Sunday, February 23, 2014

Our Childlike, Emotional Leaders

For the past couple of days I've been reading David F. Schmitz's Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (University of North Carolina, 1999).  The larger picture of US support for right-wing dictatorships around the world is of course not news to me, but Schmitz provides lots of detail drawn from internal documents, and I'm learning a lot.

One place where I disagree with Schmitz is his choice of the word "paternalistic" to describe US elite attitudes toward the citizens (including political and other leaders) of other countries.  He evidently prefers it to the more inflammatory but still accurate "racist," but if the shoe fits, it should be worn.  So, for example:
President Truman, as his most recent biographer, Alonzo Hamby, has shown, might have "remained a racist only in the narrowest sense of the word and was considerably less so than the the vast majority of white Americans in the years after World War II."  Still, he used words such as "nigger" in private to describe blacks and held to the racial categories and stereotypes of his youth.  He found Latin Americans to be, "like Jews and the Irish, 'very emotional' and difficult to handle" [148].
I don't know that much about Harry S. Truman, so maybe I should look at Hamby's biography and see on what basis he thinks that Truman was "considerably less racist" than his peers in his day, or what "narrow" sense of the word "racist" he has in mind.  It certainly sounds to me like he was racist in a fairly broad sense of the word, not just for his use of "nigger" but for his adherence to racist categories and stereotypes.

Schmitz goes on:
State Department records are riddled with comments such as how Guatemalan leaders were known for their "mental deviousness and difficulty thinking in a straight line," or that trying to reason with Latin Americans was "rather like consulting with babies as to whether or not we should take candy away from them."  Descriptions of Latin Americans as children were common.  Spruille Braden opined that "our Latino friends were playing at economics, just as a child will pretend in his games to be something he isn't and has no immediate possibility of becoming" [149].
This view of foreigners -- just about all non-Anglo-Saxon foreigners, in fact -- as childlike fits the word "paternalistic," but it is also racist, since it casts whole populations as inferior by nature, and despite a certain amount of pious rhetoric to the effect that someday these childlike people may be fit to govern themselves, that day was always safely in the indefinite future.  The same rhetoric characterized a good deal of foot-dragging by whites about people of African descent (who'd always been stereotyped as childish) in the US itself.

The same theme recurs throughout Thank God They're On Our Side:
[FDR held] that the Vietnamese, along with many other Asians, were not yet prepared for self-government.  "With the Indo-Chinese," Roosevelt noted, "there is a feeling that they ought to be independent but are not ready for it.  They needed to be educated in the same manner that the Filipinos were.  In that case, "it took fifty years for us to do it."  He agreed with Queen Wilhelmina of Holland that because of Dutch rule the "Javanese are not quite ready for self-government, but very nearly," and would soon gain independence.  In contrast was the case of New Guinea, where the people were described as the "lowest form of human life in the world, their skulls have least developed."  They were probably "two hundred years behind the rest of the world" [169].
Notice, incidentally, Schmitz's use of the blind passive in "the people were described as..."  Why not say "Roosevelt described them as ..."?  Is it because he wants to dodge the unpleasant reality of FDR deploying such embarrassingly crude scientific racism?  It also occurs to me that if the people of New Guinea were "two hundred years behind the rest of the world" in 1944, when Roosevelt said this, that would put them in 1744, when American colonialists were moving rapidly toward independence.  You wouldn't think that was so backward.

The reference to the Philippines there is ironic, as is a 1959 remark by Dwight Eisenhower that "If we had not trained the Filipinos in democracy for forty years, the Philippines would now have become a military dictatorship" (225).  In 1972, that dream became a reality as Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law.

Invoking the standard paternalistic views that guided policy toward Latin America throughout the century, the secretary of state [John Foster Dulles] argued that the "most significant fact that throughout most of the world and certainly in Latin America there had been in recent years a tremendous surge in the direction of popular governments by peoples who have practically no capacity for self-government and indeed are like children in facing this problem" [220].
And so on.  But as I read on, the more I was struck by how childlike and emotional the US leaders were.  They were suckers for dusky men in uniform, from Benito Mussolini, who "was seen [by US diplomats and their bosses] as a moderate and the only reliable implementer of the policies essential to order, economic recovery, and development" (39) --
American businessmen were no less enthusiastic about Mussolini and his government.  Thomas Lamont of J. P. Morgan remarked after his first meeting with Mussolini that the Italian dictator was “a very upstanding chap.”  He wrote later that Italy was “going to be a great country despite its very limited resources.”  Otto Kahn, of Kuhn, Loeb, praised the recent change of government in Italy at the 1925 meeting of the International Chamber of Commerce.  “Parliamentary wrangling and wasteful impotent bureaucracy” had been replaced by an “efficient and energetic … government,” which had united Italy in “a spirit of order, discipline, hard work, patriotic devotion and faith.”  Ralph Easley of the National Civic Federation wrote to Thomas Lamont after visiting Italy, “I think, were we in Italy, we would all be with Mussolini.”  And Judge Elbert Gary of United States Steel remarked while in Rome in 1923 that “we have here a wonderful renaissance of youthful energy and activity.  A masterhand has, indeed, strongly grasped the hand of the Italian state.”  Gary added that he felt “like turning to my American friends and asking them whether we, too, need a man like Mussolini” [40].
-- to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza --
[Former Secretary of War Colonel Henry L. Stimson] immediately liked Somoza, who sought to ingratiate himself with Stimson.  The colonel described Somoza as a "very frank, friendly, likeable young liberal" and noted that, because he spoke fluent English, Somoza "impresses me more favorably than almost any other" person.  So impressed was Stimson that he had Somoza act as his interpreter for the next few days while he finished the agreement [53].
-- to Portuguese dictator Antonio Salazar --
Dean Acheson, in particular, was impressed by Salazar ... In his memoirs, Acheson described Salazar as one of the few people he was immediately drawn to upon first meeting.  He had come to power "to run a country that for twenty years had been sinking into economic chaos and political anarchy."  Acheson recalled that he saw Salazar not as "a dictator in his own right as Stalin was, but a dictator-manager employed and maintained by the power of the army ... "A convinced libertarian -- particularly a foreign one -- could understandably disapprove of Salazar.  But," Acheson wrote, "I doubt that Plato would have done so" [164].
(A Portuguese military philosopher-king!)

-- to South Vietnamese dictator Ngo Dinh Diem:
Senator [John Fitzgerald] Kennedy praised Diem for making South Vietnam "the cornerstone of the Free world in Southeast Asia, the keystone in the arch, the finger in the dike," while Mike Mansfield argued that the fact "that a free Viet Nam exists at the present time ... is the result of the efforts of Mr. Diem."  The Saturday Evening Post referred to Diem as the "mandarin in a sharkskin suit who's upsetting the Red timetable," and Life magazine, with no apparent sense of irony, justified Diem's refusal to hold the unification elections [mandated by the 1954 Geneva Accords] on the grounds that Ho [Chi Minh] would win.  "Diem saved his people from this agonizing prospect simply by refusing to permit the plebiscite and thereby he avoided national suicide."  The New York Times titled its 1957 profile on Diem "An Asian Liberator."  The paper of record applauded his work to "save his country from falling apart" and how he tirelessly toured the countryside so that the people would get to know him and perhaps like him more than they did Ho Chi Minh."  This effort was paying off as the "Vietnamese learn to respect their new Government and their new leader" [208].
Didn't the people already know their new leader?  They could hardly have done so, because Diem, "a Catholic in a predominantly Buddhist nation... had spent the entire war for independence in Europe and the United States" (205).  This material should also be borne in mind the next time someone laments the glorious days when American media were "adversary."  Not in the 1950s they weren't.  Or the 1960s.  But I digress.

Of course our leaders were often uneasily aware that our clients weren't always as docile as they would like.  Mussolini was an obvious case, but in Latin America especially they just didn't seem to know when they'd worn out their welcome.  When Rafael Trujillo's regime in the Dominican Republic began to look shaky, for example, the Eisenhower administration began looking discreetly for someone who could be "'a forceful leader,' albeit not necessarily as extreme as the generalissimo" (229).  Unfortunately, the generalissimo had killed or imprisoned anyone who might represent a threat to his tenure, and the respectable elements of Dominican society weren't about to stick their necks out signalling their availability to the US.  The American embassy warned that "the people are not now politically educated to accept democracy as it exists in the United States" (ibid.), hardly surprising since the US and Trujillo had considered any opposition to Trujillo to be communism, not democracy.  Trujillo refused covert US entreaties to step down voluntarily, even if he got to take his money with him.  (In the end he was assassinated by elements of his own army, none of whom proved strong enough to take his place.)  This is why there's an endless litany of complaints by apologists for US domination that our clients are sneaky, clever, irrational, corrupt, and so on.  As James Traub put it in The Freedom Agenda (FSG, 2008), "Some leading members of the [Filipino] elite absorbed the ethos of self-reliance and equality; others learned how to parrot it back to their gullible masters" (28-29).

The US elites Schmitz discusses and quotes kept saying that American "intervention" had to be avoided if at all possible.  I suppose by that word they meant sending in the Marines, because they used it even when they were intervening assiduously, not just through behind the scenes diplomacy but through covert action.  Negotiations with the local military about overthrowing a government, sending a naughty general into exile (with his Swiss bank accounts intact), training the police and army in American institutions (which Schmitz doesn't mention that I noticed), giving and taking away military or supposedly non-military aid and loans as a regime came into or out of favor -- none of this seems to have counted in their minds as "intervention," let alone interference.  After the US-supported ("contacts with the military were increased and planning begun for the overthrow of the government" [271]) coup that overthrew Brazil's President João Goulart in 1964, for example, President Lyndon Johnson "asked why the Brazilian Congress could not just make the president of the Congress, Ranieri Mazzili, the legal president pro tem to provide the cover of legitimacy, [Secretary of State Dean] Rusk responded that 'Ambassador Gordon was using the resources available to him to encourage Brazilian legislators to do just this'" (276).  They merely took it for granted that the US had the right to decide what happened in any country in our sphere of influence anywhere in the world; any objection to US domination was, by definition, communism, to be put down by any means necessary.

When Congress began to question these policies, its efforts were met with protests that are still familiar.  Gerald Ford, for instance, "wrote [Senator Frank] Church at the end of October 1975 to urge the committee not to make public its findings on assassinations and covert actions.  The president asserted that any public disclosure of allegations on the overthrow of foreign governments would 'result in serious harm to the national interest'" (297).  Oh yes, we've heard that one recently.

Schmitz argues in his conclusion that "U.S. support for right-wing dictatorships was always morally questionable.  Because American leaders used moral arguments and appeals to gain public support for their Cold War policies, those policies can be fairly judged on moral terms.  The United States has to accept varying degrees of responsibility for aiding in the oppression of people around the world by supplying economic assistance, military goods, and political legitimacy to a large number of despots … Worse, the United States often was responsible for the very existence of many of these governments and undermined genuine efforts at reform, self-determination, and democratic change around the world" (308).  Another conclusion that I think emerges from his book is that despite their arrogant assurance that they were the best and the brightest, exemplars of the noble Anglo-Saxon race that is naturally qualified to dictate to the lower orders, our leaders have consistently shown that they aren't nearly as smart as they think they are.  That's another thing that hasn't changed.