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“The utmost grace the Greeks could show When to the Trojans they grew kind Was with their arms to let em go, And leave their lingering wives behind. They beat the men and burnt the town, Then all the baggage was their own.
“Grecian Kindness” John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester
Around the world people are gasping at the appointment of Paul Wolfowitz to head the World Bank. The baldness of it! And well might we gasp: how can this washed-up chicken hawk, whose crazy scheme of easily invading Iraq seems even crazier with each car bomb, be handed the top post at an organization that is ostensibly philanthropic? Wasn’t it enough of a sick joke for the neocons to call their Mesopotamian oil-grab as a humanitarian intervention? Ahh, here those who remember their Cold War are feeling little pangs of memory. For this is not the first time an architect of a disastrous war has gone on to land a plum position in a bigtime philanthropy. It isn’t even the first time a disgraced warrior has been rewarded with the keys to the World Bank.
Comparisons of the latest Iraq War to the invasion of Vietnam are usually way overdrawn, but Wolfie’s latest change of occupations is richly redolent of the career moves made by some of Kennedy’s best and brightest”the whiz kids and “tough-minded” intellectuals who planned, launched and then intensified the Vietnam War. Verily, it was Robert McNamara himself who in 1968 left his seven-year position as Secretary of Defense to head…the World Bank! No doubt there was a great deal of gulping oxygen back then about the same man who planned a war that would kill 3.4 million Vietnamese (McNamara’s own estimate) and 59,000 Americans being suddenly thrust to the leadership of a global institution intended to help the Third World. But amid the gasping there was probably also some unsurprised sighs: after all, as Jude Wanniski recently reminded us, the World Bank’s work consisted then as now of hooking up well-connected American contractors like Bechtel and Halliburton with lucrative construction projects in poor countries. (The environmental degradation caused by these projects is a topic for another day) Anyway, who better for this kind of work than a former Secretary of Defense?
The same sordid cooperation between the imperial conquest and the development industry is embodied in McGeorge Bundy, also a prime instigator of the Vietnam War as a national security advisor to Kennedy and Johnson. After jumping ship from the Johnson administration in 1966, Bundy was handed the helm of the Ford Foundation, one of the best-endowed philanthropies in the world and one of the largest disbursers of non-governmental development aid. Again we might ingenuously ask how the hard-line architect of so much destruction and slaughter could be put in charge of an ostensibly humanitarian organization. Ahh but here too connoisseurs of the Ford Foundation’s history would find our naiveté touching, for the chronicle of the Ford Foundation’s collaboration with the CIA and other Cold War agencies is long and well-documented; together Ford and the CIA funded everything from the literary magazines of liberal intellectuals to the training of Indonesian technocrats poised to take over after the anti-communist bloodbath that killed Sukarno and half a million others in 1965-66. Such was the philanthropy of the Ford Foundation.
A third and final example of the sordid nexus between can-do philanthropy and imperial domination is Walt Whitman Rostow, who was chairman of the Policy Planning Council at the State Department under Kennedy and then Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Assistant. Before leading the charge to invade South Vietnam he had been a visionary of the Marshall Plan and a star development economist at MIT where he authored a quick and easy twelve-step recipe for poor countries to get rich. For Rostow, the Vietnam War was a economic development project from start to finish, and all the bombs and napalm were just ingredients to help that unlucky nation to achieve “stability” in order to reach “take-off” phase. Unlike McNamara, Rostow never had any second thoughts about the fundamental benevolence of the carpet bombing and free-fire zones. Even until his death two years ago Rostow continued to look at the Vietnam War as a development project that “bought time” for the rest of Asia by keeping the reds at bay. The 3.4 million dead Vietnamese remained, in this humanitarian vision, a key input in the long-term economic prosperity of Asia.
These Cold War grotesqueries demonstrate what historians of empire have long known: that large humanitarian organizations, whether development NGOs, lending institutions or the Church of England have frequently, and willingly, acted as a lubricant for imperial conquest. As for Paul Wolfowitz, truly the heir of McNamara, Bundy and Rostow, don’t expect him to have any second thoughts about his humanitarian liberation of Iraq no matter how much deeper the US invasion sinks into chaos, violence and civilian death. The faith of a humanitarian can be hard to shake.
CHASE MADAR has written for Urban Latino, The Nation and the Times Literary Supplement. He works on the legal staff of Make the Road by Walking, Inc, a community organizing center in Bushwick, Brooklyn. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org