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Posts Tagged ‘Greg Grandin’

War Without Reason

Henry Kissinger dismissed facts and data in favor of grandiose notions of moral power.

Jacobin  September 14, 2015
Henry Kissinger at an April 1975 news conference on the evacuation of Americans and others from Saigon.

Henry Kissinger at an April 1975 news conference on the evacuation of Americans and others from Saigon.

Greg Grandin is a professor of history at New York University and the author of many books, including Kissinger’s Shadow: The Long Reach of America’s Most Controversial Statesman, from which the following is adapted.

The ferocity with which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger bombed Cambodia, along with the desire to inflict extreme pain on North Vietnam, had a number of motivations. Some were explicit — to wring concessions out of Hanoi; to disrupt the National Liberation Front’s supply and command-and-control lines — and others implicit — to best bureaucratic rivals; to look tough and prove loyalty; to appease the Right.

“Savage was a word that was used again and again” in discussing what needed to be done in Southeast Asia, recalled one of Kissinger’s aides, “a savage unremitting blow on North Vietnam to bring them around.”

But there’s another way to think about the savagery, along with the wild, off-the-books way their air assault was carried out.

Everything about the secret operation seemed to be a reaction to the man Kissinger identified as the ultimate technocrat: Kennedy’s and Johnson’s secretary of defense, Robert McNamara. In office from 1961 to 1968, McNamara is famous for imposing on the Pentagon the same integrated system of statistical analysis he had, in the previous decade, used to rescue the Ford Motor Company.

“McNamara’s revolution” continued reforms that had been underway since World War II, but in a much more intensified and accelerated fashion. McNamara’s “whiz kids” sought to subordinate every aspect of defense policy — its lumbering bureaucracy, its cornucopia budget for equipment appropriation, its doctrine, tactics, chains of command, its supply logistics and battlefield maneuvers — to the abstract logic of economic modeling. Intangibles that couldn’t be graphed or coded into an economic model — will, ideology, culture, tradition, history — were disregarded. McNamara even tried, without success, to impose a single, standard uniform on all the different branches of the armed services.

As might be expected, such efforts to achieve “cost effectiveness” greatly expanded paperwork. Every operational detail was recorded so that, back in DC, teams of economists and accountants could figure out new opportunities for further rationalization. Finance and budget came under special scrutiny; among McNamara’s early major reforms was to “develop some means of presenting” the Pentagon’s “costs of operation in mission terms.” What this meant for the Strategic Air Command is that every gallon of fuel was accounted for, every flight hour recorded, every spare part used, along with every bomb dropped.

Kissinger’s plans to bomb Cambodia — plans worked out with Air Force colonel Ray Sitton, who was also skeptical of McNamara’s methods — weren’t quite the antithesis of McNamarian bureaucracy. They were more a shadow version, or perversion, of that bureaucracy.

According to Sitton, Kissinger approved a highly elaborate deception to circumvent “the Strategic Air Command’s normal command and control system — highly classified in itself — which monitors for budgetary requirements such items as fuel usage and bomb tonnage deployed.” A “duel reporting system” was established; briefings of pilots focused exclusively on objectives inside South Vietnam, but once in the air, radar sites would redirect a certain number of planes to their real destination in Cambodia. All documentation — maps, computer printouts, messages, and so on — that might reveal the true targets was burned.

“Every piece of paper, including the scratch paper, the paper that one of our computers might have done some figuring on, every piece of scrap paper was gathered up,” Maj. Hal Knight, who carried out the falsification on the ground in South Vietnam, testified to Congress in 1973: “I would wait until daylight, and as soon as that time came, I would go out and burn that.”

For Kissinger and the other men who bombed Cambodia for four years, this was a way of subverting the soulless enervation of “systems analysis,” of taking war out of the hands of bureaucrats and giving it back to the warriors.

Kissinger was much more aware of the philosophical foundation of his positions than most other postwar defense intellectuals. Yet, what is more important, at least in terms of understanding the evolution of the national security state, is how his critique reflects a deeper current in American history.

The idea that spirit and intuition need to be restored to a society that had become “overcivilized” and “overrationalized,” too dependent on logic, instruments, information, and mathematics, has a pedigree reaching back at least to the late 1800s. “Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum,” said Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a 1911 Harvard address (quoted by Kissinger in his undergraduate thesis).

Throughout the twentieth century, and into the twenty-first, every generation seemed to throw up a new cohort of “declinists,” militarists who warn about the establishment’s supposed overreliance on data and expertise, complain about the caution generated by too much bureaucracy, protest the enervation that results from too much information. The solution to such lassitude is, inevitably, more war, or at least more of a willingness to wage war, which often leads to war.

Kissinger, in the 1950s and 1960s was part of one such cohort, contributing to the era’s right-wing lurch in defense thinking, the idea that we needed to fight little wars in gray areas with resolve. In the mid-1970s, ironically, he himself was a primary target of just such a critique, at the hands of Ronald Reagan and the first generation of neoconservatives.

But before we get to that irony, there’s another worth considering: the role that one of Robert McNamara’s left-behinds, the economist Daniel Ellsberg — a man who liked to do his sums, whose understanding of the way the world worked was so diametrically opposed to Henry Kissinger’s metaphysics that he might be thought of as an anti-Kissinger — had in bringing down the Nixon White House.


Henry Kissinger and Daniel Ellsberg did their undergraduate and graduate studies at Harvard around the same time, both young veterans on scholarship and both brilliant and precocious. And it was Ellsberg, stationed in the US embassy in Saigon, who briefed Kissinger during his first visit to South Vietnam.

Like Kissinger, Ellsberg was interested in the question of contingency and choice in human affairs. But Ellsberg approached the subject as an economist, going on to do groundbreaking work in game theory and abstract modeling. Focused on atomized individuals engaged in a series of rational cost-benefit transactions aimed to maximize their advantage, these methods were far removed from Kissinger’s metaphysical approach to history, ideas, and culture.

Kissinger, in fact, had Ellsberg’s kind of methodology in mind when he criticized, in his undergraduate thesis, the smallness of American social science and the conceits of “positivism,” the idea that truth or wisdom could be derived from logical postulates or mathematical formulas.

Ellsberg spoke the language of axioms, theorems, and proofs, and believed that sentences like this could help defense strategists plan for nuclear war:

For any given probability distribution, the probability of outcome a with action III is p(A ∪ C) = PA + PC. The probability of outcome a with action IV is p (B ∪ C) = PB + PC. . . . . This means there must be a probability distribution, PAPB PC (0 ≤ pi ≤ p ∑ pi = 1), such that PA > PB and PA + PC < PB +PC. But there is none.

In contrast, Kissinger the metaphysician, wrote things like:

It does not suffice to show logically deduced theorems, as an absolute test of validity. There must also exist a relation to the pervasiveness of an inward experience which transcends phenomenal reality. For though man is a thinking being, it does not follow that his being exhausts itself in thinking. . . . the microcosm contains tension and polarity, the loneliness of the individual in a world of strange significances, in which the total inner meaning of others remains an eternal riddle. Rhythm and tension, longing and fear, characterize the relationship of the microcosm to the macrocosm.

The clash between these two ways of thinking about human experience would play themselves out in the first few months of Kissinger’s tenure as Nixon’s national security adviser.

Shortly before Nixon’s inauguration, Ellsberg, in a meeting with Kissinger at the president-elect’s headquarters at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan, offered some advice. He related a story of how Robert McNamara, soon after being named secretary of defense, shook up the bureaucracy by immediately flooding Pentagon officers and staff with written questions. The answers he received weren’t important. McNamara was merely establishing his dominance.

Ellsberg suggested Kissinger do something similar: draft questions on controversial issues and send them out to the whole bureaucracy, to every agency and office. The agency principally responsible for any given subject, Ellsberg predicted, would have one opinion on the matter, and secondary agencies would have another, and the difference between the two opinions would provide a useful map of the ambiguities, doubts, and uncertainties that existed in the bureaucracy.

But, Ellsberg said, there was another, more Machiavellian reason to conduct the survey. The “very revelation of controversies and the extremely unconvincing positions of some of the primary agencies,” he said, “would be embarrassing to the bureaucracy as a whole. It would put the bureaucrats off-balance and on the defensive relative to the source of the questions — that is, Kissinger.”

“Kissinger,” Ellsberg remembered, “liked the sound of that.”

The questions, as Ellsberg predicted, prompted a backlash. Soon a counterproposal for reorganizing the NSC around the State Department began to float around, which allowed Kissinger to identify potential rivals. The proposal was quashed and its authors were sidelined.

That first stage of the exercise worked well for Kissinger. The next, not so much.

Kissinger had asked Ellsberg to collate, analyze, and average the responses to the questions related to the Vietnam War, over five hundred pages in total. The gloom revealed by the survey was astounding.

Even those hawks “optimistic” about the pacification of Vietnam thought that it would take, on average, 8.3 years to achieve success. All respondents agreed that the “enemy’s manpower pool and infiltration capabilities can outlast allied attrition efforts indefinitely” and that nothing short of perpetual troops and bombing could save South Vietnam.

When the findings were presented to Kissinger, he must have immediately recognized the trap he had fallen into. For all his warnings about how the “accumulation of facts” by technocrats like Ellsberg has the effect of sapping political will, Kissinger had foolishly given him free rein to, in effect, data mine the bureaucracy, providing him with hard evidence that the majority of the foreign service thought the war either was unwinnable or could be won only with actions that were politically impossible: permanent occupation or total obliteration.


Kissinger was the statesman, Ellsberg the expert. And according to Kissinger’s worldview, Ellsberg shouldn’t have existed, or at least he shouldn’t have done what he did.

Ellsberg was what Kissinger in his undergraduate thesis called a “fact-man.” His faith in data, his belief that he could capture the vagaries of human behavior in mathematical codes and then use those codes to make decisions, should have led him to a state of, if not paralysis, then predictability.

Kissinger would later boast about the difference between statesmen and experts, writing “the scope of the statesman’s conception challenges the inclination of the expert toward minimum risk.” But it was Ellsberg who was speaking out against the war and then leaking top-secret documents, taking a tremendous risk, including the possibility of imprisonment. And with this one audacious act, he changed the course of history.

The difference between Ellsberg and Kissinger is illustrated by the Pentagon Papers themselves. The “major lesson” offered by the massive study, Ellsberg thought, “was that each person repeated the same patterns in decision making and pretty much the same policy as his predecessor without even knowing it,” thinking that “history had started with his administration, and had nothing to learn from earlier ones.” Ellsberg, the economist, believed that breaking down history into discrete pieces and studying the decision making process, including the consequences of those decisions, provided a chance to break the destructive pattern.

But when Ellsberg tried, in their last meeting before leaking the documents, to get Kissinger to read the papers, Kissinger brushed him off.

“Do we really have anything to learn from this study?” he asked Ellsberg, wearily. “My heart sank,” recalls Ellsberg.


On Monday, June 14, 1971, the day after the New York Times published its first story on the papers, Kissinger exploded. He waved his arms, stomped his feet, and pounded his hands on a Chippendale table, shouting: “This will totally destroy American credibility forever. . . . It will destroy our ability to conduct foreign policy in confidence. . . . No foreign government will ever trust us again.”

The Pentagon Papers were a bureaucratic history of America’s involvement in Southeast Asia up until Johnson’s presidency. There was nothing specifically damaging to Nixon. But it was Kissinger’s “fury” that convinced Nixon to take the matter seriously. “Without Henry’s stimulus,” John Ehrlichman said, “the president and the rest of us might have concluded that the Papers were Lyndon Johnson’s problem, not ours.”

Why? The leak was bad for Kissinger in a number of ways. He was just then negotiating with China to reestablish relations and was afraid the scandal might sabotage those talks. He feared that Ellsberg, working with other dissenters on the NSC staff, might have breached the closed informational circuit that he had worked hard to establish, perhaps even acquiring classified memos on Cambodia.

Also, on a more abstract level, the Pentagon Papers really were something conjured out of Kissinger’s worst anti-bureaucratic fever dream. The project was a huge endeavor, written by an anonymous committee staffed by scores of what Robert McNamara called “knowledgeable people” drawn from the mid-level defense bureaucracy, universities, and social science think tanks.

Headed by two “experts,” Morton Halperin and Leslie Gelb, the committee based its findings on the massive amount of paperwork produced by various departments and agencies over the years — what Kissinger in his undergraduate thesis dismissed as the “surface data” of history. Missing, therefore, from its conclusions was what the young Kissinger would have described as the immanent possibility, the contingency, the intuition, and “freedom” that went into every decision point.

But Kissinger’s rage was also as much about the leaker as about the leak, obvious in the way he swung between awe and agitation when describing Ellsberg to his coconspirators, as almost Promethean in his intellect and appetites. “Curse that son of a bitch, I know him well,” he began one Oval Office meeting.

Kissinger keyed his performance to stir up Nixon’s varied resentments, depicting Ellsberg as some kind of liberal and hedonisticsuperman — smart, subversive, promiscuous, perverse, and privileged: “He’s now married a very rich girl,” Kissinger told Nixon. “Nixon was fascinated,” Ehrlichman said. “Henry got Nixon cranked up,” Haldeman remembered, “and then they started cranking each other up until they both were in a frenzy.” “Kissinger,” he said, “was absolutely infuriated and, in his inimitable fashion, managed to beat the president into an equal froth of fury.” Alexander Haig said that Kissinger, “did drive the president’s concern” about the leak.

It was in the meeting where Kissinger gave his most detailed denunciation of Ellsberg that Nixon ordered a series of illegal covert operations, putting Nixon on the road to ruin. These included the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel and the burglary of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office in California, hoping to find information that could be used to “discredit his character.”

“He’s nuts, isn’t he?” Haldeman asked Kissinger, about Ellsberg, in one of their meetings.

“He’s nuts,” Kissinger answered.


For what must have been for him a long year, between mid-1973 and mid-1974, it seemed Henry Kissinger, now holding the position of both national security adviser and secretary of state, was going down with Richard Nixon, along with his top aides.

Kissinger almost got caught on Cambodia, when Maj. Hal Knight sent a whistle-blowing letter to Senator William Proxmire informing him of his falsification of records. The Senate Armed Services Committee held hearings through the middle of 1973, and Seymour Hersh came very close to establishing Kissinger’s involvement in setting up the dual record reporting system. Hersh couldn’t confirm Kissinger’s role (he would at a later date) but that didn’t let Kissinger off the hook.

In June 1974, Hersh widened the net, filing stories fingering Kissinger for the first round of illegal wiretaps the White House set up, done in the spring of 1969 to keep the Cambodia bombing secret. Reporters, senators, and representatives were circling, asking questions, digging up more information, issuing subpoenas.

Landing in Austria, en route to the Middle East, and finding that the press had run more unflattering stories and editorials, Kissinger took a gamble. He held an impromptu press conference and threatened to resign (this was June 11, less than two months before Nixon’s resignation). It was by all accounts a bravura turn. “When the record is written,” he said, seemingly on the verge of tears, “one may remember that perhaps some lives were saved and perhaps some mothers can rest more at ease, but I leave that to history. What I will not leave to history is a discussion of my public honor.”

The bet worked. The press gushed. He “seemed totally authentic,”New York Magazine wrote. As if in recoil from the unexpected assertiveness they had shown in recent years, reporters and news anchors rallied around. The rest of the White House was being revealed to be little more than a bunch of shady two-bit thugs, but Kissinger was someone America could believe in.

“We were half-convinced,” Ted Koppel said in a documentary in 1974, just after Kissinger’s threatened resignation, “that nothing was beyond the capacity of this remarkable man.” The secretary of state was a “legend, the most admired man in America, the magician, the miracle worker.”

Kissinger, Koppel said, “may be the best thing we’ve got going for us.”

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Allende, the Third World, and Neoliberal Imperialism

Chris Dietrich

Imperial & Global Forum June 18, 2014

allende“Allende was assassinated for nationalizing the . . . wealth of Chilean subsoil,” Pablo Neruda wrote on September 14, 1973. Neruda was lamenting the overthrow and death of his friend, Chilean President Salvador Allende, a week before he himself succumbed to cancer.  “From the salt-peter deserts, the underwater coal mines, and the terrible heights where copper is extracted through inhuman work by the hands of my people, a liberating movement of great magnitude arose,” he continued.  “This movement led a man named Salvador Allende to the presidency of Chile, to undertake reforms and measures of justice that could not be postponed, to rescue our national wealth from foreign clutches.”  Unfortunately, Allende’s flirtation with economic nationalization ran up against the country’s multinational business interests, particularly those that had support from the U.S. government. His socialist reforms were also ill timed; the U.S. government’s ideological view towards the global economy tended towards the Manichean.

So what was the American role in Allende’s overthrow?

The Chilean coup, as such a vivid moment of crisis, continues to occupy a murky and ambiguous position on the moving line that divides the past and the present. And owing to the release of new material, the episode has received a good deal of renewed coverage in the past half-decade. In particular, the recent publication of volumes on U.S. foreign policy toward Chile between 1969 and 1973 by the Historian’s Office of the U.S. State Department and the National Security Archive at George Washington University have led to a flurry of new studies.

CIA2Earlier this month, self-described CIA “spymaster” Jack Devine stirred the pot again with a Foreign Affairs article entitled “What Really Happened in Chile.” Based on his personal experience in Chile at the time, Devine explains “how the U.S. government learned of the coup in Chile” only two days before it happened. Although admitting that the CIA supported an earlier coup attempt against Allende in 1970, Devine takes great pains to shift the blame away from Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. He instead argues that the U.S. government did not plot with the Chilean military in the successful overthrow of Allende; what the U.S. government did do was attempt to reduce support for Allende and exacerbate the political opposition he already faced “from not only the wealthy but the middle and working classes as well.” Accusations that the Nixon administration played a greater role, Devine concludes, do little more than “muddy the waters.”

In this interpretation, Devine follows the likes of historian Mark Falcoff, Nixon’s secretary of state, William Rogers, and Kissinger himself, who have sought to exculpate the Nixon administration. Duke University professor Hal Brands controversially expanded upon this line of argument in Latin America’s Cold War in 2012. If a major historical trend in the past generation has been an emphasis on agency from below, Brands asks, why haven’t historians sought interpretations of Latin American insecurity and violence that move U.S. foreign policy from the center to the periphery of analysis? In other words, shouldn’t Latin American leaders be held accountable for their own actions in their own nations? In this reading, left-wing extremism led to right-wing extremism, or vice-versa, in a vicious circle. Both were part of “a larger cycle of radicalism and reaction” that was largely indigenous.

But others have found damning evidence that points to a more important role for the Nixon administration.   Most vocal among them is Peter Kornbluh, who in 2013 released a revised edition of his award-winning book, The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability. Kornbluh has long held that the policies of Henry Kissinger made a singular contribution “to the denouement of democracy and rise of dictatorship in Chile.”  In particular, Kissinger spearheaded a Nixon administration campaign that fed money to opposition groups in politics and civil society, escalated aid to the military, financed dissenting journals and newspapers, and advocated other policies designed to weaken the government. In making these claims about immorality and interventionism, Kornbluh is joined by historians Stephen Rabe, Jonathan Haslam, Kristian Gustafson, Lubna Qureshi, the journalist Stephen Kinzer, and most famously, the late leftist intellectual Christopher Hitchens.

harmer allendeNevertheless, the story is more complicated than what London School of Economics historian Tanya Harmer calls “the blame-game.”   In her authoritative 2012 international history of the coup, Allende’s Chile and the Inter-American Cold War, she asks the crucial question: If not directly responsible for the events of September 1973, what role did the United States play? The answer Harmer provides suggests that the Nixon administration decided to undertake close consultation with like-minded governments in South America, in particular Brazil, to coordinate efforts to not only oppose Allende but also to improve the relations with friendly military leaders in the hemisphere. Like Kornbluh, Harmer argues that the United States helped frame and apply a campaign to subvert Allende’s government from the moment of his election. But Kissinger and Nixon did not direct events. Rather, they worked closely with the military regime of General Emílio Garrastazu Médici in Brazil, who became the most powerful campaigner for regime change in Chile. At the same time, disagreements between Allende and Cuban president Fidel Castro pointed to a great degree of variation in leftist policies in the region.

Transforming the Third World Economic Order

Harmer thus explores what New York University historian Greg Grandin has called “a metaphysics of Allende-hating” in terms of an inter-American Cold War of many itineraries. For Grandin, though, the driving cause of the Nixon administration’s concern about Chile built upon, and went beyond, standard Cold War arguments of “national security and economics.”  He is right, but divergent understandings of the past and future of the global economy drove that metaphysics.  In other words, the problem was not that Allende was an avowed Marxist or even that he pushed through a constitutional amendment nationalizing the huge copper investments of Cerro, Anaconda, and Kennecott on July 16, 1971.  Nor was it the threat that a socialist Chile, along with new nationalist governments in Bolivia and Peru, would provide a toe-hold for Cuba and the Soviet Union in the region.  (In fact, the intransigence the White House felt towards Chile contrasted markedly with the easing of relations with the Soviet Union and the opening up of China at the same time.)

Nixon and Kissinger were less concerned about those problems than about the example Allende would set in Latin America and beyond. “Everyone agrees,” Kissinger wrote in 1969, that Allende would seek a socialist and Marxist state that would line up ideologically and politically with the USSR and Cuba.  The consolidation of Allende in power would thus “pose some very serious threats to our interests and position in the hemisphere and . . . elsewhere in the world.”  Nixon felt the same way. “Our main concern,” he told the National Security Council on November 5, 1970, “is the prospect that he can consolidate himself and the picture projected to the world will be his success.”

More than anything, these quotes remind us that the stakes of Allende’s success or failure were global.  Actors in Chile certainly took on a perspective that looked beyond their borders.  One of Allende’s spokesmen recalled the recent “liquidation of the left in Indonesia” to dramatize the danger of counterrevolution.  Allende himself became a vocal proponent of the Third World’s broader challenge to the international economy, which was directed through the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the Group of 77, and the Non-Aligned Movement.  Since the end of the Second World War, groups from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa had discussed the problem of imperial continuity in the international economy.

Theirs was a widely shared moral and political stance of concise logic; decolonization entailed more than political independence from a colonial master, and nowhere did imperial power exert itself with greater vigor than in the material worlds of law and economics.  This Third World challenge also held a particular policy prescription designed to end economic domination — if the “poor lands” remained ensconced in the shadow of empire, the use of national legal power offered an escape. In this context, the CIA reported in January 1969, “further steps toward greater government participation in or even outright nationalization of” the holdings of multinational corporations in Chile were “inevitable.”

Based on the guiding principal of permanent sovereignty, advanced in the previous two decades as part of a new international law in the UN General Assembly and Economic and Social Council, developing nations held the right to “rebalance” the international economy. Upon nationalizing the major copper mines in Chile, Allende pushed to host the third ministerial meeting of the UN Conference on Trade and Development in 1972.  When he gave a stirring address welcoming the diplomats to Santiago, he was followed to the podium by Raúl Prebisch, who by that time was considered the father of the Third World critique of global economic inequality.  Prebisch thanked Allende for hosting the conference, and began his speech.  The joint problem of the poor nations was “above all to achieve sovereignty in a full sense,” he said.  The poor nations needed “to establish it on solid foundations and then pass from the present relationship of dependence—which is unacceptable in the light of the political maturity of our peoples—to interdependent relationships which involve new forms of cooperation.”

One can see the thrust of this position in any number of the meetings that preceded the 1974 UN Declaration of a New International Economic Order, which was the culmination of the Third Worldist program of “economic emancipation.”  For example, the 59 foreign ministers of the Non-Aligned Movement regrouped in Guyana months after the Santiago meeting.   There, they signed the 1972 Georgetown Declaration, which gave  “full support” to Allende and other leaders that “in the exercise of their sovereign rights over the natural resources of their countries [had] nationalized the interests of powerful foreign monopolies.”  As in Santiago, the ministers turned directly to the expression of sovereignty as a legitimate and moral international stance.  “[I]t is fundamentally important to stress that the full exercise of their sovereignty over natural resources is essential for economic independence,” the foreign ministers wrote.  Moreover, economic emancipation was “closely linked to political independence, and that the latter is consolidated by strengthening the former.”

If the imperial past required correction, there was clearly space within that argument for more nuanced, less dialectical national policies.  For example, Allende did not see the July 16, 1971 constitutional amendment nationalizing Chilean copper investments as contradictory to his stated policy of utilizing access to investment capital in the “Western financial system” to develop the national economy.

In fact, U.S. Ambassador Edward M. Korry had negotiated with Allende and other government leaders a compromise by which the Constitutional Amendment was modified to provide compensation to the affected multinational companies.  (To the great ire of Korry, the Nixon administration, and corporate executives, Allende deftly used the compromise to insist that “excess profits” from the past be deducted from the settlement.)

At the same time, Allende had already concluded sales agreements for nationalized copper with other multinational corporations, including RCA, Bethlehem Steel, and Bank of America.  What the State Department called the “Chilean propaganda attack” on two firms, Anaconda and Kennecott, was thus more of an attempt to isolate the larger and more controversial businesses from other U.S. investors than to attack foreign capital investment writ large.

Linking Neoliberalism to Its Imperial Past

But the position linking global capitalism to the imperial past remained widespread, and not only among Allende, Prebisch, and other leaders of the developing world.  In 1973, two special subcommittees of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, both headed by Idaho senator Frank Church, began investigations of multinational corporations, intelligence activities, and U.S. foreign policy.  Although U.S. involvement in Chile was only one subject of the investigations, the reports condemned the Nixon administration for using the powerful position of U.S. firms in Chile to “make the economy scream” during Allende’s period as president.

Such outbursts of outrage were relatively scarce, though.  Most actors in the United States and Western Europe recoiled at the Third World demands for a New International Economic Order in 1974 and after, and warned that “economic emancipation” would further disrupt a fragile global economy, which already stood on shaky foundations in the early 1970s because of skyrocketing oil prices, runaway inflation, and the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system.  Above all, nationalization programs like Chile’s were viewed as serious hindrances to private capital flows.

The gravitas of that ideological battle was dramatized in a 1972 conversation between Allende and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, George Herbert Walker Bush, who sought to set Allende straight regarding recent public statements in which he labelled U.S. foreign policy imperialist.  “I told him that we did not consider ourselves “imperialists,” Bush reported.

[T]hat we did not recognize that people were correctly identifying us when we were termed imperialists, and that we still had a deep conviction that our free enterprise system was not selfish but was the best system—certainly for us, though we had no intention to insist on it for others. And when it went abroad it did not “bleed” other people.”

When Allende responded that his speeches had clearly differentiated “between the government of the United States, the people of the United States, and multinational corporations,” Bush had an easy answer: “because of our deep conviction in the free enterprise system, the people, the government, and the system were all interlocked.” 

That was exactly the implication that Neruda and a generation of Third World intellectuals were left with after the 1973 coup.  A month later, an “energy crisis” gave multinational companies and their supporters in the U.S. government an opening to exploit the convergence that Bush described.  When the oil producers also invoked the international law of sovereignty as a means to legitimize their four-fold increase in the global price of oil, the response was ready-made. 

Neoliberal diplomacy, in particular U.S. government protection of foreign investments, became the basis of a new foreign policy for the 1970s and beyond.  

Nowhere was that neoliberal policy more evident than in Chile, where Milton Friedman’s “Los Chicago Boys” applied a series of policies designed to “open up” the Chilean market.  At the same time, the United States strengthened the new military regime of Augusto Pinochet, providing both economic and military support.

General Pinochet meeting with Milton Friedman.

General Pinochet meeting with Milton Friedman.

Whether or not the neoliberal policies of Chile promoted development or, more broadly, societal well-being is an open question.  It is certain, though, that the Chilean trajectory gave credence to a generation of critics who would link U.S. foreign policy and the “free-market” basis of contemporary globalization to the concept of imperialism.

The World Peace Council, meeting in the newly independent nation of Guinea Bissau, saw the connection in 1975.  Not only had the U.S. Gulf Oil Corporation financed the founding of a separatist organization that challenged the government.  It was also “significant” that members of the Brazilian “Death Squad,” who the Peace Council believed were involved in the “CIA-engineered overthrow of the Allende Government,” have been spotted in Pinochet’s Chile.  Algerian president Houari Boumedienne called the rise of Pinochet “a tragic scene,” part of a longer-running “imperialist plot…stirred up through the multinational companies.”

For the Algerian jurist Mohammed Bedjaoui, a long-time civil servant at the United Nations and the International Court of Justice, the lesson was more optimistic, but only slightly so.  The acts of men like Allende, and the broad movement they represented, had deprived imperialism of legitimacy for all time.  “[T]he major revolution of our time that began with decolonization” had not ended, he wrote in a 1976 tract on the Non-Aligned Movement and international law, funded by the Carnegie Foundation. The process of self-assertion, begun in the United Nations and continued in the Non-Aligned Movement and elsewhere, instead was a first step that “enriched the content of cardinal notions like that of sovereignty.” Yet he dedicated the work to Salvador Allende.  The dedication used a phrase coined by Régis Debray in his martyr’s tribute—mort dans sa loi, or “dead by his own law.”  The fall of Allende came not just at the hand of military traitors or multinational corporations, but because of a system of western interests that had a greater meaning.

Voices across the world joined Neruda, Bedjaoui, and Boumedienne in celebrating the sovereignty of Chile, decrying the fall of Allende, and blaming the United States for his overthrow and death. Months later, Gabriel García Márquez wrote that the overthrow may have taken place in Chile “to the greater woe of Chileans, but it will pass into history as something that has happened to us all, children of this age, and it will remain in our lives forever.”

The role of the United States in the coup, as well as its bloody aftermath, remains an important one.  But the findings will do little to overthrow Allende’s global Third World legacy, especially in an era in which market-based national economic policies remain prominent in the global economic system.

Chris Dietrich is Assistant Professor of History at Fordham University. His first book monograph analyzes the rise and fall of anti-colonial law and economics in the twentieth century. His second project is a psychoanalysis of American neoliberalism in the 1970s and 1980s.

Follow on Twitter @C_R_W_Dietrich

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Herman Melville contó las dos caras del Imperio Americano, por Greg Grandin
27 enero, 2014

Un capitán listo a conducir a la ruina a todos a su alrededor en pos de cazar una ballena blanca. Es una historia bien conocida y, a lo largo del tiempo, el loco Ahab de la más famosa novela de Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, ha sido utilizado como ejemplo del poder norteamericano desatado –más recientemente, la desastrosa invasión de Irak por George W. Bush.

Pero lo realmente aterrador no son nuestros Ahabs, los halcones que periódicamente quieren bombardear algún país pobre, sea Vietnam o Afganistán, hasta regresarlos a la Edad de Piedra. Es el arquetipo respetable el verdadero “terror de nuestra era”, como Noam Chomsky bautizó colectivamente a esa categoría social hace casi medio siglo. Los personajes realmente temibles son nuestros más sobrios políticos, académicos, periodistas, profesionales y gerentes, hombres y mujeres (aunque en su mayoría hombres) que se ven como moralmente serios y luego permiten las guerras, devastan el planeta y racionalizan las atrocidades. Son un tipo social que ha estado con nosotros durante largo tiempo. Más de un siglo y medio atrás, Melville, que tenía un capitán para cada rostro del imperio, encontró su perfecta expresión –para su momento y el nuestro.

Durante los últimos seis años, he estado investigando la vida de un matador de focas norteamericano, un capitán de navío llamado Amasa Delano que, en la década de 1790, estuvo entre los primeros habitantes de Nueva Inglaterra en navegar al Pacífico Sur. El dinero corría, había muchas focas, y Delano y sus colegas establecieron las primeras colonias no oficiales en las islas que se hallan fuera de la costa chilena. Operaban bajo el comando de un consejo informal de capitanes, dividieron el territorio, aseguraron el pago de deudas, celebraron el cuatro de julio y montaron tribunales ad hoc.  Cuando no había Biblia a mano, las obras completas de William Shakespeare, que se hallaban en las bibliotecas de la mayoría de los barcos, eran utilizadas para tomar juramento.

De su primera expedición, Delano llevó cientos de miles de pieles de foca a China, donde las cambió por especias, cerámicas y té para llevar de regreso a Boston. Durante un segundo y fallido viaje, sin embargo, ocurrió un hecho que haría famoso a Amasa –al menos entre los lectores de la ficción de Herman Melville.

He aquí lo que ocurrió. Un día de febrero de 1805 en el Pacífico Sur, Amasa Delano pasó casi todo el día abordo de un maltratado barco español de esclavos conversando con su capitán, ayudando con las reparaciones y distribuyendo comida y agua a sus pasajeros hambrientos y sedientos, un puñado de españoles y unos setenta hombres y mujeres de África occidental que pensó eran esclavos. No lo eran.

Se habían rebelado semanas antes, matando a la mayoría de la tripulación española junto con el esclavista que los llevaba a Perú para venderlos, y exigían ser regresados a Senegal. Cuando divisaron el barco de Delano, trazaron un plan: permitirle abordar y actuar como si todavía fueran esclavos, ganando tiempo para capturar nave y provisiones. Extraordinariamente, Delano, un experimentado marinero y pariente lejano del futuro presidente Franklin Delano Roosevelt, estuvo convencido durante nueve horas de que estaba en un barco de esclavos, averiado, sí, pero donde todo funcionaba según lo esperable.

Tras haber sobrevivido apenas al encuentro, escribió sobre la experiencia en sus memorias, que Melville leyó y convirtió en lo que muchos consideran su “otra” obra maestra. Publicada en 1855, en vísperas de la Guerra Civil, Benito Cereno es una de las historias más oscuras de la literatura norteamericana. Está contada desde la perspectiva de Amasa Delano, mientras vaga perdido por el sombrío mundo de sus prejuicios raciales.

Una de las cosas que atrajo a Melvile del Amasa histórico fue, sin dudas, la yuxtaposición entre su alegre auto-imagen –se consideraba un hombre moderno, un progresista que se oponía a la esclavitud- y su completa inconciencia respecto del mundo social que lo rodeaba. El Amasa real era bien intencionado, juicioso, moderado y modesto.

En otras palabras, no era Ahab, cuya persecución vengativa de una ballena metafísica ha sido utilizada como alegoría de todo exceso norteamericano, guerra catastrófica o política ambiental desastrosa, de Vietnam a Irak o a la explosión de la plataforma petrolera de British Petroleum en el Golfo de México en 2010.

Ahab, cuyos pasos sobre su pata de hueso por el puente de mando de su condenado navío entra en los sueños de sus hombres, que duermen debajo, como “los crujientes dientes de los tiburones”. Ahab, cuya monomanía es una extensión del individualismo nacido de la expansión norteamericana y cuya rabia es la de un ego que se rehúsa a ser limitado por la frontera de la Naturaleza. “Nuestro Ahab”, como llama un soldado del film Platoon de Oliver Stone a un despiadado sargento que asesina sin sentido a inocentes vietnamitas.

Ahab es ciertamente una cara del poder norteamericano. Mientras escribía un libro sobre la historia que inspiró Benito Cereno, he llegado a pensar en ella no como la más aterradora –o incluso la más destructiva. Piensen en Amasa.

***
Desde el fin de la Guerra Fría, el capitalismo extractivo se ha extendido sobre nuestro mundo pos-industrializado con una fuerza predatoria que conmovería incluso a Karl Marx. Desde el Congo rico en minerales a las minas de oro a cielo abierto de Guatemala, desde la hasta hace poco prístina Patagonia chilena a los terrenos de fracking de Pennsylvania y el norte ártico que se derrite, no hay grieta donde pueda esconderse roca, líquido o gas útil, ninguna jungla suficientemente inextricable como para mantener fuera a las instalaciones petroleras o a los cazadores de elefantes, ningún glaciar que sea un bastión, ningún esquisto duramente cocido que no pueda ser abierto a golpes, ningún océano que no pueda ser envenenado.

Y Amasa estaba allí desde el principio. La piel de foca puede no haber sido el primer recurso natural en el mundo, pero venderla representaba una de las primeras experiencias de la joven Norteamérica en los ciclos de “boom” y agotamiento en la extracción de recursos más allá de sus fronteras.

Con creciente frecuencia, comenzado en los principios de la década de 1790, y luego en una loca carrera que se inició en 1798,  los barcos partían de New Haven, Norwich, Stonington, New London y Boston en dirección a la media luna del gran archipiélago de islas remotas de que iban de la Argentina en el Atlántico a Chile en el Pacífico. Iban a la caza de piel de foca, que viste una capa aterciopelada, como ropa interior, justo debajo de un abrigo exterior de duro pelo gris-negro.

En Moby-Dick, Melville retrata la caza de ballenas como la industria norteamericana. Brutal y sangrienta, pero también experiencia que humaniza, trabajar en un barco ballenero requería una intensa coordinación y camaradería. De lo espantoso de la cacería, el despellejar la piel de la ballena de su carcasa y el infernal hervir de su grasa emergía algo sublime: la solidaridad humana entre los trabajadores. Y como el aceite de ballena que encendía las lámparas del mundo, la divinidad misma brillaba en esos esfuerzos: “La veréis resplandecer en el brazo que blande una pica o que clava un clavo; es esa dignidad democrática que, en todas las manos, irradia sin fin desde Dios”.

La caza de la foca era algo completamente distinto. Recuerda no a la democracia industrial sino al aislamiento y la violencia de la conquista, el colonialismo y la guerra. La caza de ballenas tenía lugar en las aguas abiertas a todos. La de la foca ocurría en tierra. Sus cazadores tomaban territorios, luchaban unos contra otros para mantenerlos y extraían toda riqueza que podían tan rápido como podían antes de abandonar sus reclamos sobre unas islas vacías y baldías. El proceso enfrentaba a marineros desesperados contra oficiales igualmente desesperados en un sistema de relaciones laborales de todo o nada tal y como se puede imaginar.

En otras palabras, la caza de ballenas puede haber representado el poder prometeico del proto-industrialismo, con todo lo bueno (solidaridad, interconexión y democracia) y lo malo (la explotación de los hombres y la naturaleza) que van con ello, pero la caza de focas predecía mejor el mundo pos-industrial actual, que sufre extracción, caza, perforación, frackeo y recalentamiento.

Las focas eran muertas de a millones y con una naturalidad que deja estupefacto. Un grupo de cazadores se ubicaba entre el agua y las colonias de pájaros y simplemente empezaba a dar palazos. Una sola foca hace un ruido similar al de una vaca o un perro, pero decenas de miles juntas, según testigos, suenan como un ciclón del Pacífico. Una vez que “comenzábamos el trabajo de la muerte”, recordaba un cazador, “la batalla me causaba un considerable terror”.

Las playas del Pacífico Sur llegaron a lucir como el Inferno del Dante. A medida que proseguía el apaleo, montañas de carcasas peladas y apestosas se amontonaban y las arenas se enrojecían con torrentes de sangre. La matanza era incesante y continuaba a lo largo de la noche a la luz de fogatas alimentadas con los cadáveres de focas y pingüinos.

Y tengan en mente que esta masacre masiva tenía lugar no por algo como el aceite de ballena, utilizado por todos para la luz y el fuego. La piel de foca era cosechada para abrigar a los ricos y satisfacía una demanda creada por una nueva fase del capitalismo: el consumo para la ostentación. Las pieles eran utilizadas para capas de damas, abrigos, manguitos y mitones, y para chalecos de caballeros. La piel de los cachorros no tenía mucho valor, así que algunas playas se convertían en orfanatos, con miles de recién nacidos abandonados a la muerte por hambre.

En el apuro, con todo, su piel interior también se podia utilizar –para hacer billeteras.

Ocasionalmente, los elefantes marinos eran apresados por su aceite de una manera aún más horrorosa: cuando abrían sus bocas para bramar, los cazadores les arrojaban piedras adentro y luego comenzaban a apuñalarlos con largas lanzas. Atravesados en múltiples lugares, como San Sebastián, el sistema circulatorio de alta presión de los animales manaba “fuentes de sangre, que saltaba a chorros a considerable distancia”.

Al principio, el ritmo frenético de la matanza no importaba: había tantas focas. En una sola isla, estimó Amasa Delano, había “dos o tres millones de ellas”, cuando los hombres de Nueva Inglaterra llegaron por primera vez a convertir “la matanza de focas en un negocio”.

“Si muchas eran muertas en una noche”, escribió un observador, “no se las extrañaría en la mañana”. Parecía en verdad como si uno pudiera matar a todas las que estaban a la vista un día y comenzar como si nada hubiera ocurrido al siguiente. En unos pocos años, sin embargo, Amasa y sus colegas habían llevado tantas pieles de foca a China que los depósitos de Cantón ya no tenían más lugar. Comenzaron a apilarlas en los muelles, pudriéndose bajo la lluvia, y su precio en el mercado se desplomó.

Para cubrir la pérdida, los cazadores aceleraron más el ritmo de la matanza –hasta que ya no quedaba qué matar. De ese modo, la sobreoferta y la extinción iban de la mano. En el proceso, la cooperación entre cazadores dio lugar a batallas sangrientas por colonias menguantes. Antes, llenar de pieles la bodega de un barco sólo requería unas pocas semanas y un puñado de hombres. A medida que las colonias comenzaron a desaparecer, se necesitaban más y más hombres para encontrar y matar el número exigido de focas, y a menudo eran dejados en islas desoladas durante períodos de dos o tres años, en los que vivían solos en chozas miserables bajo un clima pavoroso, preguntándose si acaso sus barcos regresarían por ellos.

“De isla a isla, de costa a costa”, escribió un historiador, “las focas han sido destruidas hasta el último cachorro disponible, en la suposición de que si el cazador Tom no mataba a toda foca a la visa, el cazador Dick o el cazador Harry no sería tan remilgado”. Para 1804, en la misma isla en que Amasa había estimado que había millones de focas, quedaban más marineros que presas. Dos años más tarde, no había foca alguna.

***
Existe una casi perfecta simetría en la inversa contraposición entre el Amasa de la realidad y el Ahab de la ficción, cada uno representante de una cara del Imperio Norteamericano. Amasa es virtuoso, Ahab vengativo. Amasa parece atrapado por la superficialidad de su percepción del mundo. Ahab es profundo; ve en las profundidades. Amasa es incapaz de advertir el mal (especialmente el propio). Ahab ve sólo “la intangible malignidad” de la naturaleza.

Ambos son representantes de las industrias más predatorias de su tiempo, con barcos que llevaban al Pacífico lo que Delano llamó alguna vez la “maquinaria de la civilización”, utilizando acero, hierro y fuego para matar animales y transformar allí mismo sus cadáveres en valor.

Pero Ahab es la excepción, un rebelde que caza su ballena blanca contra toda lógica económica racional. Ha secuestrado la “maquinaria” que representa su barco y se ha alzado contra “la civilización”. Va en pos de su quijotesco objetivo en violación del contrato que tiene con sus empleados. Cuando su primer oficial, Starbuck, insiste en que su obsesión perjudicará las ganancias de los propietarios del navío, Ahab desestima el asunto: “Que los propietarios se pongan en la playa de Nantucket a gritar más que los tifones. ¿Qué le importa a Ahab? ¿Propietarios, propietarios? Siempre me estás fastidiando, Starbuck, con esos tacaños de propietarios, como si los propietarios fueran mi conciencia”.

Insurgentes como Ahab, sin improtar cuán peligrosos para la gente que los rodea, no son los impulsores primarios de la destrucción. No son los que cazarán animales hasta su casi extinción –o que todavía están empujando al mundo al borde. Esos son los hombres que nunca disienten, que tanto en las primeras líneas de la extracción o en los cuartos traseros corporativos administran la destrucción del planeta, día sí, día no, inexorablemente, sin sensacionalismo ni advertencia, y sus acciones son controladas por una aún más grande serie de abstracciones y cálculos financieros realizados en los mercados bursátiles de Nueva York, Londres y Shanghai.

Si Ahab todavía es la excepción, Delano aún es la regla. En sus largas memorias, se muestra siempre leal a las costumbres y las instituciones de la ley marítima, incapaz de emprender una acción que pudiera dañar los intereses de sus inversores y aseguradores. “Toda mala consecuencia”, escribió, refiriéndose a la importancia de proteger los derechos de propiedad, “puede ser evitada por aquel que tiene el conocimiento de su deber y está dispuesto a obedecer fielmente sus dictados”.

Es en la reacción de Delano ante los rebeldes africanos, cuando al fin comprende que ha sido blanco de un elaborado engaño, que la distinción que separa al cazador de focas del de ballenas se vuelve clara. El  hipnótico Ahab –el “viejo roble más herido por el rayo”- ha sido tomado como prototipo del totalitario del siglo XX, un Hitler o Stalin de una sola pierna que utiliza su magnetismo emocional para convencer a sus hombre de seguirlo voluntariamente a su fatal cacería de Moby Dick.

Delano no es un demagogo. Su autoridad tiene raíces en una mucho más común forma de poder: el control del trabajo y la conversión de recursos naturales en disminución en ítems vendibles. A medida que desaparecieron las focas, también su autoridad. Sus hombres comenzaron primero a quejarse y luego a conspirar. A su vez, Delano tenía que apelar cada vez más al castigo físico, a latigazos incluso por la menor de las infracciones, para mantener el control de su barco –hasta, claro, que se cruza con el barco español de esclavos.

Puede que Delano, personalmente, haya estado en contra de la esclavitud, pero una vez que se dio cuenta de que había sido engañado organizó a sus hombres para que recuperaran el barco de esclavos y reprimieran violentamente a los rebeldes. Al hacerlo, destriparon a algunos y los dejaron retorciéndose en sus víceras con sus lanzas para cazar focas, que Delano describió como “extremadamente afiladas y tan brillantes como la espada de un caballero”. Atrapado por las tenazas de la oferta y la demanza, en el vórtice del agotamiento ecológico, sin más focas para matar, sin dinero por hacer, y con su propia tripulación al borde del motín, Delano puso a sus hombres a la caza –no de una ballena blanca sino de rebeldes negros. Al hacero, restableció su debilitada autoridad. En cuanto a los rebeldes sobrevivientes, Delano los volvió a esclavizar. La buena conciencia, por supuesto, indicaba devolverlos, a ellos y al barco, a sus dueños.

***
Con Ahab, Melville miró hacia el pasado, modelando a su obsesionado capitán en Lucifer, el ángel caído en rebelión contra los cielos, y asociándolo con el “destino manifiesto” de los Estados Unidos, con el avance imparable de la nación más allá de sus fronteras. Con Amasa, Melville vislumbró el futuro. Basándose en las memorias de un capitán real, creó un nuevo arquetipo literario, un hombre moral convencido de su rectitud pero incapaz de unir causa y efecto, inconciente de las consecuencias de sus actos aún cuando corre hacia la catástrofe.

Todavía están con nosotros, nuestros Amasas. Tienen conocimiento de su deber y se disponen fielmente a seguir sus dictados hasta los confines de la Tierra.

Aquí, publicación original de este artículo, en inglés.

Greg Grandin, columnista habitual de TomDispatch, acaba de publicar su nuevo libro, The Empire of Necessity:  Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World.

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The Two Faces of Empire 
Melville Knew Them, We Still Live With Them 
By Greg Grandin

TomDispatch.com   January 26, 2014

A captain ready to drive himself and all around him to ruin in the hunt for a white whale. It’s a well-known story, and over the years, mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel, Moby-Dick, has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.

But what’s really frightening isn’t our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the Stone Age.  The respectable types are the true “terror of our age,” as Noam Chomsky called them collectively nearly 50 years ago.  The really scary characters are our soberest politiciansscholarsjournalistsprofessionals, andmanagers, men and women (though mostly men) who imagine themselves asmorally serious, and then enable the wars, devastate the planet, and rationalize the atrocities.  They are a type that has been with us for a long time.  More than a century and a half ago, Melville, who had a captain for every face of empire, found their perfect expression — for his moment and ours.

For the last six years, I’ve been researching the life of an American seal killer, a ship captain named Amasa Delano who, in the 1790s, was among the earliest New Englanders to sail into the South Pacific.  Money was flush, seals were many, and Delano and his fellow ship captains established the first unofficial U.S. colonies on islands off the coast of Chile.  They operated under an informal council of captains, divvied up territory, enforced debt contracts, celebrated the Fourth of July, and set up ad hoc courts of law.  When no bible was available, the collected works of William Shakespeare, found in the libraries of most ships, were used to swear oaths.

From his first expedition, Delano took hundreds of thousands of sealskins to China, where he traded them for spices, ceramics, and tea to bring back to Boston.  During a second, failed voyage, however, an event took place that would make Amasa notorious — at least among the readers of the fiction of Herman Melville.

Here’s what happened: One day in February 1805 in the South Pacific, Amasa Delano spent nearly a full day on board a battered Spanish slave ship, conversing with its captain, helping with repairs, and distributing food and water to its thirsty and starving voyagers, a handful of Spaniards and about 70 West African men and women he thought were slaves. They weren’t.

Those West Africans had rebelled weeks earlier, killing most of the Spanish crew, along with the slaver taking them to Peru to be sold, and demanded to be returned to Senegal.  When they spotted Delano’s ship, they came up with a plan: let him board and act as if they were still slaves, buying time to seize the sealer’s vessel and supplies.  Remarkably, for nine hours, Delano, an experienced mariner and distant relative of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was convinced that he was on a distressed but otherwise normally functioning slave ship.

Having barely survived the encounter, he wrote about the experience in his memoir, which Melville read and turned into what many consider his “other” masterpiece.  Published in 1855, on the eve of the Civil War, Benito Cereno is one of the darkest stories in American literature.  It’s told from the perspective of Amasa Delano as he wanders lost through a shadow world of his own racial prejudices.

One of the things that attracted Melville to the historical Amasa was undoubtedly the juxtaposition between his cheerful self-regard — he considers himself a modern man, a liberal opposed to slavery — and his complete obliviousness to the social world around him.  The real Amasa was well meaning, judicious, temperate, and modest.

In other words, he was no Ahab, whose vengeful pursuit of a metaphysical whale has been used as an allegory for every American excess, every catastrophic war, every disastrous environmental policy, from Vietnam and Iraq to the explosion of the BP oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Ahab, whose peg-legged pacing of the quarterdeck of his doomed ship enters the dreams of his men sleeping below like the “crunching teeth of sharks.”  Ahab, whose monomania is an extension of the individualism born out of American expansion and whose rage is that of an ego that refuses to be limited by nature’s frontier.  “Our Ahab,” as a soldier in Oliver Stone’s moviePlatoon calls a ruthless sergeant who senselessly murders innocent Vietnamese.

Ahab is certainly one face of American power. In the course of writing a book on the history that inspired Benito Cereno, I’ve come to think of it as not the most frightening — or even the most destructive of American faces.  Consider Amasa.

Killing Seals

Since the end of the Cold War, extractive capitalism has spread over our post-industrialized world with a predatory force that would shock even Karl Marx.  From the mineral-rich Congo to the open-pit gold mines of Guatemala, from Chile’s until recently pristine Patagonia to the fracking fields of Pennsylvania and the melting Arctic north, there is no crevice where some useful rock, liquid, or gas can hide, no jungle forbidden enough to keep out the oil rigs and elephant killers, no citadel-like glacier, no hard-baked shale that can’t be cracked open, no ocean that can’t be poisoned.

And Amasa was there at the beginning.  Seal fur may not have been the world’s first valuable natural resource, but sealing represented one of young America’s first experiences of boom-and-bust resource extraction beyond its borders.

With increasing frequency starting in the early 1790s and then in a mad rush beginning in 1798, ships left New Haven, Norwich, Stonington, New London, and Boston, heading for the great half-moon archipelago of remote islands running from Argentina in the Atlantic to Chile in the Pacific.  They were on the hunt for the fur seal, which wears a layer of velvety down like an undergarment just below an outer coat of stiff gray-black hair.

In Moby-Dick, Melville portrayed whaling as the American industry.  Brutal and bloody but also humanizing, work on a whale ship required intense coordination and camaraderie.  Out of the gruesomeness of the hunt, the peeling of the whale’s skin from its carcass, and the hellish boil of the blubber or fat, something sublime emerged: human solidarity among the workers.  And like the whale oil that lit the lamps of the world, divinity itself glowed from the labor: “Thou shalt see it shining in the arm that wields a pick or drives a spike; that democratic dignity which, on all hands, radiates without end from God.”

Sealing was something else entirely.  It called to mind not industrial democracy but the isolation and violence of conquest, settler colonialism, and warfare.  Whaling took place in a watery commons open to all.  Sealing took place on land.  Sealers seized territory, fought one another to keep it, and pulled out what wealth they could as fast as they could before abandoning their empty and wasted island claims.  The process pitted desperate sailors against equally desperate officers in as all-or-nothing a system of labor relations as can be imagined.

In other words, whaling may have represented the promethean power of proto-industrialism, with all the good (solidarity, interconnectedness, and democracy) and bad (the exploitation of men and nature) that went with it, but sealing better predicted today’s postindustrial extracted, hunted, drilled, fracked, hot, and strip-mined world.

Seals were killed by the millions and with a shocking casualness.  A group of sealers would get between the water and the rookeries and simply start clubbing.  A single seal makes a noise like a cow or a dog, but tens of thousands of them together, so witnesses testified, sound like a Pacific cyclone.  Once we “began the work of death,” one sealer remembered, “the battle caused me considerable terror.”

South Pacific beaches came to look like Dante’s Inferno.  As the clubbing proceeded, mountains of skinned, reeking carcasses piled up and the sands ran red with torrents of blood.  The killing was unceasing, continuing into the night by the light of bonfires kindled with the corpses of seals and penguins.

And keep in mind that this massive kill-off took place not for something like whale oil, used by all for light and fire.  Seal fur was harvested to warm the wealthy and meet a demand created by a new phase of capitalism: conspicuous consumption.  Pelts were used for ladies’ capes, coats, muffs, and mittens, and gentlemen’s waistcoats.  The fur of baby pups wasn’t much valued, so some beaches were simply turned into seal orphanages, with thousands of newborns left to starve to death.  In a pinch though, their downy fur, too, could be used — to make wallets.

Occasionally, elephant seals would be taken for their oil in an even more horrific manner: when they opened their mouths to bellow, their hunters would toss rocks in and then begin to stab them with long lances.  Pierced in multiple places like Saint Sebastian, the animals’ high-pressured circulatory system gushed “fountains of blood, spouting to a considerable distance.”

At first the frenetic pace of the killing didn’t matter: there were so many seals.  On one island alone, Amasa Delano estimated, there were “two to three millions of them” when New Englanders first arrived to make “a business of killing seals.”

“If many of them were killed in a night,” wrote one observer, “they would not be missed in the morning.”  It did indeed seem as if you could kill every one in sight one day, then start afresh the next.  Within just a few years, though, Amasa and his fellow sealers had taken so many seal skins to China that Canton’s warehouses couldn’t hold them.  They began to pile up on the docks, rotting in the rain, and their market price crashed.

To make up the margin, sealers further accelerated the pace of the killing — until there was nothing left to kill.  In this way, oversupply and extinction went hand in hand.  In the process, cooperation among sealers gave way to bloody battles over thinning rookeries.  Previously, it only took a few weeks and a handful of men to fill a ship’s hold with skins.  As those rookeries began to disappear, however, more and more men were needed to find and kill the required number of seals and they were often left on desolate islands for two- or three-year stretches, living alone in miserable huts in dreary weather, wondering if their ships were ever going to return for them.

“On island after island, coast after coast,” one historian wrote, “the seals had been destroyed to the last available pup, on the supposition that if sealer Tom did not kill every seal in sight, sealer Dick or sealer Harry would not be so squeamish.”  By 1804, on the very island where Amasa estimated that there had been millions of seals, there were more sailors than prey.  Two years later, there were no seals at all.

The Machinery of Civilization

There exists a near perfect inverse symmetry between the real Amasa and the fictional Ahab, with each representing a face of the American Empire.  Amasa is virtuous, Ahab vengeful.  Amasa seems trapped by the shallowness of his perception of the world.  Ahab is profound; he peers into the depths.  Amasa can’t see evil (especially his own). Ahab sees only nature’s “intangible malignity.”

Both are representatives of the most predatory industries of their day, their ships carrying what Delano once called the “machinery of civilization” to the Pacific, using steel, iron, and fire to kill animals and transform their corpses into value on the spot.

Yet Ahab is the exception, a rebel who hunts his white whale against all rational economic logic.  He has hijacked the “machinery” that his ship represents and rioted against “civilization.”  He pursues his quixotic chase in violation of the contract he has with his employers.  When his first mate, Starbuck, insists that his obsession will hurt the profits of the ship’s owners, Ahab dismisses the concern: “Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons. What cares Ahab?  Owners, Owners?  Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience.”

Insurgents like Ahab, however dangerous to the people around them, are not the primary drivers of destruction.  They are not the ones who will hunt animals to near extinction — or who are today forcing the world to the brink.  Those would be the men who never dissent, who either at the frontlines of extraction or in the corporate backrooms administer the destruction of the planet, day in, day out, inexorably, unsensationally without notice, their actions controlled by an ever greater series of financial abstractions and calculations made in the stock exchanges of New York, London, and Shanghai.

If Ahab is still the exception, Delano is still the rule.  Throughout his long memoir, he reveals himself as ever faithful to the customs and institutions of maritime law, unwilling to take any action that would injure the interests of his investors and insurers.  “All bad consequences,” he wrote, describing the importance of protecting property rights, “may be avoided by one who has a knowledge of his duty, and is disposed faithfully to obey its dictates.”

It is in Delano’s reaction to the West African rebels, once he finally realizes he has been the target of an elaborately staged con, that the distinction separating the sealer from the whaler becomes clear.  The mesmeric Ahab — the “thunder-cloven old oak” — has been taken as a prototype of the twentieth-century totalitarian, a one-legged Hitler or Stalin who uses an emotional magnetism to convince his men to willingly follow him on his doomed hunt for Moby Dick.

Delano is not a demagogue.  His authority is rooted in a much more common form of power: the control of labor and the conversion of diminishing natural resources into marketable items.  As seals disappeared, however, so too did his authority.  His men first began to grouse and then conspire.  In turn, Delano had to rely ever more on physical punishment, on floggings even for the most minor of offences, to maintain control of his ship — until, that is, he came across the Spanish slaver.  Delano might have been personally opposed to slavery, yet once he realized he had been played for a fool, he organized his men to retake the slave ship and violently pacify the rebels.  In the process, they disemboweled some of the rebels and left them writhing in their viscera, using their sealing lances, which Delano described as “exceedingly sharp and as bright as a gentleman’s sword.”

Caught in the pincers of supply and demand, trapped in the vortex of ecological exhaustion, with no seals left to kill, no money to be made, and his own crew on the brink of mutiny, Delano rallied his men to the chase — not of a white whale but of black rebels.  In the process, he reestablished his fraying authority.  As for the surviving rebels, Delano re-enslaved them.  Propriety, of course, meant returning them and the ship to its owners.

Our Amasas, Ourselves

With Ahab, Melville looked to the past, basing his obsessed captain on Lucifer, the fallen angel in revolt against the heavens, and associating him with America’s “manifest destiny,” with the nation’s restless drive beyond its borders.  With Amasa, Melville glimpsed the future.  Drawing on the memoirs of a real captain, he created a new literary archetype, a moral man sure of his righteousness yet unable to link cause to effect, oblivious to the consequences of his actions even as he careens toward catastrophe.

They are still with us, our Amasas.  They have knowledge of their duty and are disposed faithfully to follow its dictates, even unto the ends of the Earth.

TomDispatch regular Greg Grandin’s new book, The Empire of Necessity:  Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, has just been published. 

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Huellas2

Acaba de salir el úlimo número de la revista Huellas de Estados Unidos de la Cátedra de Historia de Estados Unidos de la UBA. Componen este número un interesante grupo de trabajos sobre aspectos ideológicos de política exterior estadounidense y sobre el tema del consenso político. Completan este número un par de valiosos documentos sobre el racismo. Todos los ensayos y reseñas están disponibles en PDF.

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