Third World War
Around the world, people were being given their countries back, Britain and the European powers were setting free their overseas colonies. This was a very exciting time. At first, tangible improvements for the people of these new nations in terms of life expectancy, child mortality rates, literacy levels, started to happen very quickly.
People predominantly in the south of the world had, for three centuries, been tormented by countries from the northern world. Britain and her European competitors had clashed all over the world, over the world and all that was in it. With religious blessing, they entered into a dark plunder of the new worlds opening up. They had murdered, enslaved and humiliated millions of the different looking people they found around the world. Backed by bludgeoning military force, they established colonies around the world and sucked up vast wealth, using the labour of the native peoples on the lands that they had stolen from them.
That was a dark period in the world’s history. But that was all over now, the post-war era was a new dawn for the world, reaching for a new enlightenment, a great conviction to move away from the mistakes of the past. This was a time of great hope for the people who had endured colonialism. Their own land and nation, even though the borders given to nations would be those drawn by others, rather than reflecting any local cultural realities.
The Berlin Conference of 1884-5 between the European powers ended tensions between European powers over Africa and carved the continent up between them into territories they were free to exploit. The Scramble for Africa accelerated after this, as the European powers raced to take control of the territories they had the freedom to take. So, these agreements formed the borders of the newly independent African nations, fragmented states, countries where different peoples and cultures had just found themselves grouped together in a nation. Naturally, this created tensions and instability.
Many of these newly freed nations never had a chance. For some of them, no sooner had they said goodbye to their old masters, the new flag had been hoisted and the new national anthem played, that these innocent fledgling states become, one way or another, pawns in a global struggle, born of these original false ideologies that had gripped the northern developed world. Further falsehoods were made of this difference in ideas and were used to cloak other intentions, for when it wasn’t ideology driving intervention in other people’s lands, it was pure state-assisted corporate greed, as in the very recent imperial era which had apparently ended.
A Third World War did occur, in that it was a war fought in the Third World, as it doesn’t get called much anymore. This struggle took many forms, sometimes armed conflict, supplying arms and advisors to groups motivated by whichever cause; sometimes just quiet corruption.
In the Third World’s experience of the developed world and its machinations, or, broadly, the south of the world’s experience of the northern world, no calculation could ever be made of the damage done, the trauma and psychological wounding of people, the massive dispossession and destruction, the shattering of cultures, the lives that weren’t lived and the development that couldn’t happen.
The list of flashpoints between 1945 and 1991 related to this war is long.
Proxy wars ripped some of these countries apart. Many times through this period children have became soldiers or refugees of war and lows of depravity and cruelty seen that the world had hoped to have seen the end of.
Africa has suffered cruelly from the world’s wild progress, amidst the wider suffering of the people of the developing world. The desperate situation of poor and hungry people is even now sometimes still blamed on overpopulation, but the real root cause is always land monopoly and corruption, the legacy of the Berlin Conference of 1885 and of a superpower struggle in their land.
The forces from the north brought overwhelming influence to bear on countries, and both sides sponsored and armed corrupt and/or oppressive governments in the name of supporting their wider cause, governments and elites who had a free hand in exploiting and persecuting their own people. The senior world were not at all picky about the kind of gangsters they would do business with. Countries rich in resources suffer a particular curse, corrupting of administration and distorting economic activity.
The USA-USSR, the polarities of the neoclassical distortion, pursued their aims in the Third World as great historic missions. The Soviet Union was after souls, nations to join the struggle for the proletarian dream, and to defend and deliver people from Capitalist exploitation. The USA felt a moral calling to save the world from this evil creed of Communism that was trying to take over the world, this unnatural collectivism that subverts the individual human spirit and traps it in a system. As well as this, post-war America was the richest nation in history and was bursting for expansion.
As the old European garrisons moved out, a new kind of colonialism started to take over. Kwame Nkrumah, first President of Ghana, coined the term neo-colonialism. Physical conquest and boots on the ground weren’t needed anymore, there were new ways of exploiting nations. Neocolonialism can involve influence exercised linguistically and culturally, but the key factor is the overwhelming and corrupting use of vast capital in completely asymmetric dealings. It could be election time in some small country, the candidate who wanted to sell the country’s minerals to an American corporation would have a very well-funded campaign, and there may even be US advisors in the country and a lot of money sloshing about.
The USA’s history begins with the glorious shedding of the exploitative tyranny of empire. It didn’t then stay as a big little republic, of course, it expanded into the whole continent. By the time it had expropriated the common land of the native people there, provoked a war with Mexico to acquire California, tapped all resources and filled its own expanded borders, it was vastly wealthy. This is commonly attributed to rugged, free market individualism, yet with such abundance to exploit, there could be never have been any other result than great wealth. With wisdom it would have been yet wealthier, truly wealthier.
When Caribbean and Latin American countries started becoming free of their colonial masters, US corporations started working with the elites of those countries in stealing the communal lands of these native people to sell them cheaply to US investors. There was lots of money to make in cocoa, coffee, sugar, cotton, bananas, given plentiful cheap labour; and the elimination of the ability of people to feed themselves, by stealing their lands, created a workforce for the new plantations. This is free enterprise, and is indistinguishable from colonialism and slavery.
It’s unsurprising that sometimes the poor and dispossessed populations rebelled against their oppressors – as the American colonists had done against the British – and when this happened, the US Marines would show up, put down the rebellion and restore order for the local elites and US plantation owners. They would usually leave order in place by installing brutal military governments.
There’s lots of stories to tell of American intervention around the world and that isn’t for here, but one quick example of how it all works. And we must give credit to something that we read in the very early days of the World Wide Web, which was an essay by Richard Stutsman (which we’ve been cribbing from a little) called A Brief History of Corporate Power, written way back in 1993, which led us on to looking up the history he mentioned, (not just accepting it because someone says so on the Web, obviously.)
In his essay, from the roll call of American imperial sorties into its continental neighbourhood, there were two stories he wanted the reader to hear about which give some idea of the nature of this process, the stories from Guatemala (and Nicaragua, later.)
The elites in Guatemala and El Salvador expropriated Indian communal lands and Catholic church land holdings in the 1870s, and grew coffee to sell to Europe. Around 1900, U.S. investors began buying up land and growing bananas on Guatemalan plantations. Guatemala won independence from Spain in 1921 and then from Mexico in 1923. In 1944 Guatemalan rebels overthrew its repressive government and held democratic elections.
In 1951, newly elected President Jacobo Arbenz started to take control of vast tracts of unused land owned by the United Fruit Company and distributed these lands to 100,000 of his people. He paid the money for this land; the government paid the United Fruit Company the value they had previously declared for tax purposes on these lands. This was surely fair enough. How to calculate a fair price? The company had already calculated the valuation.
The Dulles brothers had done very well in American politics, one had become the Director of the CIA and the other the Secretary of State under Eisenhower, while also a partner in the law firm which represented the United Fruit Company.
In 1954, Guatemala City was bombed, the CIA covertly and successfully overthrew the democratic government of President Arbenz on the pretence that there was a danger the country could become a Soviet satellite on the American doorstep.
And this was the simple justification in this era, that a country’s simple refusal to have its land and resources stolen was Communism, as the USA went through its own paranoid era of seeing communists everywhere in its own society and conducting witch hunts against them. Arbenz was trying to eradicate feudalism in his country, but he was cast as a communist.
As a remedy, a repressive military dictatorship was set up to rule Guatemala instead of the evil communism. The United Fruit Company got all the land back, (the company owned over 40% of all arable land in Guatemala.) Military-backed elites then ruled the country for many years, and killed many thousands of their own people in a long and bitter struggle. People just want self-determination, it was what the West claimed to stand for.
Many more times the spectre of Communism would be raised in this era to justify the suppression of any country’s opposition to the theft which is called free trade. Time and again, people who simply wanted to own and control their own land and resources and make their way found themselves treated as if they were an evil threat to the world which needed to be stamped out. The menace of Communism was all the domestic audience needed as explanation.
This chapter by Gore Vidal from State of the Nation for a view of the American imperial story.