The Mystery of US Behaviour in the World

(Part 4 of 4) I argue that American behaviour on the world stage defies any rational explanation. I also question whether the United States has derived much economic benefit from its activist and interventionist approach in the world.

American behaviour in the world hasn’t made much sense on any rational, self-interested grounds. Neither economic self-interest, how ever narrowly or broadly defined, nor a coldly realistic strategic vision, can explain the behaviour of the United States on the international stage from 1898 to the present.

Every single war prosecuted by the United States since 1898 grossly exceeded any reasonable assessment of the national self-interest, whether defined in terms of strategic security or economic/commercial concerns. What ever might have been their initial, parochial motivations at the time, the Americans almost always transformed their interventions into grand projects.

Let’s start with the Philippines, which were officially annexed in open emulation of European colonial empires by the United States in 1899 as a result of the Spanish-American War. Filipino nationalists who had been fighting Spain continued the fight against the Americans in the northern islands, but they surrendered within about a year. Then the Muslim Moros revolted when in 1903 the Americans decided on direct rule in the southern islands. The Moros had been, at best, loosely governed by the Spaniards who basically stuck to the northern coastal cities anyway. They occasionally dispatched punitive expeditions against them, but they quickly went away. The Moros had therefore barely experienced Spanish administration.

So how did the United States respond to the Moro Rebellion ? Why, it conducted a 12-year counterinsurgency campaign against Muslim guerrilla insurgents in the tropical-montane landscape, almost a forerunner of a combination of Vietnam and Afghanistan. Not for the Americans, the piecemeal, almost accidental approach the British had taken in possessing India. That began in Bengal and proceeded bit by bit over 130 years through short and easy wars on the plains against decadent rajas and sultans, wars which involved very few Britons to begin with. Still less was the American approach like that of the unromantic Portuguese, who made a pragmatic habit of taking peninsulas and coastal strips on behalf of their maritime trading empire. No, the United States just had to take administrative control of the entire 87 quadrillion islands of the Philippine archipelago and would spend a dozen years completing the southern conquest. In the process, the US administration built schools, roads, clinics, etc. ; and, oh, the United States also abolished slavery and the Sharia-based Moro legal code.

Compare this with the Dutch acquisiton of their East Indian archipelago-empire, which began with an outpost in the spice-dense Java in 1602 and a gradual satellisation of local potentates — an “Anglo-Portuguese” approach, one might say. The Dutch finally took direct possession of Sumatra only in 1907 ! They did fight three wars of insurgent pacification in Aceh in the late 19th century (and it’s still a pesky, irritating place to this very day), but at least the Dutch could rationalise they had a valuable colonial possession in Java and environs to protect from European competition.

I don’t know what purpose the Philippines served, which also required the United States to physically control the entire archipelago in short order. If the Philippines were an entrée into the potentially lucrative Asia trade, as many at the time openly argued (in addition to the various “mission civilisatrice” type motives), the green bits below would have conduced just fine to that objective :

moro land map

Actually just the northern island of Luzon would been the fit staging post for the early version of the “open door policy” in Asia. I can’t think of any European colonial war that was quite like the US counterinsurgency campaign against the Moros. There was no obvious lucre in it. There was no obvious preexisting interest to protect. There was no obvious strategic reason.

The alleged “pro-investment” orientation of US foreign policy often seems like a misguided extrapolation to the whole world from traditional American behaviour in its immediate backyard, Central America and the Caribbean. Even in that case there’s cause to doubt the US application of the Monroe Doctrine was intended to create an American economic sphere of influence. European capital operated freely throughout the Western Hemisphere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, Britain was the largest foreign investor in the Western Hemisphere, bar none. Most of the export-led economic growth in the Southern Cone in 1870-1914 was made possible by European capital investment.

If anything, it was the fear of European intervention to protect its investments in the Western Hemisphere that T. Roosevelt promulgated his “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. Just as European governments would dispatch war ships to bombard the Khedive’s palace to enforce debt obligations and even take over the customs house for the revenues, so they might do the same in the Western Hemisphere in several countries suffering from political instability and fiscal collapse.

Yet, regardless of whether the USA was motivated by economic imperialism or strategic realism or both in complementary fashion, US interventions in the Western Hemisphere are still anomalous. The United States occupied Haiti for 19 years, the Dominican Republic for 8 years, and Nicaragua for 24 years. Cuba was occupied and administered for several years on at least 3 separate occasions.

And in all those instances, the United States did engage in what amounted to nation-building, regardless of whether it was successful or not, and regardless of the original reasons for the interventions. Now, nation-building in a colony is not inconsistent with making things safe for business, but with the exception of Cuba, where American investments were quite large, US commercial interests elsewhere just weren’t substantial to warrant so much attention. 19 years in Haiti and 24 years in Nicaragua ?

Of course none of the preceeding compares with the extravagance of the US commitment to the two world wars.

I fail to see why the United States had to enter the Great War at all, in terms of its own interests. For what had the USA to lose 100,000+ men in a mere year’s worth of fighting as front-line trench fodder for the Anglo-French forces ? The economic rationale seems the least compelling. In 1914 there was barely any US investment to speak of in Europe, and US spending on the Great War was roughly 10 times the value of its exports to the entire world. A German victory would probably not have reduced American trade, since most exports went to the UK anyway and German ambitions did not include British enslavement.

The Second World War makes even less sense than the first, again, whether from a geoeconomic or geopolitical perspective.

Let’s say the United States did engage the Pacific theatre of the Second World War as an attempt to tear down Japan’s Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and maintain the Open Door Policy. Why would such an objective require the United States to fight the Japanese inch by inch, take shitty islet by shitty islet, in that entire bloody slog of island hopping all the way to Okinawa, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of American lives ? If the atomic bombs hadn’t been ready in the summer of 1945, the US forces would have staged Okinawa as a base for landing on the Japanese main islands, in order to seize and occupy the whole country.

Why was all that necessary, given any rational motivation, economic or defensive or strategic ? The Pacific theatre could have been fought with much less cost to the United States if the apparent war aim had not been as totalising and maximal as “eject Japan from every damned rock in the Pacific and tear out the Japanese state by its very roots”. It seems almost unhinged.

Revenge is a normal human motive, of course, and punitive expeditions are simply traditional. But in order to avenge Pearl Harbor, the United States could have built a great navy ; destroyed the Japanese counterpart on the open seas ; dropped a million tonnes of ordnance on the home islands ; simply abandoned the scatterplot of islands including the Philippines ; and let the Japanese get mired in the vastness of Asia and slowly bleed away. (By 1939 the Japanese were already bogged down and could not advance into the Chinese interior. The same was happening in Burma as they advanced toward India.) In the meanwhile, a more realpolitical United States might have simply declared a no-cross boundary in the middle of the Pacific at the international dateline.

On the western front, why was it necessary to save Britain and France from the Germans ? France was not being exterminated. Britain probably wouldn’t have been, either, if the Germans were even really interested in taking Britain after the winter of 1940-41. Why not, as Truman suggested, let the Russians and the Germans duke it out to the death ?

Even if, for geopolitical reasons, saving Britain and France was deemed utterly necessary, why was it further necessary to go the whole distance and fight every inch of the way to Berlin ? Roosevelt declared a policy of unconditional surrender in Casablanca in 1943, promising vengeance and retribution on the Germans. What had the Germans ever done to the Americans ?

The gargantuan, maximal efforts by the United States in the two world wars were not necessary, and wildly incommensurate with any reasonable assessment of selfish interests, economic or defensive. The United States was basically self-sufficient, it was flanked by two great oceans which it had the resources to police, and it could have easily sat out the two world wars in serene isolation from the Old World as the overlord of the New. And even if the participation in those wars were conceded as necessary for rational self-interested reasons, nonethless the conduct and conclusion of those wars was well in excess of satisfying those reasons.

And there’s the Cold War. Suppose, as a baseline for comparison, that the United States withdrew back into isolation at the end of 1945 or early 1946. Instead of endeavouring to save the world from communism, it reverted to a new Monroe Doctrine : a Fortress Americas Policy, do what ever you want out in the Old World, but don’t fuck with the New. The United States would by then already possess nuclear weapons, rocket technology, the beginnings of jet engines, advanced naval power, German scientists, valuable European refugee brains, etc. The United States would still be safe from behind the defensive perimeter of the Western Hemisphere, without lifting a finger for the Koreans or the Greeks or anybody else under threat from communism. The United States could have engaged in a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union without a policy of containment or rollback or a network of strategic alliances and bases around the world. I think that would have been perfectly feasible. It certainly would have been much much much cheaper — $30-40 trillion cheaper.

George Kennan, the original author of the containment policy, had observed there were “only five centres of industrial and military power in the world which are important to us from the standpoint of national security”, and the object of containment was to keep the Soviets from taking them over. Other areas of the world, Kennan did not regard as crucial. The United States would protect the four essential industrial-military regions of the world not in Soviet hands at the time, and care not a whit about the rest of the world. My point is not the specific number of regions that the United States might have protected, but the finiteness of the US security umbrella.

But instead of practising Kennan’s minimalist geopolitics, what did the United States actually do ? The United States waged a global Cold War, on every front, tit for tat everywhere, whether the communist threat was obvious or not. Dulles busily created alliances around the periphery of the Soviet Union in the 1950s, on the model of NATO — Seato, Cento, the Eisenhower Doctrine, the whole works. Why did Truman and Eisenhower help out the French in Vietnam and the British in Malaya ?

The Korean War comes closest amongst all the military engagements of 1898-1989 to being consistent with realpolitik, given the assumption that it was in the interest of the United States to engage in the Cold War in Asia in the first place. Once you were committed to the defence of Japan, then the Korean War might have been logical. But certainly the Vietnam War — at least in the lavish, improvident lengths to which the United States went to maintain its commitment to the project — made no sense any from realist, geopolitical or geoeconomic perspective. I’m pretty sure I am preaching to the choir as far as most people are concerned (though probably not Matt), so I won’t bother with an elaboration.

The point is, the United States isn’t one to do things by half-measures. The United States doesn’t go to wars or engage in mere action; rather, it undertakes extravagant projects which only incidentally contain fighting and killing on a large scale.

In individual cases, economic and/or strategic self-interest is creditable as a motivation. It’s plausible that the USA thought owning the Philippines would be the gateway to Asian trade, even if it never became that. It’s plausible that the United States feared Imperial Germany might control Europe and close off its market to future penetration by the United States, even though Europe hadn’t been such a big market for American exports or investments. It’s plausible that Japan had to be not just defeated in 1941-45, but also deracinated and extirpated, to permanently lower the coffin on Japanese nationalism. It’s plausible that the United States believed the domination of Europe by the Nazis might eventually haunt them in the Western Hemisphere. It’s plausible that the United States believed if you just let Vietnam go, others might follow and having already put in so much effort and treasure it became captive to the sunk cost fallacy. It’s plausible that the Bush administration actually believed in the potential of Iraqi democracy or that the United States could get its hands on Iraqi oil.

[ I don’t want to restate what most people already think about Iraq and Afghanistan as particularly extravagant projects, so I don’t even bother mentioning them. ]

Each ex ante motivation is plausible and even reasonable in its own historical context. And of course countries do make mistakes, do get trapped in a vicious cycle of trying to recoup wasted investment, and do waste a lot of resources in accomplishing even rational objectives. I’m a fan of irrationality, short-sightedness, error, overestimation, exaggeration, overreaction, overoptimism and blindness to unintended consequences as an explanation of policy. But the disproportion between the scale of power projected by the USA in nearly every war since 1898 and its objective national interests (*), is too great, too consistent, and too systematic to just say shit happens. Enough ex post shit puts ex ante reasonableness into doubt. Given all the US foreign adventures which turned “extravagant” over such a long time and in diverse contexts, you must begin to think, maybe it’s not a series of one-off overkills, but some national character trait.

[ (*) Gulf War 1 is the only anomaly. It’s the only war prosecuted by the United States in a manner reminiscent of the old school realism of the Metternich-Castlereagh-Bismarck-Kennan-Kissinger variety. ]

In the final analysis, what did all that global power, all that prodigal spending, and all that effort get the United States that it could not have gotten without it all ?

The traditional discourse of diplomatic history and international relations assumes that great powers are always players in the anarchy of the international system. Germany, situated between France and Russia, never had a choice about playing power politics. In fact, no country in the world with neighbours has ever had a choice in the matter.

The only major exception that I can think of is the United States. By dint of its geographical isolation, its continental size, the poverty and weakness of its neighbours, the extraordinary fecundity of the land, the technological prowess and staggering productivity of a fairly large population, the United States is far more capable of aloofness from the world than any other country I can think of.

§  §  §

Yet the USA has been deeply involved in the world. I’ve already argued its motivations don’t have a rational explanation. But what has it actually gained from the world ? I don’t mean gains in the narrow sense of receiving returns accruing from a “favourable investment climate”, which I’ve already argued are a joke. Rather, is the USA as a whole more prosperous on account of empire ? Did empire even contribute to American prosperity ?

To the last question, I can’t think of any plausible ways the answer could be a very big yes. What are some advantages of empire that would be missing, if the United States acted like Canada ?

It’s possible without American global hegemony, you would not have the multilateral trading regime of the postwar world. Certainly if Western Europe and Japan had fallen into Soviet hands there would have been much less trade in the whole world !

If international trade has had a substantial benefit for the United States, it would not be via the demand effects of exports and imports. The USA has had a trade deficit since about 1980, and before that its overall trade balances were quite small. So the impact of trade is via the supply-side effects of import competition affecting prices and exports causing increased specialisation in the economy.

But has international trade had an impact on the efficiency of the US economy that’s even comparable with technological progress ? Historically, the latter has not been really trade-dependent. Before the war, a lot of technology transfer happened without too much trade. And after the war, the United States itself was the source of most technology transfer, enabled by a combination of native talent and smart European and Asian immigrants. Then there is market size : the US economy has been so big and productive all on its own, one wonders whether import competition really mattered all that much. Competition from Japanese auto manufacturers had an effect only with the oil crises of the 1970s.

Suppose trading with other rich countries is conceded as important. What if the United States had simply taken the limited Kennan approach to containment, and protected the “industrial-military centres” of Western Europe and East Asia, and let the rest of the world rot ? No Vietnam, no Cuba, no Central America, no Chile, no School of the Americas, no Afghan mujahiddin, no proxy wars in Africa, no Iran, no Israel-Palestine, no Gulf Wars, no entanglements other than Western Europe and East Asia.

I can’t think of much difference between such a counterfactual world and the actual world we live in today, at least in terms of affecting the material prosperity of the United States or other rich countries. Maybe oil prices could be higher because fewer states might control the petroleum deposits, but I doubt that too. And, besides, the rich economies would have adjusted to the higher prices and Detroit might have been more efficient, earlier.

But hasn’t the dominance of the US dollar as a global reserve currency required the maintenance of American empire ? Certainly not ; besides, the benefits of the dollar as a reserve currency are grossly overstated. (I can’t explain it any better than this.)

How about the fact that the United States has consistently and persistently had current account deficits over the course of thirty years ? (External deficit = shortfall of domestic savings = need to import foreign savings.) That amount is exactly equal to what American households, businesses, and governments at all levels have been able to spend on consumption and capital investment, in excess of domestic income. The Americans have had a higher standard of living than implied by GDP alone, because they could borrow the huge savings surpluses of the Europeans and the Asians.

Did that require American Empire ? It would have certainly required that Western Europe and East Asia had been kept from communism. But beyond that ? No, not really. The United States could, and still can, borrow those surplus savings because its internal economy, its relatively laissez-approach, its political stability, and the taxing capacity of the state inspire investor confidence, not because it can conquer Iraq and hold it for 10 years. Japan, which has always had external surpluses until 2012, still borrows heavily to finance large government budget deficits and has accumulated a national debt that’s laughably bigger (relative to GDP) than the USA’s. Yet it has absolutely no problem attracting bond investors from all over the world.

Besides, would it have been so terrible if those 3-4-5% of GDP worth of foreign savings hadn’t been available to the United States because the Red Army was in Calais and Osaka ? You might have had fewer Americans owning their own houses, fewer people living on credit cards, and fewer students going to university in debt, and perhaps smaller budget deficits (or the same budget deficits and higher interest rates). But I don’t see a very big difference.

So, particularly since the end of the Cold War, what has the American empire been good for ?

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50 Responses to The Mystery of US Behaviour in the World

  1. Pingback: The Balance Sheet of US Foreign Policy 1940-2013 | Pseudoerasmus

  2. Pincher Martin says:

    Regarding the Philippines: Don’t forget that the anti-imperialists in the U.S. Senate actually restricted U.S. investment in the Philippines to prevent the emergence and growth of a business lobby there which would favor the retention of the islands as a U.S. territory.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was going to quote something from Karnow along those lines, but the original version was rather Philippines-heavy which was not my intention, and this was post was already the longest of the 4 in the series….


  4. Anonymous says:

    A theme here is that US actions have been gargantuan, maximal, extravagant.
    Yes, but sometimes the US has been restrained. In the 70s, the US restrained itself from plunging into interventions in Africa (despite communists on a roll) or the Gulf (despite the oil embargo). In both cases there were voices demanding action.
    So, I see a cycle or an oscillation of extravagance and restraint, the first often failing, the second then resorted to.
    The basic explanation for extravagance is: because it can.


  5. Well, I would say “projects” have usually turned gargantuan, maximal and extravagant once the decision is taken to engage in them. But there are all kinds of restraint on the decisions themselves, not the least of which in the 1970s was simple Vietnam fatigue plus Watergate. In the end the United States just let South Vietnam fall.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Whyvert says:

    Mobile device issues turned me into anonymous above.


  7. kate says:

    I’ve enjoyed reading this, and Matt’s contribution too. Do you know this is how Greg and Henry started out? Is another seminal text on the horizon, ‘The 2,000 year Experiment: health, heredity and pathways to economic development’ ?

    Is your overarching idea that, there is a heritable American trait that embraces gargantuan projects mainly just because Americans can, and/or ‘enjoy’ doing it ? or am I oversimplifying.


  8. papizha says:

    John Mearsheimer has quite a lot to say about your assumptions


  9. Can you be more specific ? His book on Israel seems consistent with my views on US foreign policy (that it can’t be explained by straightforward rational self-interest). His “Tragedy of Great Power Politics” argues that great powers seek to maximise power, which may very well be true, and it rather does appear to be true in the case of the United States. Classic realists define the national interest so as to include national power & prestige for its own sake. All of that is OK, but a bit archaic, in my opinion. My definition of any country’s national interest is more from the point of view of a dreary accountant. And I don’t just mean that in the financial-economic sense. I want to know, what is that country getting for all that power ? More prosperity ? More security ? More liberty ? And at what cost ? That’s why I can speak to people like Matt, even though I disagree with him fundamentally, because he reasons in terms of returns ; whereas I can’t speak with old-school realists who seem to be concerned with returns only in the sense of power, prestige and even glory.


  10. Kate, have I seen you posting at West Hunter or other sites ?

    ” Is another seminal text on the horizon, ‘The 2,000 year Experiment: health, heredity and pathways to economic development’ ?”

    Sounds rather ambitious, but I had been thinking of a more general blogpost on health & economic development from a sociobiological perspective.

    “Is your overarching idea that, there is a heritable American trait that embraces gargantuan projects mainly just because Americans can, and/or ‘enjoy’ doing it ? or am I oversimplifying”

    I don’t really have an overarching causal idea. I merely observe the United States seems to have a habit for extravagant projects. I really don’t know why, that’s why I call it a mystery.


  11. Matt says:

    I’ll respond in more detail to specific points later, but here’s what I have so far.

    If you’ll allow me to crudely paraphrase:

    (1) Total FDI (including American) in the Third World was extremely low during the Cold War.
    (2) FDI in Third World has increased lately, but the American share of it is still very low.
    (3) The cost of the Cold War to the US has been astronomical.
    (4) Therefore, if America’s policy during CW was to increase American investment in TW, America must have been stupid.
    (5) Therefore, America had no uber-rational super plan to dominate TW investment.

    Thus the “Chomskyan” argument is defeated.

    Fortunately for “Chomskyans”, no “Chomskyan” has ever made that argument. At least, Chomsky hasn’t. Nor have any of the Cold War left-revisionists. Read Gabriel Kolko, for example.

    The left-revisionist analysis of the Cold War does not center on the Third World. It centers on Europe (and, secondarily, Japan).

    The story, in brief, goes like this:

    The US came out of WWII relatively unscathed and in the predominant military and economic position in the world. American post-war planners, already ideologically committed to the establishment of an international liberal system based on (relatively) free trade and (relatively) free movement of capital, found themselves in a position to impose such a system, which would be benevolently guided by American capital and government. To do so, they needed to reconstruct and reintegrate Western Europe and Japan into that system as “junior partners.”

    The Soviet Union, however, posed the main military and ideological threat to their global vision, and so it was necessary also to rearm Europe and construct a pan-Atlantic alliance to “contain” that threat. This further underscored the need to economically reconstruct Europe.

    In order to rebuild Europe and Japan, these countries needed the raw materials and markets of their colonies and former colonies. The Third World would thus play a quiet and constructive, though peripheral, role in the new liberal utopia by practicing free trade and welcoming foreign investment, which the Americans, given their orthodox economic ideology, had every reason to believe would start flowing into capital-poor countries again.

    Unfortunately for US planners, the Third World did not want to play this role. The United States ran head first into something it did not anticipate: obstinate, stubborn Third World nationalism. In accordance with its ideological precepts, it interpreted virtually all manifestations of this phenomena as directed from the Kremlin, which further underscored the need to fight it. Moscow, of course, reinforced this perception by sporadically and opportunistically jumping in to back various states and groups.

    As the US got more and more roped in to hot and cold Third World wars, the influence of a rent-seeking “military-industrial complex”, as well as a technocratic bureaucracy largely interested in state power for its own sake, increasingly replaced the comparatively calm, business-minded individuals who governed in the previous decades. American policy correspondingly became further and further removed from rational strategic aims, and more focused on pure ideology as well as nonsense like “image” and “maintaining face”.

    Thus, American policy often was irrational, even deeply irrational. But these irrationalities did not spring from nothing. The irrationalities were usually distorted, often bizarre, versions of previous rationalities. Early US foreign policy planners (Kennan, Acheson, etc) started off as relatively rational, but were blindsided by events they did not and could not foresee. The “rank nincompoops” came in later, especially under Kennedy.

    Earlier I cited a section from this book by Chomsky. It’s available in an earlier-published version here as well. In it, Chomsky argues that American policy in Indochina was initially characterized by a rational strategy to prevent nationalism from spreading across SE Asia and endangering Japan’s source of raw materials. It was worried that this would result in a Japanese rapprochement with Communist China and/or the Soviet Union, which would result in a new Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In order to forestall this threat, the US backed the reestablishment of French imperialism in Indochina (which also was needed to convince France to agree to the rearmament of West Germany). But the US ran into a problem: the fierce Vietnamese resistance. As it got further and further bogged down in battling this resistance, the original rational aims faded into the background, and victory became an end in itself. When Kennedy’s “best and brightest” took over the management of the war, peak irrationality set in, and the war largely became an exercise in pure sadism.

    Remember, it does not matter whether the initial goals of the aims of the intervention were objectively achievable, or whether there could have been cheaper ways to achieve them. What matters is intent, which needs to be established through the documentary record.

    Your other comments amount to this: Americans have a deep-seated tendency to bring the interventions they decide to undertake to irrational extremes. I’m not necessarily opposed to this, but I have a few misgivings:

    (1) “Americans” aren’t the ones deciding policy. This is a very small sliver of the American population we’re talking about, so it may not be a “national character trait”. Foreign policy, of all the domains of the state, is probably the least susceptible to popular influence, and when it is, it is usually because the public has been presented with highly selective and/or distorted information by interested parties.

    (2) I’d need to think about historical comparisons a little more before I decide that this is a particularly American trait. I think Israel might be a parallel case, and perhaps the common settler-colonial history of the two countries helps explain that commonality, if it exists.

    But, notice, even if you are correct about this, it doesn’t say anything to the left-revisionist explanation, or indeed any explanation, of US foreign policy. That’s because it isn’t an alternative explanation. Positing a “national character trait” for taking interventions to irrational extremes tells us nothing about why those interventions were undertaken in the first place, as you essentially acknowledge.


  12. My argument addressed what I specifically quoted from you, which centred on the Third World. And mine is not so much a refutation, as stating, well, if the goal was a favourable investment climate for itself, then the USA did a damned piss poor job of it during and since the Cold War.

    I did not want to tackle intentionality headlong, mostly because I care much more about the effects (intended or otherwise) of policies. That’s how I usually handle things in order to circumvent an excruciatingly detailed examination of motives, which I typically don’t care about anyway, not being particularly sentimental or romantic. So for example on the question of whether the Nixon administration waged an “invisible blockade” against Chile, I don’t dwell on the doings at the White House but simply ask, if the policy existed, how would it manifest itself and what effect could it possibly have had, in the overall context of Allende’s actions. That sort of approach is less to do with history versus social science, than to do with my obsession with Third World political & economic development. it’s all about whether an external factor such as the USA can be blamed for the state of affairs in developing countries, regardless of American motives. In discussions about the effects of European imperialism on the underdevelopment of the “South”, I also don’t seek to mitigate European colonial motives, either ; I’m interested ultimately in such questions as whether British rule helped de-industrialise India or whether colonial-era borders explain much of Africa’s problems.

    I don’t have any moral problems with most of the actions undertaken by the USA in the Cold War. I mean, I wish Cuba had been invaded, I wish North Korea could have been taken and kept, I’m happy the USA took sides in the Greek civil war, I’m happy the CIA probably helped engineer the electoral defeat of the communists in Italy, etc. etc. As an observer of the United States I must wonder what the USA got or might have gotten out of these things but I’m happy someone thought these actions needed doing.

    Besides, debating intentions would require a case by case examination of the documentary evidence and I wanted to look at the issue from, so to speak, above the earth’s atmosphere.

    Actually I’ve read Kolko’s Confronting the Third World a long long time ago. I can’t remember the details because the last time I was really into Cold War historiography was in the 1990s.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. The story, in brief, goes like this…

    Then maybe we don’t really have too much to argue about…

    But thanks anyway, because I’m fundamentally a reactive person and I usually need to be arguing against something (even if half imagined) to write anything. You gave me 5 massive blogposts so I can probably go do something else now….

    If you want I will make edits to how I might have characterised your views.

    In order to rebuild Europe and Japan, these countries needed the raw materials and markets of their colonies and former colonies.

    The Third World would thus play a quiet and constructive, though peripheral, role in the new liberal utopia by practicing free trade and welcoming foreign investment, which the Americans, given their orthodox economic ideology, had every reason to believe would start flowing into capital-poor countries again

    Neither Western Europe nor Japan needed the markets of their colonies for their recovery. Raw materials are more debateable, depending on what is meant.

    And the premise of the 2nd paragraph is quite odd, since the whole point of Third World economic nationalism was to finance import substitution by exporting raw materials. There was no need to practise free trade or welcome foreign investment for anyone to acquire raw materials.


  14. yes, the same kate says:

    fwiw, I think,

    Matt understands the head of the elephant, the social, cerebral, ideological, philosophical
    You understand the body of the elephant, the guts, the resource flows, bodily health and material wealth
    HBD* chick understands the legs of the elephant, the genesis, alleles, relatedness, reproduction

    it’s the interfaces that are difficult to understand and interesting to debate – the biological roots of culture and the cultural roots of ideology.


  15. Whyvert says:

    Thanks, gentlemen. A fascinating debate.


  16. Matt says:

    If you want I will make edits to how I might have characterised your views.

    You can just make a note referring to the comments section if you want.

    Neither Western Europe nor Japan needed the markets of their colonies for their recovery.

    NSC 48/1 (far from some low-level embassy cable) stated that despite Asia’s poverty and overpopulation, it is “the source of important raw and semi-processed materials, many of them of strategic value. Moreover, in the past, Asia has been a market for the processed goods of industrialized states, and has also been for the western colonial powers a rich source of revenue from investments and other invisible earnings” (para. 34, p. 257) It was expected that the region would return to that role.

    The NSC went on: “Japan can only maintain its present living standard on a self-supporting basis if it is able to secure a greater proportion of its [needed] food and raw material (principally cotton) imports from the Asiatic area, where its natural markets lie, rather than from the U.S., in which its export market is small.”

    It was initially thought that China would be an important source of imports and markets for Japan. After the “loss” of China, the NSC considered it necessary to find other countries to perform this function: “In view of the desirability of avoiding preponderant dependence on Chinese sources, and the limited availability of supplies from pre-war sources in Korea and Formosa, this will require a considerable increase in Southern Asiatic food and raw material exports” (para. 35, 258).

    I have no idea if any of this was accurate, and I don’t really care. It’s what US planners thought, and it’s what they acted on.

    And the premise of the 2nd paragraph is quite odd, since the whole point of Third World economic nationalism was to finance import substitution by exporting raw materials. There was no need to practise free trade or welcome foreign investment for anyone to acquire raw materials.

    Under a nationalist regime, the price of raw materials might be high, and exports might not be those for which the exporting country has a comparative advantage. In particular, what if Asian countries grew food for domestic consumption instead of exporting it to Japan? What if they diverted food production to feeding factory workers in cities, in an attempt to speed up industrialization?

    But if you want the full story, read the Chomsky paper, and (re)read at least Part I of Kolko, Confronting the Third World. The opening sentence of Chapter 1 is:

    “The United States’ wartime vision of the future of the Third World after hostilities ended was far less the result of a conscious policy focused on the poorer and colonial regions than the by-product of its grand design for the entire global political and economic structure.”


    “[T]he plans for the World Bank [and] International Trade Organization (ITO)… subordinated the problems of the Third World to the reconstruction of a world economy in which the United States and Western Europe are the principal partners while the needs and problems of Asia, Latin America, and Africa were incidental and, implicitly, to be dealt with as a by-product of solving difficulties elsewhere [my emphasis]. For the United States, given its official belief in the allegedly complementary nature of national economies that are open to each other and trade freely, this indifference to developments in the poorest regions was logical. The United States was not, in reality, concerned chiefly with either the economic or political problems there. Its explicit assumption was that although the difficulties of the war-torn industrial nations might require a temporary dependence on government funding along with a simultaneous reduction of barriers to free trade, ‘It appears obvious that Latin America and other underdeveloped areas must rely primarily upon private foreign capital and business to assist in their development.’ [Department of Commerce, Foreign Commerce Weekly, November 22, 1947, p. 4] ” – p. 15

    Thus, right off the bat Kolko emphasizes that Western Europe and to a lesser degree Northeast Asia were of primary concern to the US, and the rest of the world was an afterthought.

    (Nobody reads Kolko anymore. Except for libertarians.)

    I enjoyed this too. I know you have a few other posts you’re working on, but I’d eventually like to see one outlining what you think a reasonable middle ground between ISI and neoliberalism would look like for a developing country.


  17. Matt says:

    I’ve learned more about Chinese death rates in the 1980s and US-Argentine relations in the late 1940s than I ever had any intention of learning.


  18. Vijay says:

    I have the exact opposite conclusion of US. Foreign policy/capital investment in foreign countries (opposite to Matt and Chomsky).if anything, the state department and the ” capitalism complex” have been exactly misaligned, even under republican or neocon administrations. The US state department as a tool of capitalist interests is a very popular model that has its origins in England and widely parroted in india. There are multiple problems with that model, including:

    1, fdi and fii are different animals. If anything, a drive to increase fdi has actually hollowed out the manufacturing economy of the US.

    1. The two Iraq wars and afghan war has done nothing to advance us economy.
    2. Favored nations have all become kleptocracies with little success for trade.

    3. East Asia should be viewed as exceptional, owing to internal dynamics and IQALUIT.

    I can add further points, but the state dept policy is a net negative for the US economy. I would argue if the US has been more like Germany or Japan, and have not even had a functional foreign policy, it would have been a net positive of us capitalism.


  19. Vijay says:

    I also wish to add that a critique of US foreign policy or the neoliberal economic policies from Reagan through Obama is most welcome. But using Chomsky as opening gambit is just so weak. Chomsky can, in two lines transform US to a Nazi state, and compare twin towers to bombing a Sudan pharmaceutical company. Using Chomsky as a literature source simply means that most people will not take you seriously, and that list because you are not willing to read the large volume of critical work not just demagoguery.


  20. Wait, Matt, I’m confused. Did you or did you not state baldly, “The general strategy of US foreign policy in the Third World, and especially Latin America, during the Cold War was to promote a “favorable investment climate “ ? You repeated that formulation several times in our discussion of Argentina and the Marshall Plan. It seems to me what I wrote in my 4-part blogpost on US foreign policy is perfectly relevant to what you said.

    I just read your your own suggested link to Chomsky (—-.htm ). I think what I said in my blogposts is perfectly on-point. In fact, I think I gave Chomsky too much credit in distinguishing him from the crude “crony capitalist model” of US policy. I quote from some of his remarks below :

    Perhaps a word might be added with regard to the commonly heard argument that the costs of the Vietnam war prove that the U.S. has no imperial motives (as the costs of the Boer war prove that the British empire was a figment of the radical imagination). The costs, of course, are profits for selected segments of the American economy, in large measure. It is senseless to describe government expenditures for jet planes, or cluster bombs, or computers for the automated air war, simply as “costs of intervention.” There are, to be sure, costs of empire that benefit virtually no one: 50,000 American corpses or the deterioration in the strength of the U.S. economy relative to its industrial rivals. The costs of empire to the imperial society as a whole may be considerable. These costs, however, are social costs, whereas, say, the profits from overseas investment guaranteed by military success are again highly concentrated in certain special segments of the society that are generally well-represented in the formation of state policy. The costs of empire are in general distributed over the society as a whole, while its profits revert to a few within. In this respect, the empire serves as a device for internal consolidation of power and privilege,21 and it is quite irrelevant to observe that its social costs are often very great or that as costs rise, differences may also arise among those who are in positions of power and influence. While serving as a device for internal consolidation of privilege, the empire also provides markets, guaranteed sources of inexpensive raw materials, a cheap labour market, opportunities for export of pollution (no small matter for Japan, for example), and investment opportunities. On the assumptions of the domino theory, even in its more rational versions, the stakes in Vietnam in this regard were considerable.

    21. Thus the director of USAID for Brazil finds it quite natural that “we have spent $2 billion [since 1964] on a programme one objective of which is the protection of a favourable investment climate for private business interests in this country”, while the total investment is about $1.7 billion. Church sub-committee Hearings, pp. 165-6; see note 15…..

    In a capitalist society, the operative form of autocratic rule is the private control of the means of production and resources, of commerce and finance; and further, the significant influence on state policy by those who rule the private economy, and who indeed largely staff the government. As already noted, elements of the private autocracy who have a specific concern with foreign affairs will naturally tend to use their power and influence to direct state policy for the benefit of the interests they represent, regardless of social costs. Where they succeed, we have imperialist intervention, quite commonly….

    The question remains: why is American ideology and policy anti-communist? Or a further question: why has the U.S. been anti-fascist (though selectively)? Why was fascist Japan evil in 1940, while fascist Greece and Portugal (preserving the status quo in Africa) are quite tolerable today? And why is the U.S. generally anti-colonialist, say in Indonesia shortly after World War II, when the conservative nationalist leadership appeared at first to favour foreign investment, but (reluctantly) not in Indochina where the alternative to a barely disguised French colonialism was an indigenous communist resistance?

    And were it not for the amount of space required I might have quoted 5 or 6 subsequent paragraphs as well.

    Most of the above IS the crony-capitalist theory. I even mentioned the “socialise the costs, privatise the gains” logic of it. Most of the remarks on fascism are also what I already understood you to be saying. So I think the Chomsky quote above is dealt with to a large extent just in part 1 of my series.


  21. Under a nationalist regime, the price of raw materials might be high

    Most commodities are not as precious as petroleum, and a single nationalist regime can’t do much about the international price. Just think coffee or cacao or sugar. Even copper is not that precious. And if you raise the price enough, you cause substitutions (think synthetic rubber during the second world war, which was invented to meet a shortage due to Japanese blockade). All the same, in order to raise prices, you have to get the producers to operate as a cartel — like OPEC. So UNCTAD, the Non-Aligned Movement, the ISI theorist honcho Prebisch, all babbled about cartels for other commodities, and some were formed — for copper, bauxite, tin, etc. But most of them failed. The bauxite “cartel” was confined to a clerk in an office cubicle in Jamaica when it finally died. But why would it have been otherwise, even OPEC is just barely able to operate as a successful cartel. When ever they raise prices too much there is always some free rider / cheater who ruins the agreement.

    In particular, what if Asian countries grew food for domestic consumption instead of exporting it to Japan?

    In the early 1950s, Thailand and Burma were suppliers of rice to Japan, until Japan itself became self-sufficient. (The United States was also a big exporter.) What are you saying, Thailand and Burma starved for exporting to Japan ?


  22. Matt says:

    Did you read the entire thing? The thrust of the piece (extensively supported with documentation from the Pentagon Papers) is that the United States intervened in Indochina in order to prevent the spread of nationalism throughout South East Asia, which it believed would cause increased Japanese reliance on and integration with Communist China.

    The paragraphs you quoted from Chomsky indicate that he believes that private interests with an influence on state policy engage in “rent-seeking” behavior. But everyone (or everyone reasonable) believes that. That doesn’t mean Chomsky believes that’s the driving force behind US policy. Right after the first paragraph you quoted, Chomsky goes on:

    The same fallacy is one of several that undermine the familiar argument that our economic stake in the “third world” is too slight a fraction of GNP to play any significant role in motivating third world interventions.22 The private interests that stand to gain from foreign intervention are undeterred by its social costs and will exert their often substantial influence to engage state power in support of {19} their interests, however small a fraction of GNP they represent. Quite apart from this, it is in general impossible to decouple economic interests in the third world from those in industrial societies, as the case of Vietnam clearly illustrates, with the long-standing concern of policy-makers for the fate of the “farther dominoes,” such as Japan.23

    22. This is argued, with reference to Vietnam, by Arthur Schlesinger Jnr. in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, May 10, 1972; and commonly, by others. Schlesinger considers the “more sophisticated” economic argument that defeat in Vietnam would jeopardize American economic interests throughout the third world, failing to notice that this is not the argument that has been offered by those he hopes to refute. Rather, they have generally pointed out that the workshop of the Pacific, Japan, was a primary consideration of American policy in Vietnam.….

    This, especially the bolded parts, answers a great deal of the points you made quite nicely. The “crony capitalist” stuff goes a great deal of the way toward explaining why the US kept paying the”costs” of the wars, aid, etc., even after it became apparent that the objectives weren’t going to be achieved.

    Or what about the last paragraph, which is where an author typically summarizes his or her argument? Chomsky writes:

    The motive force for the American war in Indochina lies, it seems to me, where it was located in the earliest internal documents of the state executive: in the perceived significance of Southeast Asia for the integrated global system that was to be organised by American power – and, under reasonable assumptions, dominated by American power for the primary benefit of those who possess that power. Although in the 1960s, other and more irrational considerations may have predominated for a time, once again today, the continuing U.S. effort to achieve a Korea-type solution in Indochina, whatever the cost to its people, can be traced to the same fundamental objectives.

    There’s one passage that’s particularly relevant to this discussion. I’ll quote the version in For Reasons of State (p. 65):

    “[T]here is an interesting literary genre, worthy of investigation in itself, devoted to the refutation of nonexistent arguments attributed to ‘radicals’…”

    The four posts that you’ve written on this topic constitute a small contribution to this literature.


  23. Matt says:

    And it’s not just the argument of Chomsky. The entire “revisionist” literature reiterates these points. This goes for Kolko, as I’ve already mentioned. It also goes for William LaFeber, another “revionist”:

    Long before the Korean War, U.S. officials concluded that if Japan were to recover, it needed Southeast Asia’s markets and raw materials (including rich stores of tin, oil, natural rubber, and rice). Between 1931 and 1945, the Japanese had, indeed, tried to conquer that region. Now, as Dulles and others in Washington believed, if Southeast Asia were not open to their enterprise, the Japanese would turn to Communist China or would have to dump their goods on the U.S. market.

    (The American Age, p. 519)


  24. Matt says:

    Most commodities are not as precious as petroleum

    Indonesian oil was considered particularly critical for Japan. As LaFeber points out, Japan had just fought a long and vicious war in which Indonesian oil (and other South Asian resources) was a primary motivating factor.

    And a single nationalist regime can’t do much about the international price.

    The worry was that nationalists in one area would inspire nationalists in other areas. That was the basis of the “domino theory.”

    There’s also the fact that if Southeast Asia went Communist, the US would have to tried to deny Japan access to the resources of this area, in order to prevent it from being “Finlandized” into the Asian Communist world. That is, after all, why Southeast Asia became so important for Japan after the “fall” of China, as I’ve already explained, with reference to NSC 48/1.

    If Southeast Asia became Communist, Japan would have to choose between its alliance and economic integration with the US, and alliance and economic integration with Asian Communism. The US was worried that it would choose the latter.

    And again, there’s the fact, which you keep ignoring, that in order to interpret US behavior, you have to follow the rule you use to interpret any human behavior: look at the beliefs and desires of the agents, because people generally act in accordance with what they believe will satisfy their desires. You don’t actually have to know whether the beliefs are accurate or not, which is a separate question. Again, I can’t say it better than Chomsky does:

    10. It is sometimes argued that at best “citation of these views [which can now be documented extensively from internal documents as well as the public record] proves no more than conviction, and a mistaken conviction at that,” and therefore “the radical argument” that Japanese relations with Southeast Asia were a dominant consideration in American planning can be discounted Robert Tucker, The Radical Left and American Foreign Policy, Johns Hopkins, 1971, pp. 116-7. The argument is an obvious non sequitur, a particularly clear example of the fallacy noted earlier (p. xx). Documentation of the conviction suffices to establish motive; its accuracy is clearly irrelevant to the determination of motive.

    You write:

    What are you saying, Thailand and Burma starved for exporting to Japan ?

    No. Try again.


  25. Matt says:

    Did you or did you not state baldly, “The general strategy of US foreign policy in the Third World, and especially Latin America, during the Cold War was to promote a “favorable investment climate “?

    The general strategy of US foreign policy in the the Third World. And US foreign policy toward the Third World was a “by-product” (to use Kolko’s phrase) of US foreign policy toward Western Europe and Northeast Asia, which was the main concern.


  26. Matt says:

    I’ll admit this: instead of saying “favorable investment climate”, I should have said: “American-dominated globally integrated economic order” of which fostering favorable environments for foreign capital is but one part.


  27. Matt,

    I think you have retreated to the Euro- and Japan-centric view of the origins of US behaviour in the Third World, although that had been absent in the Argentine discussion despite plentiful opportunities to enunciate it. I will quote you again ( ) :

    The general strategy of US foreign policy in the Third World, and especially Latin America, during the Cold War was to promote a “favorable investment climate.”

    It was also the strategy before the Cold War: the peak of US intervention in Latin America was 1898-1933; for half of this period there were no “commies” in existence, and for the other half they were hardly a serious threat. Generally, US desire to dominate the region dates back to the Monroe Doctrine and before. And the strategy continues today. But since there aren’t any credible foreign enemies left, we have to invent new ones. That’s why Rick Santorum is constantly going on about how Hizballah has set up shop in Ecuador, or whatever. (And LA countries are more independent and better able to resist the US now. The attempted coup in Venezuela in 2002 would have succeeded a generation ago).

    Now, I repeat: US foreign policy is not omnipotent. We have limited resources, and we cannot do away with all the things we dislike at once. Since Communism was the greatest threat to favorable investment climates, we tended, at any given point, to focus most of our resources on combatting movements that were explicitly Communist or which we perceived to be Communist. This leads some people to believe that we only opposed Communism, and were just fine with democratic nationalism and other threats to the American-dominated international economic system. But this is the wrong moral to draw from the Cold War. It only sometimes looks as if this were true because we tended to focus less effort on opposing non-Communist nationalists, since Communism was the greater threat. But that doesn’t mean we liked economic nationalism, and it doesn’t mean that we didn’t do what we could to oppose it when it was feasible to do so. Noam Chomsky made this argument, with particular reference to Indochina, in Chapter 1, Section V (pp. 31-66) of this book.

    The US also opposed fascism before and during World War II, especially from Japan. Why? Because fascism creates an inhospitable investment climate, or at least an imperfect one. The Japanese Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere would have put an end to US plans for an Open Door in Asia (even as it strove for a relatively closed one in the Western Hemisphere). The US also opposed European imperialism after WWII, and for the same reasons. Except, of course, where the alternative was worse, like in Indochina…

    You mention South Korea, Iran, and Turkey (why not Taiwan too?), all US allies with nationalist economic policies. Notice something about these countries: they were all on the periphery of the Communist world. The US needed these countries as bulwarks against the Soviet Union and China. They needed to be prosperous and militarily powerful. We could not afford for South Korea to be Honduras.

    Indeed, US planners had no plans for South Korea’s development prior to the Korean War. We saw it as a country of stupid, backward rice farmers without much promise. It didn’t show up on our radar, which is why we were surprised by the North Korean invasion. Initially, too we were skeptical of its economic policies, but we soon shut up when we saw the results.

    In Iran and Turkey, the story is similar. These countries bordered the Soviet Union and had strong militaries. Iran in particular provided a range of services to the US, including extensive espionage against the USSR. That’s one reason why “losing” Iran in 1979 was such a big blow to the US.

    You could have also mentioned Israel, the largest recipient of US aid and hardly a free market paradise, especially before the Begin government. Israel, Turkey, Iran, and Ethiopia signed the “Periphery Pact” in 1958, which the US backed. This was a military alliance of states on the periphery of the Arab world. The idea was to isolate and contain Arab nationalism, which the US was becoming hysterical about at this point. (Israel itself has long sought close relations with other “peripheral” states and peoples, including the Kurds. Israel even continued to sell arms to Iran for a time after 1979).

    After Israel’s defeat and humiliation of Nasser in 1967, the US was finally sold on Israel’s value as a strategic asset in the region, whereas before it had been skeptical because of its perceived closeness to Britain and France (think Suez 1956). Even Walt and Mearsheimer think that Israel’s net strategic value to the US was positive during the Cold War.

    As for Africa… I’ll admit I don’t know as as much about this region. But, like I said before, US resources are limited. The more we needed to worry about Lumumba, or Nkrumah, or the Derg in Ethiopia, or the MPLA in Angola, or FRELIMO in Mozambique, or Cuban intervention… the less we could worry about a Julius Nyerere or a Jomo Kenyatta. Secondly, Africa is such a poor place that it may have been less important to preserve a favorable investment climate. Finally, most of Africa already belonged to the spheres of influence of European powers, especially France.

    You had plenty of opportunity to insert within the verbiage of the above that US conduct in the Third World was a byproduct, or a subordinated consequence, of the US strategy for Western Europe and Japan. But you did not. You even referenced the same Chomsky book, but still did not enunciate the Eurocentric perspective. Quite to the contrary, you discerned a great continuity between the US cold war in the Third World and US behaviour prior to 1945, even citing the Monroe Doctrine. The leitmotif of your comment is that European colonialism, fascism and communism were all three threats to a “favourable investment climate”.

    In fact, the whole thrust of your argument before the parts quoted was that the USA was selectively applying pressure to open up Argentina to foreign invesment, e.g., “These sanctions, along with Peronist mismanagement, contributed to a recession. In 1949, the Perón government adopted austerity measures and opened the country to more US investment, which pleased the US..”

    When I mentioned that Dorn himself didn’t appear to be arguing the USA was trying to create a “favourable investment climate” in Argentina, but mistakenly thought Peron represented fascism, your response was : “And US policymakers opposed fascism because it created unfavorable investment climates” You later expanded :

    I think that US officials sincerely believed that Perón was a fascist, just like I think that Khrushchev sincerely believed that the Hungarian revolutionaries of 1956 were fascists in the pay of Wall Street, and like Hitler sincerely believed that there was international Jewish conspiracy out to defile the German race. I believe that people create self-serving fictions in order to give a disinterested veneer to interested actions, and that they come to sincerely believe these fictions, so as to be better able to act on them. I believe that institutions select for people who believe fictions, so as to be better able to act on them. I believe that Americans and American institutions are not immune to this flaw.

    You and I both believe that the US wanted to create a multilateral liberal trade framework. You say that this was because US planners believed that this would “prevent war and depression.” I agree, but I would only add that this framework also had the convenient side effect of promoting a favorable climate for US investment.

    But I will repeat to you what you had said to me about Argentina :

    Now, if you didn’t really mean the latter statement, or you want to take it back, that’s fine. But I can’t be faulted for responding to what you wrote, rather than to what you didn’t write

    I won’t press you any further on what you did or did not say or mean, and others can judge whether my 4 blogposts on the subject US foreign policy and foreign investment were arguing against a hallucination.


  28. Still, Matt, your construction of Chomsky’s views is extremely narrow. Though he may situate the Vietnam War in the Euro- and Japan-centric origins of the Cold War in the historiographic sense, he nonetheless still enunciates a broader vision of US foreign policy. Again, I quote from Chomsky (—-.htm ) :

    The question remains: why is American ideology and policy anti-communist? Or a further question: why has the U.S. been anti-fascist (though selectively)? Why was fascist Japan evil in 1940, while fascist Greece and Portugal (preserving the status quo in Africa) are quite tolerable today? And why is the U.S. generally anti-colonialist, say in Indonesia shortly after World War II, when the conservative nationalist leadership appeared at first to favour foreign investment, but (reluctantly) not in Indochina where the alternative to a barely disguised French colonialism was an indigenous communist resistance?

    It is not too difficult to discern a criterion that serves rather well to determine which elements in foreign lands receive support, and {29} which are labelled enemies. It is surely not the humanitarian impulse; nor is it the prospects for development that determine the official U.S. response: China or Cuba might well have profited from capital grants for development – more so, at least, than from blockade, invasion, and harassment. Nor is it the fear of our great power rivals that leads us to intervene half way around the world, as is plainly shown by the determined effort to prove that Russia and China were responsible for the “internal aggression” in Vietnam, in the face of the evidence that they were not, and analogous efforts in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Nor do democratic or authoritarian rule, blood-thirstiness, aggressiveness, or a threat to U.S. security (in a proper sense of the term) provide a plausible criterion. Brazil and South Africa are as vicious as they come. The horrendous Indonesian massacre of 1965 was greeted with calm, and in some circles, the whole sequence of events evoked only polite applause. China has been the least aggressive of the great powers. The Viet Minh and the Pathet Lao are hardly a threat to U.S. security. Fascist Japan was no doubt an aggressive power – in some ways, not unlike the U.S. today40 – but the U.S. was prepared to seek a modus vivendi in 1939 provided that U.S. rights and interests on the mainland were guaranteed. And fascist Greece is quite all right today; it plays its NATO role, provides bases for U.S. naval forces,41 and as an added attraction, there is – as Secretary of Commerce Maurice Stans put it so lyrically not long ago – “the welcome that is given here to American companies and the sense of security the Government of Greece is imparting to them.”42

    Friends and enemies can be identified, to a rather good first approximation, in terms of their role in maintaining an integrated global economy in which American capital can operate with relative freedom.

    The so-called “communist” powers are particularly evil because their “do-it-yourself” model of development tends to extricate them from this system. For this reason, even European colonialism, which was bad enough, is preferable to indigenous Communism. For the same reason, Washington will prefer a Trujillo to a Castro.

    The Study Group of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and the National Planning Association was perceptive, and more honest than many contemporary ideologists, when it described the primary threat of communism as the economic transformation of the communist powers “in ways which reduce their willingness and ability to complement the industrial economies of the West,”43 their refusal to play the game of comparative advantage and to rely primarily on foreign investment for development. If the “developing nations” {30} choose to use their resources for their own purposes, or to carry out internal social change in ways which will reduce their contribution to the industrial economies of the state capitalist world, these powers must be prepared to employ sufficient force to prevent such unreasonable behaviour, which will no doubt be described as “internal aggression” by agents of international communism. The Soviet Union reacts no differently when Czechoslovakia seeks a degree of independence or social change.

    At a much different level of domination, British car workers must not be permitted to demand too great economic benefits or a share in management in the Ford plant, and must remain subject to the threats that can be wielded quite effectively by an international corporation. In East Asia, which many regard as a most promising region for the “internationalisation of production” as well as for supplying raw materials,44 the problems will be particularly acute. Surely such considerations lie at the very core of American foreign policy, a conclusion that is in no way surprising when we observe who staffs the executive, which designs and implements foreign policy. Though these are far from the sole operative factors in US policy, and are often overwhelmed by the impact of ideological commitments which themselves grow out of such concerns, it is surely the beginnings of wisdom to recognise their crucial role.

    Those who are called upon to implement and defend U.S. policy {31} are often quite frank about the matter. As noted earlier the director of USAID for Brazil, to take one recent and very important case, explains quite clearly that protection of a favourable investment climate for private business interests – in particular, American investors – is a primary objective of U.S. policy, which has contributed $2 billion of the American taxpayer’s money since 1964 to secure a total investment of $1.7. To be sure, he mentions other objectives as well: our “humanitarian interests” and our “security objectives.” As to our humanitarian interests, they seem a bit selective, and correlate remarkably well with “the protection and expansion, if possible, of our economic interests, trade and investment, in the hemisphere” (op. cit., p. 165). Thus our humanitarian interests in Brazil, as measured by the aid programme, showed a marked upsurge after the April 1964 “revolution” which, among other achievements, overcame the “administrative obstacles to remittance of income developed under the Goulart regime” (ibid., p. 185-7, 215). Another achievement that correlated with the vast flow of aid was the rise of private investment from 50% to 75% of total investment (ibid., p. 208).45

    …We are, I am afraid, reduced to the first objective: the protection and expansion of “our” economic interests in the hemisphere….

    Before we attribute this or that misadventure to “blind anti-communism” we would do well to distinguish several varieties of anti-communism. Opposition to indigenous movements that might {32} pursue the so-called “Communist” model of development, extricating their societies from the international capitalist system, is not “blind anti-communism,” strictly speaking. It may be “anti-communism,” but it is far from blind. Rather, it is rational imperialism which seeks to prevent the erosion of the world system dominated by Western and Japanese capital. On the other hand, reference to a “coordinated offensive directed by the Kremlin” against Southeast Asia in 1949 (NSC 48/1) or to the “militant and aggressive expansionist policy advocated by the present rulers of Communist China” (George Carver of the CIA) is, indeed, blind anti-communism – or to be more precise, it is perhaps blind, but is not anti-communism at all. Rather, it is pure imperial ideology, beyond the reach of evidence or debate, a propaganda device to rally domestic support for military intervention against indigenous communist-led movements. The device is, no doubt useful for the policy-makers themselves, for their own self-image Blocking the machinations of the agents of Russian or Chinese aggression can be seen as a laudable, even noble enterprise. It takes a fair degree of cynicism, however, to undertake the destruction of those who had captured the nationalist movement. In Vietnam, the first form of anti-communism motivated U.S. intervention, while the second was called upon to justify it – as elsewhere, repeatedly.

    First, it’s hardly any revioninism at all, and hardly any critique at all, for supporters of capitalism to hear that the United States should be motivated by a global threat to capitalism. The Euro- & Japan-centric view of the origins of the Cold War is pretty tame stuff. It hardly even deserves the label revisionist, given that everyone knows the Cold War began in Europe and Northeast Asia. It would be revisionist only to the most romantic types who can at best envision the United States as a global defender of democracy and human rights uncoupled with capitalism. But there is no shame in the defense of capitalism. What would be unalloyed revisionism, however, is the denial that the United States perceived a security threat from the Soviet Union. The question then becomes whether the US opposition to economic nationalism in the Third World was caused by US fears about the Soviet security threat.

    That issue, and all of the Chomsky that I quote just above, are addressed by my argument that in spite of the commendable American motivation to defend capitalism, it was not a defense of the neoliberal vision of capitalism. That is patent in the very fact that during the Cold War the United States did not care about deviations from the “monetarist” (*) style capitalism in the numerous instances I’ve cited and you did not disagree with. Your inferential and nondocumentary interpretation of that tolerance is that the United States temporarily considered it a lesser evil than the main objective of the Soviet threat. My interpretation is that “neoliberal capitalism” was not even advanced during the Cold War and it largely existed as an intellectual fancy. Not even the Chicago Boys experiment in Chile could give it much prestige, since Chile itself collapsed in the debt crisis of the early 1980s. So left-wingers anachronistically project to the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s their feelings about Reagan and Thatcher, as well as the 1990s and 2000s experience with structural adjustment programmes in the Third World and the ex-communist bloc. For an anarchosocialist like Chomsky back in 1972-73, even the moderate capitalism represented by the United States of the time was just too extreme. Well, I guess I can’t blame him, he could not have imagined some of the crazy views that are mainstream now.

    (*) Here I use the word “monetarist” not in the very strict American sense of “doctrine of monetary policy” associated with Milton Friedman the technical economist, but in the stupider, looser British usage of “quasi-libertarian economic ideology” associated with Milton Friedman the public ideologue.


  29. Matt said : “And again, there’s the fact, which you keep ignoring, that in order to interpret US behavior, you have to follow the rule you use to interpret any human behavior: look at the beliefs and desires of the agents, because people generally act in accordance with what they believe will satisfy their desires. You don’t actually have to know whether the beliefs are accurate or not, which is a separate question.

    [From Chomsky] Documentation of the conviction suffices to establish motive; its accuracy is clearly irrelevant to the determination of motive.

    I don’t think I’ve ignored the difference between intentions/motives and what we know in retrospect. I’ve pointed out the difference myself many times in my 4 pieces. But one of my reasons for writing the bird-in-outer-space view of the events is that historical interpretation is fragile, especially in a large-scale phenomenon as a century of foreign policy. Even in the very discrete Argentina case where I conceded to you what was the decision taken by the ECA, we can’t even hone in on the “ultimate” reason from the facts of the case. You yourself still deduce the ultimate “why” from the general, rather than induce from the particulars of that case.

    Besides, Chomsky is trying to have it both ways on motives. When it’s convenient to ignore documented motives, he does “interpret” them away. I quote from him again — these passages come just before the previous citation of Chomsky :

    To be sure, the imperial drive is often masked in defensive terms: it is not that we are seeking to dominate an integrated world system incorporating Japan, but rather that we must deny strategic areas to the Kremlin (or “Peiping”), thus protecting ourselves and others from their “aggression”. The masters of the Russian empire affect a similar pose, no doubt with equal sincerity and with as much justification. The practice has respectable historical antecedents, and the term “security” is a conventional euphemism. The planners merely seek to guarantee the security of the nation, not the interests of dominant social classes.

    There is, in fact, a sense in which the “defensive” rhetoric is appropriate. It is natural for the managers of the world’s most advanced industrial superpower, organised more or less along capitalist lines, to seek free and open competition throughout the world in fair confidence that the interests they represent will tend to predominate. Thus they seek only to deny various areas to closed systems, national or imperial. The United States, like Britain in the period of its world dominance, tends towards the “imperialism of free trade,” while maintaining the practice of state intervention for the benefit of special interests and demanding special rights (as in the Philippines) where they can be obtained.25

    Many commentators deny that U.S. policy was determined, or even influenced by long-term imperial objectives, and argue that the Pentagon Papers reveal no imperial drive. A case can be made for this view, particularly in the 1960s. Leslie Gelb makes the interesting point that “no systematic or serious examination of Vietnam’s importance to the United States was ever undertaken within the government.”26 He attributes the persistence of the Vietnam venture, in the face of this oversight, to multiple factors: the stranglehold of cold war assumptions, bureaucratic judgments, anti-Communism as a force in American politics and other domestic pressures, and so on.27 He points out that although the view that “Vietnam had intrinsic strategic military and economic importance” was argued, it never prevailed; properly, of course, since Vietnam has no such intrinsic importance. Rather its importance derives from the assumptions of the domino theory, in his formulation, the theory “by which the fall of Indochina {21} would lead to the deterioration of American security around the globe.” “It was ritualistic anti-communism and exaggerated power politics that got us into Vietnam,” he maintains, noting that these “articles of faith” were never seriously debated (New York Review). Nor, we may add, is there any record of a debate or analysis of just how American “security” would be harmed by a victory of the nationalist movement of Indochina which had been “captured” by the Communists, or just what components of “American security” would be harmed by the triumph of a nationalist movement which, it was expected, would be hostile to China and would limit its ambitions to Laos and Cambodia.

    Hannah Arendt has discussed a variety of rather different irrational factors that impelled policy-makers in Vietnam.28 “The ultimate aim,” she concludes, “was neither power nor profit . . . [nor] . . . particular tangible interests,” but rather “image making.” “something new in the huge arsenal of human follies.” “American policy pursued no real aims, good or bad, that could limit and control sheer fantasy,” in particular, no imperial strategy. Ignorance, blind anticommunism, arrogance, self-deception lie behind American policy.

    She is certainly correct in noting these elements in the Pentagon history. Thus in the face of all historical evidence, the U.S. authorities persisted in the assumption, a point of rigid doctrine, that China was an agent of Moscow, the Viet Cong an agency of North Vietnam, which was in turn the puppet of Moscow or “Peiping” or both, depending on the mood of the planners and propagandists, who, surely, had more than enough information at hand to refute, or at the very least to shake their confidence in these assumptions. A kind of institutionalised stupidity seems a possible explanation.

    There is ample material in the Pentagon Papers to support such interpretations, from the time when Dean Acheson, in a cable to Saigon, spoke of the need to aid the French and the Associated States of Indochina “to defend the territorial integrity of IC and prevent the incorporation of the ASSOC[iated] States within the COMMIE-dominated bloc of slave states” (October, 1950; I, 70), and on to the present. One of the most remarkable revelations of the Pentagon Study is that the analysts were able to discover only one staff paper, in a record of more than two decades, “which treats communist reactions primarily in terms of the separate national interests of Hanoi, Moscow, and Peiping, rather than primarily in terms of an overall communist strategy for which Hanoi is acting as an agent” (II, 107; an intelligence estimate of November, 1961). Even in the “intelligence community,” where they are paid to get the facts straight and not to rant about {22} helping the French defend the territorial integrity of Indochina from its people and the Commie-dominated bloc of slave stateS, it was apparently next to impossible to perceive, or at least express the simple truth that North Vietnam, like the Soviet Union, China, the United States, and the NLF, has its own interests, which are often decisive.

    It is amusing to trace the efforts to establish that Ho Chi Minh was merely a Russian (or Chinese) puppet – as obviously must be the case. The State Department, in July, 1948, could find “no evidence of direct link between Ho and Moscow” (but naturally “assumes it exists”).29 State Department intelligence, in the fall, found evidence of “Kremlin-directed conspiracy . . . in virtually all countries except Vietnam.” Indochina appeared “an anomaly.” How can this be explained? To intelligence, the most likely explanation is that “no rigid directives have been issued by Moscow” or that “a special dispensation for the Vietnam government has been arranged in Moscow” (I, 5, 34). In September, 1948, the State Department noted that “There continues to be no known communication between the USSR and Vietnam, although evidence is accumulating that a radio liaison may have been established through the Tass agency in Shanghai” (DOD, book 8, 148, grasping at straws). American officials in Saigon added that “No evidence has yet turned up that Ho Chi Minh IS receiving current directives either from Moscow, China, or the Soviet Legation in Bangkok.” “It may be assumed,” they conclude from this, “that Moscow feels that Ho and his lieutenants have had sufficient training and experience and are sufficiently loyal to be trusted to determine their day-to-day policy without supervision” (ibid., 151). By February, 1949, they were relieved to discover that “Moscow publications of fairly recent date are frequently seized by the French,” indicating that “satisfactory communications exist,” though the channel remains a mystery (ibid., 168; also “there has been surprising[ly] little direct cooperation between local Chinese Communists and the Viet Minh”).

    “We are unable to determine whether Peiping or Moscow has ultimate responsibility for Viet Minh policy,” an intelligence estimate of June, 1953 relates (I, 396), but it must be one or the other – that is an axiom. In the context of a discussion of Chinese Communist strategy, intelligence concludes that the Communists are pursuing their present strategy in Indochina because “It diverts badly needed French and US resources from Europe at relatively small cost to the Communists” and “provides opportunities to advance international Communist interests while preserving the fiction of ‘autonomous’ {23} national liberation movements, and it provides an instrument, the Viet Minh, with which Communist China and the USSR can indirectly exert military and psychological pressures on the peoples and governments of Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand” (I, 399). Might there be another reason why the Viet Minh fight on?

    Occasionally, there is a ray of light. The NSC Working Group in the fall of 1964 observed that the most likely result of the least aggressive option it was considering “would be a Vietnamese-negotiated deal, under which an eventually unified Communist Vietnam would reassert its traditional hostility to Communist China and limit its own ambitions to Laos and Cambodia” (III 229; and III, 661). But such moments are rare.

    It is tempting to use such evidence to support the claim that ignorance, mythology, and institutionalised stupidity led U.S. policy-makers into a series of disastrous errors. If only they had realised that Stalin was luke-warm or negative towards Mao and the Greek guerrillas, that there was no “pattern of Communist conquest . . manifest” in Guatemala in 1954,30 that the Vietnamese were conducting their own struggle for national liberation. If only William Bundy had had a course in Vietnamese history at Yale. But ignorance and paranoia obscured the facts.

    This theory, however, leaves too many questions unanswered. To mention only the simplest: why were policy-makers always subject to the same form of ignorance and irrationality? Why was there such a systematic error in the delusional systems constructed by post-war ideologists? Mere ignorance or foolishness would lead to random error, not to a regular and systematic distortion: unwavering adherence31 to the principle that whatever the facts may be, the cause of international conflict is the behaviour of the Communist powers, and all revolutionary movements within the U.S. system are sponsored by the USSR, China, or both.32 Why was the latter assumption so far beyond challenge that no examination of Vietnam’s importance was ever undertaken (Gelb)? Ignorance and stupidity can surely lead to error, but hardly to such systematic error or such certainty in error.

    And there is a second and even more obvious question: why is the United States anti-communist? With respect to the first question, whether it is Acheson, Rostow, Stevenson, Kissinger, or whoever, one generally finds the same distortion as in the sorry record of the “intelligence community”. From one or another such source we hear that Stalin supported Mao and incited the Greek guerrillas and Ho Chi Minh; China invaded India; the Viet Cong are agents of international communist aggression; and {24} so on. These are, indeed, articles of faith. The crisis-managers do not argue these claims; they merely intone them. All are at best highly dubious and probably false, so the available record indicates, but questions of fact are beside the point in theological disputation.

    What is not beside the point is that these articles of faith are highly functional. The fact is that anti-communism provides a convenient mythology to justify colonial wars, and to gain the popular support that is often hard to rally, given the grisly nature and substantial costs of such endeavours. But to explain the U.S. attack on Vietnam on grounds of anti-communist delusions would be as superficial as explaining the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia or Hungary merely on grounds of fear of West Germany or Wall Street. No doubt, at some level, the Soviet leadership believes what it says, and is bewildered at the bitter reaction to its selfless and benevolent behaviour. Perhaps Russian public opinion indeed “is proud of its country’s armed power in Prague and speaks of Czechoslovak weakness, ingratitude, irresponsibility, etc.”33 Similarly, Washington claims to be defending democracy and warding off “internal aggression” or subversion by agents of international communism when it helps to destroy a mass popular movement in Greece, supports an invasion of Guatemala, invades the Dominican Republic, and devastates the peasant societies of Indochina, inter alia. Its defenders, and many critics as well, are at most willing to concede error if the costs mount too high, and cannot conceive that any “responsible” or “qualified” observer might have a rather different view. Some still insist that the United States pursues its foreign policy for the most part “for reformist, even utopian goals,” and that this policy can only be faulted for being “callow, sentimental, savagely stupid. . .”34 It is remarkable how difficult it is, even for those who see themselves as critics, to interpret U.S. behaviour by the standards of evaluation and analysis that would, properly, be applied to any other great power.

    The fact that policy-makers may be caught up in the fantasies they spin to disguise imperial intervention, and sometimes may even find themselves trapped by them, should not prevent us from asking what function these ideological constructions fulfil – why this particular system of mystification is consistently expounded, in place of some alternative. Similarly, one should not be misled by the fact that the delusional system presents a faint reflection of reality. It must, after all, carry some conviction. But this fact should not prevent us from proceeding to disentangle motive from myth.

    The efforts of the “intelligence community” to establish the thesis {25} that the Viet Minh were agents of international communism reveals quite clearly the function of the “international communist conspiracy” in postwar American foreign policy. There is no doubt that the Soviet Union, within the limits of its power, established its harsh and oppressive imperial rule. But it was not this fact that determined American policy in Southeast Asia. Contrary to the fantasies of Walt Rostow and others, the U.S. did not first discover that the Viet Minh were agents of a Kremlin-directed conspiracy and then proceed to aid France to beat back Russians aggression against South-east Asia.

    Rather, the U.S. merely applied in Indochina the general policy of establishing Western-oriented regimes that would cooperate (“freely”) with the West (and Japan), “culturally, economically and politically,” and “contribute to a better balanced world economy” – the “world economy” in question being, of course, that of the “free world”. In its essentials, the policy was not fundamentally different, say, from American policy in Italy in 1943, or in Greece and Korea shortly after.35 To implement this policy in Vietnam, it was necessary to destroy the forces that had “captured the nationalist movement”, since these forces had a different model of social and economic development in mind. But this would have appeared too cynical, if stated frankly. Therefore it was necessary to recast the issue in “defensive” terms, and to establish that these nationalist forces were really the agents of aggression by an international conspiracy, aimed ultimately at destroying the freedom of the United States itself. The “intelligence community” thus took upon itself, or perhaps was assigned the task of demonstrating the thesis that was required as the ideological underpinning of the U.S. intervention. It is interesting, but not very surprising given the background, that the failure of intelligence to establish the needed link in no way impeded the ideologists, who simply continued to insist that the required thesis was correct, accepting and proclaiming it as an Article of Faith. The same pattern has appeared elsewhere, with predictable regularity.

    Not only does he “interpret” away the planners’ and decision-takers’ perceptions and motives via a kind of post-hoc pattern analysis — similar to what I have done — but the conclusions he arrives at in the last paragraph support MY VIEWS. If the pattern of US Third World intervention was “not fundamentally different, say, from American policy in Italy in 1943, or in Greece and Korea shortly after”, then my case is made ! For South Korea did pursue a nationalist economic policy within the US orbit of the Cold War. The Greek generals were not neoliberals avant la lettre. They were, like many Third World dictators, Keynesian public project addicts.

    Again, the United States did not appear to care about the ideological orientation of its compradors all that much as long as they weren’t pro-Soviet. But Chomsky would rubbish that observation precisely by throwing out motives and relying on patterns ! He pulls one hermeneutical fancy after another.


  30. Matt says:

    Look, I definitely overemphasized “favorable investment climate”. I was caught off guard by your attribution to me of a belief that the United States had a grand, long-term master plan to conquer the economies of the Third World. Although I never said that the US promoted favorable investment climates with such a scheme in mind, when I reread my comments I can see how someone could come to that conclusion.

    One reason I didn’t bring up the the US’s Japano-Eurocentrism is because I wanted to keep the debate as narrowly focused as possible, given the nature of internet debates to spin off on wild tangents (as we’ve seen both here and on the previous discussion on hbdchick’s blog). Another reason is that is, as you say, common knowledge. You write that Japano-Eurocentrism isn’t “revisionist”, and it’s true that it isn’t distinctive of revisionism, but it is common to it. It’s in fact common to all historiographical schools of Cold War interpretation.

    What I should have said is that the United States sought to promote favorable climates for foreign capital, reduce barriers to trade, undermine organized labor, etc., both for crony capitalist reasons in many cases, as well as, in general, to get the Third World to play its role in the international division of labor in the American-dominated post-war global economic order. It didn’t do it because investment in the Third World was crucial to the American economy.

    But whatever the reasons, the United States generally sought to promote liberal economic policies in Third World countries. What that meant in practice was to back the faction with the most liberal economic policies consistent with the indigenous political situation, the proximity of the Soviet Union or China, competition with European allies, domestic politics in the US, and a variety of other factors. The less the US was constrained by these factors, the more it promoted liberal policies, and the more successfully these policies were adopted. It did this through a variety of means, including military aid and sales, clandestine operations, and economic aid and loans both through the US government and through US-dominated international financial institutions.

    Now, it’s true that the US wasn’t, at this time, promoting neoliberal policies. That is, after all, why they call it neoliberalism. It’s possible that neoliberalism is a twisted mutation of liberalism, promoted today because of crony capitalism and pure ideology, just as the “domino theory” of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations was a twisted mutation (promoted by a crony -capitalist “military industrial complex” and a group of power-seeking technocratic ideologues) of the more or less rational desire, under Truman and Eisenhower, to halt the spread of Southeast Asian nationalism out of concern for Japan’s political/economic position. I’d have to think more about this.


  31. Matt says:

    What you’ve said about Chomsky also deserves a response. I’m going to give one in a slightly roundabout way, but, don’t worry, I’ll get to the point.

    I wrote earlier that the behavior of agents is interpreted by attributing beliefs and desires to the agents, on the assumption that they act in accordance with what they believe will satisfy their desires. But the story can’t end there. After all, virtually any belief-desire pair will be logically consistent with the behavioral evidence. It is necessary not only to attribute beliefs and desires, but to place methodological constraints on the selection of all the many logically possible combinations of belief and desire.

    Some beliefs* are so intrinsically unreasonable, and so contrary to the available evidence, all else being equal, they need to be ruled out from the start. Now, sometimes all else isn’t equal. Sometimes there is overwhelming evidence that an agent does in fact hold absurd beliefs. In that case, though, it is necessary to provide some explanation for this. Rationality doesn’t require a deeper explanation, because the default assumption is that people are generally rational. Irrationality is what requires explanation. It’s not that people are never irrational, it’s that, when they are, they are for a reason.

    Suppose that Smith drinks a glass of water. Consider the following two explanations of Smith’s behavior:

    (1) Smith drank the water because he desired that his thirst be quenched, and he believed that water would quench his thirst.

    (2) Smith drank the water because he believes that that there are tiny leprechauns in his stomach, and that water would dissolve them and cause them to be passed through the urinary tract; and he desires that the leprechauns go away.**

    If all we know about Smith is that he drank a glass of water, we should choose (1) over (2) as an explanation of his behavior. The belief that (2) attributes to him is so intrinsically unreasonable that it need not be taken seriously, even though it is logically possible that he holds that belief.

    Now, suppose that Smith drinks water far in excess of what is necessary for thirst-quenching. Suppose further that he repeatedly and consistently verbally intimates that he does indeed believe that there are leprechauns in his stomach, and that he continues to proclaim this belief even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary (including x-ray photographs of his stomach). In that case, I think, we would have to, reluctantly, conclude that Smith does in fact believe that there are leprechauns in his stomach.*** But because of the irrationality of this belief, it cries out for an explanation. It cannot be left to stand alone. In this case, we would probably explain Smith’s irrational belief in terms of some underlying psychosis.

    Now, in my opinion, the US Cold War belief that virtually every Third World movement was the product of a conspiracy by Moscow and/or Beijing was quite similar to the Smith’s leprechaun-belief, though not quite as patently absurd. As Chomsky shows, the documentary evidence clearly establishes its existence. It was repeatedly stated, and it continued to be stated in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But it was irrational, and therefore it needs to be explained.

    But in this case, the psychosis explanation is unavailable, since US planners were otherwise rational individuals, and were not clearly insane or stupid. This is why explanations in terms of “anticommunist hysteria” fall short.

    No doubt such hysteria existed, but since US policy makers were not otherwise hysterical people (especially in the early stages of the Cold War), that hysteria needs to be explained. Chomsky explains it in terms of its role in an ideological system that justifies and supports the global liberal order, and the Third World’s place in it, that the US sought to establish and maintain.

    If the US planner had admitted to themselves that Third World revolutions had indigenous causes, they would have had to admit that there was something deeply wrong with the status quo in the Third World, and with the US role in maintaining that status quo. In that sense, belief in an “international Communist conspiracy” played a similar role as the belief of American Southern whites in the 1950s and 60s that Southern blacks were only unhappy because they were being agitated by Communists and Northern liberals, or the belief among Soviet apparatchiks that Polish Catholic workers were the stooges of the CIA.

    In other words, when people hold irrational beliefs, we need to explain why that is. It could be because they are insane, or it could be because they have a self-interested need to delude themselves. In the case of US beliefs during the Cold War, the latter explanation seems a lot more likely.

    *and desires, but I’ll focus on beliefs in what follows, since that is what is relevant here.

    **Not an unreasonable desire, given Smith’s beliefs.

    ***Notice that this also is involves an ascription of belief as part of an interpretation of Smith’s behavior: both his excessive water-drinking behavior and his verbal behavior. We believe that he drinks water excessively because he believes that there are leprechauns in his stomach and desires that they go away, and we believe that he verbally proclaims his belief that there are leprechauns in his stomach because he does in fact believe this and he desires to make his belief known. All ascriptions of belief, including those based on verbal and documentary evidence, are inferential. In these cases they are inferences from verbal and writing behavior.


  32. Matt says:

    Here are some excerpts from Confronting the Third World.


  33. What I should have said is that the United States sought to promote favorable climates for foreign capital, reduce barriers to trade, undermine organized labor, etc., both for crony capitalist reasons in many cases, as well as, in general, to get the Third World to play its role in the international division of labor in the American-dominated post-war global economic order. It didn’t do it because investment in the Third World was crucial to the American economy

    I disagree even with this statement. Getting the “Third World to play its role in the international division of labor in the American-dominated post-war global economic order” is only slighty less intemperate than saying the United States had a “grand, long-term master plan to conquer the economies of the Third World”.

    (1) During the Cold War, almost all instances of crony-capitalism were not those in which the US government actively promoted anything. Rather they were mostly instances where the US government was, by and large, reluctantly dragged away from strategic priorities by domestic interest groups exerting pressure on Congress which in turned put pressure on the White House, to protect already existing American assets when its owners were involved in a property dispute with foreign governments. In the event of expropriations, normally the first recourse of the US government was to get the foreign government to offer compensation which the American owners would consider fair. For example, with the rural land expropriations, Castro offered compensation to the foreign sugar processors & refiners which were theoretically valued at a fair price, but in the form of non-marketable, peso-denominated bonds, which no sane investor would or should accept as just compensation. The American sugar lobby got access to the White House, but they first wanted Castro pressurised into exempting sugarcane from the exproproriations. But ultimately the recourse was to cut or end Cuba’s sugar import quota.

    (2) Most Third World countries were subject to balance of payments crises. There were only two ways out of such events : (a) somehow get foreign aid or loans or more foreign investment ; or (b) reduce domestic consumption (which in practise often implied raising interest rates). When faced with the prospect of not enough foreign charity, and not wishing to balance your external accounts by inducing a depression, most countries naturally chose to invite foreign capital in order to be able to balance the books. You blame the outcome of these normal processes as the United States making the “Third World play its role in the international division of labour… in an American-dominated post-war global economic order”. That is just purple prose to describe the state of nature in the international economy, in which a state either lives off its own means or finds a kind benefactor.

    (3) What are you referring to when you say “undermine organised labour” ? Are you referring to the fact that most Third World dictators repressed trades unions ? Isn’t that normal in a dictatorship ? Or are you referring to the activities of the AFL-CIO ?


  34. As for your elaborate lepruchuan analysis, I think it collapses on a couple of points :

    (1) The US perception of a monolithic Moscow-directed international communism was not static ; in fact, it evolved. In the late 1940s and 1950s, the USA was prone to see a more Moscow-directed conspiracy than otherwise. The perception may have been wrong or exaggerated in retrospect, but it was not irrational at the time. Even in the 1950s, Eisenhower’s response to the Suez Crisis was predicated, in part, on not wanting to alienate the new Middle Eastern states and driving them into the arms of Moscow. But by the time of Castro’s seizure of power, the default assumption of most of the organs of the US government was to avoid antagonising Castro lest the USA drive him into the Soviet orbit. The same kind of reasoning operates in many instances of Third World diplomacy in the 1960s.

    (2) Besides, who cares if “Third World revolutions had indigenous causes” ? No one really doubts today that the Cuban revolution was indigenous, and it did not come into existence with a Soviet filip. That doesn’t change the fact that Castro communised Cuba quite enthusiastically. Did the Soviet Union make collectivisation of agriculture a prerequisite to Soviet aid ? And Castro was an enthusiastic supporter of revolution outside Cuba. So he went above and beyond “duty” in his alliance with the Soviet Union. So indigenous or not indigenous makes no difference. In retrospect we can say he was not pushed into the Soviet orbit by US hostility. His natural ideological affinity brought him there.


  35. Matt says:

    Some of your points above badly misinterpret what I’ve written, and would require me to explain them again in detail. Others depend on assumptions that I disagree with strongly, and would require the kind of close-quarters combat over specific examples that we’ve already engaged in, and which you yourself indicated you would not like to resume.

    After over 100 posts, not including those outside this blog, I doubt either of us have the time or energy to continue with this. Perhaps we could resume at another time. Cheers.


  36. Whyvert says:

    The classic Left analysis of the bourgeoisie is that it began on the side of progress, leading bourgeois revolutions, but then under pressure from the rising proletariat, it joined the camp of reaction.

    I see the Left (revisionist) analysis of the US in the world as broadly parallel. The US began as progressive — being a model of republicanism. But once it felt pressure from the rising forces of global revolution, the US turned reactionary — especially in Vietnam. Now that revolutionary forces are weaker, the US has become less reactionary.

    As long as you detect a global battle between revolutionary and counter-revolutionary forces, and if you agree on what is and is not progressive and reactionary, then it makes sense.


  37. Anonymous says:

    “In the process, the US administration built schools, roads, clinics, etc.”: the “etc” presumably encompasses the concentration camps?

    On the Second German War: surely the US was responding to Hitler declaring war on her. I suspect the response “Don’t be silly” might have been historically unusual. You presumably feel that a little diplomacy might have patched things up. I dare say you’re right.

    “I also question whether the United States has derived much economic benefit from its activist and interventionist approach in the world.” Indeed: but isn’t a better question not whether the US gained, but whether the decision-makers gained? I mean, there’s no a priori reason to expect that such ill-informed bystanders as the US population should gain, is there?


  38. dearieme says:

    My apologies: I am the ‘anonymous” above.


  39. I must be brief :

    On the Second German War: surely the US was responding to Hitler declaring war on her.

    Clearly the USA had been itching to enter the war on the British side. But the German declaration of war made that possible.

    I suspect the response “Don’t be silly” might have been historically unusual. You presumably feel that a little diplomacy might have patched things up. I dare say you’re right.

    It’s probably the other way around. Roosevelt clearly had wished for US intervention in the European war, whereas he had not really envisioned one in Asia.

    Indeed: but isn’t a better question not whether the US gained, but whether the decision-makers gained? I mean, there’s no a priori reason to expect that such ill-informed bystanders as the US population should gain, is there?

    That’s addressed here :


  40. Noel Maurer says:

    Greetings and salutations!

    Very interesting series of posts! I wrote a book about the intersection of U.S. foreign investment and U.S. foreign policy from 1894 to 2013, so I figure that I may as well throw in my two cents.

    The short version of the argument is this: in general, across administrations and regions, U.S. governments acted to protect the value of individual American foreign investments. That is, outside areas under Soviet control or protections, the U.S. owners of foreign investments managed to pressure the American government to go to bat for them /after/ they got into disputes with the host government. The emphasis, however, is on the “after.” American administrations had a vast number of different strategic interests; they also varied in their inherent inclination to protect private interests. What that meant was that the owners of those interests had to construct — generally on the fly — different political strategies to convince the administration of the day to protect them. They were generally successful ex post … but there were no assurances ex ante.

    In other words, there isn’t a whole lot of evidence for a sustained U.S. strategy of making the world safe for American investment. But there is a whole lot of evidence that the collective action problem applied to foreign policy: a small concentrated group willing to devote sufficient resources to a problem could generally get their way, even if that contradicted broader American interests.

    I think this puts me closer to Pseudoerasmus than to Matt, but you’re both making pretty nuanced arguments.


    • Hello Noel Maurer ! Actually your book came up in the discussion somewhere.

      Very peculiar, I had previously read at least two books co-authored by you and Stephen Haber, but I’m pretty bad with names so I never put two and two together to realise The Empire Trap was written by you….


      • Noel Maurer says:

        I’m going to guess and say that the book came up in reference to your two comments about Cuba and the American reaction to the sugar expropriations?

        I’m terrible with names as well, which is a problem for a professional academic. “You know, the piece, by the person, about Topic X” does not always go over well no matter how specific you are about Topic X.

        If I may, I would slightly quibble with your characterization of American policy in the Philippines as unique. The acquisition of the islands differed from the piecemeal way that other European polities assembled their empires, but it occurred at a much later period and in a completely different context. The European empires of early 20th century spent even greater resources in putting down rebellions in strategically unimportant areas, not unlike the Americans.

        Consider the French in Syria, who could have obtained all their strategic aims by taking a small Maronite enclave with some airfields and a small naval facility. That didn’t happen for various reasons, different in detail from the ones driving the Americans, but rather similar in outcome. To generalize, the two main reasons for both expansions (1) It was weirdly easier to sell big expansions at home under the rubric of a moral mission than it was to sell small acquisitions under the rubric of national security; and (2) It was rightly or wrongly considered militarily impossible to secure the strategically important areas without the control of neighboring regions. (In the American case, that didn’t explain why we took the whole archipelago, but it was why McKinley rejected an explicit proposal a to take only Manila or Subic as opposed to all of Luzon. The Navy insisted on Luzon for security reasons. McKinley’s political advisors then suggested that with small bases off the table it would be far easier to justify taking the entire archipelago rather than leaving some in the hands of the Spanish kingdom or the Philippine rebels.)


        • The European empires of early 20th century spent even greater resources in putting down rebellions in strategically unimportant areas, not unlike the Americans.

          I don’t think the French crushing of the Syrian revolt is a good example. It was too short and too decisive (in the end) to compare with the prolonged US counterinsurgency campaign in the Philippines. I do agree holding all of Syria had no obvious benefit other than saving face and upholding prestige, but then I have never excluded such reasons as normal motives for nation-states. The whole 4-part series was incited by the fact that people so commonly reduce US international behaviour to commercial or economic gains. But I also don’t think strategic realism is a good, consistent description of most states’ behaviour, either.

          On the other hand, France was part of a states system in which the maintenance of face and prestige was important, whereas the USA in 1898 barely was.

          I actually considered a number of late 19th & early 20th century conflicts involving European colonial powers, and the only one I thought came close to being as disproportionate between cost and benefit was the 2nd Boer War.


  41. Noel Maurer says:

    No disagreement on the impact of most colonial wars. I don’t know if they’d pass a strict cost-benefit analysis, but their cost was so small that politicians so-inclined could indulge their empire-building desires with little fear of serious opposition.

    But for the Americans in Moro Province, there are three things to consider, I think. The first is the meaning of prestige in the pre-1914 state system. I have trouble operationalizing that except in terms of domestic politics, but that brings us back to the point about big annexations being easier to sell domestically.

    The second is that the counterinsurgency in Mindanao was remarkably light on the ground. The Philippine War was a full-blown guerrilla conflict that lasted a little over three years, involved a sizeable U.S. ground presence (on the order of the Iraq War, proportionally), killed a lot of people, led to Congressional hearings and was a big part of the 1900 election. The operations in Moro Province, on the other hand, involved peak deployments of no more than 2,000 soldiers and attracted little attention at home. American casualties ran about 130 over the entire course of the fighting, I think; less than 2% of all the soldiers rotated through.

    The third is that the Moro rebellion was run essentially by the Army. No one wanted to withdraw, in part because stamping out slavery rapidly became a cause but mostly because the war was popular inside the Army. It made the career of Leonard Wood, among others, and harkened back to the Army’s traditional role on the North American frontier. With a risible fiscal cost, few casualties, no domestic opposition, and no one “legitimate” to surrender power to even had the Americans wanted to withdraw, it doesn’t seem surprising that the fighting went on.

    Put it together, and I’m missing why its all that different from any other colonial war, or even some equivalent post-colonial insurgencies.

    Which is not to say that I don’t think the U.S. presence in the Philippines was totally strange! I’ve got papers arguing that; ditto an entire chapter of The Empire Trap. So I’m in the odd position of agreeing with your thesis but thinking that the particular example you picked isn’t the right one.


    • Well I agree the emphasis I originally placed on the Moro rebellion was misguided. But I find the whole Filipino War very strange. In the original post I said “just the northern island of Luzon would have been the fit staging post for the early version of the ‘open door policy’ in Asia”. In your book you mention the domestic calculations behind the decision to take all of the Philippines instead of merely holding Luzon, which might have been seen too much as a naked imperial land grab. (Ironic that taking a smaller territory might have been looked upon as more imperialistic than taking the whole country….)

      I find the Filipino War strange because the American context was so different. Although at the time there were anti-imperialists who argued empires were unecessary to prosperity and thus a waste of resources, the common belief of the time (in Europe) was still that imperialism redounded to national economic advantage in the mercantilist sense of adding to national power in competition against other states. From that POV it made sense for Britain to do everything it could to secure all lines of communication with (for example) India, which British elites considered crucial to Britain’s prosperity (although it was not). The Dutch attempts to eliminate Acehnese nationalism also made sense, given the belief in the importance of the East Indies. It was plausible for a small state like Belgium to believe its material prosperity depended on colonies. It was equally plausible for the French to believe they needed an empire to add “depth” to their power vis-a-vis Germany.

      By contrast, the American adventure seems more a thing of luxury for a massive economic power which had just absorbed a vast continental frontier and was free of any security threats.


  42. A bit late to the party (!) but has it occurred to you that the overarching motive (and indeed the stated aim) may have been the defense and spread of Western Civilization — liberal democratic capitalism, human rights, equality, etc. — around the world?


  43. Pingback: Questions about Militaries, Foreign Policy, and War – MemeNexus

  44. Evan says:

    What has the US gotten? We live in a world more peaceful than ever before in world history. Drastically so. Without the peculiar features of US policy (which include the UN and more multilateralism and less direct self-interest and territorial expansion than any other great power ever) would we all be radioactive now?

    Of course the decline of warfare has many causes, but the atypical nature of US policy should be considered. For example, both the League of Nations and the UN were US proposals; no other Great Power has ever proposed something similar?

    Not being radioactive seems like a pretty big self-interested advantage. The overreactions you mention may not be especially rational; they’re only one aspect of overall US policy however. The stated argument for them should probably be addressed: basically it’s “establishing credibility”. Looking strong and resolved in order to make other countries back down, basically. Whether this works is debatable.

    Post-Phillipines we’ve been remarkably non-territorial expansionist; to the degree of promoting a rule of no annexations by anyone. Which has removed the biggest single incentive for anyone to initiate a war.

    A couple graphs on the decline in warfare:


  45. FredR says:

    If you take requests from the peanut gallery, I would love a list of recommended readings in Cold War history…


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