Online version of: Nissani, M. (1992). Lives in the Balance: the Cold War and American Politics, 1945-1991.


I call it the Madman Theory, Bob. I want the North Vietnamese to believe I've reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We'll just slip the word to them that, "for God's sake, you know Nixon is obsessed about Communism. We can't restrain him when he's angry-and he has his hand on the nuclear button"-and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.

Richard Nixon,1 1968

The madmen are planning the end of the world. What they call continued progress in atomic warfare means universal extermination, and what they call national security is organized suicide.

Lewis Mumford,2 1946

The earth will probably sink and drown; but at least it will be the result of generally acknowledged political and economic ideas, at least it will be accomplished with the help of science, industry, and public opinion, with the application of all human ingenuity! No cosmic catastrophe, nothing but state, official, economic, and other causes.

Karel Capek,3 1936


Nuclear Diplomacy

The notion of brinkmanship (Chapter 5) is counterintuitive. Given the enormously destructive power of nuclear bombs, their potentially devastating environmental impact, and the 12,000 nuclear bombs the Soviets could fire at the continental United States, any attempt to use these weapons in any role other than deterrence appears insane. Ordinary people might be familiar with something like the oft-cited advice to American policy makers at the dawn of the nuclear age: "Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them. It can have almost no other useful purpose."4a From cradle to grave Americans been have assured that their country subscribed to this notion. Even when the U.S. enjoyed a decisive nuclear edge, American leaders often embraced this view in public. As early as 1954, for instance, President Eisenhower said: "We have arrived at that point, my friends, where war does not present the possibility of victory or defeat. War would present to us only the alternative of degrees of destruction. There can be no truly successful outcome."5

All the same, we need more than apparent implausibility to reject, or accept, the brinkmanship interpretation. The best clue to its verisimilitude does not lie in intuition, avowals, and a priori reasoning, but in the historical record.

Truthfulness and objectivity seem to be the exception in politics, not the rule. The power elite in nineteenth century America said little about dispossession and economic exploitation of Native Americans, and a great deal about manifest destiny. European colonialists said little about profits, balance of payments, or national power and prestige, and much about civilizing missions, Christianity, and the white man's burden. Iosif Stalin declared- and the majority of Soviets and Eastern Europeans probably believed-that his policies sought peace and justice. During their long war with the Spartans, the ancient Athenians had to be reminded: "Do not imagine that you are fighting about a simple issue, freedom or slavery; you have an empire to lose, and there is the danger to which the hatred of your imperial rule has exposed you."6 Such historical precedents show that a nation's actual policies can sharply differ from its stated policies, and that a great number of citizens often confuse avowals with facts. It remains to be seen whether this applies to Cold War America.

For the most part, the discussion in the last three chapters was anchored on the assumption that our actual policies have been chiefly aimed at safeguarding freedom and deterring nuclear attack. Virtually none of our strategies and decisions, we saw, served this purpose. From the insincere Baruch plan to the proposed militarization of space; from the mid-1940s' claims of Soviet conventional superiority to 1989 claims of Soviet superiority in laser technology, from the strategy of massive retaliation to that of nuclear war fighting, from Eisenhower's to Bush's "Open Skies" proposals, we had to conclude that our military policies could not be interpreted, by any stretch of the imagination, as serving the cause of deterrence. Occasional irrelevancies between policy objectives and the means used to achieve them are to be expected in human affairs, but a consistent divergence between ends and observed means raises serious questions. In particular, the possibility exists that the divergence is not between means and ends, but between the stated and actual ends of America's nuclear policies.

How does the brinkmanship interpretation fare with the same facts? To answer this question, we need to re-examine our Cold War policies, this time under the new premise that these policies were neither essentially defensive nor aimed at deterrence, but offensive and aimed at retaining or regaining a politically meaningful nuclear edge. I shall not attempt a detailed re-interpretation of the strategies, claims, and events discussed in the last three chapters, for the evidence seems to be conclusive-the brinkmanship hypothesis throws more light on American policies than its deterrence rival. Time and again, policies that can only be judged as astoundingly irrational or misinformed under the deterrence premise suddenly acquire a meaning.

The case being so clear, I shall merely place a few facets of our policies under this new magnifying glass.

The brinkmanship interpretation is not, by a long shot, the imaginary hallucinations of some wild-eyed radicals. Apparently, it has been taken for granted by some of our most influential decision makers. A former Secretary of State wrote in 1982 that the loss of American nuclear superiority in the early 1970s "was a strategic revolution even if the Soviets did not achieve a superiority of their own. For that, to some extent, freed the Soviet capacity for regional intervention."7 This view is shared by other mainstream analysts: "American superiority in nuclear weapons . . . was an important element in inducing Soviet caution."8 Another observer attributes "the surrender of Soviet pretensions over West Berlin,  . . the [favorable] outcome of the Cuban missile crisis, and . . . the prudent Soviet stance in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war" to the diplomatic leverage the United States obtained from the nuclear edge it still enjoyed in the 1960s.9a

Some observers believe that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki "may well have been intended as much to impress and intimidate the Soviet Union as to bring the war with Japan to a prompt conclusion."10a Mainstream American historians scoff at this "revisionist" charge. Still others take an intermediate position. For instance, after expressing uncertainty about Hiroshima, President Kennedy's special assistant for national security affairs wrote in 1988 that "it is hard to see that much could have been lost if there had been more time between the two bombs."11a But regardless of one's views on this controversial matter, it is certain that the first peacetime tests of nuclear weapons were carried out by the U.S. and that "the idea that nuclear bombs are actually usable as military weapons and as instruments of coercion in international affairs is an invention of the Western powers."10b

That the U.S. was the first to test and use nuclear weapons is well known, but we must explore the point about coercion. "In addition to the abstract notions of deterrence ostensibly conferred on the US and USSR by their mutual nuclear weapons capabilities held in readiness against the other, these weapon systems have been utilised in crises far more often than people-including political scientists-are aware of. We have been fortunate that this level of use has not yet led to actual use in wartime, but that has perhaps been due to more complex factors than the restraint with which we ordinarily assume nuclear weapons are handled."12a "U.S. leaders have run calculated nuclear risks not for self-defense, high moral principles, or the protection of weak countries from the Soviets, but to further U.S. power."13a

The first quotation might have raised some eyebrows in 1980, when it was published. By now the facts it describes are either acknowledged or ignored-but not to my knowledge denied-in all Western scholarly and official publications. At the very least, the U.S. employed nuclear coercion in nineteen separate incidents.12b It certainly did not take much to trigger this tactic. For instance, Guatemala's acceptance of "Soviet block support" (see below) in May 1954 led to an implicit nuclear threat against the Soviet Union.14 Similarly, according to President Eisenhower, veiled nuclear threats were decisive in ending the Korean War in 1953 and the conflict over the tiny Taiwanese islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1955 and 1958.11b President Carter made it clear in 1980 that "an attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force."13b Administration officials explained that Carter was referring to nuclear weapons: "The Soviets," said one, "know that this terrible weapon has been dropped on human beings twice in history and it was an American president who dropped it both times. Therefore, they have to take this into consideration in their calculus."13c

Psychologically, brinkmanship throws some light on the ever-lasting gaps, windows, and alleged Soviet plans to win nuclear wars. It is far easier to attribute one's own intentions and capabilities to an implacable enemy than to figure out what the other side thinks and does. Also, real motives and intentions-regardless of who actually holds them-are as a rule far more credible than imaginary ones.

The recurring theme in influential political and military circles in the U.S. "that the use of nuclear weapons must be regarded as absolutely normal, natural, and right" and the efforts to attack "emotional resistances to using nuclear weapons"4b are utterly incomprehensible under deterrence theory; practitioners of deterrence are expected to daily sing the horrors of nuclear war, not its praises. But the West's proclivity to normalize the unthinkable is entirely consistent with brinkmanship. Even in 1992, high-ranking American officials are not in the habit of admitting in public-as their Russian counterparts have been freely doing for decades-that a nuclear war would be an unparalleled catastrophe.

A few quotations will suffice to give the flavor of this line of thinking. An American Secretary of State (1954): "It should be our agreed policy in case of war, to use atomic weapons as conventional weapons against the military assets of the enemy whenever and wherever it would be of advantage to do so."4c A former commander of our nuclear forces (1968): "A war fought from . . . a base of nuclear superiority would leave the United States sorely wounded, but viable and victorious."4d An influential analyst (1979): "There is a role for . . . the sensible, politically directed application of military power in thermonuclear war."4e George Bush felt that a nuclear war could be won (1979): "You have a survivability of command and control, survivability of industrial potential, protection of a percentage of your citizens, and you have a capability that inflicts more damage on the opposition than it can inflict on you. That's the way you can have a winner."13d

The United States has never disavowed the first use of nuclear weapons. On the contrary, it has been explicitly committed to deploy such weapons first "to repel a Soviet invasion of Western Europe."10b This commitment is also implicit in America's declaratory policies, dating from 1979, to use any means necessary to protect its interests in the Middle East.

In the late 1980s, the USSR presented the deterrence/brinkmanship dispute with a crucial test. Practitioners of deterrence and democracy would have greeted Soviet reforms with open arms. They would have agreed, as early as 1985, to massive bilateral military cutbacks. They would have responded to the Soviet testing moratorium with gestures of their own. They would have gasped with disbelief and joy at Soviet disengagement from Eastern Europe, though they may have been somewhat wary about the re-unification of Germany and the chaos, bloodshed, nationalist hysteria, ethnic feuds, and religious fanaticism that the breakup of the Soviet Union itself might unfold. Their suspicions that the Soviets were still playing war and politics by the old rules would have been largely dissolved once they noticed Soviet willingness to accept unfair disarmament proposals. They would have realized that Soviet humanitarians faced formidable reactionary opposition (especially from communists and nationalists), that they faced severe economic challenges, and that their fate hinged in part on Western cooperation and help. Although Russian, Ukrainian, and other reformers may succeed despite America's wait-and-see attitude, American policies raised the probability of reversion to the authoritarian past and renewal of the Cold War. Even though American policy makers understood that much, they seemed unduly reluctant to let go of the "enemy" which so faithfully justified their domestic, foreign, and military policies. Needless to say, their actions accord with the brinkmanship interpretation, not its deterrence rival.

Proponents of the deterrence interpretation fail to account for America's pursuit of overkill. In contrast, brinkmanship theory demands it, as one Pentagon consultant put it:

One hears it said endlessly that the competition between American and Soviet . . . nuclear forces is . . . futile, because each side can already destroy the population of the other "many times over." That . . . is a vulgar misunderstanding. It is not to destroy the few hundred cities and larger towns of each side-easy targets neither protected nor concealed-that . . . nuclear forces continue to be developed. The purpose is not to threaten cities and towns already abundantly threatened, to "overkill" populations, but rather to threaten the . . . nuclear forces themselves. . . . Thus there are several thousand targets, as opposed to a few hundred cities and towns, and many of those targets can be destroyed only by very accurate warheads.9b

Though there is no attempt to trace the origins of the "vulgar misunderstanding" in this analyst's writings, the point itself is well taken and explains much that otherwise defies explanation. It is consistent with the brinkmanship theory's basic postulate of the strive for asymmetry (Chapter 5). It puts the perennial obsession with warhead accuracy in a new light. It tells us why we developed the H-bomb, multiple warheads, killer submarines, and the like. It explains our resolve to militarize space: it is not the technically impossible absolute shield that we are after, but a shield which might appear strong enough to continue playing Russian roulette. It tells us why the U.S. targeted 10 percent of its strategic weapons at Soviet population centers and some 90 percent at the Soviet Union's military forces.15 It explains why, even under Secretary of Defense McNamara, the shift to assured destruction was at the declaratory level, while the actual targeting policy remained unchanged.16 Indeed, how else could the reported 1983 existence of more than 40,000 potential targets be explained?4f It elucidates otherwise inexplicable utterances about thinking the unthinkable, acceptable

casualty levels, limited nuclear exchanges, controlled nuclear salvos, escalation dominance, nuclear victories, and well-managed nuclear conflicts.


American Intervention in the Third World

I have documented earlier the sharp contrast between (1) American domestic policies, which have been, taken as a whole, more humane and rational than pre-1985 Soviet policies, and (2) American disarmament policies, which have been, for the most part, less humane and rational than the Soviets.' The same sharp contrast can unfortunately be observed between the two nations' domestic and Third World policies. Here is a 1980 appraisal:

The Soviet regime is without doubt the bloodiest and most deceptive caricature in modern history, a cruel parody of the ideas that supposedly inspire it. . . . And yet in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, national liberation movements . . . generally find that the Soviet Union is on their side, while the liberal democracies of the West have almost always during the past three decades been on the side of oppression in the Third World.17

In public, American policy makers and their academic underlings usually explained this strange situation in something like the following terms. We faced, they said, an unpleasant dilemma. Sure, many of the Third World's peoples have been ruled by cynical, heartless, and greedy tyrants. We did not like these tyrants, but we kept them in power because the alternative was even worse: if we abandoned these tyrants, they would have been replaced by even more ruthless communists, who would then pose a grave threat to their people and to our security and freedom.

Convincing as this argument may sound, many proponents of the brinkmanship interpretation persuasively argue that it has nothing to do with the real world. The choices we faced in Greece, Turkey, Cuba, South Vietnam and scores of other places were not between dictators and totalitarians, but, they say, among dictators, totalitarians, and New Deal democrats. To be sure, unlike the dictators but like genuine democrats everywhere, these democrats have been more concerned with the plight of their peoples and less concerned with the profit margins of American corporations; their foreign policies were more independent of ours; and they believed that the best way of fighting totalitarianism was not jailing, killing, or torturing communists, but bringing greater freedom to their peoples.

In view of this issue's controversial nature and vast scope, the following account subserves a modest goal: showing that allegations of American preference for Third World dictators over both communists and democrats are not as far-fetched as a casual reading of our newspapers and semi-official histories might suggest. To do this, the narrative is limited to just one country-Guatemala- chosen at random from among a score of countries which readily present themselves. It is largely confined to one period in that country's history: The Guatemalan Spring, 1945-1954. It avoids questionable occurrences and moot theoretical points, sticking instead to accepted facts. I shall then argue that this sad tale provides a reasonable approximation of not only U.S.-Guatemalan relations but of America's Third World policies as a whole.18 From this I shall conclude that, at the very least, brinkmanship and imperialism-despite their untextbookish nature-are more plausible than the competing interpretations of deterrence and of American commitment to a democratic Third World.

In 1944, the order which prevailed in Guatemala can be best described as feudalism, twentieth century style. Hunger and malnutrition were widespread. The death rate was one of the highest in the world,19a which meant, for example, that one out of every two Guatemalan children never made it beyond the age of five.20a Only three out of ten Guatemalans could read.21a Some 2 percent of the people owned more than 70 percent of the land, and 75 percent owned less than 10 percent of the land. Annual per capita income was $180 overall, and for the poorest two-thirds, $70. More than half of all Guatemalans lived in one-room shacks with no running water, windows, or cooking facilities. More than half could not afford to buy a single pair of shoes.

In some ways, these numbers portray an unrealistically bleak sketch. They ignore, for example, the rewards of economic self-sufficiency; the beauty of semi-communal village life; the psychological rewards of firmly belonging to one place, of cooperation with one's fellows, of frequent, whole-hearted celebrations, and of intimate ties to the land. In other ways, the sketch these numbers portray is not dark enough. It is hard for the average book reader to grasp the meaning of these numbers and their impact on every aspect of one's life. It is not even enough to spend months in a remote highland village to grasp this ghastly side. One must grow up there and then escape-from intellectual darkness, helplessness, continuous struggle for sheer survival, debilitating diseases, premature deaths, indignation suffered because of one's race, poverty, or backwardness-to know what it really means. The closest that one can come to understanding such misery from afar is through works of fiction.

But while the majority was living in abject poverty, a few thousand families-wealthy Guatemalans and foreign employees of American corporations-were living very well indeed. These individuals usually owned a few cars, one or more modern houses, or a large country estate. They maintained a retinue of servants. They often studied and traveled abroad. They thus made up a few scattered reefs of affluence and extravagance in an ocean of penury and depredations.19b

The American-owned and -operated United Fruit Company (UFCO) held a special place in this feudal society. UFCO began its Guatemalan operations at the turn of the century. At that time, an enterprising railroad baron developed and acquired control of the nation's transportation network, including Guatemala's only railroad and shipping port. This monopolistic position made it possible for the new company to railroad small banana-growing companies out of business and to gradually acquire a major share of Guatemala's banana business. As UFCO's economic power grew, it proceeded to make the political climate of its host country as congenial to profit maximization as possible. Given an income greater than that of any government in Central America, and given UFCO's willingness, while in Guatemala, to behave as the local politicos and power elite did, UFCO became a dominant force in Guatemalan politics. To many Guatemalans it was known as El Pulpo-an

octopus holding sway over Guatemala's political and economic life.22a

By the 1940s, UFCO owned some 20 percent of Guatemala's arable land and was the country's largest employer. By then, UFCO's profits from its Latin American operations amounted to twice the revenues of the Guatemalan government. Its profits from Guatemala alone amounted to some 50 percent of total government revenues. Naturally, by the early 1940's UFCO was virtually exempt from paying taxes. The living conditions UFCO provided for its Guatemalan farm workers were far worse, for example, than those depicted in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath or In Dubious Battle, but they were better than those enjoyed by most Guatemalans under the employ of their own fellow countrymen.

UFCO was the largest and, probably, most hated, foreign company in Guatemala, but it was not the only one. About 80 percent of Guatemala's electric power was provided by a private, American-owned power company.23a In addition to foreign corporations, a few Guatemalan landowners, politicians, and industrialists were taking their fair share of the spoils too.

From 1931 to 1944 the country was under the rule of one Jorge Ubico, who came to power as the result of a "U.S.-engineered election."22b By today's standards Ubico was a benign, somewhat comical, dictator with Napoleonic aspirations and a great deal of admiration for Franco and Mussolini.24 But to most of his subjects his long rule was no laughing matter. Executions, tortures, a salary some 1,300 times that of his average subject, election results 308,000 to 0 in his favor, being but a few of his misdeeds.

As elsewhere in the American continents, Native Americans suffered oppression, depredation, and exploitation. But in contrast to the U.S. and Canada, Native Americans constitute the majority of the population in Guatemala. Most of them lived, as mentioned, under conditions of unimaginable poverty. Under Ubico, discrimination against them was the law of the land; it being legal, for example, for wealthy landlords to shoot on sight any Native American found hunting wild game on their land.25

Like other Central American countries, Guatemala was a virtual protectorate, or semi-colony, of the United States.26a To avoid costly and unpopular direct interventions in this region, the U.S. created and trained professional armies. This led to the "militarization of political life and an institutionalising of armed terror as the basis of the stability of oligarchical rule."26b As a result, Central American governments in the early 1940s were "anti-democratic  . . a throwback to feudal despotism."26c

In 1944, a series of demonstrations, protests, and strikes ensued. In the face of widespread opposition to Ubico's rule, the army eventually refused his orders to crush the rebellion. Ubico resigned and went into retirement in New Orleans. There followed a few months of a new, equally repugnant dictatorship, which in turn was ousted from power through a second revolution in October, 1944.

Revolutions frequently bring about greater horrors than the horrors they set out to eliminate, e.g., Iran's Islamic Revolution. In contrast, Guatemala's October Revolution was an exceptionally successful affair. It was followed by fairly free elections, certainly the freest in Guatemala's turbulent history.21b The revolutionary party's presidential candidate was Juan Arevalo, a liberal writer and teacher who was in exile during the revolution. The old guard put forward a few candidates of its own. Arevalo won and became president in March of 1945.

Early during Arevalo's presidency a new democratic constitution was ratified. This constitution, which remained in force throughout the Guatemalan Spring (1945-1954), mandated checks and balances among the three branches of government, universal suffrage, freedom of speech, press, and assembly; as well as a few other items that Westerners take for granted but that were never before enjoyed by Guatemalans.

Arevalo's foreign policies were more independent of the U.S. than those of his predecessors. When the Korean War broke out, Guatemala expressed solidarity with the U.S. Unlike the U.S., Guatemala severed political relations with two repressive governments in its vicinity-Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic. Arevalo's government supported a movement of radical democrats, the Caribbean Legion, which was committed to the creation of democracies by any means, including revolutions (a movement which contributed, incidentally, to the rise of Costa Rican democracy21c). Arevalo felt that Central American countries ought to merge into a single nation, but failed to convince his dictatorial neighbors to do so. In short, Guatemala's foreign policies, like its internal policies, seem to have been democratically inspired.

Arevalo's administration enacted a Labor Code which laid down the foundations for a social security system and protected employees from arbitrary firings. This code marginally improved employees' rights and working conditions. However, true to Arevalo's gradualist philosophy, those conditions were still a far cry from those enjoyed then by American or Swedish workers.

Arevalo's government allocated more funds and resources to education, especially of the illiterate poor, than any previous Guatemalan administration. Official racial discrimination was ended, although under the best of circumstances it would have taken generations to close the social, economic, and cultural gap between the races.

A few hundred communists were politically active during Arevalo's tenure in office. Arevalo himself was decidedly anti-communist, but as in all other democracies today, communists were left unmolested. They were also permitted to hold a few low-level official posts. Though critical of Arevalo's slow, gradualist, approach, the communists supported his reforms. The Communist Party was small and had little access to the army, police, or cabinet. Given these weaknesses, along with Arevalo's popularity and anti-communism, the chances of a communist takeover were probably minuscule; slightly higher, perhaps, than they were in 1982's Spain.

The charge of communism is critically important to our saga, as it provided the sole official justification for subsequent American policies. Even today, most journalistic reviews and college textbooks take this charge for granted. Yet, the record itself unequivocally suggests that Americans have not been told the truth. To dispel doubts, let me quote two former State Department officials. First, a memo written in 1945 concerning suspicions that Arevalo had communist sympathies:

Anyone even reasonably well informed about his teachings, writings and general activities would be inclined to pass over such suspicions as being so utterly without foundation as to call for no response.21d

Second, a retrospective look (published in 1976) by another official:

Arevalo held that communism, as a doctrine, was antidemocratic and that the international movement was an enemy of democracy and of the people of Latin America. Arevalo banned the Communist party and deported Communist leaders for illegal activities early in his administration. Yet he insisted that the civil rights of all citizens, including Communists who did not violate the law, be protected. As a result, Communist leaders did have an opportunity to air their beliefs and programs, and popular support for them grew under Arevalo. Communists from abroad were allowed to visit the country and local Communists held posts in his administration.23b

However, American policy makers were troubled by the 1944 revolution's democratic aftermath. The U.S. ambassador was implicated in several attempts to overthrow the young democracy, and in 1950 Arevalo formally requested his recall.23c The democracy badly needed financial aid; in nine years Guatemala received less than one million dollars. It needed arms to defend itself; since 1948 the U.S. turned down repeated requests to supply arms and applied strong and effective pressures on all its allies to do likewise. According to some Guatemalan writers, this embargo was so effective that by 1954 it left their country unable, not only to equip its army, but to provide game hunters with ammunition.

Notwithstanding Arevalo's entire record, Congress and leading American newspapers conducted an anti-Guatemalan campaign. "What is surprising," says one former State Department official, "is that there was virtually no expression of the Guatemalan side of the story in Congress" or in major American newspapers.

For example, Guatemalan national resentment about how the United Fruit Company allegedly had gained its hold was not mentioned, nor was the fact that the company had almost exclusive control of Guatemala's major railroads, port, and of many of the ships which carried its foreign trade. . . . Perhaps the most notable omission was any reference to the many social and economic reforms which had been introduced in Guatemala since Ubico's fall and the sharp contrast in the democratic practices of the Arevalo administration as compared with the dictatorial methods of many of his predecessors.23d

Arevalo left office in 1951, thoroughly disillusioned about American hostility to his efforts to establish capitalism with a human face. "In the ideological dialogue . . ." he said in his farewell address "the real winner was Hitler."23d

In short, while Americans were being killed by the thousands in Korea, defending a pro-American dictator against an anti-American totalitarian, and while the U.S. was paying hundreds of millions of dollars to prop up dictatorial regimes in Greece and Turkey, a Western-style democracy was emerging in Guatemala, just south of the Mexican border, from the ravages of feudalism. Amazingly, the U.S. was going out of its way to bring feudalism back.

The next elections were held in 1950. Though they involved some inexcusable government fraud, irregularities, violence, and intimidation of the opposition, they "marked the first time in Guatemalan history that executive power had freely passed from one civilian to another."22c The two chief contenders were Jacobo Arbenz, a man from Arevalo's party and a leader of the October Revolution, and an old order oligarch. After reportedly receiving more than 60 percent of the votes, Arbenz assumed the presidency.

Arbenz shared Arevalo's political philosophy. In his 1951 inaugural address, Arbenz set out to transform Guatemala "from a dependent nation with a semi-feudal economy to an economically independent country . . . from a backward nation . . . to a modern capitalist country . . . and . . . to accomplish this transformation in a manner that brings the greatest possible elevation of the living standards of the . . . people."20b

To accomplish these goals, Arbenz was willing to take greater risks than Arevalo. The centerpiece of his program was moderate land reforms. Under his plan, idle land in excess of 223 acres would be transferred from the 1059 largest landowners (including land owned by himself and by his foreign minister). The land was to be handed over to peasants, each receiving from 8 to 33 acres. Most of the recipients were to pay rent at the rate of 3-5 percent of the value of annual produce of the land. Previous landowners would receive partial compensation for their losses (based on the unrealistically low value they themselves assigned to it in their tax returns). By 1954, about 100,000 peasant families, or some 500,000 individuals (mostly Native Americans), were cultivating land that otherwise would have been idle and were often getting financial credits, technical aid, and training. As a result, food prices went down and living standards went up.

Arbenz's agrarian program could be criticized on various grounds. It was, for example, hastily conceived and implemented; it gave the government too much power and influence over the peasants; and, like inheritance tax in many American states, it marginally eroded the privileges of the upper class. But there is no doubt that the program served well the long-term interests of democracy, Guatemala, the U.S., and even the Guatemalan upper class itself. In the words of a former State Department official:

To the land hungry peasant in Guatemala the agrarian reform probably looked like manna from heaven . . . policies of forced labor and debt peonage had been commonplace throughout most of Guatemala's history. Good farm land is scarce . . . where most of the population resides and most . . . landholdings are pitifully small. Suddenly, the agrarian law promised land for the landless, more land for those having too little to provide a living for their families, and an end to land monopoly and exploitation by wealthy landlords . . . Peasants and workers . . . were made to feel that the government had suddenly acquired a genuine interest in their welfare.19c

Needless to say, this program did not endear Arbenz to most of the 1,059 comfortable landowners, including UFCO, the largest of them all. UFCO also had to deal with a labor force demanding reforms, often with some government backing. UFCO also faced a threat to its monopoly of Guatemala's overland and overseas shipping. The threat in this case did not come from attempts to nationalize Guatemala's railroads (which in 1951 were charging the highest rates in the world) or its single port, as democratic governments elsewhere had done. The threat came from construction of a new railroad (parallel to UFCO's) and a new port on the Pacific Coast (besides UFCO's port on the Atlantic). Likewise, to break the monopoly of the American electric power utility, Guatemala refrained from regulating this utility's affairs-as Americans chose to do in their own country. Instead, it set about constructing additional power plants.

With Arbenz in power, Washington's McCarthyization of Guatemala escalated. Communists held some low-level positions in Arbenz's administration: for the President, Congress, and the media this sufficed to turn Guatemala into a "beachhead for Soviet Communism" in the Americas. The U.S. continued the arms embargo and twisted the arms of other Western democracies to do the same. At the same time, the U.S. supplied arms and money to the democracy's foes. In desperation, after years of vainly trying to purchase arms in the West, Arbenz decided to buy some arms from Czechoslovakia, thereby clinching the witch-hunters' case against the Guatemalan Spring.

The Eisenhower administration came to power in 1953. It wasted little time carrying Truman's Guatemalan policies to their logical conclusion. The final act, planned and bankrolled by the CIA, involved a 1954 invasion of Guatemala by a small band of mercenaries and disaffected oligarchs. Because they could not prevail over the Guatemalan army on their own, their invasion was boosted by bombing of the capital with planes flown by American pilots, a CIA-operated radio station, and bribes given to Guatemalan generals by the United States' ambassador. The invasion was preceded by the stationing of long-range U.S. bombers in Nicaragua; apparently, a nuclear warning to the Soviet Union to refrain from counteracting the invasion.14

Arbenz resigned. For a few days, the American ambassador played the role of a de facto Guatemalan president. Through a variety of tactics (including intimidation and bribes), he installed the man chosen by the CIA to lead the coup, Carlos Castillo Armas, as Guatemala's new ruler.

And so it was that, a short time before President Eisenhower was disserving the cause of peace, freedom, and American national security by turning down Soviet comprehensive disarmament proposals, he was disserving this cause by bringing Guatemala's one and only democratic experiment to an end. Likewise, shortly before President Eisenhower's speech writers were to perform their capable best to misinform the American people about the true nature of the Soviet proposals, they misled their countrymen about the true nature of the Guatemalan Spring:

The people of Guatemala, in a magnificent effort, have liberated themselves from the shackles of international Communist direction and reclaimed their right for self-determination . . . I pay tribute to the historic demonstration of devotion to the cause of freedom given by the people of Guatemala and their leaders.21e

There is no reference here to the people of the CIA or UFCO. No mention of the "number of close connections" between the Eisenhower administration and UFCO, "beginning with Secretary of State Dulles, whose law firm . . . numbered UFCO among its clients."22d No acknowledgment of the dirty psychological warfare, complete with bribes, arms embargoes, and intimidations. No forecast of the likeliest outcome of this "liberation": decades of human rights abuses "as appalling as any in the hemisphere."22e No mention of nuclear brinkmanship. No mention of risking a rift on this issue with Britain and France.21f,27 No mention of the fact that Guatemalans have never been as free as they had been during the few years of their mid-century Spring. No attempt to prove a Stalinist direction; on the contrary, the Soviets seemed to have regarded the October Revolution as a "petty bourgeois" democracy.23e Nor, when talking about regained freedom, could Mr. Eisenhower mean freedom to speak without fear, organize political parties, or read Dostoyevsky-which was brought to an end in 1954; but freedom to starve, be exploited, shot, and discriminated against-which was reinstated.

So much for intelligence and candor in high places. A truer assessment appeared elsewhere:

Deep down everyone in Guatemala knows that Communism was not the issue. Feudalism was the issue, and those who profited from feudalism won.21g

In the 38 years which followed, Guatemala has shown greater respect for U.S. interests than it had shown during its brief democratic interlude. Shortly after assuming power, Castillo Armas dispossessed 100,000 families of their newly-acquired lands, returning these lands to UFCO and other rich landowners. (By 1970, UFCO changed its name to United Brands, Inc.22f) The oil and timber concessions which Arevalo and Arbenz denied American corporations were granted. In time, the number of thriving American corporations climbed into the dozens. The Guatemalan government was anxious to create an ideal business climate. For instance, American corporations in Guatemala were living in the executive's dreamland-a strike-free environment in which intransigent labor leaders were routinely incarcerated, tortured, and killed.

The price of this favorable business climate was onerous. Today, Central American societies and nations are even more polarized than they were in the mid-1950s, with the opposition even more anti-American than before. The Guatemalan Spring was largely a middle class affair; since then, many less educated peasants have joined the conflict. To one well-meaning American official, at least, the best hope is recurrence of the Guatemalan Spring. Surveying the spreading reprisals, massacres, and tortures, he commented in 1980: "What we'd give to have an Arbenz now."28

Though the price paid by ordinary Americans was burdensome enough, the heaviest toll was exacted from the Guatemalan people. Arevalo's constitution and the rule of law are gone; instead the country has been turned into a slaughterhouse, alternating from 1954 to 1991 between periods of bloodshed and relative calm. Since 1954, "state terrorism" has been institutionalized in Guatemala, the oligarchy and military waging "open warfare against all reformist elements."26d Intermittently throughout the last 38 years, government-backed organizations like The Death Squadrons and An Eye for an Eye were terrorizing the vast majority. Communists were assassinated without trial, as were outspoken liberals, clergymen, union leaders, intellectuals, other potentially subversive elements, and countless innocent bystanders.

By 1983, all this "spiral of progovernment and antigovernment violence" led "the country to the most extreme state of violence, to wit, the establishment of a reign of terror. This constituted a weapon of social repression used against unions, opposition groups, universities, political parties, cooperatives, leagues of peasants and the Church; in other words, against all the institutions and groups critical of the Government."29a In 1983, members of these groups were being murdered at an average rate of 35 per day. There were then about 240,000 political refugees and exiles abroad, and the number of people who had to leave their homes and re-settle elsewhere in Guatemala may have been as high as one million. These figures constituted, respectively, roughly 3 and 14 percent of all Guatemalans. There was "the daily appearance, throughout the country, of mutilated bodies with signs of having suffered brutal tortures before being machinegunned to death."29b The total death toll from political violence from 1954 to 1983 was estimated at over 40,000 lives, or one out of 200 Guatemalans. By early 1989, the country averaged five daily murders and kidnapings. By late 1990, the U.S. continued

to finance the army despite its participation in suppressing and killing. . . . Until the army is drastically reformed and reduced, electoral politics will be a cruel game perpetrated on the people of Guatemala to assuage the consciences of those who supply arms and money to the army . . . . Despite the facade of Guatemalan democracy, teachers, students, workers and untold number of rural Indians continue to be kidnaped and murdered, their assassins never to be tried.30

Many victims were innocent civilians. The Army's fight against the guerrillas, according to the Organization of American States, in reality was often directed at the peasants. On June 6, 1982, for example, in one village "the Army rounded up all the families, tied them up and put them in a house which they then burned, killing all 200 people inside."29c By late 1990, "some 500 communities, their fields, and nearby forests have been burned and leveled to deprive left-wing insurgents of recruits, food, and shelter."31

Despite the relative calm and democratic facade of the late 1980s, U.S. foreign policy spelled the virtual end of social progress in Guatemala. UFCO and other landowners got back their idle lands, thereby restoring one-fifth of Guatemala's 1954 population to landlessness, economic dependence, and destitution. The literacy campaign and labor laws were written off. Full-time child labor, often beginning at eight years of age, was near universal in rural areas. Half the nation's children went on dying before reaching their fifth birthday.20a In 1989, farm workers were making the country's minimum wage-$1.75 a day-and were still employed in slave-like conditions.

It is interesting to compare Guatemala's stationary misery to social advances in Costa Rica. A few cold statistics would suffice. In 1960, 7 percent of all Costa Rican infants died before their first birthday; by 1981, this figure had declined to 1.9 percent. During the same period, infant mortality in Guatemala declined too, but at a slower pace (9.2 to 6.4 percent). From 1970 to 1980, maternal death rates in Costa Rica steeply declined; in Guatemala they rose. In 1981 Costa Rica, the principal causes of death were cancer and heart disease. In Guatemala they were the maladies of poverty and neglect: infectious, parasitic, and intestinal diseases, influenza, and pneumonia.32 (Unfortunately, in the 1980s, a large foreign debt, pressures from Western business interests, and a shift towards plutodemocracy contributed to a rise in Costa Rican hunger, infant mortality, and other negative indicators of the quality of life.33)

A more disturbing comparison involves totalitarian Cuba- conventionally viewed as a notable failure of American foreign policies, and feudal Guatemala-a success story. In some ways, even before drastic reductions in Soviet aid came into effect, Cubans under Castro were worse off than Guatemalans. They were, for example, subject to more thoroughgoing indoctrination and meddling in some of their private affairs. Their centralized, inefficient economy merely shifted its unwholesome dependence on one country (the USA) to another (the USSR). Also, the average Cuban was better off than the average Guatemalan even before Castro's rise to power. But these differences were more than offset, in my opinion, by more significant advances in social conditions in postrevolutionary Cuba than in re-feudalized Guatemala.

By the early 1980s, Cuba had moved towards a more equitable distribution of income.34a Considerable progress had been made in life expectancy, social security, welfare, assistance to the aged and handicapped, the status of women, pervasive administrative corruption,35 and nutritional levels. Medical and dental care were free. Education up to ninth grade was compulsory; secondary education was free. The 30 percent illiteracy rate was wiped out. Since 1970, infant mortality has been the lowest in Latin America. Many infectious diseases like malaria have been completely eradicated. In short, though Cuba in the 1980s was unfree, it "has shown itself to be notably efficient in meeting the basic needs of the population, especially of those sectors that were the most disadvantaged prior to the revolution"34b (that is, the vast majority).

In making this comparison, I certainly do not wish to imply that totalitarianism is better than democracy. I believe that democracy, had it been given a chance in Cuba, would have done better. Had the U.S. provided Arevalo and Arbenz with the kind of aid that the Soviet Union gave Cuba, or had the U.S. merely granted Guatemalan reformers the same freedom of action it gave their Mexican and Costa Rican counterparts, the average Guatemalan today would have been freer, in every sense of the word, than the average Cuban. The point I wish to make is this: in Guatemala our foreign policies triumphed, in Cuba they failed. As a result, though both Guatemalans and Cubans were unfree, the average Cuban-as long as his country was able to withstand American attempts of military, economic, and political strangulation-was better off.

This last point brings me to a dreadful question which I have never thought of before, and, which, just a few years ago, I would have been loath to consider. I have discussed in detail the cost of communism, e.g., dreariness, quiet desperation, and anti-individualism. One gruesome feature of communism's first few decades is avoidable deaths. In Stalin's USSR, for example, estimates range from 20 to 100 million, or roughly 20 percent of total population; in Tibet, one million, or 17 percent. What then have been the costs of American policies in Guatemala?

Again, let us ignore the refugees; the half-starved, illiterate, terrorized, and brutalized children and adults in their one-room, windowless shacks; the fear that engulfs everything and everyone; the burning of books. Let us focus instead only on the number of dead. As we have seen, the first, shallow layer of the communal grave comprised well over 40,000 political murders. But we must not stop here. With American aid, or at least without American intervention, there is every reason to believe that in Guatemala, as in early 1980s' Costa Rica and Cuba, death rates would have gradually gone down. Needless to say, Guatemalan children could have had more than an even chance of making it past their fifth birthday. An anti-malaria campaign, a bit more food, a vaccination campaign, sanitation, and a few such simple steps would have worked wonders. Because American policies in Guatemala killed most victims indirectly, through neglect and exploitation, it is impossible to assess their toll. Let us settle on the highly conservative estimate that American policies cost on average, from 1945 to 1991, 10,000 premature deaths a year. That is, 10,000 human beings who could have lived to old age but did not because of exploitation and neglect. For 47 years, that would amount to 470,000 avoidable deaths, or some 5 percent of the current population. Until freedom returns, this number will obviously continue to rise.

Guatemala, let me again assure the reader, is not the exception. One anti-communist explained the rise of communism in Vietnam in this fashion:

During the 1930's . . . the primary interest of nationalists was to throw the French out and . . . become a sovereign state. . . . But the Vietnamese still were helpless . . . did not know . . . how to organize a revolution. They had no arms, no money, no system of attack. The French had a vast system of secret police and informers . . . the Western nations did not want to . . . assist a few unknown . . . Vietnamese radicals in planning the expulsion of the French. Quite the opposite . . . In consequence, it was natural for all revolutionaries . . . to gravitate toward Communism. Where else could they go for assistance and encouragement?36

Or take the Iranian tragedy:

For more than a quarter century, strategic and selfish economic considerations prevailed over the U.S. concern for basic social and economic reforms in Iran. . . . Social and economic change was more a matter of rhetoric than actual consistent policy. . . . This kind of . . . "relationship" is a ready-made recipe for destructive revolutionary change. It is basically a bankrupt concept because it fails to allow for . . . socioeconomic change that would benefit a Third World society.37

One could go on, but my purpose here is not to prove the view that brinkmanship and imperialism have been America's beacons, only that the challenge this view poses to conventional or CIA-funded historical writings must be taken seriously. For this limited purpose, the foregoing suffices.


American Nuclear and Third World Policies: an Appraisal

Without hazarding a resolution of the deterrence/brinkmanship debate, we can reasonably surmise that American military and foreign policies conform to either interpretation, or, as appears more likely, to a combination of both. To conclude our discussion, it must be shown that, under any historical interpretation one chooses to adopt, one fundamental conclusion remains true: these policies have been foolish and immoral.

We have been forced to conclude that this was the case under the deterrence premise. Chapters 5-7 scrutinized American policies from this angle, strongly suggesting that they were unwise because the means chosen could not, by any stretch of the imagination, serve their end. Similarly, in view of the colossal harms these policies have caused, and in view of their total irrelevance to their stated chief goal of safeguarding civilization and freedom, they could only be judged as heartless. It is also probable that if our behavior-as seen through either deterrence or brinkmanship spectacles-is irrational and heartless, then so is any mix of the two: there is no reason to suppose that in this case the sum is somehow fundamentally different from its constituent parts.

To rest our case, we must move to the unappraised premise of brinkmanship and Third World imperialism. There is, to begin with, little to argue about immorality. To achieve the dubious objective of increasing the influence and riches of an already powerful and wealthy cabal, these policies sapped the economic, spiritual, and political resources of the majority of the world's people, they entailed countless avoidable individual tragedies, and they imperiled humanity's future.

Unfortunately, the question of wisdom can't be resolved in so clear a fashion. On the face of it, brinkmanship appears eminently rational. Under this interpretation, American policies acquire an impressive degree of coherence. Nuclear brinkmanship provided huge profits, weak trading partners, and inexpensive raw materials. In the absence of brinkmanship, American attempts to keep so many of the world's people in chains for so long might have boomeranged long ago. Moreover, avowal of thinly disguised militarism is popular with American voters and has appreciably contributed to the fortunes of many a politician: in this century, a sincere commitment to world peace has been tantamount to political suicide. Thus, the consistent practice of brinkmanship demonstrably enhances a politician's financial position, power, and prestige, while even a temporary lapse could grievously impair his or her worldly fortunes. By these standards, the practice, and the practitioners, of brinkmanship could lay strong claim to rationality.

To those choosing, however, to define wisdom not in terms of providing short-lived rewards to powerful groups and individuals within Western societies and within their Third World captive nations, but in terms of the vast majorities of both Western and Third World countries; to those choosing to define wisdom in terms of advancing the prospects of freedom, civilization, and survival; or to those choosing to define wisdom in terms of the long range interests of these powerful individuals themselves (e.g., the assured physical survival of their grandchildren and of the commercial and political organizations of which they are a part); brinkmanship appears unwise.

Upholders of this alternative view point to the inordinate costs of the arms race (Chapter 3), and, especially, to the consequences of a war from which no one will emerge victorious. They plead our obligations to all past and future generations, our contemporaries, and all other life forms. They believe that brinkmanship could have failed-what if one or another recipient of our ultimatums did not "flinch"? Granted, the Soviets had been rational, but how far could we push them before they too went over the brink? Is Czechoslovakian delivery of antiquated rifles to Guatemalan democrats worth taking this step into the unknown? And what if the Soviets' place is taken by a foe as committed to brinkmanship and bravado as we are? They question, besides, the efficacy of brinkmanship. Russian communism made its most rapid leaps forward before it reached nuclear parity with the West. Russia's nuclear arsenal dwarfs China's, but it is on Russian soil that communism has performed its astonishing swan song. There are good reasons to suppose, in passing, that communism would run its course in China too, but not that its demise would be caused by the nuclear policies of the United States of America.

Upholders of this alternative view go on to argue that, by the 1970s at the latest, the Soviets knew that the losses that they could inflict upon us in a second strike were "prohibitive to the nth degree."38 Besides, the Soviets probably suspected that nature's revenge upon us in the event of nuclear war might have been as severe as the Kremlin's. They were indeed apprehensive, but not by objective military realities. Rather, they were frightened by the possibility that we were in fact mad enough to believe that our meaningless edge permitted us to dictate the outcome of diplomatic standoffs. It thus makes little sense to attribute our occasional diplomatic "victories" to such things as our more accurate warheads or our more powerful laser beams. A terrorist about to detonate a bomb in an airborne plane is taken seriously by the crew not because he is stronger than they are, but because he might be mad enough to bring about the mutual destruction of himself and everyone else.

Although I am unable to satisfactorily resolve this philosophical dispute on the nature of wisdom, I am decidedly on the side of those who feel that brinkmanship is not only heartless, but unwise. I cannot conceive of any way-short of moral appeals or Scroogian sojourns into the past, present, and future-to convince committed brinkmanship practitioners of their folly. For them, pre-nuclear notions of realpolitik and short-term rewards outweigh long-term costs to their fellow astronauts on Spaceship Earth, to their descendants, and perhaps even to their own future selves. For me, theirs is not only an immoral, but also an unwise, pact with the devil. Lacking proof, I must resort to a mathematician's sleight of hand: for the remainder of this book, I shall axiomatically and unreservedly assume that brinkmanship is as unwise as ordinary decency, common sense, and intuition suggest.


History shows that (1) the actual policies of a nation may sharply differ from its stated policies, and (2) the majority of citizens and politicians often mistake avowals for facts. Strategic thinking in the U.S., the military balance, and the history of the arms race are more congruent with the brinkmanship interpretation than with its deterrence counterpart. The brinkmanship hypothesis is further supported by: (1) Statements of some high ranking officials and mainstream analysts. (2) The atomic destruction of Nagasaki. (3) The repeated use of nuclear threats to further trivial political objectives. (4) Repeated allegations that the Soviet Union practiced brinkmanship. (5) The view of many influential U.S. officials "that the use of nuclear weapons must be regarded as absolutely normal, natural, and right." (6) Refusal of the United States, even by 1991, to disavow the first use of nuclear weapons. (7) America's half-century-long pursuit of nuclear overkill, nuclear "edge," and increased accuracy of nuclear warheads. (8) American reluctance to give Russian reformers such as Khrushchev and Gorbachev a helping hand in the economic, political, or disarmament spheres.

Policy makers and their media spokespeople justified consistent American support for repressive Third World regimes by arguing that they had no choice: had they abandoned their dictatorial friends, these friends would have been replaced by even more ruthless communists, who would then not only cause even greater suffering to their people, but also endanger the vital interests and freedoms of the American people. The entire historical record defies this self-serving interpretation. The U.S. preferred bloody but subservient Caligulas not only to communists, but also to democrats intent on bringing greater freedom, dignity, and independence to their people. Among the scores of examples which readily lend themselves, this chapter recounts the chilling chronicle of American intervention in Guatemala, the replacement of a civilized democracy by bloodthirsty American proxies, and the aftermath-38 infernal years for the vast majority; vast profits for a handful of American businesspeople and Guatemalan warlords. Because this tale is typical of American Third World policies as a whole, it lends support to the claim that American policies throughout the Cold War had pronounced brinkmanship and imperialistic tendencies.

Although brinkmanship and imperialism provided some short-term benefits to small Western minorities, they were immoral and heartless. They were also unwise because they risked the freedom, welfare, and survival of these minorities, the West, and the human race.


Chapter 9: Roots of Misbehavior Back to Main Menu Moti Nissani's Homepage