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Necessary Illusions 

Thought Control in Democratic Societies

By Noam Chomsky

Appendix II

 1. The Containment Doctrine

2. The Red Scare


1. The Containment Doctrine 1

The project of containing the Soviet Union and its allies is a predominant theme of contemporary history, which merits some comment.

The fact that the rhetoric of "containment" carries with it some rather significant presuppositions has of course been recognized in the scholarly literature. In one of the leading studies of containment, John Lewis Gaddis observes that "the term `containment' poses certain problems, implying as it does a consistently defensive orientation in American policy." He nevertheless finds the term appropriate, because "American leaders consistently perceived themselves as responding to rather than initiating challenges to the existing international order" and were in fact concerned with "maintaining a global balance of power with the perceived Muscovite challenge to that equilibrium" in Western Europe.2 Leaders of other powers have similar perceptions, but we do not permit this fact to guide our interpretation of history.

What was "the existing international order" that had to be "defended"? U.S. planners intended to construct what they called a Grand Area, a global order subordinated to the needs of the U.S. economy and subject to U.S. political control. Regional systems, particularly the British, were to be eliminated, while those under U.S. control were to be extended, on the principle, expressed by Abe Fortas in internal discussion, that these steps were "part of our obligation to the security of the world...what was good for us was good for the world."3 This altruistic concern was unappreciated by the British Foreign Office. Their perception was that "the economic imperialism of American business interests, which is quite active under the cloak of a benevolent and avuncular internationalism," is "attempting to elbow us out." The Minister of State at the British Foreign Office, Richard Law, commented to his Cabinet colleagues that Americans believe "that the United States stands for something in the world -- something of which the world has need, something which the world is going to like, something, in the final analysis, which the world is going to take, whether it likes it or not."4 Not an inaccurate perception.

Against which enemies was it necessary to defend the Grand Area, apart from the British and other commercial rivals? At the rhetorical level, the enemy was the Soviet Union, and there is little reason to doubt that the sentiment was genuine, though, as the scholarly literature recognizes, it was exaggerated. But the sincerity of the concern is not very relevant; it is easy to persuade oneself of what it is convenient to believe, and state managers readily accept the reality of the threats they concoct for quite different reasons.

The Soviet Union is indeed a threat to the Grand Area because it has refused to be incorporated within it and assists others equally recalcitrant. But the Soviet threat is regarded as far more profound, justifying stern measures in defense. Woodrow Wilson "and his allies saw their actions in a defensive rather than in an offensive context" when they invaded the Soviet Union after the Bolshevik revolution, John Lewis Gaddis observes approvingly. Wilson was "determined above all else to secure self-determination in Russia," by invading the country and installing what we determine to be its proper rulers; by the same logic, the U.S. has been devoted to self-determination for Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and other beneficiaries of our concern, and the U.S.S.R. is dedicated to self-determination in Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan. But more deeply, Gaddis continues, "Intervention in Russia took place in response to a profound and potentially far-reaching intervention by the new Soviet government in the internal affairs, not just of the West, but of virtually every country in the world." This Soviet "intervention" in the internal affairs of others was "the Revolution's challenge -- which could hardly have been more categorical -- to the very survival of the capitalist order." "The security of the United States" was therefore "in danger" in 1917, so defensive actions were entirely warranted; perhaps even the first use ever of gas bombs from aircraft that was considered by the British GHQ to be the primary factor in their early military successes in 1919, the same year when "poisoned gas" was recommended by Secretary of State Winston Churchill for use "against uncivilised tribes" in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and Afghanistan.5

The Soviet Union's "self-proclaimed intention to seek the overthrow of capitalist governments throughout the world," Gaddis explains further, justified invasion of the U.S.S.R. in defense against this announced intention, and after World War II "the increasing success of communist parties in Western Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean, and China" justifiably aroused renewed "suspicion about the Soviet Union's behavior," even though their popularity "grew primarily out of their effectiveness as resistance fighters against the Axis."

Gaddis criticizes Soviet historians who see the Western intervention after the revolution as "shocking, unnatural, and even a violation of the legal norms that should exist between nations." "One cannot have it both ways," he responds, complaining about a Western invasion while "the most profound revolutionary challenge of the century was mounted against the West": by changing the social order in Russia and proclaiming revolutionary intentions.6

With such an expansive conception of "defense," here expressed by a highly-regarded diplomatic historian, one could readily construct a justification for Hitler's actions in the late 1930s to "defend" Germany against what the Nazi ideologists called the terror and aggression of the Czechs and Poles and the attempted strangulation of Germany by hostile powers. And by the same logic, it would be legitimate for the U.S.S.R. (or Cuba, etc.) to invade the United States "to secure self-determination" there in defense against the clearly stated U.S. challenge "to the very survival of the Soviet and Cuban sociopolitical order."

U.S. policy towards the Soviet Union has fluctuated over the years between two concepts of "containment": rollback and détente. To a considerable extent, the fluctuations reflect the problem of controlling the far-flung domains "defended" by American power, and the need for a credible threat to induce the public to provide a subsidy to advanced industry through the military system.7 The latter issue was recognized in NSC 68. The document estimated the economic power of the Soviet bloc as approximately the same as Western Europe, with Soviet GNP about one quarter that of the United States and its military expenditures about half as great.8 Nevertheless, it called for a great expansion of military spending, warning that the West would face "a decline in economic activity of serious proportions" without this Keynesian stimulus; the military budget was almost quadrupled shortly after, with the Korean war as a pretext. The document obscures the significance of the figures scattered through it, but it was apparently anticipated that some bureaucrat might perform the calculations and draw the obvious conclusions. The author, Paul Nitze, parried this potential insight by observing that the figures mean nothing because, as a poor and underdeveloped society, "the Soviet world can do more with less" -- their weakness is their strength, a constant refrain in other cases too as we defend the Free World from "internal aggression."9 One can see how dire is the threat to our existence when the enemy is so wicked as to exploit the advantage of weakness to overwhelm us.

Over the years, fear of Soviet weakness has been almost as intense as concerns over awesome Soviet power. The task assigned to the responsible strategic analyst, after all, is to establish the conclusion that the U.S. is facing a threat to its existence, so that it is necessary to keep up our guard -- and incidentally, to guarantee that the Pentagon system will continue to perform its crucial domestic and international roles. When it is difficult to conjure up bomber gaps, missile gaps, windows of vulnerability, threats to our survival from superpowers such as Grenada, and the like, other means must suffice, such as the idea that the Soviet world can do more with less.

The problem arose again in late 1988, as analysts sought a way to detect a threat to our survival in Gorbachev's unilateral arms reduction initiatives. A U.S. Air Force intelligence conference on Soviet affairs in Washington may have found the key. Commenting on the conference, strategic analyst William V. Kennedy of the U.S. Army War College warns of a terrible discovery revealing that intelligence assessments for the past thirty-five years were far from the mark and severely underestimated the Soviet threat. U.S. intelligence had believed all along that the Soviet Union had "the most elaborate, best organized and equipped civil defense system on earth -- so elaborate that it might provide the Soviet Union with a major, perhaps decisive advantage in a nuclear conflict." But the Armenia earthquake showed that that assessment was wrong. It revealed "inefficiency on so vast a scale that any US state governor or federal official who presided over such chaos would have been lucky to escape lynching by now" -- a great surprise to U.S. intelligence, apparently, though hardly to anyone with a minimal familiarity with the Soviet Union. This discovery, Kennedy continues, "is staggering in its implications." A paper presented at the intelligence conference, six weeks before the earthquake, had warned that "internal Soviet mismanagement and reemergent nationalism may be a greater threat to world peace than the threat of calculated Soviet aggression as it has been portrayed for the past 40 years." The danger is "that a Soviet leadership that saw carefully laid plans going awry and the fires of nationalism spreading throughout the realm could panic into a desperate international venture" -- the "wounded bear" theory, some call it. The Armenia earthquake confirmed our worst fears: the Soviet Union has no civil defense capacity at all, hence no capacity for a first strike with relative impunity as the hawks had been ominously warning for years. Now we are in real danger: the wounded bear may strike. Surely at this moment of grave national crisis we should not succumb to absurd ideas about weakening our "defensive" capacities.10

Such arguments are premature at a moment when the immediate task is to face the costs of military Keynesian excesses. Their time will come when it is necessary to undertake more militant foreign adventures to preserve the domains of U.S. power or to provide a shot in the arm to high tech industry. It would be naive to assume, however, that strategic theory is incapable of coming up with arguments to support the conclusion that may be required at the moment, whatever the objective facts may be.

Gaddis observes that "To a remarkable degree, containment has been the product, not so much of what the Russians have done, or of what has happened elsewhere in the world, but of internal forces operating within the United States." "What is surprising," he continues, "is the primacy that has been accorded economic considerations [namely, state economic management] in shaping strategies of containment, to the exclusion of other considerations."11 In fact, throughout this period, the policies of military Keynesianism, justified in terms of the Soviet threat, have been instrumental in the growth of high-technology industry and have served as a mechanism of state industrial management, once again in the early Reagan years, with accompanying inflammatory rhetoric about the "Evil Empire" that is "the focus of evil in our time" and the source of all problems in the world. These crucial matters barely enter public discussion. They will not fade away easily, despite much careless talk about the end of the Cold War.

2. The Red Scare 12

Woodrow Wilson's Red Scare was the earliest and most extreme resort to state power in twentieth-century America to suppress labor, political dissidence, and independent thought. It provided a model for later efforts, and left as one crucial institutional residue the national political police, which has cast a long shadow in the years that followed.

FBI director J. Edgar Hoover rose to national prominence when he was appointed chief of the General Intelligence division of the Justice Department in August 1919. This was just before the "Palmer raids" of January 1920, when thousands of alleged radicals were rounded up in many parts of the country (hundreds of aliens were subsequently deported). Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorialized that "there is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberty" in the face of the Bolshevik menace, and a New York Times editorial declared that "If some or any of us, impatient for the swift confusion of the Reds, have ever questioned the alacrity, resolute will and fruitful, intelligent vigor of the Department of Justice in hunting down these enemies of the United States, the questioners have now cause to approve and applaud... This raid is only the beginning... [The Department's] further activities should be far-reaching and beneficial." "These Communists," the Times noted the same day, "are a pernicious gang" who "in many languages...are denouncing the blockade of Russia" as well as calling for better wages and working conditions. The Times report of the raids was headlined "Reds Plotted Country-Wide Strike."

The Washington Post lauded the House of Representatives for its expulsion of socialist congressman Victor Berger, observing that it could not have given a "finer or more impressive demonstration of Americanism." Reporting the deportation of Emma Goldman, the Post praised Hoover's "most painstaking" brief against Goldman, with its proof that she was "instrumental in helping to form the unnatural ideas" of the assassin of President McKinley in 1901. The Times described the expulsion of socialist assemblymen as "an American vote altogether, a patriotic and conservative vote" which "an immense majority of the American people will approve and sanction," whatever the benighted electorate may believe. The editors went on to say that the expulsion "was as clearly and demonstrably a measure of national defense as the declaration of war against Germany," invoking the familiar concept of "defense" in an editorial of January 7, 1920, long after the war had ended. A month earlier the Times had endorsed the sedition bill proposed by Attorney General Palmer and his aide Hoover, which called for prosecution of those guilty of aiding or abetting "the making, displaying, writing, printing, or circulating, of any sign, word, speech, picture, design, argument, or teaching, which advises, advocates, teaches, or justifies any act of sedition," "or any act which tends to indicate sedition." Also subject to prosecution were those affiliated in any way with any organization, "whether the same be formally organized or not, which has for its object, in whole or in part, the advising, advocating, teaching or justifying any act of sedition," the latter term defined so broadly as to satisfy many a totalitarian.13 These ideas have precedents, among them the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 by which "the Federalists sought to suppress political opposition and to stamp out lingering sympathy for the principles of the French Revolution," and the judicial murder of four anarchists for having advocated doctrines that allegedly lay behind the explosion of a bomb in Chicago's Haymarket Square after a striker had been killed by police in May 1886. For the authorities, the "seditious utterances" of the Haymarket anarchists sufficed to attribute "moral responsibility" for the bombing in which they had no part and to justify their prosecution and hanging.14

During Wilson's Red Scare, Attorney General Palmer proceeded, as he explained, "to clean up the country almost unaided by any virile legislation." He justified repressive actions on grounds of the failure of Congress "to stamp out these seditious societies in their open defiance of law by various forms of propaganda." He explained that "Upon these two basic certainties, first that the `Reds' were criminal aliens, and secondly that the American Government must prevent crime, it was decided that there could be no nice distinctions drawn between the theoretical ideals of the radicals and their actual violations of our national laws." Palmer went on to say that his "information showed that communism in this country was an organization of thousands of aliens, who were direct allies of [Trotsky]." Thus, "the Government is now sweeping the nation clean of such alien filth." All of this had the overwhelming support of the press, until they perceived that their own interests might be threatened.15

To suppress these criminals was surely just, for reasons that Palmer outlined in congressional testimony prepared by Hoover. The leaders of these pernicious movements, he explained, included "idealists with distorted minds, many even insane; many are professional agitators who are plainly self-seekers and a large number are potential or actual criminals whose baseness of character leads them to espouse the unrestrained and gross theories and tactics of these organizations." Any doubt of their criminality will quickly be dispelled by "an examination of their photographs": "Out of the sly and crafty eyes of many of them leap cupidity, cruelty, insanity, and crime; from their lopsided faces, sloping brows, and misshapen features may be recognized the unmistakable criminal type." And they are dangerous. "Like a prairie fire the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order," Palmer wrote, subverting workers, the churches and schools, even "crawling into the sacred corners of American homes seeking to replace marriage vows with libertine laws, burning up the foundations of society."16

Just think what fun the Office of Public Diplomacy and a host of apparatchiks in government, journalism, and the larger intellectual community could have if only the Sandinistas would oblige with statements remotely similar to those of the U.S. Justice Department and the press at a time of expansive U.S. power, 140 years after the American revolution, and a century after the last credible security threat.

Palmer was a liberal and progressive. His intention was "to tear out the radical seeds that have entangled American ideas in their poisonous theories." He was particularly impressed that "the result of the arrests of January 2, 1920, was that there was a marked cessation of radical activities in the United States. For many weeks following the arrests the radical press had nearly gone out of existence in so far as its communistic tendencies were concerned"; and, in general, the organizations "had been completely broken."17 Among the notable achievements of the period was the sentencing in March 1919 of presidential candidate Eugene Debs to ten years in prison for opposing the draft and "savage sentences for private expressions of criticism" of the war along with "suppression of public debate of the issues of the war and peace," as the ACLU was later to record.18

Palmer's belief that the state has the authority to prevent these seeds from germinating is within the general American tradition. The mass media, the schools, and the universities defend ideological orthodoxy in their own, generally successful, ways. When a threat to reigning doctrine is perceived, the state is entitled to act.

After World War I, labor militancy menaced established privilege. J. Edgar Hoover portrayed the 1919 steel strike as a "Red conspiracy." A subsequent miners' strike was described by President Wilson as "one of the gravest steps ever proposed in this country," "a grave moral and legal wrong." Meanwhile the press warned that the miners, "red-soaked in the doctrines of Bolshevism," were "starting a general revolution in America."19 The Red Scare, Murray Levin observes, "was promoted, in large part, by major business groups which feared their power was threatened by a leftward trend in the labor movement"; and they had "reason to rejoice" at its substantial success, namely, "to weaken and conservatize the labor movement, to dismantle radical parties, and to intimidate liberals." It "was an attempt -- largely successful -- to reaffirm the legitimacy of the power elites of capitalism and to further weaken workers' class consciousness." The Red Scare was strongly backed by the press and elites generally until they came to see that their own interests would be harmed as the right-wing frenzy got out of hand -- in particular, the anti-immigrant hysteria, which threatened the reserve of cheap labor.

The Red Scare also served to buttress an interventionist foreign policy. Diplomatic historian Foster Rhea Dulles observed that "governmental agencies made most of these fears and kept up a barrage of anti-Bolshevik propaganda throughout 1919 which was at least partially inspired by the need to justify the policy of intervention in both Archangel and Siberia." In line with his concept of self-defense, already discussed, John Lewis Gaddis puts the point a bit differently: "the Red Scare, with its suggestion that even the United States might not be immune from the bacillus of revolution," was one of the factors that engendered "American hostility toward Communism." The reasoning is instructive.20

The pattern then established has persisted in many ways, until today. In the 1960s, as the effect of post-World War II repression waned and a wide range of popular movements began to develop, the FBI launched one of its major programs of repression (COINTELPRO) to disrupt them by instigating violence in the ghetto, direct participation in the police assassination of a Black Panther organizer, burglaries and harassment of the Socialist Workers Party over many years, and other methods of defamation and disruption.21

These programs were exposed just at the time when the nation was scandalized by Nixon's Watergate capers and the press was hailed, or denounced, for its aggressiveness in pursuing his misdeeds, barely a tea party in comparison with the programs of the nation's leading subversive organization under the direction of the Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. Once again, history was kind enough to contrive a controlled experiment to allow us to evaluate the reaction to Watergate. The conclusions are unequivocal. Attention was limited to the relatively minor infringement of the rights of people and organizations with power and influence; the far more serious crimes against the powerless were scantily reported, and never entered the congressional proceedings.22

The lesson of Watergate is stark and clear: the powerful are capable of defending themselves, and the press may offer them some assistance, to the applause of some, the dismay of others, depending on the degree of their commitment to the goverment's right to control the public. The decision to focus attention on Watergate, hailed by the media as their proudest moment, was yet another cynical exercise in the service of power.


1 Addendum to p. 25.

2 John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment (New York, 1982, viiin), his emphasis; The Long Peace, 43.

3 Wm. Roger Lewis, Imperialism at Bay: the United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire, 1941-1945 (Oxford, 1978, 481). On Grand Area planning, see Shoup and Minter, Imperial Brain Trust. For remarks on this and competing models, and applications in the Far East, see Bruce Cumings, introduction, in Cumings, ed., Child of Conflict (Washington, 1983).

4 Lewis, op. cit., 550; Christopher Thorne, The Issue of War (Oxford, 1985, 225, 211).

5 Gaddis, The Long Peace, 10-11, 21; Andy Thomas, Effects of Chemical Warfare (SIPRI, Taylor & Francis, 1985, 33f.), reviewing newly released British state archives.

6 Gaddis, The Long Peace, 37, 11.

7 In earlier years, military spending was selected as the major device to overcome the "dollar gap" of the U.S. allies and to ensure that they would remain securely within the U.S.-dominated world system, after the failure of aid programs to achieve their ends. See Borden, Pacific Alliance, for extensive discussion of these themes, which were given their first comprehensive analysis by Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power (Harper & Row, 1972).

8 A closer examination shows that the figures were misrepresented to exaggerate the impression of Soviet military expenditures and Western weakness, also a familiar pattern over the years.

9 Summarizing an Air Force intelligence conference, strategic analyst William Kennedy warns of the terrible discoveries made by intelligence after the earthquake in Armenia. For years, it had been assumed that the Soviet Union had a magnificent civil defense capacity, so that they could launch a nuclear attack against us and be safe from reprisal. But from the earthquake it was learned -- to the surprise of no one who had any familiarity with the Soviet Union -- that their capabilities are virtually nonexistent. The lack of any civil defense capacity poses "a greater threat to world peace than the threat of calculated Soviet aggression as it has been portrayed for the past 40 years," the intelligence conference concluded gloomily, with an argument that I will not attempt to reproduce. Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 28, 1988.

10 Kennedy, "Tremors that should be felt in Washington," Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 28, 1988.

11 Strategies of Containment, 356-57, his emphasis.

12 Addendum to p. 29.

13 See Murray B. Levin, Political Hysteria in America (Basic Books, 1972); Richard G. Powers, Secrecy and Power (Free Press, 1987); Aronson, The Press and the Cold War.

14 David Brion Davis, ed., The Fear of Conspiracy (Cornell University Press, 1971). A fifth anarchist committed suicide before the sentence of death could be executed. Three others were sentenced to hanging as well, but were not executed. No proof was offered that any of the eight had been involved in the bomb-throwing. On "moral responsibility," see the excerpt from Michael J. Schaack, Anarchy and Anarchists (Chicago, 1889), in Davis's collection. A Chicago police captain, Schaack "was widely credited with having uncovered the anarchist conspiracy" (Davis).

15 See excerpts from Palmer in Davis, op. cit. On the role of the press, see Levin, op. cit.

16 Powers, Aronson, op. cit.

17 Davis, Powers, op. cit.

18 Robert J. Goldstein, Political Repression in Modern America (Schenkman, 1978).

19 Levin, op. cit.

20 Dulles, The Road to Teheran (Princeton, 1945), cited by Levin, op. cit; Gaddis, The Long Peace, 37.

21 On the continuing FBI policies of subversion and repression, often they were allegedly terminated, see Ward Churchill and James Vander Wall Agents of Repression (South End, 1988) and Cointelpro Papers (South End, 1989).

22 The bombing of Cambodia did enter the proceedings, though not the final indictment, but in a specific form: not the murder of tens of thousands of people and the destruction of rural Cambodia, but the failure to notify Congress properly. Again, the prerogatives of the powerful are the criterion.

Table of Contents ] Preface ] I. Democracy and the Media ] II. Containing the Enemy ] III. The Bounds of the Expressible ] IV. Adjuncts of Government ] V. The Utility of Interpretations ] Appendix I ] [ Appendix II ] Appendix III ] Appendix IV ] Appendix V ]

 ] Deterring Democracy ] Necessary Illusions ] The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many ] Keeping the Rabble in Line ] Rethinking Camelot ] Powers and Prospects ] Year 501 ] Secrets, Lies and Democracy ] What Uncle Sam Really Wants ] Interviews, Debates and Talks ] About Noam Chomsky ]


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