excerpted from the book
Freeing the World to Death
essays on the american empire
by William Blum
Common Courage Press, 2005, paper
Former president Jimmy Carter:
We sent Marines into Lebanon and you
only have to go to Lebanon, to Syria or to Jordan to witness first-hand
the intense hatred among many people for the United States because
we bombed and shelled and unmercifully killed totally innocent
villagers-women and children and farmers and housewives-in those
villages around Beirut .... As a result of that ...we became kind
of a Satan in the minds of those who are deeply resentful. That
is what precipitated the taking of our hostages and that is what
has precipitated some of the terrorist attacks.'
Secretary of State Colin Powell, writing of what preceded the
1983 attack on the US Marine barracks in Lebanon:
The USS New Jersey started hurling 16-inch
shells into the mountains above Beirut, in World War II style,
as if we were softening up the beaches on some Pacific atoll prior
to an invasion. What we tend to overlook in such situations is
that other people will react much as we would.'
The ensuing terrorist attack against US
Marine barracks in Lebanon took the lives of 241 American military
What does American foreign policy have in common with Mae West?
There's the story told about the Hollywood sexpot showing off
her luxurious home to someone. "My goodness, what a gorgeous
home you have," exclaimed the visitor. And Mae West replied:
"Goodness had nothing to do with it."
Which is what I try to make people understand
about American foreign policy. The greatest myth concerning those
policies, the conviction that most often makes it a formidable
task for people like myself to get Americans to accept certain
ideas, is the deeply-held belief that no matter what the United
States does abroad, no matter how bad it may look, no matter what
horror may result, the American government means well. American
leaders may make mistakes, they may blunder, they may even on
the odd occasion cause more harm than good, but they do mean well.
Their intentions are always honorable. Of that Americans are certain.
They genuinely wonder why the rest of the world can't see how
kind and generous and self-sacrificing America has been. Even
many people who take part in the anti-war movement have a hard
time shaking off some of this mindset; they think, or would like
to think, that the government just needs to be prodded back to
its normal benevolent self. Frances Fitzgerald, in her study of
American history textbooks, observed that According to these books,
the United States had been a kind of Salvation Army to the rest
of the world: throughout history, it had done little but dispense
benefits to poor, ignorant, and diseased countries .... the United
States always acted in a disinterested fashion, always from the
highest of motives; it gave, never took."
Amongst developed nations, the United
States is easily the most religious, more so even than most Third
World countries, and many American citizens look upon their country
in an almost sacred manner... chosen people, divine purpose, Manifest
Destiny, missionaries; while its enemies dwell in the other realm,
of the devil, "evil empire", "axis of evil".
Rudy Giuliani, mayor of New York at the time of the September
11, 2001 attack, delivered his farewell speech in a church close
to the site of Ground Zero, declaring: "Abraham Lincoln used
to say that... The test of your Americanism is as how much you
believed in America. Because we are like a religion really-secular
A question that continually intrigues
and perplexes those who long for the world to make sense and have
feelings is this: Do American leaders really believe the utterances
that emanate from their mouths? When the words "god"
and "prayer" are regularly invoked in their talks, while
American Hellfire missiles are sent screaming into a city center
or a village marketplace teeming with life ...when they carry
on endlessly about democracy and freedom, while American soldiers
are smashing down doors, dragging off the men, humiliating the
women, traumatizing the children... when they proclaim the liberation
of a people and the bringing forth of a better life, while vast
quantities of American depleted uranium are exploding into a fine
vapor which will poison the air, the soil, the blood, and the
Do American leaders personally dwell on
these contradictions? Do they even see them as contradictions?
What emotional mechanism allows them to make peace with what they
do so as to be able to live with themselves?
We'll never know for sure what their moral
intuition whispers when they're sitting alone at midnight, but
whatever it is, for them to have reached their high positions
they had to resolve any ethical dilemmas long before, learning
to summon up some comfortable dogma about "the greater good"
or, as Theodore Roosevelt put it:
It is indeed a warped, perverse, and
silly morality which would forbid a course of conquest that has
turned whole continents into the seats of mighty and flourishing
civilized nations. All men of sane and wholesome thought must
dismiss with impatient contempt the plea that these continents
should be reserved for the use of scattered savage tribes, whose
life was but a few degrees less meaningless, squalid, and ferocious
than that of the wild beasts with whom they hold joint ownership.
If American leaders sincerely believe
what they tell the world about the purity of America's motives,
it can be justly maintained that they are as fanatic and as fundamentalist
as 4 Osama Bin Laden and his ilk. Can you argue with an Islamic
fundamentalist about the morality of what he advocates? He'll
insist that Allah is on his side, you're Satan, and you hate Islam.
Can you argue with George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld or
their acolytes about the morality of their policies? They'll insist
that the Lord is on their side, you're soft on terrorism, and
you hate America. We can say that the United States runs the world
like the Taliban ran Afghanistan. Cuba is dealt with like a woman
caught outside not wearing her burkha. Horrific sanctions are
imposed on Iraq in the manner of banning music, dancing, and kite-flying
in Kabul. Jean-Bertrand Aristide is banished from Haiti like the
religious police whipping a man whose beard is not the right length.
For some Americans, belief in the nobility
of US foreign policy may have taken a kick in the stomach by the
release of the photos in the spring of 2004 showing abuse and
torture of Iraqi prisoners, but for most a lifetime of inculcated
loyalty, faith, and conviction does not crumble without a great
deal of resistance. Such people should be asked this question:
"What would the United States have to do in its foreign policy
that would cause you to forsake your basic belief and support
of it? In other words, what for you would be too much?" Most
likely, whatever dreadfulness they might think of, the United
States has already done it. More than once. Probably in their
own lifetime. And well documented in an easily available publication.
As hateful as the acts depicted in the
photos were, the publicizing of them was to be welcomed if it
could rally world opinion against United States behavior; if there
is no military force capable of beating back the American behemoth,
moral condemnation does at least slow it down from time to time.
Let the hooded, wired, and faceless man of Abu Ghraib, with arms
outstretched like Christ on the cross, become a symbol of, and
inspiration for, resistance to American imperialism.
Bush administration officials, like George
W. and War Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, looked the American people
squarely in the eye and in their most heartfelt-sounding voice
told them that the abuse of the detainees in Iraq was completely
inappropriate, un-American, and would not be tolerated. But the
abuses had been going on for more than a year, complained about
regularly by the International Red Cross, Amnesty International,
and other human rights groups, and nothing had been done except,
after ten months, an investigation, not for public consumption;
and when the military learned that CBS had photos of the abuses
and was preparing to show them on TV, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff personally asked the station to hold off, which
CBS did until, faced with being scooped, they presented the photos
to a shocked America. Thus, for over a year, the imperial mafia
could engage in their usual rationalizations, whatever they may
be, before they were forced to go public with the appropriate
This is written in June 2004, in the midst
of the United States presidential election campaign. Millions
of Americans, regardless of what they think of the Democratic
Party candidate, are determined to vote for Anyone But Bush, so
loathsome and repellent have the man and his policies become for
them. They are convinced that the Bush administration is virtually
unique in the manner in which it relates to the world; that no
previous American government has ever exhibited such hubris, deceit,
and secrecy; such murderous destruction, violation of international
law, and disregard of world opinion.
They are mistaken. All this wickedness
has been exhibited before, regularly; if not packed quite as densely
in one administration as under Bush, then certainly abundant enough
to reap the abhorrence of millions at home and abroad. From Truman's
atom bomb and manipulation of the UN that spawned bloody American
warfare in Korea, to Clinton's war crimes in Yugoslavia and vicious
assaults upon the people of Somalia; from Kennedy's attempts to
strangle the Cuban revolution and his abandonment of democracy
in the Dominican Republic, to Ford's giving the okay to Indonesia's
genocide against East Timor and his support of the instigation
of the horrific Angola civil war; from Eisenhower's overthrow
of democratically elected governments in Iran, Guatemala and the
Congo and his unprincipled policies which led to the disaster
known as Vietnam, to Reagan's tragic Afghanistan venture and unprovoked
invasion of Grenada.
When the United Nations overwhelmingly
voted its disapproval of the Grenada invasion, President Reagan
responded: "One hundred nations in the UN have not agreed
with us on just about everything that's come before them where
we're involved, and it didn't upset my breakfast at all."
George W. couldn't have said it better.
For those who think the United States
has been unconscionably brutal to detainees in Iraq, here's how
the US handled them during Vietnam: "Two Vietcong prisoners
were interrogated on an airplane flying toward Saigon. The first
refused to answer questions and was thrown out of the airplane
at 3,000 feet. The second immediately answered all the questions.
But he, too, was thrown out."
It would be difficult to find a remark
made today by an American official about Iraq-illogical, arrogant,
stupid, lying, Orwellian, overblown, just plain wrong-which doesn't
have any number of precedents during the Vietnam War period, that
constantly had those opposed to that war shaking their heads or
rolling their eyes.
Here is President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966:
"The exercise of power in this century has meant for all
of us in the United States not arrogance but agony. We have used
our power not willingly and recklessly ever, but always reluctantly
and with L. restraint."
Richard Nixon, waiting in the wings, 1965:
"Victory for the Vietcong. . would mean ultimately the destruction
of freedom of speech for all men for all time not only in Asia
but in (... the United States as well."
Walt Rostow, State Department, Chairman,
Policy Planning Council, 1965: "The other side is near collapse.
In my opinion, victory is very near ....You've got to see the
latest charts. I've got them right here. The charts are very good
.... Victory is very near."
Vice President Hubert Humphrey, 1967:
"I believe that Vietnam will be marked as the place where
the family of man has gained the time it needed to finally break
through to a new era of hope and human development and justice.
This is the chance we have. This is our great adventure-and a
wonderful one it is."
And on a day in July 1965, Arthur Sylvester,
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs told American
journalists that they had patriotic duty to disseminate only information
that made the United States look good. When one of the newsmen
exclaimed, "Surely, Arthur, you don't expect the American
press to be handmaidens of government," Sylvester responded,
"That's exactly what I expect." Sylvester then /(replied
to another question with: "Look, if you think any American
official is going to tell you the truth, then you're stupid. Did
you hear that?-stupid."
This last of course does at least have
the virtue of honesty.
Does anything done by the Bush administration
compare to Operation Gladio? From 1947 until 1990, when it was
publicly exposed, Gladio was essentially a CIA/NATO/M16 operation
in conjunction with other intelligence agencies and an assortment
of the vilest of right-wing thugs and terrorists. It ran wild
in virtually every country of Western Europe, kidnapping and/or
assassinating political leaders, exploding bombs in trains and
public squares with many hundreds of dead and wounded, shooting
up supermarkets with many casualties, trying to overthrow governments...
all with impunity, protected by the most powerful military and
political forces in the world. Even today, the beast may still
be breathing. Since the inception of the Freedom of Information
Act in the 1970s, the CIA has regularly refused requests concerning
the US/NATO role in Gladio, refusing not only individual researchers
and the National Security Archive-the private research organization
in Washington with a remarkable record of obtaining US government
documents-but some of the governments involved, including Italy
and Austria. Gladio is one of the CIA's family jewels, to be guarded
The rationale behind it was your standard
cold-war paranoia/propaganda: There's a good chance the Russians
will launch an unprovoked invasion of Western Europe. And if they
defeated the Western armies and forced them to flee, certain people
had to remain behind to harass the Russians with guerrilla warfare
and sabotage, and act as liaisons with those abroad. The "stay-behinds"
would be provided with funds, weapons, communication equipment
and training exercises.
As matters turned out, in the complete
absence of any Russian invasion, the operation was used almost
exclusively to inflict political and lethal damage upon the European
Left, be it individuals, movements or governments, and heighten
the public's fear of "communism". To that end, violent
actions like those referred to above were made to appear to be
the work of the Left.
Neither did the Bush administration invent
the American Empire and its schoolyard-bully behavior. An Empire
can be defined as a state that has overwhelming superiority in
military, economic and political power, and uses those powers
to influence the internal and external behavior of other states
to accommodate the empire's needs. This imperial power intrinsically
includes the ability to overthrow or otherwise punish those governments
which seek to thwart the empire's desires.
Does this not aptly describe the power
and policies of American foreign policy for many decades, for
a century, before the Bush administration came to be? It was long
said in Latin America that the United States could instigate or
discourage a coup with "a frown". In 1965 it was reported
that the military coup ousting Dominican Republic President Juan
Bosch went into action "as soon as they got a wink from the
U.S. Pentagon." As long ago as 1902, Colombia's Ambassador
to the US, José Vicente Concha, writing about the pressure
put on him by the United States regarding the building of the
Panama Canal, said: "This uncle of ours can settle it all
with a single crunch of his jaws."
Frown, wink, crunch of jaws... and if
facial actions didn't do the job, then a carefully chosen word
or two, or money without end, or weapons of the chemical dust
would. The reader is directed to chapter 15 for a list of 35 governments
overthrown by the United States following World War II but prior
to the Bush administration, in addition to 19 other serious attempts
at regime change in the same period which didn't succeed.
Here are the words of former US Senator
The causes of the malady are not entirely
clear but its recurrence is one of the uniformities of history:
power tends to confuse itself with virtue and a great nation is
peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of
God's favor, conferring upon it a special responsibility for other
nations-to make them richer and happier and wiser, to remake them,
that is, in its own shining image.
Fulbright wrote those words about the
Lyndon B. Johnson administration in 1966, not the George W. Bush
administration in 2004.
Since the early 19th century, when the
first European settlers began arriving in what was to become the
western states of the United States of America, this has been
an imperial nation, a conquering nation; annihilation of natives,
acquisition, expansion, a society made safe for the freest of
enterprise; belief in American "exceptionalism", a people
providentially exempted from the dark side of human nature; all
this in the American blood, the nation's myths, its songs, its
The Monroe Doctrine of 1823, gave fair
warning: "The American continents.., are henceforth not to
be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European
powers .... we should consider an attempt on their part to extend
their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to
our peace and safety." Add a word about "terrorists"
and it could have been penned by Condoleezza Rice. The door was
of course left open to hemispheric colonization or neo-colonization
by the United States.
In the war with Mexico, beginning in 1846,
the US went yet further; not simply colonization, but the wholesale
incorporation of half of Mexico into the new Yankee land; a war
that excited Congress, which approved it overwhelmingly with minimal
discussion, and the American people, who rallied and rushed to
volunteer for the splendid expedition. In December 1845, the editor
of a New York daily had written of "our manifest destiny
to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which
Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment
of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us."
By the end of the century, when grandiose
North American growth opportunities were thinning and new markets
were needed, Washington heeded the siren's call to become a player
in the global scene. Using the pretext that Spain was responsible
for the blowing up of the USS Maine, it went to war and replaced
the Spanish as the colonial power in the Philippines, Guam and
Puerto Rico, and devised a special status for Cuba.
In the summer of 1898, a vigorous struggle
began in the United States between imperialists and anti-imperialists
concerning the Philippines and its people who were fighting against
the American plan to subjugate them. Talk of empire, of the United
States assuming a leading role in world politics, was a heady
intoxicant that few could resist. The future liberal Supreme Court
justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., declared "I confess
to pleasure in hearing some rattling jingo talk after the self-righteous
and preaching discourse" of the anti-imperialists.
The stage was now set for what Time magazine
publisher Henry Luce was later to call The American Century. Looking
at it from the perspective of the consequences of American foreign
policy, it was a century of wide-ranging domination and cruelty.
A study by the Congressional Research Service of the Library of
Congress, "Instances of Use of United States Armed Forces
Abroad, 1798-1945", shows 65 such instances from 1900 to
1945, to which books by this author add, for the period 1945 to
2000, about eighty other very serious US interventions-military,
economic, and/or diplomatic-into the affairs of foreign countries.
What most of the countries on the receiving
end of 20th century American imperialism had in common was their
attempt to establish a society that offered an alternative to
the capitalist model. In the eyes of Washington, this was the
ultimate heresy, as it remains today. Such an endeavor had to
be crushed, by any means necessary, lest it wind up serving as
an example for others. Other targeted countries, while retaining
free enterprise to one degree or another, were reluctant to allow
the needs of American corporations to dictate their society's
priorities; i.e., they were unwilling to permit the WTO/IMF/World
Bank/free-trade beast to stomp in and privatize and sell the country's
social assets to multinationals, to deregulate, erase their border,
drive local industries and farmers into destitution, trash social
services and safety nets, develop a cheap labor force, cheap raw
materials, and a market for corporate goods, and put people in
prison so prices could be free... by now a painfully familiar
syndrome known as "globalization", merely the latest
transmutation of imperialism, the natural extension of capitalist
growth and control; for some years ago, while we were all busy
leading our little daily lives, a handful of corporations came
along, and step by step, unannounced, purchased the world, then
hung a sign out saying "Open for business", and have
since then, understandably, insisted on exercising the rights
of ownership. Globalization is nothing less than the recolonization
of the underdeveloped world.
One of the problems in dealing with fanatics
is their fanaticism.
It may be that George W. Bush's being
held in such low esteem and producing visceral disgust in countless
people owes as much to his character defects as to his policies,
for the man comes off as woefully crass, uninformed, incurious,
and inarticulate; as well as programmed, insufferably religious,
dishonest, and remarkably insensitive-in the very midst of the
burgeoning scandal about US military torture and sexual abuse
of prisoners in Iraq, for example, Bush could bring himself to
tell an audience: "The world is better off without Saddam
Hussein in power .... Because we acted, torture rooms are closed,
rape rooms no longer exist."
What has distinguished the Bush administration's
foreign policy from that of its predecessors has been its unabashed
and conspicuously overt expressions of its imperial ambitions.
They flaunt it, publicly and proudly declaring their intention-nay,
their God-inspired right and obligation-to remake the world and
dominate space; "full-spectrum dominance", a term coined
by the military shortly before Bush came to office, well captures
the Bush administration's style and ambition. The neo-conservatives
who form the ideological backbone of the administration have not
hesitated to put their dominance master plans into print on a
regular basis, beginning with their now-famous (1992 Defense Planning
Guidance draft: "we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring
potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional
or global role," and continuing through the National Security
Strategy, of 2002 "To forestall or prevent... hostile acts
by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act
"Preemptive" military action
is an example of what the post-World War II International Military
Tribunal at Nuremberg, Germany called "a war of aggression";
the invasion of Poland was a case in point.
We must make clear to the Germans that
the wrong for which their fallen leaders are on trial is not that
they lost the war, but that they started it. And we must not allow
ourselves to be drawn into a trial of the causes of the war, for
our position is that no grievances or policies will justify resort
to aggressive war. It is utterly renounced and condemned as an
instrument of policy.
Thus spoke Supreme Court Justice Robert
L. Jackson Chief US Prosecutor at the Tribunal, on August j1 1945.
On October 1 of the following year ,
the Tribunal handed down its judgment: "To initiate a war
of aggression, therefore, is not only an international crime,
it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other
war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil
of the whole."
The bombing and invasion of Afghanistan
and Iraq by the Bush administration are wars of aggression and
international crimes, but legally and morally no worse than many
other US bombings and invasions, such as against Vietnam, Laos,
Cambodia, Cuba, Grenada, Panama, and Yugoslavia.
"In politics, as on the sickbed,
people toss from one side to the other, thinking they will be
more comfortable." Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
An Amtrak train on its way to Washington
was stopped in Cumberland, Md., for several hours and searched
yesterday after passengers reported that two men of 'Middle Eastern
descent' were acting suspiciously, the FBI said.
We've been reading similar stories for
three years now, involving trains, planes, buses, anywhere, anytime.
In between we have Alerts Orange and Red, scary bioterrorism exercises,
security precautions for major events reaching the outlandish
proportions of a Hollywood thriller, and a host of other gross
disruptions, inconveniences, and absurdities. We take our shoes
off, empty our pockets, drop our pants, show our picture ID, show
it again 20 feet away, whatever some bored hired hand gets a kick
out of demanding, don't even think about making a joke. Much worse
than any of this of course happens regularly to people all over
the country, many of whom are imprisoned, without charges, without
How long will this indignity to persons
and the Constitution go on? Why, as long as the War on Terrorism
goes on. And how long will the War on Terrorism go on? As long
as there are anti-American terrorists out there of course. And
how long will there be anti-American terrorists out there? Well,
as long as the War on Terrorism and the rest of US foreign policy
continue serving as factories for mass producing anti-American
terrorists and laboratories for cultivating the terrorism virus.
the World to Death
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