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How the Empire Struck Back Starting with Jimmy Carter

by Jeremy Kuzmarov
HNN August 30, 2015

Carter

Jimmy Carter’s illness has prompted an array of retrospectives of the man and his presidency both positive and negative. Missing from many of these commentaries is the fact that his presidency was crucial to the revival of American militarism after Vietnam even though Carter wants to be remembered as a peace president and spoke out against ill-considered military interventions later on.

Following the end of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon had embarked on a crash-program to revitalize its fighting forces and to incorporate new technologies fit for the information age to ensure greater military efficiency while transitioning to an all-volunteer force. Proponents of the so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA), including prominent defense intellectuals like Albert Wohlstetter and Andrew Marshall, believed that new precision guided weapons and a reinvigoration of air power supremacy could help the United States to maintain its global hegemony after Vietnam by decisively defeating its enemies with reduced manpower expenditure and limited “collateral damage.”

The 1970s was a watershed in American political history, as the country could have gone in two directions. Building off the momentum of the 1960s social movements, Democratic candidate George S. McGovern promoted a progressive economic vision and the scaling back of defense spending and overseas military commitments in the wake of the Vietnam debacle. Like his political hero Henry Wallace, McGovern’s platform scared societal elites who coordinated a vigorous counter-offensive, championing the reassertion of American military power as a moral counter-force to communism and a mechanism for overcoming the economic crises of the 1970s, including waning economic competitiveness, energy shortages and stagflation (inflation and unemployment).

Jimmy Carter’s presidency helped to advance the neoconservative agenda by supporting the RMA that lay the groundwork for the revitalization of American military power after Vietnam. A wealthy land and agribusiness owner, Carter was part of the New Democrats, who wanted to push the party to the center after McGovern’s defeat in ‘72. His administration was dominated by members of the Trilateral Commission, an executive advisory committee to trans-national finance which envisioned a tri-polar world order led by the United States, Germany and Japan. It abandoned campaign pledges to cut defense spending by $7 billion, and initiated budgetary increases that in his last year amounted to the largest in history during peacetime. Under the direction of Defense Secretary Harold Brown, Air Force Secretary during the Vietnam War and former president of California Institute of Technology, heavy investment was made in the development of laser-guided bombs, space based satellite systems and fighter planes equipped with complex avionics systems consisting of large radars to detect enemy planes and computerized fire control systems. Funding for missiles increased $485 million or 63.5 percent, leading to the development of the Patriot Air Defense Missile system which gained fame in the Persian Gulf War, along with Tube-launched, optically tracked, wire-guided (TOW) antitank and “Tomahawk” cruise missiles built by General Dynamics which were accurate within a 100-foot range from 1,500 miles and possessed on-board computer guidance systems that allowed it to duck around hills and make necessary course corrections while eluding enemy radar.

Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) equipped with TV cameras and a laser designator for target-spotting and sophisticated photo-mapping and communications systems were also advanced, along with Navstar, the precursor to Global Positioning System (GPS) in which satellites circling the earth at an altitude of 11,000 miles sent out signals allowing for users to determine their positions and velocity in three dimensions anywhere in the world under all-weather conditions. As part of the race to militarize space, the Pentagon even began developing killer satellites capable of hunting down and destroying enemy satellites along with alien spacecraft presumably, as a New York Times reporter joked!

In promoting these new weapons systems, Carter’s presidency was crucial to the RMA’s policy dominance in ensuing years. Neglected in many academic studies1, this revolution, with its emphasis on precision-guided strikes and “smart weapons,” actually complemented Carter’s human rights agenda in its aim of facilitating public demand for a more “activist foreign policy” by fostering the illusion that wars could in the future be waged more cleanly and with less collateral damage.

Carter to be sure was more dovish than his successor Ronald Reagan, promoting a soft-power approach in advancing U.S. geostrategic and corporate interests in line with the ideals of the Trilateral Commission. Carter’s administration renegotiated the Panama Canal Treaty and SALT II treaty with the Soviets mandating a reduction in nuclear missiles and bombers and secured the Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt. It also cut off aid to Latin America dictators and tried to reign in elements of what Peter Dale Scott has called “the deep state,” cutting the CIA’s budget by a third, prompting former agency operatives to establish their own “shadow CIA,” which worked to support traditional client regimes and promote American corporate interests through private contracts and off-the-books means.

While governor of Georgia, however, Carter had supported Nixon’s bombing of North Vietnam and mining of harbors and as president sought to exonerate the United States from paying reparations to Vietnam, saying we “owe Hanoi no debt because the destruction from the war was mutual,” a bald lie. His human rights policy was uneven with his administration providing $2.3 billion in military aid to ten nations cited by Amnesty International for systematic human rights violations (Guatemala, Indonesia, El Salvador Morocco, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand) along with $6 billion to Saudi Arabia and at least $12 billion to the Shah of Iran. Police aid was sustained through the cover of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) with Carter’s administration championing herbicidal defoliation programs in Colombia and Mexico that destroyed nearly 60,000 acres of non-target vegetation causing pronounced health and environmental damage including contamination of drinking water.

The appointment of neoconservative Zbigniew Brzezinski to replace Cyrus Vance as top national security adviser signaled a decisive shift away from a human rights agenda, which Carter had succeeded mainly in crafting into a “new language of power,” historian James Peck writes, “and potent ideological weapon for extending Washington’s global reach,” largely by focusing on abuses in the Soviet Union or Soviet client states. This transformation pushed many liberals to support military interventions for humanitarian purposes carried out through adoption of surgically precise strikes that could theoretically reduce human rights violations and casualties in war.

Pressured by right-wing lobby groups like the Committee on the Present Danger, Carter during the last year of his presidency pushed for the development of a rapid mobility force warning the Soviets that “any attempt to gain control of the Persian Gulf region” would be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States” and would be “repelled by any means necessary.” Carter had by this time taken an increasingly hardline stance toward the USSR, supporting covert operations and dissidents in Eastern Europe and funding mujahidin freedom fighters in Afghanistan in order to provoke a Soviet invasion. Robert Gates, former CIA director and Secretary of Defense under George W. Bush and Obama, noted that “the Carter administration waged ideological warfare on the Soviets with a determination and intensity that was very different from its predecessor by attacking the legitimacy of the Soviet government in the eyes of its own people.” The Carter presidency was thus crucial overall in reviving the Cold War after détente and rebuilding public consensus for a revived American militarism, laying the groundwork for Reaganism and the indefinite perpetuation of the American warfare state in the years thereafter. Carter’s career in turn casts light on the structural imperatives that lead fundamentally decent men who advance humanitarian causes as private citizens, to support policies and programs while in power that engender violence on a gargantuan scale, with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama having followed in his footsteps.

1Daniel Sargent in a generally comprehensive though overly top-down overview of U.S. foreign policy in the 1970s (A Superpower Transformed. Oxford University Press, 2014) omits discussion of Carter’s promotion of the RMA and its significance. David Schmitz is overly positive in his assessment of Carter’s human rights policy and evades his promotion of militarism in The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Even James Peck in his outstanding and superior study, Ideal Illusions, neglects the importance of the RMA under Carter.

Jeremy Kuzmarov teaches at the University of Tulsa and is author of “Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century”(Massachusetts, 2012) and “The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs” (Massachusetts, 2009). He is currently working on a book on the revolution in military affairs and American techno-war from the Korean War to the Endless War on Terror. 

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 The Cold War and the Origins of US Democracy Promotion

Robert Pee

U.S. Studies Online   Forum for New Writing

May 8, 2014

Soft power is the power to influence foreign governments, foreign publics, and world public opinion through the non-forcible projection of culture, ideology and political value systems. Soft power, in short, as its foremost scholar Joseph Nye explains, is “attractive power”. It has been a key facet of US foreign policy since the outbreak of the Cold War and its significance has continued to grow through the expansion of global communication networks and the ideological conflicts of the post-9/11 era.

This Featured Blog Series interrogates US soft power in terms of its historical and contemporary deployment, investigating the strategies, organisational frameworks and tactics which have shaped the US deployment of soft power, how this deployment has interacted with other foreign policy tools, and how overseas populations and elites have received US soft power and negotiated its meaning.


NEDDuring its time in office the Bush administration channelled over $1 billion to Arab democrats through the US Agency for International Development, the State Department and the Middle East Partnership Initiative,[1] with much of this funding going to democratic groups in previously-favoured dictatorships, such as Egypt. The Bush administration argued that the shift was necessary to safeguard US security by containing Islamist movements.[2] This equation between support for democratic groups overseas and US national security was not new, however; instead, the idea originated during the final stages of the Cold War, when a loose network of American intellectuals persuaded the Reagan administration to support the foundation of the National Endowment for Democracy. According to this network, strengthening pro-US parties and civil society groups in the Third World could be used to shore up the Washington’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union by blocking Marxist movements from seizing power in allied dictatorships.

Democracy promotion was conceptualised by actors outside the national security bureaucracy from 1972 onwards to resolve the strategic and organisational tensions which had marked US attempts to export democracy as a tool of national power in the Cold War. Strategically, policy-makers had disagreed over whether to support authoritarian regimes in the Third World or democratising economic and social reforms. Those who advocated support for right-wing dictatorships argued that attempts to create democratic governments would destabilise friendly states and possibly result in Communist takeovers; supporters of the democratic option claimed that it was the repression and inequality which characterised dictatorships that drove Third World populations to support Communist movements.[3] This division in the foreign policy elite led to an incoherent and disjointed strategic approach, in which democratising reforms were supported in some cases but not in others, and were often soft-pedalled or abandoned if they began to threaten existing US interests. Organisationally, the state had struggled to direct a covertly-funded state-private network of US civil society groups, deployed to co-opt key foreign demographic groups to the US cause, in a way that both preserved the credibility of US groups as private actors and was effective in achieving national security goals.[4]

Democracy promotion was proposed after these modes of intervention had declined. The exposure of the state-private network’s covert state funding in 1967[5] destroyed the credibility of the groups involved as private actors, and thus their operational effectiveness, while the Nixon administration implemented an overall strategy of supporting authoritarian regimes to contain Communist/radical movements. The basic blueprint for democracy promotion was outlined shortly after by William Douglas, a development theorist.

The new democratisation strategy outlined by Douglas strove to avoid the strategic dilemma which had led the state apparatus to implement inconsistent policies, and the credibility issues caused by the exposure of covert funding of private groups. Strategically, Douglas called for a democracy campaign embracing the whole Third World arguing that the creation of democratic states would produce governments less vulnerable to Communist subversion and prevent the West from being cut off from important raw materials.[6] To achieve this, socioeconomic reforms and the projection of democratic ideology should be replaced by direct aid to democratic parties overseas delivered by a non-state League for Democracy composed of Western and Third World democratic parties. This organisational arrangement would ease disagreements over whether the US should support dictatorships or democratic reform as the best guarantee of stability in the Third World, as the US government could maintain its support for dictatorships in the short-term while handing over diplomatically sensitive reform programs to a non-state actor, meaning that both strategies could be pursued simultaneously. The credibility problems caused by the exposure of the state-private network’s covert funding in 1967 could be solved by making government contributions to the League overt and transparent, or by turning to foundation grants or private donations as sources of funding. However, neither the Executive nor US civil society were interested in the idea initially. The Nixon administration believed efforts to democratise friendly dictatorships to be destabilising, while many US liberals linked democratisation and modernisation to the failure of US policy in Vietnam.

This changed in the second half of the 1970s as the US faced a growing wave of Third World revolutions,[7] re-opening the question of how political intervention could best be implemented to block the emergence of radical governments. The Carter administration attempted to steer a middle course between support for authoritarianism or democratisation by pressuring existing dictatorships to liberalise in order to defuse popular anger while leaving the structures of the regimes essentially unchanged – the essence of Carter’s Human Rights policy in the Third World.[8]However, the administration proved unable to implement the competing policies of preserving relations with allied authoritarian regimes and fostering reform through the US national security bureaucracy. Pressure for reform was often blunted or blocked by bureaucratic struggles between the Bureau of Human Rights and other agencies such as the Departments of Commerce, Treasury, the State Department’s Bureau for Security Assistance, and the Department’s regional bureaux, which sought to preserve relations with friendly authoritarian regimes such as the Philippines and Pakistan.[9]

Politicians in the Democratic Party offered a solution to this problem by founding a non-state organisation which could act as a channel for such initiatives outside the state apparatus – the American Political Foundation – in 1979. The APF was inspired by the West German Party Foundations: political training institutes, each linked to a West German political party, which implemented political assistance programs overseas with West German government funds.[10] The APF was established by George Agree, a former Congressional aide to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to follow this example by forging transnational party links to defend and extend democracy.[11] However, the organisation was small and lacked a clear strategy, adequate funding from business or foundations[12] and support from the Carter White House.

The decisive shift which opened up the possibility of convergence between non-state democracy promoters and the national security bureaucracy was the failure of Carter’s policies to prevent revolution in Nicaragua. The administration had failed to manage the competing imperatives of pressuring the Somoza dictatorship to liberalise so as to draw popular support away from the Marxist FSLN insurgency, while maintaining a regime strong enough to combat the insurgents militarily. The administration’s last-ditch attempt to remove Somoza in favour of a government of pro-US democrats to ward off the final FSLN victory failed because its chosen proxies within Nicaragua lacked the political skills and organisational strength to block a revolutionary takeover.[13]

A solution to this problem was conceived by Michael Samuels of the CSIS, who contacted the APF in early 1980. Samuels proposed that political aid programs to strengthen democrats in friendly authoritarian states threatened with revolution should be begun before these revolutions materialised. These programs would create strong pro-US political movements which could take power after the breakdown of a dictatorship and block revolutionary takeovers, preserving the target country’s geopolitical alliance with the US. They would be carried out through the “American Political Development Foundation”, a semi-private organisation receiving US government money overtly[14] — a further development of Douglas’ League for Democracy and Agree’s APF, but one which was wholly American rather than transnational, and tied to a current and specific US foreign policy problem, which made it more likely to gain the support of policy-makers.

Samuels’ proposal led to the coalescence of a loose network of non-state democracy promoters, including Douglas and the APF, which successfully lobbied the Reagan administration to support the initiative.[15] This led to the foundation of the legally private but government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, headed by Carl Gershman, a neoconservative and former Reagan administration official, in 1983 to channel funding to democratic groups overseas.[16] Under Reagan and George H.W. Bush the organisation aided the democratic forces which succeeded pro-US dictatorships in the Philippines and Chile, and those which replaced Marxist governments in Nicaragua and Poland,[17] thus safeguarding US national security interests in the final phase of the Cold War. The NED’s programs were also precursors of the later governmental initiatives in USAID and the State Department deployed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the Middle East. The NED itself is still active and counts among its board members former George W. Bush administration figures, such as previous NSC official Elliott Abrams, responsible for policy towards the Near East and Global Democracy Strategy, and Zalmay Khalilzad, former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq.[18]

The origins of US democracy promotion were bound up with the search for an effective method of preventing the emergence of revolutionary governments in the Third World, which could damage Washington’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. The democracy promoters’ solution to the strategic dilemma of whether to support dictatorships to achieve short-term stability or democratic reform to create long-term stability was to lodge democracy programs in a non-state organisation. This would make democracy programs credible to Third World democrats and plausibly deniable to dictatorships, allowing the US to support dictatorships and strengthen democratic successor movements simultaneously. The strategic considerations which originally drove Cold War democracy promotion reappeared in US foreign policy towards the Middle East after the 9/11 attacks,  with the growth of democracy being expected to contain a disparate collection of Islamist groups, rather than Marxist rebels supposedly acting at the behest of Moscow.

However, previous strategic tensions re-emerged as the George W. Bush and Obama administrations both soft-pedalled democracy promotion in friendly Middle Eastern states such as Egypt when it clashed with immediate geopolitical objectives,[19] and were able to do so because the US government funds the NED and now implements the bulk of US democracy promotion programs.[20] Due to this back-tracking the fall of the authoritarian Mubarak regime was followed by a power struggle between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military rather than a pro-US democratic successor elite. Thus, the tension between the pursuit of democracy and short-term US national security interests, which democracy promotion was originally generated to resolve, continues to operate as a basic feature of US foreign policy.


Footnotes

[1] Eric Patterson, “Obama and Sustainable Democracy Promotion”, International Studies Perspectives, 13 (2012): 29.

[2] Bush argued in 2003 that “As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export.” George W. Bush, “Remarks at the 20thanniversary of the National Endowment for Democracy,” 6th November 2003, available from http://www.ned.org/george-w-bush/remarks-by-president-george-w-bush-at-the-20th-anniversary, accessed 2nd May 2014.

[3] Compare the assertion of George Humphrey, Eisenhower’s Treasury Secretary that “whenever a dictator was replaced, communists gained” with Kennedy’s argument that “Dictatorships are the seedbed from which communism ultimately springs up.” Quoted from Tony Smith, America’s Mission: The United States and the Worldwide Struggle for Democracy in the Twentieth Century (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993), 192 and David F. Schmitz, The United States and Right-wing Dictatorships, 1965-1989 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 261.

[4] For further details on the state-private network see Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2008).

[5] Tity de Vries, “The 1967 Central Intelligence Agency Scandal: Catalyst in a Transforming Relationship between State and People,” Journal of American History 98, no. 4 (2012).

[6]William A. Douglas, Developing Democracy (Washington DC: Heldref Publications, 1972).

[7] Richard Saull, The Cold War and After: Capitalism, Revolution and Superpower Politics (London: Pluto Press, 2007), 139.

[8] James Earl Carter, Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President (Fayetteville, Arkansas: University of Arkansas Press, 1982), 143; and also Anonymous, “Presidential Review Memorandum 28: Human Rights”, Jimmy Carter Library, 8th July 1977, accessed 20th March 2009, http://www.jimmycarterlibrary.org/documents/pddirectives4.

[9] Victor Kaufman, “The Bureau of Human Rights during the Carter Administration,” The Historian 61, no. 1 (1998).

[10] Donald M. Fraser, “A Proposal that the Democratic National Committee employ at least one staff member assigned to follow and work with political movements abroad”, 1977, Folder 6: Reports and Proposals, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, Library of Congress, hereafter LOC.

[11] George Agree, “Proposal for a pilot study of international cooperation between democratic political parties,” 9thMay 1977, Box 1, Folder 6: Reports and Proposals, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, LOC.

[12] Difficulties with securing funding were mentioned in the minutes of organisation’s annual board meetings in 1980 and 1981. See APF, “Minutes of 1980 Annual Meeting, Board of Directors of American Political Foundation”, 19thMarch 1980 and “APF, Minutes of 1981 Annual Meeting, Board of Directors of American Political Foundation”, 7th July 1981, Folder 3: APF Minutes, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, LOC.

[13] See Robert A. Pastor, Not Condemned to Repetition: the United States and Nicaragua, (Boulder, Colorado: Westview, 2002), 82-99 and Morris H. Morley, Washington, Somoza and the Sandinistas: State and Regime in US Policy towards Nicaragua 1969-1981 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), 174-181.

[14] Michael A Samuels, Project Proposal: A Comprehensive Policy Response to Expanding U.S. Interests in the Third World, 1980, 1, attached to George Agree, Letter to Mr Michael A. Samuels, 15th February 1980, Folder 1: APF Correspondence, Box 1, George E. Agree Papers, LOC.

[15] See General Accounting Office, Events Leading to the Establishment of the National Endowment for Democracy, 6th July 1984, accessed 27th December 2006, http://www.gao.gov/products/NSIAD-84-121, 1, for meetings between democracy promoters and officials and Alexander Haig, memo to the President, 8th March 1982, DDRS, accessed 11thDecember 2006, for the proposal of a semiprivate democracy institute to Reagan in the wake of these meetings.

[16] Nicholas Guilhot, The Democracy Makers: Human Rights and International Order (New York, Chichester: Columbia University Press, 2005), 90.

[17]William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention and Hegemony (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 129-137, 175-193 and 221-239; Thomas Carothers, In the Name of Democracy: US Policy Toward Latin America in the Reagan Years (Berkeley & Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1991), 94-95 and 158-160; and Gregory Domber “Supporting the Revolution: America, Democracy and the End of the Cold War in Poland, 1981-1989” (PhD thesis, George Washington University, 2008),  accessed 15th July 2013, http://transatlantic.sais-jhu.edu/ACES/ACES_Working_Papers/Gregory_Domber

_Supporting_the_Revolution.pdf, 209-216, 335-350 and 410-411

[18] See http://ned.org/about/board, accessed 3rd May 2014.

[19] Fawaz Gerges, Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 162-164.

[20] The Obama administration cut US government funding for democracy promotion in Egypt and restored the Egyptian government’s ability to veto the transfer of US funds to Egyptian groups, thus limiting the freedom of USAID and of NDI and IRI, NED’s Republican and Democratic Party Institutes, which provide aid to foreign democratic political parties. Richard S. Williamson, “Turning a Blind Eye to Egypt”, September 30th 2010, available from http://www.iri.org/news-events-press-center/news/iri-board-member-richard-williamson-urges-support-egypts-democratic-ac, accessed 26th April 2014

blog snapshotRobert Pee has recently graduated the University of Birmingham with a PhD. His thesis, titled “Democracy Promotion, National Security and Strategy under the Reagan Administration: 1981-1986”, examines the relationship of democracy promotion to national security in US strategy, with a particular focus on the origins of the National Endowment for Democracy and on democracy promotion during the Reagan administration. His research interests include US Democracy Promotion during the Cold War and the War on Terror, national security strategy, the role of non-state actors in the formation and execution of US foreign policy, and US policy towards the Arab Spring

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Our political era, as most of us understand it, starts in 1980. The election of Ronald Reagan is the opening shot, the first of the three massive conservative backlashes (1994 and 2010 are the others) that have irretrievably shaped our sense of political possibility.

That is not how we see our economic history, though: there it is the middle years of the 1970s that mark the turning point when median wages stopped their steady postwar rise, Keynesian solutions failed, productivity stalled, and the gains of the wealthy began to take off. Culturally, too, an hour listening to any classic rock radio station or watching a cable rerun network is a reminder that the mid-’70s are very much part of our own world.

The “invisible bridge” in the title of Rick Perlstein’s new book reconnects the politics of the early and mid 1970s to the Reagan era, and thereby to the present. The tawdry end of Richard Nixon and the emergence of Reagan on the national stage only seem like wholly different phenomena—because Nixon was hardly a movement conservative, except when that pose was useful to him; because Reagan challenged Nixon’s successor and pardoner; and because their personalities seemed so wildly at variance, with one deeply engaged in dark conspiracies, the other nodding affably.

But Perlstein, among other achievements, draws a straight line from the “Final Days” to morning in America, demonstrating that Reagan was as unflinching a defender of Nixon as was an oddball like Rabbi Baruch Korff. The manipulation of patriotic imagery and cultural division that we associate with Reagan (placing “heroes” in the audience at the State of the Union address, for example) was merely an evolution on a political theme developed by Nixon and extended by Ford. For instance, Perlstein’s brilliant opening chapter reveals in deep detail the fabrication underlying the dramatic return of American prisoners of war from Vietnam and the creation of the category of the “Missing in Action,” even though there was no evidence that American soldiers were still alive in Vietnam after the end of the war. Both the POW return and the MIA fiction were contrived mostly as a distraction from the far more shocking conditions in South Vietnamese prison camps, a delusion that remained prevalent until a commission led by Senators John McCain and John Kerry finally brought it to an end in 1993. The election of 1980 was a restoration, not a revolution.

Although each of his three books is structured around an individual politician, Perlstein’s subject is always political movements and political culture. “Biography doesn’t much interest me,” Perlstein wrote in The Baffler in 2012. “Powerful men are but a means to the more profound end of sizing up the shifting allegiances on the demand side of our politics.” His first book, Before the Storm, about Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, became an important point of reference for liberals when it appeared in 2001, and it remains so. In those uncertain moments after the end of the chaotic, timid Clinton administration, and as the tragedy of the Bush years was coming into sight, Before the Storm taught us that winning elections is not always the main goal and that a campaign that ends in a historic loss, but builds the foundations of a coherent and passionate ideological movement, can achieve lasting change, visible only years later. The “fighting Dem” bloggers of the Bush years read Storm as a call to action, but it was also a brilliant, tight history of the early figures in the conservative movement and the Republican establishment’s clumsy struggle to hold them at bay.

Where Goldwater hung in the background of Storm, Perlstein put his protagonist at the center of Nixonland (2008), casting American politics during the upheavals of the late 1960s through the lens of Nixon’s own psychological torments, rooted in his collegiate resentment of the “Franklins”—the smug, elite student society at Whittier College—and his own club, the square and aspiring “Orthogonians.” It is not so much that Nixon imposed his view of the world on the nation; rather, he provided an explanation that connected perfectly to the breakdown of the late 1960s, and resonated particularly with a resentful white working class.

The Invisible Bridge is a more complex book than either of its predecessors. Perlstein describes it as an account of the events that led to Reagan coming within a hair’s breadth of toppling Ford at the Republican convention in 1976, a victory-in-defeat that is surely as consequential to the modern conservative ascendancy as Goldwater’s campaign. But the first glimmers of a draft-Reagan campaign don’t appear until almost the 500th page of this 800-page book.

Along the way to the showdown in Kansas City—the last nominating convention, of either major party, whose result was not certain on the first day—is a political history of the middle years of the 1970s, focusing on the Watergate investigations, the subsequent exposés of the CIA, and the many other collapses of trust that opened the door to outsiders such as Jimmy Carter and Reagan. Perlstein provides a rough and cluttered cultural history of the period, featuring phenomena such as Wacky Packages (trading cards and stickers with punning names of consumer products) that will make older Gen X-ers want to rummage through the boxes in their parents’ attics.

Woven through an otherwise chronological narrative of 1973–1976 is a serviceable but unnecessary biography of Reagan, surely the least interesting of the last thirteen men elected to the presidency. Perlstein draws out less well-known aspects of Reagan’s background, particularly the role of Lemuel Boulware, who as General Electric’s vice president of labor and community relations enlisted Reagan to make speeches for the company espousing the particular brand of free-market and anti-labor ideology, with a thin patina of social conservatism, that is still the dominant strain in official conservatism. Reagan’s flip, in his mid-forties, from modest anti-Communist liberalism to the far right was made possible by Boulwarism, Perlstein says, “a right-wing politics that imagined no necessity for class conflict at all” because business would take care of workers’ needs. That matched Reagan’s sense of himself—a man at once above conflict and gleefully sowing it.

Following the model he employed in Nixonland, Perlstein half-heartedly uses a fragment of the Reagan biography as the interpretive lens for the entire half-decade: when he was a high school lifeguard, Reagan apparently overstated his life-saving feats, and as an adult, Perlstein says, he adopted the posture of the “rescuer” in the face of Watergate, the CIA revelations, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and all the other confusion, chaos, and distrust.

Eh, maybe. Not only is this a banal interpretation of both the era and of Reagan, but it also rests too much agency in Reagan, the individual, when the whole point of the Perlstein project is to trace the lines of the conservative counterrevolution, undistracted by the charms and psychodrama of its front men.

The book works best when it does exactly that, just as the 1976 Reagan campaign took off when it, too, stopped focusing on the man at the top of the ticket. Reagan had been losing in the early primaries, during which the wily but not-quite-conservative campaign manager John Sears had been trying to sell him as an experienced governor and non-scary potential president. Heading into the North Carolina primary, Senator Jesse Helms and his lieutenant Tom Ellis, using the army of direct-mail donors and activists assembled by Helms’s National Congressional Club, picked up the campaign and encouraged Reagan to talk solely about hot-button conservative issues of the moment, such as the threat of détente with the Soviet Union and the proposed Panama Canal treaties. Victory in North Carolina re-launched the conservative ascendancy. In a sense the movement—in the form of its issues and its direct-mail operations—was more successful than the man.

• • •

A more interesting interpretation of the mid-’70s and their relevance emerges from the less Reagan-centric narrative, from the “demand side” of politics, and from the torrent of anecdotes, quotes, movie summaries, and clips that make up the bulk of the book. But this interpretation is never stated as explicitly as the Reagan-as-rescuer trope. It goes something like this: a large segment of the white population of the United States, something like Nixon’s “silent majority,” was deeply unsettled by the social and political changes of the late 1960s and ’70s, and “felt ignored, patronized . . . by arrogant liberalism,” as Perlstein puts it. He is largely respectful toward these people, who include the first wave of school textbook activists—led by a Texas couple who asked reporters to call them only by the husband’s name, “the Mel Gablers”—bussing foes in Boston, and grassroots opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment and the Panama Canal treaties. That respect does not extend to Reagan or to elite conservative activists, particularly figures who occupy both the Nixon and Reagan machines, such as Pat Buchanan, who rather than creating a politics that could hear and address those anxieties, exploited them and deepened the divide—for power and often just for money.

Almost complicit in the rise of the right—and this is where Perlstein’s grand theory of politics gets interesting—are Democrats and liberals, particularly the reformist generation of the “Class of ’74” congressional Democrats and the 1976 Democratic presidential candidates, who get a surprising amount of attention in a book ostensibly about the Republican contest. Perlstein twice quotes Gary Hart, elected to the Senate in 1974, declaring, “We’re not a bunch of little Hubert Humphreys.” But Humphrey himself, the former vice president then back in the Senate and leading the push for a full-employment act, appears only fleetingly, as an undeclared 1976 candidate. Most of the other 1976 contenders—particularly the duplicitous Jimmy Carter; sanctimonious, shallow Frank Church; and quasi-conservative bullshit artist Jerry Brown—are regarded much as Perlstein sees Barack Obama: too naïve about the right, uninterested in economic justice, too eager to compromise and to distance themselves from the historical legacy of FDR-LBJ-Humphrey liberalism. As Perlstein sees it, the angry white working class is as poorly served by posers and spinners such as Hart as by the professional dividers on the right.

This is a cold dismissal of a moment that is as central to the history of liberalism as of conservatism. Perlstein regards the Class of ’74 Democrats as merely arrogant, high-minded reformers who kicked out old populists such as House Banking Committee chairman Wright Patman. No doubt ’70s reformist liberalism—a tradition that can be traced forward to the Obama administration—had profound blind spots, particularly to the role of political machines in building support and community for working-class families. But its effort to open up Congress had a deep history, going back to the 1950s. Immovable committee chairs such as Patman (though he was far from the worst) were progressive on a few dimensions, but on others—especially civil rights, the only issue that mattered—had posed barriers for decades. Opening up Congress ultimately led to a period of legislative entrepreneurship that included many of the foundations of modern government: environmental and workplace safety regulations, huge expansion of health coverage culminating in the Affordable Care Act, even passage of Humphrey’s Full Employment Act, none of which would have been possible had the old Southern lions remained on their thrones.

Perlstein skips over this context, in this and other instances, simply because, with the exceptions of the Reagan biography and the opening set piece on the POW-MIA scam, his tale relies entirely on the immediacy of the press. If there were a soundtrack to this book, it would be the spins and clicks of an old microfilm machine, zipping, slowing, and pausing through archives of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentineland other mid-sized newspapers, picking up quotes, images, long-forgotten anecdotes, ads for wig shops or “golden age” pornographic movies.

Indeed, you come away from the book feeling the way you would after a long afternoon in the library reading those microfilms—you might find what you were looking for, but much more as well, and you’ll get a little fuzzy-headed in the process. None of Perlstein’s material is uninteresting; there is just too much of it. There is a great book within The Invisible Bridge, but it would be about 500 pages long, the length of Before the Storm. It is about the structure and strength of the conservative movement, the continuities between Nixon’s politics and Reagan’s, the failure of liberals and Democrats (and organized labor, whose disintegration during the decade goes mostly unmentioned) to speak to the economic and cultural panic of the decade. The Invisible Bridge is too difficult to get through, making it unlikely to achieve the audience or influence of its predecessor.

It is Perlstein’s misfortune that he doesn’t appear to have had the kind of editor who could not only cut the scrapbook clutter, but also keep the story governed by Perlstein’s own maxim: “Biography doesn’t much interest me.” The “demand-side” of politics is the story here, and it is up to the patient reader to find it.

Mark Schmitt is Director of the program on political reform at the New America Foundation and former executive editor of The American Prospect.

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U.S. National Archives Web Site Uploads Hundreds of Thousands of Diplomatic Cables from 1977

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 463

March 27, 2014

Edited by William Burr

 

Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young meeting with President Jimmy Carter. Young served as ambassador during 1977-1979, but was forced to resign because of an unauthorized meeting with Palestinian diplomats. (Photograph from Still Pictures Unit, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59-SO, box 39)

Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young meeting with President Jimmy Carter. Young served as ambassador during 1977-1979, but was forced to resign because of an unauthorized meeting with Palestinian diplomats. (Photograph from Still Pictures Unit, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59-SO, box 39)

Washington, DC, March 27, 2014 – In February 2014, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted 300,000 State Department telegrams from 1977 — the first year of the Jimmy Carter administration — on its Access to Archival Databases system. This posting is another step in carrying out the commitment that NARA and the State Department have made to putting on-line major State Department document databases and indexes as they are declassified. The 1977 telegrams cover the gamut of issues of the day: human rights on both sides of the Cold War line, U.S.-Soviet relations, China, NATO issues, nuclear proliferation, the Middle East Crisis, African affairs, a variety of diplomatic and security relationships around the world from Latin American to Southeast Asia, and issues of growing concern, such as women in development. The last release of on-line State Department material — telegrams and other records for 1976 — was in January 2010. Meeting the requirements of the Privacy Act, budgetary problems, and a complex declassification process prolonged the review and release of the 1977 material.

NARA’s mass posting of State Department telegrams began in 2006 when it uploaded nearly 320,000 declassified telegrams from 1973 and 1974. During the following years, NARA posted hundreds of thousands of telegrams from 1975 and 1976, bringing the total to nearly a million. The Access to Archival Databases (AAD) search engine permits searches for documents on a year-to-year basis, but in 2012 Wikileaks usefully repackaged the telegram databases by aggregating them, making it possible to search through all of telegrams at once.

The National Archives has not publicized this or previous diplomatic telegram releases so the National Security Archive is stepping in to the breach to alert researchers and to offer some interesting examples of the new material. Some key documents are already available in the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States historical series, but there is more material than the FRUSeditors can use on many topics. A stroll through the AAD search engine produces absorbing results. Among the highlights from the search conducted by the editor:

  • During Jimmy Carter’s first year, U.S. officials in Moscow and Washington wondered about Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev’s state of health and its implications for Moscow-Washington relations, which were already complicated by disagreements over strategic arms control and human rights policy. In an exchange of telegrams State Department intelligence and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow argued over the former’s view that Brezhnev’s health problems meant that he was “no longer in command of all aspects of Soviet policy.” For the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), even if Brezhnev was losing control, he could still be a channel of communication, not unlike Mao Zedong’s declining years where “we had more success with Mao’s slobbering and shambling through critical meetings with U.S. representatives …than we have had since Mao’s passing.” Disagreeing with that assessment, U.S. Ambassador Malcolm Toon acknowledged that Brezhnev “suffers from a variety of physical ailments” but he “is still in control.”
  • When two senior U.S. officials met with South Korean dictator General Park Chung Hee in 1977 to discuss the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they brought up human rights problems. The detention of dissidents arrested at Myeongdong Cathedral in 1976 was one issue that concerned the White House but Park was reluctant to take a lenient approach because it would “encourage defendants to violate Korean law again.”
  • According to a report from the U.S. Embassy in Thailand on the situation in Cambodia and the status of organized resistance against the Khmer Rouge, two informants declared that “the fruit of Khmer Rouge rule might well be the extinction of the Cambodian race.” While the Khmer Rouge had continued “to eliminate anyone associated with the former regime,” the “greatest threat to life in Cambodia” was disease and famine. The recent rice harvest had been good but the regime was stockpiling and exporting the grain.
  • A telegram on a conversation between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young and an influential figure in the South African National Party, Cornelius (“Connie”) Petrus Mulder, who was “more liberal” but did not want to get “out in front of agreed policy on apartheid.” Young conveyed the message that the administration sought “progressive transformation of South Africa toward majority rule” and the discussion covered the range of regional issues as well as the Young’s argument about the possibility of reconciliation based on the “sharing of economic benefits.”
  • In mid-1977, the Temple University biologist Niu Man-Chiang was visiting Beijing and met with Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hsiao-Ping in the Wade-Giles transliteration), who, after very difficult years during the Cultural Revolution, was again holding top-level positions. Deng claimed that he “was in charge of two things: science and the military,” but kept bringing the discussion back to economic policy, especially solving the problem of “feeding a growing population,” for which he proposed restricting births and growing more food.

The release includes telegrams at many levels of classification, from “Unclassified” and “Official Use Only” to “Confidential” and “Secret.” Moreover, telegrams with a variety of handling restrictions are available, including “Limdis” [limited distribution], “Exdis” [exclusive distribution], and “Nodis” [no distribution except with permission], as well as “Noforn” [no foreign nationals] and “STADIS” [State Department distribution]. Unlike the previous telegram releases, the one for 1977 includes the “nodis” items and also the closely-held cables with the “Cherokee” distribution control, usually reserved for messages involving the secretary of state and senior White House officials. The Cherokee control originated during the 1960s, when Dean Rusk was Secretary of State.  It was named after Cherokee County, Georgia, where he was born.  Information confirmed in e-mail from David Langbart, National Archives, 28 March 2014.

The downside of the 1977 release is that nearly 60,000 telegrams have been exempted altogether, about 19.5 percent of the total for the year. This means that thousands of documents will remain classified for years; even if persistent researchers deluge NARA with requests they will take years to process under present budgetary limitations. Yet, 19.5 percent is close to the same exemption rate for the previous two years: 23 percent for 1976 and 19 percent for 1975. The specific reasons for the withdrawal of a given document are not given; according to information on the Web site, they are withdrawn variously for national security reasons, statutory exemptions, or privacy. No doubt specific statutory exemptions such as the CIA Act and the Atomic Energy Act play a role, which makes one wonder how many exempted documents concern such things as obsolete nuclear stockpile locations that are among the U.S. government’s dubious secrets. Moreover, given the endemic problem of over-classification at the Pentagon, it is possible that the Defense Department erroneously classified some information, for example, telegrams relating to NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group.

The collection of telegrams is only a segment of the State Department record for that year; still to be declassified and processed for 1977 is the index to the P-reels, the microfilmed record of the non-telegram paper documentation. Moreover, top secret telegrams are not yet available for any year since 1973 and collections of “Nodis” telegrams from the mid-1970s remain unavailable. No doubt, NARA’s inadequate funding is an important cause of delay. OMB and Congress have kept NARA on an austerity budget for years; this is a serious problem, which directly damages the cause of greater openness for government records. In real terms (adjusted for inflation), the NARA budget has been declining since FY 2009, despite the agency’s ever-growing responsibility for billions of pages of paper and electronic records. Consistent with the policy of forced austerity, OMB has cut NARA’s budget for the next fiscal year by $10 million.

At the current rate it will be years before all the telegrams before all telegrams and other material for the 1970s, much less the 1980s, are on-line at AAD. While the State Department has moved forward in reviewing telegrams from the 1980s, its reviewers need to catch up with the “Nodis” and top secret central files from the mid-1970s and 1977 before they get too far ahead of themselves. As for the telegrams for 1978 and 1979, according to recent reports, they have been fully reviewed for declassification and physically transferred to NARA. When they will become available is not clear. They may have to go through a review for privacy information by NARA, for example, of material concerning visa applications. That was a major element contributing to the delay in the release of the 1977 telegrams. Such a review is justifiable, such as when social security numbers are at issue; certainly protecting private information deserves special care. Nevertheless, there is concern, even among NARA staffers, that the privacy review process may be becoming too extensive (e.g., excluding old mailing addresses). More needs to be learned about criteria used for the privacy review.

Note: As in the previous openings, some telegrams are missing for technological reasons. Over the years, when IT specialists migrated the telegram collections from one electronic medium to another some records were lost. Such missing records, of which there are over 3,800 for 1977 are indicated by this wording: “telegram text for this mrn [message reference number] is unavailable.” That does not mean that all are gone for good; some copies will show up in embassy files or presidential libraries. Moreover, copies can often be found in P-reel microfilm collections at the State Department and the National Archives, depending on the years. The “message attribution” information appended to such documents [an example] includes the microfilm numbers that can be used for requesting copies.

 

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HNN  December 2, 2013
Image via Wiki Commons.

“The Majesty of the People had disappeared,” Washington, D.C., gossip Margaret Bayard Smith wrote disapprovingly, replaced by “a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros, women, children, scrambling, fighting, romping.” Smith was not describing a riot in the nation’s capital but the inaugural festivities of President Andrew Jackson in March 1829. What else would one expect of the common man’s president, an uneducated western frontiersman who only escaped his supporters’ enthusiasm on Inaugural Day by crawling out of a window?

That image of Jackson, which continues to resonate in American culture, needs refining. By the time he became president, Jackson was hardly the country bumpkin that his critics believed him to be. Instead, he was a wealthy southern planter who owned nearly 100 slaves who lived on a large estate called the Hermitage just outside of Nashville, Tennessee, where Jackson also housed a stable of racehorses. In today’s terms, he would have been a multimillionaire candidate entering the White House.

The traditional narrative of Jackson’s life — a commoner who worked hard to lift himself into the presidency — is hardly a new one. Ever since his victory in 1828, presidential campaigns have employed this trope as a signal that their candidate understands the average American. One need only look at a few examples to see that this tactic has been used by the presidents whom Americans consider their greatest (the rail-splitting, self-taught lawyer Abraham Lincoln), as well as those in recent decades (the simple Georgia peanut farmer Jimmy Carter and Texas everyman George W. Bush). Even Barack Obama can rightly claim to have overcome the challenges faced as the child in a single-parent household. Americans want to believe that their presidents comprehend the struggles that they face, that their backgrounds assure their understanding of a democratic society in which every voice matters.

The reality, of course, is that each of the above-named men possessed advantages that enabled them to win the presidency. Lincoln was a successful lawyer working railroad contracts when he ran in 1860. According to his biographer, David H. Donald, Lincoln hated physical labor. Carter’s background as peanut farmer called up images of him walking onto the campaign trail having just finished working in a straw hat in the hot Georgia sun; in actuality, Carter had turned his father’s farm into a profitable corporation. Both Bush and Obama were products of Ivy League institutions, with Bush having the added advantage of a grandfather who served in the U.S. Senate and a father who served as U.S. president. All of these men also had business, political, and social networks that allowed them the opportunity to vie for the presidency. In other words, none of them were self-made men.

The same was true of Andrew Jackson, whose ascension to elite status began long before he reached the presidency. During the years prior to his move to Tennessee, he was exposed to various examples of southern gentlemen. Jackson grew up in an area along the North Carolina-South Carolina border called the Waxhaws. While his immediate family was not well-off, members of Jackson’s extended family living in the area owned significant land acreage and several slaves. Both gave them social status in the community. When Jackson moved to Charleston as a teenager, he witnessed the lives of southern gentlemen in an urban setting. As a port city, Charleston served as a center of news, commerce, and trade; during his time there, Jackson could not help but see the importance of social networking and slavery in creating a gentry lifestyle. His decision to read law indicated his realization that the legal profession carried with it a mark of success. During his time as a law student in North Carolina, Jackson also became more aware of the centrality of kinship networks to social advancement. His peers were young men connected, by blood or friendship, to some of the wealthiest and most important state leaders. Indeed, it was a member of Jackson’s own network who gave him the appointment that brought him to Middle Tennessee.

Jackson was already regarded as an elite gentleman before he stepped foot in the Nashville settlement, however. His elevated status is clear for two reasons. First, he purchased his first slave, a woman by the name of Nancy, during a months-long stay in the East Tennessee town of Jonesboro. Jackson’s lack of a permanent residence suggests that Nancy’s purchase was not for utilitarian purposes but to indicate a lifestyle of prosperity. Second, Jackson engaged in a duel with an older, prominent attorney, Waightstill Avery. Their dispute centered on a court case, which led Jackson to challenge his courtroom opponent to a deadlier contest. The duel did not result in injury for either party, but it still proved important for the messages that it sent about Jackson. In southern culture, only elite white men could participate in duels. That Jackson felt secure enough in his social position to issue the challenge, and that Avery answered his challenge, indicated Jackson’s own sense of standing and the community’s recognition of his rank.

Jackson’s entrée into elite southern society is often traced to his marriage into the Donelson family, whose patriarch had been one of Nashville’s co-founders. In reality, Jackson was already part of the gentry class, but his decision to marry Rachel Donelson Robards furthered his advancement. The Donelson kinship network gave Jackson access to businessmen and politicians who helped him become a land speculator, a U.S. congressman, judge, and militia general. He used the financial advantages that accrued to him to begin establishing the agricultural enterprise that culminated in his Hermitage plantation.

Jackson’s military career only solidified and enhanced his social status. His generalship helped push Native American tribes off of millions of acres of land in the South and defeat the mighty British army at New Orleans. But as important as those exploits were to his political career, the war brought other benefits. His kinship network expanded to include members of the military who served with him, soldiers such as John Eaton and William B. Lewis. These men were well-connected in their own right and provided their military superior with access to money and influence that would have escaped him otherwise. The land that Jackson and his men seized from Indians, both during and after the war, also proved a source of profitability. Jackson speculated in Alabama and Florida lands, buying cheap and, in the case of Alabama, establishing farms to supplement the revenue generate at his main landholdings in Middle Tennessee.

The Jackson that Margaret Bayard Smith and other Washingtonians decried in 1829 existed merely as a symbol. Old Hickory was not as refined as the Adamses who served as chief executive, nor as aristocratic as the Virginia presidents. But neither was he the vulgar leader of “raving Democracy” that inaugurated the “reign of KING MOB,” as contemporaries observed. Andrew Jackson was a man who had taken advantage of hard work, networking, and a little bit of luck to become a successful member of elite southern society. While he embraced his symbolism as the champion of the common man, Jackson also lived the life of a southern gentleman until his death in June 1845. Ignoring that southern identity misses the complexity of the president with whom the flourishing of American democracy has been most closely associated.

Mark R. Cheathem is Associate Professor of History at Cumberland University. He is the author of Andrew Jackson, Southerner and blogs at http://jacksonianamerica.com/blog/.

– See more at: http://hnn.us/article/154093#sthash.cX9c4Vsf.dpuf

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