Accurately Characterising the Cold War

The Cold War was not a struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union.
By William Blum

03/05/07 “ICH” — — It was a struggle between the United States and the Third World. What there was, was people all over the Third World fighting for economic and political changes against US-supported repressive regimes, or setting up their own progressive governments. These acts of self-determination didn’t coincide with the needs of the American power elite, and so the United States moved to crush those governments and movements even though the Soviet Union was playing virtually no role at all in these scenarios. (It is remarkable the number of people who make fun of conspiracy theories but who accepted without question the existence of an International Communist Conspiracy.)

Washington officials of course couldn’t say that they were intervening to block economic or political change, so they called it “fighting communism”, fighting a communist conspiracy, fighting for freedom and democracy.

I’m reminded of all this because of a recent article in the Washington Post about El Salvador. It concerned two men who had been on opposite sides in the civil war of 1980-1992. One was José Salgado, who had been a government soldier, and is now the mayor of San Miguel, El Salvador’s second-largest city.

Salgado enthusiastically embraced the scorched-earth tactics of his army bosses, the Post reports, even massacres of children, the elderly, the sick — entire villages. It was all in the name of beating back communism, Salgado says he remembers being told. But he’s now haunted by doubts about what he saw, what he did, and even why he fought. A US-backed war that was defined at the time as a battle against communism is now seen by former government soldiers and former guerrillas as less a conflict about ideology and more a battle over poverty and basic human rights.

“We soldiers were tricked,” says Salgado. “They told us the threat was communism. But I look back and realize those weren’t communists out there that we were fighting — we were just poor country people killing poor country people.”

Salgado says he once thought that the guerrillas dreamed of communism, but now that those same men are his colleagues in business and politics, he is learning that they wanted what he wanted: prosperity, a chance to move up in the world, freedom from repression.

All of which makes what they see around them today even more heartbreaking and frustrating. For all their sacrifices, El Salvador is still among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere — more than 40 percent of Salvadorans live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations. The country is still racked by violence, still scarred by corruption. For some the question remains: Was it all worth it?

“We gave our blood, we killed our friends and, in the end, things are still bad,” says Salgado. “Look at all this poverty, and look how the wealth is concentrated in just a few hands.”

The guerrillas Salgado once fought live with the same doubts. Former guerrilla Benito Argueta laments that the future didn’t turn out as he’d hoped. Even though some factions of the coalition of guerrilla armies that fought in the civil war were Marxist, he said, ideology had nothing to do with his decision to take up arms and leave the farm where his father earned only a few colones for backbreaking work. Nor did ideology play a role in motivating his friends in the People’s Revolutionary Army. He remembers fighting “for a piece of land, for the chance that my children might someday get to go to the university.”[1]

The Salvadoran government could never have waged the war as destructively and for as long as it did without a massive influx of military aid and training from Washington — estimated value: six billion dollars; 75,000 Salvadorans dead; about 20 Americans killed or wounded in combat; dissidents today still have to fear right-wing death squads; scarcely any significant social change in El Salvador; the poor remain as ever; a small class of the wealthy still own the country. But never mind. “Communism” was defeated, and El Salvador remains a loyal member of the empire, sending troops to Iraq.[2]

This is not merely of historical interest. A civil war still rages in Colombia. Government soldiers and large numbers of right-wing paramilitary forces, with indispensable and endless military support from the United States, battle “communism”, year after year, decade after decade. The casualties long ago exceeded El Salvador. The irony is monumental, for of those labeled “communist”, a handful of the older ones may have fancied themselves as heirs to Che Guevara 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, but for a long time now the primary motivation of these “left-wing” paramilitary forces has been profits from drugs and kidnapings, obtaining revenge for their comrades’ deaths, and staying alive and avoiding capture. Someday the survivors on both sides may well be expressing sentiments and regrets similar to the Salvadorans above, wondering what the hell it was all really about, or at least wondering what the United States’s obsessive interest in their country was. (For those who may have forgotten, it should be noted that the Soviet Union has not existed since 1991.)

And someday, as well, survivors on all sides of Washington’s “War on Terrorism”, may wonder who the real terrorists were.

Read all of it here.

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