During the 1960’s and 1970’s many intellectuals—foreign and American—expounded what can perhaps best be termed “the myth of American repression”—that is, the view that American involvement in the politics of other societies is almost invariably hostile to liberty and supportive of repression in those societies. The United States, as Hans J. Morgenthau put it in 1974, is “repression’s friend”: “With unfailing consistency we have since the end of World War II intervened on behalf of conservative and fascist repression against revolution and radical reform. In an age when societies are in a revolutionary or prerevolutionary stage, we have become the foremost counterrevolutionary status quo power on earth. Such a policy can only lead to moral and political disaster.” His argument, like the multitudinous statements of other intellectuals supporting the myth of American repression, suffers from two basic deficiencies.
First, it confuses support for the Left with opposition to repression. In this respect, it represents another manifestation of the extent to which similarity in immediate objectives can blur the line between liberals and revolutionaries. Yet those who support “revolution and radical reform” in other countries seldom have any greater concern for liberty and human dignity than those who support “conservative and fascist repression.” In fact, if it is a choice between right-wing and left-wing dictatorships, there are at least three good reasons in terms of liberty to prefer the former to the latter.
- The suppression of liberty in right-wing authoritarian regimes is almost always less pervasive than it is in left-wing totalitarian ones. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, for instance, infringements of human rights in South Korea received extensive coverage in the American media, in part because there were in South Korea journalists, church groups, intellectuals, and opposition political leaders who could call attention to those infringements. The absence of comparable reports about the infringements of human rights in North Korea was evidence not of the absence of repression in that country but of its totality.
- Right-wing dictatorships are, the record shows, less permanent than left-wing dictatorships; Portugal, Spain, and Greece are but three examples of right-wing dictatorships that were replaced by democratic regimes. Despite the hopeful movement toward pluralism in Poland, as of 1981 no Communist system had been replaced by a democratic regime.
- As a result of the global competition between the United States and the Soviet Union, right-wing regimes are normally more susceptible to American and other Western influence than left-wing dictatorships, and such influence is overwhelmingly on the side of liberty. Soviet influence, on the other hand, is invariably and powerfully exerted—as happened twice in Czechoslovakia—on the side of repression.
This last point goes to the other central fallacy of the myth of American repression as elaborated by Morgenthau and others. Their picture of the world of the 1960’s and 1970’s was dominated by the image of an America that was overwhelmingly powerful and overwhelmingly repressive. In effect, they held an updated belief in the “illusion of American omnipotence” that attributed the evil in other societies to the machinations of the Pentagon, the CIA, and American business. Their image of America was, however, defective in both dimensions. During the 1960’s and 1970’s American power relative to that of other governments and societies declined significantly. By the mid-70’s the ability of the United States to influence what was going on in other societies was but a pale shadow of what it had been a quarter-century earlier.
When American power had an effect on other societies, however, it generally was to further liberty, pluralism, and democracy. The United States is, in practice, the freest, most liberal, most democratic country in the world, with far better institutionalized protections for the rights of its citizens than any other society. As a consequence, any increase in the power or influence of the United States in world affairs generally results—not inevitably, but far more often than not—in the promotion of liberty and human rights in the world. The expansion of American power is not synonymous with the expansion of liberty, but a significant correlation exists between the rise and fall of American power in the world and the rise and fall of liberty and democracy in the world.
The single biggest extension of democratic liberties in the history of the world came at the end of World War II, when stable democratic regimes were inaugurated in the defeated Axis countries: Germany, Japan, Italy, and—as a former part of Germany—Austria. In the early 1980’s these countries had a population of over 200 million, and included the third and fourth largest economies in the world. The imposition of democracy on these countries was almost entirely the work of the United States. In Germany and Japan, in particular, the United States government played a major role in designing democratic institutions. As a result of American determination and power, the former Axis countries were, as John D. Montgomery put it, “forced to be free.”
Conversely, the modest steps taken toward democracy and liberty in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary were quickly reversed, and Stalinist repression instituted, once it became clear that the United States was not able to project its power into Eastern Europe. If World War II had ended in something less than total victory, or if the United States had played a less significant role in bringing about that victory (as was, indeed, the case east of the Elbe), these transitions to democracy in Central Europe and Eastern Asia would not have occurred. But—with the partial exception of South Korea—where American armies marched, democracy followed in their train.
The stability of democracy in these countries during the quarter-century after World War II reflected, in large part, the extent to which the institutions and practices imposed by the United States found a favorable social and political climate in which to take root. The continued American political, economic, and military presence in Western Europe and Eastern Asia was, however, also indispensable to this democratic success. At any time after World War II the withdrawal of American military guarantees and military forces from these areas would have had a most unsettling and perhaps devastating effect on the future of democracy in Central Europe and Japan.
In the early years of the cold war, American influence was employed to insure the continuation of democratic government in Italy and to promote free elections in Greece. In both cases, the United States had twin interests in the domestic politics of these countries: to create a system of stable democratic government and to insure the exclusion of Communist parties from power. Since in both cases the Communist parties did not have the support of a majority of the population, the problem of what to do if a party committed to abolishing democracy were to gain power through democratic means was happily avoided. With American support, democracy survived in Italy and was sustained for a time in Greece. In addition, the American victory in World War II provided the stimulus in Turkey for one of the rarest events in political history: the peaceful self-transformation of an authoritarian, one-party system into a democratic, competitive party system.
In Latin America, the rise and fall of democratic regimes also coincided with the rise and fall of American influence. In the second and third decades of this century, American intervention in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic produced the freest elections and the most open political competition in the history of those countries. There, as in other countries in Central America and the Caribbean, American influence in support of free elections was usually exerted in response to the protests of opposition groups against the repressive actions of their own governments, and as a result of American fears that revolution or civil war would occur if significant political and social forces were denied equal opportunity to participate in the political process. The American aim, as Theodore Wright made clear in his comprehensive study, American Support of Free Elections Abroad, was to “promote political stability by supporting free elections” rather than strengthening military dictatorships.
Thus in its interventions in eight Caribbean and Central American countries between 1900 and 1933, the United States acted on the assumption that “the only way both to prevent revolutions and to determine whether they are justified if they do break out, is to guarantee free elections.” In Cuba, the effect of the Platt Amendment and American interventions was, in the words of Jorge I. Dominguez, “to pluralize the Cuban political system” by fostering “the rise and entrenchment of opposition groups” and by multiplying “the sources of political power so that no single group, not even the government, could impose its will on society or the economy for very long. . . . The spirit and practice of liberalism—competitive and unregulated political, economic, religious, and social life—overwhelmed a pluralized Cuba.” The interventions by United States Marines in Haiti, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere in these years often bore striking resemblances to the interventions by federal marshals in the conduct of elections in the American South in the 1960’s: registering voters, protecting against electoral violence, insuring a free vote and an honest count.
Direct intervention by the American government in Central America and the Caribbean came to at least a temporary end in the early 1930’s. Without exception, the result was a shift in the direction of more dictatorial regimes. It had taken American power to impose even the most modest aspects of democracy in these societies. When American intervention ended, democracy ended. For the Caribbean and Central America, the era of the Good Neighbor was also the era of the bad tyrant. The efforts of the United States to be the former gave a variety of unsavory local characters—Trujillo, Somoza, Batista—the opportunity to be the latter.
American attention was primarily directed toward Europe and Asia in the years immediately after World War II. Latin America was, by and large, neglected. This situation began to change toward the late 1950’s, and it dramatically shifted after Castro’s seizure of power in Cuba. In the early 1960’s Latin America became the focus of large-scale economic-aid programs, military training and assistance programs, propaganda efforts, and repeated attention by the President and other high-level American officials. Under the Alliance for Progress, American power was to be used to promote and sustain democratic government and greater social equity in the rest of the Western Hemisphere. This high point in the exercise of United States power in Latin America coincided with the high point of democracy in Latin America. This period witnessed, in Tad Szulc’s phrase, “the twilight of the tyrants”: it was the age in which at one point all but one of the ten South American countries (Paraguay) had some semblance of democratic government.
Obviously, the greater prevalence of democratic regimes during these years was not exclusively a product of United States policy and power. Yet the United States certainly played a role. The democratic governments that had emerged in Colombia and Venezuela in the late 1950’s were carefully nurtured with money and praise. Strenuous efforts were made to head off the attempts of both left-wing guerrillas and right-wing military officers to overthrow Betancourt in Venezuela and to insure the orderly transition to an elected successor for the first time in the history of that country. After thirty years in which (to quote Jerome Slater) “the U.S. government was less interested and involved in Dominican affairs” than at any other time in history—a period coinciding with Trujillo’s domination of the Dominican Republic—American opposition to that dictator slowly mounted in the late 1950’s. Following his assassination in 1961, “the United States engaged in the most massive intervention in the internal affairs of a Latin American state since the inauguration of the Good Neighbor policy.” The United States prevented a comeback by Trujillo family members, launched programs to promote economic and social welfare, and acted to insure democratic liberties and competitive elections. The latter, held in December 1962, resulted in the election of Juan Bosch as president. When the military moved against Bosch the following year, American officials first tried to head off the coup, and then, after its success, attempted to induce the junta to return quickly to constitutional procedures. But by that point, writes Abraham F. Lowenthal, American “leverage and influence [with the new government] were severely limited,” and the only concession the United States was able to exact in return for recognition was a promise that elections would be held in 1965.
Following the military coup in Peru in July 1962, the United States was able to use its power more effectively to bring about a return to democratic government. The American ambassador was recalled; diplomatic relations were suspended; and $81 million in aid was cancelled. Nine other Latin American countries were induced to break relations with the military junta—an achievement that could only have been possible at a time when the United States seemed to be poised on the brink of dispensing billions of dollars of largesse about the continent. The result was that new elections were held the following year, and Belaunde was freely chosen president. Six years later, however, when Belaunde was overthrown by a coup, the United States was in no position to reverse the coup or even to prevent the military government that came to power from nationalizing major property holdings of American nationals. The power and the will that had been there in the early 1960’s had evaporated by the late 1960’s, and with them the possibility of holding Peru to a democratic path.
Through a somewhat more complex process, a decline in the American role also led eventually to similar results in Chile. In the 1964 Chilean elections, the United States exerted all the influence it could on behalf of Eduardo Frei and made a significant and possibly decisive contribution to his defeat of Salvador Allende. In the 1970 election the American government did not make any comparable effort to defeat Allende, who won the popular election by a narrow margin. At that point, the United States tried to induce the Chilean congress to refuse to confirm his victory and tried to promote a military coup to prevent him from taking office. Both these efforts violated the norms of Chilean politics as well as of American morality, and both were unsuccessful. If, on the other hand, the United States had been as active in the popular election of 1970 as it had been in that of 1964, Allende might well have been defeated again, and the destruction of Chilean democracy in 1973 thus avoided.
All in all, the decline in the role of the United States in Latin America in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s coincided with the spread of authoritarian regimes in that area. With this decline went a decline in the standards of democratic morality and human rights which the United States could attempt to apply to the governments of the region. In the early 1960’s in Latin America (as in the 1910’s and 1920’s in the Caribbean and Central America), the goal of the United States was democratic competition and free elections. By the mid-1970’s, that goal had been lowered from the fostering of democratic government to attempting to induce authoritarian governments not to infringe too blatantly the rights of their citizens.
A similar relationship between American power and democratic government prevailed in Asia. There, too, the peak of American power was reached in the early and mid-1960’s, and there, too, the decline in this power was followed by a decline in democracy and liberty.
American influence had been most pervasive in the Philippines, which, for a quarter-century after World War II, had the most open, democratic system, apart from Japan, in East and Southeast Asia. After the admittedly fraudulent election of 1949 and in the face of the rising threat to the Philippine government posed by the Huk insurgency, American military and economic assistance were greatly increased. Direct American intervention in Philippine politics then played a decisive role not only in promoting Ramon Magsaysay into the presidency but also in insuring that the 1951 congressional elections and 1953 presidential election were open and honest elections. In the next three elections the Philippines met the sternest test of democracy: incumbent presidents were defeated for reelection.
In subsequent years, however, the American presence and American influence in the Philippines declined, and with them went support for Philippine democracy. When President Marcos instituted his martial-law regime in 1972, American influence in Southeast Asia was clearly on the wane, and the United States held few effective levers with which to affect the course of Philippine politics.
In perhaps even more direct fashion, the high point of democracy and political liberty in Vietnam also coincided with the high point of American influence there. The only free national election in the history of that country took place in 1967, when the American military intervention was at its peak. In Vietnam, as in Latin America, American intervention had a pluralizing effect on politics, limiting the government and encouraging and strengthening its political opposition. The defeat of the United States in Vietnam and the exclusion of American power from Indochina were followed in three countries by the imposition of regimes of virtually total repression.
The American relationship with South Korea took a similar course. In the late 1940’s, under the sponsorship of the United States-UN-observed elections inaugurated the government of the Republic of Korea and brought Synghman Rhee to power. During the Korean war (1950-53) and then in the mid-1950’s, when American economic assistance was at its peak, a moderately democratic system was maintained, despite the fact that South Korea was almost literally in a state of siege. In 1956, Rhee won reelection by a close margin and the opposition party won the vice-presidency and swept the urban centers.
In the late 1950’s, however, as American economic assistance to Korea declined, the Rhee regime swung in an increasingly authoritarian direction. The 1969 vice-presidential election was blatantly fraudulent; students and others protested vigorously; and, as the army sat on the sidelines, Synghman Rhee was forced out of power. A democratic regime under John M. Chang came into office, but found it difficult to exercise authority and to maintain order. In May 1961, this regime was overthrown by a military coup, despite the strong endorsement of the Chang government by the American embassy and military command.
During the next two years, the United States exerted sustained pressure on the military government to hold elections and return power to a civilian regime. A bitter struggle took place within the military over this issue; in the end, President Park, with American backing and support, overcame the opposition within the military junta, and reasonably open elections were held in October 1963, in which Park was elected president with a 43-percent plurality of the vote. In the struggle with the hard-line groups in the military, A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times observed, “the prestige and word of the United States have been put to a grinding test”; by insisting on the holding of elections, however, the United States “emerged from this stage of the crisis with a sort of stunned respect from South Koreans for its determination—from those who eagerly backed United States pressures on the military regime and even from officers who were vehemently opposed to it.”
Thirteen years later, however, the United States was no longer in a position to have the same impact on Korean politics. “You can’t talk pure Jefferson to these guys,” one American official said. “You’ve got to have a threat of some kind or they won’t listen. . . . There aren’t many levers left to pull around here. We just try to keep the civil-rights issue before the eyes of Korean authorities on all levels and hope it has some effect.”
By 1980, American power in Korea had been reduced to the point where there was no question, as there was in 1961 and 1962, of pressuring a new military leadership to hold prompt and fair elections. The issue was simply whether the United States had enough influence to induce the Korean government not to execute Korea’s leading opposition political figure, Kim Dae Jung, and even with respect to that, one Korean official observed, “the United States has no leverage.” Over the years, as American influence in Korea went down, repression in Korea went up.
The positive impact of American power on liberty in other societies is in part the result of the conscious choices by Presidents such as Kennedy and Carter to give high priority to the promotion of democracy and human rights. Even without such conscious choice, however, the presence or exercise of American power in a foreign area usually has a similar thrust. The nature of the United States leaves it no alternative but to stand out among nations as the proponent of liberty and democracy.
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. American power is no exception; clearly it can be and has been used for good purposes and bad in terms of liberty, democracy, and human rights. But also in terms of these values, American power is far less likely to be misused or corrupted than the power of any other major government.
This is so for two reasons. First, because American leaders and decision-makers are, inevitably, the products of their culture, they are themselves generally committed to liberal and democratic values. This does not mean that some leaders may not at times take actions that run counter to those values. Obviously, this happens: sensibilities are dulled, perceived security needs may dictate other actions, expediency prevails, the immediate end justifies setting aside the larger purpose. But American policy-makers are more likely than those of any other country to be sensitive to these tradeoffs and to be more reluctant to sacrifice liberal-democratic values.
Second, the institutional pluralism and dispersion of power in the American political system impose constraints—unmatched in any other society—on the ability of officials to abuse power, and also insure that those transgressions that do occur will almost inevitably become public knowledge. The American press is extraordinarily free, strong, and vigorous in its exposure of bad policies and corrupt officials. The American Congress has powers of investigation, legislation, and financial control unequaled by any other national legislature. The ability of American officials to violate the values of their society is therefore highly limited, and the extent to which the press is filled with accounts of how officials have violated those values is evidence not that such behavior is more widespread than it is in other societies but that it is less tolerated than in other societies. The belief that the United States can do no wrong in terms of the values of liberty and democracy is clearly as erroneous abroad as it is at home. But so also is the belief—far more prevalent in American intellectual circles in the 1970’s—that the United States could never do right in terms of those values. American power is far more likely to be used to support those values than to counter them, and it is far more likely to be employed in their behalf than is the power of any other major country.
The point is often made that there is a direct relation between the health of liberty in the United States and the health of liberty in other societies. Disease in one is likely to infect the other. Thus, on the one hand, Richard H. Ullman argues that “the quality of political life in the United States is indeed affected by the quality of political life in other societies. The extinction of political liberties in Chile, or their extension in Portugal or Czechoslovakia, has a subtle but nonetheless important effect on political liberties within the United States.” Conversely, he also goes on to say: “Just as the level of political freedom in other societies affects our own society, so the quality of our own political life has an important impact abroad.” This particular point is often elaborated into what is sometimes referred to as the “clean hands” doctrine—that the United States cannot effectively promote liberty in other countries so long as there are significant violations of liberty within its borders. Let the United States rely on the power of example and “first put our house in order,” as Stanley Hoffmann has phrased it. “Like charity, well-ordered crusades begin at home.”1
Both these arguments—that of the corrupting environment and that of the shining example—contain partial truths. By an observable measure, the state of liberty in countries like Chile or Czechoslovakia has, in itself, no impact on the state of liberty in the United States. Similarly, foreigners usually recognize what Americans tend to forget—that the United States is indeed the most open, free, and democratic society in the world. Hence, any particular improvement in the state of liberty in the United States is unlikely to be seen as having much relevance to their societies. Yet these arguments do achieve greater validity when one additional variable is added to the equation. This element is power.
The impact that the state of liberty in other societies has on liberty in the United States depends upon the power of those other societies and their ability to exercise that power with respect to the United States. What happens in Chile or even Czechoslovakia does not affect the state of liberty in the United States because they are small, weak, and distant countries. But the disappearance of liberty in Britain or France or Japan would have consequences for the health of liberty in the United States, because they are large and important countries intimately involved with the United States.
Conversely, the impact of the state of liberty in the United States on other societies depends not upon changes in American liberty (which foreigners will, inevitably, view as marginal), but rather upon the power and immediacy of the United States in relation to the country in question. The power of example works only when it is an example of power. If the United States plays a strong, confident, preeminent role on the world stage, other nations will be impressed by its power and will attempt to emulate its liberty in the belief that liberty may be the source of power.
This point was made quite persuasively in 1946 by Turkey’s future premier, Adnan Menderes, in explaining why his country had to shift to democracy:
The difficulties encountered during the war years uncovered and showed the weak points created by the one-party system in the structure of the country. The hope in the miracles of [the] one-party system vanished, as the one-party system countries were defeated everywhere. Thus, the one-party mentality was destroyed in the turmoil of blood and fire of World War II. No country can remain unaffected by the great international events and the contemporary dominating ideological currents. This influence was felt in our country too.
In short, no one copies a loser.
The future of liberty in the world is thus intimately linked to the future of American power. Yet paradoxically—and erroneously—proponents of very differing views concerning American foreign-policy relations have often united in seeing a conflict between the two, interpreting American involvement in the world as the outcome of the conflicting pulls of national interest and power, on the one hand, and political morality and principles, on the other. Shortly after World War II, there emerged a significant group of writers and thinkers, including Reinhold Niebuhr, George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, Hans J. Morgenthau, and Robert Osgood, who expounded a “new realism.” They criticized what they called the moralistic, legalistic, utopian, and Wilsonian approaches which they claimed had previously prevailed in the conduct of American foreign relations. This new realism reached its apotheosis in the central role played by the balance of power in the theory and practice of Henry Kissinger. In the 1970’s, however, the new realism came to be challenged by the “new moralism,” and the pendulum that had swung in one direction after World War II now swung far over to the other side.
This shift was one of the most significant consequences of Vietnam, Watergate, and the democratic surge and creedal passion that dominated American politics in the 1960’s. It represented the displacement onto the external world of the moralism that had been earlier directed inward against American institutions. The new moralism manifested itself first in congressional action, with the addition to the foreign-assistance act of Title IX in 1966 and human-rights conditions in the early 1970’s, and then in the 1976 election when Jimmy Carter vigorously criticized President Ford for believing “that there is little room for morality in foreign affairs, and that we must put self-interest above principle.” As President, Carter moved human rights to a central position in American foreign relations.
The lines between the moralists and the realists were thus clearly drawn, but on one point they were agreed: they both believed that the conflict between morality and self-interest, or ideals and realism, was a real one. The truth, however, is that while in some respects the conflict is real, in others, particularly when formulated in terms of a conflict between liberty and power, it is not. So defined, the dichotomy does not reflect an accurate understanding of the real choices confronting American policy-makers in dealing with the external world. Yet the double thrust of the new moralism was, paradoxically, to advocate the expansion of global liberty, and, simultaneously, to effect a reduction in American power.
The relative decline in American power in the 1970’s had many sources. One of them assuredly was the democratic surge (of which the new moralism was one element) in the United States in the 1960’s and early 1970’s. The strong recommitment to democratic, liberal, and populist values that occurred during these years eventually generated efforts to limit, constrain, and reduce American military, political, and economic power abroad. The intense and sustained attacks by the media, by intellectuals, and by Congressmen on the military establishment, intelligence agencies, diplomatic officials, and political leadership of the United States inevitably had that effect. Imbued with the myth of American repression, the new moralists, without seeing the contradiction, welcomed the end of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and, at the same time, deplored the intensification of repression in Latin America.
It is also paradoxical that in the 1970’s those Congressmen who were most insistent on the need to promote human rights abroad were often most active in reducing the American power that could help achieve that result. In key votes in the 94th Congress, for instance, 132 Congressmen consistently voted in favor of human-rights amendments to foreign-aid legislation. Seventy-eight of those 132 Representatives also consistently voted against a larger military establishment, and another 28 consistent supporters of human rights split their votes on the military establishment. Only 26 of the 132 Congressmen consistently voted in favor of both human rights and the military power whose development could help make those rights a reality.
The new realism of the 1940’s and 1950’s coincided with the expansion of American power in the world and the resulting expansion of American-sponsored liberty and democracy in the world. The new moralism of the early 1970’s coincided with the relative decline in American power and the concomitant erosion of liberty and democracy around the globe. By limiting American power, the new moralism promoted that decline. In some measure, too, the new moralism was a consequence of the decline. The new moralism’s concern with human rights throughout the world clearly reflected the erosion in global liberty and democratic values about the world.
Paradoxically, the United States thus became more preoccupied with ways of defending human rights as its power to promote human rights diminished. Enactment of Title IX to the foreign-assistance act in 1966, a major congressional effort to promote democratic values abroad, came at the midpoint in the steady decline in American foreign-economic assistance. Similarly, the various human-rights restrictions that Congress wrote into the foreign-assistance acts in the 1970’s coincided with the general replacement of military aid by military sales.
When American power was clearly predominant, such legislative provisions and caveats were superfluous: no Harkin amendment was necessary to convey the message of the superiority of liberty. The message was there for all to see in the troop deployments, carrier task forces, foreign-aid spending, and intelligence operatives. When these faded from the scene, in order to promote liberty and human rights Congress found it necessary to write more and more explicit conditions and requirements into legislation. These legislative provisions were, in effect, an effort to compensate for the decline of American power. In terms of protecting liberty abroad, they were no substitute for the presence of American power. The reconstitution of that power—political, economic, military—can only have positive effects on the state of liberty and democracy around the world.
1 Richard H. Ullman, “Washington versus Wilson,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1975/76; Stanley Hoffmann, “No Choice, No Illusions,” Foreign Policy, Winter 1976/77.