"The struggle between freedom and communism defined the world my generation grew up in." Back then, "the divide between the good guys and the bad guys was clear."
This quote comes from Benedict Brogan, deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, writing in October in response to the Daily Mail's hatchet job on the deceased Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband. "Whether he hated Britain or not, Ralph Miliband was one of the Cold War's bad guys", he writes.
Putting the Miliband saga aside, Brogan's comments on the Cold War deserve close attention. Was the Cold War really a "struggle between freedom and communism?", or is the history of the conflict more complicated?
At least in the mainstream, this question has seen little debate. It is no wonder then that Brogan's simplistic 'good guys vs bad guys' narrative, pitting the defenders of liberty against those who seek to destroy it, remains the dominant one. Without the availability of alternatives, it is broadly accepted as accurate.
The historical record paints quite a different picture however. Throughout the Cold War, the lines between "good and bad" were repeatedly blurred, often beyond recognition. James Bloodworth gives some examples in his excellent response to Brogan's article in the New Statesman, writing that "millions of dead in Indochina, the funding and arming of Apartheid South Africa, and Pinochet's coup make a nonsense of lazy distinctions between the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys'."
The three examples cited by Bloodworth illustrate the US government's willingness during the Cold War to support and prop up dictatorships, regardless of their involvement in atrocities and international terrorism, provided they were sufficiently pro-American and anti-communist.
This reflects a "core strategic approach" to US foreign policy, as described by the leading expert on democracy promotion Thomas Carothers:
"Where democracy appears to fit in well with US security and economic interests, the United States promotes democracy. Where democracy clashes with other significant interests, it is downplayed or even ignored."
During the Cold War, democracy was not just "ignored" when it threatened "significant interests"; it was actively subverted. In the 1950s, the United States helped overthrow democratically elected, non-communist governments in Iran and Guatemala, which were then replaced with authoritarian rulers immediately supported by the US. No amount of spin could successfully portray these actions as a defence of freedom from tyranny. Quite the reverse in fact: tyranny was imposed by the United States on relatively free countries, after democracy was judged to be harmful to US national interests.
This policy would be repeated throughout the decades, with the United States supporting military coups against elected governments in Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973. In all four cases, US governments were presented with a clear choice between tyranny and democracy. and opted for the former, attacking the very same freedoms it claimed to be fighting the Cold War to defend.
As the record shows, support for pro-American, anti-communist dictatorships was a crucial and continual aspect of US policy during the Cold War. A number of grisly friends immediately spring to mind: Mobutu in the Congo, General Zia in Pakistan, Duvalier in Haiti, General Franco in Spain. In many of these cases, support for unsavoury allies went as far as complicity in their atrocities.
The US role in the slaughter of as many as 180,000 people in East Timor is a case in point. Not only did the Ford administration give an effective green light to the Indonesian invasion of the country in 1975, but it also provided, according to the Deputy Legal Advisor to the State Department at the time, "roughly 90%" of the weapons used in the attack. A UN-sponsored report concluded accurately that "US political and military support was fundamental to the invasion and occupation of East Timor", which led to the "extermination" of around a third of the country's population.
The US record in Central America is also worth considering. Take Guatemala, where a CIA-sponsored coup overthrew democracy, brought the military to power and helped ignite a civil war which lasted 36 years and took 200,000 lives. The war was brutal: a UN-ordered truth commission later found that "agents of the state committed acts of genocide" and that "state forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations" documented.
As in Timor, it was the 'genocidaires' whom the United States sided with, providing military aid and training to help the army defeat a consortium of left-wing rebel groups, who by comparison were found responsible for only "3% of the human rights violations and acts of violence" committed during the war.
In both cases, the United States sided with the 'greater evil' in a given conflict, prioritising its own "security and economic interests" over less important issues like "democratisation", "human rights" and "the raising of the living standards."
At the end of the Second World War, such ideas were flatly dismissed by leading foreign policy planners like George Kennan as "idealistic" and "unreal objectives" which should be promptly "dispensed with." Instead, the 'father of containment' saw the "real task" of US foreign policy to be something quite different:
"We have about 50% of the world's wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction."
Following this set of principles, the United States could easily justify supporting the 'greater evil' in a given conflict, with any concern for human rights, democracy and "world-benefaction" now "dispensed with" in favour of strict adherence to "our immediate national objectives." Many more examples can easily be found:
Pursuing its national interests in Asia, the Nixon administration "allowed a bloodbath to unfold" (Dexter Filkins, former South Asia correspondent for the New York Times) in 1971 by "failing to restrain West Pakistan" as its military carried out a campaign of genocide and mass rape in what is now Bangladesh. "Virtually their entire military", writes Neil Sheehan in the Washington Post, "was equipped with American weaponry and depended on the United States for the ammunition and spare parts required to keep it going." The United States was thus "complicit in the massacre" of the Bengalis.
Returning to Central America, the US played a crucial role in the civil war in El Salvador, financing the army's efforts to defeat left-wing insurgents in the 1980s by providing nearly a billion dollars in military aid to the regime. At the end of the war, a UN-sponsored truth commission found the army responsible for a litany of massacres and most of the 75,000 deaths. Only 5% of violent acts were attributed to the rebels, but the US remained loyal to the army throughout.
In South Africa too, the US sided firmly with the 'greater evil'- the Apartheid regime- over its world opinion-backed opponents, providing arms and economic support whilst famously dismissing Nelson Mandela's African National Congress as one of the world's "more notorious terrorist groups" in 1988.
Yet in Nicaragua, the same administration had no problem funding and arming the Contras- a terrorist group by any measure- as they "assassinated, raped, tortured and mutilated" thousands of civilians with the use of "American advice and dollars" (Reed Brody, Human Rights Watch).
These cases are surely too numerous to be dismissed as anomalies or mistakes. What is clear however is that they reflect a remarkable indifference to the freedoms and human rights of those living under the often brutal rule of American allies.
This indifference puts into real doubt the sincerity of the concern repeatedly expressed by US governments for the victims of communist and enemy regimes. How could concern for those killed in the Cambodian genocide be genuine, for example, when the United States was facilitating mass murder in East Timor and aiding the slaughter in Bangladesh at the same time?
Universal human rights did not apply, however, during the Cold War. Policy reflects that while Pol Pot's victims mattered, Indonesia and Pakistan's did not. This being the case, one can conclude that American motivations for fighting the Cold War were not humanitarian, as the existence and non-existence of humanitarian concern depended purely on the ideology of the respective victims and perpetrators.
This would suggest that the American state's opposition to 'communism', which it framed as a defence of communism's victims, was not humanitarian either. We can therefore conclude that self-interest rather than "world-benefaction", which was dismissed by George Kennan in 1948 as something "we need not deceive ourselves" into thinking we should pursue, was what crucially drove the United States to fight the Cold War. The historical record surely confirms this.