John Kenneth Galbraith Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Intellectual Journey: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom; Conversation with John Kenneth Galbraith, 3/27/86 by Harry Kreisler

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U.S.'s Third World Policy during the Cold War

In the early '70s you wrote an article on foreign policy. You called our policy in the Third World "the great disaster area of U.S. foreign policy." What is your assessment today? Are we riding tall in the saddle, as Reagan would like us to feel?

Oh no, no. But, we have a development which has not been fully understood, which I'm writing on a little at the moment, which was not part of the predictable behavior of this administration but is, in some degree, a consequence of it. Going back to my State Department days and before, the one thing of which I've always been persuaded is that the strongest political force in the world, in the Third World, is the desire to be independent. No matter how disastrous independence may be, nobody wants to go back to colonial subordination. Look at Uganda, nobody can possibly say that this has been a happy country in these last 20 years. It was certainly more peaceful, and almost certainly more prosperous when it was a British colony. But amidst all those disasters, you never hear anybody suggesting that it go back under colonial guidance -- not that anybody, I think, would want it.

This desire for, this pressure for independence is something to which both the Soviet Union and ourselves are subject. It cost the Soviet Union its relationship with China; the North African countries (Egypt, Algeria) divorced themselves from their association with the Russians. Its a terrible problem for the Russians in Eastern Europe, not to mention Afghanistan. And similarly, there is the great desire of countries on our side of the Iron Curtain to assert their independence of American influence, to show that they are not pawns of American policy. In these last years (if I might continue this lecture for a minute -- it used to be said that a Harvard professor can't make any point in less than 55 minutes), what have we seen? We have seen dictators, or military dictatorships, go out of power in Argentina, in Brazil, Guatemala, and now in these last days in Haiti and the Philippines. Previously an authoritarian government went out of business in Iran. And why did they go out? Why has there been this great resurgence of democracy under Ronald Reagan? It's not been one of the consequences of President Reagan's policies.

There is, naturally, in all countries a resentment of dictatorship. But added to that has been the fact that we had our arms partly around some of these people. Vice President Bush cited Marcos, you will remember, as one of the great paragons of democracy. Similarly, we found some possibilities for human rights development under Duvalier in Haiti, surely one of the greatest discoveries of all time. Similarly in Latin America. So what happened? Why was it that we had this sudden series of disasters for dictators? It is because we united, in those countries, the dislike for dictatorship with the fear of some degree of subordination to the United States from the fact that we had our arms partly around these people and it was a disaster for all of them. What we did was unite the adverse reactions to dictatorships with the fear of subordination to the United States with also some fear of the Reagan administration itself. All those forces came together.

So we have the paradox that an administration which was sympathetic to the dictators turned out to be the greatest supporter of democracy. Now I don't want to get into politics on this program and suggest that's any reason for voting for Ronald Reagan. But that's, I think, one of the evident historical paradoxes of these last years. And I think, oddly enough, there's some sense of this in Washington, because you notice some tendency in these last days to detach from Pinochet. Or maybe he has recognized that support from the United States is the last thing he needs to stay in power in Chile.

In the context of what you are saying, are we witnessing a diminishment of this inordinate fear of communism?

In Washington you mean?


I don't think so. I think that the basic situation of the United States is unchanged. Conservatives in Washington fear communism, liberals in Washington fear being caught soft on communism, and I don't think that's changed.

One gets the sense today that the liberals still have a fear of losing a domino on their watch. To quote from your autobiography, talking about President Kennedy and referring to the Bay of Pigs and the acceptance of neutral Laos, Kennedy said, "You have to realize that I can only afford so many defeats in one year." Electoral loss is a real fear for liberal democratic politicians when they confront the Third World, when they confront communism.

Oh no question about it, and I wouldn't, for a moment, be happy about it.

I knew the Far East probably somewhat better than my colleagues in the Kennedy administration, and I would never have supported the idea of a communist Indochina or a communist Vietnam. I don't think communism is relevant to that stage of economic development. But I was strongly persuaded that this was not something that was within the reach of our power, and that we could mire ourselves there in an impossible situation, because extending our information to that country was an impossible task. So my basic argument in those days was that Vietnam and Indochina must be returned to the obscurity on the world's scene for which God intended them. That they were not of great social, political, economic, or strategic importance to the United States. In taking that position, I was somewhat successful in avoiding the label of being pro-communist. I always argued that it takes a very precise Washington observer to tell the difference between a communist jungle and a capitalist jungle -- both are irrelevant to the jungles of Vietnam.

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