The Global Cold War and the Empire of Liberty

For a global phenomenon, it is striking that the Cold War has traditionally been interpreted almost exclusively as a European affair. “Cold War” brings to mind cloak and dagger intrigue involving CIA and KGB agents knocking one another off in Berlin, ground zero in the European theater. It was a “cold” war rather than a “hot” one because– aside from the spies and hit men– the US and the USSR did not directly engage one another on the battlefield.

ImageThe Norwegian historian Odd Arne Wested puts a host of myths about the Cold War to rest in his 2007 tome The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times.

The crux of Wested’s argument is that the US and the USSR were driven to intervene in Third World countries by competing ideologies.

Locked in conflict over the very concept of European modernity– to which both states regarded themselves as successors– Washington and Moscow needed to change the world in order to prove the universal applicability of their ideologies, and the elites of the newly independent states proved fertile ground for their competition. By helping to expand the domains of freedom or of social justice, both powers saw themselves as assisting natural trends in world history and as defending their own security at the same time. Both saw a specific mission in and for the Third World that only their own state could carry out and which without their involvement would flounder in local hands. (4-5)

Contrary to prevailing interpretations, the Cold War was not a continuation of European colonialism. Nor were American and Soviet interventionists interested primarily in the economic exploitation of Third World peoples or lands. Rather, Americans and Soviets were motivated first and foremost by rival ideologies. Wested’s argument is revisionist on many levels but it is a curious revisionism that takes seriously the stated objectives and intentions of the ideologues themselves. Wilson or Eisenhower and Lenin or Stalin would probably agree with his conclusions. That does not make Wested’s argument any less compelling.

Today’s post will focus on Wested’s interpretation of US Cold War ideology as presented in a chapter titled “The empire of liberty: American ideology and foreign interventions”.

Wested traces the roots of American intervention in the Third World to the very beginning of the republic. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson gets credit to anticipating the logic and the actions that would culminate with Cold War interventions in Guatemala, Iran, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. The basic tenets of a uniquely American ideology are: the American concept of liberty; anti-collectivism and fear of unruly masses; aversion to centralized political power; science and the idea that the United States was the first country build on the scientific principles of the Enlightenment; and the market as the guarantor of rational action.

According to Jefferson and others, liberty was what distinguished the United States from other countries. And liberty could not exist without private property and a dedication to an ordered society informed by science. In Jefferson’s words:

The American by his property or by his satisfactory situation is interested in the support of law and order. And such men may safely and advantageously reserve to themselves a wholesome control over their public affairs, and a degree of freedom, which, in the hands of the canaille [masses] of the cities Europe, would be instantly perverted to the demolition and destruction of everything public and private… But even in Europe a change has sensibly taken place in the mind of man. Science has liberated the ideas of those who read and reflect, and the American example has kindled feelings of right in the people. (10)

Bombardment of Tripoli.

Oil by Michael Felice Corne (d. 1845) depicting US naval forces engaging the Tripolitan gunboats (in North Africa) and fortifications during the first of the US-Barbary wars in 1804.

Jefferson launched America’s first intervention into what would become the Third World during the Barbary Wars, beginning in 1801, to protect American merchants from North African corsairs. (Interestingly, these wars were pivotal for the creation of the US Navy and the US Marine Corps).

During the 19th century, the focus of spreading American ideals focused on: 1) interventions against Native Americans; 2) efforts to control the internal African “colony” of slaves; 3) and countering the perceived threats posed to American values by foreign immigration. In all cases, the driving force was progress and rationality (whether under the guise of “manifest destiny”, “betterment” of blacks, or immigration quotas against the “racially inferior”).

Thus, American notions of “liberty” were (and remained) inexorably tied to a vision of modernity for which most peoples– eliwhite American males excepted of course– were ill-equipped. To enjoy the fruits of American-style liberty, most people– certainly those in the Third World– needed American assistance.

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Porto Rico [sic] and Cuba in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. The caption reads: "School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you've got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!" Originally published on p. 8-9 of the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine. The blackboard reads: "The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact. — England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world's civilization. — The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves." Note the Native American reading a book upside down, the African-American washing the windows, and the Chinese figure outside.

Caricature showing Uncle Sam lecturing four children labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Porto Rico [sic] and Cuba in front of children holding books labelled with various U.S. states. The caption reads: “School Begins. Uncle Sam (to his new class in Civilization): Now, children, you’ve got to learn these lessons whether you want to or not! But just take a look at the class ahead of you, and remember that, in a little while, you will feel as glad to be here as they are!” Originally published on p. 8-9 of the January 25, 1899 issue of Puck magazine. The blackboard reads: “The consent of the governed is a good thing in theory, but very rare in fact. — England has governed her colonies whether they consented or not. By not waiting for their consent she has greatly advanced the world’s civilization. — The U.S. must govern its new territories with or without their consent until they can govern themselves.” Note the Native American reading a book upside down, the African-American washing the windows, and the Chinese figure outside.

Beginning with the Barbary Wars, stretching to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 (which gave the US the right to intervene in the affairs of other American states), through Admiral Perry’s forced opening of Japan to foreign trade in 1854 and the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 to the occupation of the Philippines, Cuba, and Hawaii in the 1890s, the US gradually became an imperial power.

To repeat: Cold War interventions have a history that goes back the origins of the republic.

That said, the post World War I context created the more immediate circumstances for 20th-century interventions. The first was the Wilsonian project of promoting nationalism as a way of containing radicalism and “anarchy”. Second, and more importantly for the future of this story, was anti-collectivism particularly of the Communist brand. Communist posed a threat internally and externally because

There was simply no room, within or without the United States, for a universalist ideology that constructed a world operating according to different principles and with a different endpoint from that of [American elites’] own images. Communism– and, by implication, collectivism in all its forms– in this view had to be grouped with all the traditionalist and antimodern traits of Europe that had so disastrously manifested themselves in World War I. (18)

As the main victor after World War II, American elites inherited new opportunities to remake the world in their image. This process started in Europe with the Marshall Plan. But the restructuring of Japan provided the model for future US adventures outside of Europe. US planners agreed that “it was only through becoming more like the United States that Japan– the only non-European economic and military power– could be redeemed.” (24) Unlike their predecessors, all postwar US administrations, from Truman through Reagan, used state power to impose social development projects on Third World countries in which they had a foothold. In addition, decolonization processes in the Third World, domestic American struggles for equal rights, and the growing rivalry with the Soviet Union created an alliance among liberal and conservative American elites to create the political will for increased American involvement abroad in a “battle for the hearts and minds” that became the hallmarks of US interventionism under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations.

Here Wested argues against the populist and Marxist critiques of American business interests or capitalism as explanations for American imperialism in primarily economic terms. The US, he argues, has “proven itself a reluctant economic imperialist.”

During every decade– except, perhaps, the 1970s– the huge domestic market always had the upper hand in attracting capital: it was all the outside world (and especially the Third World) was not– rich, socially and geographically mobile, and politically stable. And even though the hope of greater returns always kept American capital coming to the Third World, very few of those investments and trade links turned out to be highly profitable. During the Cold War the government always wanted private companies to increase their investments abroad– and especially in the Third World– in order to create influence and “development”– but with limited success. One of the main reasons why Washington had to turn to direct and indirect aid to Third World countries in the 1950s and 1960s was the lack of a willingness to invest on the side of US business. (30)

Instead of trying to promote the interests of US business, US foreign policy makers were really engaged in a project of taking “systematic responsibility for the world economy, attempting to define its shape both with regard to Europe and the Third World.” (32)

Ideology blended well with strategy in this mission: the Third World had to choose the market, in part because the periphery had to sustain the former imperial centers– Western Europe and Japan– through trade, and thereby both contain Communism and reduce the need for increased access to US markets. In the period 1956-60– in spite of the fear of Soviet advances– only slightly less than 90 percent of all official aid to the Third World came from advanced capitalist countries, and between 60 and 70 percent of that percentage came from the United States. (32)

An important theoretical model developed out of these impulses– especially the anti-Communist convictions– which came to fruition in the early 1960s under the broad rubric of “modernization theory”. The prime exponent of this approach was Walt Rostow whose 1960 title sums it up: The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto. Rostow, who became Kennedy’s head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Council and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor, argued for “positive intervention”:

American society [Rostow wrote in a book co-authored by Max Millikan] is at its best when we are wrestling with the positive problems of building a better world. Our own continent provided such a challenge throughout the nineteenth century… Our great opportunity lies in the fact that we have developed more successfully than any other nation the social, political, and economic techniques for realizing widespread popular desires for change without either compulsion or social disorganization. [The two social scientists wanted to] give fresh meaning and vitality to the historic American sense of mission– a mission to see the principles of national independence and human liberty extended to the world scene. (34)

The main instrument of this new version of an old mission was the diffusion of technology and good ole “American know-how”. Initiatives like the Peace Corps, the Alliance for Progress and education and military training for Third World elites in the US were emblematic of these impulses.

US policy planners, however, realized that the power and prestige of Soviet efforts could not be combated by limited interventions of the educational sort alone. Thus, the US military engaged in “hot” wars such as those in Vietnam, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Third World.

Ultimately, there was very little “cold” about the Cold War in the Third World.

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About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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2 Responses to The Global Cold War and the Empire of Liberty

  1. Mark Chmiel says:

    Steve,
    I wonder what Wested would make of George Kennan’s Policy Planning Study [PPS 23], Februarya 24, 1948: “…we [meaning, the United States] have about 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population… In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction… We should cease to talk about vague and — for the Far East — unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.”

    Kennan was evidently considered too liberal with such views, and within a couple of years Paul Nitze was to produce NSC-68.

  2. Steve Tamari says:

    Mark,
    Thanks for the insight. I am sure Wested deals with Kennan. Kennan sounds like a dissident within the establishment who understands the hypocrisy of promoting the ideals of liberty while wanting to maintain a gluttonous standard of living. Of having our cake and eating it too. Wested is not naive enough to suggest that idealism is the only explanation for US imperialism. In fact, he places the Cold War in the context of manifest destiny and the westward expansion. He is critical, however, of those that see it simply as a latter-day version of other historical empires like that of the British. I like the approach in addressing an American audience because it places the American ideology of “liberty” on par with the Soviet ideology of “justice”. That is jarring for many Americans for whom the notion of an “evil empire” persists.

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