In Memoriam: William Blum (1933-2018)

William Blum began his adult life as an anti-communist liberal working as a technical functionary in the US State Department, until he became disillusioned by the Vietnam War and went on to a career in radical journalism. Among other things, he covered the Pinochet coup from Chile and worked with renegade CIA officer Philip Agee at CovertAction Quarterly and CovertAction Information Bulletin.

But biography — even intellectual biography — is of comparatively little interest to me. What moves me to write this now is the value of the work Blum leaves behind, not the path he took in creating it. By far his greatest achievement was the monumental book Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since WWII (first edition 1995). You may be familiar with The Black Book of Communism. Imagine a book similarly compiling the crimes of US imperialism since World War II — the coups, the invasions, the death squads, the dirty proxy wars — and the resulting multi-million death tolls. Throw in thorough documentation of all the names and places, from official newspapers of record, government documents, and memoirs of the principals involved, and you’ve got Killing Hope.

The American public (the white American public, anyway) are probably more ignorant of their own country’s actions in the world, and more credulous regarding their government’s good intentions, than any other population outside a handful of outright totalitarian regimes where full-blown state censorship of the media prevails. Like the citizens of such totalitarian regimes, Americans are for the most part exposed in public schools and history textbooks to a consistently positive account of the US government’s wars and foreign policy. And American cable news reporting and analysis implicitly accepts the official state version of foreign affairs at face value. But unlike people in those other countries, this message control takes place not only with little or no formal censorship by the state, but with surprisingly little large-scale coordination.

In their Propaganda Model of the US media, presented in Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman describe how an interlocking set of government, corporate, media, and think tank institutions, only loosely coordinated and operating to a considerable extent automatically, maintains an ideological filtering apparatus that results in media coverage of US foreign policy virtually indistinguishable from what would appear in the state press of a totalitarian regime.

Consider a few more or less random examples: In the 1990s, a Democratic Senator participating in a televised Senate debate on the Balkan conflict on CSPAN-2 said “I learned in school that the United States has never fought a war for a square mile of foreign land or a dollar in treasure.” Comparatively liberal members of the US foreign policy establishment from Madeleine Albright to Neera Tanden have referred to the United States as “the indispensable nation” or the country morally obligated — as “the only adult in the room”— to police the world. At the outset of the Iraq War in 2003, MSNBC News surrounded its screens with digitized red white and blue bunting during reports on the war, and created a nauseating “Wall of Heroes.” All the major news networks covered the staged pulling-down of a statue of Saddam Hussein, with camera angles manipulated to give the false impression of a large crowd, without informing their viewers of the ruse. In August 2008, numerous CNN talking head shows showed pundits debating the proper US response to “Russian aggression” in the Caucasus, with nobody ever bothering to mention that the entire crisis was precipitated by Georgia invading an autonomous province in violation of a regional treaty. In the 2016 Democratic primaries, mainstream center-left publication Politico described the US overthrow of Mossadegh — mentioned by candidate Bernie Sanders in a debate — as an “arcane reference.”

It is indeed an arcane reference, as far as the American public is concerned. The United States has probably invaded as many countries, overthrown their governments, and/or trained and funded death squads in them, as any empire in history. And it has done so primarily to thwart land reform, guarantee continued Western access to oil and mineral reserves looted under colonialism and post-colonialism, prop up regimes friendly to sweatshop employers and hostile to labor unions, and generally create an atmosphere favorable to the interests of Western capital.

And meanwhile, the average American citizen constantly remarks — in all sincerity — “Why do they hate us so much? We’re the most generous country in the world, and we do so much to keep the peace and promote freedom in the world, and yet they’re so ungrateful!” When it comes to our domestic history, the average American — even the average white American — has some vague idea of slavery and Native genocide as major crimes involved in the founding of this country, even if it is accompanied by the message that “all those ‘mistakes’ are in the past now, and we have to ‘move on’.” But when it comes to foreign affairs, it’s all the Marshall Plan and burly but good-hearted GIs handing out chocolate bars.

I confess to being similarly clueless for much of my life. For some time, even after I began researching the role of the state in capitalism, and the domestic corporate economy’s dependence on state subsidies for its very survival — a line of investigation that would ultimately lead me to become an anarchist — I largely took questions of “US national security” at face value.

My first exposure to a radical left-wing critique of US foreign policy was Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy, which I read in early 2000. In the following months I devoured most of his other major works, and then mined his footnotes for further reading.

In that time I read a lot of good books exposing America’s crimes against humanity, and its ongoing war to keep the world safe for capitalism and protect the owners of the world from the people who live and work in it. But by far the two most important two books — which I would recommend without hesitation above all others to anyone interested in seeing the history of American foreign intervention in its true light — are Gabriel Kolko’s The Politics of War and William Blum’s Killing Hope. The former is a detailed account of US and British planning, late in WWII, for a postwar world political and economic order under Western corporate hegemony. It highlights the way in which the Western Allies systematically dispossessed anti-fascist liberation movements of the left from their gains on the ground in newly liberated Axis territories, and in their place installed provisional governments headed for the most part by Axis collaborationists.

As for the latter, it amounts — as I stated at the outset — to a Black Book of American Imperialism, only one recounting the millions of victims of America’s war on the peoples of the world since 1945. Imagine Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, only on a global scale. Chomsky wrote somewhere that the Cold War could be summarized, as a first order approximation, as a war by the United States against the Third World and by the Soviet Union against its satellites. Killing Hope is the story of the American side of this war.

Even good liberals who are aware of the overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala, of Mossadegh in Iran, and Allende in Chile, and of America’s long support for criminals like Marcos and Somoza, unconsciously view these things as anomalies, isolated mistakes resulting from a misguided fear of “communism,” that are unrepresentative of “what America stands for.” These liberals share, as much as anyone else, the common belief described by Blum in a panel discussion earlier this year:

Consciously or unconsciously, [the American people] have certain basic beliefs about the United States and its foreign policy…The most basic of these basic beliefs, I think, is a deeply-held conviction that no matter what the US does abroad, no matter how bad it may look, no matter what horror may result, the government of the United States means well.

If Killing Hope does one thing, it strips the honest reader of any illusion that the US government means well. As Blum describes one atrocity, one bloody suppression of democracy, after another, chapter after chapter after chapter, the sheer enormity of the crimes slaps us in the face. It sinks in that Arbenz, Mossadegh, and Allende weren’t isolated incidents or deviations from the idealistic norm. They define the fundamental goals and character of US foreign policy.

As I said, the average liberal probably has some idea of the overthrow of Arbenz, Mossadegh and Allende, and US support for Marcos and Somoza; they might know something of Suharto, Mobutu, and Operation Condor. Even so, they most likely view these things as the work of individual bad actors like Kissinger, deviations from fundamental “American principles.”

But for every one of these better-known events, Blum recounts a dozen lesser-known ones. And every single one of them carries a death toll in the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or in some cases the millions. To take one example, the overthrow of Arbenz was the opening shot in a reign of terror in which hundreds of peasants in Guatemala alone were tortured, murdered, or “disappeared” in order to protect the big plantations from the threat of land reform. This death squad war against the population continued throughout Central America, over subsequent decades, up to the time of Somoza’s National Guard and the Contra war of the 80s. The total death toll was in the millions. Then consider the hundreds of thousands massacred by Suharto — many of them on kill lists provided by the CIA station chief in Jakarta — or the millions butchered by Mobutu after the overthrow of Lumumba, or the tens of thousands murdered by military regimes in each country in the long chain of South American countries from Brazil to Chile.  

The cumulative psychological impact is comparable to viewing a single square in the AIDS Quilt, and then zooming out to an aerial view of the entire project spread out over acres; or viewing the list of names on the Vietnam War Memorial, or the names of the dead at Auschwitz. This is the history of evil at work.

These things are not the work of well-meaning officials who mistakenly believed they were “fighting communism” or “defending the Free World.” In case after case, they were consciously defending the needs of global capital to export surplus output and capital to the Global South, to control access to cheap resource inputs, and generally to guarantee that the developing world was integrated into a global corporate economy and served its needs without any disruption. When the interests of this capitalist hegemony were threatened by instability anywhere — like the desire of the people living there for justice — the response of the United States was to murder them, by the millions if necessary.

And in case after case, the propaganda excuses concocted by state and capitalist ruling elites to justify such interventions to the domestic population were deliberate, cynical lies. Every military attack on this or that Hitler of the Week is justified with the same talking points. “Dictator”? Yes, originally installed in power by the United States, which was fine with his dictatorship so long as he kept taking orders from Washington. “Used weapons of mass destruction”? Yep, the US knows because it saved the receipts. “Made war on his neighbors”? Uh huh, the US provided military advisers and intelligence to help him do it. “Laundered narco-trafficking money”? English translation: Helped divert money from the US-backed global drug trade to US black ops like death squads — which the new government will do as soon as the US installs it.

To repeat, Americans are burdened by more illusions about the “good intentions” of their government than the people of any other representative democracy on earth. We live under a global corporate capitalist system whose very survival depends on inflicting massive murder, robbery, and brutality on the people of the whole world. This ongoing criminal war on humanity, and the global system of power it upholds, is highly vulnerable to resistance and disruption by the population of the imperial core. But for that to happen, the public must be stripped of the illusions it has absorbed from the educational system and the media. Putting a copy of Killing Hope in as many people’s hands as possible is an excellent step in that direction.

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