Commentary Magazine

The U.S. & the World

To the Editor:

I can think of no more significant act by an American magazine editor since the beginning of the cold war than your publication of Robert L. Heilbroner’s “Counterrevolutionary America” [April]. In the context of Theodore Draper’s shocking lucidity a few issues earlier [“The American Crisis,” January] it seems to me that COMMENTARY may be on the verge of becoming the one radically significant major American magazine dealing with foreign policy, which is to say, dealing with the question of this nation’s steadily diminishing constructive relevance to what most matters in the world. I appreciated Heilbroner’s fierce, brilliant determination to crystallize the impalpable moral realities about which mundane minds affect resignation, his determination to look steadily into the dark of the next three or four decades, and his decision to let the historian’s sense of realism override the partisan “if only.” Yet for my own part, I passionately want my country and history to prove Heilbroner wrong—to prove that the United States can change enough, and quickly enough, to make justice and liberty possible for the world in this century.

Ronnie Dugger
Austin, Texas



To the Editor:

The argument of Mr. Heilbroner’s article could serve as the perfect defense of the apartheid regime of the Republic of South Africa. A white-controlled South Africa has been modernizing with tremendous success for the last twenty years. However much the economy discriminates against non-whites, they receive more in real wages and annual cash income, and greater educational opportunities than workers in any other African country, north or south of the Sahara. To be sure, the Zulus, Xhosas, Swazis, coloreds, and Asians—who are the country’s overwhelming majority—lack elementary human rights; but does it matter so long as South Africa is emerging from Boer agricultural backwardness into the sunlight of economic modernization? Opposition to South Africa, in Mr. Heilbroner’s terms, would slow modernization and thus injure not only the 3 million whites but the 14 million non-whites as well.

Mr. Heilbroner argues that modernization in the Third World is achievable only through revolutions, Left or Right. . . . although he sees Communist or extreme national collectivist revolutions as the only real answer. He concedes that the human price of these revolutions may be quite high, but the sacrifice must be measured against the horrors of counterrevolution, no revolution or, worst of all, status quo.

But how can one oppose South Africa’s modernization by a minority over a majority without opposing similar economic modernization, say, in Guinea or Mali; or would Mr. Heilbroner say that Sekou Touré or Midobo Keita are not truly modernizing? Are dictatorships in modernizing countries justifiable only when the people involved are of your own color or race? Franco’s dictatorship is defensible then because it only affects Spaniards, Salazar’s because it’s over Portuguese, and Stroessner’s because it affects only Paraguayans. And whatever you can say against Franco, he is modernizing.

If human-rights violations in Communist countries or Communist countries-to-be are put on a scale that finds the eradication of 10 or 15 million “kulaks” by Stalin . . . less weighty than the extinction of the serfs under Nicholas I, on what grounds does one oppose South Africa’s human-rights violations? If despite South Africa’s economic modernization, men of good will and democratic instinct are fighting South Africa because of apartheid (while cheering President Johnson’s bridge-building to Moscow), why is violation of human rights by Communist revolutionaries morally bearable in the name of this same modernization?

I have a second difficulty in accepting Heilbroner’s argument. He writes: “It may well be that Cuba has suffered a considerable economic decline, in part due to absurd planning, in part to our refusal to buy her main crop.” As Americans, we are expected to do a little something about the latter half of Heilbroner’s sentence (and we will; after all, we’ll be financing the Fiat plant for the Soviet Union), but the Cubans can do nothing at all about Castro’s “absurd planning” except cheer. Castro doesn’t even have to say, Oops, back to the old drawing-board.” If the people don’t like absurd planning—tough. (Nkrumah was an absurd planner, so were Sukarno and Ben Bella—and now they’re out. Are Ghana, Indonesia, and Algeria counterrevolutionary regimes?) Referring to China, Mr. Heilbroner says: “It is this herculean effort to reach and rally the great anonymous mass of the population that is the great accomplishment of Communism—even though it is an accomplishment that is still only partially accomplished.” Apart from the question of how one goes about measuring the partial accomplishment of “reaching and rallying,” I have several other questions: Is the “great anonymous mass of the population” in Communist countries ever to be consulted about whether or not it wants to be “reached” and if it does, how and by whom; and if a one-party regime is imposed in order to “reach” this anonymous mass, is it to last forever, even though it turns out that the anonymous mass doesn’t like being “reached”? The peoples of what were once modernized Baltic countries or modernized East European countries like Czechoslovakia, have been given no opportunity to make known how they feel about being reached and rallied—except through such unilateral efforts as peasant sabotage, worker go-slow movements, the endless tide of refugees crossing the bridge between Kwantung and Hong Kong, or departing Hungary, or East Germany (prior to the wall), or Cuba.

My third difficulty is in understanding why Mr. Heilbroner is so impressed with Cuba’s “educational effort [which] has constituted a major effort of the Castro regime.” Formosa’s educational effort under Chiang Kai-shek has been far more sensational than Cuba’s; does that too impress Mr. Heilbroner? In the same vein, he defends the cultural purge in China with the statement: “Above all, the prospect of a new future has been opened. It is this that lifts the current ordeal in China above the level of pure horror.” Should not then the elections and the new constitution in South Vietnam lift the current ordeal in South Vietnam above the level of pure horror because these, too, have opened the prospect of a new future?

Try as I have, I cannot uncover any objective standard by which to appraise Mr. Heilbroner’s value system. By his own description, Communism is murderous, crushing, stifling, yet what he calls counterrevolution exceeds Communism in ultimate wickedness. “We may not know for many years,” he writes, “whether the Chinese peasant is today better or worse off than before the revolution.” But if after a score of years we still don’t know whether the Kuomintang was better or worse than the Chinese Communists, then what’s so bad about being counterrevolutionary? Why is supporting “wars of national liberation” holier than resisting them?

My next difficulty is with the phrase, “our [American] blind anti-Communism.” Is anti-Communism always “blind” or can it sometimes just be plain anti-Communism? Is there ever blind anti-Fascism, blind anti-MacBirdism, blind anti-apartheidism? Is Moscow guilty of blind anti-Maoism and is Mao guilty of blind anti-revisionism? Really, the problem isn’t so much “blind anti-Communism” as it is clear-eyed Communism which modernizes in funny ways, like putting missile sites on Cuba or sponsoring guerrilla training camps in pre-coup Ghana. In Greece or Turkey, says Mr. Heilbroner, there is “hope of considerable progress without resort to violence,” but it was the “counterrevolutionary” Harry S. Truman who saved Greece and Turkey from the modernizing revolution of Stalin’s guerrillas—or would these countries be better off had Truman let them go Communist?

In conclusion I would like to say what I really think about Heilbroner and all those who defend the hard-line revolution for the peoples of the Third World. I say they are racists, who despise people who are brown and black and yellow. I say they are racists because they are willing to impose on these people what they would not impose on us white folks. They stood by Nkrumah while he was making his revolution and they stood by Sukarno while he was making his revolution and they always stand by anybody who acts like a Fascist in the name of a Communist revolution. And if this is too harsh a judgment, let me quote from a speech by Benjamin A. Bentum, secretary of the Ghana Trades Union Congress, before the International Labor Organization in Geneva in June 1966:

Those liberal intellectuals in America and Great Britain who consumed tons of newsprint defending Nkrumah as essential to the economic development of Ghana should look upon what Nkrumah left us—the 7 million people of Ghana. Let those in the West, who defended Nkrumah and acted as his apologists, paid or unpaid, today explain the total failure of Ghana’s economy.

And a columnist in the Accra Daily Graphic for June 26, 1966, said even more directly that the “white liberals [believe] that democracy and real freedom are the exclusive rights of the white man and that African society is such that only dictatorship is suitable.”

In several places, Mr. Heilbroner refers to C. E. Black’s excellent book, Dynamics of Modernization. I wish he had quoted this passage: “Never before has human life been disposed of so lightly as the price of immediate goals. . . . Too often the means of achieving modernization have become ends in themselves and are fought for with a fanaticism and ruthlessness that risk the sacrifice of these ends.”

Arnold Beichman
New York City



To the Editor:

. . . What I suspect lies at the bottom of Robert L. Heilbroner’s message is a reiteration of his oft-exhibited anti-capitalistic sentiments. He even admits this by considering “outmoded social superstructures” less of a hindrance to economic and cultural (or dispositional) progress than “private inertia.” This is indeed the planner speaking, never resting from his task of reforming all of mankind by hook or by crook (but mostly by coercion). . . .

It is precisely private initiative that has been absent in the countries Heilbroner accuses of obsolete traditionalism. Who has heard of the free market (not our current interventionist version of “free” enterprise) in India, Pakistan, Brazil, Ecuador, the Philippines, or Ethiopia? The planned economics of Mr. Heilbroner and Co. has permeated the politics of these countries. . . .

Had the foreign-aid policies of U.S. interventionist (planned) economists been different, most of the nations discussed by Heilbroner would have had to revise not only their economics but also their dominant superstitions (such as the sacred cow taboo in India). By making it possible, through extensive foreign aid, for these nations to get by without the needed changes, the illusion of the viability of present cultural conceptions has been perpetuated by the United States itself (directed, of course, by the economic views of Mr. Heilbroner and Keynesians in general). It is not only factually inaccurate to blame the failure of underdeveloped nations to advance on “private inertia,” it is also a grave injustice to do so. A thorough understanding of what private (free) enterprise involves will quickly reveal that it is precisely its absence which perpetuates the miserable conditions we find around the world.

Tibor R. Machan
Goleta, California



To the Editor:

. . . The idea that the citizens of the underdeveloped nations live a life of “misery and meanness . . . in the sinkhole of the world’s backward regions,” that we face a “prospect of eventual human catastrophe on an unimaginable scale” unless a Jehad of economic development is mounted . . . is an inaccurate, insulting, and misleading portrayal of life in these countries.

Mr. Heilbroner’s writings on the economic history of the West have been landmarks of academic achievement, but . . . he has approached the problems of the Third World from an extremely narrow perspective. He may have traveled through the countries he writes about, but he has certainly not experienced the life of their inhabitants. During our present tour with the Peace Corps, my wife and I spent six months living and working with farmers in an African village and almost a year teaching political science at the national university. From both these vantage-points, I have been able to record the continuing significance that tradition holds in the lives of all these people.

The African farmer lives a comfortable life in his traditional setting. Improved health facilities, radios, imported canned goods, and clothing do attract him, but he is in no way desperate to unseat his chief, march to the city, and become a completely “modern man.” Africans have seen the drawbacks that came with rapid industrialization in other parts of the world. They are fearful of the impact Western materialism may have on the harmony and beauty of their traditions. Recently, my wife and I were driving along a highway in northern Nigeria in the company of a rather sophisticated judge of the regional high court. We were surprised to see him stop along the road in mid-afternoon, take out his prayer-mat, and join in the traditional homage to Mecca. In our discussion which followed, it became obvious that the intelligent, worldly citizens of these countries would not readily welcome a Jehad that would raise their GNP at the cost of eliminating their chiefs, emirs, customs, and traditions. . . .

Perhaps the Indian does not slaughter his cows because Hindu spiritual values outweigh material considerations in his mind. Have we the right to call him ignorant and reactionary? The numerous readers of your magazine who strive to retain the values of their five-thousand-year-old heritage in the face of the pressure of modernism should be able to empathize with this point of view. My twelve-thousand Peace Corps colleagues and I who came to these countries partially in quest of meaningful traditional values which our society in many ways lacks, certainly do.

In short, my argument with Mr. Heilbroner is first, that he exaggerates the “desperation” of economic conditions in the underdeveloped world and, second, that his erroneous premise leads him to advise a totally misguided policy for America. In terms of rapid industrialization and material accomplishment, the West cannot compete with the Communists for reasons (among others) which Mr. Heilbroner states. But unadulterated “modernism” is not what these countries are seeking. Their ideal is to combine traditionalism and modernism, to retain their heritage while raising their GNP. Materialistic, totalitarian Communism cannot promise such a synthesis. For all its drawbacks, the American way does leave place for pluralism, for religion, and for the retention of traditions. This is the message we should beam to the leaders of the new countries. . . .

Michael A. Rebell
Freetown, Sierra Leone
West Africa



To the Editor:

Robert L. Heilbroner’s prediction that most backward nations will evolve Communist or Communist-like regimes is a horrendous example of a self-fulfilling prophecy. . . . It is also in direct contradiction to the basic premises of the democratic philosophy. . . . We do not believe that what our society is, or will be, results from some sort of inevitable “natural law.” We . . . insist that man takes hold of his destiny and molds it to his own will.

Yet Mr. Heilbroner rules this democratic optimism non-applicable to the destinies of peoples in backward areas. He offers one set of rules for them, and another for us—a double standard that has always been an essential ingredient of the kind of isolationism Mr. Heilbroner now urges upon the U.S. Have we learned nothing from the Spanish Civil War and the rise of Hitler?

Mr. Heilbroner’s abandonment of his democratic ideals when he considers them appears to stem from the frustrations of the Vietnam war. The doves, unable to swing a majority to their view, are becoming increasingly shrill, and now demand an end to the war at whatever non-democratic cost. . . .

Once (it now seems long ago) we democrats held revolution a cheap price to pay for freedom. Once we were convinced, first, that where people have the most to say, they have the most to eat; and, in any case, that bread without freedom is for dogs, not men.

Irving Kalin
Corona, New York



To the Editor:

Robert L. Heilbroner has distinguished himself time and again as one of that small band of writers about economics who combines professional competence and literacy. . . . However, his present article betrays a shocking lack of faith in the strength and will of the American people, and . . . in the continued existence of the values of Judaeo-Christian rationalist society. . . .

Mr. Heilbroner argues that only a series of violent bloody changes—the result of a “holy war”—can bring about economic development, and that this requires the suppression of individual liberties and the non-material values of Western civilization. He points out that this would not be so bad—we would survive.

Contrary to Mr. Heilbroner, however, development can be achieved without this loss. . . . If historians like Gerschenkron are correct, revolution was not necessary for Russia’s economic development. The basis for Russian development was set in the latter part of the 19th century after the emancipation of the serfs, and the Communist dictatorship of Stalin was neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for it. To some extent the Russian peasantry still suffers the “gulf between the peasantry and the urban elites, the conservatism of village elders, and the unyielding traditionalism of family life” to which the revolution has been largely irrelevant. The changes that have occurred are the result of a shift in productivity, and it is changes in the technological possibilities of production that have shifted “the basis for social and economic power.” To see the accidental characteristics of this shift as its essential core is a mistake often made by the impatient (and sanctified by Marx himself), but it is a mistake nonetheless. . . .

When Heilbroner comes to consider China and Cuba, he admits that it is not certain that revolution lifted “the vise of the past.” He is therefore left claiming that political upheaval and mass slaughter are necessary to achieve in the future what has been achieved in the past without them.

Because industrialization brings about changes in the way resources are used, controlled, and divided, it does create a new distribution of political power and changes the ways that decisions are made, both in the political arena and elsewhere. But these changes can occur without undue bloodshed and above all without suppressing public and private debate about either means or values. The Hobson’s choice between fascistic or communistic governments that Heilbroner poses as inevitable for the Third World is false. It must be our role to help changes to occur, by judiciously giving material support to those groups we judge most likely to achieve peaceful industrialization and democracy, and withholding support from those who would retard such development. . . . The isolationist policy that Heilbroner suggests will not increase the pace of industrialization in the backward areas, for that pace will depend principally upon the physical resources commanded by the peoples of those areas. At the present time we give resources equivalent to less than 1 per cent of our GNP to these peoples, and we can well continue to afford this and more.

To the extent that Heilbroner has called attention to the fact that economic development has political consequences, he has done well. But when he suggests that we must ignore these consequences because only one possible set exists, he has done a grave disservice.

Edmund L. Auchter
Department of Economics
Fresno State College
Fresno, California



To the Editor:

Mr. Heilbroner’s analysis of the far-reaching social effects of “economic development” is commendable, as is his criticism of American support for stable or even stagnant regimes in the face of a crucial need for modernization. . . . However, his neo-isolationist recommendations are fraught with simplistic either/or thinking: If U.S. attempts to establish democracies in underdeveloped areas have not succeeded, he says, we should abandon these states to Communism. If American foreign aid to an oligarchic regime has been one of the causes of our involvement in Vietnam, and if we have been unable to improve measurably the condition of the peasants, we should forsake our attempts to help “economic development” or modernization in other countries. . . .

While it is true that a whole crop of new democracies has not been reaped since the liberation from colonialism, this could not realistically have been expected, given the absence of the preconditions for democracy in most of the new states and the tremendous burdens on governmental capacities entailed in national integration. Yet this is no reason to assert that the Communists have the answer that we lack. In fact, they have been aiding many of the same states as we have without any greater effect. It is surprising that an analyst as acute as Mr. Heilbroner should posit a bipolar world—one which is already in the past. He assumes that if we do not dominate certain countries, then the Communists will. By now, however, most sophisticated appraisers of the international scene have accepted the Third World’s right to non-alignment, and the various countries’ right to choose their own suitable mixture of capitalism and socialism. . . . The U.S. position should be one of encouraging free choice—although it also has the right to try to influence a country one way or another. . . .

Secondly, anguish over the implications of the Vietnam war . . . should not lead to overwhelming generalizations about the effects of American involvement. . . . The author makes a telling point in castigating the U.S. for backing reactionaries. This does not, however, automatically lead to the conclusion that rapid and radical revolutions throughout the world are the only solutions to the need for social change. . . .

Susan Aurelia Gitelson
New York City



To the Editor:

It may be my ignorance of the intricacies of economics which makes me unable to understand Robert L. Heilbroner’s logic when he asserts that “Communism, which may indeed represent a retrogressive movement in the West, where it should continue to be resisted with full energies, may nonetheless represent a progressive movement in the backward areas where its advent may be the only chance these areas have of escaping misery,” and should thus, presumably, be welcomed by the United States. I do, however, wish to assure Mr. Heilbroner that the peasant misery in 19th-century Russia found in his quotation from Chekhov can, and has been, described in terms no less despairing than the ones used by the Russian writer over a half century ago.

I refer Mr. Heilbroner to censored portrayals of the Soviet peasant’s life in the works of Valentin Ovechkin, Fyodor Abramov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and others describing life in the Russian countryside during the 1950’s and the 1960’s.

The fact that Soviet authorities refuse to this day to grant their peasants the internal passports that Soviet city dwellers have is eloquent testimony to their fear that many collective farmers would “vote with their feet” against what is still, in Marx’s words, the “idiocy of rural life”—this, half a century after the revolution.

Maurice Friedberg
Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures
Indiana University
Bloomington, Indiana



To the Editor:

I was impressed by Mr. Heilbroner’s courageous outspokenness and his succinct appraisal of our foreign policy with regard to the underdeveloped countries of the world.

Any vacationing traveler wonders why America and Americans are so disliked abroad. . . . Mr. Heilbroner helps us to understand that we are mistaken in our approach, that we are not relating to the basic problem of small countries. . . .

I would like to have his article sent to every government official in Washington, beginning with the President. . . .

Kay Kinzler
New York City



Mr. Heilbroner writes:

There are no arguments my critics have raised—with the exception of Mr. Beichman’s charge that I am a racist—that I have not thought about. Hence let me begin my rejoinder by putting three questions to my critics:

  1. Is there any evidence to indicate that the backward peoples of the world will be rescued from starvation, disease, ignorance, and despair under the auspices of their present goverments?
  2. Is there reason to believe that an all-out effort to modernize can be carried out by democratic political and libertarian economic means?
  3. Is there much likelihood that the United States will tolerate the revolutionary regimes that are most likely to be the agents of modernization?

My answer to these questions is, No. I do not ask that all should agree with me. But I do ask that their replies be framed, not in the rhetoric of freedom, the ideology of liberty, the hymns to the Judaeo-Christian ethic, but in terms of the most accurate and honest appraisal they can give of present and future realities in the countries we are talking about.

Now a few words of specific rebuttal. To Mr. Beichman: My criteria for modernization in my article rested heavily on the willingness and ability of governments to reach and arouse their peasantries. How can this possibly be construed to include the government of South Africa, or for that matter, of Spain? As for Nkrumah, I specifically made the point that much of Africa would have to suffer the agonies of nation-building, in which political labels would be meaningless. Whatever else he was, I think Nkrumah was a nation-builder. Will the people in Communist countries ever have a choice, asks Mr. Beichman? We will have to wait and see: Sidney Hook does not think democracy is precluded within the Soviet system, nor do I. Meanwhile, however, if I had to, I would rather take my chances as a human being as an anonymous peasant in China than one in India; as a peasant in Cuba than one in Ecuador or Peru. I would be happy to have Mr. Beichman make the opposite choice. Is there a counterpart to blind anti-Communism? Yes, blind anti-capitalism. Finally, why does Mr. Beichman call me a racist? Have I not approved of Communism for Russia which is just as white as “us folks”? Since he is called out on the facts, I presume this is just the way he likes to argue.

Mr. Machan is right: I am a wicked Keynesian. That, however, is all he is right about.

Mr. Rebell has a much more important point. I would answer, first, that there are a great many nations—India, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Caribbean generally, much of Central and upper South America—that are desperate; and second, that for these nations there is apt to be no choice between modernization and mass misery. And I have something even sadder to say. I know that many peoples in the underdeveloped world do not want to be Westernized. In the end, however, I do not think their cultures will be able to hold out before the onslaught of Western culture. This may be very wrong but I suspect it is nonetheless true, and that short of maintaining these cultures in a kind of anthropological zoo, it is irremediable.

As for Mr. Kalin, if every attempt to describe what one thought ran the risk of becoming a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” all honest inquiry would grind to a halt. Meanwhile, let me reiterate that I am not arguing about the validity of democratic premises, etc. I am only prognosticating what kinds of governments will be able to bring modern ideas, ways, and institutions into the existing world. Finally, if bread without freedom is for dogs, than I fear most of the underdeveloped world (including those parts within the “free world”) must be called a dogs’ world. I prefer to think of it as a world of very hungry men who will have to undertake fearful exertions if their grandchildren are to be able to indulge in such eloquent sentiments.

Mr. Auchter raises a well-known doubt as to the efficacy of the Russian revolution. We cannot reargue Gerschenkron versus Barrington Moore here. But I think it is fair to state that the example of the West is not germane to the case of the East and South. The West took four centuries to move from a landed, traditional society to an industrial, modern one. The backward lands must do this in four decades, and I do not believe (once again) that mild governments will be able to mobilize or maintain such an extreme effort. Hence the nice choices that Mr. Auchter would see us make are not likely, in my view, to materialize. But I do think that Susan Gitelson is right in that these governments, no matter how collectivist and authoritarian, may wish to retain a neutral stance between Russia and ourselves. If we let them.

The question Professor Friedberg poses does indeed go to the heart of the matter, for it asserts that the Russian revolution has been in vain, that there has been no modernization, at least in the countryside. To this I would answer first, that many tens of millions have now been transferred, under the Russian policy of forced industrialization, from rural to urban life; and second, that it is my impression, from reading Russian novels, books on Russia, etc., that life on the collectives is by no means as brutal, dark, and hopeless as it was before the revolution. Which is not to say it is very easy, enlightened, or hopeful. I find it difficult to believe, however, that Professor Friedberg would maintain that no progress has been made. And by way of comparison, how much was made, prior to their Communist takeovers, in Poland, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria?



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