Time for a U.S. Truth Commission
by Robert Parry
from The Consortium magazine, February 17, 1997
There is a cynical old saying that the victors write the history.
For those of us brought up on Westerns which made the Indians
the aggressors and the U.S. cavalry the peacekeepers, we know
there's something to that. But it is perhaps one of the cruelest
ironies of the long Cold War that it is the American people --
the supposed victors -- who are seeing their own history sanitized
Even as the archives of ex-Communist nations are opened, even
as truth commissions wring the painful reality out of ex-rightist
regimes, the American people are the ones most thoroughly kept
in the dark about the unsavory secrets of the past half century.
When bits and pieces of that history do leak out or are forced
out by diligent journalists, the stories often are constructed
narrowly, denied by the government or attacked by major media
outlets. The larger picture is never brought into focus.
It is as if the final price for winning the Cold War is our
confinement to a permanent childhood where reassuring fantasies
and endless diversions protect us from the hard truth of our own
This American historical juvenility is in marked contrast
to other countries which are coming to grips with horrible historical
events. In January, for instance, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation
Commission announced that ex-policemen had confessed to the torture-murder
of black activist Steve Biko in 1977 and a wide range of other
brutal apartheid-related crimes.
In Argentina, human rights activists continue to press for
the identification of hundreds of children who were stolen from
women "disappeared" by the military's Dirty War in the
mid-to-late 1970s. Sometimes, the babies were literally ripped
from the women's wombs by Cesarean sections before the mothers
were sent to their deaths, along with as many as 30,000 other
But the U.S. government continues to conceal its complicity
in these crimes, as well as its role in the decades long orgy
of murder, torture and rape against hundreds of thousands of civilians
who perished in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.
In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration even supported the
Argentine military as it trained the Nicaraguan contra rebels
Over the past year, however, evidence has dribbled out that
the CIA and the Pentagon contributed directly to these and other
human rights violations. In January, The Baltimore Sun discovered
a 1983 CIA manual that taught psychological torture techniques
to five Latin American security forces. "While we do not
stress the use of coercive techniques, we want to make you aware
of them and the proper way to use them," the manual coyly
Yet, in the major U.S. media, the CIA's torture manual did
not rate as front-page news. The Washington Post stuck its pick-up
of the story on A9 and the New York Times ran its version on Al
l. Both newspapers played up the fact, too, that the CIA had revised
the manual in 1985 to discourage use of these "coercive techniques,"
although the methods were still described, including how to induce
"physical weakness" by subjecting the victim to extremes
of heat and cold and deprivation of food and sleep.
But the manual was only watered down in 1985 be cause of a
controversy that erupted in October 1984 around stories that I
wrote for The Associated Press on the CIA's so-called "assassination"
manual for the contras. That "psychological operations"
manual advocated "selective use of violence" to "neutralize"
civilian opponents and arranging other deaths for political advantage.
The Baltimore Sun's new torture disclosures also follow the
Pentagon's admission last year that the U.S. Army's School of
the Americas used manuals that advocated torture, murder and coercion.
Those Pentagon manuals were prepared in 1982 for training of Latin
American officers at the school which has graduated some of the
Hemisphere's worst human rights abusers, including El Salvador's
"death squad" commander Roberto D'Aubuisson and Panama's
Manuel Noriega. Clearly, these manuals were not isolated incidents,
or simple "mistakes."
Indeed, the evidence points to conscious U.S. complicity in
widespread human rights violations. Yet not a single U.S. official
has been held to account for involving the United States in these
serious offenses against humanity.
Ronald Reagan remains a Republican political icon, whose name
will be affixed to a major new trade building in Washington. Yet,
even before his election, Reagan was defending the Argentine military
and minimizing its bloody reign. He declared in one radio commentary
that President Carter's human rights coordinator, Patricia Derian,
"should walk a mile in the moccasins" of Argentina's
generals before criticizing them.
Once in office, Reagan dispatched senior advisers to coordinate
strategies with the Argentine dictators and South Africa's apartheid
regime. He sent millions of dollars in weapons to the armies of
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras despite their wanton slaughter
When the CIA-contra "assassination" manual surfaced
in 1984, he dismissed it as "much ado about nothing."
Still, while the Reagan administration might have been particularly
grievous, many of its predecessors share in the blame, too.
Currently, the African-American community is pressing for
a thorough investigation into cocaine trafficking by the CIA-backed
contras. Without doubt, U.S. officials implicated in the drug
trade deserve punishment.
But in our view, the problem is even worse than that. What
we see is a long-term pattern of collaboration with -- and cover-up
of -- crimes that stagger the human imagination and shame the
nation. Perhaps, the time has come for the United States to have
its own truth commission, a body of citizens who will piece together
the real historical record of the past half century.
Then, maybe, the Cold War's victors will finally get to write
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