The Abuse of 'Democracy'

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George W. Bush’s recent claim that the U.S. war in Iraq is part of an attempt to spread “democracy” to the Middle East should not surprise anyone familiar with the use of that word to camouflage sordid realities.

When, in the aftermath of World War II, Stalin had the Soviet Union gobble up the nations of Eastern Europe, he christened them People’s Democracies — although they were neither democratic nor meant to be. This debasement of “democracy” and other noble terms such as “freedom” and “peace” to crude propaganda was undoubtedly what George Orwell had in mind when he wrote his powerful novel, 1984, which portrayed a nightmarish society in which words were turned inside out to justify the policies of cynical and unscrupulous rulers.

Unfortunately, however, “democracy” has also been abused throughout American history. In the nineteenth century, land-hungry politicians, slaveholders, and businessmen defended the U.S. conquest of new territory by claiming that it would extend the area of democracy and freedom. In the twentieth century, President Woodrow Wilson grandly proclaimed that U.S. participation in World War I would “make the world safe for democracy.” A few decades later, Washington officials again sanctified U.S. policy by invoking democracy, for they declared repeatedly that the U.S. role in the Cold War was designed to defend the “Free World.” Indeed, it would be hard to find a U.S. war or expansionist enterprise that was not accompanied by enthusiastic rhetoric about supporting democracy.

In fairness, it should be noted that the U.S. government has economically and militarily supported many democratic nations. After World War II, it forged alliances with a good number of them.

But it has also provided military and economic assistance to numerous nations ruled by bloody dictatorships, including Franco’s Spain, Chiang Kai-Shek’s China, the Shah’s Iran, Somoza’s Nicaragua, Batista’s Cuba, Sukarno’s Indonesia, the Saud family’s Saudi Arabia, Diem’s South Vietnam, Duvalier’s Haiti, Marcos’s Philippines, the Colonels’ Greece, and many other tyrannies. Indeed, the term “Free World” originally included Stalin’s Russia. And, not so long ago, the U.S. government had no scruples about providing military assistance to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Furthermore, on occasion the U.S. government has sought to overthrow democratic governments. Three of its success stories along these lines occurred in Mossadeq’s Iran, Arbenz’s Guatemala, and Allende’s Chile, where democratic governments were succeeded by vicious dictatorships. Based upon this record, observers might well conclude that, for U.S. officials, the defense of democracy has been less important as a motive than as a marketing device.

A good example of “democracy” as a marketing device is its employment in selling the U.S. program of military and economic aid to Greece in 1947. This program had arisen out of the U.S. government’s fear that the Soviet Union, then at loggerheads with the United States, stood on the verge of breaking through the Western defense line to the oil-rich Middle East. To plan President Truman’s address to the nation on the new policy, Francis Russell, the director of the State Department’s Office of Public Affairs, met on February 27 with the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee. The meeting records indicate that, when Russell asked if the speech should emphasize the conflict with the Soviet Union, he was told that it should avoid “specifically mentioning Russia.” Then perhaps, said Russell, the administration “should couch it in terms of [a] new policy of this government to go to the assistance of free governments everywhere.” This proposal was greeted enthusiastically, for it would be useful to “relate military aid to [the] principle of supporting democracy.” Or, as one participant put it, the “only thing that can sell [the] public” would be to emphasize the threat to democracy. Ultimately, then, the president’s March 12, 1947 address, which became known as the Truman Doctrine, did not mention the conflict between two rival nations, the United States and the Soviet Union, but instead emphasized “alternative ways of life,” in which the United States was defending the “free” one.

This approach not only misrepresented the motives of U.S. government officials, but the realities in the two nations targeted for the military and economic aid. Joseph Jones, who drafted the president’s address, recalled: “That the Greek government was corrupt, reactionary, inefficient, and indulged in extremist practices was well known and incontestable; that Turkey . . . had not achieved full democratic self-government was also patent.” According to the minutes of the State-War-Navy Coordinating Committee meeting, participants agreed that the Greek government was a rotten one, though “not basically fascist.”

Thus, President Bush’s recent contention that his war in Iraq is designed to further the cause of “democracy” is not out of line with the statements of past U.S. government officials, who have not been very scrupulous about how they have packaged their policies. Nor is it out of line with the behavior of other governments, always eager to put the most attractive face on their ventures.

Even so, given the long-term abuse of the word “democracy” as a public relations device — as well as the collapse of the president’s earlier justifications for the Iraq War — we might be pardoned for viewing his sudden enthusiasm for democracy with a good deal of skepticism.

Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).

This article originally appeared on the History News Network.

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