Chomsky on overthrowing third world governments

Noam Chomsky is worth reading because he’s an articulate, well-informed, sources-citing defender of unconventional views rarely encountered in mainstream venues. It’s hard for me to evaluate his views because he isn’t very systematic in his presentations of evidence for his core political theses — but then, hardly anybody is. But whether his views are fair or not, I think it’s good to stick my head outside the echo chamber regularly.1

Personally, I’m most interested in his perspectives on plutocracy, international relations, and state violence. On those topics, Understanding Power (+450 pages of footnotes) is a pretty good introduction to his views.

To give you a feel for the book, I’ll excerpt a passage from chapter 1 of Understanding Power about overthrowing third world governments. I’ve also reproduced the (renumbered) footnotes for this passage.

…there’s a classic technique when you want to overthrow a government: you arm its military. That’s the standard thing, for obvious reasons. You want to overthrow a government, who’s going to overthrow it for you? Well, the military, they’re the guys who overthrow governments. In fact, that’s the main reason for giving military aid and training all around the world in the first place, to keep contacts with our guys in the place that counts, the army.

If you read American secret documents, this is all stated very openly, actually. For example, there’s a now-declassified Robert McNamara [Secretary of Defense]-to-McGeorge Bundy [Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs] intercommunication from 1965 with a detailed discussion of Latin America, in which they talk about how the role of the military in Latin American societies is to overthrow civilian governments if, in the judgment of the military, the governments are not pursuing the “welfare of the nation,” which turns out to be the welfare of American multinational corporations.2

So if you want to overthrow a government, you arm its military, and of course you make it hard for the civilian government to function. And that’s what was done in the Chile case: we armed the military, we tried to cause economic chaos, and the military took over.3

…Chile was a straight, classic operation—clandestine in a sense, but not all that clandestine. For instance, arming the Chilean military was completely public: it was in public records, it was never secret.4 It’s just that nobody in the United States ever looks, because the media and the intellectual class are too disciplined, and ordinary people out there don’t have the time to go and read Pentagon records and figure out what happened. So it was clandestine in the sense that nobody knew about it, but the information was all available in public records, there was nothing hidden about it. In fact, Chile was kind of a normal C.I.A. operation, it was like overthrowing Sukarno in Indonesia [in a 1965 U.S.-backed coup].5

…I mean, there have been clandestine operations — I don’t want to suggest that it’s novel. Like, overthrowing the government of Iran in 1953 was clandestine.6 Overthrowing the government of Guatemala in 1954 was clandestine — and it was kept secret for twenty years.7

Operation MONGOOSE, which so far wins the prize as the world’s leading single international terrorist operation, started by the Kennedy administration right after the Bay of Pigs, that was secret… Right after the Bay of Pigs invasion attempt failed, Kennedy launched a major terrorist operation against Cuba [beginning November 30, 1961]. It was huge — I think it had a $50 million-a-year budget (that’s known); it had about twenty-five hundred employees, about five hundred of them American, about two thousand what they call “assets,” you know, Cuban exiles or one thing or another. It was launched from Florida—and it was totally illegal. I mean, international law we can’t even talk about, but even by domestic law it was illegal, because it was a C.I.A. operation taking place on American territory, which is illegal.8 And it was serious: it involved blowing up hotels, sinking fishing boats, blowing up industrial installations, bombing airplanes. This was a very serious terrorist operation. The part of it that became well known was the assassination attempts — there were eight known assassination attempts on Castro.9

…Actually, let me just tell you one piece of it that was revealed about a year ago. It turns out that Operation MONGOOSE practically blew up the world. I don’t know how many of you have been following the new material that’s been released on the Cuban Missile Crisis [1962 U.S.-Soviet showdown over Soviet missiles in Cuba], but it’s very interesting…

So what happened is, there was that famous interchange between Kennedy and Khrushchev, in which an agreement to end the crisis was reached. Then shortly after that, the Russians tried to take control of their missiles in Cuba, in order to carry through the deal they had made with the United States. See, at that point the Russians didn’t actually control the missiles, the missiles were in the hands of Cubans—and the Cubans didn’t want to give them up, because they were still worried, plausibly, that there would be an American invasion. So there was a stand-off between them early in November—which even included an actual confrontation between Russian and Cuban forces about who was going to have physical control of the missiles. It was a very tense moment, and you didn’t know what was going to happen. Then right in the middle of it, one of the Operation MONGOOSE activities took place. Right at one of the tensest moments of the Missile Crisis, the C.I.A. blew up a factory in Cuba, with about four hundred people killed according to the Cubans. Well, fortunately the Cubans didn’t react—but if something like that had happened to us at the time, Kennedy certainly would have reacted, and we would have had a nuclear war. It came very close.

Alright, there’s a terrorist operation which might have set off a nuclear war. That wasn’t even reported in the United States when the information was released about a year ago, it was considered so insignificant. The only two places where you can find it reported are in a footnote, on another topic actually, in one of these national security journals, International Security, and also in a pretty interesting book by one of the top State Department intelligence specialists, Raymond Garthoff, who’s a sensible guy. He has a book called Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he brings in some of this material.10

  1. Just to get this out of the way: Yes, it seems Chomsky initially misread the evidence for the scale of the Cambodian genocide, and he was slow to admit his error, and that’s pretty bad. That doesn’t make him an “apologist” for the Khmer Rouge, and it doesn’t mean he’s wrong about everything else he has said. {}
  2. For the McNamara-Bundy intercommunication, see Memorandum for the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, “Study of U.S. Policy Toward Latin American Military Forces,” Secretary of Defense, June 11, 1965 (available in the Lyndon Baines Johnson library).

    For similar statements in secret but now declassified U.S. government documents, see footnote 52 of chapter 2 of U.P.

    On U.S. training of Latin American military leaders, see for example, Jan Knippers Black, United States Penetration of Brazil, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977, pp. 220-221, 170-171 (over 200,000 Latin American military personnel had been trained in the U.S. by the late 1970s, and U.S. military training has purposefully built a network of personal relationships between United States and Latin American military cadres); Joanne Omang, “Latin American Left, Right Say U.S. Militarized Continent,” Washington Post, April 11, 1977, p. A16 (over 30,000 Latin American officers had been trained in the U.S. “School for the Americas” alone by the 1970s, and the training of Latin American military personnel in U.S. bases and training schools has placed great weight on ideological conditioning and has “steeped young Latin officers in the early 1950s anti-Communist dogma that subversive infiltrators could be anywhere”); Jeffrey Stein, “Fort Lesley J. McNair: Grad School For Juntas,” Nation, May 21, 1977, pp. 621-624 (on the Inter-American Defense College). {}

  3. On the U.S. overthrow of the Chilean government, see for example, U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, Interim Report, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975, section IIIF, especially p. 231 n.2. This report explains that the White House and C.I.A. pursued a “two track” policy in Chile. The hard line called for a military coup, which was finally achieved. The soft line — which included a White House directive to “make the economy scream” — was explained by U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry, a Kennedy liberal, who stated: “not a nut or bolt will be allowed to reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty, a policy designed for a long time to come to accelerate the hard features of a Communist society in Chile.” Chomsky stresses (Year 501: The Conquest Continues, Boston: South End, 1993, p. 36): “[E]ven if the hard line did not succeed in introducing fascist killers to exterminate the virus, the vision of ‘utmost deprivation’ [in Chile] would suffice to keep the rot from spreading, and ultimately demoralize the patient itself. And crucially, it would provide ample grist for the mill of the cultural managers, who can produce cries of anguish at ‘the hard features of a Communist society,’ pouring scorn on those ‘apologists’ who describe what is happening.”

    On the coup itself, see for example, James Petras and Morris Morley, The United States and Chile: Imperialism and the Overthrow of the Allende Government, New York: Monthly Review, 1975; William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II, Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995, ch. 34; John Gittings, ed., The Lessons of Chile: The Chilean Coup and the Future of Socialism, Nottingham, U.K.: Spokesman, 1975 (providing first-hand accounts of the effect of the coup on socialist activists in Chile); Fred Landis, “How 20 Chileans Overthrew Allende for the C.I.A.,” Inquiry, February 19, 1979, pp. 16-20 (on the role of the Institute for General Studies, a C.I.A.-funded think-tank that ran vast anti-Allende propaganda operations for the C.I.A.). See also footnote 17 of this chapter. {}

  4. For unclassified U.S. military aid figures during the Allende years, see for example, Covert Action in Chile, 1963-1973, Staff Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to Intelligence Activities, U.S. Senate, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 18, 1975, pp. 32-38 (with tables on military assistance, military sales, and training of Chilean military personnel in Panama, based on “unclassified” figures from the Defense Department). An excerpt (p. 37; emphasis in original): “[M]ilitary assistance was not cut off at the time of Allende’s confirmation. Military sales jumped sharply from 1972 to 1973 and even more sharply from 1973 to 1974 after the coup. Training of Chilean military personnel in Panama also rose during the Allende years… [increasing the number of trainees from 1969 to 1973 by 150 percent].” {}
  5. On C.I.A. involvement in overthrowing Sukarno in Indonesia, see for example, Peter Dale Scott, “The United States and the Overthrow of Sukarno, 1965-1967,” Pacific Affairs, Summer 1985, pp. 239-264 (study documenting the C.I.A.’s role); Ralph McGehee [ex-C.I.A. officer], “The C.I.A. and The White Paper On El Salvador,” Nation, April 11, 1981, p. 423f (this article was censored by the C.I.A. under a clause in the author’s contract, and was published with deletions noted; the author reports that he is familiar with a highly classified C.I.A. report on the Agency’s role in provoking the destruction of the P.K.I., the Indonesian Communist Party, and he attributes the slaughter to the “C.I.A. [one word deleted] operation”); Kathy Kadane, “Ex-agents say C.I.A. compiled death lists for Indonesians,” San Francisco Examiner, May 20, 1990, p. A1 (“Silent for a quarter century, former high-ranking U.S. diplomats and C.I.A. officials described in lengthy interviews how they aided Indonesian army leader Suharto — now president of Indonesia — in his attack on the P.K.I. [Indonesian Communist Party]”); Gabriel Kolko, Confronting the Third World: United States Foreign Policy, 1945-1980, New York: Pantheon, 1988, pp. 173-185 (concise summary of the events leading up to the massacre). An excerpt (p. 177 n.”*”): “U.S. documents for the three months preceding September 30, 1965, and dealing with the convoluted background and intrigues, much less the embassy’s and the C.I.A.’s roles, have been withheld from public scrutiny. Given the detailed materials available before and after July-September 1965, one can only assume that the release of these papers would embarrass the U.S. government.”

    During Congressional testimony, Pentagon official Paul Warnke, a reputed dove, acknowledged the purpose of U.S. military aid to Indonesia before the 1965 coup. See Foreign Assistance Act of 1968 Hearings, Hearings before the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, 90th Congress, 2nd Session, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968, p. 706: “[CONNECTICUT SENATOR JOHN] MONAGAN: ‘Speaking of military assistance programs, I think of one that is in Indonesia, where at least in the latter days the purpose for which it was maintained was not to support an existing [i.e. the Sukarno] regime. In fact, we were opposed, eventually and increasingly, to the then existing regime. It was to preserve a liaison of sorts with the military of the country which in effect turned out to be one of the conclusive elements in the overthrow of that regime.’ WARNKE: ‘That is correct, sir.’”

    On the subsequent massacre in Indonesia, and for more on the U.S. involvement, see footnote 23 of chapter 2 of U.P.

    On U.S. government involvement in another “classic operation,” overthrowing the democratic Goulart government in Brazil in 1964, see for example, A.J. Langguth, Hidden Terrors, New York: Pantheon, 1978, pp. 38-116; Jan Knippers Black, United States Penetration of Brazil, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977; Phyllis Parker, Brazil and the Quiet Intervention, 1964, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1979; Ruth Leacock, Requiem for Revolution: The United States and Brazil, 1961-1969, Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1990. See also, Thomas Skidmore, The Politics of Military Rule in Brazil, 1964-85, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988 (comprehensive scholarly study of the post-coup period). {}

  6. On the C.I.A. coup in Iran, see for example, William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II, Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995, ch. 9; Bill A. James, The Eagle and the Lion: The Tragedy of American-Iranian Relations, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988, ch. 2; Kermit Roosevelt, Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1979 (first-person account of the coup by a former C.I.A. officer; this book was recalled from stores by its publisher McGraw-Hill in 1979 under pressure from British Petroleum Company, the successor corporation to the petroleum entity which Roosevelt implicated in the coup). See also, William A. Dorman and Mansour Farhang, The U.S. Press and Iran: Foreign Policy and the Journalism of Deference, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987, ch. 2 (on the distorted U.S. press coverage of the coup, and of Iran generally). On the recall of Roosevelt’s book, see Ben H. Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, Boston: Beacon, Fifth Edition, 1997, p. 39. {}
  7. On the C.I.A. coup in Guatemala, see for example, Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999 (expanded edition); Richard H. Immerman, The C.I.A. in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention, Austin: University of Texas Press, 1982; Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, New York: Norton, 1983 (2nd revised and expanded edition 1993), pp. 113-127; Stephen Schlesinger, “How Dulles Worked the Coup d’Etat,” Nation, October 28, 1978, p. 425 (based upon more than 1,000 pages of State Department documents from 1953 and 1954, released to Schlesinger under the Freedom of Information Act; concluding that the coup “was conceived of and run at the highest levels of the American government in closest cahoots with the United Fruit Company and under the overall direction of Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, backed by President Eisenhower”).

    For a statement of the U.S.’s reasons for the coup, see Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 365. This study quotes a State Department official’s warning prior to the coup that “Guatemala has become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail.” {}

  8. On the scale, illegality and activities of Operation MONGOOSE, see for example, Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (1989 edition), Washington: Brookings Institution, 1989. An excerpt (p. 32 and n.53): “[A] secret Special Group… [was] established in November 1961 to conduct covert operations against Cuba under the code-name ‘Mongoose.’ Attorney General Kennedy was a driving force in this covert action program. A Washington headquarters group had been set up under General Lansdale and a C.I.A. ‘Task Force W’ in Florida under William K. Harvey, both veteran covert action managers. The operation came to involve 400 Americans, about 2,000 Cubans, a private navy of fast boats, and an annual budget of about $50 million. Task Force W carried out a wide range of activities, initially mostly against Cuban ships and aircraft outside Cuba (and non-Cuban ships engaged in the Cuba trade), such as contaminating sugar shipments out of Cuba and tampering with industrial imports into the country. A new phase, calling for more raids into Cuba, opened in September… A Miami C.I.A. station was also established, in probable violation of the law banning C.I.A. operations in the United States, to say nothing of organizing activities that contravened the Neutrality Act.”

    U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Government Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Final Report, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, Books II, III, and VI (Report No. 94-755), Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976; Warren Hinckle and William Turner, The Fish is Red: The Story of The Secret War Against Castro, New York: Harper & Row, 1981, ch. 4; Morris H. Morley, Imperial State and Revolution: The United States and Cuba, 1952-1986, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987, pp. 148-154; Edward S. Herman, The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda, Boston: South End, 1982, ch. 2.

    One of the commandos who participated in paramilitary operations against Cuba under the command of William “Rip” Robertson describes them as follows (quoted in Taylor Branch and George Crile III, “The Kennedy Vendetta: How the C.I.A. waged a silent war against Cuba,” Harper’s, August 1975, pp. 49-63): “After the Bay of Pigs is when the great heroic deeds of Rip really began. I was on one of his teams, but he controlled many teams and many operations… Our team made more than seven big war missions. Some of them were huge: the attacks on the Texaco refinery, the Russian ships in Oriente Province, a big lumberyard, the Patrice Lumumba sulfuric acid plant at Santa Lucía, and the diesel plant at Casilda. But they never let us fight as much as we wanted to, and most of the operations were infiltrations and weapons drops. We would go on missions to Cuba almost every week. When we didn’t go, Rip would feel sick and get very mad. He was always blowing off his steam, but then he would call us his boys, and he would hug us and hit us in the stomach. He was always trying to crank us up for the missions. Once he told me, ‘I’ll give you $50 if you bring me back an ear.’ I brought him two, and he laughed and said, ‘You’re crazy,’ but he paid me $100, and he took us to his home for a turkey dinner. Rip was a patriot, an American patriot. Really, I think he was a fanatic. He’d fight anything that came against democracy… At the end of December, 1961, [commando Ramon] Orozco went on a ten-day operation with a seven-man team. The commandos blew up a railroad bridge and watched a train run off the ruptured tracks, then they burned down a sugar warehouse.”

    See also, U.P.I., “C.I.A. reportedly tried to dry up Cuban crop,” Boston Globe, June 27, 1976, p. 3 (reporting the allegation by former Pentagon researcher Lowell Ponte that the C.I.A. and the Pentagon seeded clouds “to try to dry up the Cuban sugar crop in 1969 and 1970”; in the next day’s issue the report is denied by the Pentagon); Drew Fetherston and John Cummings, “Canadian Says U.S. Paid Him $5,000 to Infect Cuban Poultry,” Washington Post, March 21, 1977, p. A18 (“The major details of the Canadian’s story [i.e. in the title] have been confirmed by sources within and outside the American intelligence community”); Drew Fethersten and John Cummings, “C.I.A. tied to Cuba’s ’71 pig fever outbreak,” Boston Globe, January 9, 1977, p. 1. An excerpt: “With at least the tacit backing of Central Intelligence Agency officials, operatives linked to anti-Castro terrorists introduced African swine fever virus into Cuba in 1971. Six weeks later an outbreak of the disease forced the slaughter of 500,000 pigs to prevent a nationwide animal epidemic. A U.S. intelligence source said in an interview that he was given the virus in a sealed, unmarked container at an Army base and C.I.A. training ground in the Panama Canal Zone with instructions to turn it over to the anti-Castro group. The 1971 outbreak was the first and only time the disease has hit the Western Hemisphere. It was labeled the ‘most alarming event’ of 1971 by the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. African swine fever is a highly contagious and usually lethal viral disease that infects only pigs and, unlike swine flu, cannot be transmitted to human beings… [A]ll production of pork, a Cuban staple, came to a halt apparently for several months.”

    And see chapter 5 of U.P. and its footnote 29. {}

  9. On U.S. assassination attempts on Castro, see for example, U.S. Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities, Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders, Interim Report (S. Rept. 94-465), 94th Congress, 1st Session, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975, sections 1MB and IV, pp. 71 f, 139-180 (reporting both MONGOOSE and non-MONGOOSE efforts to kill Castro).

    One of the known assassination attempts on Castro was implemented the very day that John F. Kennedy himself was assassinated. See Thomas G. Paterson, ed., Kennedy’s Quest for Victory: American Foreign Policy, 1961-1963, New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. An excerpt (pp. 153-154): “In mid-June [1963] the N.S.C. [National Security Council] approved a new sabotage program. The C.I.A. quickly cranked up new dirty tricks and revitalized its assassination option by making contact with a traitorous Cuban official, Rolando Cubela Secades. Code-named AM/LASH, he plotted with the C.I.A. to kill Fidel Castro. … On the very day that Kennedy died, AM/LASH rendez-voused with C.I.A. agents in Paris, where he received a ball-point pen rigged with a poisonous hypodermic needle intended to produce Castro’s instant death.” See also, William Blum, Killing Hope: U.S. Military and C.I.A. Interventions Since World War II, Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1995, Appendix III, p. 453 (listing all known prominent foreign individuals in whose assassination, or planning for the same, the United States has been involved since the end of World War II). {}

  10. For the two references to the factory bombing during the Cuban Missile Crisis, see David A. Welch and James G. Blight, “The Eleventh Hour of the Cuban Missile Crisis: An Introduction to the ExComm Transcripts,” International Security, Winter 1987-88, p. 12 n.18; Raymond L. Garthoff, Reflections on the Cuban Missile Crisis (1989 edition), Washington: Brookings Institution, 1989, pp. 122-123. {}


  1. Gary says

    Interesting. How much of the enjoyment from the book was from learning about the fiendish behavior of states? :) Did you feel like you pulled any major practical insights?

    • Luke says

      I’m trying to understand geopolitics better, e.g. I’m also reading Kissinger, for the purposes of — in the long run — acquiring better intuitions about what we can do to help the world better manage powerful technologies and GCRs. I had read some Chomsky years ago, so I’m not sure I’ve encountered new insights yet, but I’m trying to arm myself with some basic points and examples so that when I’m reading others on geopolitics I can test them against some of the facts Chomsky cites, or be prompted to check their sources vs. Chomsky’s sources.

  2. mojo.rhythm says

    Noam always motivates and inspires me. Whenever I can’t be bothered reading, I imagine Noam sitting at his desk at MIT, six dailies already finished, knee-deep into his fifteenth foreign policy journal article. I don’t know how he keeps it up at his age. Unfortunately, when asked about his ‘routine’ or ‘habits’ specifically, his response has been pretty shallow and uninformative: “Oh you know it’s just hard work. I don’t do anything anybody else doesn’t do.”

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