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Fighting Communism

A correspondent writes:

A friend of mine read your article “Can America Bring Peace to the World?” [in which you said that the U.S. government has always failed to deliver on the promises made when entering a war, including entering the Cold War]. He said you failed to mention that American intervention stopped the Communists from taking over Greece and Turkey in 1946. He also said that North Korea and South Korea today are not in similar situations. South Korea is the next Japan and North Korea is in the pits. What say you, Harry Browne?

Your friend didn’t go far enough. He should have mentioned other Cold War triumphs of the U.S. government – such as overthrowing the democratic government of Iran and imposing the tyrannical Shah in 1953; helping the Indonesian dictator Suharto as he slaughtered at least 250,000 Indonesians and then at least 150,000 East Timorese, and continuing to train Indonesian thugs on into the 1990s; installing and protecting dictators throughout Latin America, Asia, and Africa – all in the name of protecting innocent people from tyranny.

As for South and North Korea, the U.S. government fought for the dictatorial regime of Syngman Rhee in the Korean War. As it turns out, South Korea eventually discarded the shackles of oppressive government while North Korea has yet to do so. But that hardly justifies the price Americans paid for going to war to support a dictator – 33,651 American soldiers dead, an escalation of the federal budget, civil liberties ignored, rationing, and much else. Not only did the Korean War not free subjugated people, it added 150 million Americans to the ranks of the subjugated.

As to the claim that “American intervention stopped the Communists from taking over Greece and Turkey in 1946,” I don't know much about the intervention in Turkey. I will be researching it for my forthcoming book on American wars.

However, I’m quite familiar with the situation in Greece. It was considerably different from the way it’s normally described. American intervention there established the “Truman Doctrine,” which today neo-conservatives delight in citing as a precedent for their proposals to have America police the world. Thus there is a great incentive to perpetuate the myth that Harry Truman’s bold intervention prevented a Communist takeover of Greece at the end of World War II.

In fact, however, there was absolutely no danger of such a Communist takeover. Near the end of the war Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin agreed that each of their three countries would have postwar control over whichever countries it liberated from the Nazis. This gave the Soviets a free hand in Eastern Europe, and it gave the British a free hand in Greece, among other places. The Soviets kept their word and stayed completely out of the Greek Civil War – intervening only at the end to order the Greek Communist Party to give up the battle.

The Greek Communist Party was actually only a small part of the Popular Front that opposed the ruling Greek government. That government was extremely oppressive – squashing civil liberties, assassinating opponents, and rigging what few elections were allowed to take place. The British tried to help the Greek government ward off the rebellion, but their resources were exhausted from the World War. So the Americans stepped in and provided arms and ammunition (but not troops) to the Greek government, and that was sufficient to end the rebellion eventually.

The Greek Civil War (as it was called) was a never a struggle between the forces of freedom and Communism. It was simply a rebellion against an oppressive government (which is not to say that a rebel victory would have made Greece any more of a free country). The U.S. government intervened, as it did in so many purely local disputes, for reasons other than that of fighting communism.

What, then, was the real reason the U.S. intervened?

Mainly, the alleged need to combat Communism in Greece gave President Truman the clout to hike the military budget significantly, to impose restrictions on the American people, and to clamp down on alleged communists inside the U.S. government. In the same way, from 1945 through 1950 all military intelligence indicated that the Soviets were too weak to consider invading Western Europe, but administration officials continually went before Congress and claimed that increased American military might was necessary to stop the Soviets from overrunning the continent. They dropped that claim only when the Korean War began and provided a more visible excuse to expand the U.S. government.

From 1945 through 1991, virtually every dispute between a pro-American dictator and his local opposition was depicted as a titanic struggle to preserve freedom by preventing Communists from taking over another country. It worked well, and so today our politicians depict every terrorist or guerrilla attack anywhere in the world as an attempt by Al-Qaeda to advance its plans to destroy American civilization. The Transportation Security Agency has cited the Chechen attack in the Russian city of Beslan (one more battle in a decades-old conflict) as a reason to make life even more uncomfortable and humiliating for U.S. airline passengers.

And during the Cold War, we were told that we had to fight the Communists in Greece (or Korea or Guatemala) so that we wouldn’t have to fight them in New York or Los Angeles – just as today we’re told that Americans are fighting in Iraq so that we won’t have to fight in Seattle or Aspen.

This is not to say that the Communists were peace-loving agrarian reformers. They weren’t. But they also were not the constant, imminent danger that our politicians made them out to be. However, we’ll leave that issue for another time.

The story of how our government manipulated the situation in Greece in order to gain bigger budgets and greater control over Americans is important because it is being duplicated today – as our government uses any eruption anywhere in the world as an excuse to expand its dominance over our lives.

And the irony is that today’s war-mongers are citing the Greek conflict as evidence that America can triumph over its enemies if it will only act boldly and ruthlessly. In fact, the more “boldly” America acts, the more enemies it creates – in the 1940s and today.

The more things change . . . 

October 23, 2004