Issue 273 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2003 Copyright © Socialist Review

Stop the war

Making democracy safe

Was democracy the cornerstone of US policy during the Cold War? Sabby Sagall has doubts

A demonstration in East Berlin in 1948 against the division of Germany
A demonstration in East Berlin in 1948 against the division of Germany

We frequently hear US apologists claim that since the end of the Second World War US foreign policy has been based on the values of freedom, democracy and human rights--its main thrust being the curbing of the power of dictators and the fostering of social and economic conditions in which 'free' institutions can flourish. The principal examples cited are those of postwar Germany and Japan.

Let us look first at Germany. In March 1947, US President Truman proclaimed the famous Truman Doctrine in which he launched an ideological crusade of the 'free world' against totalitarian regimes, with the US replacing Britain as global policeman.

In a final break with the wartime alliance with the USSR, Truman announced the new policy of 'containment', according to which wherever the Soviet government attempted to push outwards, the US would resist it. The power with the largest landmass on earth was to be put in quarantine through encirclement by US military bases and the political bastions of the 'free world'.

In June the same year, US Secretary of State George Marshall announced the Marshall Plan, promising large-scale US economic assistance to war-ravaged European countries. It was made clear, however, by Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson that priority for aid would be given to countries 'seeking to preserve... democratic institutions from totalitarian pressures'. This was at a time when Eastern Europe had not yet been reduced to satellite status. In March 1948, Marshall added a further condition of aid: any country voting Communists into power would forfeit its right to participate in the recovery programme. The US threat worked. The following month, in the first postwar election in Italy, the Communist-Socialist bloc had been expected to win 51 percent of the vote. Instead, the Christian Democrats polled 53 percent and the pro-Communist bloc merely 30 percent.

In April 1952, the Soviet leaders approached the West with proposals for a German peace treaty. These included concessions such as the unification of Germany and free elections. The one stipulation was that a reunified Germany should remain neutral towards East and West. The US, however, was bent on bringing West Germany into Nato and retaining their bases there, and rejected the proposals.

Just as the US sought to build up Western Europe and West Germany as a bulwark against Soviet Russia, first to contain it and then to 'liberate' it, so it pursued a similar Cold War policy in East Asia with Japan following the victory of the Chinese Communist Revolution in 1950 and the Korean War (1950-53). The US decided on a speedy economic rehabilitation of Japan in order to mould it as an alternative to China, a role-model of capitalism and 'democracy'. In 1952, the US signed an early peace treaty, the Japanese-American Security Treaty, which ended the occupation of Japan's main islands but at the price of continuing US occupation of the island of Okinawa.

The US's two wars against East Asian Communism--in Korea and Vietnam (1965-75)--could not have been fought without these Japanese bases. Arguably, had the US requested permission from the Japanese to conduct war from their territory, this would have been refused. But in 1950, the US still occupied the whole of Japan, and in the 1960s, it still governed Okinawa as a military colony.

The US insisted that its two main dependencies in East Asia--Japan and South Korea--adhere to the institution of private property and reject any kind of nationalisation of industry. However, the US did tolerate land reform, state guidance of the economy, protectionism and cartelisation of industry.

From 1950 to 1975 the US treated Japan as a favourite son, pandering to its economic needs and displaying it as a star capitalist student. It transferred vital technologies to the Japanese and opened its markets to Japanese products while accepting Japanese tariffs protecting its home market, all in the interest of building up Japan into a model free market society that would prevent the spread of Communism.

But was Japan a genuinely democratic state? Chalmers Johnson argues in Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire that the US army installed a one-party 'democracy'--the conservative National Liberal Party, which ruled Japan from 1949 to 1993, assisted by secret, generous donations from the CIA, a policy supported by presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy and Johnson. The CIA, in addition, resorted to various dirty tricks to discredit and divide Japanese socialists. Further, through high tariffs on imports the Japanese government still makes ordinary consumers pay for home-grown rice, the main staple, at ten times the world price as a means of maintaining rural support for the National Liberal Party.

In sum, Japan can be characterised as a 'soft authoritarian' regime. If democracy means a political system in which there is a separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary, where there are free elections and politicians have to take account of public opinion, then Japanese democracy exists only partially. It is a state in which an unelected bureaucracy wields considerable power and in which institutions such as an independent judiciary and the rule of law have never fully developed. According to Johnson, it is a society in which public opinion does exert a potent influence over the government but through informal, traditional channels rather than through parliament and the courts.

Should we therefore put our faith in the honesty and integrity of the US rulers as they bomb Iraq? Will they replace Saddam Hussein, the ruthless despot, with a democratic regime genuinely expressive of the will of the Iraqi people? The historical record does not provide grounds for optimism.


The CIA resorted to various dirty tricks to discredit and divide Japanese socialists


Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page