State Terror in the Twentieth Century, III: Foreign Policy

This is the third in a series on the use of terror by states in the 20th century. Part 1 is here, and part 2 may be found here.

In our ongoing look at how the practice of terror by states became normalized in the 20th century, we have observed how terror has been employed by states for both internal security, as we saw last week, and in the conduct of foreign relations. This use in foreign relations further subdivides into terror in time of war, and terror during ostensible peacetime.

Terror during time of war takes several forms, and is most prevalent in contests between opponents of unequal strength. This has led Noam Chomsky to describe terrorism as a “weapon of the weak,” but that is only half the story. For the strong, terror is also a frequently-desirable weapon in the available arsenal of the strategist. Mass terror as a deliberate strategy saw the 20th century begin, as the US practiced terror -as-counterinsurgency (the “water cure“) in the Philippines and Cuba, joined by the British in Africa and India, and by the French in SE Asia and Algeria. Among the most egregious exercises of state terror in the first decade of the 20th century was the genocide of the Herero in Africa by the Germans, late entries into the colonial game. In Russia, the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, were teaching the future Bolsheviks the tradecraft of deception with brutal efficiency. The outbreak of the First World War saw German counterterror in the Balkans, and also the first emergence of the 20th century’s most characteristic form of state terror during warfare: strategic aerial bombing, first by giant Zeppelin airships, and later by large, multi-engine Gotha and R-plane heavy bombers. The concept was simple: since the civilians who make up the nation’s productive capacity are the backbone of the nation’s strength, then, not only are enemy civilians legitimate targets, but they are in fact the most important targets of all. (h/t Gwynne Dyer)

In spite of the consolidation of this concept early in the First World War, the technology was not yet up to the job. Even after the Second World War saw the deployment of vast fleets of bombers and the specific targeting of civilians, British morale actually improved under German terror bombing in 1940 and ’41, a counterintuitive effect also observed after the US/UK began terror bombing German cities in 1943. Likewise, the air campaign against Germany, in spite of heavy losses, was ineffective in throttling German industrial production, as German production increased steadily, until December 1944.

It was in Japan, however, that strategic bombing reached its apocalyptic climax. After the destruction of Dresden by RAF Bomber Command and the US Eighth Air Force in February 1945, the US Twentieth Air Force adopted “British tactics” (low-level mass attacks with incendiaries against civilians) in its war against Japanese cities. The shift was heralded by the March9 raid on Tokyo, in which B-29s destroyed sixteen square miles of the city and killed over 100,000 civilians; General Curtis LeMay’s notes included the observation that the water in some of the canals was boiling. Even still, Japan fought on, until the near-pushbutton annihilation of the atomic bomb and the Soviet blitzkrieg in Manchuria made continued resistance an act of madness. Strategic bombing had demonstrated the ability to kill and destroy on an unprecedented scale; but never, in spite of the  promises of theorists, did strategic bombing demonstrate the ability to conclusively win a war. Heavy bombers had proven themselves vulnerable to an integrated air defense, incurring horrendous losses in planes and aircrew. The costs associated with producing and maintaining huge fleets of state of the art strategic bombers soon spiraled beyond the ability of all but a few to absorb; soon after, the costs would become  prohibitive for all, making mass aerial terror bombing a phenomenon unique to the 20th century, though the heavy bomber armed with nuclear weapons, along with the ICBM, would be an icon of Cold War nuclear terror, along with the nuclear testing regimens of both sides. These testing regimens kept the terror alive by serving as nuclear saber-rattling exercises, and by serving as each others’ rationale for steadily larger missiles, bombs, bombers, and budgets.

Though this essay largely deals with state terror as foreign policy, it would be remiss two omit two of the seminal events in the evolution of state terror that occurred immediately after the end of the First World War: the Russian Revolution and Civil War, and a related event in the United States, the Red Scare. In the Civil War, terror was integrated into the structure of the Soviet state, and Lenin’s Cheka, under Polish-born Feliks Dzerzhinsky, emerged as a world-class instrument of terror. The second, in the US, saw the Palmer raids, roundups, and deportations of innocent Americans guilty of nothing, and the beginning of the rise of J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI.

Between the world wars, state terror by the colonial empires, common to the centuries of colonialism, added new, twentieth-century twists, such as airplanes and poison gas. What was not unique to the twentieth century was the terror, and the force-multiplication effects of this technology enabled the colonial empires, bankrupted by World War I, to nonetheless hang on during the interwar period, even as war clouds again gathered in Europe and as the Second Sino-Japanese War gathered momentum. This war saw one of the most brutal and counterproductive efforts of terror during war in all history, the 1937 Rape of Nanjing by the Japanese Army. This prolonged act of horror saw murder, rape, and torture on an unprecedented scale, with the deaths of over 300,000, and an unknown number of injured, mutilated, raped, displaced, or terrorized. So extreme was the violence that Nanjing was instrumental in turning US public opinion against Japan, precipitating the economic sanctions that led, four years later, to Pearl Harbor.

This scale was repeated at the end of the other end of Asia and in Eastern Europe, where the ferocity and terror of the war reached unheard-of levels. The terror of the German invasion of the USSR in 1941 saw the rapid education of the citizens of Belarus and Ukraine, many of whom had hoped for German help in freeing themselves from Stalin, to the reality of German terror.  The scale of violence, particularly in Ukraine, was indescribable, as it had to be to turn the Ukrainians, of whom Stalin had starved at least 4 million less than ten years earlier, to fighting the Germans on Stalin’s behalf. This involved anti-partisan actions and counterinsurgency operations involving up to division-sized elements of the German Army, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. It is important to note that these operations were operations of war, which is why this analysis omits operations such as Babi Yar, where the Germans slaughtered 33,000 Kievan Jews in a weekend, or Katyn Forest, where Stalin’s NKVD murdered 20,000 Polish Army officers. The first was an act of anti-Semitic genocide, made possible only by secrecy; terrorism by definition requires publicity. The second was simply an act of ruthless political murder, designed to cut the heart out of any potential Polish opposition before it could even begin to develop, and again, was kept secret. Not all atrocities are terror, and a serious analysis requires distinctions to be made.

In the West, German terror had taken the form of classic counterinsurgency; in occupied France, it was routine for the Nazis to execute 100 civilians for every German killed, and so effective was Nazi terror that during the first yeaer of the occupation, the Germans controlled France with as few as 30,000 troops. After D-Day, the US Army found little need to use terror, as the populations freed by the retreating Nazis were far more concerned with food, shelter, and news than they were with fighting those who were genuinely liberating them. In the East, however, things were different: British historian Antony Beevor accurately described the Soviet campaign as “the most terrifying example of fire and sword ever known.” It was indeed that; it was also probably one of the largest organized campaigns of mass rape ever, as Red Army soldiers raped an estimated two million German women, many of them dozens of times. This campaign of sexual terror was so extreme that Red Army officers began asking for new propaganda, explaining the difference between Nazis and ordinary Germans-the previous, continuous deluge of anti-German hate propaganda that had so contributed to the campaign of terror rape and murder thus also was counterproductive, by both inspiring every German to fight to the last man and by sowing a hatred that would make Soviet-occupied zones difficult to govern after the fighting ended.

State terror as foreign policy in the postwar world took several general forms: counterinsurgency, counterintelligence, and proxy war. The Soviet Union primarily employed terror in the counterintelligence role, by restricting its use to defectors, turncoat spies, and dissidents. The fading colonial empires used terror as counterinsurgency, and on a vast scale. The brutality of the British in Kenya and Rhodesia, and the French in Indochina and Algeria, is legendary, and was ultimately just as unsuccessful as it was brutal. The use of terror by the United States was somewhat more complex: like the colonial empires, the US used terror as counterinsurgency, as seen in the Philippines and Vietnam.  However, the US also employed terror in other ways, including direct covert war, proxy war, and as strategic justification.

A good example of the first is the CIA’s Operation MONGOOSE, which attacked Cuba with sabotage and terror attacks, and tried repeatedly to kill Castro. The utility of this assassination capability was recognized by the agency, which formalized the practice under the project ZR/RIFLE. Repeated assassination attempts against leaders including Trujillo, Lumumba, Castro, and Chinese premier Zhou en-Lai spoke to the degree the US had embraced Gen. Jimmy Doolittle’s guidance for fighting the Cold War: “hitherto acceptable norms of human conduct do not apply.” No rules.

This ethic found its nadir in 1962, with General Lyman Lemnitzer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Lemnitzer presented a plan designed to provide the strategic justification for the invasion of Cuba, remarkable in its ruthlessness and deceit: Operation NORTHWOODS, a plan for a diverse range of terrorist attacks both inside the US and internationally. These attacks were to include bombings, shootings, and attacks on both ships and airplanes, and all were to be blamed on Cuba, to provide a pretext for war. This plan was approved by the Joint Chiefs, to its eternal dishonor, and then passed to the White House, where it was killed by either Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara or President Kennedy. A few days later, Kennedy told Lemnitzer there was no chance of an invasion of Cuba. There would be no campaign of overt terror waged against American civilians by the US military, and Lemnitzer, denied a second term as Chairman of the JCS, was transferred to Europe as Supreme Commander of NATO…which makes what happened next a little less surprising.

What happened next was a campaign of false flag terrorism. After the Second World War, the fear of Soviet invasion led the CIA to create, all over Europe,  secret resistance movements, who were to wage partisan war behind the invading Soviet’s lines. These “stay-behind” armies were trained, caches of weapons, explosives, money, and so forth, were secreted all over Europe, and the infrastructure of a transnational covert warfighting effort, with command, logistics, training, and intelligence services was built. The name for the Italian branch of this operation has become shorthand for the operation as a whole: Operation GLADIO.
There was only one problem: the Soviets never invaded.

In the absence of the anticipated Soviet invasion, the stay behinds were given a new mission: denying the Communists victory by legal means. In practice, it meant a series of bombings, massacres, and assassinations, to be blamed on the Communists. In Italy, these ranged from the bombing of Piazza Fontana in 1969 to the Bologna train station bombing in 1980. A series of bloody attacks in Belgium followed. In the predicted anti-Communist reaction, Communist candidates were defeated and harsh security policies instituted.We know about GLADIO because in 1990 a number of Italian politicians began talking about the program in public, and some of the terrorists themselves discussed their actions.

GLADIO was not the only transnational terror network operating in the West, however. In South America, after the 1973 Chilean coup that brought the brutal Augusto Pinochet to power, the intelligence agencies of Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil, and Bolivia organized across national lines and conducted a campaign of terror and murder all over the continent, and even reached into the very capital of the United States. This program, called Operation CONDOR, included the detention, torture, and murder of tens of thousands of people, including former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier, killed in Washington DC by a car bomb. CONDOR terrorists included many of the veterans from the war against Castro, and likewise, after CONDOR, many of them would go on to the next big exercises is western hemisphere state-sponsored terror: the campaign against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and the bloody counterinsurgency in El Salvador.

Action against the Sandinistas had begun almost immediately after their overthrow of right-wing strongman Anotonio Somoza in 1979. The CIA had created, from remnants of the anti-Castro paramilitaries, CONDOR veterans, and a second generation of counterterrorists, many of them trained at the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, into the “Contras.” This was a terrorist army almost by definition, as seen by its preference for so-called “soft targets.” After the US Congress cut off aid to the Contras in revulsion following a series of high-profile atrocities both by the Contras and by the US-allied death squads in El Salvador, and by the secret mining of Nicaraguan harbors by the CIA, another evolution of the apparatus of state terror in the US occurred.

This was the movement of covert operations management from the CIA to the National Security Council, a step that had neatly outflanked some of the post-Watergate/Church Committee legislation overseeing covert operations. At the NSC, John Poindexter and Oliver North, with the help of retired USAF General Richard Secord and a huge cast of arms dealers, financiers, spies, smugglers,and terrorists built the “Enterprise“: a covert transnational network, self-sustaining, meant to provide the President with an “off-the-shelf” covert action capability completely outside of Congress’ ability to oversee or regulate. This Enterprise, of course, was the subject of the infamous Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980’s; later revelations that many of its assets had also been smuggling weapons and money in one direction and cocaine in the other direction only served to aggravate the almost breathtaking illegality of the program. The multiple convictions that resulted, however, were either overturned on appeal or pardoned outright by President George H.W. Bush, who had also paroled wanted terrorist Orlando Bosch, and many of these same people, such as Poindexter and Abrams, would be rehabilitated during the administration of George W. Bush.

There are numerous examples of state terror as foreign policy not included in this brief survey. The Balkan Wars of the 1990s provided a brutal bookend to the century of terror, that had in many ways grown out of the Balkan Wars that had springboarded the world into World War I. Regimes that embraced terror as policy flourished across the ideological spectrum, encompassing states as diverse as Indonesia and Israel. In every conceivable political sense, the twentieth century was the Century of Terror. No major international power in the 20th century refrained from the practice in both its domestic and foreign arenas. It is the defining characteristic of the 20th Century.

Part IV: Conclusions and Implications next week.

One thought on “State Terror in the Twentieth Century, III: Foreign Policy

  1. Pingback: State Terror in the Twentieth Century, IV: Beyond the Century of Terror | Everblog

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