Fred Weston continues his series looking at the barbaric and violent acts committed by the ruling class in establishing and maintaining the capitalist system and imperialism over the centuries. In this third part, Fred examines the brutal methods employed by - amongst others - the British Empire in the 19th Century and the US imperialists in the Vietnam War.
The brutal nature of the British Empire
The violence of the bourgeoisie throughout history has not been confined solely to the way it has reacted to attempts at revolution by the downtrodden masses. It was also applied systematically in its methods of empire building.
The British establishment would like us believe that in colonising half the planet they had a “civilising” influence. The truth is rather different. They brutally oppressed the peoples they colonised, exploited them, robbed them of their resources and left hunger, death and deprivation in their wake. The history of the British Empire is one of many brutalities, but let us look at some of the most famous cases.
In 2007, The Guardian published a review of “In War of Civilisations: India AD 1857”, by Amaresh Misra. The book is about the famous Indian Mutiny of 1857 “acknowledged to have been the greatest challenge to any European power in the 19th century”. The article continues, “the British pursued a murderous decade-long campaign to wipe out millions of people who dared rise up against them… [He] argues that there was an ‘untold holocaust’ which caused the deaths of almost 10 million people over 10 years beginning in 1857. Britain was then the world's superpower but, says Misra, came perilously close to losing its most prized possession: India.” Previously, it had been thought that “only” 100,000 Indian soldiers had been butchered in savage reprisals.
Marx commented on this event at the time in an article he wrote for the New York Tribune, (September 16, 1857), The Indian Revolt, in which he wrote:
“However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys, it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed an organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself.”
Here he is referring to the violence of the Indians who revolted against British rule. Later he emphasises that the instrument of retribution was forged by the British with their methods, when he writes:
“News arrived from Pindee that three native chiefs were plotting. Sir John Lawrence replied by a message ordering a spy to attend to the meeting. On the spy’s report, Sir John sent a second message, ‘Hang them.’ The chiefs were hanged. An officer in the civil service, from Allahabad, writes: ‘We have power of life and death in our hands, and we assure you we spare not.’
“Another, from the same place: ‘Not a day passes but we string up front ten to fifteen of them (non-combatants).’
“One exulting officer writes: ‘Holmes is hanging them by the score, like a “brick”.’
“Another, in allusion to the summary hanging of a large body of the natives: ‘Then our fun commenced.’
“A third: ‘We hold court-martials on horseback, and every nigger we meet with we either string up or shoot.’
“From Benares we are informed that thirty Zemindars were hanged for the mere suspicion of sympathizing with their own countrymen, and whole villages were burned down on the same plea. An officer from Benares, whose letter is printed in The London Times, says: ‘The European troops have become fiends when opposed to natives.’”
As we can see, the British officers in India had no qualms in summarily executing Indians who dared challenge their rule. Such massacres were repeated again in several parts of the British Empire throughout its history.
There were the Boer concentration camps set up during the Second Boer War of 1899-1902. One sixth of the Boer population – mostly women and children – were rounded up and detained in the camps. Of the 107,000 detained in the camps, almost 28,000 died, together with a number of black Africans.
There was the Amritsar massacre when peaceful protesters in Amritsar, India, on 13 April 1919, were demonstrating against British colonial rule. The response of the British authorities was brutal: the protesters were blocked inside Jallianwala Gardens while Gurkha soldiers opened fire on them. They kept firing until they ran out of ammunition, killing hundreds, up to one thousand, although the exact figure is unknown. Brigadier Reginald Dyer, who ordered the shooting, was later treated as a hero by the British elite.
Let us not forget that this shooting of unarmed protestors in April 1919 was taking place at exactly the same time as the civil war that had broken out in Russia as the White armies attempted to crush the revolution. So while the violence of the Red Army, a violence in defence of the revolution, was being condemned by British “democrats”, these same democrats ruled over an Empire that was shooting peaceful protestors. The violence against the oppressors is to be condemned, while the violence of the oppressors is applauded.
Almost thirty years later, the British were forced to leave India, but not before Cyril Radcliffe had drawn an artificial border, dividing the country in two, leading to “ethnic cleansing” between Muslims and Hindus, with up to a million people being killed.
This tactic of “divide and rule”, used so cynically in India, was repeated by the British authorities throughout their colonies. Before leaving they would create a situation of conflict along religious, ethnic or language divides, such as in Ireland and Cyprus, which were later to produce new conflicts and more killings. In other colonies, such as Nigeria, they united artificially very different peoples within the same country, so as to create an internal tension which could be used to control the new countries that emerged once formal independence had been granted. All this, although extremely damaging for the people concerned, was considered a useful means of maintaining control over resources and markets. Profit is more important than people’s lives.
More recently, In Africa there was the famous Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya of 1951-1960, when members of the Kikuyu tribe were kept in concentration camps. There was a successful court case brought against the British government by Kenyans who claimed they were victims of systematic torture and rape at the hands of British troops. Anything between 20,000 and 100,000 are estimated to have died, and up to a million may have been killed in sectarian attacks.
Also, anything between 12 and 29 million Indians died of hunger during the period of British colonial rule, as huge quantities of wheat were exported to Britain, regardless of the suffering caused. There was the case in 1943 when Churchill had food taken from India for British soldiers just when famine on a huge scale was sweeping through Bengal.
Churchill, referring to that famine, said: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion. The famine was their own fault for breeding like rabbits.” (Quoted in The Independent)
So much for the “civilising” influence of British rule in the colonies! On the contrary, it was barbarism of the worst kind. And these same ladies and gentlemen had the cheek to condemn the violence of workers and peasants in Russia as they rose up to overthrow their own exploiters.
The Paraguayan genocide
However, it wasn’t just in the direct colonies of Britain that such brutal methods were used. There is the genocide that took place in Paraguay during the 1864-70 War of the Triple Alliance [Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay]. In Britain the significance of this war tends to be played down, if not outright ignored. While in Latin America it is part of the memory of imperialist oppression.
With the 400,000 who died, it has gone down in history as Latin America’s bloodiest war. Paraguay, according to some calculations lost close to 70% of its adult male population. Large parts of its territory, around 40% were annexed by Brazil and Argentina. At the end of the war its population had been reduced to 221,000, of which only 28,000 were men.
For a more detailed reference to this war read the Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, [Chapter 4, Tales of Premature Death, subsection “How the war against Paraguay wrecked the only successful attempt at independent development”].
If you read some British historians, they claim there is no evidence of British involvement. That may be true in relation to direct military involvement. However, after listing all the economic interests of Britain in the area, they then claim this had nothing to do with a war which proved to be enormously profitable for the British capitalists and bankers.
The reality, however, is that British finance capital had extended its tentacles into Latin America and played a big role in the economies of Brazil and Argentina, inundating these countries with British manufactured goods, extracting raw materials and providing loans on a grand scale. As some have referred to it, much of Latin America had become part of Britain’s “informal empire”.
As Galeano explains, the economy of Paraguay was not controlled by foreign imperialist but was overwhelmingly in the hands of the state, as there was no local bourgeois oligarchy. For example, 98% of the land was state owned. Paraguay had achieved a degree of economic development through direct state investment, independent of the imperialist powers, with no loans from them and no debts to them; its market also remained inaccessible to them. Again, for the details read Galeano’s book. We will just provide a few quotes here:
“Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay joined in committing genocide. They left no stone unturned, nor male inhabitants amid the ruins. Although Britain took no direct part in the ghastly deed, it was in the pockets of British merchants, bankers, and industrialists that the loot ended up. The invasion was financed from start to finish by the Bank of London, Baring Brothers, and the Rothschild bank, in loans at exorbitant interest rates which mortgaged the fate of the victorious countries. (…)
“British commerce did not hide its concern, not only because this last bastion of national resistance in the heart of the continent seemed invulnerable, but also and especially because of the dangerous example set to its neighbors by Paraguayan obstinacy. Latin America's most progressive country was building its future without foreign investment, without British bank loans, and without the blessings of free trade. (…)
“Britain's minister in Buenos Aires, Edward Thornton, played a substantial role in preparing for the war. When it was about to break out, he participated as a government advisor in Argentine cabinet meetings, sitting beside President Mitre. The web of provocations and deceptions, which ended with a Brazilian-Argentine agreement that sealed Paraguay's fate, was woven under Thornton's fatherly gaze. (…)
“When the war began, Paraguay had almost as large a population as Argentina. Only 250,000, less than one-sixth, survived in 1870. It was the triumph of civilization. The victors, ruined by the enormous cost of the crime, fell back into the arms of the British bankers who had financed the adventure. The slave empire of Pedro II, whose armies were filled with slaves and prisoners, nevertheless won more than 20,000 square miles of territory — plus labor, for the Paraguayan prisoners who were marched off to work on the Sao Paulo coffee plantations were branded like slaves.”
The genocide was justified from the point of view of British capital. Paraguay was opened up, although crushed in the process, and Brazil and Argentina who did the fighting and killing ended up further in debt to the British who had provided the finance. Good business indeed, except for the Paraguayan masses of course!
Belgian, French, German and Italian imperialists no better
The British were not alone in their brutality. Between 1870 and 1900 King Leopold of Belgium looted the Congo, which was valuable as a source of rubber. While claiming to protect the "natives" from the Arab slave trade, he turned his so-called "Congo Free State" into one gigantic labour camp, the size of half of Europe. It is estimated that up to 10 million Congolese died as a consequence of the brutalities meted out. Christian missionaries were sent in to begin the process of colonisation. But the real force was the Belgian military, which put down an unarmed local population, raping, torturing and killing those who refused to obey the king’s orders.
In order to guarantee that the soldiers were carrying out orders, the soldiers were required to hack off the right hand of their victims as proof. Whole villages were burnt down, with the women taken as hostages while the men were sent to bring back rubber. If they did not bring back the required quantities everyone in the village was killed. For a more detailed account read The Butcher of Congo.
There is also Mark Twain’s famous King Leopold's Soliloquy, in which he quotes from a Report of a "Journey made in July, August and September, 1903, [to the Congo] by Rev. A. E. Scrivener, a British missionary":
“Soon we began talking, and without any encouragement on my part the natives began the tales I had become so accustomed to. They were living in peace and quietness when the white men came in from the lake with all sorts of requests to do this and that, and they thought it meant slavery. So they attempted to keep the white men out of their country but without avail. The rifles were too much for them. So they submitted and made up their minds to do the best they could under the altered circumstances. First came the command to build houses for the soldiers, and this was done without a murmur. Then they had to feed the soldiers and all the men and women -- hangers on -- who accompanied them. Then they were told to bring in rubber. This was quite a new thing for them to do. There was rubber in the forest several days away from their home, but that it was worth anything was news to them. A small reward was offered and a rush was made for the rubber. 'What strange white men, to give us cloth and beads for the sap of a wild vine.' They rejoiced in what they thought their good fortune. But soon the reward was reduced until at last they were told to bring in the rubber for nothing. To this they tried to demur; but to their great surprise several were shot by the soldiers, and the rest were told, with many curses and blows, to go at once or more would be killed. Terrified, they began to prepare their food for the fortnight's absence from the village which the collection of rubber entailed. The soldiers discovered them sitting about. 'What, not gone yet?' Bang! bang! bang! and down fell one and another, dead, in the midst of wives and companions. There is a terrible wail and an attempt made to prepare the dead for burial, but this is not allowed. All must go at once to the forest. Without food? Yes, without food. And off the poor wretches had to go without even their tinder boxes to make fires. Many died in the forests of hunger and exposure, and still more from the rifles of the ferocious soldiers in charge of the post. In spite of all their efforts the amount fell off and more and more were killed. I was shown around the place, and the sites of former big chief's settlements were pointed out. A careful estimate made the population of, say, seven years ago, to be 2,000 people in and about the post, within a radius of, say, a quarter of a mile. All told, they would not muster 200 now, and there is so much sadness and gloom about them that they are fast decreasing.”
The French imperialists used equally brutal methods in their Empire, from Algeria to Indo-China [today Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia]. Torture was commonly used. Their methods were encapsulated in Pontecorvo’s famous film, the Battle of Algiers. The German colonies – before Germany lost its Empire – were treated to equally brutal methods. One of the most famous cases of genocide in Namibia, then known as South West Africa, was that of the Herero and Nama people who rebelled against German rule. Between 1904 and 1908, up to 100,000 were massacred. The survivors were kept in concentration camps in slave-like conditions. (See the BBC report African viewpoint: Remembering German crimes in Namibia and the Herero and Namaqua genocide for a more detailed account). Italian imperialism was equally brutal, as described earlier in this article, when they sued nerve gas in Libya and Ethiopia.
The brutal nature of US imperialism: Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Millions were killed by the various imperialist powers during and after they had established their colonies. The development of technology in the production of arms, however, was to take the power of destruction in the hands of the imperialists to previously undreamed of levels.
Since the Second World War the number of countries with nuclear weapons has grown significantly, including Pakistan, India and also Israel, although officially the latter does not admit to having them. A lot of effort has been spent in trying to limit the number of countries with a nuclear capability. It is sufficient to look at the efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear programme to see this. The idea behind this is that something needs to be done to stop these weapons getting into the hands of terrible despots who might use them in war or terrorist attacks.
The main power behind this effort is the US. The irony of this, of course is that the US are the only country to have ever actually used nuclear bombs. This was in August 1945 when the first nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima instantly killed 70,000 people, with a further 20,000 dying by the end of the year from the effects of radiation. Then Nagasaki was hit with another nuclear bomb, instantaneously killing around 35,000 people. But over the next five years the total number who died as a result of the two bombs is calculated as being over 200,000.
Why were such powerful weapons used? The official excuse is that it was to bring the war to an earlier end in the East. The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey group, assigned by President Truman to study us attacks on Japan, produced a report in July of 1946 that concluded :
"Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey's opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."
General Dwight Eisenhower – who later became president, but who was then Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces, said:
"The Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing."
History.com also points out that:
“In the years since the two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, a number of historians have suggested that the weapons had a two-pronged objective. First, of course, was to bring the war with Japan to a speedy end and spare American lives. It has been suggested that the second objective was to demonstrate the new weapon of mass destruction to the Soviet Union. By August 1945, relations between the Soviet Union and the United States had deteriorated badly. The Potsdam Conference between U.S. President Harry S. Truman, Russian leader Joseph Stalin, and Winston Churchill (before being replaced by Clement Attlee) ended just four days before the bombing of Hiroshima. The meeting was marked by recriminations and suspicion between the Americans and Soviets. Russian armies were occupying most of Eastern Europe. Truman and many of his advisers hoped that the U.S. atomic monopoly might offer diplomatic leverage with the Soviets. In this fashion, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan can be seen as the first shot of the Cold War.”
Thus the killing of 200,000 people was considered by the US government of the time as a useful means of intimidating the Soviet Union, who, let us not forget, was supposed to be an “ally”. After seeing the Soviet Union march through half of Europe and taking control of Eastern Europe, the Americans were concerned that it might do something similar in Asia. What it shows is that in spite of having to accept the help of the Soviet Union against Hitler, the capitalist class in the West could not tolerate the fact that in spite of the Stalinist degeneration, the state-owned planned economy continued to survive in the Soviet Union. Thus, again, we see how violence on a grand scale – what greater violence can one envisage than the use of nuclear bombs? – was justified by the bourgeoisie if it was in the defence of private property and the market!
First and Second World Wars - a bloodbath in the name of profit
The First World War was described as the war to end all wars. The problem is that so long as the capitalist system survives there will always be war.
In “normal” peaceful periods, the antagonisms between the different national ruling classes are played within the market. There is a constant struggle to conquer new markets or push out rivals from old ones. This takes place normally on the basis of competition based on increasing the productivity of labour through investment, lowering the wages of one’s own workers, grabbing raw materials to cheapen overall costs of production.
This is going on all the time, and in times of prolonged world expansion of the market, with growing world trade and production, there can be a relative peace between the powers. As the pie gets bigger, even a small slice is actually bigger than what there was before.
The problem arises when the system reaches saturation point, when the market no longer expands sufficiently to absorb the growing quantity of goods the system can produce. In these conditions, the weaker producers go to the wall. Whereas in the previous period of expansion markets were being opened up and free trade was taken for granted, once the opposite process begins, the tendency is towards using protectionist measures to protect one's’ own market.
Initially this leads to conflicts expressed in tariffs imposed on imports from other countries, or in blocs created to defend the interests of one group of nations against another. But at a certain point, the antagonisms spill over into armed conflicts, initially of a local nature.
Twice in the 20th century the contradictions reached such an extreme that world war between the major powers became the only way of settling the conflicts. Once all the conditions had been prepared for war, it was just a question of each power seeking the excuse to declare war, and trying, of course, to present the war as a “defensive” move against the other “aggressors”.
Thus we are told at school that the First World War was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria on 28 June 1914 in Sarajevo, leading to Austria-Hungary declaring war, followed by most European states entering the war. The truth is that all the conditions for war had accumulated in the previous period and a general conflagration would have erupted sooner or later. [For a more detailed analysis see: First World War - A Marxist Analysis of the Great Slaughter, by Alan Woods]
The war was mainly between the rising power of Germany with its growing industries in need of a market, and the historically established power of Britain with its Empire and control of world markets. It was a war between equally predatory imperialist powers.
The Second World War was a continuation of the First. They tell us in school lessons that it was a war to “defend democracy”, but as we have seen earlier in this article, the British and American ruling classes looked with sympathy on both Mussolini and Hitler, when they were crushing the workers of Italy and Germany. There was no call to intervene to stop Mussolini’s and Hitler’s butchery when they were killing their own workers. It was only when Germany under Hitler became a threat to the power and influence of Britain and other powers, that they decided to go to war. [See the section of our website dedicated to the Second World War, and in particular D-Day and the truth about the Second World War, and The truth about the Second World War - Part Two by Alan Woods]
As an excuse Hitler accused the Polish of carrying out ethnic cleansing of Germans living in Poland and then proceeded to invade in September 1939, fully aware of the fact that this would mean war with Britain and France. The British government had done nothing when Hitler took Austria; they did nothing when he invaded Czechoslovakia; but as he expanded more and more into neighbouring countries, it became evident that Germany was becoming a major threat to their interests. That is when they discovered that they were “anti-fascists” and for democracy. The war was thus sold as a war for democracy, when it was nothing of the kind.
Over 17 million people were killed during the First World War, with a further 20 million wounded. The Second World War led to even greater deaths, with over 60 million killed. Some estimates reach the figure of 80 million by including famines and disease that were direct consequences of the war. The Soviet Union alone lost over 25 million people, which highlights the fact that most of the fighting and killing was on the eastern front between German forces and Soviet forces.
Thus, in two world wars something like 80 million people were killed. And the number of cases of cold-blooded massacre of unarmed civilians is endless, from the indiscriminate bombing of cities, such as the blitz over London that killed over 40,000, or the 25,000 civilians killed in Dresden, Germany, not to mention the millions who perished in the Nazi concentration camps.
All this was the result of the conflicting interests of the national bourgeoisies of the various imperialist powers. For the sake of profit, of power, privileges and spheres of influence they were prepared to kill tens of millions of people. THis is what the capitalist class is capable of when its vital interests are threatened.
Once again US imperialism: the Vietnam War
This is not the place to recount the historical background that led to the Vietnam War. See Vietnam 1945 - The derailed revolution, and The Tet Offensive: the turning point in the Vietnam War. A brief outline here is sufficient.
At the end of the Second World War, after the defeat of the Japanese occupying forces, the Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the independence of Vietnam. But the old French rulers were not prepared to relinquish their colonial rule. Thus an eight-year war ensued against the French. The Viet Minh could have taken the whole of Vietnam, but under Russian and Chinese advice, they accepted a “temporary partition” of the country, “pending” new elections, which were never organised. A US-backed regime emerged in the South, but its weakness eventually forced the US to intervene militarily.
What price did the people of Vietnam pay for this? Starting with “advisors” in 1960, by 1965, 200,000 US soldiers were in Vietnam, growing to half a million by 1968. Anything between one and half million and four million people lost their lives in the Vietnam War, according to different sources. Close to 60,000 US soldiers lost their lives in the fighting. The US dropped more than eight million tons of explosives, three times the amount used by all sides during the whole of the Second World War.
The chemicals, Napalm and Agent Orange were used by the US military. Napalm was initially used in flamethrowers, but later dropped by planes. Napalm can cause widespread fires burning anyone and anything in the area hit. Agent Orange is a chemical defoliant. It was used to clear large areas of forest to destroy the cover of the Vietcong. It can cause cancer in the long run and many US troops and Vietnamese exposed to it subsequently fell ill with cancer.
Many atrocities were also carried out against the Vietnamese people by the US military, one of the most infamous being the My Lai massacre in March 1968 when up to 500 unarmed civilians, including women and children, were killed by US soldiers. Of the 26 US soldiers charged with this crime, only one received a prison sentence, originally a life sentence, but in the end he only served three and a half years under house arrest.
Eventually, US efforts to stop Vietnam being united under the North Vietnamese regime failed, for the people did not want the Americans in Vietnam and this was clearly demonstrated as the war proceeded. Had the promised elections been granted in the 1950s the Vietnamese Communist Party would undoubtedly have won. But rather than accept what was clearly the will of the Vietnamese people, US imperialism unleashed hell on them for more than twenty years. And they have the courage to talk of the violence of the Bolsheviks.
The 1965 Indonesian massacre
During the same period of the Vietnam War, in Indonesia the workers and peasants were in ferment. By 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) had grown to a force of around three million, with around 10 million sympathisers. This is not the place to outline the Indonesian revolution. [See Revolution and counter-revolution in Indonesia (1965) by Alan Woods for more details]. Suffice it to say that the killings that followed made the butchery at the end of the Paris Commune look like a tea party! According to Time magazine:
“An estimated 500,000 to 1 million people, [mainly Communist Party activist and supporters] some say even millions, perished in 1965–66 as the army, paramilitary groups and religious organizations hunted down members of the Indonesian Communist Party (which was blamed for the deaths of six army generals on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, 1965), suspected communists and leftist sympathizers; ethnic Chinese were targeted too. Hundreds of thousands more people ended up in jails, or exiled to far-flung gulag islands or overseas.” (Time magazine, September 30, 2015)
Even the CIA has had to admit that, “In terms of the numbers killed, the anti-PKI massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century". (CIA study in 1968) It is common knowledge now that he American government provided lists of communist activists to the Indonesian death squads.
Again, one can find information on these events in the media, but for decades very little was said about this in the mainstream media. However, in 2013 a film was made about what happened, "The Act of Killing" which shows US-Backed Indonesian death squad leaders re-enacting the 1965 massacres. [See interview and also our article, Indonesia: Review of “The Act of Killing”.] The film confirms what was known, that with US-backing hundreds of thousands of left activists in Indonesia were hunted down and butchered.
Such was the threat to Indonesian capitalism at the time, that the US ruling class and the local elite felt the need to destroy the Indonesian Communist Party physically and remove any memory of what had happened. In fact for years the Indonesian regime hid the truth from its own people. Recently attempts have been made, not at achieving justice for the victims, but at working towards “reconciliation”. This is an attempt to bury the whole thing and “move on”.
However, we can never forget the victims of that butchery, and it remains as a reminder of the lengths that the capitalists, both Indonesian and their international allies, are prepared to go to when faced with revolution.
Argentina 1976 and Chile 1973
Latin America has a history of military regimes that came to power in the past, backed by the CIA and other US offices. As “Military Government in Latin America, 1959–1990”, by Brian E. Loveman, published in Oxford Bibliographies points out, “Long-term military governments, with changing leadership in most cases, controlled eleven Latin American nations for significant periods from 1964 to 1990: Ecuador, 1963–1966 and 1972–1978; Guatemala, 1963–1985 (with an interlude from 1966–1969); Brazil, 1964–1985; Bolivia, 1964–1970 and 1971–1982; Argentina, 1966–1973 and 1976–1983; Peru, 1968–1980; Panama, 1968–1989; Honduras, 1963–1966 and 1972–1982; Chile, 1973–1990; and Uruguay, 1973–1984. In El Salvador the military dominated government from 1948 until 1984, but the last “episode” was from 1979 to 1984.”
The coming to power of these regimes were never “peaceful” events, but always involved the torture and killing of labour movement activists. The so-called democratic and “progressive” bourgeoisies of Western Europe and the United States did nothing to stop these regimes coming to power. On the contrary, they collaborated with the local bourgeoisie in imposing brutal military rule. US imperialism played a particularly important role in this process. The reason is clear: all this was good for profit, as these regimes destroyed the power of the working class to fight back, smashing their trade union organisations and outlawing their political parties.
One of the most infamous of these regimes was the Argentinian military junta that came to power in the 24 March 1976 coup. Even before that coup, the military had been involved in what became known as the “Dirty War”, during which state security forces together with right-wing death squads hunted down left activists, tortured them and killed many. The exact number killed or "disappeared" (desaparecidos) is unknown, but estimates indicate that up to 30,000 were killed with no trace of what happened to them in many cases. One of the methods used was to throw the victims into the sea from helicopters!
What happened in Chile is a classic of reformist failure to transform society leading to defeat and a bloody coup. The experience of Chile in 1973 answers all those who claim that moderation avoids violence! The elected government of Salvador Allende (1970-73), which had carried out a series of left reforms, but without challenging the system as a whole, was eventually overthrown on September 11, 1973 in a bloody coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. (See Lessons of Chile 1973, by Alan Woods for an analysis of that experience).
With the “secret” support of the United States, the coup organisers bombed the presidential palace, during which the democratically elected President Salvador Allende was killed. The Pinochet regime then proceeded to round up, torture, kill and force into exile tens of thousands of Chileans. For the following 17 years, Chileans were denied all democratic rights.
Since then US official documents relating to those events have been declassified and, through the Freedom of Information Act, the US National Security Archive was able to obtain documents from the period 1970-76. The documentation proves beyond any shadow of a doubt that the US was involved in covert operations to promote a military coup and undermine Allende's government. Included in the documents are “minutes of meetings between Henry Kissinger and CIA officials, CIA cables to its Santiago station, and summaries of covert action” and much more.
According to the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation and the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture, 35,000 fell victim to the repression meted out by the Pinochet regime. According to the same sources, 28,000 were tortured, 2,279 were executed, and a further 1,248 went missing. A further 200,000 were forced into exile.
It is not possible to list here all the victims of that terrible period, but the way Victor Lara, theatre director, poet, singer, songwriter and political activist, was treated highlights what went on in the few days after the coup. He was arrested and taken to the Santiago stadium together with thousands of others. There he was tortured, his hands and fingers smashed by the guards. They then then mocked him, asking him if he could play the guitar. Then they shot him in the head, and riddled his body with bullets. His body was later found on the street of a shantytown in Santiago. Many more suffered a similar fate.
Once again, this was the response of the bourgeoisie to yet another attempt on the part of ordinary working people to achieve radical change in their living conditions. The people of Chile had elected a left government in the hope of putting an end to poverty, homelessness, unemployment and decades of oppression under capitalism. The experience proved for the umpteenth time that “democracy” is tolerated by the bourgeoisie so long as there is no direct challenge to the power, privileges and property of the capitalist class.
How did our democratic Western governments react to this bloodletting? As we have seen, the US government backed it. In 1999 “Baroness Thatcher” visited General Pinochet where he was staying under house arrest near London at the time and talked of the “debt” she believed the UK owed him. [See BBC article, Thatcher stands by Pinochet]. And, as The Telegraph explained in 2006, “Margaret Thatcher has nothing to be ashamed of in defending Augusto Pinochet… he was lucky to find such a champion.” He also had a friend in Pope John Paul II who appealed to the British government for the release of Pinochet "for humanitarian reasons".
Iran: the 1988 mass executions
In January 2009 a little talked about event took place in Iran. The authorities destroyed hundreds of unmarked graves in the Khavaran cemetery in Tehran. This was an attempt to erase the memory of what had taken place in 1988 when thousands of Iranian political prisoners were summarily executed. In those killings, children as young as 13 were strung up from cranes and pulled up until they choked to death, six at a time, to save time. This method of hanging was preferred as it is much slower than the trap-door hanging which leads to almost instant death!
This went on for two months. The orders came directly from Ayatollah Khomeini in the form of a Fatwa. According to some estimates up to 30,000 were thus executed. [See The Massacre of Political Prisoners in Iran, 1988 - Report of an inquiry conducted by Geoffrey Robertson QC.] Although we take no responsibility for any of the political conclusions the report may provide, it does give many eyewitness accounts of survivors who describe how the interrogations and killings were carried out].
The Economist in an article published on June 21st 2012, Iran, 1988 - What happened?, states the following:
“The killing was ordered by a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who became Supreme Leader of Iran after the revolution. It was relentless and efficient. Prisoners, including women and teenagers, were loaded onto forklift trucks and hanged from cranes and beams in groups of five or six at half-hourly intervals all day long. Others were killed by firing squad. Those not executed were subjected to torture. The victims were intellectuals, students, left-wingers, members of the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (MEK), other opposition parties and ethnic and religious minorities. Many had originally been sentenced for non-violent offences such as distributing newspapers and leaflets, taking part in demonstrations or collecting funds for prisoners' families, according to a report published by Amnesty International, an NGO, in 1990. (…)
“Iran had killed a large number of political prisoners throughout the 1980s, so why the sudden increase in 1988? The witnesses' testimonies suggest that the regime was worried about the large number of unrepentant political prisoners due to be released after the end of the war with Iraq, and so decided to purge its prisons of troublesome elements once and for all.
“Witnesses described how, in the months preceding the massacre, they were questioned and separated according to their political and religious beliefs, and moved across various prisons. Then they were called one-by-one in front of a makeshift court made up of an Islamic judge, a state prosecutor and a representative of the Ministry of Intelligence. They were asked: ‘Are you a Muslim’, ‘Do you pray?’, ‘What is your political affiliation?’ and ‘Do you recant your beliefs and political activities?’ If their answers didn't satisfy the court they were sent for execution.”
Those that survived suffered terrible physical and psychological torture, the aim of which was to break them and assure that they never returned to political activity that might threaten the regime in the future. The cream of the Iranian Communist movement was butchered in these killings, together with other dissident political activists.
What was the aim of the regime in these mass killings? It was to defend the privileges of the elite in Iran. While hijacking the 1979 revolution and dressing itself in its clothes, the Iranian Islamic clergy had proceeded to destroy everything that the revolution really stood for. [See Thirty years since the Iranian Revolution for a brief outline and a guide to further reading on those events]. Interestingly, Khomeini was named “Man of the Year” in 1979 by Time magazine, apparently, for his “international influence”.
As The Guardian pointed out in an article published last year in June, “newly declassified US diplomatic cables revealed extensive contacts between Ayatollah Khomeini and the Carter administration just weeks ahead of Iran’s Islamic revolution (…) declassified 1980 CIA analysis titled Islam in Iran… shows Khomeini’s initial attempts to reach out to the US dated back to 1963, 16 years before the revolution.”
The same article explains that, “Khomeini returned to Tehran on 1 February 1979, two weeks after the shah had fled Iran. The Iranian military, which was under US influence, soon surrendered, and within months Khomenei was declared the supreme leader of a new Islamic republic.”
Although later Iran and the US were to come into conflict, due to Iran’s growing power and influence in the region that threatened the position of US allies such as Saudi Arabia, when it was a question of stopping genuine social revolution, the US establishment and the Iranian Islamic clergy found common ground. That explains why the Iranian military of the time listened to their US masters and allowed power to pass to Khomeini.
The Iraq Wars
“Half a million children have died in Iraq since UN sanctions were imposed - most enthusiastically by Britain and the US. Three UN officials have resigned in despair. Meanwhile, bombing of Iraq continues almost daily.” This is how an article, Squeezed to death published in The Guardian by John Pilger opened on 4th March, 2000. Pilger was writing about the sanctions imposed on Iraq after the first Iraq War of 1991.
Some have attempted to say that the figure of half a million Iraqi children under the age of five dying as a result of the sanctions imposed over the previous eight years was an exaggerated figure from a UNICEF report and have offered the “more realistic figure” of 350,000. As if that makes it any better!
Pilger in his article explains that, “According to Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, the death rate of children under five is more than 4,000 a month - that is 4,000 more than would have died before sanctions. That is half a million children dead in eight years. If this statistic is difficult to grasp, consider, on the day you read this, up to 200 Iraqi children may die needlessly. ‘Even if not all the suffering in Iraq can be imputed to external factors,’ says Unicef, ‘the Iraqi people would not be undergoing such deprivation in the absence of the prolonged measures imposed by the Security Council and the effects of war’."
It was common knowledge at the time that the sanctions were having these horrific effects on children in Iraq, but nonetheless the US and British imperialists ruthlessly continued to push for this policy.
John Pilger highlights the cold-blooded ruthless calculation of the then US Administration when he writes, “When asked on US television if she thought that the death of half a million Iraqi children was a price worth paying, Albright replied: ‘This is a very hard choice, but we think the price is worth it’." There we have it: the US Secretary of State (in office between 1997-2001) considered the death of half a million children as a price worth paying!
The death and suffering, however, did not flow solely from the sanctions. People continued to die after the first Iraq war of 1991 from the contamination produced by the weapons used during the war.
"It carries death," said Dr Jawad Al-Ali, a cancer specialist and member of Britain's Royal College of Physicians. "Our own studies indicate that more than 40 per cent of the population in this area will get cancer: in five years' time to begin with, then long afterwards. Most of my own family now have cancer, and we have no history of the disease. It has spread to the medical staff of this hospital. We don't know the precise source of the contamination, because we are not allowed to get the equipment to conduct a proper scientific survey, or even to test the excess level of radiation in our bodies. We suspect depleted uranium, which was used by the Americans and British in the Gulf War right across the southern battlefields." (from the same article quoted above).
Then there are the actual numbers killed during the second Iraq war itself. According to Physicians for Social Responsibility,
“...the war has, directly or indirectly, killed around 1 million people in Iraq, 220,000 in Afghanistan and 80,000 in Pakistan, i.e. a total of around 1.3 million. Not included in this figure are further war zones such as Yemen. The figure is approximately 10 times greater than that of which the public, experts and decision makers are aware of and propagated by the media and major NGOs. And this is only a conservative estimate. The total number of deaths in the three countries named above could also be in excess of 2 million, whereas a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.” (PSR: Physicians for Social Responsibility, March 2015)
Even the BBC in an October 2013 report Iraq study estimates war-related deaths at 461,000 pointed out that, “About half a million people died in Iraq as a result of war-related causes between the US-led invasion in 2003 and mid-2011.”
The deaths from sanction and war thus amount to at least one million. Let us not forget that we were told that war was necessary to stop Saddam Hussein who had weapons that could hit Britain in 45 minutes. This has all been shown to be completely false. It was a fabrication to get on board “public opinion”.
The war went ahead in spite of huge protests, such as the two-million strong anti-war demonstration in London in 2003.
But let us ask ourselves who benefitted from that war. The people of Iraq certainly didn’t. Neither did the people of the wider Middle East, as the situation in Syria now reveals. The war prepared the conditions on the ground for the emergence of ISIS and strengthened Islamic fundamentalist groups, who have carried out many bomb and suicide attacks around the world, bringing death to the streets of Paris, London, Brussels and other cities. So, far from making it a safer world for everyone, the long term effect of the Iraq Wars has been to bring greater instability, greater suffering and less security for the people of the world.
There is a group that did benefit, however, and that is the powerful arms industry, in particular the US weapons industry. In the top ten arms selling companies in the world, six are American, United Technologies, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Boeing, Lockheed Martin. The other are British, French, Italian and Dutch. In 2013 the top ten companies made $23billion in profit from arms sales. [source; Blood Money: These Companies and People Make Billions of Dollars from War]
An article published in Time magazine in March 2014, Here Are the 5 Companies Making a Killing Off Wars Around the World, explained,
“Despite the decline in military spending, the business of war remains a good one. The 100 largest arms producers and military services contractors recorded $395 billion in arms sales in 2012. Lockheed Martin, the largest arms seller, alone accounted for $36 billion in such sales during 2012.”
Two military campaigns in particular, those in Iraq and Afghanistan, provided very lucrative markets for the arms industry. In 2011 $159 billion were spent on these two wars, and the following year a further $115 billion were spent. Overall worldwide military spending in 2013 was $1.75 trillion and this was a “bad year” as spending was down by nearly 2 per cent.
As Lenin pointed out, “War is a ‘terrible’ thing? Yes. But it is a terribly profitable thing.” (May Day and the War, Written in the last days of April 1915) That adds something to the meaning of Albright’s words “a price worth paying”. Half a million children dead in a decade is the price, and $23billion profit in one year is the benefit.
These same people will shed oceans of crocodile tears about the deaths during the civil war that followed on from the Russian Revolution, and will write volumes and volumes of lies and distortions about what happened in 1917, but when it comes to killing hundreds of thousands, millions, of innocent civilians in wars that produce huge profits then they suddenly cease to be so sensitive and the real face of the monster that is the international bourgeoisie emerges “dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”