The Cold War and the 'War on Terror': Historical Parallels

May 2008
The "War on Terror" is becoming eerily like like the "War on Communism" in that it's a war cry that manages to cover everything and nothing at once. Who, for instance, were the "communists" outside the Soviet Union, Cuba and China during the Cold War? Most who were charged with being so were actually progressive social reformers who wished only to redistribute land, nationalise resources and maybe practice import-substitution - even though they themselves often declaimed any association with communism. The trouble with this aspiration is that the US State Department invariably got to define what was and wasn't communism and thus many progressive social reforms remained still-born over half the globe for fear of CIA reprisals. The same shady definitional territory is being reprised for the 'War on Terror' where the inconvenient truth of the attraction of socialist doctrines to developing countries is this time replaced by the desire of Muslim dominated countries to practice Shar'ia Law. In both instances an incomplete understanding of the attractiveness of each respective ideology to the peoples concerned has led and is leading to ham-fisted political and military responses and in many cases the demonisation (and deaths)of the innocent.

When I think of the Cold War I'm inevitably drawn to considering those interventions on the US side which were predicated upon stopping ''the spread of communism'' and weighing them against Soviet interventions/policies which attempted to do the opposite; stopping the "spread of imperialism". I can't offhand recall any examples where an elected democracy and/or an established regime was deliberately destabilised through Soviet influence to the extent that this happened through US intervention via CIA military support and espionage. In short, America were a lot more "pro-active" in engaging in Cold War type interventions. For example, in the Ogaden conflict when both sides alternated support for Somalia's Siad Barre and the Derg Marxist government in Ethiopia there were in place already well established regimes. Both the Derg and the Barre regime were openly communist so Cuba and Russia hummed and hawed over which side to support when war erupted over the Ogaden. Whatever side they would eventually opt for America had determined to support the other. One of the many senseless manifestations of cold war intrigues.

In Angola, neither UNITA and the MPLA could achieve tactical superiority until the mid-80's and thus were both desperate for assistance from the respective powers. With respect to the intervention in Vietnam even Khruschev warned America not to escalate troop presence; the Viet Minh movement was best characterised as patriotic and anti-colonialist rather than communist. Ho Chi Minh himself said he was a nationalist first and only secondarily a communist which is an important distinction as propaganda attempting to force a cleavage among the Vietnamese based on the old ideological divide would rather miss the point - the majority of Vietnamese in the north weren't fighting that war, they were fighting for their country. The northern Viet Cong was composed of no nonsense nationalists who had beaten the French into retreat during the First Indochina War so again they required little external stimulus from the communist superpowers.

Now we know that many of the interventions that did take place on the US side were in fact calculated attempts to protect Western business interests from being nationalised; less an ideological war and more a means of retaining an entrenched oligarchy whose repatriated profits and spheres of interest were consistent with the interests of a handful of elite Western shareholders. Indonesia is the possible exception to this model where Sukarno's communist base - which he understandably kept on a long leash - were wiped out in the 1967/68 savage culling of Suharto's bloodstained rise to power. Obama makes brief reference to this political 'genocide' in ''Audacity'' and betrays no illusions that the subsequent Suharto dictatorship received the full backing and support of Washington. Over a million are reputed to have been killed in this bloodbath. Sukarno's government, which was not perfect, but was in most respects progressive, had been subject to CIA - funded bombing campaigns on Indonesian cities in the late 50's but Eisenhower pulled funding from the covert operation as soon as a captured US pilot had no option but to confess involvement. This was a US reaction to a perceived threat of the communist party of Indonesia eventually toppling Sukarno from within but they were a minority party and there was no evidence that Sukarno was being unduly influenced. Even had they grown the assumption in Washington was that this was the result of covert Soviet influence as opposed to an organic indigenous development. This ideological blind side is evident today where there is an underestimation of the popular support for Shari'ia among the populations of Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The support for the Brazilian military coup of 1964 which ushered in twenty years of rule
by the armed forces (complete with ruthless crackdowns, arbitrary arrests, torture and execution) probably fits the model of the Indonesian example insofar as there was a fear that Brazilian president Goulard was shifting too far from the right and making too many concessions to the unions and the peasants perennial calls for land redistribution which so horrified the caudillos. Again, in this example there are variations in response. The Kennedy administration in 1963 had promised to fund a radical programme of land reform yet when the same proposals were put forward by Goulard the following year the Johnson administration was deathly silent. The US ambassador notified his superiors in Washington that the coup was set to take place ''in two weeks" which it did, on schedule and with obligatory complements of US military and financial assistance despite there being no tradition of communism within Brazil strong enough to gain sufficient national support to trouble Goulard's democratically elcted government.

The US backed Iranian coup in 1953 most people are familiar with (protecting British monopoly on Iranian oil), Guatemala in 54 (protecting United Fruit Company's land monopoly) and the Congo in 1960 (protecting Belgian mining interests). Support for apartheid South Africa and the criminalisation of the ANC who demanded ''one man one vote'' - again its leaders simplistically depicted as ""communists"" (whatever that means anymore - Mandela was arrested on evidence provided by the CIA), support for the brutal Portugese colonial regime in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bisseau again all occurred against the legitimate nationalist aspirations of the majority. Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba were all countries who had hugely popular presidents yet were toppled or attempted to have been annexed into our 'sphere of interest'. The so-called multitudes fleeing Cuba in the early years (as distinct from the diaspora who left after the Soviet collapse) were mainly horrified large property holders who realised that collectivisation was in the offing. The vast majority of the population on the other hand, who were overwhelmingly poor and illiterate, found their lot immeasurably improved and a leader (Castro) at last sensitive to their condition - gleaned from long hours in the Sierra Maestra during the guerrilla campaign observing first hand their hospitality and true conditions of living. And so we come full circle to Afghanistan where the Cold War ends and the "War on Terror" takes off. This is no coincidence either. It is commonly referred to in the West as a ''Soviet invasion'' with all the attendant overtones of an aggressive colonising action yet the party in power in 1978/79 was a communist one which had made ceaseless overtures to Brezhnev calling for an intervention. The country had become increasingly destabilised not least due to the communist government's short-sighted attempt to impose Western secular norms on the Islamicised tribals who were then encouraged in their revolt by the US administration who promised to restore to them their full rights as previously exercised within their system of Shar'ía.

I'm sure there's little need to point out the irony of this position today.

But the trial and imprisonment of Nelson Mandela in 1964 perhaps best exemplifies how ideological Cold War pretexts were all too often mobilised to sustain elite hegemonic interests at the expense of democratic movements - in this case the cause of the ANC within the South African apartheid regime. Mandela was only officially removed from the US terror list by a bill signed into law by Bush in June 2008. The anachronistic designation was upheld in practice during the shameful era of apartheid 'pacification' led by such Congress notables as Chester Crocker who also ensured the maintenance of US trade links with the South African regime. It was in fact intelligence provided by the CIA which led to his capture.

Here is a link to Mandela's famous speech from the dock at his his trial in Pretoria in 1964 (in which he also outlines the justification for the use of violence).

I will quote a lengthy extract from this famous speech which while much remarked upon is less often read. This is a shame because Mandela elaborates quite well the dilemna faced by democratic and nationalist movements struggling in a colonial/post colonial Cold War context;

"It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society. Because of this, there are many Africans who, today, tend to equate freedom with communism. They are supported in this belief by a legislature which brands all exponents of democratic government and African freedom as communists and bans many of them (who are not communists) under the Suppression of Communism Act. Although I have never been a member of the Communist Party, I myself have been named under that pernicious Act because of the role I played in the Defiance Campaign. I have also been banned and imprisoned under that Act.

It is not only in internal politics that we count communists as amongst those who support our cause. In the international field, communist countries have always come to our aid. In the United Nations and other Councils of the world the communist bloc has supported the Afro-Asian struggle against colonialism and often seems to be more sympathetic to our plight than some of the Western powers. Although there is a universal condemnation of apartheid, the communist bloc speaks out against it with a louder voice than most of the white world. In these circumstances, it would take a brash young politician, such as I was in 1949, to proclaim that the Communists are our enemies." [End quote]

Mandela was also at pains to stress the distinction between the use of violence and that of terrorism saying whilst Umkhonto chose to adopt the former it could not be accused of being supportive of the latter. He identifies instead four violent means left at the disposal of the anti-apartheid movement after the exhaustion of all other democratic approaches failed to achieve parity for blacks - sabotage, guerrila warfare, terrorism and 'open revolution'. The advantages of sabotage were that it did not lead to the loss of civilian life but instead focused on economic targets which it was hoped would force the apartheid regime into discussions.

While small successes were achieved on this front it did not produce the desired effects and thus Mandela and other leaders of Umkhonto were in the process of preparing the ground for a protracted guerrilla war at the time of his capture. To this end he had travelled widely throughout the newly independent African states and received assurances of financial and military support from leaders such as Sekou Touree, Patrice Lumumba and Julius Nyerere. The majority of African states were at this time espousing some form of Pan-African socialism with most choosing to remain in the non-aligned camp but nevertheless determined to develop their own independent brand of socialism best suited to the peculiarities of Africa's traditions and development. It was this cold war context that was seized upon by the white apartheid regime which tended to exaggerate the dangers of communism to further secure its foothold in power.

This is a familiar theme during this period where as we have seen not only in Africa but throughout the Middle East and Latin America reactionary authoritarian regimes stifled movements for progressive social reforms by designating their leaders 'proto-communists' in the ulitimate payroll of Moscow. But, as Mandela makes clear in his speech this simplistic propaganda belied a more complicated reality. As with all great men he sees clearly the positive dimensions contained within competing ideologies; the attraction of Marxist writings for colonial and post-colonial states, the distinction between this and the outright support for communism - to which he lends qualified support - and of course his admiration for the foundation documents in the evolution of democracy. Mandela's insights here in fact remind me of what Coleridge once called the 'esemplastic power of the artist'; to see consistency (of human aspiration in this case) in intuitively dissimilar things (communism/capitalism) and yet manage to blend them coherently on his canvas - one senses we are in dire need of such wisdom today.