Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
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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
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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.