  Though the U.S. remained committed to right-wing dictatorships in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Haiti (and others around the world), the administration chose to make an example out of the Dominican Republic (D.R.), a country ruled by “El Jefe” Rafael Trujillo since the 1930s.  In March 1959, U.S. ambassador to the D.R. Joseph Farland wrote to his superiors, “We are under directives to seek to avoid giving any impressions that US favors dictatorships in Latin America.  A part of the picture is that anti-Trujillo attitude in Latin America is considerably high.”  President Eisenhower concurred, “American public opinion won’t condemn Castro until we have moved against Trujillo.”[381]

VP Richard Nixon and Rafael Trujillo embrace during better days [Life magazine 1955]

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.[382]  The Eisenhower administration intended to remove this thorn in its side and presumably gain prestige in doing so.

In the spring of 1960, Ambassador Farland began meeting with conspirators in the D.R.  In October, the CIA submitted to the president a plan for the “Overthrow of the Trujillo Government,” which Eisenhower approved on December 29.  The plan called for the assassination of Trujillo and the takeover of the government by yet-to-be-determined conspirators, with elections to follow.[383]
The incoming Kennedy administration signed onto the plan.  On March 13, 1961, the CIA station chief in the D.R. requested 50 grenades, five rapid-fire machine guns, and ten anti-tank rockets.  These weapons would be used to ambush Trujillo on a highway on May 30 and riddle his body with 27 bullets, killing him.  The planned coup, however, went awry when Trujillo’s 30-year-old son Ramfis returned from France and took control of the government.  Six months later, in another turn, Ramfis left the country after a demonstration of U.S. naval force and threat to land the Marines.  Following his departure, a period of political organizing ensued in which the CIA provided funds to its favored parties.  Elections took place on December 20, 1962.[384]

President-elect Juan Bosch meets with President Kennedy in the White House on Jan. 10, 1963. Within a year, the CIA would maneuver Bosch’s overthrow [Kennedy library]

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.

The Kennedy administration went into reverse, returning to the familiar Cold War pattern of destroying the left and bolstering the right.  The administration began plotting the overthrow of the new government.  Washington would not allow the popular will to prevail.  On September 22, 1963, U.S. Ambassador John Martin cabled Washington that Bosch was “not much of a president,” and recommended “that we should attempt to take his government away from him, insofar as possible.”[385]  In fact, the CIA was already conspiring with military officers to remove Bosch.  The coup took place on September 24.  Bosch was forced to flee to Puerto Rico.
U.S. officials had nothing but praise for the new D.R. leader, Donald Reid Cabral.  A State Department paper lauded him as “by far the best Chief of State to appear on the Dominican scene.”  Cabral was of the Dominican upper class, with Anglo-looking features – his father being of Scottish origins – and an excellent command of English.  He was also corrupt, authoritarian, and reactionary, according to British chargé Stafford Campbell, and would chiefly be remembered for “obstruction of social reform, robbing of the Treasury, falsified budgets, contract-fixing and the securing of large fortunes by barefaced and impertinent dishonesty.”  During a severe recession that struck the D.R., Cabral did nothing to ease the plight of the poor and unemployed.  “His following is practically non-existent,” reported Campbell on April 7, 1965.[386]

US troops patrol the streets near a food line in Santo Domingo, May 5, 1965 [National Security Archive]

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.[387]  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.”[388]

British Guiana, 1961-64

British Guiana, renamed Guyana in 1966 [IMGBIN.com]

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.

Elections held in the British colony in 1953 resulted in a victory for the Progressive People’s Party (PPP) which won 18 of 24 seats in the new House of Assembly.  Thereafter, party leader Cheddi Jagan, a democratic socialist, became chief minister.  Unhappy with the electoral results, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill suspended the constitution and abolished Jagan’s office.  The PPP nonetheless remained popular and won majorities in the next two national elections held in 1957 and August 1961.  Following the latter election, Jagan was chosen prime minister, to the dismay of both the British and the Kennedy administration.
On October 25, 1961, Jagan met with President John F. Kennedy at the White House in what appeared to be an amicable meeting.  “I went to see President Kennedy to seek the help of the United States, and to seek his support for our independence from the British,” said Jagan in a 1994 interview with the New York Times.  “He was very charming and jovial.  Now, the United States feared that I would give Guyana [the name taken at independence] to the Russians.  I said if this is your fear, fear not.  We will not have a Soviet base.  I raised the question of aid.  They did not give a positive response.  The meeting ended on this note.”[389]

Cheddi Jagan, Premier of British Guiana, meets with President Kennedy at the White House on Oct. 25, 1961, before the CIA secures Jagan’s ouster [Kennedy Library]

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.[390]  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.”[391]

Having destabilized the economy, the CIA moved to the political front.  According to the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Historian, “Through the Central Intelligence Agency, the United States provided Forbes Burnham’s and Peter D’Aguiar’s political parties, which were in opposition to Jagan, with both money and campaign expertise as they prepared to contest the December 1964 parliamentary elections.  The U.S. Government’s covert funding and technical expertise were designed to play a decisive role in the registration of voters likely to vote against Jagan.  Burnham’s and D’Aguiar’s supporters were registered in large numbers, helping to elect an anti-Jagan coalition.”[392]

Prime Minister Forbes Burnham and President Johnson meet at the White_House, July 21, 1966

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.[393]

U.S. manipulation of democracy did not end with independence and the inauguration of the Cooperative Republic of Guyana in May 1966.  As the Office of the Historian notes, “The U.S. Government, again through the CIA, continued to provide substantial funds to both Burnham and D’Aguiar and their parties.  In 1967 and 1968, [U.S.] approved funds were used to help the Burnham and D’Aguiar coalition contest and win the December 1968 general elections.”[394]
At the heart of America’s global struggle against “communism” was the idea that the U.S. was the protector and promoter of freedom and democracy in the world, a view that resonated with American national identity.  President Kennedy, in his Inaugural Address in January 1961, called on Americans to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”[395]  Yet, in the region in which the U.S. had the most influence, Latin America, Washington officials did just the opposite in many cases, destabilizing progressive democratic governments and supporting repressive authoritarian ones.

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.[396]

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.”[397]

*          *          *          *          *           *          *

VII. Post-Cold War perspective

A celebration on the wall separating the city of Berlin, Nov 10, 1989, one day after its opening [AP photo]

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.

The demise of America’s long-time archrival hardly changed U.S. military policy.  The Pentagon’s “Defense Strategy for the 1990s,” issued in January 1993, declared that the U.S. “must not stand back and allow a new global threat to emerge,” and that the U.S. must maintain “leadership” in the interest of “global security” and “democratic ideals.”[398]  Leadership, it appears, required predominant military power and the willingness to use that power to secure U.S. global interests.  In February 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright explained that the U.S. must lead the world because “we are the indispensable nation.  We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”[399]
The so-called War on Terror that began in 2001, notes the historian Andrew Bacevich, “did not mark some radical departure from the past,” but only “more diligent efforts to impose American will on the world beyond our borders.”  The National Security Strategy of 2002 declared, “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military-build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.”[400]  America as the world’s sole superpower became the status quo.  The New York Times reported in March 2017 that the United States “has a global presence unlike any other nation, with about 200,000 active duty troops deployed in more than 170 countries.”  This presence included some 800 overseas U.S. military bases and operations.  According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the U.S. accounted for over one-third of the world’s military expenditures in 2017 – more than the next seven highest-spending countries combined.[401]
The U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) report of December 2017 offered an explanation as to why the U.S. must retain predominant power:  “We learned the difficult lesson that when America does not lead, malign actors fill the void to the disadvantage of the United States.  When America does lead, however, from a position of strength and confidence and in accordance with our interests and values, all benefit.”  The Pentagon’s list of “malign actors” that year included China, Russia, North Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and transnational “jihadist terrorists.”  The report noted, “Although the menace of Soviet communism is gone, new threats test our will.”[402]
Indeed, there will always be new threats on the horizon as long as U.S. leaders pursue global hegemony and parlay this to the American public as “national security.”  It is, of course, a conceit of empire to believe that all nations benefit from the aggrandizement and projection of U.S. power.
In a nutshell, this essay has attempted to show, based on evidence and scholarship, that the Cold War mission of the United States was primarily aimed at gaining and maintaining U.S. global predominance.  In service to this overarching goal, U.S. leaders:
  • 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.[403]

Ethical standards of behavior should apply to the United States no less than to other nations.
If there is a paramount lesson to be learned from the Cold War, it is that the United States should shed its imperial identity and become a team player on the world stage, pursuing cooperation rather than military preponderance.  Let Pax Americana follow Pax Britannica into the dustbin of history.  American citizens need to be aware of the history and effects of U.S. foreign policies, cross-examine official rationales, and strengthen mechanisms of democratic accountability, thus enabling critical assessment of current U.S. policies and actions in the world.  Ethical standards of behavior should apply to the United States no less than to other nations.
Socialism in the United States?
The end of the Cold War and demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 were hailed by many in the U.S. as a victory for free market capitalism over government-led socialism.  Yet only the Soviet form of socialism collapsed.  In the ensuing years, the American public’s acceptance and embrace of socialist ideas increased as a new generation looked to European nations for positive models.  A Gallup poll in August 2018 found that Americans aged 18-29 viewed socialism more favorably than capitalism by six percentage points.  The poll also found that, among Democrats, 57 percent had a positive view of socialism while 47 percent had a positive view of capitalism.  Among Republicans, 71 percent viewed capitalism positively while 16 percent viewed socialism favorably.[404]
The issue of national health care brought the issue of socialism to the fore that year.  As health care constitutes about one sixth of the U.S. economy, the transfer of this profit-making sector to a government-run “single payer” system would be a huge blow to private health insurance corporations.  With the idea of “Medicare for All” gaining support among Democrats, the Trump administration directed his Council of Economic Advisers to produce a report that would dissuade Americans from diverging from capitalist orthodoxy.  The 70-page report titled “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism,” published in October 2018, noted, “Coincident with the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth, socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse.”  The report cast aspersions on “Nordic and European versions of socialized medicine,” claiming that adoption of such a system in the U.S. would result in a significant decline in the American standard of living.  “We estimate that if the United States were to adopt these policies, its real GDP [Gross Domestic Product] would decline by at least 19 percent in the long run, or about $11,000 per year for the average person.”[405]
In February 2019, President Donald Trump used his State of the Union address to restore the old Cold War association of socialism with Soviet-style authoritarianism.  “Here, in the United States,” he said, “we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country.  America was founded on liberty and independence – not government coercion, domination, and control.  We are born free, and we will stay free.  Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”[406]  In March, the president told attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference that the adoption of socialist policies would transform the U.S. into a dictatorship.  “Democrat lawmakers are now embracing socialism,” warned the president.  “They want to replace individual rights with total government domination.”[407]
Nowhere in the Constitution is it written that the U.S. economy must operate in accordance with “free market” rules.
For more than a century, such hyperbole has been used to brand socialism as “unAmerican” and place it outside the range of legitimate political discussion.  This is a disreputable strategy that has reinforced ideological dogma and intolerance, and short-circuited debate on economic policy alternatives.  During the Cold War, the demonization of socialism led to a global war against the left, resulting in many casualties and inhibiting democratic socialist-oriented experiments.
In truth, there is no intrinsic tie between the United States and capitalism, and no inherent opposition to socialism.  Nowhere in the Constitution is it written that the U.S. economy must operate in accordance with “free market” rules.  Indeed, the document states that the government must “promote the general welfare,” a phrase interpreted by the Supreme Court on numerous occasions to allow for a greater role of government in the economy.  The 45-year Cold War settled nothing about the merits of socialism and capitalism.  Nor can war and threats of war ever settle an intellectual debate.[408]  Only reasoned arguments and practical experiments can do that.


Recommended resources

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.

 Go to Original – peacehistory-usfp.org

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Share this article:

DISCLAIMER: The statements, views and opinions expressed in pieces republished here are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of TMS. In accordance with title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. TMS has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is TMS endorsed or sponsored by the originator. “GO TO ORIGINAL” links are provided as a convenience to our readers and allow for verification of authenticity. However, as originating pages are often updated by their originating host sites, the versions posted may not match the versions our readers view when clicking the “GO TO ORIGINAL” links. This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

Comments are closed.