During the recent USA presidential election, amid talk of Russian interference, a facile Washington Post column proposed a moral equivalence with Putin, recounting countless USA interventions in overseas elections since World War II. America and Russia have interfered in scores of elections, especially during the Cold War, it bemoans. And it recalls that China was accused of interfering in USA politics during the 1990s with campaign cash for Democrats. It presents a 1997 quote from the leftist National Security Archive:
If the Chinese indeed tried to influence the election here . . . the United States is only getting a taste of its own medicine. China has done little more than emulate a long pattern of U.S. manipulation, bribery and covert operations to influence the political trajectory of countless countries around the world.
The column never explores the differing motivations of America, the Soviet Union, Russia, and China, and assumes they are equally sinister. That the Soviet Union was a totalitarian police state, and that Russia and China are today authoritarian regimes adversarial to Western democracy, apparently was not relevant to the Post columnist.
He offers the usual litany of USA foreign interventions, although some of them are not electoral. One example is actually a strong argument for USA intervention. The USA covertly helped, in alliance with the Catholic Church, the Christian Democrats prevail against the Communist Party in Italy in the late 1940s and 1950s. It’s unclear why this action should be criticized or even controversial. Italy was emerging from WWII and decades of fascist dictatorship. Its democracy was uncertain, it was impoverished, and it was vulnerable to Marxism. Stalin was generously helping his proxies in Italy. Should the USA have not helped Christian Democrats who believed in parliament democracy against the totalitarian alternative? The Italian assistance helped secure Italy as an eventually wealthy, relatively stable democracy that was firmly aligned with the West through NATO.
The 1953 coup against Iran’s Mossadegh, whom Churchill derided as an “elderly fanatic,” in favor of the Shah of course is mentioned although it didn’t involve an election per se. Mossadegh was prime minister and initiated a coup against the constitutional monarch, who rightfully by law could have dismissed the prime minister, but who was instead forced to flee to Italy. Concerned that the Iranian communist party, the Tudeh, was backing Mossadegh, and that Iran, whose northern region the Soviets had recently occupied, was susceptible to the Soviet orbit, USA and British intelligence organized resistance to Mossadegh. The Anglo-American campaign was mostly organizing pro-Shah demonstrations and leafleting. A pro-Shah general did most of the work, and he had support from the clergy, including a young Ruhollah Khomeini, decades later the ayatollah who would overthrow the restored Shah. The 1953 coup welcoming the Shah back to power was relatively peaceful and gave Iran a quarter century of peace and prosperity, succeeded by the mass murder and terror of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, whose poison remains a threat to civilization.
Predictably the Post column credits the USA with the 1973 coup against pro-Castro Socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende, who was replaced by General Augusto Pinochet. Actually, the USA unsuccessfully tried to persuade Chile’s Christian Democrats, whom it had supported for years against the Communist-backed Allende, to refuse congressional ratification of his 1970 election. As Allende failed to get a majority of the presidential vote, congress was constitutionally required to pick from the top two vote getters. Christian Democrats agreed to affirm Allende only after he promised to abide by the Constitition, a promise he of course would violate. Allende’s chaotic leftist rule for three years, which included a prolonged Castro visit, arming his supporters, and punitive acts against opposition media, prompted Christian Democrat fears he was creating a dictatorship. Both congress and the supreme court charged him with violating the constitution, and they essentially greenlighted a military coup. The Nixon administration was relieved by the coup, as was much of Chile, but did not orchestrate it, and at most had a couple days advance warning of it. Pinochet committed human rights abuses while also restoring stability and ushering in a prosperity ultimately lifting Chile to First World standards. He finally surrendered power in 1990 after losing a plebescite.
Unlike Chile, there’s no doubt about the CIA role in overthrowing Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz in 1954, initiated by both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower. Critics portray the coup as a manipulation by the United Fruit Company. But Truman and Eisenhower were distressed by Communists in the Arbenz government, by secret arms purchases from Czechoslovakia for peasant militias, and by the regime’s refusal to join the Organization of American States in denouncing communism. Arbenz, who initially fled to Mexico, was followed by decades of rightist dictators, but it’s unclear whether the anti-communist and already suspicious Guatemalan army would not have overthrown him without USA encouragement. Confirming suspicions, Arbenz later joined the Communist Party and lived for a time in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and in Cuba as Castro’s guest.
The Post column, which repeats the unproven claim that the CIA assassinated the Congo’s pro-Soviet Patrice Lumumba, faults the USA for backing the Liberal Democrats in post WWII Japan, which like Italy, was wise and successful, steering Japan from militarism and wartime destruction to prosperity and democracy. It also faults the USA in the 1950s for backing pro-Western forces in the Philippines and Lebanon, where it supported Christian parties, who today, absent the USA, instead look to Iran or Saudi Arabia as patrons. Power vacuums are always filled, and USA intervention is often preferable to most alternatives.
This critique from the Post column demonizes “scheming diplomats” like John Foster Dulles and Henry Kissinger, instead of naming the Cold War presidents of both parties who authorized interventions. It fails to acknowledge their motivation, which was to preserve American democracy and Western Civilization against totalitarian dictatorship. It also fails more than perfunctorily to detail the extent of Soviet interventions with more nefarious motivations, to which the USA was responding.
Assumed but never really answered by this Post column: Why was USA support for pro-democracy forces post WWII in places like Italy and Japan wrong? And what were the viable alternatives in someplace like Iran?
This Post column omits USA covert action in post WWII France to block the Stalinist French Communist Party. As liberal columnist Tom Braden later recounted of his CIA role at the time, he recruited young toughs to beat up communist dock workers who, on Moscow’s instruction, were refusing to offload food shipments from the USA to precipitate a crisis the Soviets could exploit. The people of France were potentially starving, he recalled, and we thought they should be fed.
The implication from the Post columnist is that France should have starved, that Western Europe and Japan, among others, should have succumbed to the Soviet orbit, and that America should have lost the Cold War at the start. Fortunately, America’s Cold War leaders, though sometimes overreaching, were on the whole usually wiser and smarter than this unthinking critique, preferring survival over defeat, and choosing covert action over war and direct confrontation.