December 16, 2005

Harold Pinter Analyzes US Foreign Policy

In his Nobel Prize for Literature acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy on December 7, 2005 playwright Harold Pinter spoke of Art, Truth, and Politics. (You can read the text of his speech or watch it here. I strongly recommend watching it. My previous comments on the speech can be found here and here.)

In the political part of his speech, Pinter does a clinical analysis of the lies that propelled the US into attacking Iraq and then shows how it fits into a long historical pattern. He talks about many things that will be strange, especially to younger people in the US, because this kind of historical analysis is very rarely seen in the media here. And yet history is the only way that we can make sense of events, so Pinter's speech fills an important void. He says:

Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method. In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'. Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop. It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom. When the populace has been subdued - or beaten to death - the same thing - and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed. This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.

The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case. I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.

I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.

The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua. I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf. The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself). Father Metcalf said: 'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua. My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre. We have lived in peace. A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish. They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre. They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner. They behaved like savages. Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'

Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man. He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles. He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity. 'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.' There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.

Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.

Finally somebody said: 'But in this case “innocent people” were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many. If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place. Is this not the case? Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'

Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.

As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.

I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement: 'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.'

The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years. The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.

The Sandinistas weren't perfect. They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements. But they were intelligent, rational and civilised. They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society. The death penalty was abolished. Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead. Over 100,000 families were given title to land. Two thousand schools were built. A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh. Free education was established and a free health service. Infant mortality was reduced by a third. Polio was eradicated.

The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion. In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set. If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things. There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.

I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us. President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'. This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment. But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government. There was no record of torture. There was no record of systematic or official military brutality. No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua. There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary. The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala. The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.

Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA. That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass. It is estimated that 75,000 people died. Why were they killed? They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved. That belief immediately qualified them as communists. They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.

The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government. It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people. They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again. The casinos moved back into the country. Free health and free education were over. Big business returned with a vengeance. 'Democracy' had prevailed.

But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America. It was conducted throughout the world. It was never-ending. And it is as if it never happened.

The United States supported and in many cases engendered every right wing military dictatorship in the world after the end of the Second World War. I refer to Indonesia, Greece, Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, Haiti, Turkey, the Philippines, Guatemala, El Salvador, and, of course, Chile. The horror the United States inflicted upon Chile in 1973 can never be purged and can never be forgiven.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths took place throughout these countries. Did they take place? And are they in all cases attributable to US foreign policy? The answer is yes they did take place and they are attributable to American foreign policy. But you wouldn't know it.

I have little to add to this. Pinter reminds us that the only gift that a writer has to offer is to speak the truth as he or she sees it, however uncomfortable it may be to the listener. Most people in the US will be horrified by what he says because they do not realize the extent to which the governments they elect carry out policies that they would oppose if they knew what it really was, instead of the way it is presented to them by the government and relayed to them by an uncritical media. Such people, if they are skeptical, should look at the historical record and see if it bears out Pinter's charges. Willful ignorance about the facts of history only further guarantees that history will be repeated.


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That speech is really sobering.

Where do you suggest that a curious person should for the unvarnished historical record, however?

Posted by Erin on December 16, 2005 09:10 AM


I don't think that there is a single unvarnished source. I think that what is essential is to diversify the sources from which one gets information. One has to read around the subjects and try and piece together the truth of events.

I dfinitely do not depend only on mainstream media for news. The labels (liberal, conservative, etc.) attached to them are largely meaningless. I do read a lot of magazines that provide historical analyses of political events and over time have found writers who take the long way and actually source their writings. The list of good, reliable writers is long.

Economist Edward Herman, who writes for Z Magazine is good, as is the historian Howard Zinn who writes for The Progressive. I also find good articles in Harper's. Of course, Noam Chomsky is always worth reading. His book "Manufacturing Consent", written with Herman is a classic in how to read between the lines of news. And of course, one needs to read the

The mainstream news sources do provide some useful information, but one has to look carefully and dig deep to find it. How to do that most effectively requires some effort on our part. Fortunately the internet has made it much easier for us to find good sources. But it requires us to be seekers. It will not come to us.

And we have to know the history of events. There is no way around it. I remember how I. F. Stone's old book The Secret History of the Korean War was a revelation to me about the importance of taking the long historical view.

Posted by Mano Singham on December 16, 2005 10:33 AM

I watched the Pinter speech last night. Thanks for the link. It is an incredible presentation.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on December 16, 2005 11:44 AM