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Cold War

"We couldn't let them  have that election because they were going to elect that dictator." -- President Eisenhower speaking of the nationwide election promised Vietnam by the world powers after Vietnamese guerrillas under Ho Chi Minh ousted the French. China was amongst the ones, along with the U.S., who saw to it that Vietnam did not become united under Ho Chi Minh.


During the Cold War, if the West (the U.S. and Europe) thought that a third-world country was headed towards falling under Communist control, the West often intervened and established a reliably anti-Communist dictatorship. And where a right wing dictatorship already existed, Western policy was to support that dictatorship rather than press for democratic reform, because democracies were vulnerable to Soviet takeover, but dictatorships could be controlled. In every case there was a reasonable option to support democracy as the best counter to Communism, to fight fire with water, instead of fighting fire with fire, but these options were almost never chosen..... In the long run the West wanted democracy for the third world, but, as policy makers saw it, leftist leaders like Allende in Chile and Lumumba in the liberated Belgian Congo, were on a path to Communist dictatorship and had to be stopped. People in these third-world countries, as well as people in the rich nations, disagree about whether these interventions were justified. When some people from the third world say the U.S. wants democracy for itself but not for poor nations, and that the U.S. goes around the world causing wars, they are usually talking about Cold War military regimes imposed on them by the U.S., and the resulting wars of rebellion against those regimes. Others from Third World countries, many working class people as well as rich, speak with gratitude for U.S. interventions, which, as they see it, saved them from becoming another Cuba or North Korea.............What we would like to do on this page is develop a file of arguments for and against U.S. Cold War policy, case by case in terms of the different third world countries, and in general terms. We would like to promote high school debates on this issue in which students choose which side to argue. We would like to get beyond the left calling the right fascists and the right saying that the left was rooting for Communism. There is an argument that planting dictatorships as a defense against Communism was the right thing to do, and it is not a pro-fascist argument. There is an argument that supporting leftist democracies like Chile under Allende, or Iran under Mossadegh would have been a better, and more humane way to fight Communism, and this is not a pro-Communist argument. ........Another question we in the U.S. should debate is this: given a policy of supporting reliably anti-communist dictatorships, should the U.S. have tried to stop the horrors perpetrated by governments like Guatemala and Iran (under the Shaw) in the name of anti-Communism? Did the U.S. encourage extermination of labor activists, student organizers and other leftists? Did the U.S. support state terror, or did the U.S. try to curb such excesses? Is it not true that the persecution of civilians by the governments the U.S. supported was a major force in driving people to join the anti-government war efforts supported by the Soviets? Some issues: At the end of World War II, Ho Chi Minh petitioned U.S. president Harry Truman to help Vietnam become a democracy, but Truman ignored Ho and supported the French recolonization, leading to the French Vietnam war, which the French lost. The U.S. intervention followed. Did president Truman make a mistake?... Few Americans know that president Truman crushed the political left in Japan 1949, because the left was getting too powerful and posed a threat to take office and become a Soviet ally. This is why Japan is a one party state, not a democracy, to this day, is it not?  (Japan is a democracy in most ways -- it has freedom of speech, a poor person has rights in court, the police are not criminals on a routine basis -- but politically it has been essentially a one party state since 1949. By contrast Mexico now has multi-party elections but people lack all the rights of a democracy. Japan is much more of a democracy than Mexico, but politically it has been a one party state since Truman's 1949 "reverse course" action.


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Emerging Cold War issue in U.S. press (unless the press decides to stop talking about it).

U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam used to say, back in the 1970's, that they often shot at anything that moved when they went into villages. Thanks to a series of articles by the Toledo Blade the New York Times has written an article on likelihood that killing of civilians by U.S. troops was much more common than has been acknowledged.  For the New York Times article on killing of civilians by U.S. forces in Vietnam, click here 

In Bolivia, in 1953, the U.S. worked with President Estenssoro's leftist government, which was threatening to nationalize mining interests of U.S. business. Rather than engineer a coup as it did in Guatemala and Iran, the U.S. figured that in Bolivia, which was smaller, weaker, and dependant on the U.S. for aid and exports, it would tolerate a leftist government because it could be controlled. Following Eisenhower's election in 1952, this is the only example I know of where a U.S. administration decided to support rather than cut down a leftist government where the threat of communist takeover was considered substantial. For an article on the 1953 Bolivia - Eisenhower maneuvers, click here. For an article comparing the U.S. treatment of Bolivia with the U.S. treatment of Guatemala in 1953-54, click here.


  Both sides have an argument.

 The cartoon on the left is from an editorial by Andrew Sullivan (Wall Street Journal, Oct. 4, 2001)  in which he claims that leftists cannot give their allegiance to the likes of Osama Bin Laden the way they rallied to the cause of communists in the Cold War, because Bin Laden and his Islamic militant cohorts -- Al Qaida -- are just too ghastly and crazy for leftists  to support, even though they would like to. The "agony of the left" is how he describes this predicament of leftists. What Mr. Sullivan is missing, probably not deliberately, is that  people who opposed the Vietnam War and other Cold War policies of the West did not praise or believe in communism or dictators like Castro or Mao Tse Tung. There were some who did. But most leftists were pro-democracy not pro-Communism. (As John Lennon put it in the song "Revolution", "If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, You ain't gonna make it with anyone anyhow.") And what they were against was U.S. support for right wing regimes that were just as bad as the Communist regimes. (One has to admire the art, even if it's telling a lie.)

   It is likewise unfair for leftists to say that all the U.S. wanted in the Cold War was to advance business interests. Clearly there were cases where business was protected, e.g. Guatemala and Iran, and it is possible that the Cold War was fostered by the "military industrial complex" in a conspiracy to have wars all over the world. But the thinking of presidents and policymakers, from Truman to Reagan, was that they had to stop the advance of communism. Western policy was motivated by a legitimate fear that Stalin was trying trying to take over the world. It is true that free enterprise was at stake, but so was every other human freedom. John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon -- the Vietnam War presidents --  were not thinking about businesses in particular or even business in general. They were thinking about protecting "the free world" as Kennedy called it, even if there was no freedom under the governments we supported. This was not seen as hypocrisy but the smart way to fight communism. The fact that the U.S. was  turning democracies into dictatorships (reliably anti-Communist dictatorships) does not change the fact that U.S. leaders felt they were doing what they had to do to stop Communist hegemony.


One good reason to study the Cold War is that the current clash of Muslim nations with the West is very similar to Cold War hostilities. Like the Communists of the Cold War, Islamic fundamentalists will establish a police state if they rise to power through democratic process -- putting the West in the position of claiming to want democracy but suppressing real elections because  of who will be elected. In Afghanistan and Iraq the U.S. wants democracy after overthrowing regimes  -- regimes the U.S. used to support until they got out of line.  The U.S. is on the spot in these two places and has to make good on its claims of being be pro-democracy.  No where else is there any apparent push for democracy in the Middle East. And look aroung the world, it's the same story. The U.S.embargoes Cuba but China gets "most favored nation" status.

 As with the Cold War, U.S. allies in the Muslim world are outright dictatorships, like Saudi Arabia, or phony democracies like Egypt and Turkey. (Until recently didi not let Kurds name their children with Kurdish names. The Kurdish language was not allowed in schools.) Iran is an interesting case -- it was turned into a Western- supported dictatorship under a 1953 Cold War coup that  got rid of a democracy, and then, in 1979 Islamists threw out the Cold War tyrant (the Shaw) and established an Islamic state. So Iran has been put through both East-West ringers, Cold War and anti-Western Islamic Jihad. Then there was the Iran Iraq war, promoted by the U.S., some say, but all agree the U.S. had no complaints that saddam Hussein was attacking Iran. Indonesia is another case where Cold War horrors, visited upon the people by a U.S.-supported henchman, Suharto, is cause for prevailing contempt for the U.S. and distrust of the U.S. by the Muslim population.





 Critics of Western Cold War policy should bear in mind that, if it were certain that a democracy was going to fall to Soviet control, then it was not unreasonable to establish "one of our" dictatorships before the Soviets established one of theirs. It is a fact that the Soviet agents were swarming the planet with all manner of propaganda, manipulation, etc., and that their police states, once established, were very hard to overturn. Stalin was a great exterminator of people, like Hitler -- and wanted to control the world. I am not asking critics to condone the types of murderous government the West supported. I am saying that if the reader was in a situation where the choice was between a U.S. controlled dictatorship or a Soviet controlled dictatorship, the reader would choose U.S. control. What U.S. policy makers say, in retrospect, is: we felt we had no choice. What I try to point out here is that there was a choice, support democracy, and run the risk the Soviets would get it, because the risk was not as high as our policy makers thought.  Supporting dictatorships was not the only option. I personally think supporting democracy, in every case -- Iran, Guatemala, Congo etc. -- would have been a more effective way to fight the spread of Soviet satellite states. If  some countries had become "another Cuba" so be it. The shining examples of democracy -- freedom of speech, free enterprise, etc. -- which we supported would have been beacons for the world, and an incentive for small nations to fight for freedom. As it was "our dictatorships" may have been, in most ways "better than their dictatorships," as one U.S. ambassodor to the U.N., Jean Kirkpatrick, put it, but they were still ugly, murderous, vile dictatorships like Zaire under Mobutu or whatever one you choose. All hideous places with no freedom except for the rich. But I do not think there is no argument on the other side. It may be naive to think, especially in the shadow of the colonial experience, that people anywhere would choose their colonizers, the the U.S. and Europe, offering them democracy where they had offered them a type of slavery before, over the Soviet's message of workers unite and take charge of your destiny, even if it was a lie. I think we should be having this argument in our high schools. It may be noted that the U.S did not really have colonies the way the Europeans did. But the U.S. controlled Latin America, especially Central America, as if these countries were colonies, pursuant to the Monroe Doctrine (a.k.a the John Quincy Adams doctrine) which was not a political exclusion of Europe, it was just defining turf for U.S. business interests. This is our cookie jar, not Europe's, said the Monroe Doctrine, although Europe was not so easily deterred.

 Those who support the policy of imposing dictatorships should see that if a democracy, such as Guatemala or Iran, would have survived as a democracy, then it would have been better to simply support the democracy, for many reasons. These reasons include the following. -- (1) Democracy would have been an offense, rather than just a defense against Communism, inspiring people in Communist states to rebel because they could see the advantage of living in a democracy. As it was people around the world knew that the alternative to a Communist police state was a Western-allied police state, replete with military exterminations, no freedom of speech etc. (2) By supporting dictatorships the West fit the mold of Soviet propaganda. The world could look at places like Zaire, South Vietnam etc. and see that the rich and the military ruled and citizens had no real rights, just like the Communists said about capitalists. (3) Dictatorships supported by the West were given free rein to murder and this caused wars of rebellion, essentially recruiting for the Communist cause. In a democracy there would not have been such popular rebellions because people would not have hated their governments. The Soviets might have overthrown a democracy by political subterfuge, but the political force of the people would not have supported them. In other words the murderous ways of all our proxies, e.g. Salvador, Guatemala, Cambodia (under Lon Nol), South Vietnam, Zaire, Iran  served as a recruitment tool for the Soviets. (4) We ask supporters of Cold War policy to acknowledge that in each case there existed a democratic option and that these options were not unreasonable or hopeless causes. Examples include accepting Ho Chi Mihn's plea to the U.S. to occupy and help the country at the end of World War II. Harry Truman said "the buck stops here," maybe so, I don't know that much about his domestic policy, but the frank and pound and the gilder and the ruble certainly did not. He let the colonies be reinstated. Ho Chi Minh was at the peace of Paris, after World War I, and was told to take a hike. So much for democracy. And the same after World War II.

What we need  to get past is the notion that the U.S. and Europe supported democracy during the course of the Cold War. There exist a few exceptions, such as support for leftist democratic regimes in Bolivia and Colombia that spanned several years. But these were exceptions, and rare ones.

For Americans, smug in the ignorant belief that the U.S. supported democracy in the Cold War, to look at the Third World and say, "They're still not ready for democracy, after all our effort," is an ugly spectacle for the world to see. Many people around the world think the U.S. did the right thing in propping up dictatorships like Salvador and getting rid of risky democracies like the Mossadeh admonistration in Iran, but Americans are alone in harboring a widespread belief that the U.S. supported democracy  in the Cold War.  Europeans know better because they learn history better in high school. It is time for U.S. schools to teach Cold War history in some depth, with arguments pro and con U.S. policy. It is because history in U.S. schools is so superficial that the government is able to get away with leaving students with the impression that the West supported democracy during the years of the Cold War.  In fact there is some fairly straight talk about what the U.S. did in some high school books, but it is scattered accounts that are usually presented as something the U.S. had no choice in. The U.S. had a choice, in every case, both to support democracy instead of dictatorship, and to try to curb human rights abuses by sponsored dictatorships. There is no question that the U.S. almost always chose dictatorship over democracy. What is arguable is the question of whether the U.S. routinely turned a blind eye to the extermination of civilians in the name of anti-communism by U.S. supported dictatorships.

Some claim that the U.S. and Europe, having established a reliably anti-communist government, supported human rights and tried to stop government killing of civilians who opposed the government. But there is a mountain of local testimony about Cold War atrocities,  rarely reported in the U.S. press at the time, stating that Western Cold War allies slaughtered civilians. Europe reported these horrors  more than the U.S. In Vietnam some U.S. vets say they went into villages and shot anything that moved. (See the video "Winter Soldier, Vietnam.") In El Salvador it is claimed the U.S. supported army took students out of the city and killed them, their crime being not being in the army and not being rich.  Guatemala, Argentina, Chile, Zaire, Iran and many other U.S. Cold War allies were terror states, killing people just to show that dissent was not tolerated, the same as in Communist countries. The question we would like to debate here is, did the U.S. and Europe, having helped create these dictatorships, make an effort to stop the mayhem that ensued, or did Western governments let it happen?

 This is important to discuss, with the understanding that the West may  have supported brutality in some cases but actually tried to stop it in others. It is important to discuss because just as democracy might have been a better way to fight  Communism than the "reliably ant-Communist" dictatorship method the West chose, so might a benign dictatorship have been a better way to fight Communism than a murderous, corrupt one. Perhaps the U.S. could not control the governments it supported, but in many cases it seems the U.S. essentially ran governments by remote control, with a very loose leash where murder of civilians was concerned.

It is possible the U.S. and Europe, having established a dictatorship that was reliably anti-Communist, could have avoided wars of rebellion by demanding decent treatment of citizens. A benign dictatorship, without a civil war to fight because people were not reacting against torture and mayhem, could have supported a healthy economy. U.S. aid that bought weapons to fight wars could have been used to pay for health, education and agriculture.

While it is valuable to debate options that were available, we should know the truth about what happened, case by case, including sideshows like Suriname, whose government President Kennedy destroyed because its president said something positive about Fidel Castro. According to reports the Kennedy administration orchestrated riots, arranged murders, created phony press reports about Cuban forces poised to invade etc. If this is true, that Kennedy chose thus to defend the "free world" against Communism, then Americans should know this truth and it should be taught in our schools.

It is also important to come to terms with horrific events like Nixon's massive bombing of Hanoi, which followed the breakdown of a peace negotiations between North and South Vietnam. It was the South, the U.S. ally, which rejected the agreement, yet the U.S. reacted by bombing the North. Some claim that Nixon did not want to appear adrift after the peace talks  failed, so he bombed Hanoi to improve his image. Other issues include Napalm undergoing successive reformulations so it would stick to people and and burn them more efficiently.

A good reason to study the Cold War is that people of the Third World are still living in the political nightmare created in the Cold War. It is important for the world to face the realities of the Cold War history so that we can all help shape a more democratic, prosperous future for those who have  suffered at the hands the "civilized" world from colonial times through the Cold War.


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