by Michael Parenti
June 30, 2011
From the book
Michael Parenti is a
frequent contributor to Global Research. Global Research Articles by
Why has the United States government supported counterinsurgency in
Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, and many other places around the world, at
such a loss of human life to the populations of those nations?
Why did it
invade tiny Grenada and then Panama?
Why did it support mercenary wars
against progressive governments in Nicaragua, Mozambique, Angola, Ethiopia,
Afghanistan, Indonesia, East Timor, Western Sahara, South Yemen, and
Is it because our leaders want to save democracy?
Are they concerned about
the well-being of these defenseless peoples?
Is our national security
I shall try to show that the arguments given to justify U.S.
policies are false ones.
But this does not mean the policies themselves are senseless. American
intervention may seem "wrongheaded" but, in fact, it is fairly consistent
and horribly successful.
The history of the United States has been one of territorial and economic
expansionism, with the benefits going mostly to the U.S. business class in
the form of growing investments and markets, access to rich natural
resources and cheap labor, and the accumulation of enormous profits.
The American people have had to pay the costs of empire, supporting a
military establishment with their taxes, while suffering the loss of jobs,
the neglect of domestic services, and the loss of tens of thousands of
American lives in overseas military ventures.
The greatest costs, of course, have been borne by the peoples of the Third
World who have endured poverty, pillage, disease, dispossession,
exploitation, illiteracy, and the widespread destruction of their lands,
cultures, and lives.
As a relative latecomer to the practice of colonialism, the United States
could not match the older European powers in the acquisition of overseas
territories. But the United States was the earliest and most consummate
practitioner of neo-imperialism or neocolonialism, the process of dominating
the politico-economic life of a nation without benefit of direct possession.
Almost half a century before the British thought to give a colonized land
its nominal independence, as in India-while continuing to exploit its labor
and resources, and dominate its markets and trade-the United States had
perfected this practice in Cuba and elsewhere.
In places like the Philippines, Haiti, and Nicaragua, and when dealing with
Native American nations, U.S. imperialism proved itself as brutal as the
French in Indochina, the Belgians in the Congo, the Spaniards in South
America, the Portuguese in Angola, the Italians in Libya, the Germans in
Southwest Africa, and the British almost everywhere else.
Not long ago, U.S.
military forces delivered a destruction upon Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia
that surpassed anything perpetuated by the older colonizers.
And today, the
U.S. counterinsurgency apparatus and surrogate security forces in Latin
America and elsewhere sustain a system of political assassination, torture,
and repression unequaled in technological sophistication and ruthlessness.
All this is common knowledge to progressive critics of U.S. policy, but most
Americans would be astonished to hear of it. They have been taught that,
unlike other nations, their country has escaped the sins of empire and has
been a champion of peace and justice among nations.
This enormous gap
between what the United States does in the world and what Americans think
their nation is doing is one of the great propaganda accomplishments of the
dominant political mythology.
It should be noted, though, that despite the endless propaganda barrage
emanating from official sources and the
corporate-owned major media, large
sectors of the public have throughout U.S. history displayed an
anti-interventionist sentiment, an unwillingness to commit U.S. troops to
overseas actions-a sentiment facilely labeled "isolationism" by the
The Rational Function of Policy Myths
Within U.S. ruling circles there are differences of opinion regarding
There are conservatives who complain that U.S. policy is plagued by weakness
and lacks toughness and guts and all the other John Wayne virtues. And there
are liberals who say U.S. policy is foolish and relies too heavily on
military solutions and should be more flexible and co-optive when protecting and advancing the interests of the United States
(with such interests usually left unspecified).
A closer look reveals that U.S. foreign policy is neither weak nor foolish,
but on the contrary is rational and remarkably successful in reproducing the
conditions for the continued international expropriation of wealth, and that
while it has suffered occasional setbacks, the people who run the foreign
policy establishment in Washington know what they are doing and why they are
If the mythology they offer as justification for their policies seems
irrational, this does not mean that the policies themselves are irrational
from the standpoint of the class interests of those who pursue such
This is true of domestic myths and policies as well as those
pertaining to foreign policy.
Once we grasp this, we can see how notions and arrangements that are
harmful, wasteful, indeed, destructive of human and social values-and
irrational from a human and social viewpoint-are not irrational for global
finance capital because the latter has no dedication to human and social
values. Capitalism has no loyalty to anything but itself, to the
accumulation of wealth.
Once we understand that, we can see the cruel
rationality of the seemingly irrational myths that Washington policy makers
peddle. Some times what we see as irrational is really the discrepancy
between what the myth wants us to believe and what is true.
But again this does not mean the interests served are stupid or irrational,
as the liberals like to complain. There is a difference between confusion
and deception, a difference between stupidity and subterfuge.
understand the underlying class interests of the ruling circles, we will be
less mystified by their myths.
A myth is not an idle tale or a fanciful story but a powerful cultural force
used to legitimate existing social relations. The interventionist mythology
does just that, by emphasizing a community of interests between
interventionists in Washington and the American people when in fact there is
none, and by blurring over the question of who pays and who profits from
U.S. global interventionism.
The mythology has been with us for so long and much of it sufficiently
internalized by the public as to be considered part of the political
The interventionist mythology, like all other cultural beliefs,
does not just float about in space. It must be mediated through a social
structure. The national media play a crucial role in making sure that no
fundamentally critical views of the rationales underlying and justifying
U.S. policy gain national exposure.
A similar role is played by the various
institutes and policy centers linked to academia and, of course, by
political leaders themselves.
Saving Democracy with Tyranny
Our leaders would have us believe we intervened in Nicaragua, for instance,
because the Sandinista government was opposed to democracy.
U.S.-supported invasion by right-wing Nicaraguan mercenaries was an "effort
to bring them to elections." Putting aside the fact that the Sandinistas had
already conducted fair and open elections in 1984, we might wonder why U.S.
leaders voiced no such urgent demand for free elections and Western-style parliamentarism during the fifty years that the Somoza
dictatorship-installed and supported by the United States-plundered and
brutalized the Nicaraguan nation.
Nor today does Washington show any great concern for democracy in any of the
U.S.-backed dictatorships around the world (unless one believes that the
electoral charade in a country like El Salvador qualifies as "democracy").
If anything, successive U.S. administrations have worked hard to subvert
constitutional and popularly accepted governments that pursued policies of
social reform favorable to the downtrodden and working poor.
Thus the U.S.
national security state was instrumental in the overthrow of popular
reformist leaders such as.
And let us not forget how the United States assisted the militarists in
overthrowing democratic governments in,
Given this record, it is hard to believe that the CIA
trained, armed, and financed an expeditionary force of Somocista thugs and
mercenaries out of a newly acquired concern for Western-style electoral
politics in Nicaragua.
In defense of the undemocratic way U.S. leaders go about "saving democracy,"
our policy makers offer this kind of sophistry:
"We cannot always pick and
choose our allies. Sometimes we must support unsavory right-wing
authoritarian regimes in order to prevent the spread of far more repressive
totalitarian communist ones."
But surely, the degree of repression cannot be the criterion guiding White
House policy, for the United States has supported some of the worst butchers
in the world:
In the 1965 Indonesian coup, the military slaughtered 500,000 people,
according to the Indonesian chief of security (New York Times, 12/21/77;
some estimates run twice as high), but this did not deter U.S. leaders from
assisting in that takeover or from maintaining cozy relations with the same
Jakarta regime that subsequently perpetuated a campaign of repression and
mass extermination in East Timor.
U.S. leaders and the business-owned mainstream press describe "Marxist
rebels" in countries like El Salvador as motivated by a lust for conquest.
Our leaders would have us believe that revolutionaries do not seek power in
order to eliminate hunger; they simply hunger for power. But even if this
were true, why would that be cause for opposing them?
Washington policy makers have never been bothered by the power appetites of
the "moderate" right-wing authoritarian executionists, torturers, and
In any case, it is not true that leftist governments are more repressive
than fascist ones.
The political repression under the Sandinistas in
Nicaragua was far less than what went on under Somoza. The political
repression in Castro's Cuba is mild compared to the butchery perpetrated by
the free-market Batista regime. And the revolutionary government in Angola
treats its people much more gently than did the Portuguese colonizers.
Furthermore, in a number of countries successful social revolutionary
movements have brought a net increase in individual freedom and well-being
by advancing the conditions for health and human life, by providing jobs and
education for the unemployed and illiterate, by using economic resources for
social development rather than for corporate profit, and by overthrowing
brutal reactionary regimes, ending foreign exploitation, and involving large
sectors of the populace in the task of rebuilding their countries.
Revolutions can extend a number of real freedoms without destroying those
freedoms that never existed under prior reactionary regimes.
Who Threatens Whom?
Our policy makers also argue that right-wing governments, for all their
deficiencies, are friendly toward the United States, while communist ones
are belligerent and therefore a threat to U.S. security.
But, in truth,
every Marxist or left-leaning country, from a great power like the Soviet
Union to a small power like Vietnam or Nicaragua to a minipower like Grenada
under the New Jewel Movement, sought friendly diplomatic and economic
relations with the United States.
These governments did so not necessarily out of love and affection for the
United States, but because of something firmer-their own self-interest.
they themselves admitted, their economic development and political security
would have been much better served if they could have enjoyed good relations
If U.S. leaders justify their hostility toward leftist governments on the
grounds that such nations are hostile toward us, what becomes the
justification when these countries try to be friendly? When a newly
established revolutionary or otherwise dissident regime threatens U.S.
hegemonic globalists with friendly relations, this does pose a problem.
The solution is to,
launch a well-orchestrated campaign of disinformation
that heaps criticism on the new government for imprisoning the butchers,
assassins, and torturers of the old regime and for failing to institute
Western electoral party politics
denounce the new government as a
threat to our peace and security
harass and destabilize it and impose
attack it with counterrevolutionary surrogate
forces or, if necessary, U.S. troops
Long before the invasion, the targeted
country responds with angry denunciations of U.S. policy.
It moves closer to other "outlawed" nations and attempts to build up its
military defenses in anticipation of a U.S.-sponsored attack. These moves
are eagerly seized upon by U.S. officials and media as evidence of the other
country's antagonism toward the United States, and as justification for the
policies that evoked such responses.
Yet it is difficult to demonstrate that small countries like Grenada and
Nicaragua are a threat to U.S. security. We remember the cry of the hawk
during the Vietnam war: "If we don't fight the Vietcong in the jungles of
Indochina, we will have to fight them on the beaches of California."
The image of the Vietnamese getting into their PT boats and crossing the
Pacific to invade California was, as Walter Lippmann noted at the time, a
grievous insult to the U.S. Navy. The image of a tiny ill-equipped
Nicaraguan army driving up through Mexico and across the Rio Grande in order
to lay waste to our land is equally ludicrous.
The truth is, the Vietnamese, Cubans, Grenadians, and Nicaraguans have never
invaded the United States; it is the United States that has invaded,
...and it is our government that continues to try
to isolate, destabilize, and in other ways threaten any country that tries
to drop out of the global capitalist system or even assert an economic
nationalism within it.
Remember the 'Red Menace'
For many decades of cold war, when all other arguments failed, there was
always the Russian bear.
According to our cold warriors, small leftist
countries and insurgencies threatened our security because they were
extensions of Soviet power. Behind the little Reds there supposedly stood
the Giant Red Menace.
Evidence to support this global menace thesis was sometimes farfetched.
President Carter and National Security Advisor
Brezinski suddenly discovered
a "Soviet combat brigade" in Cuba in 1979 - which turned out to be
noncombat unit that had been there since 1962.
This did not stop President
Reagan from announcing to a joint session of Congress several years later:
"Cuba is host to a Soviet combat brigade...."
In 1983, in a nationally televised speech, Reagan pointed to satellite
photos that revealed the menace of three Soviet helicopters in Nicaragua.
Sandinista officials subsequently noted that the helicopters could be seen
by anyone arriving at Managua airport and, in any case, posed no military
threat to the United States. Equally ingenious was the way Reagan
transformed a Grenadian airport, built to accommodate direct tourist
flights, into a killer-attack Soviet forward base, and a twenty-foot-deep
Grenadian inlet into a potential Soviet submarine base.
In 1967 Secretary of State Dean Rusk argued that U.S. national security was
at stake in Vietnam because the Vietnamese were puppets of "Red China" and
if China won in Vietnam, it would overrun all of Asia and this supposedly
would be the beginning of the end for all of us. Later we were told that the
Salvadoran rebels were puppets of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua who were
puppets of the Cubans who were puppets of the Russians.
In truth, there was no evidence that Third World peoples took up arms and
embarked upon costly revolutionary struggles because some sinister
ringmaster in Moscow or Peking cracked the whip.
Revolutions are not
push-button affairs; rather, they evolve only if there exits a reservoir of
hope and grievance that can be galvanized into popular action. Revolutions
are made when large segments of the population take courage from each other
and stand up to an insufferable social order.
People are inclined to endure great abuses before risking their lives in
confrontations with vastly superior armed forces. There is no such thing as
a frivolous revolution, or a revolution initiated and orchestrated by a
manipulative cabal residing in a foreign capital.
Nor is there evidence that once the revolution succeeded, the new leaders
placed the interests of their country at the disposal of Peking or Moscow.
Instead of becoming the willing puppets of "Red China," as our policy makers
predicted, Vietnam found itself locked in combat with its neighbor to the
And, as noted earlier, almost every Third World revolutionary country
has tried to keep its options open and has sought friendly diplomatic and
economic relations with the United States.
Why then do U.S. leaders intervene in every region and almost every nation
in the world, either overtly with U.S. military force or covertly with
surrogate mercenary forces, death squads, aid, bribes, manipulated media,
and rigged elections?
Is all this intervention just an outgrowth of a deeply
conditioned anticommunist ideology?
Are U.S. leaders responding to the
public's longstanding phobia about the Red Menace?
Certainly many Americans are anticommunist, but this sentiment does not
translate into a demand for overseas interventionism.
Quite the contrary.
Opinion polls over the last half-century have shown repeatedly that the U.S.
public is not usually supportive of committing U.S. forces in overseas
engagements and prefers friendly relations with other nations, including
communist ones. Far from galvanizing our leaders into interventionist
actions, popular opinion has been one of the few restraining influences.
There is no denying, however, that opinion can sometimes be successfully
manipulated by jingoist ventures. The invasion of Grenada and the slaughter
perpetrated against Iraq are cases in point. The quick, easy, low-cost wins
reaffirmed for some Americans the feeling that we were not weak and
indecisive, not sitting ducks to some foreign prey.
But even in these cases, it took an intensive and sustained propaganda
barrage of half-truths and lies by the national security state and its
faithful lackeys in the national media to muster some public support for
military actions against Grenada and Iraq.
In sum, various leftist states do not pose a military threat to U.S.
security; instead, they want to trade and live in peace with us, and are
much less abusive and more helpful toward their people than the reactionary
regimes they replaced.
In addition, U.S. leaders have shown little concern for freedom in the Third
World and have helped subvert democracy in a number of nations. And popular
opinion generally opposes interventionism by lopsided majorities.
motivates U.S. policy and how can we think it is not confused and
The answer is that Marxist and other leftist or revolutionary states do pose
a real threat, not to the United States as a national entity and not to the
American people as such, but to the corporate and financial interests of our
country, to Exxon and Mobil, Chase Manhattan and First National, Ford and
General Motors, Anaconda and U.S. Steel, and to capitalism as a world
The problem is not that revolutionaries accumulate power but that they use
power to pursue substantive policies that are unacceptable to U.S. ruling
What bothers our political leaders (and generals, investment bankers, and
corporate heads) is not the supposed lack of political democracy in these
countries but their attempts to construct economic democracy, to depart from
the impoverishing rigors of the international free market, to use capital
and labor in a way that is inimical to the interests of multinational
A New York Times editorial (3/30/1983) referred to,
"the undesirable and
offensive Managua regime" and the danger of seeing "Marxist power ensconced
But what specifically is so dangerous about "Marxist power?"
What was undesirable and offensive about the Sandinista government in
What did it do to us?
What did it do to its own people?
Was it the
The health care and housing programs?
The land reform and development of
The attempt at rebuilding Managua, at increasing
production or achieving a more equitable distribution of taxes, services,
In large part, yes.
Such reforms, even if not openly denounced by our
government, do make a country suspect because they are symptomatic of an
effort to erect a new and competing economic order in which the prerogatives
of wealth and corporate investment are no longer secure, and the land,
labor, and resources are no longer used primarily for the accumulation of
U.S. leaders and the corporate-owned press would have us believe they
opposed revolutionary governments because the latter do not have an
opposition press or have not thrown their country open to Western style (and
Western-financed) elections. U.S. leaders come closer to their true
complaint when they condemn such governments for interfering with the
prerogatives of the "free market."
Henry Kissinger came close to the truth when he defended the
fascist overthrow of the democratic government in Chile by noting that when
obliged to choose between saving the economy or saving democracy, we must
save the economy.
Had Kissinger said, we must save the capitalist economy,
it would have been the whole truth.
For under Allende, the danger was not
that the economy was collapsing (although the U.S. was doing its utmost to
destabilize it); the real threat was that the economy was moving away from
free-market capitalism and toward a more equitable social democracy, albeit
in limited ways.
U.S. officials say they are for change just as long as it is peaceful and
not violently imposed. Indeed, economic elites may some times tolerate very
limited reforms, learning to give a little in order to keep a lot. But
judging from Chile, Guatemala, Indonesia, and a number of other places, they
have a low tolerance for changes, even peaceful ones, that tamper with the
existing class structure and threaten the prerogatives of corporate and
To the rich and powerful it makes little difference if their interests are
undone by a peaceful transformation rather than a violent upheaval. The
means concern them much less than the end results. It is not the "violent"
in violent revolution they hate; it is the "revolution."
Third World elites
seldom perish in revolutions. The worst of them usually manage to make it to
Miami, Madrid, Paris, or New York.)
They dread socialism the way the rest of us might dread poverty and hunger.
So, when push comes to shove, the wealthy classes of Third World countries,
with a great deal of help from the corporate-military-political elites in
our country, will use fascism to preserve capitalism while claiming they are
saving democracy from communism.
A socialist Cuba or a socialist North Korea, as such, are not a threat to
the survival of world capitalism. The danger is not socialism in any one
country but a socialism that might spread to many countries.
corporations, as their name implies, need the entire world, or a very large
part of it, to exploit and to invest and expand in. There can be no such
thing as "capitalism in one country."
The domino theory-the view that if one country falls to the revolutionaries,
others will follow in quick succession-may not work as automatically as its
more fearful proponents claim, but there usually is a contagion, a power of
example and inspiration, and sometimes even direct encouragement and
assistance from one revolution to another.
Support the Good Guys?
If revolutions arise from the sincere aspirations of the populace, then it
is time the United States identify itself with these aspirations, so
liberal critics keep urging.
"Why do we always find ourselves on
the wrong side in the Third World? Why are we always on the side of the
Too bad the question is treated as a rhetorical one, for it is deserving of
The answer is that right-wing oppressors, however heinous they
be, do not tamper with, and give full support to, private investment and
profit, while the leftists pose a challenge to that system.
There are those who used to say that we had to learn from the communists,
copy their techniques, and thus win the battle for the hearts and minds of
Can we imagine the ruling interests of the United States abiding
The goal is not to copy communist reforms but to prevent them.
How would U.S. interventionists try to learn from and outdo the
Drive out the latifundio owners and sweatshop bosses?
out the plundering corporations and nationalize their holdings?
militarists and torturers?
Redistribute the land, use capital investment for
home consumption or hard currency exchange instead of cash crop exports that
profit a rich few?
Install a national health insurance program and construct hospitals and
clinics at public expense?
Mobilize the population for literacy campaigns
and for work in publicly owned enterprises?
If U.S. rulers did all this,
they would have done more than defeat the communists and other
revolutionaries, they would have carried out the communists' programs.
would have prevented revolution only by bringing about its effects-thereby
defeating their own goals.
U.S. policy makers say they cannot afford to pick and choose the governments
they support, but that is exactly what they do. And the pattern of choice is
consistent through each successive administration regardless of the party or
personality in office. U.S. leaders support those governments, be they
autocratic or democratic in form, that are friendly toward capitalism and
oppose those governments, be they autocratic or democratic, that seek to
develop a noncapitalist social order.
Occasionally friendly relations are cultivated with non-capitalist nations
like China if these countries show themselves in useful opposition to other
socialist nations and are sufficiently open to private capital exploitation.
In the case of China, the economic opportunity is so huge as to be hard to
resist, the labor supply is plentiful and cheap, and the profit
opportunities are great.
In any one instance, interventionist policies may be less concerned with
specific investments than with protecting the global investment system. The
United States had relatively little direct investment in Cuba, Vietnam, and
Grenada - to mention three countries that Washington has invaded in recent
What was at stake in Grenada, as Reagan said, was something more than
It was whether we would let a country develop a competing economic
order, a different way of utilizing its land, labor, capital, and natural
resources. A social revolution in any part of the world may or may not hurt
specific U.S. corporations, but it nevertheless becomes part of a cumulative
threat to private finance capital in general.
The United States will support governments that seek to suppress guerrilla
movements, as in El Salvador, and will support guerrilla movements that seek
to overthrow governments, as in Nicaragua. But there is no confusion or
stupidity about it.
It is incorrect to say,
"We have no foreign policy" or
"We have a stupid and confused foreign policy."
Again, it is necessary not to confuse subterfuge with stupidity.
is remarkably rational. Its central organizing principle is to make the
world safe for the multinational corporations and the free-market
However, our rulers cannot ask the U.S. public
to sacrifice their tax dollars and the lives of their sons for Exxon and
Chase Manhattan, for the profit system as such, so they tell us that the
interventions are for freedom and national security and the protection of
unspecified "U.S. interests."
Whether policy makers believe their own arguments is not the key question.
Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.
...were doing their hypocritical
best when their voices quavered with staged compassion for this or that
oppressed people who had to be rescued from the communists or terrorists
with U.S. missiles and troops, and sometimes they were sincere, as when they
spoke of their fear and loathing of communism and revolution and their
desire to protect U.S. investments abroad.
We need not ponder the question of whether our leaders are motivated by
their class interests or by a commitment to anti-communist ideology, as if
these two things were in competition with each other instead of mutually
The arguments our leaders proffer may be self-serving and
fabricated, yet also sincerely embraced. It is a creed's congruity with
one's material self-interest that often makes it so compelling.
In any case, so much of politics is the rational use of irrational symbols.
The arguments in support of interventionism may sound and may actually be
irrational and nonsensical, but they serve a rational purpose.
Once we grasp the central consistency of U.S. foreign policy, we can move
from a liberal complaint to a radical analysis, from criticizing the
"foolishness" of our government's behavior to understanding why the
"foolishness" is not random but persists over time against all contrary
arguments and evidence, always moving in the same elitist, repressive
With the collapse of the Soviet Union and other Eastern European communist
governments, U.S. leaders now have a freer hand in their interventions.
number of left reformist governments that had relied on the Soviets for
economic assistance and political protection against U.S. interference now
have nowhere to turn.
The willingness of U.S. leaders to tolerate economic
deviations does not grow with their sense of their growing power.
Quite the contrary.
Now even the palest economic nationalism, as displayed
in Iraq by Saddam Hussein over oil prices, invites the destructive might of
the U.S. military. The goal now, as always, is to obliterate every trace of
an alternative system, to make it clear that there is no road to take except
that of the free market, in a world in which the many at home and abroad
will work still harder for less so that the favored few will accumulate more
and more wealth.
That is the vision of the future to which most U.S. leaders are implicitly
It is a vision taken from the past and never forgotten by them, a
matter of putting the masses of people at home and abroad back in their
place, divested of any aspirations for a better world because they are
struggling too hard to survive in this one.