The roots of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy are found in WWII, the atomic bombing of Japan and militarization during the Cold War. Biden supported the Iraq War but fought for the nuclear agreement with Iran. What should we expect from his administration? Vijay Prashad joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Hi, I’m Paul Jay. Welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast. Please don’t forget the donate button at the top of the web page. We’re in a matching grant campaign. You’ll see all the details explaining the matching grant at the top of the page.
When President-elect Joe Biden becomes commander-in-chief of the most powerful war machine in human history, it’s not clear which Joe Biden we will be getting. Will we get the Biden who supported the Iraq War and comes out of a foreign policy tradition of Truman and Kennedy, Cold Warriors who massively built out the military-industrial complex. Truman, who directed the fascist and racist Air Force General Curtis LeMay to drop atomic bombs on Japan and later directed LeMay to kill millions of Koreans. Kennedy, who started the process that led to the Vietnam War and brought the world to the edge of nuclear annihilation in a pointless confrontation with the Soviet Union. A Cold War that was used to justify the greatest investment in military spending outside of a major war. Or will we get the Biden that fought for the Iran nuclear agreement, who apparently opposed a trillion-dollar investment in modernizing the American nuclear weapons arsenal, and was reported to be against the invasion of Libya. When it comes to rivalry with China, when we get beyond the inflammatory rhetoric, will Biden work with China to deal with climate and a host of other issues, or will he try to show how strong he is and please the China hawks who want him to contain China and weaken its global economic influence?
Well, to better understand what we might expect from the Biden administration, let’s start by taking a look at the roots of the Democratic Party’s foreign policy. Joining me to do that is Vijay Prashad. Vijay is a historian, journalist, and commentator. He is the executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of Leftword Books. His latest book is Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations. Thanks very much for joining us, Vijay.
Thanks, Paul. Always great to be with you.
Thank you. So, to understand the roots of how the Democratic Party pursues war and foreign policy, why don’t we start with Roosevelt, who in 1939 or so denounced the bombing of civilians in Europe as barbaric, and then he joined in. He ordered American planes to join in the firebombing of Dresden and burning alive hundreds of thousands of civilians in Japan. Roosevelt, who continued developing the nuclear bomb even after it was clear Hitler was not developing one. So, if you think that’s a good place to start understanding how the Democratic Party thinks about foreign policy, why don’t you pick it up from there?
Well, you know, Paul, it’s good that you start with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, because by all accounts, he is the gold standard of American liberalism, or at least Democratic-Party liberalism. And yet, if you look at FDR and then jump forward some decades to the next great shining star of Democratic Party liberalism, that’s John F. Kennedy, both FDR and John F. Kennedy oscillate between this hesitancy to use the full force of the United States and to use charm, a “charm offensive.”
You may remember FDR started the Good Neighbor policy with the Latin American countries or the Caribbean countries. John F. Kennedy as well, you know, famously, after Nixon’s quite catastrophic journey around South America, John F. Kennedy with Jacqueline Onassis (well, at the time, Jacqueline Kennedy) was very much on the side of believing that diplomacy, charm, using American values, you know, “the city on the hill,” and so on, was going to win the day for the United States. There was always that one side of Democratic Party liberalism.
But it was a very fragile side because it would snap to the other side, go in the other direction, rather quickly. And so, you get the other side, which is the full force of US military power to be used when appropriate and not necessarily to be used “homeopathically,” but to be used “allopathically” in all its force. You know, you see this with John F. Kennedy because Kennedy comes to power — you know, great charm and so on. And then what do you see with the Dulles brothers? They attempt to overthrow the government in Cuba. That’s very famous, the Bay of Pigs invasion. But it’s not just the Bay of Pigs. It’s a range of different invasions by the Marines, including in Thailand, a little-known invasion by the US Marines into Thailand. You know, you see this use of US power, I would say, without much hesitancy. So, with Democratic Party liberalism, you oscillate, as I said, between on the one side, this public charm and on the other side, ruthless power.
I recently read Barack Obama’s new memoir, Promised Land. And I mean, I’m not recommending it because I found it evasive, I found it untrue in many parts, and I also found it to be, in a way, self-aggrandizing, which is not something that you expect to see in such a long book. I mean, frankly, I read Kissinger’s books and he is less self-aggrandizing than Barack Obama is in this particular book. But let’s leave that aside.
He describes a scene in the book which I think captures this oscillation between great charm and ruthless use of American power. Because, let’s face it, the United States has the most powerful military. It can bomb anywhere, it can create havoc anywhere from the skies, from its missiles, drones, and so on. So, in the memoir, he describes the hit list, the kill list. This is famously a man who was against the death penalty when he was a lawyer in Chicago, a man who comes from that kind of charm school of Democratic Party liberalism. You know, such a charming guy. I mean, everybody seems to accept that.
I used to play a game when Obama was running in ’08, in the primary and in the election. I used to insist to myself that I read his speeches and not watch, because if you watched he was so damn charming, you would just want to believe what he said. Whereas if you read the speeches, as you said, “Oh, this is just some, you know, center-right Democrat speaking.”
In fact, that’s a very good thing, but now, unfortunately, Obama’s voice is in my head. So, in reading the memoir, the charm does come through. But you can see there is a sequence: Obama, John F. Kennedy, FDR. There is this trajectory. So, here’s this man from that school of Democratic Party liberalism who excited the base in various ways, comes to power, and comes into the White House. Now, he is informed that he has the power to assassinate people around the world without a warrant, without an investigation, without a trial, without all the basic architecture of liberalism. You can just put a name on a list and the person is assassinated. That’s an extraordinary power. That’s a god-like power. Now, you would imagine this sort of Democratic Party liberalism would hesitate and say, look, this is not on. We need to have trials and we need to arrest people. They need to have a right to defend themselves. Just the basic points that are there, not only in the US Constitution, but, you know — hello? — in international law.
No, Obama accepts the enormous responsibility — you know, this is the kind of way they think about it — enormous responsibility bestowed upon the United States to maintain order. And he says that his chief of staff told him that the reason we need to do this, the reason we need to sit on Thursday in the Situation Room and go over a list of people that have to be killed and you have to sign off on this killing — the reason we have to do this isn’t actually about the enormous responsibility of American power and so on, but it’s because a Democratic Party, a liberal Democratic Party president should not look “weak.” I mean, that is something that should chill people. When the perceived need for the appearance of strength justifies using this amazing, awesome amount of power that is going to destroy the lives of God knows how many people. This is chilling.
So, when we say, let’s look at Biden’s record and so on, I fear that whatever the oscillation towards reason, towards liberalism, whatever that might be, the enormous capacity of the United States to wreak havoc in the world, married with this hesitancy amongst Democratic Party politicians not to appear weak makes them very dangerous people when they’re in the White House. So, I don’t have a great deal of anticipation that Biden is going to be a peace president. I fear that once more we are going to have another war president, because, in a sense, Paul, they’ve all been war presidents.
Well, before we dig in more to what we might expect from Biden, dig in more to the mindset of this kind of liberal face [i.e., facade]. As you said, Roosevelt is the liberal face. In fact, the New Deal was about as liberal as domestic policy ever got. And of course, he was doing it to save a system of private ownership, as he said himself. But it was a rational approach to it, as opposed to fascism, which was really the alternative in the ’30s. There’s even a speech from Roosevelt in ’39 [sic, a speech from April 29, 1938] where he talks about corporate control of government. When a specific group of corporations start to control government, he says, this is the definition of fascism.
And he warned against this barbaric bombing of civilians during World War II, and then he allows this guy, General LeMay, to become head of STRATCOM. The guy is a fascist. When I say he’s a racist, the guy ran for vice president after he retired: he was George Wallace’s vice president. Apparently, he was so crazy, rightwing, and militarist that Wallace started getting embarrassed by LeMay because LeMay was advocating for a strike against the Soviet Union. He was making Wallace look crazy.
But not only did Roosevelt have this guy as head of STRATCOM and orders the firebombing of Tokyo, which was actually worse than the atomic bombs, because in one night they killed 100,000 civilians. People should look this up because one of the pilots wrote about what he saw from the air. He describes tens of thousands of people running into the canals to try to escape the flames. The water itself was already boiling. People start to melt. And then there’s so many thousands of people running, they can’t prevent themselves from being forced into the canal. The bridges, the steel gets white hot. Like, the description from this pilot…It’s incredible. And Roosevelt had to know all this. There’s no way these reports don’t get to him. But the same liberal mindset that can do the New Deal can accept the slaughter of tens of thousands of people.
Then Truman, as we know now, authorizes the dropping of the atomic bomb when Japan’s already ready to surrender. The whole thing was unnecessary. And then again, in Korea. After doing it in Japan, they do it again in Korea, which never gets talked about. What is it, like, three million Koreans, I think, were killed? And the same guy, General Curtis LeMay, again.
So, what is this bloody mindset where they can think of themselves as liberals — “We’re not like the Republicans.” And then act — I don’t know if it’s more dastardly because I’m sure the Republicans in the same situation would be as or even more so — but act in a completely dastardly fashion.
You know, there are two books I’d like to add to the reading list. And fortunately for people in the United States, they’re both written by people from the United States so you don’t have to doubt the authenticity of the writer. [Laughter.] Because I know that there is a seam of parochialism that sets in. If I gave you the name of a Japanese writer or a German writer, even you might not believe them. But I highly recommend that people go back and take out their high school copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Vonnegut’s account of being in Dresden when it was firebombed. And it’s exactly those kinds of descriptions. It is one of the most powerful anti-war books. And I don’t even think that Vonnegut meant it to be an anti-war book. Vonnegut meant it to be a sincere account of something that totally, totally bothered him for the totality of his life.
The second book is — well, there are two, but I’m going to suggest one — John Hershey’s book, Hiroshima, has to be read again and again. These are books that I believe used to be read in US high schools. I’m not sure it’s still being read, but Hiroshima is an extraordinary book. Hershey goes to Japan right after this horrendous act; arrives in Hiroshima. He’s there with a legion of Japanese journalists and he writes for The New Yorker, perhaps the most sincere piece of writing that’s ever appeared in that magazine. And his book is extraordinary. I highly recommend it.
Well, you asked a very important question about how we square the circle between people who have this high-minded sense of themselves and this ruthlessness. In the book that I’ve written, Washington Bullets, it opens with Paul Nitze’s journey to Japan. Because Nitze also goes to Japan just after Hershey’s essays appeared in The New Yorker. I mean, they knew already. You didn’t even need internal, secret OSS — that is, the intelligence agency — briefings on what had happened in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Tokyo, and so on. Nitze was right there. And he interviewed some of the leading generals and people for a long after-action survey that they were doing.
Now, here’s a person who comes from that American elite, that, you know, liberal establishment, let’s call them. Whether they were Rockefeller people or whether they were FDR people, it didn’t matter. They were basically the country-club elite from the eastern seaboard. And he goes there and he sees the destruction wrought by both the atom bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, as you quite rightly pointed out, the incendiary bombing of Tokyo. He sees this directly and writes about it in his report. And then very soon after, he and his team sitting in Washington, DC, concoct a line which I have quoted, I think, for twenty years now, because I think this is really important for an understanding of the bipartisan consensus around US foreign policy. And the line hasn’t changed, and it is quite simple. Of course, they use a term which is not used anymore; it’s arcane. It refers back to their sort of Harvard/Princeton/Yale classics education. But they basically write in this important foundational document that has never been repudiated by the US government. In other words, they’ve never said that the policy has changed. But this is the policy after World War II. They say that the goal of US policy is to seek “preponderant power.” To seek preponderant power; that’s the goal of US policy.
You know, the gentler word thrown around now is “primacy,” that the United States must be — well, I suppose if we’re going to go all classics and Greek and Latin, it’s primus inter pares, first among equals. Although I don’t think that this elite sees anybody as their equal. They see themselves as superior to everybody. I mean, this is what in popular culture is known as US exceptionalism. This is the kind of thing you see every time anybody runs for office in the United States of America, whether it’s for city council or all the way to the presidency. They’ll always say it’s the greatest country in the world, has a mission for the world. You know, God bless America. Thank you, God, for making me a citizen of the United States and so on and so forth. There is this constant reiteration of the superiority of the United States and its mission for the whole planet.
Now, I don’t need to be a psychologist or even a social psychologist to do an analysis of this. I’m not interested in analyzing this. But I know that this is the motivation. This is what drives them. You know, this sense that, oh, gosh, we can’t allow a multipolar world. We can’t allow China or Russia or any other country to share the table with us. We have to drive the agenda. You know, what disturbed this sort of liberal, conservative, bipartisan elite in the United States about Trump was that Trump was eroding their moral standing, the self-image that they have of themselves. Trump was making them look buffoonish on the world stage, and they therefore wanted to return in a way to something that resembled how they see themselves, which is, you know, this great colossus of liberalism that stomps around the world putting out fires and telling people how to behave.
I mean, I read the Pentagon documents on a regular basis. And in the last twenty years, they’ve basically continued to say we cannot tolerate any anybody challenging the absolute authority of the United States of America, least of all China. And I just want to make a distinction as I end this answer. The distinction is between power and authority. I think nobody should have an illusion that US power is as great as it has been for a long time. And by power. I’ll just give two examples. The United States is the largest military in the world. It can, as I say, bomb destroy anybody. Enormous nuclear arsenal. Nobody can challenge the United States militarily in a one-on-one fight; not a chance. Secondly, the United States continues to have an overwhelming advantage over world financial institutions. The dollar, even though marginally declining as a reserve currency, marginally declining in terms of the reconciliation of trade — you know how people do bilateral trade. Russia and China are increasingly doing bilateral trade in rubles and in yuan. But nonetheless, there is no question the dollar is supreme around the planet. So, United States power is not affected much.
The US’s authority, on the other hand, has declined greatly. In other words, the United States is having a much harder time driving its own agenda, whether it’s in trade agreements or it’s the climate issue or anything. I mean, recently, one third of the world’s population signed a trade agreement. It’s called the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership]. You know, this is all the countries of Australasia, essentially, including China. Australia, Japan, countries that are in a military alliance with the United States against China have signed on to a trade agreement with China that excludes the United States. So, US power remains. Let’s not have any illusions about that. But US authority has eroded.
I think the return of Biden to the White House comes with all the language that says that we want to reassert our authority again. So, from the 1940s to the present, Paul, there’s been no change in the broad policy, which is that the United States seeks preponderant power and will not allow any so-called rival to come onto the stage. It has concocted all kinds of really insane hallucinatory theories about how China is a rival. And we could talk about that. The Chinese have said, repeatedly, we are not a rival. We don’t want to become primus inter pares; we are not seeking preponderant power. But the United States is. And it’s the decline of US authority that has, in a sense, if I might use a colloquial — this has freaked out the US elite. It’s truly freaked them out. I mean, they don’t know how to react to this decline of authority and they don’t also know how to react to the decline of their technological prowess. And, you know, we can talk about that later.
Well, just before we pick up on China. You make, I think, a very important point in the book — and again, it’s called Washington Bulletsand people should really read it — that this modern imperialism and the culture that goes with it is erected on the structure of colonialism and the culture of colonialism. One of the fundamental principles of that culture is that the peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America but especially Asia and Africa, are essentially savages and are outside the realm of any need for norms and regulation. In your book, you mentioned at one point that there are a couple of treaties about how war is to be fought, but it’s only applicable to Europeans. Mind you, they wound up not following them anyway, but they weren’t even making an attempt to make it look like it would be applicable outside the Anglo-American and European world. And of course, the United States is founded on slavery and genocide. The approach of the Americans to the native people is slavery as well. Both North and South thought that these people can be slaughtered for the sake of (in their minds) progress. The barbaric wiping out of civilians is deeply rooted in elite culture.
Another thing you keep raising in the book, which I think is very important to keep in mind when we talk about Roosevelt, Biden, other individuals, and even the two main parties, is that these attitudes reflect how capitalism has arisen as a system. This is what’s happened with the concentration of ownership, a system based on concentration of private ownership that’s gotten to ridiculous proportions now. What’s that great quote from Marx about — something like, the past weighs like nightmares on the brains of the present. What’s that?
I think that is from The Eighteenth Brumaire where Marx writes that the nightmare of the past weighs on the living, the people who are living.
Or that memories of the past, at any rate, weigh like nightmares on the living.
[Note: It’s from the opening lines of The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. […] Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”]
And so, you know, whether we’re looking at the Democratic Party or the Republican Party, this idea [of preponderance, primacy] reflects how they emerged as essentially the single superpower after World War II. And honestly, this idea that it was a two-superpower world? That was actually kind of a crock, because while the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons, militarily there was never a competition for global power.
And not only that. You know, I’ve been doing this film with Daniel Ellsberg and I’m interviewing him. He was a real Cold Warrior when he went to the Rand Corporation and started advising on nuclear war strategy. His book, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, is the basis of the project I’m working with him. He started to realize that when this same guy, Curtis LeMay, who’s head of STRATCOM, is telling the president and the world that the Soviet Union has a thousand ICBMs and has the ability to strike first against the United States — and it turns out that they had four — well, he starts to realize, “Wait a second, these guys actually aren’t planning a military expansion or global presence. Whatever they are domestically, they are not a global domineering power. They’re not trying to take over the world.”
But the entire basis of the militarization that takes place in the United States is a form of economic stimulus. You can’t get away with the New Deal anymore because the elite don’t want another new deal. But they don’t mind stimulus in the form of military spending. So, Democratic domestic policy gets so linked with militarization as a form of stimulus. And then we get Kennedy, and so on.
So, OK, I don’t know if you want to add anything to that but go ahead.
Yeah, well, firstly, that thing about the military as stimulus, Ruthie Gilmore wrote about this and called it “military Keynesianism.” I think that’s a very good and apposite phrase. It is a kind of military Keynesianism and it’s, I think, largely restricted to the United States.
But let’s put that aside. I do want to return to the colonial roots, as it were, and this refusal to accept culturally that there’s been a shift in the world. So, let’s just take Libya, Paul, because Libya is an extraordinary example of this. The first evidence we have of aerial bombardment is in 1911 against some communities in Libya when Italian planes just bombed from the skies. You know, people riding on horseback, people riding on camel. They didn’t have guns that could reach halfway up to the planes. They’re just ruthlessly killed from the air.
The Italians write of this in their reviews of their bombing runs. They say that aerial bombardment is educational. It’s pedagogical. “We will show these savages” — and of course, this is how they wrote — “that they need to behave themselves.” And the Italian futurists were very much behind this bombing campaign. Partly they were excited by the idea of this big destructive project as an educational project. I mean, it’s repulsive, you know, because on the ground, real people, entire families are being butchered with no chance.
There’s no honor in war. You know, the idea that you have combatants fighting each other and that both have the opportunity that they might die. That’s how war of old used to be understood. There was a certain honor and dignity in combat. This is not combat. This is slaughter. That was 1911 in Libya.
A hundred years later to the month, almost, Paul, NATO planes go and bomb Libya again. I mean, it’s incredible. It’s the hundredth anniversary of the first aerial bombardment, and NATO goes and bombs that country. Again, there was no way for anybody in Libya to retaliate against the American and French Rafael bombers, which bombed from too high up. The Libyans just didn’t have the capacity or skill to take them on. They just bombed the country left, right, and center.
OK. They bombed using a U.N. mandate that is UN Security Council Resolution 1973. I read it very carefully. This mandate asked for an after-action review of the bombing campaign. You know, that’s standard practice when you allow a UN Charter Chapter Seven resolution, which allows members states to use force. It is not utilized very much by the UN Security Council. The requirement immediately kicks in that after the action: there has to be a review. Well, many people — human rights organizations, the UN itself, journalists, me — also asked NATO headquarters whether they had considered an after-action review of the bombing review based on the requirements of UNR 1973.
Well, Peter Olson, the lead attorney for the NATO office, put out a statement. He sent a letter. I have a copy of the letter. The letter essentially says the following: “No, we are not going to submit our bombing information to any independent agency. We’ll do our own review. It’s a secret review. We are not going to do this.” And it said that if there is any evidence of civilians being killed in Libya, it was entirely accidental because NATO cannot commit war crimes. By definition; ipso facto.
That is to say, Europeans and people of European descent are not war criminals. War criminals are non-Europeans. And this is demonstrated by the kind of people who are brought before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Non-Europeans are the ones who are savages and they continue to be savages. So, in 1911, you bomb Libya to teach the savages to basically subordinate themselves to authority. In 2011, you bomb Libya again. And this time you say, well, the savages are war criminals because Gaddafi was genocidal, even though there is no evidence of any genocide in Libya in February and March of 2011. It was all made up by the Saudi press. There was fighting, but there was no genocidal activity. But the savage is always going to be the savage and the European is always civilized even though the Europeans ruthlessly bombed Libya on the hundredth anniversary of the first aerial bombardment.
Now, you tell me, when does this culture start reflecting on itself and wonder about its ruthlessness in the world and the way it, in a sense, projects ruthlessness onto people who are not ruthless? You know, it’s always Saddam Hussein who is the butcher. It’s always Bashar al Assad who is the butcher. But listen, you know, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, is the one who admitted on US television — you remember this — she admits on U.S. television that because of US policy, half a million Iraqi children have been killed. And that it’s a price worth paying. Later she said she regretted using that phrase, but she said it on television. The clip is on YouTube. Is that not genocidal behavior?
No, no, no. Hang on, hang on, hang on, hang on. I think it was, “a price we were willing to pay.”
Lesley Stahl on U.S. sanctions against Iraq: We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: I think this is a very hard choice, but the price–we think the price is worth it.
60 Minutes (5/12/96)]
As if they’re the ones paying. I mean, it’s worse than what you say.
It’s true. But here she directly admits culpability, complicity, whatever you want to say, in the murder of half a million Iraqi children. Forget grown-ups and so on. And she will never be considered to be genocidal or a maniac or authoritarian. These terms are reserved for the darker diabolical forces in the world, which is to say, there are human beings out there who face aerial bombardment and are always going to be accused of making the West bomb them. This is the old domestic violence justification. Here is a man hitting a woman and the man says, “You made me hit you.” This is the weakest, most diabolical form of argumentation. But somehow this, which is not permitted to be taken seriously in a court of law, is perfectly acceptable when it comes to international conflict and the use of power to subordinate countries.
So, I mean, this is a cultural flaw. You know, Paul, this is not even just about capitalism. It’s not just about that. Understanding capitalism helps us understand why these things are necessary. But we need to go deeper into a flaw in Western culture to understand the arrogance of this use of power against people. Not just power, but the arrogance of the use of violence against people. Terrible, terrifying violence.
I don’t think it’s just Western. I mean, if you look even at the development of China as a country, the Han Chinese and their empire was brutally built on slaughters of whole populations of all kinds of other tribes and ethnic minorities. You know, it’s not like this is just Western. It’s just in the more recent history, the West has been sort of dominant. But I guess the difference maybe is the West tries to pretend they’re not barbaric when they’re just as barbaric as anything in human history. In fact, more, because the armies have weaponry that make them capable of so much more devastation than any armies in the past.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t want to be heard saying that, you know, the rest of the world is all kind and peaceful. I mean, after all, Attila the Hun and so on have their own reputations. And one doesn’t need to be lawyers for them. You know, they were proud of what they were doing and they were ruthless.
But I think the point is more what you were beginning to say in the second part just now, which is that a structure has been developed largely in the culture, in societies in Europe, in the United States and Canada, where there is a reflexive sense that these countries use their power abroad, outside their territories, for good. And that they use their power essentially to shape the world and to be, as they say, to be the policemen.
Now, this is an ironic phrase, the global policeman or the world’s policeman. I mean, Black Lives Matter: we know how the police within the territory of the United States, Canada and in Western Europe act. So, it’s kind of odd that nonetheless there is this very shiny image of “the world’s policeman,” as if that’s a good thing. I mean, look at the way the police behave domestically.
You know, Freddie Gray — let’s name the names — Brianna Taylor and so on. Well, I can name thousands, millions of names of people — of my friends as well — who were killed in these wars. You know, people who didn’t deserve to die. The ones I know are journalists who were killed in warfare. Maybe it’s not such a simple thing when you say, we are the world’s policeman. But what they’re saying is that when we exercise power, we exercise power for good. So, the very fact that we end up slaughtering millions of people seems irrelevant.
And I think that’s a moral question. That’s why I say, Paul, that it’s a question rooted in a cultural conversation about, you know, racial understanding, this kind of superiority, this feeling that, well, if we do the bombing, we don’t commit war crimes. That’s what Peter Olsen wrote. I didn’t write that. He somehow has this image that when NATO bombs, they don’t kill civilians. Well, how is that even possible? I mean, that’s just not possible. When you look at the technology, they don’t have such smart bombs. You know, there will be one or two stray bombs. Well, then Olson says it’s an accident. We didn’t deliberately kill civilians, whereas savages deliberately kill civilians.
This is very ironic, by the way, that this is the kind of language being used, because we know that ever since aerial bombardment started, its advantage was that you can go beyond enemy lines and bomb cities. And from the very beginning of the history of aerial bombardment, the bombing of civilians has been part of the strategy. Look at Curtis LeMay, who you referred to earlier. Look at what the United States did in Korea. It bombed residential areas, but actually very much worse than that. It bombed dams, bombed agricultural areas, created a famine.
Look at what the United States did in Vietnam. I visited Vietnam. And, you know, I was very sensitive to the idea that the Vietnamese were struggling to build socialism in the country. I was questioning them about agriculture and so on. And they said, you know, it’s an interesting thing that you raise agriculture because for a decade plus, the United States used the worst kind of chemical weapons — Agent Orange, napalm and so on — in one of the more fertile belts of Vietnam’s agricultural heartland. It was just saturated with chemical weapons. One of the people I was talking to was a government official who said to me that we have estimated in some parts of where the chemical warfare happened, it will take generations before we can risk eating anything grown there. Now, let me ask you, is that not bombardment of civilians? Not the killing necessarily only of civilians at that point, but it’s a bombardment of generations of people who will not be able to be food sovereign because the soil is saturated by this stuff made by American corporations and dropped by the military.
So, that’s actually what I’m trying to get at here. In the book, I try to make the point repeatedly in different stories. There is this very bizarre cultural assessment and self-understanding in the West that they are somehow moral people. The United States, Canada — and by God, let’s not forget Canada here because the Canadians seem to have an even higher sense of themselves than the people of the United States — and in very many parts of Western Europe — France, Germany, Holland, Belgium — there is this great sense that we are somehow moral people. So, if we are forced into military action, by God, we only do it the very best way. The Nobel Prize for Peace is named after a Western man who re-invented dynamite. Dynamite was invented in other countries previously. That’s fine, but Alfred Nobel was an arms manufacturer and here we then give the Nobel Prize for Peace. I think the — not irony, Paul, because I’m not talking about irony here — the hypocrisy, the cultural hypocrisy is just there in the Nobel story.
On a somewhat more positive note, I think there’s been a shift in public opinion. During colonialism, there were always some constituency that was opposed to colonialism. But on the whole, to go conquer a country, plunder it, bring the booty back to England or whatever European country it was, was perfectly acceptable. In fact, you know, you were doing well if you were winning the plundering contest, you know, between different European countries. Maybe even up to World War Two, it was not seen as really such a bad thing to go take over the Philippines or do something else.
But after the defeat of Hitler and the experience of the peoples of the world, the Nuremberg trial, these wars were condemned. They were called wars of aggression. It was no longer it’s OK to plunder this. The highest crime is a war of aggression and people got that to a large extent. And in the Vietnam War, the American people had to be tricked and lied to in order to get them into the war. The Gulf of Tonkin incident: oh, we were attacked first.
You go through all the American wars and practically every one starts with some phony provocation from the other side, when really many of the phony provocations have come from the American side time and time again. Ellsberg was talking about phony provocation as one of the important pillars of US military policy. You should see that. I don’t know if you’ve seen that they released the some of the transcripts of meetings Robert Kennedy was in when they were planning an attack on Cuba. And this isn’t very much known. Just before Khrushchev put nuclear weapons in Cuba, there was a plan for a massive invasion. And there was a list of things they were going to do, including sending up an airplane painted with the colors of some commercial airline in order to shoot it down and then blame it on the Cubans. And that’s only one example of the kinds of things they were planning.
But after the Vietnam War, Americans did not have a taste for this war of aggression. And they came to understand that Vietnam was a war of aggression. It wasn’t about defending democracy. Large numbers of people came to understand that. And the next time they wanted to really have a major war, Iraq, they have a 9/11 very conveniently. And then, of course, “Saddam has weapons of mass destruction.” So, they’re able to justify another what is essentially a war of aggression. So, there has been a change in public opinion. At the very least, they have to lie when they didn’t have to lie before. The lies do eventually get exposed.
And so, maybe now we are in a somewhat different period than the times we’ve been talking about, after Vietnam and the Iraq War turned out to be all bullshit. There were no weapons of mass destruction. Even some of the people who voted for Trump actually thought he was a noninterventionist. I actually don’t believe that’s true about Trump, but that’s not the point. The point is people thought it was.
So, I think now that Biden’s coming into power here, he is dealing with a people that is very wary of the kinds of things the elite has done in the past. And so, at any rate, there’s a factor here that’s somewhat different from some of the periods we were talking about before. This is not to say that the people running this foreign policy and military policy have gained any great morality. But I think there is a consciousness here that perhaps didn’t exist before, at least at this scale. And not just in Americans: millions of people all over the world marched against the Iraq war.
Well, that’s why I wrote this book. I was actually quite horrified, Paul, by the coup d’état conducted in Bolivia in November 2019. You know, it was a textbook coup. And I very well remember three days before the coup took place, I got a call from friends in Bolivia saying, this is what’s happening. The life of Morales is under threat. I called Noam Chomsky and we hastily wrote a statement and released it to the Latin American press. It came out in newspapers across the hemisphere. And then the next day, the Bolivian general Williams Kaliman goes to see Evo Morales and says, you have to step down.
Now, it was extraordinary to me to see the Wurlitzer — you know, the great musical instrument — go into effect as the media came in and said that there was no coup. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, etc. — all of them said there’s no coup. Morales has overstayed his welcome. (By the way, Angela Merkel has been in office longer than Evo Morales. Nobody says she’s overstayed her welcome. So, let’s just have that clear. I’ve never heard any conversation about that. Anyway, leave that aside.) Evo Morales has overstayed his welcome; there was fraud in the election. They were repeating all this stuff. Interesting.
Then I saw left media in the West start to say, Evo Morales overstayed his welcome; he was bad on the environment. Bad on the environment? This is the guy who started the Cochabamba process long before the Green New Deal was a term. They pick up one or two stray incidences in the Amazon, a road and so on, and just junk his entire record.
So, I heard all this stuff and I said, “Oh, my God. People don’t understand how these things work.” So, when I wrote the book, I called the second part of the book “Manual for Regime Change.” It essentially goes over the process step by step. Part one: lobby public opinion. Part two: appoint the right man on the ground — the ambassador. Part three: make sure the generals are ready. And in this case, it was Williams Kaliman. Part four: make the economy scream. Part five: diplomatic isolation. You know, this is exactly what they’ve done since Cuba. Part six: organize mass protests. In the in the case of Bolivia, these were semi-fascist organizations led by that that real gangster Luis Camacho and his crowd. They can take pictures of them, and it looks like it’s a mass demonstration. Then, part seven: green-light, the coup. This was certainly greenlighted, but we don’t have time to talk about it. And then: assassinations. You know, the way they went after it — there was a massacre, they went and humiliated people like Patricia Arce [the then mayor of Vinto, Bolivia]. It was basically the manual of regime change.
And I used material from the Guatemala and Guyana coups in the 1950s to explain these basic principles of how a coup works. The last point is called “production of amnesia.” I was interested in the production of amnesia because what happens is a coup takes place. For example, 1954 in Guatemala. A coup takes place and then amnesia has to be produced in such a way that eventually, after twenty-odd years, you’ll release the documents on the coup. You show that the CIA actually did the coup, but it doesn’t seem to matter in public opinion. People say, “Well, it was in the past.” It’s always in the past. Everything is in the past. Nothing is ever in the present. It’s a very clever strategy. You know, you don’t deny that it was in the past. You just say, we learned our lesson. We don’t do it anymore.
And then here it is. Here’s Haiti, 2004. Here’s Honduras, 2009. I mean, for God’s sake, here’s Thailand in 2014. And then we’re back to Bolivia, 2019. And so, the reason I wrote the book was to basically go to people, young people in particular, who won’t know much of this history and say, “Listen, friends, this is a cliché. They do this over and over again.” And yes, even in 1954, they didn’t come out and say, “We’re doing it for United Fruit Company,” in which the Dulles brothers had a stake. That is both Allen Dulles and John Foster Dulles. It’s a great scandal that in Washington, DC, Paul, the two airports are named after Dulles and Reagan. I mean, of all people, at least one of them should be a pretending liberal rather than both of these ruthless imperialists. At least one of them should have some sort of pretense of charm and liberalism. Neither of the Dulles brothers were charming. They had a stake in United Fruit and they overthrew Jacobo Árbenz because he was threatening — what? He was threatening — marginally challenging — United Fruit. Not even threatening to expropriate all its lands, which is what I would do if I was the president of Guatemala in 1954. He wasn’t at that level. He was just doing some modest land reform and they overthrew him.
But they didn’t say it was for that. They said it was because of communism. It was because, you know, the Communist Party was friendly with Árbenz’s wife and blah, blah, blah, blah. The New York Times wrote puff pieces, which the CIA basically faxed to them. That’s how the reporting worked. And I’m telling you, it’s identical now, OK? I might not be alive when the documentation is released, but we will find — and I’m not going to name them — that the reporters who reported on the democratic transfer of power to Jeanine Áñez in Bolivia basically got their commanding orders from, if not the CIA, then the State Department.
I mean, there was an election in Venezuela on the 6th of December. I’m going to name him. Tom Phillips of The Guardian wrote a piece — his byline is Rio de Janeiro. He wasn’t even in Caracas. He wrote it from Rio de Janeiro. And he repeated words like “charade,” and so on that are there in the US State Department’s statement, signed by Mike Pompeo. I mean, it’s not a case that you necessarily need to buy up these reporters, you know, pay them or whatever. But there is a culture of complicity that is shared between these reporters in these events.
And then later, when the Bolivian people with great courage, you know, go to the polls and in a huge majority overthrow the coup… It’s a landmark thing that they overthrew a coup with a democratic election and brought Lucho Arce to power as the new president of Bolivia. He has now welcomed Evo Morales, and is on stages with him across the country every day. Evo Morales has had those court cases of fraud removed from the court. The courts have said there was no basis for these cases in the first place. This was part of the coup process.
This happened last year, Paul. This happened last year. This is going to happen again. I agree with you: there is a shift in public opinion. People are much more decent, perhaps, than they used to be. But they are not vigilant enough. And they don’t hold these gangsters who run things, who have the levers of power, they don’t hold them to account often enough.
Look, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in 2004 to the BBC that George W. Bush’s war against Iraq was an illegal war. To his shame, he didn’t say that in 2003. Annan studied at Macalester College and was very close friends with most of the American elite. But he used that phrase. The head of the U.N. uses the word “illegal.” There is not one piece of accountability faced by George W. Bush, faced by Dick Cheney, faced by Donald Rumsfeld, faced by Tony Blair. Not one of them is ever going to see a court of law. You know, if something illegal is done by somebody, as far as I understand the word illegal, that means that there is a jurisdiction somewhere through which you are capable of saying something is illegal. That means somebody should be able to call you to account for your illegal activity. None of them get called to account.
So, I mean, I’m with you, Paul. There is a shift, but it’s not really a consequential shift, because until you are vigilant enough, strong-willed enough to demand that people who conduct these actions are brought to account, I’m afraid I’m rather pessimistic about the direction of world history.
Well, I won’t be able to change your mind on that, because I’m not very optimistic either. But on the issue of media, obviously people don’t know what’s going on in Bolivia. They barely know what’s going on in their own country, nevermind Bolivia. People don’t know. And the media is so dominated except for little things like us and a few other things. We talk about this, but we don’t have any way to get to the majority of people. I mean, you know, most of the people that voted for Trump, their media is Fox and other rightwing media. They don’t even hear CNN. And, of course, CNN can be complete warmongers because war is good for their business. So, they don’t get access to any of this information. They don’t know the history. And the deterioration of the public-school system… I mean, people don’t even get taught any history that matters if they get taught history at all.
But there are moments when it does break through. You know, in the lead-up to the Iraq war it didn’t matter. They did anyway. But it was a moment where a lot of people marched who have never marched before. What I was saying is that the difference now is that if people understand that it’s a straightforward, open war of aggression or war of plunder, they won’t accept it. Whereas, a hundred years ago, they might have accepted it, even embraced it.
And I’m not even saying there aren’t sections of the population now that might still say, Well, we’re white and we’re superior and we’re Americans. So, fuck everybody else. Yeah, let’s go. And I don’t know what percentage of the population might believe that. Maybe it’s even in that 20-25 percent. who think God’s chosen the Americans, and so whatever God’s chosen people do is OK. But there’s a shift.
Yeah, I mean, just to put a point on that: Trump openly said we should just go and take the oil from Iraq and so on. And in the waning days of the Trump administration, he has very cynically violated I don’t know how many UN resolutions by donating the Western Sahara, the Sahrawi people’s lands, to Morocco and basically donating the Palestinian project to the Israelis. He doesn’t have the right to do that, violating so many UN resolutions. I mean, this was done brazenly. It’s a crushing blow to the Sahrawi people, this quid pro quo. Morocco recognizes Israel and Israel basically takes over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Syria’s Golan Heights, all of which Trump gave Israel permission to take. He doesn’t have the authority to give that permission, but that’s what’s happened. And at the same time, he’s given permission to Morocco to seize the Western Sahara officially. I just don’t see the voices of dissent. I don’t even see them among the serried ranks of The Squad in the Democratic Party. I haven’t seen anybody come out and say that this is an outrage against UN resolutions.
The UN mandate to maintain the ceasefire between Morocco and Western Sahara, which was first set up in 1991, was renewed just about six months ago. And what happens? The United States just says, “You can have it, pals, if you recognize Israel.” I mean, this is just grotesque. And I look around me and I feel even the left media has basically sat on its hands on this. I mean, how many people have written about Western Sahara or commented about this longstanding occupation of the Western Sahara? It was Morocco’s occupation, but backed by Saudi Arabia initially, backed by the United Arab Emirates, and behind all of this for years, backed by the United States government. Now, with this in the waning days of the Trump administration, I just don’t see enough evidence to say that we have really walked in a humanitarian direction out of that old imperial past.
It’s a long journey. In my mind, it’s a long journey from apes to human. And we’re only a little part of the way there. It’s a barbaric system. But anyway, I’m a little more optimistic about some shift in American public opinion. But of course, it’s the heart of the empire, and it’s not very hard to pull off another terrorist attack on American soil, in which case enough people will get outraged and something terrible can happen. So, as a practical matter, I guess we’ll see.
But I take some hope from the fact that even if the progressives in the Congress aren’t on the Sahara story and maybe they don’t even understand Israel/Palestine that well sometimes, still there is a resolution to stop the support for the Saudi war in Yemen. There are some things that can be built on. I don’t think it’s entirely terrible here.
No, I agree. I agree with you on that. I think in a way, neither you nor I should exaggerate the point here. I mean, this is a struggle. This is a fight. And the fight is well worth being involved in. You and I have been involved in this fight our entire lives. And I don’t think we’re going to at this point either surrender from the fight or on the other side, you know, get too jazzed up by where we are. It’s a fight.
Well, let me just say one thing. Why are we even bothering to talk to each other on camera here? One, because we still think there’s some kind of hope. And two, one of the most critical issues is what you talked about before: amnesia. Gore Vidal used to say USA stands for the United States of Amnesia. That was his line. Then he changed it later. It got so bad, he called it the United States of Alzheimer’s. [Laughter.] But there’s been a deliberate attempt in the public education system and the media to completely un-educate people about even basics of history.
Like, why did they choose Hiroshima and Nagasaki to drop nuclear bombs? Because almost every other city had already been burnt down in the firebombings. They were the only things left to bomb because it wasn’t like they had some strategic thing. In fact, the whole thing was bullshit. They just wanted to show they had the bomb. And not just to the Japanese — maybe moreso to the Soviet Union. The vast majority of people have never heard that the reason they picked Hiroshima and Nagasaki is because they’d already deliberately burnt down every other city in Japan. People don’t know.
You’re quite right. I mean, I have to say on the point of hope. This is something that’s important to me. I wrote this book — actually my work in the last period has been very influenced by my dear friend Eduardo Galeano. Years ago, I asked Galeano how he could write such beautiful, beautiful books about torture. And he said that a book about something so ugly as torture or in this case about assassinations and coups and so on, should not replicate what the bad side of history does. We have to find a way to excavate from that story hope and resilience and so on. And that’s why this book is filled with poetry. I mean, it starts with poetry. It ends with poetry. The end of part two is a complete poem about war and who comes to clean up after a war.
I feel like the lifting of the human imagination is very important. And that’s exactly what we do. I mean, if somebody said to me, what’s your profession? I would say, lifting the human imagination. It sounds terribly arrogant and I apologize for sounding arrogant but I don’t have a better term for it. We say journalist or we say historian or whatever, but no, I think our job is to try and somehow, maybe with our fingers and fingernails, to lift the human imagination even if it’s just a centimeter or millimeter above where it is. You know, that’s our job. That’s the job of poets. That’s the job of people who are political trade unionists, agricultural workers, union shapers and so on. Schoolteachers. I mean, the job is just to lift the human imagination a little bit and hope that people then find the air that comes under, gives them some buoyancy and they can fly higher. I mean, I think that’s what we’re trying to do, really.
All right, let’s end there. I’ve been putting off this China conversation because I want to actually do a whole segment on China. So, sometime in the next week, I hope we’ll get back together again and we’ll talk about the “rivalry with China” and what to expect from Biden and so on.
Amazing. I would love to, because I think that really does require its own segment. And I’ve been working on that a lot with John Ross in particular. He and I are writing a series every six weeks.
All right. Thanks. Thanks very much, Vijay.
Thanks a lot. My pleasure.
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