The façade of defending democracy

US Imperialism and the military-industrial complex, 1933 to 1964

     In my last commentary of June 25, I looked at the emergence of U.S. imperialism in Latin America from the 1890s to 1932.  I described imperialism as the search for markets and raw materials in other lands, which was an integral component of U.S. economic development during the period.  I maintained that imperialism was a logical response to the problem of overproduction, which was a consequence of the nineteenth century concentration of industry and the transition to the stage of monopoly capitalism. 

      Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency during the height of the Great Depression.  The deep impact of the depression on the economy undermined the legitimacy of the prevailing liberal ideology that had advocated little governmental intervention in the economy.  FDR adopted the prescriptions of the British economist John Maynard Keynes, who had called for state spending in order to give a boost to the economy and employment.  Keynes had maintained that higher wages and full employment would increase consumption and thus strengthen the market.  Although many of the wealthy viewed Roosevelt as a traitor to his class, New Deal policies were widely viewed in positive terms, inasmuch as they protected to some degree the social and economic rights of the people, and they promoted social and political stability.

     With respect to Latin America, Roosevelt turned to the “Good Neighbor” policy.  Responding to anti-imperialist popular movements in Latin America and the Caribbean, and to isolationist tendencies in the USA, Roosevelt pursued U.S. imperialist goals through means other than direct military intervention.  The strategy was to strengthen the military forces of Latin American governments, so that they could play a more active role in maintaining social control.  In some cases, this involved supporting military dictatorships that had been established through previous military interventions of the period 1898-1926.  In others cases, it involved establishing military dictatorships through diplomatic maneuvering and economic pressure, without direct military intervention.  In still other cases, U.S. objectives were attained with the pressuring of constitutional governments in power.  In addition, with awareness of the difficult political situation of the national political elite, which stood between the requirements of imperialism and the demands popular movements, greater latitude of action was conceded to Latin American and the Caribbean national elites, reducing to some degree their subordination to U.S. interests.  This concession gave national political elites and their upper-class sponsors a stronger commitment to the neocolonial world-system as well as a greater capacity to maintain social order in their nations. 

     These new policies of FDR represented the pursuit of an imperialist agenda through alternative means.  The Good Neighbor policy did not abandon imperialist goals; rather, it adapted imperialist policies to new economic, ideological, and political conditions.

     During the next two decades, the “good neighbor” policy became increasingly tied to a militarist foreign policy, even as it maintained its core principle of avoiding direct military intervention in the U.S. neocolonies of Latin America and the Caribbean.  The first movement in this direction was pushed by World War II, which made necessary a rapid conversion of national production to arms and military equipment and supplies, and which broke the U.S. ideological tendency toward isolationism. 

     Following World War II, a reconversion to a post-war peacetime economy, which Roosevelt had envisioned, was made difficult by high levels of unemployment and difficulties in the reinsertion of armed forces personnel in the post-war economy, and by the central role of the war industries in the U.S. economy.  Thus, there emerged an alternative idea that proposed the expansion of the war industry rather than its reconversion for peace.  The U.S. economy became a permanent war economy. 

      The post-World War II military expansionism was justified by the Cold War ideology, which maintained that the strengthening of U.S. military forces was necessary as a counterweight to the expansionist tendencies of the Soviet Union.  This was an ideological distortion, because in reality, Soviet foreign policy was not expansionist.  The Soviet Union sought peaceful co-existence with the United States, in which the Soviet area of influence close to its borders in Eastern Europe and Asia would form a cordon of security around its territory, implicitly leaving vast areas of Latin America, Africa, and South East Asia to U.S. neocolonial exploitation, in competition with the European colonial powers, which had to accept the process of decolonization and the transition to a neocolonial world-system.  The extraordinary success of the Cold War ideology, in spite of its mischaracterization of Soviet foreign policy, was due to its legitimation of an arms race, thereby serving the interests of the arms industries that had become dominant in the economy.

     Defense expenses became the principal driving force of the economy and of scientific development, in a militarist application of Keynesian theory.  And the militarization of the U.S. economy shaped the cultural and ideological formation of the people.  Communism was presented as a ghostlike force that intended the domination of the world, thus fabricating a climate of fear and insecurity in order to justify military expenditures. 

     The militarization of economy and society was functional for responding to Third World revolutions that challenged the basic structures of the neocolonial world-system.  With military presence everywhere, the United States possessed a capacity for military intervention in all regions of the world.  It continually threatened any nation or revolution that sought true sovereignty beyond the limited formal independence permitted by the neocolonial world-system.  The Cold War ideology falsely presented as communist those governments and revolutions that sought the sovereignty of their nations, downplaying their essentially nationalist and anti-imperialist character.  The United States became the “global policeman,” claiming to act against “communism” and in defense of “democracy,” when in reality it was defending its neocolonial interests.  This Orwellian inversion was widely accepted by the people.

     With respect to Latin America, in the period of 1945 to 1960, utilizing the ideological weapon of the Cold War, the maneuvers of the administrations of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower brought about the fall of progressive governments in Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, and Haiti, which were replaced by military dictatorships sustained through U.S. support.  These imperialist goals, however, were attained without resorting to direct military intervention, which helped to lend legitimacy to the image of the USA as a good neighbor that defends democracy against communism in the region.  To be sure, U.S. foreign policy was militarist, backed by a strong military capacity and military presence in all regions of the globe; but it was a constrained militarism, in appreciation of the need to maintain a democratic façade.  A nation that wants to present itself as a good neighbor that defends democracy cannot act like a bully. 

John F. Kennedy became President of the United States at a time when the process of the decolonization of the European colonies in Asia and Africa was well underway.  Although decolonization established new possibilities for economic penetration by the United States, the situation was viewed as threatening by the Kennedy administration, which considered newly independent Third World nations to be vulnerable to “communist influence.”  Accordingly, the foreign policy of the Kennedy administration gave greater emphasis to the Third World as the arena of the Cold War conflict, developing a perspective that disregarded the nationalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist nature of revolutionary Third World governments and social movements.

      The Kennedy strategy toward the Third World included the development of a U.S. capacity for counterinsurgency, involving armed confrontation with the revolutionary movements of the Third World.  The Special Forces (“Green Berets”) were developed in order to give the armed forces the capacity for a flexible response in any place or circumstance in the world.  In addition, the CIA became involved in training military, para-military, and security personnel of Third World nations in the techniques of death squads, torture, assassination, and terrorism.  Believing that the United States and its allies were confronted with a supposed “international communist conspiracy,” the Kennedy administration excused any excess, including the most brutal forms of behavior.  It was the dark side of Camelot.

    Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress” was intended to reform the neocolonial system in Latin America, including reforms in land tenancy and in the distribution of wealth.  The policy abandoned the landowning oligarchy that previously had been considered as sustainer and protector of the neocolonial system.  The Kennedy strategy was to support the reformist sector of the national bourgeoisie, which up to then had confronted the powerful obstacle of the landowning oligarchy.  The plan was to strengthen through direct economic aid the reformist sector of the national bourgeoisie, so that it would be able to constitute itself as a new class tied to U.S. transnational corporations and sharing their interests. 

     The Alliance for Progress did not and could not succeed.  The emerging industrial national bourgeoisie did not have sufficient economic and political strength to play the role assigned to it by the plan.  There was a fundamental contradiction: The urban industrial bourgeoisie, according to the plan, would transform itself into a class independent of the landowning oligarchy, but economically dependent on U.S. capital; however, such subordination to foreign interests would render it politically incapable of mobilizing popular support and challenging the power of oligarchy.  The Alliance for Progress did not see that an economically dependent national bourgeoisie cannot lead the nation in a project of independent economic development that can attain the support of the people.

      Although on the other side of the planet far from the U.S. “backyard” in Latin America, Vietnam overshadowed all.  Kennedy had sent 16,000 military advisors to Vietnam in late 1961, in order to aid containment of the para-military insurgency of the National Liberation Front.  The Kennedy administration shared the prevailing view concerning the need for the governments of the neocolonies to maintains social control in their nations.  Accordingly, from 1961 to 1963, Kennedy consistently declared that the government of South Vietnam would have to win the war against the NLF.  The United States would send logistical support and advisors, but it would not send combat troops to do what only the government of South Vietnam can do.  Seeing that the South Vietnamese government was too weak to develop such capacity, Kennedy ordered on October 11, 1963 the withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. advisors by the end of the year, as a first step toward a withdrawal over the next two years. 

      Robert McNamara, U.S Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, published in 1995 a fascinating memoir, In Retrospect.  He reports that Kennedy had consistently maintained, in public statements and in meetings with his advisors, that the United States could not send combat troops to Vietnam to accomplish what the government of South Vietnam itself must accomplish.  He further reports that two days after Kennedy’s assassination, his successor Lyndon B. Johnson met with Kennedy’s advisors with a different message, “Win the war!”  McNamara, ever the loyal civil servant, devoted his considerable energies to that task, until he concluded in 1967 that the objective was unattainable. 

     The military escalation in Vietnam from 1965 to 1968 initiated a new stage in U.S. foreign policy, in which the USA increasingly utilized direct military force to attain its imperialist objectives, thus undermining the U.S. foreign policy façade of defending democracy, exposing the essentially colonial character of the world-system, and deepening the sustained structural crisis of the capitalist world-economy.

     I will be addressing in future commentaries the U.S. turn to naked imperialism and its implications for the present and future stability of the world-system. 

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Preface - April 6, 2021


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