Cold War: Fact and Fancy
The Home Front
The Global System
excerpted from the book
by Noam Chomsky
Hill and Wang, 1992, paper
... worship of the state has become a secular religion for which
the intellectuals serve as priesthood. The more primitive sectors
of Western culture go further, fostering forms of idolatry in
which such sacred symbols as the flag become an object of forced
veneration, and the state is called upon to punish any insult
to them and to compel children to pledge their devotion daily,
while God and State are almost indissolubly linked in public ceremony
and discourse ... such crude fanaticism rises to such an extreme
in the United States, as an antidote to the unique freedom from
state coercion that has been achieved by popular struggle.
... the striking correlation between US aid and human rights abuses
that has been noted in several studies. The reason is not that
US policymakers like torture. Rather, it is an irrelevance. What
matters is to bar independent development and the wrong priorities.
For this purpose it is often necessary (regrettably) to murder
priests, torture union leaders, "disappear" peasants,
and otherwise intimidate the general population. Governments with
the right priorities will therefore be led to adopt such measures.
Since the right priorities are associated with US aid, we find
the secondary correlation between US aid and human rights violations.
And since the conclusions are doctrinally unappealing, they pass
A second consequence is the general US
opposition to social reform, unless it can be carried out in conformity
to overriding US interests. While this is occasionally possible
in the Third World, such circumstances are rare, and even where
social reform could be pursued along with subordination to US
interests (Costa Rica is a noteworthy example), Washington reacted
with considerable ambivalence. A third consequence is the extreme
elite hostility to democracy. The reason is plain: a functioning
democracy will be responsive to appeals from the masses of the
population, and likely to succumb to excessive nationalism.
A leading authority on Native Americans, Francis Jennings, once
observed: "In history, the man in the ruffled shirt and gold-laced
waistcoat somehow levitates above the blood he has ordered to
be spilled by dirty-handed underlings." We will not be able
to face the problems that lie ahead realistically unless we come
to grips with these striking and pervasive features of our moral
and intellectual culture.
Central America has been a foreign policy
obsession throughout the eighties, and the effects are evident.
Before this grim and shameful decade, Central America had been
one of the most miserable corners of the world. That its fate
might teach us some lessons about the great power that has long
dominated the region and repeatedly intervened in its affairs
is a thought foreign to the minds of the important people, and
it is understood that they are not to be troubled by such discordant
notes. Thus in the New York Times Magazine, James LeMoyne ruminates
on the deep-seated problems of Central America, recalling the
role of Cuba, the Soviet Union, North Korea, the PLO, Vietnam,
and other disruptive foreign forces. One actor is missing, apart
from the phrase that in El Salvador, "the United States bolstered
the Salvadoran Army, insisted on elections and called for some
reforms." In another Times Magazine story, Tad Szulc gives
a similar treatment to the Caribbean, observing that "the
roots of the Caribbean problems are not entirely Cuban";
the "Soviet offensive" is also to blame, along with
the consequences of "colonial greed and mismanagement"
by European powers. The US is charged only with "indifference"
to the brewing problems.
In a later Times Magazine story, Stephen
Kinzer concedes that in Guatemala-which he had offered as a model
for the errant Sandinistas-the progress of "democracy"
leaves something to be desired. To be sure, there are some encouraging
signs; thus murders by the security forces we bolster have declined
to perhaps two a day: definitely an improvement over the period
when Reagan and his cohorts were enthusiastically hailing Lucas
Garcia and Rios Montt, whom Kinzer now describes as "two
of the most ruthless military presidents" (in fact, mass
murderers). But Kinzer, who knows the role of the US in Guatemala
well, also knows the rules of decorum: in his version, Guatemala's
democratic interlude of 1944-54 ended for some unstated reason,
and the subsequent US role, until today, receives no mention whatsoever.
We find again only an oblique reference to general indifference:
"rich countries-notably the United States-welcomed, and in
some cases helped to force the transitions to civilian rule in
Latin America," but without sufficient commitment or recognition
of "longer-term challenges." If in Guatemala "more
people are unemployed, and more people now eat out of garbage
dumps, than ever in memory," if the army maintains its vicious
and murderous regime, if the military and super-rich who rule
behind a thin civilian facade persist in what the Catholic bishops
call the "inhuman and merciless" abuse of the impoverished
peasants, then it must be a reflection of their inherent worthlessness.
Surely no respectable person could imagine that the United States
might share some responsibility for instituting and maintaining
this charnel house.
The practice is virtually a literary convention.
Reporting the Bosch-Balaguer 1990 election campaign in the Dominican
Republic, Howard French tells us that Juan Bosch, "a lifelong
Marxist," "was removed from office in a military coup
shortly after winning the country's first free elections, in 1963,"
and that his rival, Joaquin Balaguer, defeated Bosch in the 1966
presidential election. Omitted are a few pertinent facts, among
them: that there had been no prior free elections because of repeated
US interventions, including long support for the murderer and
torturer Trujillo until he began to interfere with US interests;
that the "lifelong Marxist" advocated policies similar
to those of the Kennedy Democrats; that the US was instrumental
in undermining him and quickly backed the new military regime;
that when the populace arose to restore constitutional rule in
1965, the US sent 23,000 troops on utterly fraudulent pretexts
to avert the threat of democracy, establishing the standard regime
of death squads, torture, repression, slave labor conditions,
increase in poverty and malnutrition, vast emigration, and wonderful
opportunities for its own investors, and tolerating the "free
election" of 1966 only when the playing field had been leveled
by ample terror.
Even such major atrocities as the slaughter
in Cambodia that the US conducted and presided over in the early
1970s have faded quietly away. As a matter of routine, when the
New York Times reviews the horror story of Cambodia, it begins
in April 1975, under the heading "The Cambodia Ordeal: A
Country Bleeds for 15 Years." No one bled, apparently, from
the time of the first sustained US bombings in March 1969 through
April 1975, when 600,000 people were killed, according to CIA
The moral cowardice would be stunning,
if it were not such a routine feature of intellectual life.
Returning to Central America, a decade
ago there were glimmerings of hope for constructive change. In
Guatemala, peasants and workers were organizing to challenge one
of the most primitive oligarchies on the face of the earth. In
El Salvador, Church-based self-help groups, unions, peasant associations
and other popular organizations were offering a way for the general
population to escape grinding poverty and repression and to begin
to take some control of their lives and fate. In Nicaragua, the
tyranny that had served as the base for US power in the region
for decades was overthrown in 1979, leaving the country in ruins,
littered with 40,000 corpses, the treasury robbed, the economy
devastated. But the National Guard was driven out and new popular
forces were mobilized. Here too there was hope for a better future,
and it was realized to a surprising degree, despite extreme adversity,
in the early years.
The Reagan Administration and its liberal
Democrat and media accomplices can take credit for having reduced
these hopes to ashes. That is a rare accomplishment, for which
history will assign them their proper place, if there is ever
an honest accounting.
With regard to the political system, the Reagan era represents
a significant advance in capitalist democracy. For eight years,
the US government functioned virtually without a chief executive.
That is an important fact. It is quite unfair to assign to Ronald
Reagan, the person, much responsibility for the policies enacted
in his name. Despite the efforts of the educated classes to invest
the proceedings with the required dignity, it was hardly a secret
that Reagan had only the vaguest conception of the policies of
his Administration and, if not properly programmed by his staff,
regularly produced statements that would have been an embarrassment,
were anyone to have taken them seriously. The question that dominated
the Iran-Contra hearings-did Reagan know, or remember, what the
policy of his Administration had been? - was hardly a serious
one. The pretense to the contrary was simply part of the cover-up
operation; and the lack of public interest over revelations that
Reagan was engaged in illegal aid to the Contras during a period
when-he later informed Congress-he knew nothing about it, betrays
a certain realism.
Reagan's duty was to smile, to read from
the teleprompter in a pleasant voice, tell a few jokes, and keep
the audience properly bemused. His only qualification for the
presidency was that he knew how to read the lines written for
him by the rich folk, who pay well for the service. Reagan had
been doing that for years. He seemed to perform to the satisfaction
of the paymasters, and to enjoy the experience. By all accounts,
he spent many pleasant days enjoying the pomp and trappings of
power ... It is not really his business if the bosses left mounds
of mutilated corpses in death squad dumping grounds in El Salvador
or hundreds of thousands of homeless in the streets. One does
not blame an actor for the content of the words that come from
his mouth. When we speak of the policies of the Reagan Administration,
then, we are not referring to the figure set up to front for them
by an Administration whose major strength was in public relations.
The political and social history of Western democracies records
all sorts of efforts to ensure that the formal mechanisms are
little more than wheels spinning idly. The goal is to eliminate
public meddling in policy formation. That has been largely achieved
in the United States, where there is little in the way of political
organizations, functioning unions, media independent of the corporate
oligopoly, or other popular structures that might offer people
means to gain information, clarify and develop their ideas, put
them forth in the political arena, and work to realize them. As
long as each individual is facing the television tube alone, formal
freedom poses no threat to privilege.
One major step towards barring the annoying
public from serious affairs is to reduce elections to the choice
of symbolic figures, like the flag, or the Queen of England-who,
after all, opens Parliament by reading the government's political
program, though no one asks whether she believes it, or even understands
it. If elections become a matter of selecting the Queen for the
next four years, then we will have come a long way towards resolving
the tension inherent in a free society in which power over investment
and other crucial decisions-hence the political and ideological
systems ~s well-is highly concentrated in private hands.
... while the substance of democracy was successfully reduced
during the Reagan era, still the public remained substantially
out of control, raising serious problems for the exercise of power.
The Reagan Administration faced these
problems with a dual strategy. First, it developed the most elaborate
Agitprop apparatus in American history its Office of Public Diplomacy,
one major goal being to "demonize the Sandinistas" and
organize support for the terror states of Central America. This
mobilization of state power to control the public mind was illegal,
as a congressional review irrelevantly observed, but entirely
in keeping with the advocacy of a powerful and intrusive state
that is a fundamental doctrine of what is called "conservatism."
The second device was to turn to clandestine operations, at an
unprecedented level. The scale of such operations is a good measure
of popular dissidence.
Clandestine operations are typically a
secret only from the general population at home, not even from
the media and Congress, pretense aside. For example, as the Reagan
Administration turned to the task of dismantling J the Central
American peace accords immediately after they were signed in August
1987, the media and Congress chose not to know that illegal supply
flights to the Contras almost tripled from the already phenomenal
level of one a day as Washington sought desperately to keep its
proxy forces in the field in violation of the accords, so as to
maximize violence and disruption, and to bring the people of Nicaragua
to understand that removal of the Sandinistas was a prerequisite
to any hope for decent survival.
It was never seriously in doubt that congressional liberals and
media doves would support measures of economic strangulation and
low-level terror guided by these principles until Nicaragua achieved
"democracy"-that is, until political power passed to
business and land-owning elites linked to the United States, who
are "democrats" for this reason alone, no further questions
asked. They can also be expected to lend at least tacit support
to further Washington efforts to undermine and subvert any government
that fails to place the security forces under effective US control
or to meet roper standards of subservience to domestic and foreign
A government turns to clandestine terror
and subversion, relatively inefficient modes of coercion, when
it is driven underground by its domestic enemy: the population
The Reagan era largely extended the political program of a broad
elite consensus. There was a general commitment in the 1970s to
restore corporate profitability and impose some discipline on
an increasingly turbulent world In the US variety of state capitalism,
that means recourse to military Keynesian devices at home, now
adapted to the decline in US power and therefore with a right-wing
rather than liberal slant, the "great society" programs
being incompatible with the prior claims of the important people.
Abroad, the counterpart is large-scale subversion and international
terrorism (whatever term is chosen to disguise the reality). The
natural domestic policies were transfer of resources to the rich,
partial dismantling of the limited welfare system, an attack on
unions and real wages, and expansion of the public subsidy for
high-technology industry through the Pentagon system, which has
long been the engine for economic growth and preserving the technological
A congressional study released in March 1989 shows that the average
family income of the poorest fifth of the population declined
by over 6 percent from 1979 through 1987, meanwhile rising by
over 11 percent for the richest fifth; these statistics are corrected
for inflation and include welfare benefits. For the poorest fifth,
personal income declined by 9.8 percent while rising by 15.6 percent
for the richest fifth of the population. One reason is that "more
jobs now pay poverty level wages or below," the chief economist
of the House Ways and Means Committee commented. The National
Association of Children's Hospitals and Related Institutions released
a study showing that health care for children in the US had declined
to its lowest point in ten years, with appalling statistics. For
example, the proportion of low birth weights (which contribute
to the unusually high infant mortality rates) is 1.7 times as
high as in Western Europe; for Black children the proportion is
The consequences for one wealthy city
are outlined by columnist Derrick Jackson of the Boston Globe.
He notes that UNICEF ranks the US second to Switzerland in per
capita GNP and twenty-second in infant mortality, with a worse
record than Ireland or Spain-a decline from its 1960 position
of tenth. For African-Americans, the rate is almost double the
US average. In the Roxbury section of Boston, populated largely
by ethnic minorities, the rate is almost triple the US average,
which "would rank Roxbury, supposedly part of the world's
second-richest nation, 42nd in infant mortality." Though
Boston is one of the world's great medical centers, Roxbury's
infant mortality rate is worse than that of Greece, Portugal,
the Soviet Union and all of Eastern Europe, and much of the Third
World. A Harvard medical school expert on infant mortality, Paul
Wise, commented: "The only place where you see social disparities
like you see in the US infant-mortality rate is South Africa,"
the only other industrialized nation without guaranteed health
care. Jackson continues:
Long before pregnancy, women are outside
the loop on nutrition and health education.... While the leaders
in Washington are puffing their chests this week over the tearing
down of walls in Europe, vast and growing numbers of African Americans,
Latinos, Cambodians, Haitians and Vietnamese are blocked from
hospitals and clinics by lack of money, health insurance or language.
Facts such as these, which can be duplicated
throughout the country, provide a most remarkable commentary on
the variety of state capitalism practiced in what should be by
far the richest country in the world, with incomparable advantages,
frittered away during the Reagan years even beyond the disgraceful
The spirit of these years is captured
by Tom Wolfe, who depicts them as "one of the great golden
moments that humanity has ever experienced." So they doubtless
were for the important people for whom he speaks.
Reagan's greatest accomplishment is supposed to be that he made
us "feel good about ourselves," restoring the faith
in authority, which had sadly flagged. As the editors of the Wall
Street Journal put it, "he restored the efficiency and morale
of the armed services [and] demonstrated the will to use force
in Grenada and Libya"-two military fiascos, but no matter.
We were able to kill a sufficient number of people and are once
again "standing tall," towering over the upstarts who
had sought to overcome us but succumbed to the cool courage and
"the strength of the Cowboy"- the words of British journalist
Paul Johnson, while swooning over the manliness of his idol Ronald
Reagan, who had in reality shown the courage of a Mafia don who
sends a goon squad to break the bones of children in a kindergarten.
With these achievements, Reagan overcame our "sickly inhibitions
against the use of military force," Norman Podhoretz intoned.
Sponsorship of state-guided international terrorism and economic
management designed for short-term gain for the wealthy are the
most notable features of the Reagan era, but there are others.
In this brief review, I have not even mentioned what may be the
most dangerous legacy of Reagan, Thatcher, and the rest. Coming
generations are going to face problems that are quite different
in scale and complexity from any that have arisen before. The
possible destruction of a physical environment that can sustain
human life in anything Like its present mode is one of the most
dramatic of these, along with the proliferating threat of weapons
of mass destruction and continuing conflicts among adversaries
with increasing capacity to cause terrible damage. That these
problems have a solution is not so obvious. That exaltation of
greed to the highest human value is not the answer is quite obvious.
Tales about private vices yielding public benefits could be tolerated
in a world Living less close to the margin, but surely can no
longer. By celebrating the ugliest elements of human nature and
social life, the Reaganites have set back, by some uncertain measure,
the prospects for coming to terms with grave dilemmas and possible
Coming generations will pay the costs.
That is the legacy of these years even if we permit ourselves
not to see the misery and torture of our victims throughout much
of the world.
Short of a real counterrevolution, reversing many social and political
gains of the past and imposing novel repressive patterns, the
United States cannot adopt these forms of authoritarian state-corporate
Faced with such problems, the traditional
method of any state is to inspire fear. Dean Acheson warned early
on that it would be necessary "to bludgeon the mass mind
of 'top government"' with the Communist threat in order to
gain approval for the planned programs of rearmament and intervention.
The Korean War, shortly after, provided "an excellent opportunity
.. . to disrupt the Soviet peace offensive, which . . . is assuming
serious proportions and having a certain effect on public opinion,"
he explained further. In secret discussion of Truman's proposal
for intervention in Greece and Turkey (the Truman Doctrine), Senator
Walter George observed that Truman had "put this nation squarely
on the line against certain ideologies," a stance that would
not be easy to sell to the public. Senator Arthur Vandenberg added
that "unless we dramatize this thing in every possible way,"
the public would never understand. It would be necessary to "scare
hell out of the American people," he advised. The public
was fed tales much like those used to bludgeon the mass mind of
recalcitrant officials, in a style that was "clearer than
truth," as Dean Acheson later said approvingly. As a new
crusade was being launched in 1981, Samuel Huntington explained:
"You may have to sell [intervention or other military action]
in such a way as to create the misimpression that it is the Soviet
Union that you are fighting. That is what the United States has
done ever since the Truman Doctrine." An important insight
into the Cold War system, which applies to the second-ranked superpower
as well. By the same logic, it follows that "Gorbachev's
public relations can be as much a threat to American interests
in Europe as were Brezhnev's tanks," Huntington warned eight
One persistent problem is that the enemy
is hard to take seriously. It takes some talent to portray Greece,
Guatemala, Laos, Nicaragua, or Grenada as a threat to our survival.
This problem has typically been overcome by designating the intended
victim as an agent of the Soviet Union, so that we attack in self-defense.
The Soviet threat itself has also required some labors, ever since
the first major call for postwar rearmament. and "rollback"
and break-up of the Soviet Union, in NSC 68.
The basic problems are institutional,
and will not fade away.
In the early post-World War II period, US planners hoped to organize
most, if not all, of the world in accord with the perceived needs
of the United States economy. With 50 percent of the world's wealth
and a position of power and security without historical parallel,
the "real task" for the US was "to maintain this
position of disparity," by force if necessary, State Department
Policy Planning chief George Kennan explained.
Long before the Cold War, H.L. Mencken commented: "The whole
aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and
hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless
series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." The Soviet
hobgoblin has served admirably for the domestic and international
designs of US elites, who are far from overjoyed to see it fade
The US alone boycotted a UN disarmament conference in New York
in 1987 to consider how reduction of armaments might release funds
for economic development, particularly in the Third World.