Monday, November 29, 1993

Unintended Consequences of U.S. Involvement in the Korean War

The U.S. Response to the Korean Invasion of 1950: A Study of Predetermined Policy Implementation and Unintended Consequences

On June 25, 1950, the Cold War turned hot. The battleground was Korea, a country divided into U.S.-Soviet spheres of influence since 1945, and hostilities were initiated when North Korean troops crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. Acting on the assumption that the North Korean government was a Kremlin puppet regime, and the invasion therefore a clear case of Soviet-backed Communist aggression (Hunt, p 5), the U.S. response was swift. President Truman committed U.S. air and naval forces to the defense of Korea on June 27, and ordered U.S. ground troops based in Japan to proceed to Korea on June 30 (Ambrose, p 121).

However, the U.S. response to the June 25 invasion also included a series of other regional foreign policy steps which went far beyond what was necessary for the immediate defense of South Korea. The U.S. Seventh Fleet was dispatched to the waters surrounding Formosa (Taiwan), ostensibly to prevent any Chinese communist attack on Formosa. U.S. forces stationed in the Philippines were strengthened and increased military aid was provided to the Philippine government, at the time engaged in crushing the nationalist peasant Huk movement (Ambrose, p 119/Document 14). U.S. military aid was also further extended to the French, then fighting Ho Chi Minh's nationalist Vietminh in Indochina.

Taken together, these additional steps lend credence to the hypothesis that the outbreak of fighting in Korea presented U.S. policymakers with a pretext for implementing previously-agreed upon Cold War foreign policy objectives. Meeting with President Truman and his other advisors on June 25 and 26, Secretary of State Acheson was quick to spell out the numerous additional steps he thought should be taken to ensure regional security as part of the U.S. response to the Korean invasion, obviously initiatives long-planned and agreed to without debate or surprise from the President.

No wonder, since they fit perfectly with the foreign policy prescriptions contained within the Truman Administration's own NSC 68 of April, 1950, which essentially called for the U.S. "to assume unilaterally the defense of the non-Communist assume the role of world policeman" (Ambrose, p 113). This meant a doubling or tripling of the U.S. defense budget, which stood at less than $13 billion in 1950 (Ambrose, p 112).

At this point in Cold War history, two of Truman's political objectives converged: the need to justify such greatly increased defense expenditures and his political need in the face of then-emerging McCarthyism to prove to the country that he and the Democrats were not soft on Communism. A Communist tide seemed to be rising in the Far East: Japanese Communist demonstrations against American military bases in Japan; the fall of China to the CCP and subsequent Nationalist retreat to Formosa, where a Chinese Communist invasion seemed imminent; full-scale civil war in Vietnam between the French and Communist/Nationalist Vietminh; "petty dictator" Syngman Rhee's loss of popular support in U.S.-backed South Korea and growing demands for immediate unification from the Communist-controlled North (Ambrose, p 116-118). It was obvious to Truman that bolstering his anti-Communist credentials and "the whole package envisioned in NSC 68, in short, could be wrapped up and tied with a ribbon by an Asian crisis" (Ambrose, p 116).

This does not imply that the North Korean invasion was a U.S.-fabricated event, as most historians have labeled the Tonkin Gulf incident of 1964 - although a case could be made that U.S. officials such as Secretary of State Dean Acheson may have encouraged the North Koreans to act by making public statements to the effect that South Korea was strategically peripheral to the U.S. Nor does it point to the existence of a conspiracy in the Truman Administration to hide these other regional foreign policy initiatives from the U.S. public. The additional steps taken by the U.S. in the days following June 25 were initially justified as necessary in case the Korean invasion was only a prelude to a wider regional conflict (Hunt, p 5). In any event, these measures were all in keeping with previous publicly stated U.S. Cold War containment aims.

Regardless, these additional security measures had long-range consequences for U.S. foreign policy. Specifically, increased military and intelligence aid to the Philippine government resulted in U.S.-guided suppression of the nationalist Huk movement, a peasant movement based more around legitimate land reform grievances than Marxist-Leninist ideology. It laid the groundwork for direct U.S. involvement in the election of a string of Philippine rulers more responsive to U.S. interests than the interests of their own people, the first being Ramon Magsaysay (elected in 1953), and later, the corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos (Bonner, p 38-44).

In Vietnam, the extension of U.S. military aid to the French announced by President Truman on June 27, 1950 marked the beginning of three decades of tragic U.S. involvement in Indochina. This particular initiative, ostensibly aimed at containing communism and thus protecting U.S. interests, would ultimately bear fruit in the form of more than 58,000 American lives lost, over 300,000 wounded, an estimated 1.6 million civilian and military Vietnamese deaths, more than 2 million killed in Cambodia during the turmoil of the 1970s, and a total cost to the U.S. government over twenty-five years of more than $150 billion in pre-1975 dollars (Vadney, p 341).

The preceding facts and statistics underscore the lesson inherent in this tale of unintended consequences. In the long-term interests of our nation's security and relations with the world around us, American policymakers must learn the wisdom of allowing policies conceived behind closed doors to undergo vigorous public debate before proceeding with their implementation.

Monday, November 15, 1993

The War in Vietnam Was Censored by the Mainstream Media

The U.S. press, particularly television news, is credited with bringing the Vietnam War home to millions of Americans, thus inciting their impassioned opposition. Walter Cronkite's doubts about the war, which he voiced on-air following the 1968 Tet offensive, are often considered to have turned the tide of public support against the war.

However, before mid-1967 not even tentative criticism of U.S. war aims or policies appeared in the mainstream media. Even when many respected sources began to express their dissent, the media continued to give the administration's views on the war the largest amount of coverage.

From 1945 to 1954, the United States spent several billion dollars supporting a ruthless French colonialism in Vietnam, but the American public was never informed of this. In the following decade Washington assumed full responsibility for the maintenance of the South Vietnamese right-wing dictatorship, but the public neither read nor heard a word of debate in the media about this major policy commitment.

In 1965 the U.S. government began a massive buildup of ground forces in Vietnam, but Americans were told the troops were merely a small support force. The New York Times and other major news agencies knew the real nature of the escalation but felt it was in the "national interest" to keep this information from the public.

As press critics have pointed out, the media, with few exceptions, censored the worst of the war, saying almost nothing about the massive saturation bombings of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, the "free-fire" zones, U.S.-sponsored torture, the Phoenix death squad program, the massive destruction of Indochinese rural life, the indiscriminate killing of the civilian population, and the dumping of 12 million tons of Agent Orange and other toxic chemicals on the countryside.

Even in the final years, media coverage was remarkably unwavering in its support for the war. A survey of the editorial stance of thirty-nine leading American newspapers at this time found that while several eventually became more critical of the U.S. military escalation, not one advocated withdrawal from Vietnam, despite the strong antiwar sentiments expressed by millions of people in the U.S. and abroad.

A study of TV coverage between 1968 and 1973 found less than a quarter of the stories of a 180-program sample concerned Vietnam, and only rarely did the stories include pictures of combat. Pictures of the dead or wounded were featured in only about 2 percent of war-related reports; American battlefield dead were never shown; body counts appeared only as pictureless statistics. A study funded by the U.S. Army in 1988 rejected the notion that negative press coverage was responsible for eroding public support for the war. The American people were alienated not by the news coverage but by the casualties.

After the war, the news media tried to put the best face on U.S. involvement, describing it as either a well-intentioned venture gone awry or a foolish mistake.

"Left out of this view was any thought that (our leaders) had waged a horrific war in support of a dictatorship and against a largely civilian population to prevent a popularly supported but (communist) social order from gaining power." (Parenti, p 176).

Relying on the establishment news media, America was left with the impression that the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, rather than the murderous intervention itself, was the only thing Americans needed to regret.

Source: Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media by Michael Parenti (1986)

Thursday, November 11, 1993

Fire From The Mountain by Omar Cabezas: The Mountain as Revolutionary Motivator

Everyone needs some sort of meaning in their lives. Humanity's search for guiding principles around which to structure and make sense of our existence on earth is perhaps our oldest intellectual pursuit. For some, this meaning is found in adherence to religious beliefs. The notion that a higher spiritual order exists is a powerful one. To think that our earth and all its inhabitants were created by a supreme being provides many people with the universally sought after sense of being a part of things, of having some understanding of the true meaning of life.

For the revolutionary social movement, religion may play a part in providing a pre-existing framework around which to organize recognition of and resistance to whatever injustices the movement is battling. It is likely, however, that during the course of the struggle, alternative conceptions of life's meaning will also need to be formulated. There are many reasons why people might need additional, more temporal motivations beyond religious ones in order to engage in revolutionary activity, if only because not everyone believes in religion!

Religion is also a contradictory social force; on one hand, most religions are theoretically forthright in condemning injustice, but in everyday practice tend to be conservative and status quo-affirming. Some faiths go as far as to proclaim that if injustice exists, it must be God's will, and in any event, things will be better for true believers once they reach the afterlife. In this respect, religion offers little hope as a motivating force for earthbound social revolution.

As revealed in the pages of Omar Cabezas' Fire From The Mountain, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua found inspiration and motivation from a variety of sources. Their revolution was not anti-clerical in nature; indeed, like many Latin American social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, it drew particular strength from the emerging doctrines of liberation theology, which harkened back to early Christianity's emphasis on confrontation with earthly injustice. But the revolution was also a very temporal one, drawing on a nationalist, patriotic tradition of resistance to outside occupiers and internal tyrannies, and hopes for socialist-oriented redistributive economic measures (although not all Sandinistas were Marxist-Leninists).

The nature of the Nicaraguan revolution thus almost mandated that its participants maintain a very down to earth, temporal focus on the revolutionary struggle. This is not to say that the Sandinistas came to see the revolution as an end in of itself, but that they had to remain tightly focused on their daily functioning as guerrillas if they were ever to realize the revolution's broader goals. It was a reality of the struggle made even clearer by the overwhelming nature of the odds they faced, as evidenced by Cabezas' bravado-tinged but truthful admissions that "to decide to join the Frente in those days...was a very extraordinary thing to do, I really believe that" (p 14), since "the Frente was just a few people and probably didn't exist outside of Managua, Leon, and Esteli where a few, bold heroic people had taken up the challenge of history and started to work" (p 15).

Thus, there had to be some primal, temporal motivating force that the revolutionaries could bring to bear on themselves and their recruits in order to maintain a disciplined focus on the struggle, in the true spirit of the Sandinista slogan "Free Homeland or Death." For Cabezas and many of his guerrilla counterparts, this motivating force came from the myth of the mountain.

"When I left for the mountain I went with the idea that the mountain was a tremendous power. We had this myth of the companeros in the mountains, the mysterious, the unknown...and in the city both the people in the underground and those of us working legally always talked about the mountain as a sort of mythical force. It was where our power was, and our arms and our best men; it was our indestructability, our guarantee of a future, the ballast that would keep us from going under in the dictatorship; it was our determination to fight to the end, the certainty that life must change." (p 17)

But the mountain was more than just a source of hope to the Sandinistas. Cabeza came to realize this by coming to grips with his disillusionment when he finally ascended to the main guerrilla camp, and discovered there were no more than fifteen or twenty other Sandinistas in the mountains at that time (p 80-81). Ultimately, the mountain's strength sprang from its transformative powers.

By going into the mountains and undergoing rigorous, unrelenting physical and mental guerrilla training, the first Sandinistas were able to transform themselves into a true revolutionary vanguard, disciplined and totally committed to the struggle. The mountain's power was not merely symbolic, but rather, sprang from the concrete changes it affected in the men who sought refuge in its folds. It was this unswerving focus on the revolution, and the simultaneous rejection of the Sandinistas' past lives that it demanded, that rested at the core of the mountain's power to be a revolutionary motivating force.

The process of transformation began for Cabezas when he first set foot on his physical trek into the mountains.

"And there my Calvary began...a new phase began in my physical life, in my beliefs, in the development of my personality, in everything, in maturity, in everything, everything" (p 53).

It would ultimately involve the endurance of great physical and mental hardships, leading to a toughening of Cabezas' physical strength, agility and stamina, a hardening of his mental resolve and convictions, and ultimately, a wholesale rejection of his former life, replaced by an unswerving focus on the revolutionary struggle.

The physical hardships were many. Marching through the brush and jungles of the mountain provided an abrupt introduction to the rigors of guerrilla life for Cabezas. By dawn of his first night in the mountains, marching with a pack weighing twenty-five pounds, "I was half covered with mud, soaked to the skin, my hands were totally screwed, and wewere starved" (p 57). The guerrillas had to obey many time-consuming and physically debilitating rules in order to escape detection by National Guard patrols, such as not breaking branches (p 58-59), or leaving only one set of footsteps while marching, "over rugged topography...sometimes for half a day" (p 62). All trace of fires had to be hidden (p 71), and to take a shit meant digging a hole and wiping yourself with leaves (p 73-74). Sometimes they would march on the slopes of ridges, rather than the highest ground, "of course the hardest possible place to march" (p 129). Cabezas develops lesymaniasias, or mountain leprosy, which further adds to his sense of physical trial (p 106-109).

Hunger was also a constant companion of the guerrillas. At first a disgusting proposition, eating monkey meat eventually became an everyday fact of life (p 66-70). The guerrillas were lucky, in fact, to eat meat. Usually, rations on marches were more along the lines of "three pathetic tortillas and a few beans for the lot of us, a little bite for everybody" (p 73). "When the meat was gone, we started in on the powdered milk. At first the ration was three little spoonfuls, which we ate as it was, as powder" (p 131).

As unbearable as they were, these hardships physically transformed the Sandinistas who struggled to survive in the mountains. They became physically hardened, and better able to endure the hardships that would lie ahead of them. "Gradually you are mastering the environment, learning to march. Your legs are getting stronger. You learn how to swing a machete...this, in a way, was what helped to forge in each of us the steel that was needed to overthrow the dictatorship" (p 84-85).

The mental transformation that the mountain made possible was just as important. Paradoxically, while the rigors of guerrilla life toughened and hardened the Sandinistas both physically and mentally, it also heightened their sensitivity and capacity for empathy. As Cabezas poetically claims, it was as if "the lack of sugar had created a great inner sweetness, which made it possible for us to be touched to the quick, to make our hearts bleed for the injustices we saw" (p 85). Again and again, Cabezas explains how the guerrillas became like animals in the wilderness, "a few more creatures of the mountain" (p 84), "like animals, prowling in our natural habitat" (p 90).

In the process, their senses were sharpened.

"Day by day you make out the sounds of nature with more clarity and precision, all kinds of sounds...the same thing happens with your eyesight...the same with your sense of smell" (p 101-102).

As happened with their senses, the guerrillas' sense of revolutionary purpose and motivation was similarly heightened. When inspired to find the strength within himself to go further by his superior Tello's exhortations about the "new man," Cabeza realizes that "sometimes not being clear about things makes you give up at the first sign of tiredness, or back down before the first obstacles. It's not true; a man can always give more" (p 94). "And so a spirit was forged that enabled us to endure all the mental and physical hardship. We were developing granite wills in the face of the environment" (p 85).

The physical and mental transformations the mountain effected in the guerrillas were what made the final transformation possible, allowing them to shed their past lives completely and focus solely on the revolutionary struggle. This process began with the casting away of habits and behaviors necessary for survival in the city, but hindrances in the mountains. Cabezas learns no longer to clean his bag when it gets dirty (p 59), his hair gets longer, he "belches right in front of everybody" (p 84). Slowly but surely, the sights and sounds of city life fade from his memory (p 83).

He realizes that in order to become the "new man," fully committed to the revolution, he must kill the old man within himself (p 94). But this will come at a cost, at the cost of "the destruction of his faults, of his vices" (p 94). Cabezas reflects on the nature of his previous life, doing aboveground work for the revolution but falling short of total commitment. "Don't forget where I was coming from - drinking, staying up late, smoking, eating junk, never exercising, then all of a sudden, bam! I was right in the middle of something that called for men" (p 64). And finally, it is his experiences in the mountains that allow him to make this total commitment to the struggle.

"The mountain and the mud, the mud, and also the rain and the loneliness...all these things were cleansing us of a bunch of bourgeois defects, a whole series of vices; we learned to be humble, because you alone are not worth shit up there. You learn to be simple; you learn to value principles. You learn to appreciate the strictly human values that of necessity emerge in that environment. And little by little all our faults faded out"(p 86).

Even before he left for the mountain, Cabezas had felt committed to the revolution. "Once you join (the struggle), and as your work and responsibilities multiply, it's like entering a whirlwind...and you're in to the hilt - you're totally screwed! - and glad of it" (p 13). Yet after his experiences there, Cabezas' commitment would become all consuming.

"That present, though it existed here, did not belong to me. It was the past...and it was too late to recover it, since I wasn't going back. I wasn't going to be able to see my mother or my brothers. I would have to see them on down the line, in the future" (p 215-216).

The mountain became Cabezas' ultimate revolutionary motivation; not as symbol but through the mental and physical transformative struggle it forced him to endure.

Source: Fire From The Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista (1986) by Omar Cabezas

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