The Bipartisan Consensus
excerpted from a
People's History of the United States
by Howard Zinn
The presidency of Jimmy Carter, covering the years 1977 to
1980, seemed an attempt by one part of the Establishment, that
represented in the Democratic Party, to recapture a disillusioned
citizenry. But Carter, despite a few gestures toward black people
and the poor, despite talk of "human rights" abroad,
remained within the historic political boundaries of the American
system, protecting corporate wealth and power, maintaining a huge
military machine that drained the national wealth, allying the
United States with right-wing tyrannies abroad.
Carter seemed to be the choice of that international group
of powerful influence-wielders-the Trilateral Commission. Two
founding members of the commission, according to the Far Eastern
Economic Review-David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski-thought
Carter was the right per son for the presidential election of
1976 given that "the Watergate plagued Republican Party was
a sure loser...."
Carter's job as President, from the point of view of the Establishment,
was to halt the rushing disappointment of the American people
with the government, with the economic system, with disastrous
military ventures abroad. In his campaign, he tried to speak to
the disillusioned and angry. His strongest appeal was to blacks,
whose rebellion in the late sixties was the most frightening challenge
to authority since the labor and unemployed upsurges in the thirties.
His appeal was "populist"-that is, he appealed to
various elements of American society who saw themselves beleaguered
by the powerful and wealthy. Although he himself was a millionaire
peanut grower, he presented himself as an ordinary American farmer.
Although he had been a supporter of the Vietnam war until its
end, he presented himself as a sympathizer with those who had
been against the war, and he appealed to many of the young rebels
of the sixties by his promise to cut the military budget.
In a much-publicized speech to lawyers, Carter spoke out against
the use of the law to protect the rich. He appointed a black woman,
Patricia Harris, as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development,
and a black civil rights veteran, Andrew Young, as ambassador
to the United Nations. He gave the job of heading the domestic
youth service corps to a young former antiwar activist, Sam Brown.
His most crucial appointments, however, were in keeping with
the Trilateral Commission report of Harvard political scientist
Samuel Huntington, which said that, whatever groups voted for
a president, once elected "what counts then is his ability
to mobilize support from the leaders of key institutions."
Brzezinski, a traditional cold war intellectual, became Carter's
National Security Adviser. His Secretary of Defense, Harold Brown,
had, during the Vietnam war, according to the Pentagon Papers,
"envisaged the elimination of virtually all the constraints
under which the bombing then operated." His Secretary of
Energy, James Schlesinger, as Secretary of Defense under Nixon,
was described by a member of the Washington press corps as showing
"an almost missionary drive in seeking to reverse a downward
trend in the defense budget." Schlesinger was also a strong
proponent of nuclear energy.
His other cabinet appointees had strong corporate connections.
A financial writer wrote, not long after Carter's election: "So
far, Mr. Carter's actions, commentary, and particularly his Cabinet
appointments, have been highly reassuring to the business community."
Veteran Washington correspondent Tom Wicker wrote: "The available
evidence is that Mr. Carter so far is opting for Wall Street's
Carter did initiate more sophisticated policies toward governments
that oppressed their own people. He used United Nations Ambassador
Andrew Young to build up good will for the United States among
the black African nations, and urged that South Africa liberalize
its policies toward blacks. A peaceful settlement in South Africa
was necessary for strategic reasons; South Africa was used for
radar tracking systems. Also, it had important U.S. corporate
investments and was a critical source of needed raw materials
(diamonds, especially). Therefore, what the United States needed
was a stable government in South Africa; the continued oppression
of blacks might create civil war.
The same approach was used in other countries combining practical
strategic needs with the advancement of civil rights. But because
the chief motivation was practicality, not humanity, there was
a tendency toward token changes-as in Chile's release of a few
political prisoners. When Congressman Herman Badillo introduced
in Congress a proposal that required the U.S. representatives
to the World Bank and other international financial institutions
to vote against loans to countries that systematically violated
essential rights, by the use of torture or imprisonment without
trial, Carter sent a personal letter to every Congressman urging
the defeat of this amendment. It won a voice vote in the House,
but lost in the Senate.
Under Carter, the United States continued to support, all
over the world, regimes that engaged in imprisonment of dissenters,
torture, and mass murder: in the Philippines, in Iran, in Nicaragua,
and in Indonesia, where the inhabitants of East Timor were being
annihilated in a campaign bordering on genocide.
The New Republic magazine, presumably on the liberal side
of the Establishment, commented approvingly on the Carter policies:
". . . American foreign policy in the next four years will
essentially extend the philosophies developed . . . in the Nixon-Ford
years. This is not at all a negative prospect.... There should
be continuity. It is part of history...."
Carter had presented himself as a friend off the movement
against the war, but when Nixon mined Haiphong harbor and resumed
bombing of North Vietnam in the spring of 1973, Carter urged that
"we give President Nixon our backing and support-whether
or not we agree with specific decisions." Once elected, Carter
declined to give aid to Vietnam for reconstruction, despite the
fact that the land had been devastated by American bombing. Asked
about this at a press conference, Carter replied that there was
no special obligation on the United States to do this because
"the destruction was mutual."
Considering that the United States had crossed half the globe
with an enormous fleet of bombers and 2 million soldiers, and
after eight years left a tiny nation with over a million dead
and its land in ruins, this was an astounding statement.
One Establishment intention, perhaps, was that future generations
see the war not as it appeared in the Defense Department's own
Pentagon Papers-as a ruthless attack on civilian populations for
strategic military and economic interests-but as an unfortunate
error. Noam Chomsky, one of the leading antiwar intellectuals
during the Vietnam period, looked in mid-1978 at how the history
of the war was being presented in the major media and wrote that
they were "destroying the historical record and supplanting
it with a more comfortable story . . . reducing 'lessons' of the
war to the socially neutral categories of error, ignorance, and
The Carter administration clearly was trying to end the disillusionment
of the American people after the Vietnam war by following foreign
policies more palatable, less obviously aggressive. Hence, the
emphasis on "human rights," the pressure on South Africa
and Chile to liberalize their policies. But on close examination,
these more liberal policies were designed to leave intact the
power and influence of American military and American business
in the world.
The renegotiation of the Panama Canal treaty with the tiny
Central American republic of Panama was an example. The canal
saved American companies $1.5 billion a year in delivery costs,
and the United States collected $150 million a year in tolls,
out of which it paid the Panama government $2.3 million dollars,
while maintaining fourteen military bases in the area.
Back in 1903 the United States had engineered a revolution
against Colombia, set up the new tiny republic of Panama in Central
America, and dictated a treaty giving the United States military
bases, control of the Panama Canal, and sovereignty "in perpetuity."
The Carter administration in 1977, responding to anti-American
protests in Panama, decided to renegotiate the treaty. The New
York Times was candid about the Canal: "We stole it, and
removed the incriminating evidence from our history books."
By 1977 the canal had lost military importance. It could not
accommodate large tankers or aircraft carriers. That, plus the
anti-American riots in Panama led the Carter administration, over
conservative opposition, to negotiate a new treaty which called
for a gradual removal of U.S. bases (which could easily be relocated
elsewhere in the area). The canal's legal ownership would be turned
over to Panama after a period. The treaty a]so contained vague
language which could be the basis for American military intervention
under certain conditions.
Whatever Carter's sophistication in foreign policy, certain
fundamentals operated in the late sixties and the seventies. American
corporations were active all over the world on a scale never seen
before. There were, by the early seventies, about three hundred
U.S. corporations, including the seven largest banks, which earned
40 percent of their net profits outside the United States. They
were called "multinationals," but actually 98 percent
of their top executives were Americans. As a group, they now constituted
the third-largest economy in the world, next to the United States
and the Soviet Union.
The relationship of these global corporations with the poorer
countries had long been an exploiting one, it was clear from U.S.
Department of Commerce figures. Whereas U.S. corporations in Europe
between 1950 and 1965 invested $8.1 billion and made $5.5 billion
in profits, in Latin America they invested $3.8 billion and made
$ 11.2 billion in profits, and in Africa they invested $5.2 billion
and made $ 14.3 billion in profits.
It was the classical imperial situation, where the places
with natural wealth became victims of more powerful nations whose
power came from that seized wealth. American corporations depended
on the poorer countries for 100 percent of their diamonds, coffee,
platinum, mercury, natural rubber, and cobalt. They got 98 percent
of their manganese from abroad, 90 percent of their chrome and
aluminum. And 20 to 40 percent of certain imports (platinum, mercury,
cobalt, chrome, manganese) came from Africa.
Another fundamental of foreign policy, whether Democrats or
Republicans were in the White House, was the training of foreign
military officers. The Army had a "School of the Americas"
in the Canal Zone, from which thousands of military leaders in
Latin America had graduated. Six of the graduates, for instance,
were in the Chilean military junta that overthrew the democratically
elected Allende government in 1973. The American commandant of
the school told a reporter: "We keep in touch with our graduates
and they keep in touch with us."
And yet the United States cultivated a reputation of being
generous with its riches. Indeed, it had frequently given aid
to disaster victims. This aid, however, often depended on political
loyalty. In one six-year drought in West Africa, 100,000 Africans
died of starvation. A report by the Carnegie Endowment said the
Agency for International Development (AID) of the United States
had been inefficient and neglectful in giving aid to nomads in
the Sahel area of West Africa, an area covering six countries.
The response of AID was that those countries had "no close
historical, economic, or political ties to the United States."
In early 1975 the press carried a dispatch from Washington:
"Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger has formally initiated
a policy of selecting for cutbacks in American aid those nations
that have sided against the U.S. in votes in the United Nations.
In some cases the cutbacks involve food and humanitarian relief.
Most aid was openly military, and by 1975, the United States
exported $9.5 billion in arms. The Carter administration promised
to end the sale of arms to repressive regimes, but when it took
office the bulk of the sales continued.
And the military continued to take a huge share of the national
bud get. When Carter was running for election, he told the Democratic
Plat form Committee: "Without endangering the defense of
our nation or commitments to our allies, we can reduce present
defense expenditures by about 5 to 7 billion dollars annually."
But his first budget proposed not a decrease but an increase of
$10 billion for the military. Indeed, he pro posed that the U.S.
spend a thousand billion dollars (a trillion dollars) in the next
five years on its military forces. And the administration had
just announced that the Department of Agriculture would save $25
million a year by no longer giving free second helpings of milk
to 1.4 million needy schoolchildren who got free meals in school.
If Carter's job was to restore faith in the system, here was
his greatest failure-solving the economic problems of the people.
The price of j~ food and the necessities of life continued to
rise faster than wages were rising. Unemployment remained officially
at 6 or 8 percent; unofficially, the rates were higher. For certain
key groups in the population-young people, and especially young
black people-the unemployment rate was 20 or 30 percent.
It soon became clear that blacks in the United States, the
group most in support of Carter for President, were bitterly disappointed
with his policies. He opposed federal aid to poor people who needed
abortions, and when it was pointed out to him that this was unfair,
because rich women could get abortions with ease, he replied:
"Well, as you know, there are many things in life that are
not fair, that wealthy people can afford and poor people cannot."
Carter's "populism" was not visible in his administration's
relation ship to the oil and gas interests. It was part of Carter's
"energy plan" to end price regulation of natural gas
for the consumer. The largest producer of natural gas was Exxon
Corporation, and the largest blocs of private stock in Exxon were
owned by the Rockefeller family.
Early in Carter's administration, the Federal Energy Administration
found that Gulf Oil Corporation had overstated by $79.1 its costs
for crude oil obtained from foreign affiliates. It then passed
on these false costs to consumers. In the summer of 1978 the administration
announced that "a compromise" had been made with Gulf
Oil in which Gulf agreed to pay back $42.2 million. Gulf informed
its stockholders that "the payments will not affect earnings
since adequate provision was made in prior years."
The lawyer for the Energy Department who worked out the compromise
with Gulf said it had been done to avoid a lengthy and costly
law suit. Would the lawsuit have cost the $36.9 million dropped
in the compromise? Would the government have considered letting
off a bank robber without a jail term in return for half the loot?
The settlement was a perfect example of what Carter had told a
meeting of lawyers during his presidential campaign-that the law
was on the side of the rich.
The fundamental facts of maldistribution of wealth in America
were clearly not going to be affected by Carter's policies, any
more than by previous administrations, whether conservative or
liberal. According to Andrew Zimbalist, an American economist
writing in Le Monde Diplomatique in 1977, the top 10 percent of
the American population had an income thirty times that of the
bottom tenth; the top I percent of the nation owned 33 percent
of the wealth. The richest 5 percent owned 83 percent of the personally
owned corporate stock. The one hundred largest corporations (despite
the graduated income tax that misled people into thinking the
very rich paid at least 50 percent in taxes) paid an average of
26.9 percent in taxes, and the leading oil companies paid 5.8
percent in taxes (Internal Revenue Service figures for 1974).
Indeed, 244 individuals who earned over $200,000 paid no taxes.
In 1979, as Carter weakly proposed benefits for the poor,
and Congress strongly turned them down, a black woman, Marian
Wright Edelman, director of the Children's Defense Fund in Washington,
pointed to some facts. One of every seven American children (10
million altogether) had no known regular source of primary health
care. One of every three children under seventeen (18 million
altogether) had never seen a dentist. In an article on the New
York Times op-ed page, she wrote:
The Senate Budget Committee recently . . . knocked off $88
million from a modest $288 million Administration request to improve
the program that screens and treats children's health problems.
At the same time the Senate found $725 mil lion to bail out Litton
Industries and to hand to the Navy at least two destroyers ordered
by the Shah of Iran.
Carter approved tax "reforms" which benefited mainly
the corporations. Economist Robert Lekachman, writing in The Nation,
noted the sharp increase in corporate profits (44 percent) in
the last quarter of 1978 over the previous year's last quarter.
He wrote: "Perhaps the President's most outrageous act occurred
last November when he signed into law an $18 billion tax reduction,
the bulk of whose benefits accrue to affluent individuals and
In 1979, while the poor were taking cuts, the salary of the
chairman of Exxon Oil was being raised to $830,000 a year and
that of the chair man of Mobil Oil to over a million dollars a
year. That year, while Exxon's net income rose 56 percent to more
than $4 billion, three thousand small independent gasoline stations
went out of business.
Carter made some efforts to hold onto social programs, but
this was undermined by his very large military budgets. Presumably,
this was to guard against the Soviet Union, but when the Soviet
Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Carter could take only symbolic
actions, like reinstituting the draft, or calling for a boycott
of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
On the other hand, American weaponry was used to support dictatorial
regimes battling left-wing rebels abroad. A report by the Carter
administration to Congress in 1977 was blunt, saying that "a
number of countries with deplorable records of human rights observance
are also countries where we have important security and foreign
Thus, Carter asked Congress in the spring of 1980 for $5.7
million in credits for the military junta fighting off a peasant
rebellion in El Salvador. In the Philippines, after the 1978 National
Assembly elections, President Ferdinand Marcos imprisoned ten
of the twenty-one losing opposition candidates; many prisoners
were tortured, many civilians were killed. Still, Carter urged
Congress to give Marcos $300 million in military aid for the next
In Nicaragua, the United States had helped maintain the Somoza
dictatorship for decades. Misreading the basic weakness of that
regime, and the popularity of the revolution against it, the Carter
administration continued its support for Somoza until close to
the regime's fall in 1979. .
In Iran, toward the end of 1978, the long years of resentment
against the Shah's dictatorship culminated in mass demonstrations.
On September 8, 1978, hundreds of demonstrators were massacred
by the Shah's troops. The next day, according to a UPI dispatch
from Teheran, Carter affirmed his support for the Shah:
Troops opened fire on demonstrators against the Shah for the
third straight day yesterday and President Jimmy Carter telephoned
the royal palace to express sup port for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlevi,
who faced the worst crisis of his 37-year reign. Nine members
of parliament walked out on a speech by Iran's new premier, shouting
that his hands were "stained with blood" in the crackdown
on conservative Moslems and other protesters.
On December 13, 1978, Nicholas Gage reported for the New York
The staff of the United States Embassy here has been bolstered
by dozens of specialists flown in to back an effort to help the
Shah against a growing challenge to his rule according to embassy
sources. . . The new arrivals, according to the embassy sources,
include a number of Central Intelligence Agency specialists on
Iran, in addition to diplomats and military personnel.
In early 1979, as the crisis in Iran was intensifying, the
former chief analyst on Iran for the CIA told New York Times reporter
Seymour Hersh that "he and his colleagues knew of the tortures
of Iranian dissenters by Savaki, the Iranian secret police set
up during the late 1950s by the Shah with help from the CIA."
Furthermore, he told Hersh that a senior CIA official was involved
in instructing officials in Savaki on torture techniques.
It was a popular, massive revolution, and the Shah fled. The Carter
administration later accepted him into the country, presumably
for medical treatment, and the anti-American feelings of the revolutionaries
reached a high point. On November 4, 1979, the U.S. embassy in
Teheran was taken over by student militants who, demanding that
the Shah be returned to Iran for punishment, held fifty-two embassy
For the next fourteen months, with the hostages still held
in the embassy compound, that issue took the forefront of foreign
news in the United States and aroused powerful nationalist feelings.
When Carter ordered the Immigration and Naturalization Service
to start deportation proceedings against Iranian students who
lacked valid visas, the New York Times gave cautious but clear
approval. Politicians and the press played into a general hysteria.
An Iranian-American girl who was slated to give a high school
commencement address was removed from the pro gram. The bumper
sticker "Bomb Iran" appeared on autos all over the country.
It was a rare journalist bold enough to point out, as Alan
Richman of the Boston Globe did when the fifty-two hostages were
released alive and apparently well, that there was a certain lack
of proportion in American reactions to this and other violations
of human rights: "There were 52 of them, a number easy to
comprehend. It wasn't like 15,000 innocent people permanently
disappearing in Argentina.... They [the American hostages] spoke
our language. There were 3000 people summarily shot in Guatemala
last year who did not."
The hostages were still in captivity when Jimmy Carter faced
Ronald Reagan in the election of 1980. That fact, and the economic
distress felt by many, were largely responsible for Carter's defeat.
Reagan's victory, followed eight years later by the election
of George Bush, meant that another part of the Establishment,
lacking even the faint liberalism of the Carter presidency, would
be in charge. The policies would be more crass cutting benefits
to poor people, lowering taxes for the wealthy, increasing the
military budget, filling the federal court system with conservative
judges, actively working to destroy revolutionary movements in
The dozen years of the Reagan-Bush presidency transformed
the federal judiciary, never more than moderately liberal, into
a predominantly conservative institution. By the fall of 1991,
Reagan and Bush had filled more than half of the 837 federal judgeships,
and appointed enough right-wing justices to transform the Supreme
Corporate America became the greatest beneficiary of the Reagan
Bush years. In the sixties and seventies an important environmental
movement had grown in the nation, horrified at the poisoning of
the air, the seas and rivers, and the deaths of thousands each
year as a result of work conditions. After a mine explosion in
West Virginia killed seventy eight miners in November 1968 there
had been angry protest in the mine district, and Congress passed
the Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. Nixon's Secretary
of Labor spoke of "a new national passion, passion for environmental
The following year, yielding to strong demands from the labor
movement and consumer groups, but also seeing it as an opportunity
to win the support of working-class voters, President Nixon had
signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. This was
an important piece of legislation, establishing a universal right
to a safe and healthy work place, and creating an enforcement
machinery. Reflecting on this years later, Herbert Stein, who
had been the chairman of Nixon's Council of Economic Advisers,
lamented that "the juggernaut of environmental regulation
proved not to be controllable by the Nixon administration."
While President Jimmy Carter came into office praising the
OSHA program, he was also eager to please the business community.
The woman he appointed to head OSHA, Eula Bingham, fought for
strong enforcement of the act, and was occasionally successful.
But as the American economy showed signs of trouble, with oil
prices, inflation, and unemployment rising, Carter seemed more
and more concerned about the difficulties the act created for
business. He became an advocate of removing regulations on corporations
and giving them more leeway, even if this was hurtful to labor
and to consumers. Environmental regulation became more and more
a victim of "cost-benefit" analysis, in which regulations
protecting the health and safety of the public became secondary
to how costly this would be for business.
Under Reagan and Bush this concern for "the economy,"
which was a short-hand term for corporate profit, dominated any
concern for workers or consumers. President Reagan proposed to
replace tough enforcement of environmental laws by a "voluntary"
approach, leaving it to businesses to decide for themselves what
they would do. He appointed as head of OSHA a businessman who
was hostile to OSHA's aims. One of his first acts was to order
the destruction of 100,000 government booklets pointing out the
dangers of cotton dust to textile workers.
... the preservation of a huge military establishment and
the retention of profit levels of oil corporations appeared to
be twin objectives of the Reagan-Bush administrations. Shortly
after Ronald Reagan took office, twenty-three oil industry executives
contributed $270,000 to redecorate the White House living quarters.
According to the Associated Press:
The solicitation drive . . . came four weeks after the President
decontrolled oil prices, a decision worth $2 billion to the oil
industry . . . Jack Hodges of Oklahoma City, owner of Core Oil
and Gas Company, said: "The top man of this country ought
to live in one of the top places. Mr. Reagan has helped the energy
While he built up the military (allocations of over a trillion
dollars in his first four years in office), Reagan tried to pay
for this with cuts in benefits for the poor. There would be $140
billion of cuts in social pro grams through 1984 and an increase
of $181 billion for "defense" in the same period. He
also proposed tax cuts of $190 billion (most of this going to
Despite the tax cuts and the military appropriations, Reagan
insisted he would still balance the budget because the tax cuts
would so stimulate the economy as to generate new revenue. Nobel
Prize-winning economist Wassily Leontief remarked dryly: "This
is not likely to happen. In fact, I personally guarantee that
it will not happen."
Indeed, Department of Commerce figures showed that periods
of lowered corporate taxes (1973-1975, 1979-1982) did not at all
show higher capital investment, but a steep drop. The sharpest
rise of capital investment (1975-1979) took place when corporate
taxes were slightly higher than they had been the preceding five
The human consequences of Reagan's budget cuts went deep.
For instance, Social Security disability benefits were terminated
for 350,000 people. A man injured in an oil field accident was
forced to go back to work, the federal government overruling both
the company doctor and a state supervisor who testified that he
was too disabled to work. The man died, and federal officials
said, "We have a P.R. problem." A war hero of Vietnam,
Roy Benavidez, who had been presented with the Congressional Medal
of Honor by Reagan, was told by Social Security officials that
the shrapnel pieces in his heart, arms, and leg did not prevent
him from working. Appearing before a Congressional committee,
he denounced Reagan.
Unemployment grew in the Reagan years. In the year 1982, 30
million people were unemployed all or part of the year. One result
was that over 16 million Americans lost medical insurance, which
was often tied to holding a job. In Michigan, where the unemployment
rate was the highest in the country, the infant death rate began
to rise in 1981.
New requirements eliminated free school lunches for more than
one million poor children, who depended on the meal for as much
as half of their daily nutrition. Millions of children entered
the ranks of the officially declared "poor" and soon
a quarter of the nation's children-twelve million-were living
in poverty. In parts of Detroit, infants were dying at the rate
of Bangladesh children, and the New York Times commented: "Given
what's happening to the hungry in America, this Administration
has cause only for shame."
Welfare became an object of attack: aid to single mothers
with children through the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent
Children) pro gram, food stamps, health care for the poor through
Medicaid. For most people on welfare (the benefits differed from
state to state) this meant $500 to $700 a month in aid, leaving
them well below the poverty level of about $900 a month. Black
children were four times as likely as white children to grow up
on welfare. Early in the Reagan administration, responding to
the argument that government aid was not needed, that private
enterprise would take care of poverty, a mother wrote to her local
"I am on Aid to Families with Dependent Children, and
both my children are in school.... I have graduated from college
with distinction, 128th in a class of over 1000, with a B.A. in
English and sociology. I have experience in library work, child
care, social work and counseling.
I have been to the CETA office. They have nothing for me....
I also go every week to the library to scour the newspaper Help
Wanted ads. I have kept a copy of every cover letter that I have
sent out with my resume; the stack is inches thick. I have applied
for jobs paying as little as $8000 a year. I work part-time in
a library for $3.50 an hour; welfare reduces my allotment to compensate....
It appears we have employment offices that can't employ, governments
that can't govern and an economic system that can't produce jobs
for people ready to work....
Last week I sold my bed to pay for the insurance on my car,
which, in the absence of mass transportation, I need to go job
hunting. I sleep on a piece of rubber foam somebody gave me. So
this is the great American dream my parents came to this country
for: Work hard, get a good education, follow the rules, and you
will be rich. I don't want to be rich. I just want to be able
to feed my children and live with some semblance of dignity..."
The Reagan administration, with the help of Democrats in Congress,
lowered the tax rate on the very rich to 50 percent and in 1986
a coalition of Republicans and Democrats sponsored another "tax
reform" bill that lowered the top rate to 28 percent. Barlett
and Steele noted that a school teacher, a factory worker, and
a billionaire could all pay 28 percent. The idea of a "progressive"
income in which the rich paid at higher rates than everyone else
was now almost dead.
As a result of all the tax bills from 1978 to 1990, the net
worth of the "Forbes 400," chosen as the richest in
the country by Forbes Magazine (advertising itself as "capitalist
tool"), was tripled. About $70 billion a year was lost in
government revenue, so that in those thirteen years the wealthiest
1 percent of the country gained a trillion dollars.
As William Greider pointed out, in his remarkable book Who
Will Tell The People? The Betrayal of American Democracy:
For those who blame Republicans for what has happened and
believe that equitable taxation will be restored if only the Democrats
can win back the White House, there is this disquieting fact:
The turning point on tax politics, when the monied elites first
began to win big, occurred in 1978 with the Democratic party fully
in power and well before Ronald Reagan came to Washington. Democratic
majorities have supported this great shift in tax burden every
step of the way.
Not only did the income tax become less progressive during
the last decades of the century, but the Social Security tax became
more regressive. That is, more and more was deducted from the
salary checks of the poor and middle classes, but when salaries
reached $42,000 no more was deducted, By the early 1990s, a middle-income
family earning $37,800 a year paid 7.65 percent of its income
in Social Security taxes. A family earning ten times as much,
$378,000 paid 1.46 percent of its income in Social Security taxes.
The result of these higher payroll taxes was that three-fourths
of all wage earners paid more each year through the Social Security
tax than through the income tax. Embarrassingly for the Democratic
Party, which was supposed to be the party of the working class,
those higher payroll taxes had been put in motion under the administration
of Jimmy Carter.
By the end of the Reagan years, the gap between rich and poor
in United States had grown dramatically. Where in 1980, the chief
executive officers (CEOs) of corporations made forty times as
much in salary as the average factory worker, by 1989 they were
making ninety-three times as much. In the dozen years from 1977
to 1989, the before-tax income of the richest I percent rose 77
percent; meanwhile, for the poorest two fifths of the population,
there was no gain at all, indeed a small decline.
And because of favorable changes for the rich in the tax structure,
the richest I percent, in the decade ending in 1990, saw their
after-tax income increase 87 percent. In the same period, the
after-tax income of the lower four-fifths of the population either
went down 5 percent (at the poorest level) or went up no more
than 8.6 percent.
While everybody at the lower levels was doing worse, there
were especially heavy losses for blacks, Hispanics, women, and
the young The general impoverishment of the lowest-income groups
that took place in the Reagan-Bush years hit black families hardest,
with their lack of resources to start with and with racial discrimination
facing them in jobs. The victories of the civil rights movement
had opened up spaces for some African-Americans, but left others
All of the huge military budgets of the post-World War II
period, from Truman to Reagan and Bush, were approved overwhelmingly
by both Democrats and Republicans.
The spending of trillions of dollars to build up nuclear and non-nuclear
forces was justified by fears that the Soviet Union, also building
up its military forces, would invade Western Europe. But George
Kennan, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union and one of the
theoreticians of the cold war, said this fear had no basis in
reality. And Harry Rositzke, who worked for the CIA for twenty-five
years and was at one time CIA director of espionage operations
against the Soviet Union, wrote in the 1 980s: "In all of
my years in government and since I have never seen an intelligence
estimate that shows how it would be profitable to Soviet interests
to invade Western Europe or to attack the United States."
However, the creation of such a fear in the public mind was
useful in arguing for the building of frightful and superfluous
weapons. For instance, the Trident submarine, which was capable
of firing hundreds of nuclear warheads, cost $1.5 billion. It
was totally useless except in a nuclear war, in which case it
would only add several hundred warheads to the tens of thousands
already available. That $1.5 billion was enough to finance a five-year
program of child immunization around the world against deadly
diseases, and prevent five million deaths (Ruth Sivard, World
Military and Social Expenditures 1987-1988).
In the mid-1980s, an analyst with the Rand Corporation, which
did research for the Defense Department, told an interviewer in
an unusually candid statement, that the enormous number of weapons
was unnecessary from a military point of view, but were useful
to convey a certain image at home and abroad:
If you had a strong president, a strong secretary of defense
they could temporarily go to Congress and say, "We're only
going to build what we need.... And if the Russians build twice
as many, tough." But it would be unstable politically....
And it is therefore better for our own domestic stability as well
as international perceptions to insist that we remain good competitors
even though the objective significance of the competition is .
. . dubious.
In 1984, the CIA admitted that it had exaggerated Soviet military
expenditures, that since 1975 it had claimed Soviet military spending
was growing by 4 to 5 percent each year when the actual figure
was 2 percent. Thus, by misinformation, even deception, the result
was to inflate military expenditures.
When the Soviet Union began to disintegrate in 1989, and there
was no longer the familiar "Soviet threat," the military
budget was reduced somewhat, but still remained huge, with support
from both Democrats and Republicans. In 1992, the head of the
House Armed Services Committee, Les Aspin, a Democrat, proposed,
in view of the new international situation, that the military
budget be cut by 2%, from $281 billion to 275 billion.
That same year, as Democrats and Republicans both supported
minor cuts in the military budget, a public opinion survey done
for the National Press Club showed that 59 percent of American
voters wanted a 50 percent cut in defense spending over the next
It seemed that both parties had failed in persuading the citizenry
that the military budget should continue at its high level. But
they continued to ignore the public they were supposed to represent.
In the summer of 1992, Congressional Democrats and Republicans
joined to vote against a transfer of funds from the military budget
to human needs, and voted to spend $120 billion dollars to "defend"
Europe, which everyone acknowledged was no longer in danger-if
it ever had been-from Soviet attack.
Democrats and Republicans had long been joined in a "bipartisan
foreign policy," but in the Reagan-Bush years the United
States government showed a special aggressiveness in the use of
military force abroad. This was done either directly in invasions,
or through both overt and covert support of right-wing tyrannies
that cooperated with the United States.
Reagan came into office just after a revolution had taken
place in Nicaragua, in which a popular Sandinista movement (named
after the 1920s revolutionary hero Augusto Sandino) overthrew
the corrupt Somoza dynasty (long supported by the United States).
The Sandinistas, a coalition of Marxists, left-wing priests, and
assorted nationalists, set about to give more land to the peasants
and to spread education and health care among the poor.
The Reagan administration, seeing in this a "Communist"
threat, but even more important, a challenge to the long U.S.
control over governments in Central America, began immediately
to work to overthrow the Sandinista government. It waged a secret
war by having the CIA organize a counterrevolutionary force (the
"contras"), many of whose leaders were former leaders
of the hated National Guard under Somoza.
The contras seemed to have no popular support inside Nicaragua
and so were based next door in Honduras, a very poor country dominated
by the United States. From Honduras they moved across the border,
raiding farms and villages, killing men, women and children, committing
atrocities. A former colonel with the contras, Edgar Chamorro,
testified before the World Court:
We were told that the only way to defeat the Sandinistas was
to use the tactics the agency [the CIA] attributed to Communist
insurgencies elsewhere: kill, kidnap, rob, and torture.... Many
civilians were killed in cold blood. Many others were tortured,
mutilated, raped, robbed, or otherwise abused.... When I agreed
to join ... I had hoped that it would be an organization of Nicaraguans....
[It] turned out to be an instrument of the U.S. government...
There was a reason for the secrecy of the U.S. actions in
Nicaragua; public opinion surveys showed that the American public
was opposed to military involvement there. In 1984, the C.I.A.,
using Latin American agents to conceal its involvement, put mines
in the harbors of Nicaragua to blow up ships. When information
leaked out, Secretary of Defense Weinberger told ABC news: "The
United States is not mining the harbors of Nicaragua."
Later that year Congress, responding perhaps to public opinion
and the memory of Vietnam, made it illegal for the United States
to support "directly or indirectly, military or paramilitary
operations in Nicaragua." The Reagan administration decided
to ignore this law and to find ways to fund the contras secretly,
looking for "third-party support." Reagan him self solicited
funds from Saudi Arabia, at least $32 million. The friendly dictatorship
in Guatemala was used to get arms surreptitiously to the contras.
Israel, dependent on U.S. aid and always dependable for support,
was also used.
In 1986, a story appearing in a Beirut magazine created a
sensation: that weapons had been sold by the United States to
Iran (supposedly an enemy), that in return Iran had promised to
release hostages being held by extremist Moslems in Lebanon, and
that profits from the sale were being given to the contras to
When asked about this at a press conference in November 1986,
President Reagan told four lies: that the shipment to Iran consisted
of a few token antitank missiles (in fact, 2000), that the United
States didn't condone shipments by third parties, that weapons
had not been traded for hostages, and that the purpose of the
operation was to promote a dialogue with Iranian moderates. In
reality, the purpose was a double one: to free hostages and get
credit for that, and to help the contras.
The previous month, when a transport plane that had carried
arms to the contras was downed by Nicaraguan gunfire and the American
pilot captured, the lies had multiplied. Assistant Secretary of
State Elliot Abrams lied. Secretary of State Shultz lied ("no
connection with the U.S. government at all"). Evidence mounted
that the captured pilot was working for the CIA.
The whole Iran-contra affair became a perfect example of the
double line of defense of the American Establishment. The first
defense is to deny the truth. If exposed, the second defense is
to investigate, but not too much; the press will publicize, but
they will not get to the heart of the matter.
The Iran-contra affair was only one of the many instances
in which the government of the United States violated its own
laws in pursuit of some desired goal in foreign policy.
Toward the end of the Vietnam war, in 1973, Congress, seeking
to limit the presidential power that had been used so ruthlessly
in Indochina, passed the War Powers Act, which said,
"The President, in every possible instance, shall consult
with Congress before introducing United States Armed Forces into
hostilities or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities
is clearly indicated by the circumstances."
Almost immediately, President Gerald Ford violated the act
when he ordered the invasion of a Cambodian island and the bombing
of a Cambodian town in retaliation for the temporary detention
of American merchant seamen on the ship Mayaguez. He did not consult
Congress before he gave the attack orders.
In the fall of 1982, President Reagan sent American marines
into a dangerous situation in Lebanon, where a civil war was raging,
again ignoring the requirements of the War Powers Act. The following
year, over two hundred of those marines were killed when a bomb
was exploded in their barracks by terrorists.
Shortly after that, in October 1983 (with some analysts concluding
this was done to take attention away from the Lebanon disaster),
Reagan sent U.S. forces to invade the tiny Caribbean island of
Grenada. Again, Congress was notified, but not consulted. The
reasons given to the American people for this invasion (officially
called Operation Urgent Fury) were that a recent coup that had
taken place in Grenada put American citizens (students at a medical
school on the island) in danger; and that the United States had
received an urgent request from the Organization of Eastern Caribbean
States to intervene.
An unusually pointed article in the New York Times on October
29, 1983, by correspondent Bernard Gwertzman demolished those
The formal request that the U.S. and other friendly countries
provide military help was made by the Organization of Eastern
Caribbean States last Sunday at the request of the United States,
which wanted to show proof that it had been requested to act under
terms of that group's treaty. The wording of the formal request,
how ever, was drafted in Washington and conveyed to the Caribbean
leaders by special American emissaries.
Both Cuba and Grenada, when they saw that American ships were
heading for Grenada, sent urgent messages promising that American
students were safe and urging that an invasion not occur.... There
is no indication that the Administration made a determined effort
to evacuate the Americans peacefully.... Officials have acknowledged
that there was no inclination to try to negotiate with the Grenadian
authorities.... "We got there just in time," the President
said.... A major point in the dispute is whether in fact the Americans
on the island were in such danger as to warrant an invasion No
official has produced firm evidence that the Americans were being
mistreated or that they would not be able to leave if they wanted.
The real reason for the invasion, one high American official
told Gwertzman, was that the United States should show (determined
to over come the sense of defeat in Vietnam) that it was a truly
"What good are maneuvers and shows of force, if you never
The connection between U.S. military intervention and the
promotion of capitalist enterprise had always been especially
crass in the Caribbean. As for Grenada, an article in the Wall
Street Journal eight years after the military invasion (October
29, 1991) spoke of "an invasion of banks" and noted
that St. George's, the capital of Grenada, with 7500 people, had
118 offshore banks, one for every 64 residents. "St. George's
has become the Casablanca of the Caribbean, a fast-growing haven
for money laundering, tax evasion and assorted financial fraud...."
After a study of various U.S. military interventions, political
scientist Stephen Shalom (Imperial Alibis) concluded that people
in the invaded countries died "not to save U.S. nationals,
who would have been far safer without U.S. intervention, but so
that Washington might make clear that it ruled the Caribbean and
that it was prepared to engage in a paroxysm of violence to enforce
its will." He continued:
There have been some cases where American citizens were truly
in danger: for example, the four churchwomen who were killed by
government-sponsored death squads in El Salvador in 1980. but
there was no U.S. intervention there, no Marine landings, no protective
bombing raids. Instead Washington backed the death squad regime
with military and economic aid, military training, intelligence
sharing, and diplomatic support.
The historic role of the United States in El Salvador, where
2 percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, was
to make sure governments were in power there that would support
U.S. business interests, no matter how this impoverished the great
majority of people. Popular rebel lions that would threaten these
business arrangements were to be opposed. When a popular uprising
in 1932 threatened the military government, the United States
sent a cruiser and two destroyers to stand by while the government
massacred thirty thousand Salvadorans.
The administration of Jimmy Carter did nothing to reverse
this history. It wanted reform in Latin America, but not revolution
that would threaten U.S. corporate interests. In 1980, Richard
Cooper, a State Department expert on economic affairs, told Congress
that a more equitable distribution of wealth was desirable. "However,
we also have an enormous stake in the continuing smooth functioning
in the economic system.... Major changes in the system can ...
have important implications for our own welfare."
In February 1980 El Salvador Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero
sent a personal letter to President Carter, asking him to stop
military aid to El Salvador. Not long before that, the National
Guard and National Police had opened fire on a crowd of protesters
in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral and killed twenty-four
people. But the Carter administration continued the aid. The following
month Archbishop Romero was assassinated.
There was mounting evidence that the assassination had been
ordered by Roberto D'Aubuisson, a leader of the right wing. But
D'Aubuisson had the protection of Nicolas Carranza, a deputy minister
of defense, who at the time was receiving $90,000 a year from
the CIA. And Elliot Abrams, ironically Assistant Secretary of
State for Human Rights, declared that D'Aubuisson "was not
involved in murder." When Reagan became President, military
aid to the El Salvador government rose steeply. From 1946 to 1979,
total military aid to El Salvador was $16.7 million. In Reagan's
first year in office, the figure rose to $82 million.
Congress was sufficiently embarrassed by the killings in El
Salvador to require that before any more aid was given the President
must certify that progress in human rights was taking place. Reagan
did not take this seriously. On January 28, 1982, there were reports
of a government massacre of peasants in several villages. The
following day, Reagan certified that the Salvadoran government
was making progress in human rights. Three days after certification,
soldiers stormed the homes of poor people in San Salvador, dragged
out twenty people, and killed them.
When, at the end of 1983, Congress passed a law to continue
the requirement of certification, Reagan vetoed it.
The press was especially timid and obsequious during the Reagan
years, as Mark Hertsgaard documents in his book On Bended Knee.
When journalist Raymond Bonner continued to report on the atrocities
in El Salvador, and on the U.S. role, the New York Times removed
him from his assignment. Back in 1981 Bonner had reported on the
massacre of hundreds of civilians in the town of El Mozote, by
a battalion of soldiers trained by the United States. The Reagan
administration scoffed at the account, but in 1992, a team of
forensic anthropologists began unearthing skeletons from the site
of the massacre, most of them children; the following year a UN
commission confirmed the story of the massacre at El Mozote.
The Reagan administration, which did not appear at all offended
by military juntas governing in Latin America (Guatemala, El Salvador,
Chile) if they were "friendly" to the United States,
became very upset when a tyranny was hostile. as was the government
of Muammar Khadafi in Libya. In 1986, when unknown terrorists
bombed a discotheque in West Berlin, killing a U.S. serviceman,
the White House immediately decided to retaliate. Khadafi was
probably responsible for various acts of terrorism over the years,
but there was no real evidence that in this case he was to blame.
Reagan was determined to make a point. Planes were sent over the
capital city of Tripoli with specific instructions to aim at Khadafi's
house. The bombs fell on a crowded city; perhaps a hundred people
were killed, it was estimated by foreign diplomats in Tripoli.
Khadafi was not injured, but an adopted daughter of his was killed.
Professor Stephen Shalom, analyzing this incident, writes
(Imperial Alibis): "If terrorism is defined as politically
motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets,
then one of the most serious incidents of international terrorism
of the year was precisely this U.S. raid on Libya."
It became clearer now, although it had been suspected, that
United States foreign policy was not simply based on the existence
of the Soviet Union, but was motivated by fear of revolution in
various parts of the world. The radical social critic Noam Chomsky
had long maintained that "the appeal to security was largely
fraudulent, the Cold War framework having been employed as a device
to justify the suppression of independent nationalism-whether
in Europe, Japan, or the Third World" (World Orders Old And
The fear of "independent nationalism" was that this
would jeopardize powerful American economic interests. Revolutions
in Nicaragua or Cuba or El Salvador or Chile were threats to United
Fruit, Anaconda Copper, International Telephone and Telegraph,
and others. Thus, foreign interventions presented to the public
as "in the national interest" were really undertaken
for special interests, for which the American people were asked
to sacrifice their sons and their tax dollars. ~: The CIA now
had to prove it was still needed. The New York Times (February
4, 1992) declared that "in a world where the postwar enemy
has ceased to exist, the C.l.A. and its handful of sister agencies,
with their billion-dollar satellites and mountains of classified
documents, must somehow remain relevant in the minds of Americans."
The military budget remained huge. The cold war budget of
$300 billion was reduced by 7 percent to $280 billion. The Chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colin Powell, said: "I want
to scare the hell out of the rest of the world. I don't say that
in a bellicose way."
As if to prove that the gigantic military establishment was still
necessary, the Bush administration, in its four-year term, launched
two wars: a "small" one against Panama and a massive
one against Iraq.
Although in the course of the war Saddam Hussein had been
depicted by U.S. officials and the press as another Hitler, the
war ended short of a march into Baghdad, leaving Hussein in power.
It seemed that the United States had wanted to weaken him, but
not to eliminate him, in order to keep him as a balance against
Iran. In the years before the Gulf War, the United States had
sold arms to both Iran and Iraq, at different times favoring one
or the other as part of the traditional "balance of power"
Therefore, as the war ended, the United States did not support
Iraqi dissidents who wanted to overthrow the regime of Saddam
Hussein. A New York Times dispatch from Washington, datelined
March 26, 1991, reported: "President Bush has decided to
let President Saddam Hussein put down rebellions in his country
without American intervention rather than risk the splintering
of Iraq, according to official statements and private briefings
This left the Kurdish minority, which was rebelling against
Saddam Hussein, helpless. And anti-Hussein elements among the
Iraqi majority were also left hanging. The Washington Post reported
(May 3, 1991): "Major defections from the Iraqi military
were in the offing in March at the height of the Kurdish rebellion,
but never materialized because the officers concluded the U.S.
would not back the uprising...."
The man who had been Jimmy Carter's National Security Adviser,
Zbigniew Brzezinski, a month after the end of the Gulf War, gave
a cold assessment of the pluses and minuses of the event. "The
benefits are undeniably impressive. First, a blatant act of aggression
was rebuffed and punished.... Second, U.S military power is henceforth
likely to be taken more seriously.... Third, the Middle East and
Persian Gulf region is now clearly an American sphere of preponderance."
Brzezinski however, was concerned about "some negative
consequences." One of them was that "the very intensity
of the air assault on Iraq gives rise to concern that the conduct
of the war may come to be seen as evidence that Americans view
Arab lives as worthless.... And that raises the moral question
of the proportionality of response."
His point about Arab lives being seen as "worthless"
was underlined by the fact that the war provoked an ugly wave
of anti-Arab racism in the United States, with Arab-Americans
insulted or beaten or threatened with death. There were bumper
stickers that said "I don't brake for Iraqis." An Arab-American
businessman was beaten in Toledo, Ohio.
Brzezinski's measured assessment of the Gulf War could be
taken as close to representing the view of the Democratic Party.
It went along with the Bush administration. It was pleased with
the results. It had some misgivings about civilian casualties.
But it did not constitute an opposition. President George Bush
was satisfied. As the war ended, he declared on a radio broadcast:
"The specter of Vietnam has been buried forever in the desert
sands of the Arabian peninsula."
The Establishment press very much agreed. The two leading
news magazines, Time and Newsweek, had special editions hailing
the victory J in the war, noting there had been only a few hundred
American casualties, without any mention of Iraqi casualties.
A New York Times editorial (March 30, 1991) said: "America's
victory in the Persian Gulf war . . . provided special vindication
for the U.S. Army, which brilliantly exploited its firepower and
mobility and in the process erased memories of its grievous difficulties
History of the United States