A generation ago the US launched wars against poor countries in Southeast Asia and killed millions; Americans were told that it was a necessary step in the crusade against communism. Now in the midst of a war against a poor county in Southwest Asia, we are told that it is a necessary step in what the president called a “crusade against terrorism.”
Mr. Bush was quickly taken aside and told, perhaps without explanation, that that term would not do. But he was undoubtedly right in connecting the two crusades, as he has now done several times. And he has extended the parallel to the campaign against fascism, the account of which by the Supreme Commander, Dwight Eisenhower, was called CRUSADE IN EUROPE. Our president has gone so far as to connect the crusades on the level of personal psychology, and it’s difficult not to hear a reference to his own family in this careful plant in USA TODAY: “Bush has told advisers that he believes confronting this enemy is a chance for him and his fellow baby boomers to refocus their lives and prove they have the same kind of valor and commitment their fathers showed in World War II.”
Terrorism has clearly taken over that pride of place that communism occupied for so long in American propaganda. And not a moment too soon: ten years ago, with the fall of the Soviet Union, Colin Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, blurted in a moment of unwonted candor, “Think hard about it. I’m running out of demons. I’m running out of villains!”
In another peculiar and revealing comment, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld replied to a reporter’s question in the immediate aftermath of September 11. How, he was asked, will we know when a victory over terrorism is achieved? “I say that victory is persuading the American people and the rest of the world that this is not a quick matter that’s going to be over in a month or a year or even five years.”
American policy makers clearly think that they have found something that they can comfortably crusade against for some time, something that is as fearful as communism. In doing so they are following a time-honored tradition in US politics. After the Second World War, Senator Arthur Vandenberg advised President Truman (secretly) that it would be necessary to “scare hell out of the American people” in order to accomplish his policies. The communist menace was the way to do it.
Of course there were communists to crusade against then, as there are terrorists now. The authoritarian society of the USSR was a model for anti-colonial struggles in the Third World, including China, and a pattern for how to conduct rapid industrialization. Although the USSR observed carefully the dividing line established with the US and UK at the close of the Second World War, harsh Soviet control of the governments of Eastern Europe mirrored (on a much smaller scale) the world-wide economic control exercised by the US.
All admit now that the US never feared Soviet military conquests — it was rather the principles that the communists said they stood for, economic justice and workers’ rights, that the US government feared would be attractive in Europe and the Third World. The view of the American economic elite was spelled out quite candidly in a study from the mid-1950s headed by a Harvard professor of government. It pointed out that the real threat of communism was the transformation of governments that adopted it “in ways which reduce their willingness and ability to complement the industrial economies of the West.”
How US planners actually saw the world was set out by the leading liberal figure in the post-WWII State Department, George Kennan. In 1948 he produced the (secret) Policy Planning Study 23, in which he wrote
…we have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population … In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity … To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives … We should cease to talk about vague and … unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.
Of course the “idealistic slogans,” suitable for a crusade, would be the way the matter would be presented to the public. Meanwhile, from Guatemala to Vietnam, “straight power concepts” would mean the deaths of millions in the next decades as the result of a policy that might be summarized in the oft-repeated words of George Bush: “You’re either with us or against us.”
Had we understood the last crusade at the time, we might not have agreed to kill so many innocent people. Perhaps we should try to understand the present one. CP
Carl Estabrook teaches at the University of Illinois and is the host of News From Neptune, a weekly radio show on politics and the media. He writes a regular column for CounterPunch.