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Howard Hunt and the National Memory System

E. Howard Hunt died on January 23rd. Hunt was famous for his role in the Watergate burglaries that brought an end to the presidency of Richard Nixon in 1974. Although this is what he is famous for, it is not the most important thing to know about this man. The London Guardian led off their obituary of Hunt with these words: “The infamous part that the espionage agent E. Howard Hunt played in the 1972 Watergate burglary-which eventually brought down President Nixon-earned him 33 months in prison. Yet Hunt, who has died aged 88, spent a career in clandestine activities so nefarious that he was lucky not to have spent much longer behind bars.”

I don’t think Hunt was “lucky” at all. It’s far more serious than that. Let’s have a look at how he is remembered in the “National Memory System” and the political/intellectual culture it serves.

National Public Radio ran an obituary for Hunt on the day of this passing, and it began with these words:

“E. Howard Hunt, one of the key figures who organized the Watergate break in, has died at the age of 88. He was a long time CIA operative. He helped plan both a coup in Guatemala in 1954 and later the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. Howard Hunt served 33 months in prison after he pleaded guilty to conspiracy for his role in the Watergate burglary.”

And that’s the last we hear from NPR about either Guatemala or Cuba, or any of the rest of Hunt’s long career in the CIA. NPR chose to devote its entire segment to an interview with reporter Bob Woodward, who “broke the Watergate story in the Washington Post” in 1973. So, we see what’s important-and not important-to NPR.

The New York Times did a little better in their lengthy obituary the next day. They said of Hunt that “His field was political warfare: dirty tricks, sabotage and propaganda.” And, although most of their story was also about Watergate, they did devote one full paragraph to Guatemala. Here it is:

“In 1954, Mr. Hunt helped plan the covert operation that overthrew the elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz. ”What we wanted to do was to have a terror campaign,’ Mr. Hunt said in a CNN documentary on the cold war, ‘to terrify Arbenz particularly, to terrify his troops.’ Though the operation succeeded, it ushered in 40 years of military repression in Guatemala.”

Two sentences later the Times adds that “Not until 1960 was Mr. Hunt involved in an operation that changed history.”

Remember that this obituary was being written in the winter of 2007, at a time when the United States is officially engaged in a “War on Terror,” and supposedly trying to “spread democracy” around the world. The conventional thinking has it that this is what the U.S., as a Beacon of Democracy, has always done. Yet when a prominent government official dies, the fact that he was engaged in an official U.S. terror campaign for the purpose of overthrowing a democratically-elected government-and one that “succeeded”-merits a single paragraph in the nation’s newspaper of record. Indeed, it is implied that such behavior did not even “change history.”

The operation that DID “change history,” according to the Times, was the secret campaign, ordered by Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, “to alter or abolish the revolutionary government of Fidel Castro in Cuba.” The Times tells us that “Mr. Hunt’s assignment was to create a provisional Cuban government that would be ready to take power once the CIA’s cadre of Cuban shock troops invaded the island.” This was the infamous Bay of Pigs operation (Code Name: “Operation Zapata”), which used the same cast of (U.S.) characters as the Guatemala campaign 6 years earlier. The Guatemala campaign was codenamed “PB Success,” and Zapata was expected to meet with the same “success.” It did not, of course, with the result that, as the Times put it, the careers of Hunt and the others “who planned and executed the Bay of Pigs debacle in April 1961 were damaged or destroyed, as was the CIA’s reputation for derring-do.”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “derring-do” as “daring action or feats; heroic courage.” Now, if it is true that the CIA’s reputation among the general population in 1960 was for “derring-do,” rather than for terror and subversion of democracy, it can only be because United Statesians were then, as they are now, sensationally ignorant of what the CIA had actually been doing in the previous 14 years.

A Tiny Bit of the CIA’s History

The CIA was formed in 1947. In the 14 years from then until its reputation for “derring-do” was cemented in the public mind, the CIA engaged in all of the following tactics in various places around the world:

* Creation and management of CIA schools, where military and police were trained in all sorts of things, including torture techniques;

* Infiltration and manipulation of selected groups, such as political parties, youth groups, unions, and much more;

* Manipulation of media, up to and including direct ownership of media outlets in other countries;

* Economic pressure, exerted through US government agencies, private U.S. corporations, and international financial institutions, and;

* The “dirty tricks, sabotage and propaganda” that the Times told us was E. Howard Hunt’s “field.”

The targets of CIA operations in the years 1947 to 1960, using all of the tactics listed above, included: China, Italy, Greece, the Philippines, Korea, Albania, Germany, Iran, Costa Rica, Syria, Indonesia, British Guiana, the Soviet Union, Italy, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Haiti, Algeria, Ecuador, The Congo, Peru, and the Dominican Republic.

What Lessons Can Be Learned from These Obituaries?

This sordid history continued in the following years, with E. Howard Hunt playing his small but important role, until Hunt was tried and convicted-and spent 33 months in federal prison-for burglary, conspiracy and wiretapping aimed at the Democratic National Committee. Yet he received no prison time, was never charged, apparently received no negative consequences whatsoever, for his well-documented roles in various campaigns of terror and subversion of democracy. The lesson: Violations against the property of powerful people in the United States have consequences, while much more serious violations against the lives (and governments!) of less-powerful people in other countries do not.

Here’s another, related lesson: Terror campaigns that overthrow democracies do not “change history.” But an operation that damages the careers of powerful government officials and/or damages the (bizarre and distorted) reputation of the agency that runs the campaigns that overthrow those democracies? Now, THAT changes “history.”

Now, here’s our Lesson Number Three: Citizens in the U.S. must not be allowed to know much about covert operations and the casts of characters that carry them out because, if we did, we might all begin to see patterns over time, and might begin to understand a little better what is really involved in constructing and maintaining a global empire. The targets of these “covert” operations certainly know what is involved. Indeed, the combination of their knowledge of U.S. behavior and our own ignorance goes a long way in explaining the bewilderment revealed in the oft-posed question that came to life on September 11, 2001: “Why do they hate us?”

As we consider the nature of the distorted National Memory System that is revealed by the obituaries of E. Howard Hunt and others–the obituaries following the December 7th death of Jeane Kirkpatrick offer similar insights into that System–some important questions come to mind: Who are the E. Howard Hunts of today, the men and women who are carrying out the “dirty tricks, sabotage and propaganda” that violate the values of most of the good people in whose name they are supposedly being carried out? Which journalists are following the activities of the covert operatives of today? Which news organizations are publishing these details of empire?

“Late in life,” the Times tells us, Mr. Hunt “said he had no regrets, beyond the Bay of Pigs.” Which is, no doubt, why the London Guardian calls him “lucky.” But it’s not luck. Our job of people of conscience in the United States is to see if we can create a culture where the E. Howard Hunts of the world not only feel regrets for their careers of terror and democracy-destruction, but are brought to justice for them.

JEFF NYGAARD is a writer and activist in Minneapolis, Minnesota who publishes a free email newsletter on politics, media, and culture called Nygaard Notes, found at www.nygaardnotes.org

 

 

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