Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Harry Targ

I was thinking about an old Robin Hood song written by Woody Guthrie in the 1930s about an Oklahoma legend, Pretty Boy Floyd. According to Woody’s rendition, Pretty Boy Floyd got into a fight with a deputy sheriff and killed him. Floyd was forced to flee and allegedly took up a life of crime. At least authorities and journalists blamed Floyd for every robbery or killing that occurred in the state of Oklahoma. “Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name.”

But in true Robin Hood fashion Pretty Boy Floyd stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Floyd, the outlaw, paid the mortgage for a starving farmer. Another time when Floyd begged for and received a meal in a rural household, he placed a thousand dollar bill under his napkin when he finished dinner. One Christmas Day Floyd left a carload of groceries for starving families on relief in Oklahoma City.

And in these days of massive unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, criminal wealth, and staggering poverty, through the voice of Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie tells the wrenching story of capitalism that today is not too much different from during his time.

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Harry Targ

A Military Coup in Honduras

Sunday, June 28, 2009 the Honduran military carried out a Coup ousting duly elected President Manuel Zelaya from power. Almost immediately leaders of Western Hemisphere nations condemned the actions taken in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. For example, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) asserted that the days of military coups as a mechanism of the transfer of power were over in Latin America.

President Obama said on the following day that "it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections…. The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don't want to go back to a dark past."

On June 30, the United Nations General Assembly passed by acclamation a non-binding resolution condemning the military action and demanding that Zelaya be returned to office. Political opposites from former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, to Barack Obama took the same position on the events in Honduras, although Chavez articulated the view that the United States had a role in the Coup.

The New York Times reported on the Coup and the mass mobilizations in Honduras protesting it. The story did editorialize by pointing out that Zelaya, who was elected in 2006, was closely allied with Hugo Chavez and had linked Honduras to the Chavez led “leftist alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.” The Times further reported that there were large scale protests in the capital of Honduras in support of the Coup. And they claimed that Zelaya would have had no world significance if it were not for the Coup which made him famous.

Subsequent to the worldwide condemnations, including from the Obama administration, two elections were held ignoring the Coup, one later in 2009 and another in 2013. In other words, former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted was never allowed to return to office.

Journalist John Perry wrote three years after the Coup that Honduras had distinguished itself by its escalating violence. “…the murder rate is four times that of Mexico and it has become the world’s most dangerous country for journalists with 23 having been assassinated over the last three years.” Perry pointed out that in the Northeast of the country big landowners struggled against small farmers who sought to keep control of their land and the area has become a transit point for drug smuggling (John Perry, “Honduras--Three Years After the Coup,” OpenDemocracy.net. June 27, 2012.) 

The Relevance of Central American History for Today

The horrific migrations of the young and their families from the Central American war zones in 2014 (and earlier) are explained by media and politicians as caused by the quest of migrants for an improved standard of living to be found in the United States, or flight from homegrown drug gangs, or loose talk from President Obama about asylum for refugees, or failures of the Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform legislation. These common narratives ignore the history of United States imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and particularly the grotesque U.S. inspired violence against the Central American peoples launched by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Also, they do not address the economic devastation in the region caused by neo-liberal economic policies imposed by the debt and trade systems. Any serious discussion of the current refugee crisis of thousands of young people fleeing poverty and violence should include the following:

First, the Western Hemisphere has experienced hundreds of years of shifting external interference, mass murder and economic exploitation of natural resources, agricultural lands, cheap labor, and sweat shop workers. The Spanish, the British, and the United States figured most prominently in this unhappy story, referred to by Eduardo Galeano as “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.”

Second, twentieth century Central America was dramatically shaped by over thirty U.S. military incursions and occupations in Central America and the Caribbean between 1898 and the 1930s. For example, U.S. troops were sent to Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, and 1924-25.

Third, economic ruling classes in the Hemisphere and their foreign partners increasingly were forced to rely on strong military forces to crush domestic opposition to elite rule and devastating poverty and exploitation. Particularly in Central America, the military as an institution became a material force, sometimes independent of the economic ruling class. From the early 1930s until the end of World War II military dictatorships ruled each of the five Central American countries. Later, in the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, 2/3 of the land mass and population of Latin America was ruled by brutal military dictatorship: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most prominent.

Fourth, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the struggle against “international communism” to Central America. He launched and supported brutal wars against the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan people and looked the other way as the Guatemalan generals engaged in genocide against the majority indigenous population of that country. An estimated 400,000 Central America peoples died in these U.S. supported wars.

Honduras, before 1980, was a country with less violent military rule and only received modest amounts of U.S. military aid. However, as a result of Reagan’s wars in Central America, Honduras became the military base for U.S. operations in the region; training the contra rebels fighting against the Nicaraguan government and providing training and military support operations for Salvadoran troops fighting against FMLN rebels. Honduras received more military aid from the United States in the mid-1980s, than it did during the prior thirty years. Thousands of U.S. troops, numerous air strips, and field exercises for summer National Guard troops made Honduras a U.S. armed camp.

Fifth, parallel to the war on communism in the Western Hemisphere, the Reagan administration forced on the countries of the region the neo-liberal economic policies of downsizing government, deregulation, privatization, free trade, and shifts to export-oriented production. In the 1980s, the economic consequences of these policies were referred to by Latin American scholars as “the lost decade.”

While the economies of Central American countries have improved since the 1980s, they remain poor and dependent. Honduras is the poorest of the five countries in the region. In 2003 its per capita Gross Domestic Product was $803 (the regional figure was $1,405). A little over 9 percent of its earnings came from overseas remittances. Honduran debt constituted 66 percent of total GDP. And life expectancy was 66 years.

This brief review of some of the Latin American experience was part of the story of the 2009 coup, the escalation of domestic violence that ensued in the country since then, and the refugee crisis today. The histories of Guatemala and El Salvador have been similar. Even though elections in El Salvador brought former guerrilla members to power, U.S. and domestic elite opposition to radical reforms in that country have stifled the fundamental changes needed to transform the lives of the people there.

The Refugees as Victims of Imperialism

In general, we first should remember that whenever the interests of foreign investors (particularly from the United States), domestic ruling classes and/or military elites were threatened by international political forces and/or domestic mobilization of workers and peasants, the military moved in to reverse the forces of history.

Second, the United States has played a direct role in such interventions and has provided military assistance and training for military officers of all Latin American militaries ever since the end of World War II. (The training facility used to be called The School of the Americas and now is officially The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).

Third, military interventionism and covert operations have been paralleled by economic intervention through the debt system, foreign investment, trade agreements, and quotas and embargoes of goods from Latin American countries.

Fourth, the winds of change that were initiated in the 1960s in the region were first stifled and isolated, then spread in the 1980s and beyond. Most recently, countries as varied as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela have begun to step in a new direction; away from the neo-liberal economic model, away from deference to traditional great powers, and in resistance to the United States. (Honduras had begun to move in this direction as well before the Coup).

Most importantly, these countries, and other countries from the Global South in Asia and Africa, have been constructing new economic and political institutions that might transform an international economic and political system based on 500 years of North Atlantic rule. The fact that 192 countries in the United Nations condemned the Honduran Coup in 2009 suggested that this battle has gone beyond the simplistic New York Times frame that the Honduran battle was merely about competing special interests.

President Obama evidenced a sense of the history of U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and the role that regional domestic economic and military elites played in Central American countries when he criticized the 2009 coup in Honduras. However, his subsequent support of those who carried out the Coup and who refused to allow the ousted President to return, signaled that he would be returning to the traditional U.S. approach to the region. And the traditional United States policy supporting the consolidation of foreign investments and domestic wealth in Central America and  profit derived from the drug wars is connected to the  pain and suffering of Central American peoples.

Of course, a serious effort to address the refugee problem today would have to include a U.S. shift to support popular forces in the region, rejection of draconian neo-liberal policies, regional  allocation of economic assistance to stimulate grassroots economic institutions with people producing for domestic consumption, and radical disarmament of Central American militaries, police, and drug gangs. It would be a tall order but a worthy one for solidarity activists in the United States and the rest of the Hemisphere to support.

Finally, in the short-term, progressives should demand that the children entering the United States be treated as refugees and provided safety and security. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014


Harry Targ

I have been teaching courses on United States foreign policy since 1966. I came of age politically during the Vietnam War and the modern civil rights movement but was not born into a left-leaning political environment.

My formative college experiences of foreign policy came from articulate professors who had embraced the skeptical but limited vision of the United States role in the world shaped by the theorists of “political realism.” I was exposed to a later edition of Hans Morgenthau’s classic international relations textbook, Politics Among Nations, which declared that politics was about the struggle for power. Big or small nations, powerful or weak political actors of all kinds, were engaged in the pursuit of power for purposes of material gain or just to achieve more power. The vision of political philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, that life was a struggle between each and all, metaphorically a brutal state of nature, best captured the practice of international relations.

My professors also assigned George Kennan’s classic collection of lectures, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950. Kennan, too, was a realist. He, like Morgenthau, inadvertently became a critic of United States foreign policy because he argued that it was the reality and necessity of the pursuit of power that should guide foreign policy, not universalistic and apocalyptic visions of struggle among nations and peoples with diverse ideologies. 

Although Kennan was a significant contributor to the rise of anti-communism in America, he, paradoxically, critiqued twentieth century U.S. foreign policy for declaring itself committed to democratizing the world. Our utopian visions of the world, he said, could never be achieved and our promises to the citizenry about our pursuit of a new world order would generate cynicism. Both Morgenthau and Kennan were critics of the Eisenhower/Dulles call for the “liberation” of oppressed peoples living under communism. In addition, neither realist approved of the 1950s version of anti-communism, what was called “McCarthyism.”  

From 1964 to the 1970s, as a graduate student, then a new professor of international relations, an “older” activist against the war in Vietnam, and a participant observer in the exciting debates about the causes of imperialism, racism, and exploitation, my understanding of the United States role in the world began to change. Before reading Marx, Lenin, various theorists of imperialism and dependency, I started reading Gabriel Kolko’s dense The Politics of War: The World and United States Foreign Policy, 1943-1945 which described in infinite detail international diplomacy between what I would later call “the unnatural alliance,” the United States, the Soviet Union, and Great Britain. His analysis also addressed the rich, detailed complicated politics of nations all across Europe and Asia. I followed this reading by examining the work of Joyce and Gabriel Kolko, The Limits of Power, 1945-1954 (Joyce Kolko died in 2012 and Gabriel Kolko May 19, 2014). 

These works would shape my thinking about the United States role in the world, why the theory of imperialism provided a better explanation of contemporary politics than the prevailing realist theory, why history mattered, and how domestic politics and class struggle were intimately connected with foreign policy and international relations.
I gleaned from these works important insights about the international relations of the Second World War and the foundations of the Cold War.

For example, Gabriel Kolko made it clear that what drew the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union, the “unnatural alliance,” together was a common fear that global fascism would conquer the world. For that reason, the United States put its vision of constructing a global capitalist order in abeyance until fascism was defeated in Europe and Asia. Great Britain postponed its desire to reconstitute the shrinking British Empire. And, the former Soviet Union, sought desperately to save itself and “socialism in one country.”

Kolko pointed out that by 1943 it became clear to leaders of the three countries that fascism would be defeated. As a result of this realization, the early collaboration became more troubled as each member of this alliance began to pursue its own interests while struggling to defeat the enemy during the last phases of the war. For the western nations, the question of positioning themselves to maximize the chance to reestablish imperialism became incorporated into relations with the Soviet Union. The high point of lingering collaboration between the unnatural alliance was the last wartime conference at Yalta in the Crimea in February, 1945. However, the first postwar conference at Potsdam (in Germany) in July 1945, with acrimony between the leaders of the three countries, more accurately reflected the emerging Cold War between East and West to follow. 

In short, the politics of war was about defeating fascism but in a way to maximize the interests and vision of each country. That meant for the United States that each diplomatic and military decision, each outreach to leaders and parties in countries formerly occupied by the Nazis, and each diplomatic and military move to end the war in Asia was shaped by plans to expand empire in the post-war world.

The Limits of Power (co-authored with Joyce Kolko) continued the narrative about the United States role in the world into the post-World War II period. It powerfully demonstrated that the United States was committed to expanding its capitalist empire across the globe. When that failed a foreign policy was created to constitute a capitalist world order in Europe, parts of Asia, and in Latin America. To achieve these goals, U.S. policymakers used carrots and sticks.

The carrot, which would be a tool used ever since, was foreign assistance. The Truman administration proposed a modest aid package for Greece during its civil war and Turkey in 1947, arguing that these countries were under threat from “international communism.” More importantly, under the guise of humanitarianism, the United States provided a then huge $14 billion aid program for the anti-communist parts of Europe, the Marshall Plan. Aid would be given to countries which rejected then popular communist parties in elections. In addition, funds would go to countries which would shape their economies in keeping with demands from Marshall Plan administrators. Both the politics and economics of the Marshall Plan created a post-war capitalist order that would evolve into the European Union of the twenty-first century. The Marshall Plan would also become the model for the imposition of the neoliberal policies of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank many years later to create pliant “market” economies.

The stick, the Kolkos reported, was the creation of a military alliance system, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was to protect “the free world” in Europe from the threat of “international communism.” Because the initial threats of international communism came in Asia, the Truman Administration, with its allies, launched wars on the Korean peninsula and in Southeast Asia. “Our forgotten war,” journalists today call the Korean War, was not only about North Korean army attacks as the U.S. claimed. It was also about a civil war struggle between landowners, a minority ruling class, and a largely peasant population all across the Korean peninsula. The Kolko’s narrative of the U.S. role in Korea made it clear that the commitment to fight there would be a model for brutal militarism against peoples of the Global South ever since. In addition as subsequent research has pointed out, the Korean War legitimized the 1950 recommendations in National Security Council Document 68 (NSC 68) which called for military spending to be the number one priority of the federal government.

I always end my lectures on the history of the Korean War quoting from Joyce and Gabriel Kolko:

“UN combatant deaths were over 94,000, 34,000 of whom were Americans. Wounded came to over four times that figure, and American sources estimate Communist military casualties as over a million and one-half. Over a million South Korean civilians died, and probably a substantially larger number of civilian died in the North, for almost a decade after the end of the war the North Korean population was only equal to its 1950 level. Half the South Korean population was homeless or refugees by early 1951, and 2.5 million were refugees and another 5 million on relief at the end of the war.     

Much of the narrative written by Joyce and Gabriel Kolko about 1943 to 1954 can be applied to the military violence, quagmires, losses of life, and misplaced resources reported in today’s news.

Saturday, June 21, 2014


June 20, 2014

Harry Targ

The university is a site for intellectual excitement: debate about new theories and hypotheses; rigorous examination of competing ideas; and research, teaching and community service. Most men and women who pursue such a career are inspired by intellectual curiosity, the prospect of educating and inspiring students, and serving diverse communities. 

Moreover, the Morrill Act passed by Congress in 1862 committed the United States to construct and support state universities that would serve the people. Great state-funded public universities grew over the subsequent 150 years to facilitate the education of a growing population and helped build a more vibrant democracy.

But there are darker truths about the growth of the modern university. First, higher education is stimulated by, and financially beholden to, governments, political processes, corporations and banks. These institutions affect what research is done and what is taught. 

Second, conceptions of disciplines, bodies of knowledge, appropriate methods, ideas accepted as unchallengeable truths, and the basic principles of whole universities are shaped by economic interests and political power.

Third, professional associations, journals, forms of peer review, and general procedures for validating the quality of academic research and teaching are also affected by the same interests.

Serving status quo

Therefore, in the main, the university as an institution is, and has always been, designed to serve the status quo, a status quo again that is governed by economic and political interests.

The following examples are from Purdue University. Similar examples can be found at virtually every large and prestigious university in the country. David Smith and Scott Bauer of The Lafayette Journal and Courier reported on Purdue President Mitch Daniels’ attendance at a conference of the conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. Daniels said he attended to learn and to touch base with one of Purdue’s biggest donors. 

The meeting was populated by presidential candidates and conservative governors from Michigan and Florida. Other attendees included former Vice President Dick Cheney; former CIA Director David Petraeus; former Amway President Dick DeVos; and current or former CEOs from TD Ameritrade, Apple and Google. Republican operative Karl Rove also attended. Inadvertently highlighting the connection between corporate and political power and the university, Daniels said: “I considered this a trip of use to Purdue.”

Academic advocates for large-scale government and corporate commitments to increased space exploration, such as Daniels, who served as co-chair of the National Research Council, can be seen as serving the economic needs of research universities. The NRC issued a 286-page report in May, suggesting that a huge and redefined commitment would be needed to land on Mars by the 2030s. Despite the document’s skepticism about the possibilities of achieving new goals in space, Daniels said “human space exploration remains vital to the national interest for inspirational and aspirational reasons that appeal to a broad range of U.S. citizens.” 

The report outlined a range of steps that would be needed to achieve long-term goals in space. These multi-billion dollar research-based programs could occupy the research agendas of academic departments in universities such as Purdue for decades and enrich the biggest corporations in America.

Daniels was not the only university-affiliated spokesperson of note who recently made news. Purdue Board of Trustees member Don Thompson, president and CEO of the McDonald’s Corporation, weighed in on the debate about raising the minimum wage for fast-food workers after a nationwide set of protests against McDonald’s on May 22.

Thompson at a shareholders’ meeting declared that “McDonald’s is often a first job for many entering the work force. About one-third of our employees are 16 to 19. We are proud that we open doors to opportunity,” according to USA Today. Thompson praised his corporation for being a worker-friendly employer and added that it was the largest employer of veterans in the nation. Later he hinted at the possibility of raising the minimum wage at McDonald’s. Protesters argued that the median age of fast-food workers is 29, most work at today’s minimum wage, and economic survival on McDonald’s wages is virtually impossible.

Finally, the Purdue news service has announced increased collaboration of the university with the notorious Duke Energy Corp. most recently in the news because of its responsibility for a coal ash spill in North Carolina that coated 70 miles of the Dan River along the North Carolina and Virginia border with 60,000 tons of toxic sludge. A North Carolina judge ordered Duke Energy to immediately eliminate the source of groundwater pollution from company coal ash dumps. A criminal investigation of links between the spill and Duke Energy and state government officials in North Carolina is still under way.

Purdue News reported that the university would collaborate on the expansion of an education program to create the Duke Energy Academy at Purdue, a six-day instructional program to inspire high school students and teachers to work in STEM-related disciplines related to energy. The article erroneously claimed that “the amount of students entering the STEM fields is declining.” Other co-sponsors of the six-day educational experience include Bowen Engineering, General Electric, Kidwind Project, Siemens Energy and Windstream Technologies Inc.

Which path?

Higher education is at a fork in the road. One path is to maintain its traditional mission to educate and inspire students while sharing knowledge with communities at home and abroad. Another path is to expand the needs of special interests, political and corporate, at the expense of the traditional role of higher education. Growing social movements should include demands that universities continue to serve the needs of the people, rather than politicians and corporations.

Harry Targ is a political science professor at Purdue University. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana.