Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace by Noam Chomsky. South End Press, 298 pages, $10.00 (paper).

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If a Nobel Prize were instituted for linguistics or cognitive science, Noam Chomsky of MIT would undoubtedly be one of its first recipients. Over the last thirty years his theories about language have revolutionized these disciplines and gained him extraordinary influence and prestige among his academic colleagues.

In the sane period, Chomsky has also become the leading radical critic of American foreign policy. A series of long, densely argued, exhaustively researched books have, again, won him much influence and prestige -- though in this case, not at all among his academic colleagues, at least not in the United States. In Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan (his books are banned in the Soviet Empire), Chomsky’s political writings are widely known and his comments on current affairs frequently solicited. But in this country, he hardly ever appears in scholarly journals and op-ed pages, and his books are rarely reviewed. It is a curious phenomenon: celebrity status sufficed to propel an ignoramus into the White House but cannot obtain for this internationally renowned scholar (except briefly, at the height of the Vietnam War) even a place in mainstream political debate. Chomsky’s latest book, Turning the Tide throws some light on this anomaly, and on much else besides.

The book begins with a peculiar sort of literary flourish. In her now famous essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Jeane Kirkpatrick observed: “Because the miseries of traditional life are familiar, they are bearable to ordinary people who, growing up in the society, learn to cope ... .“ The opening section of Turning the Tide is entitled, with grim irony, “The Miseries of Traditional Life.” Chomsky portrays in vivid detail the everyday deprivations and routine violence to which “ordinary people” are subjected in the traditional, “authoritarian” societies of Latin America. Largely from firsthand accounts, and often in the victims’ own words, we read about the starving children of agricultural workers and the well-fed pets of landowners, the widespread lack of elementary medical care, the impossibility of mounting any effort at collective self-help in the face of intimidation by government and emp1oyers. We read about the depredations practiced on civilians by the Salvadoran and Guatemalan military and by the Nicaraguan contras gouging, disembowelment, decapitation, castration, strangulation, electric shock, rape, the burning of crops and villages -- all of these on a scale unsuspected by most readers of the American press. We learn that virtual slavery is commonplace in Guatemala and that the Guatemalan Bishops’ Conference has condemned the treatment of Indians in that country as “genocidal.” We learn that in Honduras, where food production for export to the US has increased dramatically in recent years, three-fourths of all children who reach the age of 5 are malnourished. That in Brazil, a decade after the “economic miracle,” thousands of homeless city dwellers have been reduced to selling their eyes and internal organs. That roughly one-fifth of the populations of Uruguay, El Salvador, and the Caribbean area have fled their respective countries.

Altogether, this section of Turning the Tide is not for the squeamish.

Still, for all of Chomsky’s meticulous documentation and savage eloquence, a collection of atrocity stories is not by itself a critique of foreign policy. How does Chomsky interpret this ghastly record? Can it possibly be true that the United States bears substantial -- or even primary -- responsibility foe these gruesome conditions? Surely the country that produced such lofty conceptions as Wilson’s philosophy of self—determination, Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms”, Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, and Carter’s human rights policy cannot be morally implicated in the horrors Chomsky recounts?

According to Chomsky it can be and is. For the past one hundred and fifty years, he argues, US influence in Central America has been enormous, tantamount to control. US military intervention has been frequent and decisive; the American ambassador has been, until recently, the most powerful man in most countries of the region. US-initiated or -supported coups have undermined nearly every significant move toward independence or reform in Central American history: for example, in Haiti (1916), Nicaragua (1926), Guatemala (1954), the Dominican Republic (1965), and El Salvador (1972 and 1979). Honduras, the poorest Central American country, has been practically a fiefdom of US corporations throughout most of this century. In 1963, as part of the Alliance for Progress, President Kennedy changed the primary mission of the Latin American military from “hemispheric defense” to “internal security.” A large fraction of the officer corps of each country in the region was then trained in counterinsurgency and police techniques at the United States’ School of the Americas in the Canal Zone. The result was a plague of violent repression s as had never before been seen in the Western Hemisphere. All of this, supplemented by numerous revealing citations from the diplomatic record, from the era of the Monroe Doctrine down to the latest declassified State Department cables, leads Chomsky to an unpleasant but all too plausible conclusion: “No region of the world has been more subject to US influence over a long period than Central America and the Caribbean. ... We naturally look to this region, then, if we want to learn something about ourselves, just as we look to Eastern Europe or the ‘internal empire’ if we want to learn about the Soviet Union. The picture we see is not a pretty one.”

Inescapable though this conclusion may be in strict logic, most of us will nevertheless balk. What, we ask, can explain this apparently stark discrepancy between our domestic and foreign policies? Between the relative freedom and generosity of American society (for most of us, at any rate) and the hideous nightmare of life in our client states? Perhaps it has something to do with the limitations of American power, or with American innocence and naivete? Surely our intentions were better than our effects?

This is the point at which Chomsky begins to get under many people’s skin. It is one thing to claim that the United States has blundered tine and again, despite the best of intentions, into supporting, or even creating, monstrous regimes and massive human rights violations in our sphere of influence. That is a perfectly orthodox position, maintained by many respected liberals, though less often in these tines of resurgent national chauvinism. But it is quite another thing to argue, as Chomsky does, that American foreign policy systematically produces such results, and that the roots of this policy lie in the distribution of power within American society. That position is decidedly heterodox, in fact is beyond the pale. What can Chomsky mean by it?

To begin with, he means no more than this: as is the case with every other nation, past or present, the publicly proclaimed goals of American foreign policy are largely irrelevant to its real goals, which are designed to serve the needs and interests of those who hold domestic power. Put in this abstract way, Chomsky’s thesis seems unexceptionable. What it comes down to, though, is that promoting democracy, economic well-being, and human rights has little to do with our foreign policy, except rhetorically. The real goal of that policy, according to Chomsky, is the protection of what might be called the “Fifth Freedom,” one not mentioned by Roosevelt: freedom for American business and finance to operate abroad with a minimum of restraint. This freedom entails, among other things, easy tax and profit-repatriation laws, unregulated access to natural resources, conversion of agriculture to cash crops for export, and extreme austerity in social-welfare programs. Since all of this tends to be hard on the local population, client regimes are required that will suppress unions and other popular organizations and, distressingly often, torture, murder, imprison, or exile “subversive elements” on a vast scale -- all in the name of “internal security” and “anticommunism.”

Parallel to this critique of foreign policy, and connected with it, is Chomsky’s analysis of the arms race. “National security,” so frequently invoked nowadays, is in Chomsky’s view largely a mystification, a metaphysical notion whose real function is justify endless military expenditure. And the point of this expenditure is not “defense” but economic management. “The Pentagon system,” he writes, “has become the American system of industrial policy.” The Great Depression and World War II convinced corporate and governmental planners that only continuous state intervention could stabilize the economy over the long term. But a form of intervention had to be found that did not threaten corporate prerogatives, as would be the case with income redistribution or government— subsidized production to meet genuine human needs. The solution arrived at, and subsequently adhered to by both Democratic and Republican administrations, was “military Keynesianism”: in Chomsky’s words, “the creation of a state-guaranteed market for high-technology, rapidly obsolescing waste production, i.e.

Here, he alleges, is the rationale for otherwise fantastic Strategic Defensive Initiative, as well as for current and future boondoggles without end. And since the public must somehow be induced to foot the bill for these huge subsidies to the defense industry, we are subjected to unremitting propaganda about the global Communist menace. The same propaganda also serves to justify our worldwide interventions on behalf of the Fifth Freedom.

It should be obvious now why Chomsky is persona non grata in the mainstream media and in most scholarly journals. Criticism, even vigorous criticism, of American foreign policy is acceptable, provided it employs neutral categories like “error,” “misplaced idealism,” or “the ironies of history.” But any attempt to offer a systemic criticism of that policy, one which applies to it the same analytical and moral criteria we commonly apply in the case of other states, is out of bounds.
There is also, I suspect, a more personal reason for Chomsky’s ostracism. It has to do with his writing itself. There is a sharpness to his sarcasm, an intensity to his indignation, a range and depth to his documentation, and an austere precision to his logic, that are, quite simply, intimidating. The reaction of most mainstream American scholars and journalists to Chomsky’s prose probably resembles that of pious 19th-century Lutheran pastors to Nietzsche’s. What, for example, can the average reader of Turning the Tide be expected to make of this typical specimen of Chomskian polemic:

The US government and commentators here like to speak of the “symmetry” between El Salvador and Nicaragua: in both countries, it is alleged, indigenous guerrillas with foreign support are rebelling against the government. The comparison would have some merit if the guerrillas in El Salvador lacked any domestic base; had been organized in Nicaragua by the KGB for the purpose of sowing terror in El Salvador and overthrowing its government; were launching murderous attacks against civilians in El Salvador from Nicaraguan and Cuban sanctuaries, killing, torturing, and mutilating their victims; were led by thugs who had ruled El Salvador by violence for 50 years with Soviet support and had finally been driven out by an uprising of virtually the entire population; and were armed, trained, and controlled by Soviet military forces in a major Nicaraguan military base while the USSR maintains large naval units offshore, carries out overflights of El Salvador to supply the guerrillas and for military operations, uses Cubans and Bulgarians to fly arms to guerrillas and to carry out major sabotage and terror operations which are attributed to the Soviet proxy army operating from its foreign bases, etc. All of this is, of course, utter nonsense. The fact that the “symmetry” can be discussed without eliciting ridicule is another tribute to the efficacy of “brainwashing under freedom.”

In fact, there is a “symmetry,” but not one discussed in the press. In both cases, terrorist forces are carrying out large-scale torture and massacre and in both cases these terrorist forces (the army of El Salvador, the contras are organized and controlled by the lord and master of the region.

If one is not already sympathetic to Chomsky’s point of view, one is perhaps more likely to be bewildered or enraged by this passage than convinced by it.
Another resemblance between Chomsky and Nietzsche is their deep and disturbingly plausible pessimism. Nietzsche’s prophecy of a cataclysmic European civil war proved, as we know tragically accurate. One can only hope that Chomsky’s fears about the likely outcomes of the Cold War and the arms race will prove less so.


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George Scialabba