Tuesday, October 29, 2013


Harry Targ

“What-If” History and President Kennedy

Contentious debate will resume about President Kennedy’s plans for Vietnam as we remember his assassination fifty years ago on November 22, 1963. Three weeks before the President was killed a military coup in South Vietnam took place in Saigon; President Diem of South Vietnam was killed.

 Those who saw President Kennedy as a potential positive force in the world argue that he “matured” from the ill-fated decision to authorize the CIA to carry out its invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in April, 1961; to his “measured” but necessary naval blockade to pressure the Soviet Union to withdraw its missiles from Cuba in October, 1962; to his call for tension reduction in relations with the Soviet Union in his 1963 American University speech. Kennedy supporters regard as significant his modest withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Vietnam in October, 1963. In sum, supporters of JFK say he was moving towards de-escalating the Cold War with the Soviet Union and, after reelection, withdrawing from Vietnam.

However, those analysts who move beyond personalities and discrete events to analyze the trajectory of United States foreign policy from the onset of the Cold War in 1945 to today and defend the proposition that U.S. policy has been guided by patterns of economic expansion, geopolitical and military advance, and the embrace of an ideology of U.S. exceptionalism,  conclude that President Kennedy and his key advisors remained committed to defeating the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam and weakening the influence of North Vietnam in Southeast Asia. The promotion of imperialism and the struggle against “Communism” remained as central to the Kennedy agenda as it was to his predecessors, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower.

The United States Involvement in Vietnam Begins

President Harry Truman funded eighty percent of the French effort to reestablish control of its former colony in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos) from 1950 until the collapse of the French military effort in 1954. During the Eisenhower years the United States replaced the French as the predominant colonial power in South Vietnam.

After the signatories of the Geneva Accords divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel “temporarily” after the peace conference of May 1954, the United States initiated a “nation-building” campaign in South Vietnam. The Eisenhower Administration brought Ngo Dinh Diem and his extended family from the United States to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) allegedly to establish a democracy in the South. Eisenhower promised to support Diem, authorized the new South Vietnamese leader to reject the all-Vietnamese elections that were to be held by 1956, committed the United States to the security of Indochina by organizing the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and sent technical advisors and 1,000 military personnel to help construct an administrative structure, a police force, and an army in South Vietnam.

Meanwhile the Diem regime initiated a brutal military campaign to exterminate former supporters of the anti-French revolutionary force, most of whom opposed Diem’s repression. By 1960, a full-scale civil war was underway as the Vietnamese people sought to overthrow the Diem dictatorship, which continued to be supported by the United States.

The Vietnam War Escalates in the Kennedy Years

Kennedy acknowledged the escalating civil war in South Vietnam shortly upon taking office.  Vice-President Johnson was sent to South Vietnam in May, 1961, to assess the progress of the counter guerrilla war there.  He recommended that the United States continue its support to the Diem regime: “The basic question in South East Asia is here. We must decide whether to help these countries to the best of our ability or throw in the towel in the area and pull back our defenses to San Francisco and a 'Fortress America' concept. More important, we would say to the world in this case that we don't live up to treaties and don't stand by our friends.” (Neil Sheehan, ed., The Pentagon Papers, Bantam, New York: 1971, 129).
The new president as a senator had been a leading advocate for the South Vietnamese regime in the 1950s.  Both he and his Vice President Lyndon Johnson had strongly supported “containing” Communism --- as did practically all political leaders, both Republicans and Democrats.  Since the fight in Vietnam was framed as a fight to stop Communism, most politicians and corporate and financial elites supported United States military involvement in Vietnam from the time of its betrayal of the Geneva Accords.  The Vietnamese liberation struggle against the US-Diem regime escalated in response to the South Vietnamese regime’s “policy of systematic terror against the entire southern population” (Nguyen Khac Vien,  Vietnam: A Long History, The Gioi Publishers, Ha Noi: 2007, 271).  In late December, 1960 Vietnamese resistance fighters from the South met and established the National Liberation Front (NLF) to overthrow Diem, create a coalition government in the South, end all foreign intervention, and work towards establishing a peaceful reunification of all of Vietnam.
The Kennedy administration in the spring of 1961 added four hundred Special Forces troops to the contingent in South Vietnam and one hundred civilian advisors to aid in setting up the "strategic hamlet" program, designed to move peasant villagers away from areas influenced by NLF forces.  In the fall of 1961 General Maxwell Taylor, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Walt Rostow, economic historian and special advisor to the president, were sent to South Vietnam to study the situation. They returned recommending the introduction of U.S. ground troops, advice that was endorsed by Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rusk and McNamara argued that the “fall” of South Vietnam would be a prelude to the “fall” of the rest of Southeast Asia and Indonesia – meaning falling away from the orbit of US control. A “loss” in Vietnam would also create a right-wing backlash within the United States, much like the backlash that followed the "fall of China.”

With these recommendations, the Kennedy administration began a gradual escalation of direct
U. S. involvement in the South Vietnamese civil war.  US troop strength went from several hundred to ten thousand by 1963.  Meanwhile, the stability of the Diem government was declining.  The strategic hamlet program, disrupting life in the countryside, was generating recruits for the NLF.  Casualties among the South Vietnamese army and government officials grew.  Opposition from Buddhists and students to Diem's harsh rule was becoming more intense.  

On May 8, 1963, the army shot into a nonviolent Buddhist demonstration. Buddhists later committed suicide in public protest against the Diem regime. In August, 1963, the South Vietnamese police and military invaded Buddhist pagodas and schools and arrested many dissidents. After a visit to Vietnam in September, 1963, McNamara and Taylor claimed that the United States would be able to end its involvement in the country by 1965. The head of the Military Assistance Advisory Group, General Harkins, predicted in November, 1963, that victory was just months away.

While these optimistic assessments were being made, as they were continued to be made throughout the war, opposition to Diem within the Vietnamese ruling clique itself was growing. South Vietnamese generals were ready to oust Diem.  US officials in South Vietnam disagreed in their evaluations of Diem's chances to maintain control of the country. Some US officials, like former Ambassador Frederick Nolting, were personal friends of Diem and remained committed to him, while others, such as the then-acting ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, and members of the CIA, were opposed.

Finally, on November 1, 1963, with the support of Lodge and the CIA, Diem was overthrown by the South Vietnamese military, and one of the generals assumed office. This was to be the first of eleven governments during the remainder of South Vietnamese history. While turmoil ensued in Saigon, John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.

At the time of his death, there were fifteen thousand US troops in South Vietnam, a dramatic increase from the Eisenhower commitment but a small amount compared to the 540,000 troops that would be sent to Vietnam by 1968.  Troop commitments during the Kennedy administration were small, but Kennedy and his advisors established the military infrastructure, mobilized the academic expertise, and communicated an official rationale for escalating the US struggle against the Third World.  Military intervention was coupled with policies designed to encourage "economic development."  While Kennedy was wrestling with what to do about Vietnam shortly before his death, the impression he wished to leave with the world was that the interests of the United States and the Third World were in fact identical. The Vietnamese people were experiencing just the opposite.

(Adapted from Duncan McFarland, Paul Krehbiel, Harry Targ ed. Vietnam From National Liberation to 21st Century Socialism, Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, Changemaker  Publications,   lulu.com/spotlight/changemaker,   2013, pp. 43-45).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Harry Targ

Narratives about American politics often use football metaphors. Conflicts over political issues are understood in terms of wins and losses, long passes, brilliant catches, quarterback sacks, and the performance of a handful of superstars. As I write this, I recall how much I hate sports metaphors and more generally the narcotizing effects of sports on American life. But before I close the book on our sports addiction, I think of an aspect of the football metaphor that helps clarify the struggles over issues of war and peace and shutting down government or saving its dwindling public functions.

I watched one-half of two football games last Sunday. Most of the games were tedious with two teams of players slogging back and forth along the 100 yard field. Fans cheered as their team moved the ball forward or stopped the opposing team from advancing the football. They were silenced when the opposing team made gains. On reflection, the flow of a team’s movement  of the ball toward the goal line to score a touchdown or to be forced back and be scored upon by the other team, sounds a lot like politics (To be sure, politics is not a game).

Take the case of United States foreign policy in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. The Bush administration launched two wars in the 21st century with disastrous consequences. The Obama Administration orchestrated a war on Libya and continues “no boots on the ground” drone strikes against targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere. Peace forces have been forced back toward their own goal line multiple times since the dawn of the new century. 

But the “home team” has been marshaling its strength. Team America is tired of war. President Obama launched a campaign last summer to get support for air strikes against the Assad regime in Syria. As Sheldon Richman pointed out on September 13, 2013 (Reason.com), “The people happened. Public-opinion polls showed at once that most of us do not want Obama to commit an act of war against Syria. Furthermore, the people inundated Congress with calls and emails.” 

More importantly, peace activists marched against war in cities and towns around the country. In Lafayette, Indiana, a peace march against air strikes in Syria was even praised by the district’s Tea Party Congressman. Of course, opposition at home was paralleled by emerging global powers, particularly China and Russia. Metaphorically, the Peace Team moved the ball across the field into the War Team’s territory.

Also, domestically, Americans have expressed their outrage at the shutdown of government in October and threats of financial default to follow. After weeks of debate, a Congressional compromise was reached reopening government and preventing a government default. The settlements of October 17, 2013 only moved the crises about government funding to be fought another day. But workers returned to provide vital services to the American people and the danger of the United States government refusing to honor its debts was put on hold.  

Media narratives portrayed the conflicts over the shutdown and potential default as resulting from struggles between President Obama; Harry Reid, Majority Leader in the Senate; John Boehner, Speaker of the House; and renegade politicians such as Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who with substantial Tea Party support, preferred bringing government to a halt. Referring back to the football narrative, two weeks of media coverage portrayed Obama Team Compromise versus Tea Party Team Government Shutdown as engaged in back and forth movement across the fifty yard line. Ultimately the temporary compromise was reached but the game continues.  

Each day’s coverage of the inside the beltway game included reference to polling data. Particular attention was given to presumptions about rightwing Tea Party supporters in conservative Congressional districts. The Tea Party was framed as the “popular” force--at least in the strongly Republican Congressional Districts-- that would determine the outcome of the current struggle while pointing out that polls reflected overall disapproval of Republican obstructionism in the House of Representatives.

A CNN poll released October 21, gives a more probing assessment of public disapproval of the gridiron conflict in Washington.  Respondents evidenced declining confidence in the President’s ability to “deal with the major issues facing the country today” from a high of 50 percent in December, 2011 to 44 percent in October, 2013. Confidence in Congressional Republicans, while low, was the same at both data points, at 31 percent. Now only 12 percent of those polled approve of the “way Congress is handling its job.” Fifty percent of respondents in January, 2011 thought it was “good for the country” to have Republicans in control of the House, only 38 percent hold that view today.

In addition to polling data that clearly shows growing cynicism about government and particular outrage at Republican obstructionists and the Tea Party faction, protests against the government shutdown and possible default occurred all across the country. Protestors included furloughed federal workers, veterans, federal regulators, and citizens outraged that the normal functions of government were not being performed because of rightwing obstructionism. Referring to the Republican’s effort to use the blockage of the federal budget as a tool to demand the reversal of the new Affordable Care Act, which passed in 2010, Reverend Jesse Jackson called for national protests against the government shutdown:

We march to protest the moral outrage of shutting down the Federal Government because it denies over 800,000 federal workers their jobs and 312 million American citizens needed services. (Rainbow PUSH Coalition, October 7, 2013).

The temporary compromises reached on October 17, 2013 moved the ball across the fifty yard line toward restoring government even though the agreements are temporary.

The football metaphor suggests that the contest entails a lengthy struggle over virtually every issue of war and peace and limited versus positive government. Victories are temporary and the forces for peace and positive government need to keep their offenses mobilized and their defenses strong. But, contrary to the football metaphor, as the Syrian and government debt issues suggest, short-term victories were not achieved by a few “star” players but by the expressions and actions of hundreds of thousands of  supporters of peace and economic justice.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Harry Targ

“…more than 1 in 5 children live in poverty and 47 percent are low-income (more than all neighbor states, including Kentucky); more than 1 million Hoosiers over the age of 18 are in poverty and 2.24 million are low-income; more than 70% of Hoosier jobs are in occupations that pay less than 200% of the Federal Poverty Guidelines – that’s less than $39,060 for the same family of three referenced in their report (a single parent with two children); we have a larger share of jobs in occupations that pay at or below poverty wages jobs ($19,530 for a family of three) and jobs that pay at or below minimum wage than all neighbor states, including Kentucky; and wages have declined for lower- and middle-income Hoosiers over the past decade, while worker productivity has soared.” (Derek Thomas, “Cato Study Disingenuously Presents Molehills as Mountains,” Indiana Institute for Working Families, August 23, 2013).

Mitch Daniels, two-term Governor of the state of Indiana (2004-2012) and current President of Purdue University has been making presentations before conservative think tanks, business groups, and national television audiences. Often groups hosting Daniels are trumpeting Indiana as a model of inexpensive, efficient, and sophisticated government.

For example, Daniels, who promised he would not be “political” when he assumed the presidency of Purdue University, spoke before the Center of the American Experiment, Monday, October 7, 2013. The Center proclaims it wishes to shift political discourse in a conservative direction: right-to-work legislation, lower taxes, and “traditional American values.” And Daniels was invited to speak presumably because the Center believes Indiana is “leading the way when it comes to taxing less, spending less, but doing government better.” (Hayleigh Colombo,” Politics Hover as Daniels in Minn.” Journal and Courier, October 8, 2013).

Politicians and conservative think tank spokespersons especially have been misrepresenting the history of economic performance in the United States. Huffington Post reporter, Mark Gongloff reviewed a recent study of income inequality in the United States by economists Facundo Alvaredo, Anthony B. Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez. The top one percent of income earners doubled their share of income since the 1970s to 20 percent.  Growing income inequality in the United States since 1960 is significantly greater than all developed countries. U.S. income inequality is bested only by Chile, Mexico, and Turkey among all nations. 

Gongloff attributes growing income inequality in the United States to long years of reduced taxes for the rich and financial deregulation. “The same politicians that have busily been slashing taxes on the wealthy have also been loosening fetters on banking, allowing the financial sector to swell to bloated size and mop up ever-more income while contributing ever-less back to the economy.” (Mark Gongloff, “The U.S. Has the Worst Income Inequality in the Developed World, Thanks to Wall Street: A Study” Huffington Post, August 15, 2013).

Indiana is one example of a state in which local economic trends mirror the accumulation of wealth on one side and poverty on the other. In fact, Indiana has been one of the worst states in terms of providing for its population. Almost 16 percent of the state’s population lives in poverty, including over 22 percent of its children, 17 percent of women, 33 percent of African Americans, 29 percent of Latinos, and 25 percent of Native Americans. One third of Indiana residents are low income and for a decade have experienced a decline in median household income. Even with a recent slight decline in the rate of poverty, the number of low income Hoosiers has risen since 2011. (Indiana Institute for Working Families, 9/19/13; cited in “Slight Decrease in Poverty Offset by Increase in Low-Income Hoosiers,” Lafayette Independent, October, 2013).

In an illuminating series on “The Unequal State of America: a Reuters Series,” by Deborah Nelson and Himanshu Ojha, December 18, 2012, www.reuters.com/subjects/income-inequality) the authors report on state-by-state trends in the U.S. economy from 1989 through 2010. Among their findings are the following:

*Inequality has increased in 49 of 50 states, including Indiana.
*The poverty rate increased in 43 states, most sharply in Nevada and Indiana.
*In all 50 states, the richest 20 percent of households made the greatest economic gains of any quintile.

As to tax policy over the last several years, the rich were the main beneficiaries. Nelson and Ojha cite a Tax Policy Center finding “…that two-thirds of the tax savings would go to the top quintile of households and 1 percent to the lowest quintiles in 2012. In dollar savings, that’s $371,000 for the top 0.1 percent of households in 2012, $958 for the middle and $66 for the poor.”

So we must remember that when politicians (whether they are currently in office or using other visible institutional positions such as Purdue University President Mitch Daniels) warn of the need to “cut entitlements” to reduce “unbridled spending,” and advocate tax cuts, deregulation, and down-sizing government, they ignore the impacts such policies have had on the majority of the population of the country. Think tanks such as the Center of the American Experiment are advocating policies that enhance the wealth and income of the superrich at the expense of the vast majorities.

(Part of this essay appeared in Harry Targ, “The Painful Truth: Capitalism is a Zero-Sum Game,” Diary of a Heartland Radical, September 29, 2013, www.heartlandradical.blogspot. com).

Saturday, October 5, 2013


Harry Targ

The United States marines and small contingents of military personnel from neighboring countries on October 25, 1983 launched a military invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada (121 miles long, 10 miles wide, population 110,000). The Reagan Administration falsely claimed that the invasion was motivated to save 600 American medical students from a possible Iran-style hostage taking and to restore freedom and democracy to the island. 

The invasion by the Reagan administration was a fully-orchestrated media- censored operation without regard for international law, morality, and the safety of the citizens of Grenada.  It occurred at a time when foreign policy elites were concerned that the public was afflicted with the so-called “Vietnam Syndrome.” This “syndrome” referred to the propensity of Americans to oppose further military interventions overseas (much like the clear opposition to U.S. military action against Syria today). 

In addition, the Grenada operation, called “Operation Urgent Fury,” occurred two days after a horrific bombing killed 241 U.S. military personnel in a barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. President Reagan, despite much criticism, had sent U.S. troops to quell the Lebanese civil war and give support to the Israeli army which had invaded its northern neighbor. The Sunday New York Times headline of October 23, 1983 listing preliminary estimates of casualties in bold type declared “Beirut Death Toll at 161 Americans; French Casualties Rise in Bombings; Reagan Insists Marines Will Remain.”

Throughout its history, Grenada was victimized by foreign invaders. The island was originally occupied by the Ciboney Indians and then by the Arawaks. Later Carib Indians established control of the island. Over the centuries islanders were subjected to European invasion--Spain in 1592, the British in 1608, and the French in the 1650s. Grenada was declared a British colony in 1783, and was not “granted” independence until February 7, 1974.

Central to the history of the Caribbean states, the industrial revolution, and the rise of capitalism out of feudalism was the slave trade. The French, who had massacred the Carib Indians, and later the British, brought African slaves to Grenada.  By 1763 Grenada had 82 sugar estates. Slave laborers produced sugar, cotton, and tobacco which was transported to Europe for processing, and then for sale on the European continent, Asia, and Africa. Slavery, which brought 9.5 million kidnapped Africans to the Western Hemisphere, was a system of forced labor that generated profits for European imperial powers.

During the twentieth century, 20 years before formal independence, Grenadian politics was dominated by a charismatic and corrupt politician, Eric Gairy. He collaborated with the small class of domestic elites as well as foreigners to push back against workers and peasants who opposed economic exploitation and British colonialism in general. After independence in 1974, Gairy continued to rule the island with an iron hand. Health care, education, and public services worsened during the Gairy years after independence while personal corruption was rampant.

As independence approached, a political party, known as the New Jewel Movement emerged. Led by Maurice Bishop, a charismatic figure, the party called for policies that would focus on the enormous problems workers and peasants faced. The New Jewel Movement seized power in a bloodless coup in 1979, five years after independence. Maurice Bishop then began to plant the seeds of a modern mixed economy, including state and private sectors and a newly created cooperative sector. 

The public sector revitalized the 30 state farms that were stagnant during Gairy’s rule. The government opened agro-processing plants, created a state fishing and fish-processing industry, built a public component in the vital tourist industry, and established public banking institutions to provide loans for small farmers, owners of small businesses, and fishermen. The public sector thus served as a stimulus to the private sector. In addition, the cooperative sector, in farm inputs and marketing, was designed to appeal to the community spirit characteristic of Grenadian culture.

In other actions, the government instituted a literacy campaign, popular education particularly in mathematics, and English and Grenadian history. Teacher retraining programs upgraded the largely unskilled corps of teachers. Education from primary grades to college became free. Also in 1980, the Grenadian government instituted a program of free medical and dental care. Health care delivery systems were decentralized prioritizing programs of preventive medicine and nationwide sanitation campaigns to combat communicable diseases.

In the political process, the New Jewel Movement created local bodies for popular participation in politics. Parish Councils were further decentralized into smaller “Zonal Council” meetings. The National Women’s Organization and the National Youth Organization were created to articulate political interests parallel to existing organizations for labor and farmers. Particular programs were instituted to redress the historic inequalities between men and women. The Grenadian government placed significant numbers of women in key decision-making positions and hoped to expand political representation of women in policy-making positions.

The U.S. government during both Carter and Reagan administrations opposed the Bishop government because some of the technical assistance it received came from Cuba and the Soviet Union. Cuban work on the expansion of the country’s major airport to facilitate tourism was particularly controversial even though the largest share of its financing came from the British.

In October, 1981, the U.S. government held massive military maneuvers in the Caribbean simulating an invasion of a small enemy country holding Americans hostage. In addition, the United States opposed International Monetary Fund and World Bank aid to Grenada and organized Eastern Caribbean island-states to oppose the dangers that Grenadian democracy and economic change represented. 

Unfortunately, two weeks before the Reagan invasion of Grenada, a faction of the New Jewel Movement ousted Maurice Bishop from power .In the midst of a heated battle within the leadership, Bishop and several of his colleagues were tragically killed. By most accounts at the time, the factional dispute was self-destructive and the outcome was contrary to the wishes of the masses of the Grenadian people who applauded the new economic policies and participatory democracy the government had put in place since 1979. Bishop, himself, was a revered leader among his people who also had close ties with members of the Congressional Black Caucus in the United States Congress. 

Despite the foolhardy policies of the anti-Bishop faction of New Jewel, there was every reason to believe that, despite the factional disputes, the policies that New Jewel had initiated would have continued. But the Reagan administration used the domestic turmoil in Grenada as an excuse to invade the island, depose the New Jewel party from power, abolish all the economic and political changes carried out between 1979 and 1983, arrest Cuban airport construction workers, and put in place a neo-colonial government that would reverse the policy trends toward grassroots democracy and human need fulfillment that had been gaining popularity, not only in Grenada but around the Caribbean and Central America. In the months following the invasion, the United States expunged every vestige of progressive institutions and policies installed by Maurice Bishop’s New Jewel Movement.

The marine invasion of tiny Grenada constituted a guaranteed military victory and over the years would lead to a decline in Americans’ reluctance to send more troops overseas. And the invasion of Grenada took the tragedy of 241 marines killed by a terrorist attack in Beirut, Lebanon off the front pages. 

Thirty years ago the United States joined the Spanish, French, and British as the latest colonial power to determine the destiny of the Grenadian people. At the same time, and despite remaining skepticism, the Grenada invasion put the United States back on the path toward military interventionism around the world.