The Root Doctrine and Some Notorious Instances
of U.S. Support for Dictators

excerpted from the book

State Terrorism and the United States

From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terrorism

by Frederick H. Gareau

Clarity Press, 2004, paper


The primary force driving American policy has been and remains ... the protection of U.S. economic interests, irrespective of the undemocratic nature or human rights record of the groups and governments with whom it has allied.



Schmitz makes it clear in his book Thank God They're on Our Side: the United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships 192119651 that Washington's support for rightwing dictators during the Cold War was a continuation, an elongation and an intensification of a policy developed during the early part of the century. That policy placed the fear of communism, socialism, and the spread of disorder as the centerpiece of its formulation. The Cold War demanded new and expanded tactics, approaches, and procedures, "but the ideological basis and fundamental assumptions remained remarkably consistent. 112 By casting the hegemon in the role of the supporter of rightwing dictators, Schmitz contradicts the traditional "triumphalist" interpretation of the way Washington waged and won the Cold War: that victory came to the United States because its governments followed a policy of containment as well as a steadfast adherence to the promotion of democracy and liberalism.

(Concentrating on the period since 1921, Schmitz argues that since that date \ authoritarian regimes that have promised stability, anti-communism, and . investment and trade opportunities for American business have received \ American support. While critics argue that this behavior violates the stated ideals of the country, the leadership often embraces it because, so it reasons, business is business. Or, stated differently, politics is power politics; morals are secondary, if they apply at all.

The overarching rationale for accepting and sustaining rightwing dictatorships was written in 1922 by Elihu Root. A Nobel prize winner and senior policy spokesman for the Republican Party, he described the "right of selfprotection" in a presidential address to an audience at the American Society of International Law. The former U.S. secretary of state proclaimed the sovereign right of a state to take early action to "prevent a condition of affairs in which it will be too late to protect itself."

Root justified support for right-wing dictatorships with the argument that the populace in the victim country was incapable of democratic rule. They hadn't learned the knack of it. But no matter: the Italians had undertaken to govern themselves without having learned the knack of it, Root averred, singling Mussolini out for praise as the man of the hour, under whose dictatorship Italy had experienced a revival of prosperity, contentment, and happiness.

While this might be projected as the Republican reaction to Wilsonian idealism, Wilsonian idealism remains open to question, at least in Wilson's dealings with Latin America, where he invaded no less than four countries in the region-Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic-at the behest of American interests. In fact, it seems reasonable to presume that the Root Doctrine has been operational throughout United States history, both long before its articulation and to this very day. Prior to the Spanish American War, the United States carried out 103 interventions; between the end of that war and the Great Depression, it sent troops to Latin America 32 times. In any case, the Root Doctrine would soon become bipartisan, and it was touted as being more cost-effective than invasions.

The Good Neighbor policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt was entirely compatible with the Root doctrine. It simply required that Washington substitute support of local dictators for its previous policy of invasions and occupations, the , latter being the ultimate forms of interference forbidden by the new policy. Keylor ascribes the adoption of this new policy to Washington's embarrassment at the obvious similarity between its previous invasions and occupations of Latin America and the then current aggression of Japan in China. The parallel was too obvious, and compelled the implementation of a new way to maintain hegemony in the hemisphere.

The new policy was initiated by the Hoover administration, and taken up and "completed" during the succeeding Roosevelt administration. By 1934 all American troops had been withdrawn from Latin America, except for those at the military and naval bases maintained in Panama and in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. The financial supervision of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua was phased out between 1936 and 1940. Washington relinquished, at least on paper, its right to intervene. For direct forms of dominance, it substituted indirect ones, reminiscent of but less formal than those employed in British indirect rule in Africa. Central to this new scheme was support-economic, military and diplomatic-for local autocrats-for their currencies, their national constabularies, and their personal greed. In return, these autocrats suppressed local communists and radicals, protected American business, and performed other favors when called upon to do so. The good neighbor policy and the Root doctrine not only accomplished the same essential goals, but the latter was generally more cost effective and presented a smoother surface. No need to invade to change unwanted regimes. Better to support the local military that would make the changes for you.

[Gabriel] Kolko argues that General Eisenhower inaugurated "the era of the generals" in the realm of policy. Eisenhower preferred generals and helped them to take over because they preserved traditional values (a phrase which largely, as we have seen, serves as a euphemism for elite dominance) and brought order to situations plagued with disorder and the threat of social change.


A revolt in 1912 induced the president of Nicaragua, Adolfo Diaz, to request military aid from Washington to maintain order. The marines were sent, and they remained until 1925. When they withdrew, however, another revolt occurred, and the marines returned the next year. It was during this occupation that the Coolidge administration insisted on the establishment of a Nicaraguan national guard to be trained by the marines. It handpicked Anastacio Somoza as the commander of the guard, which in turn facilitated his accession to political power. A former latrine inspector, Somoza spoke fluent English, and he impressed Colonel Stimson, a former secretary of war, who had been sent to Managua to find a solution to the Nicaraguan problem. President Hoover withdrew the marines from Nicaragua in 1933. Because the dictatorship of Somoza provided stability in the Central American country and protected Washington's interests, they were no longer needed. Eleven administrations followed the example of Coolidge by honoring the Root Doctrine in Nicaragua.

The elder Somoza and his two sons, Luis and Anastacio, Jr. used the national guard as the vehicle to maintain their reign until the last Somoza (Anastacio) was forced to resign in 1979. Washington was aware of the corruption of, and the repression practiced by, the Somozas. In 1939 Somoza was invited to visit Washington, where he had an audience with President Roosevelt and was given the honor of speaking to a joint session of Congress. U.S. military and economic assistance to Nicaragua increased steadily between 1945 and 1975, even as Somoza's sons refined and expanded the repression and corruption that had characterized their father's rule. The Somozas reciprocated, with Nicaragua assuming the role of client state by providing a training ground and a launching pad for the intervention in Guatemala in 1954 and the invasion of Cuba in 1961.

When a devastating earthquake hit the country in 1972, Somoza reacted by siphoning off much of the relief money for himself and his cronies. On June 28, 1979 the United States Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo cabled Washington that he had met with Somoza and suggested that "we" design a scenario for his resignation. 13 Having put the elder Somoza on the throne, Washington took his son off it 46 years later. On July 17 of the next month Anastacio, Jr. left for exile in Miami. He was compelled to step down as part of a scheme of the Carter administration to form a provisional government of moderate leaders to prevent the Sandanistas from coming to power. The Sandanistas were to be excluded from the coalition, and the national guard was to be preserved. Finally the Organization of American States was asked to form a peacekeeping force with the United States at its head to provide the muscle for the transitional period. A large majority of Latin American states, however, rejected this proposal. The scheme fell through, the national guard disintegrated, and Sandanistan troops marched into Managua unopposed.

The Reagan administration waged a low intensity war against the Sandanistas with the avowed purpose of driving them from power. This type of warfare is many sided, and it has been called total war at the grassroots level. The CIA was ordered to organize the Contras, a guerrilla force that consisted of former national guard officers and disaffected civilians. A liaison officer from the National Security Council serving with them characterized their leaders as liars motivated by greed and the desire for power, and charged that the war had become a business for them. They attacked bridges, electric generators, but also state-owned agricultural cooperatives, rural health clinics, villages, and non-combatants. CIA commandos launched a series of sabotage raids on Nicaraguan port facilities. They mined the country's major ports and set fire to its largest oil storage depot.

Washington imposed a complete trade embargo on the Central American country, pressed allies to do the same, and used its influence in intergovernmental agencies to cut off all aid. It built up its military forces in neighboring Honduras and conducted joint war games near its border with Nicaragua to create the fear of invasion. It instituted an economic de-stabilization program, as well as a propaganda war directed at Nicaragua, but also at the Western allies and (illegally) at the United States itself. According to the General Accounting Office, the propaganda campaign extended to the point of engaging in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the American media and the American public to support the Administration's Latin American policies.

In 1984, Congress cut off aid to the Contras, at least it thought so. But the Reagan administration resorted to illegal means to aid them. Thus the notorious Department in me paramilitary war. On April 9, 1984 Nicaragua filed an application before the International Court of Justice, charging that in dealing with the Central American state, Washington had violated general and customary international law as well as the terms of several bilateral treaties.

The administration of the elder Bush employed a softer, more delicate, but time tested, approach to the Nicaraguan problem. It organized the electoral opposition to the Sandanistas and fashioned a campaign strategy for its presidential candidate, Violeta Chamorro. The CIA funneled money to former contra leaders, and the Congress openly authorized nine million dollars to aid her campaign as the opposition candidate. She started her campaign in Miami, and went on to win the election. The Sandanistas stepped down. A peaceful transition like this, without benefit of a coup d'etat, is a rare phenomenon in Nicaraguan history. Whatever leftist or communist leanings the Sandanistas may have had, they in no way impaired their demonstrably greater commitment to democracy.


Immediately upon independence in 1960, the Congo was beset by a struggle for power between President Lumumba, supported by the Soviet Union, and Prime Minister Kasavubu, supported by Washington. The CIA characterized Lumumba as another Castro. However, Mobutu, the head of the Force Publique (a combination army and national police) ultimately won the power struggle and ruled the country with help from Washington for 32 years. The Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that the evidence permitted a reasonable inference "that a plot to assassinate Lumumba was authorized by President Eisenhower." The CIA had one of its science advisers, Sidney Gottlieb, assemble an assassination kit that the agency sent to Leopoldville by diplomatic pouch. The kit included a poison that produced symptoms similar to an indigenous African disease. Gottlieb was sent to explain to the local CIA station chief that the poison had to be put in Lumumba's food or on his toothbrush. Neither was done, and it is not known for sure who killed him. There are many versions of how it happened and who did it. Each version exonerates the narrator .

Early in his career while in the Force Publique, Mobutu was an informant for the Belgians. Later, he became one for the CIA. After independence, he consolidated his power position through his control of units of the army loyal to him. Washington trained, armed, and paid these units.

Mobutu took over in a coup d'etat that "neutralized" the two chief contestants for power, Lumumba and Kasavubu. He closed down the parliament, and established in its place "a College of Commissioners." This was a group of students chosen from those who had studied abroad. Mobutu also closed the Soviet and Czechoslovak embassies. The CIA regarded Mobutu as an asset, and the agency certainly was an asset for him. Several times it provided him with crucial information that helped to extend his tenure as dictator. Israel was again involved. It trained Mobutu's own presidential guard." After taking over the government, Mobutu no longer depended upon the fees paid him as an informant. He amassed a personal fortune from local sources estimated at between three and five billion dollars.


The Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia in 1975 following the disarray resulting from the secret illegal U.S. bombing of the country, and were removed from power by an invasion from Vietnam in 1979. During their reign, they slaughtered anywhere from one half million to a million and a half of their fellow citizens and were accused of committing genocide. They cut the country off from the outside world, emptied the capital city, banned foreign and minority languages, closed the schools and hospitals, abolished the currency, militarized the economy and the labor force, and attacked neighboring countries. The Khmer Rouge were a strange brand of leftist radicals, usually denominated communist, but in reality were rather more nativistic, chauvinistic and anti-modernist. Since they were anti-Soviet, they received Washington's support as long as the Cold War continued. Paradoxically, when it ended, Washington called for the trial by an international tribunal of Pol Pot and other top leaders of the Khmer Rouge. The support resulted from the Cold War configuration at the time, in which the Soviets backed Vietnam and the government it imposed on Cambodia, while China and Washington backed the Khmer Rouge, the enemy of Vietnam. Washington's support for the Khmer Rouge was more egregious, given that its beneficiary was consistently charged with committing genocide. Moreover, the support came even from the Carter regime despite the fact that President Carter ran on a platform that featured the promotion of human rights. The Carter administration helped arrange continued Chinese aid to the Khmer Rouge when it was fighting the government installed by the invading forces from Vietnam.

Kiernan referred to Washington's support in this way:

Along with China, which supplied arms, and Thailand, which supplied sanctuary, the United States was instrumental in rescuing the Khmer Rouge army from its 1979 defeat by Hanoi. From 1979 to 1981, the United States led Western nations in voting for the Khmer Rouge to represent their Cambodian victims in the United Nations.

In 1982, Washington helped prod two small proAmerican groups into a Khmer Rouge-dominated alliance, and for more than a decade the United States has rejected all opportunities to take individual or collective action against the Khmer Rouge. Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski says that in 1979: "I encouraged the Chinese to support Pol Pot .... Pol Pot was an abomination. We could never support him but China could." They both did. The United States, Brzezinski says, "winked semi-publicly at Chinese and Thai aid for the Khmer Rouge .

Washington also pressured United Nations agencies to provide food assistance to the Khmer Rouge. This pressure yielded over $12 million in aid from the World Food Program alone when it was most needed, after the defeat by Vietnam. The Western media and Western intelligence supported the Khmer Rouge as well. Washington and its Western allies voted to give the United Nations seat to the Khmer Rouge when it ruled alone, and after 1983 when it ruled in coalition with other parties. The coalition was called the Coalition Government of Democratic Kampuchea (CGDK). Washington rejected any attempt to brand the Khmer Rouge as "genocidal" until the beginning of the Paris peace process in 1989.

Haas traced the origin of Washington's aid to the diplomacy of Carter's National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who talked Thailand into being a conduit for Chinese aid to sustain Pol Pot's forces against Vietnam and their internal enemies. Thus began "the Faustian pact," whereby Washington became "the ally twice-removed" of the Khmer Rouge.

Although a CIA report in 1980 concluded that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for the deaths of 1.5 million people during Pol Pot's rule, the Reagan administration steadfastly refused to acknowledge it.

In November 2002, the General Assembly passed a resolution calling for the resumption of negotiations for the establishment of negotiations to establish a special tribunal to try the surviving leaders of the Khmer Rouge. Following years of failed negotiations, this effort was led by Australia, France, Japan, and the United States. The resolution was criticized by human rights advocates because it did not contain explicit language guaranteeing that the trials would meet international standards. It gave the Cambodian government ultimate control over the jurisdiction of cases with the privilege of overriding decisions of the United Nations . Meanwhile the top leaders of the Khmer Rouge continue to live openly and freely in the country; some of them are included in the present government. The trial courts would be set up by the Cambodian government, and their jurisdiction would be limited to the senior Khmer Rouge leaders and those responsible for the crimes of the Pol Pot regime committed between 1975 and 1979.

State Terrorism and the United States

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