PART I: 1968 WHAT HAPPENED
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
—James Baldwin, 1965
“If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read ‘Vietnam.’”
—Martin Luther King, Jr., 1967
“Bourgeois, vous n’avez rien compris!”
—student protest poster, Paris, 1968
“Our program is based on the conviction that man and mankind are capable not only of learning about the world, but also changing it.”
—Alexander Dubček, Prague, 1968
“Silence is sometimes a disgrace.”
—Yeveny Yevtushenko, Moscow, 1968
“Exigimos! Deslinde De Responsabilidades!”
—Youth poster, Mexico City, 1968
• • •
On November 2, 1968 our first child, David Aaron, was born, three days before Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States. It was a wondrous, celebratory event. On December 22nd North Korea released the crew of the USS Pueblo after having seized the 82 men and their ship in the Sea of Japan 11 months earlier. A U.S. Navy intelligence ship, the Pueblo was on a spy expedition and, according to North Korea, had sailed into North Korean territorial waters. The ship has never been returned to United States custody. Nor has the Korean War (1950-1953) ever been officially ended. Relations between the two Koreas remain tense and North Korea and the United States have engaged in a war of words and provocative military maneuvers. So far, however, “plus c’est la meme chose,” recent events notwithstanding.
The release of the Pueblo crewmen was one of the good pieces of national and international news in a year otherwise scarred by frustrated hopes, shocking tragedies, relentless war and unfulfilled dreams that seemed a portent for the future.
The intractable conflict in Southeast Asia where American military intervention entered its seventh year, following on the heels of more than a decade of diplomatic, economic and political intrusion, intensified. Casualties among Vietnamese and Americans exploded during the February and March Têt offensive. Considered in its aftermath a military “victory” for the United States and its principal ally, South Vietnam, the event in the long term was anything but, betraying the optimistic claims of U.S. military leaders and civilian policymakers that the war was being won, that victory was at hand and that the fighting would soon be over. Instead, 1968 was the bloodiest of the war: 16,582 Americans died; 45,000 were wounded. Nearly 28,000 South Vietnamese soldiers were killed. Combined death tolls of the National Liberation Front (NLF) —labeled Viet Cong by American and South Vietnamese soldiers- and the North Vietnamese army (PANV)—totaled an estimated 200,000.[i]
Though ultimately repelling the enemy from 36 provincial capitals and most of six other major cities, including South Vietnam’s capital Saigon in which it had briefly occupied the grounds of the American embassy, the offensive exposed U.S. and South Vietnamese military vulnerabilities and severely damaged their credibility. And despite the serious losses suffered especially by the NLF, North Vietnamese and NLF forces actually expanded their control of peasant populated rural areas in the aftermath of the offensive. The number of civilian refugees in the south rose sharply and desertion rates from ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) increased exponentially from 10.5 per thousand troops before to 16.5 by July 1968.
The American presidential election campaign that followed the chaotic Democratic National Convention was not really about America’s war in Asia. It was about ending race riots camouflaged as “law and order,” the issue which resonated especially with whites who voted in large numbers in November either for third-party candidate George Wallace or Republican Richard Nixon.
Declaring the war “a stalemate,” television icon CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite had traveled to South Vietnam after Têt and returned more pessimistic than his earlier report on TV suggested. NBC television reporters Chet Huntley and David Brinkley were less guarded calling the Têt offensive a “disaster” for the United States and South Vietnam. The outcome energized the anti-war movement not only in America but also abroad, in Great Britain, continental Europe and in Japan. The war, however, would not end until 1975.
The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis on April 4 and of Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles on June 5 further traumatized the nation. News of King’s murder unleashed a new wave of riots by African Americans in urban locations, including the nation’s capital, which followed those of the previous year (in 159 cities), further fracturing a civil rights movement already divided about the war and about the strategy, tactics and objectives of protest on behalf of black freedom and power.[ii]
The chaotic Democratic National Convention at the end of August during which anti-war demonstrators clashed with the city’s police force–the violent confrontation received far more live television coverage than the convention proceedings–polarized the nation still more. The American presidential election campaign that followed, however, was not really about America’s war in Asia. It was about ending race riots camouflaged as “law and order,” the issue which resonated especially with whites who voted in large numbers in November either for third-party candidate George Wallace or Republican Richard Nixon. Nixon was the victor, winning a narrow popular vote plurality over vice president Hubert Humphrey.[iii]
Events elsewhere beyond Southeast Asia in 1968 were no less convulsive, disillusioning or tragic. Bolivian troops captured and executed Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the Argentine-born Cuban revolutionary who had become a romantically heroic figure for those who sought to overthrow authoritarian regimes and upend the political and cultural status quo. In Latin America most such efforts were defeated. In Paraguay the dictator president, Alfredo Stroessner, reinforced by troops trained in the United States, strengthened his hold on power. In Uruguay urban guerrillas (the Tupamaros) failed in their efforts against authoritarianism and corruption. Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Panama Guatemala, Nicaragua and Haiti were all ruled by repressive military juntas despite unsuccessful challenges by guerrillas or student-worker organizations.
In October the International Olympic Games were held in Mexico City. After the Second World War the dominant political party in the country, the Party of the Mexican Revolution (PRM) that had governed Mexico since the 1930s, changed its name to the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution (PRI) whose principal ideology and purpose became order and stability. Holding the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico was intended to demonstrate to the rest of the world the country’s political and economic accomplishments and the PRI’s ability to maintain order and stability not only nationally but at the Games.
Almost immediately the decorum was disrupted when United States black athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos who had won gold and bronze prizes respectively in the 200-meter race (Smith won the gold in record time) defied Olympic protocol, receiving their awards shoeless and wearing black socks to protest black poverty. Smith wore a black scarf around his neck to represent black pride and Carlos unzipped his tracksuit top to show solidarity with workers and a necklace of beads worn by blacks who endured the 19th century Middle Passage and were sold into slavery. Both men bowed their heads and raised their arms with black-gloved clenched fists in symbolic solidarity with people of color while the U.S. national anthem was being performed. Smith and Carlos were booed by Olympic spectators, suspended from the United States team and expelled from the Games because of their partisan political actions.
On October 2, several thousand unarmed demonstrators, mostly but not exclusively students, gathered in the Plaza Tlatelolco, (Plaza of Three Cultures-Aztec, Spanish and Mexican) to hear speakers pleading their cause. Instead, they were met by a fusillade of gunfire from the army, killing around 500 and wounding an additional 2,500 people. More than 1,500 students, teachers, and workers were arrested. More than 100 were held without trial. The uprising was crushed. The PRI held power until 2000.
The Mexican Government was embarrassed; not least because of protest demonstrations only weeks earlier against its increasing number of civil rights violations and the country’s gross economic inequality (almost 80 percent of disposable income was owned by just 10 percent of Mexicans). Unemployment and poverty rates were high among young Mexicans, an ever-growing percentage of Mexico’s population, especially in cities. Youth took the lead in organizing protests in Mexico City, then the third largest urban area in the world (Tokyo and New York City ranked first and second), demanding a more democratic and egalitarian society. Students occupied the National University and declared a national strike. Not wanting the disruption of or distraction from the forthcoming Olympics and seeking to show that it could maintain law and order, the embattled regime called out the army to assist the city police in breaking up the demonstrations and restoring civic order. The brutality inflicted on the protestors inflamed them and increased their ranks to over a half million, including professionals and workers.
On October 2, several thousand unarmed demonstrators, mostly but not exclusively students, gathered in the Plaza Tlatelolco, (Plaza of Three Cultures-Aztec, Spanish and Mexican) to hear speakers pleading their cause. Instead, they were met by a fusillade of gunfire from the army, killing around 500 and wounding an additional 2,500 people. More than 1,500 students, teachers, and workers were arrested. More than 100 were held without trial. The uprising was crushed. The PRI held power until 2000.
The massacre in Mexico City followed by just a month the collapse of the “Prague Spring” in Czechoslovakia. In January 1968, Slovakian Communist Party leader Alexander Dubček became the First Secretary of the Communist Party (effectively the head of the Czech government). Over the next eight months, Dubček and his government launched an extensive economic and political reform agenda, considerably loosening Communist party control over the country, allowing freedom of speech and the press, tolerating political parties and organizations not subservient to the Communist party or its ruling program and decentralizing the Czech economy. Dubček swore continued loyalty to the Soviet Union and pledged that Czechoslovakia would remain a member of the Warsaw Pact, the defensive military alliance of East European communist states established under Soviet leadership in 1955. Determined to avoid a repeat of Hungary’s revolt in 1956 (during which the Hungarian government did leave the Warsaw Pact), three Warsaw Pact countries (Poland, Bulgaria and Hungary) led by Soviet troops invaded Czechoslovakia on the night of August 20-21, occupied the country and annulled the reforms, effectively ending the Prague Spring. Dubček did not resist. He resigned from the government in April 1969.
If 1968 had been mostly tragic, which it was, forecasts and predictions about the future, particularly optimistic ones, seemed dangerously naïve, at best unfathomable.
Marshall Tito in Yugoslavia and Rumania’s leader, Nicolae Ceauşecu, openly denounced the invasion and Rumania refused to join the Warsaw Pact’s action. The French, Italian and Japanese Communist parties were scathingly critical as were the governments of West European countries and the United States. Those who had welcomed the Prague Spring as a courageous sign that the rigid confines of Soviet control over Eastern Europe might be loosening and that the nearly 25 years of seemingly intransigent Cold War might come to a close sooner than later were dismayed and dispirited by the intervention and repression which brought the Prague Spring to a depressing end. Cold War norms, it appeared, would prevail. The threat of nuclear war did not diminish as the nuclear arms race continued in the midst of ever-increasing violence in Southeast Asia. Only recently empowered by a huge victory in elections for a new National Assembly after students followed by workers launched a national strike in May that was defused by the government, French President Charles de Gaulle announced on August 24th that France had successfully detonated a hydrogen bomb in the Pacific Ocean. The paternalistic de Gaulle waxed euphorically about the event: The explosion, he said, was “a magnificent scientific, technical and industrial success, which has been achieved for the security of France, by the elite of her children.”[iv] If 1968 had been mostly tragic, which it was, forecasts and predictions about the future, particularly optimistic ones, seemed dangerously naïve, at best unfathomable.
• • •
PART II: WHY? 1918-1968
“Innocence is the ultimate crime; history is the end of innocence.”
—James Baldwin, 1967
“We are a world power now and cannot afford the commerce of the world to be transacted without our being reckoned with.”
—David R. Francis, United States Ambassador to Russia, 1916
“The world must be made safe for Democracy.”
—Woodrow Wilson, 1917
“We will be the senior partner [in the League of Nations]. The leadership will be ours. The financial leadership will be ours. The industrial primacy will be ours. The commercial advantage will be ours and the other countries will look to us for leadership and direction.”
—Woodrow Wilson, 1919
“No revolution is worth anything unless it can defend itself.”
—Vladimir Lenin, 1918
“The worst thing that colonialism did was to cloud our view of the past.”
—Barack Obama, 1995
“The Truth Shall Make You Free.”
—Inscription plaque on the wall in the entrance hallway of the Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters, Langley, Virginia
• • •
The roots of what happened lay in the tumultuous 50 years before 1968.
In 1918 the world was at war in Europe, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Asia, and in the Pacific Rim. The excruciatingly barbarian conflict was in its fourth year. The United States had entered the fighting in April 1917. Russia left the war in November following the Bolshevik revolution and signed a peace treaty with Germany and Austria-Hungary in March 1918, surrendering vast quantities of resources and enormous stretches of land, freeing German and Austrian-Hungarian troops for duty on the Western Front. They were too late. The steady flow of American goods and men to France broke the military stalemate during the summer. The two central powers sued for an armistice in November. The Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union of 1946-1991, actually began as a hot war in 1918-1922 when Japan invaded Siberia in January 1918, followed by the Anglo-French occupation of northern Russia in support of an anti-Bolshevik government. In July the Japanese established an autonomous government in Siberia and reinforced their intervention with many more troops. The United States initially carried on a covert war against the Bolsheviks and financially aided their Soviet opponents with the assistance of the American Ambassador, David R. Francis. President Woodrow Wilson then authorized a U.S. Expeditionary force of 10,000 men into northern Russia and Siberia. They remained there until April 1920. The British aided an anti-Bolshevik army in south Russia and French commanders led a Polish army which invaded and occupied western Russia from 1919-1921 after which it withdrew behind the Curzon Line defining Poland’s eastern boundary until 1939.
The Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union of 1946-1991, actually began as a hot war in 1918-1922 when Japan invaded Siberia in January 1918, followed by the Anglo-French occupation of northern Russia in support of an anti-Bolshevik government.
Arguably the most significant event of the 20th century, the “Great War” (as it was known at the time) and its consequential aftermath dominated the political and economic landscape of the world for the rest of the 20th century. Until global depression and a Second World War more lethal than the first, particularly among civilians in Europe and Asia, the outcome of the “Great War” foreshadowed the rise of fascism in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. It also simultaneously expanded the imperial reach of the victors, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America while arousing resistance from native peoples in French Indo-China, British ruled India, Japanese dominated China and Korea, and against United States interventions in Latin America. Five of the victors in World War One (Britain, France, Italy and Belgium in Europe and Japan in Asia) retained their colonial possessions and divided former German possessions in Africa and the Pacific among themselves, ruling over them as mandates legitimated by the League of Nations after its establishment. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire which had allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary during the war surrendered all of its Middle East territories to British and French mandatory control. Both European powers were met with stiff resistance from the peoples inhabiting their assigned mandates: in Syria against the French and in present-day Iraq against the British, who mounted a ferocious aerial assault against the native population.
Oil had been vital to the First World War effort of America’s European allies and the United States supplied the bulk of it. After the global military conflict ended, access to and control of oil in the Middle East became the primary motive of British and French imperialism in the region. The United States challenged but did not break the European petroleum cartel throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s until 1938 when an American oil company discovered the immense oil reserves in Saudi Arabia where no oil was thought to exist. The Saudi kingdom, established in 1932, was not claimed or explored by the petroleum experts of the European oil cartel. For its part, though declining to join the League of Nations, America had become the world’s dominant economic power during the First World War, a hegemony it retained and expanded during World War II.
The outcome of the “Great War” foreshadowed the rise of fascism in Europe, Asia, and Latin America. It also simultaneously expanded the imperial reach of the victors, particularly in Africa, the Middle East, Asia and Latin America while arousing resistance from native peoples in French Indo-China, British ruled India, Japanese dominated China and Korea, and against United States interventions in Latin America.
The defeat of the Axis Powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) in the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War with the Soviet Union vastly expanded American military power (including its sole possession of the atomic bomb until 1949), worldwide political influence and global economic dominance. Perhaps equally important, however, were reinvigorated anti-colonial movements and revolts in Asia, Africa and the Middle East and the ascendancy of communism in China, the outcome of a two-decade civil war between the Nationalists (Kuomintang) and the Communists. Japan’s invasion of China (1937-1945) severely undermined the Nationalists militarily and their government was plagued by incompetence, corruption and sinking morale even after the defeat of the Japanese. Moreover, United States assistance to the Nationalists could not compensate for the weaknesses of the Nationalists or the political and military superiority of the Communists.
Though victorious in World War II, the power of European colonial regimes had been sharply diminished by wartime demands and crippling events. France, Belgium, and the Netherlands were occupied by Nazi Germany as were French colonies in North Africa and Indochina by the Japanese. Dutch controlled Indonesia had also fallen to Japanese conquest. The mother countries suffered from significant war damage, and each of them, together with Great Britain, were economically drained and dependent on the United States for economic assistance and recovery. In short, they were vulnerable to challenges from their colonies.
Moreover, colonial subjects were well aware of the extensive propaganda claims the victorious allies had widely advertised on behalf of democracy, liberation and equality and their condemnation of fascism and autocracy. The internationalization of the conflict ironically spread such ideological commitments (virtually absent during World War I) and the slogans about freedom and equality proliferated in colonial areas where the war was fought. The marked advances in communication technology aided the process. Radio (and later television) became in the 20th century what the internet became in the 21st century. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, for example, when decolonization became prominent, the transistor radio was introduced. Small enough to carry in one’s pocket and increasingly cheaper in cost, it could be used anywhere it could reach a listening audience.
Anti-colonial nationalism thrived in places where it had smoldered since the late 1920s and 1930s and in regions directly involved in or affected by the Second World War. India, in which an industrial proletariat had emerged, strikes and civil disobedience campaigns were waged and advocated by charismatic leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and M.K. Gandhi. Complicated by strife between Hindus and Muslims, Great Britain nonetheless granted independent sovereignty to India and newly created Pakistan in 1947 in the midst of violence during the territorial partition and transfer of populations between them. Over a million Muslims and Hindus died in the strife among the two peoples. Their countries have endured more than 70 years of dispute and violence over which would own Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region. India remains the largest democratic populated country in the world. In contrast, Pakistan has violently oscillated between electoral democracy and authoritarian rule. Both nations became nuclear powers in 1998, a development that dismayed the rest of the world.
… colonial subjects were well aware of the extensive propaganda claims the victorious allies had widely advertised on behalf of democracy, liberation and equality and their condemnation of fascism and autocracy. The internationalization of the conflict ironically spread such ideological commitments …
France fought to keep its empire, notably in North Africa (Algeria) and Asia (Indochina) and lost in both attempts. Both anti-colonial wars profoundly influenced French domestic politics, literature, and film and, in the case of Indochina, provided the backdrop of United States intervention. Resistance to French rule in Indochina had begun in earnest during the 1920s and 1930s and grew exponentially after Japan invaded and occupied the country during the Second World War. Ho Chi Minh, who had advocated for Indochinese independence at the Versailles Conference in 1919 to no avail, mobilized opposition to the French seeking to re-establish their control after the end of the war and defeated them during nearly nine years of bitter conflict. Ho Chi Minh was a communist but also a dedicated nationalist whose Viet Minh army took up the cause and, despite American financing of up to 80 percent of French military expenditures during the war. The United States supported France’s efforts to retain its colonial control of Indochina for several equally important reasons: to supplement American Marshall Plan aid for the recovery of France from the Second World War instead of French diversion of aid to its war in Indochina; to gain French acquiescence to and cooperation with American efforts to include West Germany in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Defense Community (EDC) and to end French opposition to West German rearmament; to provide Japan (which the United States was trying to build up as a reliable trade and political partner in the wake of the Chinese civil war and the ultimate Communist victory in China) a source for valuable resources and an alternative market for Japanese exports, discouraging Japan from entering into relations with the Chinese Communists. France suffered a humiliating defeat in 1954. The Algerian war (1954-1962) also ended in the defeat of the French and Algeria’s independence. Soon after the Second World War, France had reasserted its colonial hegemony in Algeria with increasing severity, including torture of suspected opponents. The resistance boiled over to a war in which many of French descent living in Algeria supported continued French rule but were a minority population in a country in which most of the inhabitants were Muslim Arabs.
During both conflicts, opposition to continued French occupation and military force grew in intensity within France itself. Initially led by the Communist Party that had played a leading role in the resistance (La Résistance) against the Nazis during World War II and the newly empowered national confederation of French workers, the wars in Indochina and Algeria as well as independence movements in French colonies in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere captured the attention and support of youth especially in France and persons of color in other parts of the world.
People were also reading and influenced by the anti-imperialist writings of Frantz Fanon (1925-1961), a psychiatrist born in Martinique who migrated to Algeria and was a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front. Fanon’s books, Black Skin, White Masks (1952), A Dying Colonialism (1959) and in particular The Wretched of the Earth (1961), the last printed simultaneously in English, were influential as were films such as Claude Bernard Aubert’s Patrouille Sans Espoir (Patrol Without Hope)1956 (about the war in Indochina), Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat (The Little Soldier) 1960, and Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film La battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers). By 1967, the riveting, trenchant anti-imperialist novels of Albert Camus (e.g., La Peste, The Plague 1947) and Jules Roy’s La Guerre d’Algérie (The War in Algeria) 1961, as well as Regis Debray’s, Révolution dans Révolution? (Revolution in the Revolution? 1967) were required reading for would be young revolutionaries. The writings and films were, however, more relevant in places where revolutionary conditions and broad coalitions of participants committed to similar objectives were present as French and American students discovered too late in their protest movements, or not at all.
That said, in the quarter-century after the establishment of the United Nations Organization in 1945 with 51 original members (replacing the defunct League of Nations), 53 new states joined the international body nearly all of which had previously been under the colonial rule of Great Britain, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Portugal or the United States (the Philippine Islands). Anti-colonial nationalism had prevailed, though with an uncertain and challenging future.
The United States, however, moved quickly in 1954 and 1955 to fill the vacuum left after the French defeat and withdrawal from Indochina. The reasons for American diplomatic, economic and, ultimately, military support of the regime established in South Vietnam (in violation of the Geneva accords ending the French war) were articulated candidly by President Dwight Eisenhower at a White House news conference in July 1954 during which he put the issue in a regional and global context. The United States, Eisenhower declared, had to prevent the Communist Viet Minh regime headed by Ho Chi Minh from controlling the south because of the danger of subsequent communist conquests in Southeast Asia (the “Domino Effect”). This outcome, Eisenhower stated, would shut off “important natural resources (tin, tungsten, bauxite, oil, rubber plantations) …and millions of people” from the “free world.” The loss would specifically threaten Japan’s source of markets and raw materials vital to its industrial recovery from the Second World War and its perceived role as a pro-United States economic powerhouse in Asia. Otherwise, he noted somberly, Japan would “have only one place in the world to go—that is toward the Communist areas (e.g., China) in order to live.”[v]
Though the Cold War between East and West was intense, made more dangerous by the nuclear arms race, it veered sharply into violent military confrontation in Korea from 1950-1953 and threatened to devolve into nuclear exchange during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, not once during the Cold War did the main contestants break off diplomatic relations and international communications. Trade relations, however, cramped by disputes and occasional disruptions, continued. The four major exceptions to this generalization were Communist China until 1979, Vietnam until 1994, Cuba until 2015 and currently North Korea. Each country endured war, economic sanctions, trade embargoes and diplomatic isolation before the dates cited. None of their governing regimes changed before or after these measures were undertaken, most of which failed in the attempt.
The United States, Eisenhower declared, had to prevent the Communist Viet Minh regime headed by Ho Chi Minh from controlling the south because of the danger of subsequent communist conquests in Southeast Asia (the “Domino Effect”). This outcome, Eisenhower stated, would shut off “important natural resources (tin, tungsten, bauxite, oil, rubber plantations) …and millions of people” from the “free world.”
But many “Third World” or “Developing Countries,” as most of the new countries were identified by western politicians and scholars, became proxies in the ongoing Cold War, obscuring and at the expense of more fundamental issues and challenges that were important to their domestic welfare and political maturation. In many instances, former occupying imperial powers retained considerable influence in the political economies of newly declared states or reserved the right to intervene in them in the event of domestic threats or crises. The perception, if not reality, of communist penetration, became the announced rationale or pretext for covert or overt interventions. The alleged need to protect white minorities, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, was also an excuse for intervention.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (previously a Belgian colony), for example, Patrice Lumumba led the movement for independence which was declared in 1960. A charismatic Pan-African nationalist, Lumumba became the Congo’s first prime minister. Belgian investors or owners of the vast mineral reserves (copper, iron, uranium, and cobalt) in Katanga encouraged the secession of the Congo province and received support from the Belgian government which sent troops under the cover of protecting whites but covertly aiding the Katanga secession. Lumumba asked for United Nations intervention against the secessionist movement. Belgian officials on the ground worked in tandem with the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to overthrow the Lumumba regime and to have Lumumba killed. Katanga ended its separatist regime following a UN military onslaught. In 1965 a military coup put army commander General Joseph Mobuto in power who immediately banned opposition politics and began over three decades of corrupt and dictatorial rule supported by the United States during the Cold War. Today the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along with Zimbabwe, are among the poorest and most repressive countries in the world.
The main statuary function of the CIA, established under the National Security Act of 1947, is to gather intelligence data from around the world, but the agency has never confined its activities to that task. It has engaged in covert activities in the name of the Cold War but also, in fact, attempting to overthrow governments perceived as hostile to American interests, including economic and strategic prerogatives. It worked in tandem with Britain’s MI5 (military intelligence service) in 1953 to overthrow Iran’s Musaddiq National Front government which had, among other things, nationalized the country’s oil industry largely owned by the British Government. The CIA reinstalled the Shah who created SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, which arrested imprisoned, tortured, executed, and assassinated critics and opponents. Twenty-five years later, in 1978-79, the Shi’a Islamic revolution overthrew the Shah, seized the American embassy and held 52 diplomats hostage for 444 days until January 20, 1981. The United States has had no diplomatic relations with Iran for nearly four decades.
The perception, if not reality, of communist penetration, became the announced rationale or pretext for covert or overt interventions. The alleged need to protect white minorities, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, was also an excuse for intervention.
The CIA carried out operations in other Third World countries, in Guatemala in 1954 (aiding a counter-revolutionary overthrow of the leftist regime of Jacobo Arbenz) and in Indonesia where the CIA assisted the forced removal of Achmed Sukarno in 1966 who was replaced by General T.N. J. Suharto who ruled the country with ever-increasing authoritarian measures until 1998. Indonesia finally had its first free parliamentary elections in 30 years in 1999.
In 1961, under orders of President Eisenhower reaffirmed by his successor John F. Kennedy, the CIA organized, financed and armed Cubans opposed to the government of Fidel Castro in a failed invasion attempt of Cuba. Subsequently, but also without success, the CIA tried to arrange the assassination of Castro.
The CIA’s covert activities in countries in the rest of Latin America were even more frequent. The CIA was the major United States government agency involved in bringing “Papa Doc” Duvalier to power as dictator of Haiti in 1959 and it supplied the weapons for the 1961 assassination of the Dominican Republic’s autocratic ruler Rafael Trujillo, whose cruelties against his opponents had become intolerable to American diplomats and whose business interests had grown so large (about 60 percent of the island’s economy) that they were shutting out United States corporation competition. Also in 1961, the CIA backed military forces in Ecuador which evicted the democratically elected president of the country, José Velasco, from power. It was complicit in the overthrow of Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic in 1963 and was actively engaged in the military coup against the democratically elected Brazilian government of João Goulart in 1964. In 1971 agency operatives actively and covertly aided the overthrow of the leftist president of Bolivia, Juan Torres.
The CIA was also a participant in the ouster and possible collaborator in the death of Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist leader, in 1973, the climactic event of a campaign by the Nixon Administration to undermine the Allende government, fearing that Allende’s election might set off a series of replications elsewhere in Latin America and strengthen Fidel Castro’s power in Cuba and influence abroad. Allende was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet. With United States support, Pinochet launched a war of terror (“State of Siege”) against his opponents but also against innocent civilians over the next two decades. His one-man rule finally ended in 1990.[vi]
By 1968 officials in the Johnson Administration and an increasing number of Americans doubted that military victory was possible or that defeat was no longer impossible in the region. The larger truth was that the failed intervention presaged the challenges to American world hegemony that would increasingly become evident during the next 50 years.
The CIA, as well as United States military agencies, had long been involved in Southeast Asia; both during the French war there and then, after 1955, to the end of the American intervention in 1975. The agency also violated its charter by engaging in domestic espionage and secretly employing disruptive tactics against civil rights and anti-war activists in the United States. By 1968, however, officials in the Johnson Administration and an increasing number of Americans doubted that military victory was possible or that defeat was no longer impossible in the region. The larger truth was that the failed intervention presaged the challenges to American world hegemony that would increasingly become evident during the next 50 years.
• • •
PART III: CONSEQUENCES, 1968-2018
“Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose.” Oui ou non?
“Empires die, not by murder but by suicide.”
—Arnold Toynbee, 1948
“It is such a supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons if they are used, the fact that they exist at all, their presence in our lives will not wreak more harm than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking, control our behavior, administer our societies and inform our dreams.”
—Arundhati Roy, 1999
“National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred for those who are not the same.”
—Umberto Eco, 2010
“The only real triumph of national freedom is one that brings about the triumph of all human freedom.”
—Vasily Grossman, 1965
“Justice is always in jeopardy.”
—Walt Whitman, 1871
• • •
The war in Southeast Asia extracted a plethora of casualties—physical, mental, political, economic and social. More than 2 million civilians died in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and an estimated 849,218 combatants of the Viet Cong (NLF) and the North Vietnamese army were killed. The combined deaths of the South Vietnamese Army (ARVN), South Korean and Thai troops (allied with the United States and South Vietnam) totaled over 229,000. United States military deaths exceeded 58,000. Three times as many bombs (7 million tons) were dropped by the United States during the conflict than the allied victors of World War II had detonated in all theaters of that conflict.
Two persistent myths have continued to distort the narrative of United States intervention in Southeast Asia. First, that the printed media and television reported and provided negative images of the war, some graphic, including atrocities committed by American personnel (My Lai comes to mind) and editorially objected to or condemned United States policy and conduct during the conflict. This, critics charged, caused increasing numbers of citizens to turn against the war, damaged morale among the men fighting the war, energized their opponents in the field and weakened American resolve and power to attain victory. The second complaint, often associated with the first, is that the anti-war movement forced the United States to forgo the range of its military options and increased pressure for American military withdrawal, denying the nation victory that some advocates remain convinced could have been achieved.
Scholarly research has shown that whatever editorial views may have existed in the media, most newspapers and network television stations supported U. S. military involvement in the war until well after the Têt offensive, reported the war objectively, and frequently criticized the anti-war movement.
Neither of these claims is entirely wrong, but in key respects they are flawed. To be sure, both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon paid considerable attention to the media and they too blamed it for eroding support of the war. Both administrations also attacked anti-war activists and their supporters, accusing many of them of being unpatriotic and guilty of treason. Johnson was convinced that the anti-war movement was infiltrated by communists and was receiving encouragement, information, and advice from North Vietnam. FBI and CIA officials could find no evidence supporting the accusations. Moreover, scholarly research has shown that whatever editorial views may have existed in the media, most newspapers and network television stations supported U. S. military involvement in the war until well after the Têt offensive, reported the war objectively, and frequently criticized the anti-war movement.
Most important of all, the myths ignore persuasive arguments about why the United States lost the war and why military and political leaders did not, for the most part, escalate military operations until Nixon expanded the bombing campaign in North Vietnam and secretly in Cambodia followed by the ground war incursion of the latter country in 1970. After the fact, in both cases, the number of war protestors did increase and their ranks broadened considerably. Nixon did not end or diminish the bombing raids in North and South Vietnam and his withdrawal from Cambodia was expedited not so much because of increased opposition from anti-war civilians at home; rather because of the failure of American forces to locate alleged North Vietnamese “command and control” military bases or to find and confront North Vietnamese and Vietcong soldiers in Cambodia
There were, moreover, geostrategic constraints limiting expanded U.S. military operations, such as the refusal of Johnson and Nixon to invade North Vietnam, use nuclear weapons, or open hostilities with China, which was supplying war material and advisory personnel to North Vietnam, lest any of these actions provoke overt Chinese participation in the war as it had in the Korean War or, in the case of nuclear weapon use, elicit a Soviet response.
The war itself generated opposition not only in the United States but also abroad in many countries, including Western European nations that were allies of the United States in the Cold War. Most of their leaders were at best skeptical of the United States intervention, none were willing to participate in the fighting and many were privately critical of the war. Ironically, given its futile effort to retain its Indochina colony, France’s president, Charles de Gaulle, openly condemned the United States.
While American Cold War ideology and politics mattered in the conflict, Vietnamese revolutionary nationalism had been a historically decisive driving force in Vietnam’s effort to gain independence from France and continued to be the dominant ingredient in the struggle against the Americans and their client state in South Vietnam. The NLF in South Vietnam and North Vietnam were determined to achieve success and national identity at whatever cost for however long it would take. As impatience has long been a common trait among Americans, their opponents believed correctly they could outlast their adversaries. Not least of all among the reasons the United States did not and, arguably could not, “win” the war in Vietnam was because the rationale for doing so—to defend freedom and democracy on behalf of a corrupt, authoritarian and deeply flawed regime in South Vietnam—was painfully contradicted by the realities, and by the facts concerning the American intervention itself (as documented in “The Pentagon Papers” among other sources).
Even though the anti-war movement itself did not succeed in bringing about American military withdrawal (the people of the region did that) and even though a number of anti-war activists committed counterproductive actions alienating and antagonizing even some of their intended audience, their efforts to uncover truths about the war and America’s involvement in it were a significant achievement of grass-roots organization and educational effort. So also was the defense of the constitutional First Amendment right of free speech. There is also little doubt that the anti-war movement, including resistance to the draft, played a critical role in ending the Selective Service System (the military draft) in January 1973 and the speed with which the 26th Amendment lowering the voting age to 18 was ratified in 1971.[vii]
In the United States post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) became the new nomenclature for those emotionally ravaged by the war and then again during the military campaigns in the Middle East and Afghanistan in the 21st century. Between 15 and 20 percent of the 2.7 million deployed to Southeast Asia suffered PTSD symptoms. At least 13 percent of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were affected and unemployed as of 2015. But PTSD knows no national or causal boundaries and the affliction has become applicable to civilians affected not only by war but also by forced migration, rape, childhood neglect, physical abuse, alcohol and/or drug use and mass shootings. The issue and its consequences have become more visible on the national radar screen.
The Vietnam War unleashed protracted violence in Laos and Cambodia. After the conflict ended in 1975, the newly unified Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in December 1978, overthrowing the Khmer Rouge regime that had launched a holocaust against its own people, executing almost 2 million inhabitants. The Chinese Communist government had sided with the Khmer Rouge; the Soviet Union supported Vietnam, escalating an already divisive relationship between the two largest world communist powers. China retaliated against Vietnam, its historic enemy, invading the northern provinces of the country in 1979. The Vietnamese repelled the invaders, thereafter slowly recovering from 30 years of warfare. The rivalry between China and the Soviet Union exacerbated the division between the two countries, enabling President Nixon’s “Grand Strategy” foreign policy of exploiting the fractured Soviet-Chinese relationship to the advantage and benefit of the United States. Nixon visited China in 1972, opening a dialogue that seven years later re-established formal diplomatic dealings between the two countries.
These developments followed the “Cultural Revolution” (1965-69) initiated by China’s leader Mao-Zedong who wanted to radically reinvigorate communist party zeal and remove those in the stale bureaucracy whom he accused of complacency, insufficient loyalty and undermining revolutionary goals. The regime shut down numerous institutions of higher education for some time, purged large numbers of Communist Party officials and civil servants and compelled people to migrate from cities to rural areas where they engaged in forced labor. Individuals and whole families were subject to abusive behavior or, in some instances, execution by meandering units of officially designated Red Guards who were also assigned the duty of carrying out mandatory population displacement. Solidifying the power of the State, the “Cultural Revolution” was designed to enhance the position of the party apparatus and the army within China. The program was also intended to propel China’s economic growth and stifle opposition. In its aftermath, Chinese leadership promoted sustained efforts to modernize its cities, transportation systems and industrial production—“the great leap forward.”
Whereas in 1975 the three largest global cities with populations of more than 10 million were Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, the News York-Newark metropolitan area in the United States and Mexico City, today there are 30 such cities, six of which are located in China.
In the half-century since the end of the “Cultural Revolution,” China has emerged as a regional hegemon and a major contender for global power. It boasts the world’s largest Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and possesses the world’s largest population. In 2013 China surpassed the United States as the greatest trading nation and has eclipsed America as the leading trade partner of Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Peru in South America. China’s rapid industrialization (it manufactures as much steel, for instance, as the rest of the world combined) has also made it the world’s largest exporter nation. With the departure of the United States from the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), China has stepped into the vacuum, creating, for example, an Asian infrastructure bank, through which to finance the building of roads, transportation vehicles, power plants and other projects not only in the region but also elsewhere, particularly in Africa.
Whereas in 1975 the three largest global cities with populations of more than 10 million were Tokyo and Osaka in Japan, the News York-Newark metropolitan area in the United States and Mexico City, today there are 30 such cities, six of which are located in China. As the world’s biggest producer and consumer of energy (as of 2014), China is also increasingly aware of its leading role in producing greenhouse gas and carbon dioxide emissions, resulting in polluted soil, water, and air. A signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015, the Chinese government has undertaken consideration measures to reduce pollution which kills 1.6 million of its people each year from heart, lung, and stroke ailments. Coal burning, a principal agent of pollution, is gradually being replaced by alternative renewable energy in China’s industrialized areas. Since 2014 China has reduced air pollution in the country by 32 percent in just four years. Among other things, China prohibited new coal-fired power plants and required existing ones to reduce their emissions or have the plants replaced with natural gas. Residents nationally can expect to live 2.4 years longer on average if the decline in air pollution persists.
Climate change and long-term global warming have pushed environment-related issues closer to the front of global concerns. The use of chemical herbicide weapons such as Agent Orange during the war in Vietnam and toxic waste accumulations, including from the production of uranium, in soil, air, and water in lakes, rivers and streams in the United States and elsewhere in the world, increasingly became topics of domestic and international conversation and protest after 1970. The participating countries at Kyoto in 1997 and Paris in 2015, especially China and India, have struggled to set internationally binding toxic emission reduction targets. President Donald Trump canceled United States membership in the Paris Accords in 2017 as part of his nationalist agenda of “America First” and as an expression of skepticism about climate change science.
The rise of China to global power and environmental/climate change challenges have been two of the significant developments in the half century since 1968. But they have also intersected with two other, even more, profoundly influential occurrences that have shaped and defined global affairs and international relationships during the past 50 years: nuclear power and nationalism. Both originated during the period prior to 1968, the first central to the Cold War and its ending but also its continued, looming threat; the second appearing in multiple forms-secular, theocratic, ethnocentric, revolutionary, xenophobic, autocratic, revisionist. One could argue that these two developments have become the most important political morphological forces in international affairs.
Initially, in mid-1968, prospects for controlling the expansion of nuclear weapons seemed promising. China had successfully tested an atomic bomb in 1964 but following ratification of the partial nuclear test ban treaty in 1962 between the Soviet Union, the United States and Great Britain, anti-nuclear weapons advocates pressed for further control and disarmament. By July 1, 1968, 63 nations, including the three aforementioned countries, had ratified a nuclear non-proliferation treaty (notably absent from the list of ratifying countries were India, Israel, and Pakistan). This event, in addition to other factors, helped set the stage for bilateral arms limitation and disarmament negotiations and treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972, 1974, 1979, and 1987. These agreements included inspection provisos and downsized the stockpiles of each country but did not eliminate the inventory of nuclear weapons held by each. In retrospect, these developments reduced the danger of nuclear war between the major antagonists and foreshadowed the end of the Cold War in 1989.
By July 1, 1968, 63 nations, including the three aforementioned countries, had ratified a nuclear non-proliferation treaty (notably absent from the list of ratifying countries were India, Israel, and Pakistan). This event, in addition to other factors, helped set the stage for bilateral arms limitation and disarmament negotiations and treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union in 1972, 1974, 1979, and 1987.
That said, the disarmament of nuclear weapons has not been universal and has not prevented environmental and health risks from nuclear reactor malfunctions or melt-downs such as those which occurred at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979, the explosive fire in 1986 at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant near Kiev in the Soviet Union that dispersed dangerous radioactive material over much of Europe and the partial meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan that was inundated by a disastrous tsunami in 2011. At least nine other nuclear accidents have been recorded since 1961. Today both President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump have undertaken steps to “modernize” their nuclear arsenals. Today both India and Pakistan, contentious rivals in South Asia, possess nuclear weapons as does Israel in an ever unstable Middle East. Today North Korea, which withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003 and has a formidable nuclear arms arsenal, is in a stand-off with the United States over nuclear weapons. The bitter and costly Korean War still has not been officially ended. Today the Iranian nuclear agreement with the United States and European countries is in jeopardy as President Trump has withdrawn from it. The image of the mushroom cloud still hangs over the planet.
The end of the Cold War in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were hailed as a triumph of western capitalism over Soviet communism and of democracy over authoritarian tyranny. President Ronald Reagan was accorded exaggerated credit for the outcome. The truth was much more complicated, the triumphal claim relatively short-lived and democracy compromised by imperial behavior and reactive, violence-filled ethnic nationalism.
Despite Soviet advances in industrial and agricultural production, space technology (the launching of Sputnik in 1957), civilian nuclear energy production and use (In June 1954, for example, the world’s first nuclear-generated power plant commenced operations in Russia) and apparent political stability after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Gross National Product (GNP) of the Soviet Union declined to a crawl during the 1970s. By 1979/1980 its real average annual growth rate was barely above one percent, lagging well behind the United States, Japan, West Germany and Great Britain. In contrast, China more than tripled its growth rate between 1970 and 1980.
The Soviet Union’s rivalry with China erupted in undeclared warfare along the Sino-Soviet border in 1969 that strained Soviet defense forces and relations between the two countries remained tense thereafter. But Soviet military power in any case, especially nuclear weapons capability, had been exaggerated by U.S. military intelligence to justify an American armed forces buildup. Shortly after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president, the CIA completed a secret study concerning the development of Soviet military power since 1965 and the prospects for it in the 1980s. The report explained that developing energy and demographic problems, among others, were severely slowing Soviet GNP growth and increasing Soviet military requirements to “unsustainable levels.” The report also stated and stressed that Soviet military strategy and capabilities were almost exclusively “devoted to defensive rather than offensive purposes. [Moreover] (a)ttempts to keep up or exceed the military power of the United States risk increasingly dangerous [Soviet] domestic consequences.”[viii]
The Soviet Union’s lagging military prowess was demonstrated when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to rescue a left-wing government overthrown by a military coup. The Soviet effort bogged down and Afghan resistance forces aided by the United States and Saudi Arabia repelled the invaders. The war uprooted more than three million civilian refugees who fled across the border to Pakistan and Iran. Soviet invasion forces totaling 120,000 men were compelled to withdraw from the country a decade later, in 1989. In the same year, East European countries, including the members of the Warsaw Pact, rejected communist rule and Soviet control which had been declining steadily, especially in Poland, Hungary, and Albania, since the late 1970s. Mikhail Gorbachev, elected leader of the Soviet Union by the Communist Presidium in 1985, undertook a radical transformation of Soviet domestic and foreign policies. In the wake of revolts in East Germany, dramatized by the destruction of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the rapid changes of governments in Eastern Europe, Gorbachev met with President George H.W. Bush in December and the two men declared the end of the Cold War.
But Soviet military power in any case, especially nuclear weapons capability, had been exaggerated by U.S. military intelligence to justify an American armed forces buildup. Shortly after Ronald Reagan was inaugurated as president, the CIA completed a secret study concerning the development of Soviet military power since 1965 and the prospects for it in the 1980s. The report explained that developing energy and demographic problems, among others, were severely slowing Soviet GNP growth and increasing Soviet military requirements to “unsustainable levels.”
Gorbachev’s inability to maintain the existence of the Soviet Union, however, gave way to a host of newly declared independent sovereign states defined primarily by ethnic nationalities which had peopled the defunct Soviet Union. Gorbachev resigned as president. A new Russian Federation, the largest republic of the former Soviet Union, was established in June 1990. Nationalist uprisings took place in Ukraine, the Caucasus and the Baltic states. Since then Russia has experienced capitalist cronyism, increasing political centralization of power and, under Vladimir Putin, an autocratic rehabilitation of Tsarist nationalist ambitions. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, invasion of Ukraine and Putin’s promotion of a Russian Euro-Asian ethos are also manifestations of secular ethnocentric nationalism.
The former Yugoslavia, established at the end of 1918, had survived Nazi invasion and occupation. Marshall Tito’s Communist-dominated National Front won a substantial majority of seats in a newly created constituent assembly in 1945 and ruled over the country until Tito’s death in 1980. But over the next decade, the multi-ethnic Yugoslav state disintegrated, a process hastened by the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union. It was not a peaceful transition, plunging the region into civil war during the 1990s between newly declared ethnic states, a conflict that evolved into Europe’s bloodiest conflict since World War II.
In the 21st century, nationalism has become ever more widespread and increasingly partisan, militant and conservative. The vision of “Europe Whole Again” has been pre-empted by fears generated by immigrant refugees fleeing from conflicted regions in the Middle East and Africa and by high profile terrorist acts that surged in the 1990s and the 21st century. The emergence of ultra-right xenophobic nationalism in Europe, including France, Italy, and Germany as well as governments in Austria, Hungary, and Poland, has imperiled the post -Cold War status quo of elite capitalism and exacerbated discontent among populations disillusioned and alienated by existing economic, political and social structures. Globalization of corporate capitalism and yawning inequities between and within societies have intensified dissatisfaction, political polarization and loss of confidence in established governments. The decline of confidence in institutional structures has also reached the United States. The percentage of Americans trusting and approving of government fell from 79 percent in 1964 to 19 percent in 2016 with a brief exception of a few months after the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Faith and confidence in other major institutions in American society dropped from 47 percent in 2015-16 to 33 percent in 2017-18.[ix]
The crisis of confidence has also been evident in the Middle East (the only place in the world that remains identified geographically by its distance from the West en route to the East, once upon a time called the Far East). At the end of the Second World War, the anti-colonial, nationalist revolts that swept across the Middle East involved competing nationalist ideologies affecting politics, culture, and religion. Islam claims the affiliation of the majority of the populations in the region. But until late in the 20th-century secular nationalism, including self-proclaimed socialist regimes (Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen), and monarchical regimes in the Persian Gulf States, Jordan and, until 1979, the monarchy of the Shah in Iran was the dominant form of nationalism in the region. The major exception, Saudi Arabia, had established a theocratic state based on a deeply conservative observance of Islam at its creation in 1932 that continued into the 21st century.
Location of oil reserves in the Middle East continued to be crucial in the economics and politics of nationalism in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Persian Gulf Emirates, Kuwait, Iran, Libya and Algeria (in North Africa) together with Nigeria, Angola and Venezuela are the key members of the 14-nation international oil cartel, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) which flexed its muscle in 1973, employing an embargo against western countries that had supported Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Another oil crisis occurred during the long war between Iraq and Iran (1980-1988) in which the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein sought to annex an oil-rich province on the east bank of the Shatt al Arab River and to prevent a potential uprising of the Shiite Muslim majority in Iraq against the country’s Sunni government. Access to Middle East oil was a chief motive in the Persian Gulf War (1990-91) following Iraq’s invasion and occupation of petroleum producing Kuwait. The United States led a military coalition of air and land intervention of Iraq which restored Kuwait’s sovereignty but the American intervention, launched in part from Saudi Arabia, antagonized Muslims and promoted fundamentalist reactive ideology in Muslim countries. Islamic nationalism gained adherents in the Middle East in response to corrupt and repressive secular regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria in North Africa, as well as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. In 1979 the Iranian revolution overthrew the Shah and established a Shiite Islamic republic.
The percentage of Americans trusting and approving of government fell from 79 percent in 1964 to 19 percent in 2016 with a brief exception of a few months after the 9/11 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Faith and confidence in other major institutions in American society dropped from 47 percent in 2015-16 to 33 percent in 2017-18.
Zionism, the secular Jewish nationalism that originated in late 19th century Europe, achieved its goal of a Jewish state in the aftermath of the Nazi genocidal war against European Jews and British withdrawal from its mandatory control over Palestine. The State of Israel was declared in 1948 and was immediately at war with Arab nations bordering the new nation. Israel maintained its independence but in the process Arab Palestinian residents either fled or were expelled from their homes, trapped as refugees mostly in neighboring Arab countries. The issue of recognizing the legitimacy of Israel by surrounding nations was vastly complicated by the Israeli occupation of the West Bank following the 1967 Six Days War. Israel’s borders remain contested, occupation of the territories outside of the 1949 armistice lines remains firmly opposed by Palestinians and much of the world, and repetitious violence in Israel and between its Arab neighbors (the 1956 Suez War, the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict, Israel’s invasion and occupation of southern Lebanon in 1982, the Palestinian intifadas 1987-1991; 2005-2005 and wars between Israel and Hamas, a Palestinian Sunni Islamist fundamentalist organization based in Gaza and against Hezbollah, a Shi’a Islamist political party and militant organization housed in Lebanon) have persistently disrupted regional stability and validated secular and religious nationalist extremism in both Israel and its adversaries.
United States and British military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, highlighted U.S. military over-reach and politically chaotic occupation that rivaled its tragic intervention in Southeast Asia nearly four decades earlier. The bogus claim that the Iraqi regime possessed weapons of mass destruction as the rationale for the invasion was soon repudiated by opponents of the operation and generated further terrorist attacks in Europe, Great Britain, and the United States. The invasions of both countries energized Jihadist extremism and strained American credibility and the economy. The torture and incarceration of prisoners at Guantanamo in Cuba seriously damaged American moral claims and compromised civil liberties at home and abroad. The recognized imperial behavior of the United States was widely condemned as its world power, prestige and influence deteriorated.
At the same time, demographic and economic realities of the Middle East frequently have been missed and ignored by political leaders, pundits, and self-declared authorities. Among them: Since 1970 the population of 22 Arab nations in the region has tripled from 117 million to 350 million people. In North Africa and the Middle East, 60 percent of the population is under age 30 among whom 25 to 40 percent are unemployed. Authoritative and repressive regimes, corrupted by wealth, hypocrisy and intolerance while inflicting torture and death on their victims have become routine in many of the countries and have incited resistance and revolts.
But in these same places, social media has penetrated the walls of the status quo. Women, in particular and, to a far lesser degree, gays, lesbians and transgendered people, have challenged orthodox cultural and religious practices which discriminate against them, exclude them, and sexually harass and violate them. They have followed developments, especially in the West, that have condemned sexual inequality at an increasing pace since the 1970s. Young men and women in the region have also embraced a politics of change seeking their greater involvement in political and economic decisions. Nonetheless, they face substantial obstacles extremely difficult to overcome. The velocity of Middle East politics, particularly the outcome of the “Arab Spring” in 2011, is testimony to this observation.
Fueled by social media that played an outsized role in organizing protests, spreading awareness, providing information and supplying instructive tactical advice across time and space, the political activists, mostly but not exclusively young people of both genders, confronted the more powerful institutions of what recently has been labeled “deep state power.” High-tech systems and devices could generate and aid revolutions; they could not sustain them. Only in Tunisia, where the “Arab Spring” began has the uprising appeared to achieve its aim and lead to radical outcome. That Tunisia is a comparatively small country geographically and demographically, possesses an existing, more widespread subterranean political infrastructure (despite a 20-year autocratic regime) unhindered by potentially paralyzing ethnic divisiveness, and a high level of discipline among the protestors no doubt contributed to the success and, so far, durability of the revolution.
Elsewhere the “Arab Spring” in Jordan and several of the Persian Gulf Emirates was co-opted by mild government reforms. In Egypt, the revolution lacked cohesion and was betrayed by the military which now rules with an iron fist in the name of Egyptian nationalism. After the murder of Libya’s tyrannical ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, by revolutionaries, the country descended into chaos, divided by tribal and ethnic rivalries that have made governing all but impossible. In Yemen, the regime was overthrown, but the country has been thrown into civil war between Iranian aided rebels and supporters of the newly installed government. The conflict has become a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, each bitterly competing with the other for influence, power, and leadership in the Middle East.
The “Arab Spring” met its ultimate demise in Syria where peaceful protests against the virtual dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad were met by escalating violence from the armed forces of the regime. The protests then descended into a civil war between the government and several rebel factions who Assad declared were terrorists. The civil war became a horrendous blood-bath and the country a violent playing field for outside interventionists: Iran, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Each opposed the emergence of Jihadist Islamists who attempted to exploit the chaotic instability in the region and resurrect a theocratic caliphate based in Iraq and Syria, a metastic excrescence of global Islamic extremism condemning and opposing western interventions in the Middle East and Africa.
The ultra-nationalist phenomenon has not spared the United States where anti-immigration sentiment has seasoned the political landscape … These trends have been a long time in the making and intersect with the decline of American global hegemony and growing domestic socio-economic inequality in the 50 years since 1968.
The transmogrifying crises in the Middle East and North Africa during the last decade and fears of jihadist terrorist attacks in the West but also against innocent Muslims have created some of the largest human migrations in history as people have fled from repression, violence, dislocation, political disorder or utter chaos, unemployment and in Africa from severe drought and hunger. The wave of immigrants trekking to Europe has deepened nativist exclusionist fervor and ethnocentrism reflected in the rapid growth of ultra-right politics in many European countries.
The ultra-nationalist phenomenon has not spared the United States where anti-immigration sentiment has seasoned the political landscape, intensifying political polarization, exacerbating exclusionary identity tendencies and contributing to a siege mentality, particularly among whites whose social and economic vulnerabilities have alienated them from the elite-dominated political economy and who distrust the institutions of American society. These trends have been a long time in the making and intersect with the decline of American global hegemony and growing domestic socio-economic inequality in the 50 years since 1968.[x]
Standing in marked contrast, revisionist nationalism in South Africa which in 1990 and 1991 repealed laws legalizing and legitimating apartheid, elected as president in 1994 Nelson Mandela, the nation’s most prominent advocate of racial equality, and adopted a constitution guaranteeing civil rights for all. South Africa, however, has struggled as have a number of post-colonial governments to transform and invigorate its economy or, since Mandela’s death, sustain an uncorrupted political system. The frequently overwhelming challenge has been to eliminate inequalities that separate the vast majority of blacks and the nation’s white minority and recover the moral authority of the governing party, the African National Congress. The challenge is formidable. South Africa’s unemployment rate stands at 27 percent, two-thirds of its young people are jobless, and poverty is rampant. The country’s expected economic growth rate in 2018 is 1.1 percent, one of the weakest economies in the world. The recent change of presidential administrations may, nonetheless, foretell energized efforts to reform the government and the economy.
Revisionist nationalism in Japan is on track to move the nation’s future beyond its post—World War II legacy of a passive democratic demilitarized state reluctantly acknowledging its behavior during the war. Since his election in 2012 as Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe has moved Japan’s domestic and foreign policies steadily rightward. The Liberal (actually conservative) Democratic Party (LDP) which Abe leads has ruled Japan for all but six years since 1955. It has become increasingly ultranationalist and its members populate the Japanese establishment government bureaucracy and business elite.
Abe’s programmatic agenda, in his own words, “is to escape the shackles of the postwar regime” by abandoning the U.S. occupation program of “democratizing and demilitarizing Japan.” To that end, Abe wants to revise the Japanese constitution, particularly the articles renouncing war and sharply limiting Japanese military capabilities and intentions. Under his administration, the government has increased the nation’s defense budget, established a national security council, relaxed the ban on exporting military technology, enacted a state secrets protection law and legislatively expanded Japan’s overseas military deployment.
Abe has also authorized Japanese schools to revise their history textbooks to include nationalist viewpoints concerning controversial issues such as the Nanking massacre of 1937 during Japan’s war in China and “the comfort women”—Chinese and Korean women who were compelled to serve as sex slaves for Japanese soldiers during the Second World War. Abe hopes, as well, to “legitimize official visits to the Yasukima Shrine which have been criticized for glorifying Japanese wartime leaders who were found guilty by the Tokyo International War Crimes Trial.”
Abe’s revisionist nationalist program, paraphrasing President Donald Trump, is “to make Japan great again.” As Glen Fukushima observes in his recent review of books about Japanese politics, the withdrawal by Trump of American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership has not only created a trade vacuum China will gladly fill; it will further empower Japan which is a member of the organization. The landslide victory of the LDP in October 2017 has given Abe’s agenda new energy. No doubt that fears about a possible war on the Korean peninsula enhanced his electoral win.[xi]
Progress, however defined, is not inevitable nor does it travel an unbroken perimeter. Those old enough to remember 1968 or even like me, 20 or 30 years before then, know that one should be cautious about making predictions concerning the future or even unalterable verdicts about the past.
What then do these manifestations of nationalism portend in the context of the contradictory impulses of economic, technological and communication globalization? What will the future of the world be in the wake of climate change and global warming? What are the implications of population growth especially in Africa and the Middle East? Will nuclear weapons ever be abolished? Will war and war-related deaths (which have actually comparatively decreased since the end of World War II) decline? What new advances in science will occur, especially with regard to the environment and healthcare? One of the major developments of the last half-century has been the vast improvement in combatting disease and expanding life expectancy. Mortality rates declined sharply in the last half of the 20th century and in the 21st century from 19.1 per 1,000 in 1950 to 12.9 in 1970 and 8.1 in 2015. Given the frequency of contact between humans, there have been nonetheless sharp reductions in diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis (notably except in Venezuela where the disease has dramatically reappeared under the authoritarian, politically corrupt regime of Nicolás Maduro) and major successes against viral epidemics such as AIDS and Ebola. Though varying among countries, world life expectancy among humans at birth rose from 48 in 1950, to 60 in 1970, and to 72 in 2015.
And, perhaps most significantly, will the Public Square deteriorate further or reclaim its legitimacy?
These are, of course, not especially new questions. They remain relevant issues. Progress, however defined, is not inevitable nor does it travel an unbroken perimeter. Those old enough to remember 1968 or even like me, 20 or 30 years before then, know that one should be cautious about making predictions concerning the future or even unalterable verdicts about the past.
For those who are hesitant about whether, how, where and when to contest the established status quo, speak truth to power and pursue justice for all, Shakespeare—the timeless reminder of our ambitions, our virtues, our flaws, our behaviors, our commitments and our histories—gives to Brutus in Julius Caesar a challenge we must engage:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves, or lose our ventures.”