Friday, October 02, 2015

Small Wars, Faraway Places - Michael Burleigh

I took me a few weeks to get through Small Wars, Faraway Places, but I was distracted by a lot of other things. Burleigh is looking at various revolutions or insurrections around the world in the first 20 years after World War 2, and how that impacted where the world is today.

So it covers the last gasps of the traditional European powers to hold onto their colonies, long after there's any real reason to do so, and when they no longer really have the means. What ends up happening more than once is Britain or France raises the specter of Communists taking over after they depart to lure the United States into helping prop up their efforts.The U.S. really hamstrung itself when it became convinced all Communist countries would be working under the direction of the Soviets. We end up in a situation where the U.S. was ostensibly trying to end the whole colonial aspect, but we wind up trying to manipulate all these fledgling countries by providing or withholding aid, or sending CIA advisers, or providing aircraft so the UN can fly troops in to what would become Zaire. And it escalates to outright trying to kill Castro and full military involvement in Vietnam.

It's a good overview, watching the old powers struggle to accept their diminished importance, and the U.S. and the Soviets, who think they're top of the heap, each struggling to maintain control of these sort of, but not quite empires they've created. In particular, dealing with forces which have no intention of fighting in direct, army-to-army battles (there's a lot in here about the different approaches the established powers took in different conflicts, and that there isn't a single one size fits all playbook for it). Meanwhile, the new countries are trying to find their way behind a wide array of new leaders. There are some who seem truly dedicated to improving things in their country, others who are trying to accumulate wealth. Weak ones, brutal ones, crazy ones, educated but naive ones. Some of them are really good at playing the larger powers off each other to their own benefit, and some can't be bothered (Nehru in India was fairly contemptuous of the U.S., so relations tended to be cool there). There are quite a few people I learned about in here I didn't know about, that I'd be interested in learning more on later (Jose Figueres of Costa Rica gets mentioned in one paragraph, but he sounded intriguing).

Reading this put me in mind of some of the books I read over the summer, the various ones about the United States' involvement in China. At that time, the U.S. was often welcomed as a mediator in disputes between China and the various imperial powers because it had an air of neutrality. Even though the U.S. had used the threat of force to gain the chance to trade with China, they hadn't demanded any imperial holdings, which put them a leg up on the Europeans. What we see post-World War 2 is the United States increasingly sticking its nose in everywhere, and barely bothering to conceal their efforts. If you're someone who doesn't enjoy the United States subverting its stated belief in a people's right to self-determination, this is not a book you're likely to enjoy, because the U.S. does that a lot (something you undoubtedly already knew).

I'm not always a big fan of Burleigh's slant on things. There's probably a fair bit of it in his comments about British politics I missed (although the comment about post-war Labour wanting a 'New Jerusalem of cradle-to-grave welfare socialism' was pointed enough even I picked up on it). He's extremely critical of JFK, with a fair amount of justification, though I don't see why Eisenhower doesn't take more shit as well. If it was inexcusable for Kennedy to try to kill Castro, why was Ike essentially giving the go-ahead to remove Patrice Lumumba in the Congo OK? Because Ike didn't directly say "Kill him," only expressed a desire to be rid of a nuisance so strong the NSA is telling the CIA to be ready to take straightforward action against Lumumba, and Allen Dulles is signing off on making Lumumba's "removal" a prime objective?  Vague deniability counts for that much?

At one point, Burleigh openly wonders how someone as honest and upright (his words) as Eisenhower could approve the plan to help Cuban exiles overthrow Castro (a plan the Kennedys vastly modified into what became the Bay of Pigs fiasco). His conclusion is Ike had lived through WW2 and knew it could have been averted if only someone had killed Hitler first. Maybe it's because I'm not a Cuban exile, but comparing Castro to Hitler is a little nuts. If Ike was worried about someone plunging the world into a costly war, by everything Burleigh says, he ought to have been trying to get rid of Mao, who is portrayed as so unconcerned at the thought of jumpstarting a third world war the Soviets are unwilling to provide him nuclear secrets, for fear he'd go ahead an use them.

'Agency analysts developed what amounted to heretical views at a time when the prevailing orthodoxy was of a monolithic Communist bloc pursuing common objectives. Those who stressed the role of national differences in Communist parties were accused of having 'nineteenth-century minds', to which they retorted that it was an improvement on being minds locked into the thirteenth century.'

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