Back to the Future: Progressives, Repression, and the Echoes of History
Share
Written by Chris Floyd   
Sunday, 06 February 2011 22:07

Hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens rise up in protest against a long-entrenched dictatorship backed by the United States. The dictatorial regime warns of chaos and instability if the uprising is not suppressed; otherwise, they say, the country will fall into the hands of America's chief global enemy, the representatives of an extremist ideology that "hates us for our freedoms."

In the White House, the progressive Democratic president gathers with his foreign policy advisers to consider the American reaction. In the end, they opt -- of course -- for "stability." They back the installation of the client nation's intelligence chief -- one of the key perpetrators of the regime's repression -- as the new leader.

The main thing, say the progressive Democratic president's advisers, is to restore order in the short term while pressing the regime to institute some "political reforms" to ease public anger in the long term. This is considered an enlightened, "moderate" course of action.

The result, of course, is the crushing of the popular movement for democracy, and several more years of harsh repression by the regime -- again, with the full backing, economically and militarily, of the bipartisan political establishment in Washington.

Are we speaking of Egypt and Barack Obama in 2011? No; it is the story of Korea and Jimmy Carter, back in 1980. As'ad AbuKhalil points us to the remarkable historical account written in May 2010 by Tim Shorrock. One almost wants to say that the parallels between the two situations are uncanny; then one remembers the numbing sameness of the American power structure's reaction to any situation that might potentially threaten its golden applecart: secure "stability" for the client regime; make scary noises about the Great Enemy (Commies, Islamists, whatever) seizing control; keep grinding on with business as usual for as long as you can. The parallels only seem uncanny because the American elite always, without fail, act in the same dull-witted, brutal way, regardless of which imperial faction happens to be in the managerial slot at any given moment. And so we are bound to see historical correspondences again and again down through the years.

But Shorrock's story is an excellent example of how our good progressives -- even gentle little sunbeams of Jesus like Jimmy Carter -- eagerly carry out the empire's enduring agenda of violent domination once they have climbed to the top of that blood-greased pole. The whole story is worth reading, but below are some key excerpts:

[The late Richard Holbrooke -- a top adviser in the Obama Administration -- played a key role in the Korean crisis. Shorrock's story was written before Holbrooke's death, so I've amended the wording to reflect this.] From Tim Shorrock:

One of the most important documents I obtained in my 15-year quest to unearth the US role in South Korea in 1979 and 1980 were the minutes to a White House meeting that took place on May 22, 1980. At this meeting, the Carter administration made its critical decision to support the South Korean military as it moved to crush the Kwangju Uprising, the largest citizens’ rebellion in the south since the Korean War ended in 1953.

The document, which I first obtained in 1996, is significant for historical reasons. But it’s also important because two of the key players at that meeting were Richard Holbrooke and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Holbrooke, [who was] a perennial favorite in Democratic circles for the coveted job of secretary of state, [was] a high-ranking official in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser, has won a certain claim to fame in fashionable Washington think-tanks (such as the New America Foundation) for his opposition to the war in Iraq and his biting critique of the Bush/neoconservative school of foreign policy.

In South Korea, however, both men showed an appalling disregard for democracy and human rights. Their actions should not be forgotten – particularly by progressives who like to champion Holbrooke and Brzezinski as men of honor who exemplify the conduct of US foreign policy.


On May 22, 1980, President Jimmy Carter’s national security team gathered at the White House for a high-level meeting on an unprecedented political crisis in South Korea.

The situation was dire. Twelve hours earlier in the city of Kwangju, hundreds of thousands of armed students, industrial workers, taxi drivers, students and citizens had gathered in a downtown plaza to celebrate the liberation of their city from two divisions of Army Special Forces troops who had been sent to quell anti-military protests throughout the country five days earlier.

The demonstrations had been called to denounce military intervention in Korean politics and the May 17 declaration of martial law by a Korean General and intelligence chief, Chun Doo Hwan, who later took power as president and ruled the country for eight years. ... In Kwangju ... students continued to defy the martial law edicts.

On May 18, apparently warned by their commanders that a communist revolution was unfolding in Kwangju that could infect the whole country and inspire North Korea to invade, Chun’s troops began a two-day rampage through the city. In broad daylight, they began beating, bayonetting and shooting anyone who dared to stand up to martial law. Bystanders too were attacked – some of them chased into their homes and killed. Horrified and angered by the actions of the storm troopers, the people of Kwangju – most of them skilled in firearms because of males’ mandatory stints in the army – formed a citizens’ militia and started shooting back. After two days of combat and hand-to-hand fighting in which dozens of people were killed and wounded, Chun’s Special Forces turned tail and pulled out of the city. It was the first armed insurrection in modern South Korean history.

Back in Washington, the events in Kwangju were viewed with fear and loathing. The United States had nearly 40,000 combat troops in South Korea, and these forward-based, nuclear-armed troops were key to the US Cold War strategy of encircling the Soviet Union and China with military bases. Indeed, just months before, Carter had agreed to reverse his 1976 campaign promise to withdraw US troops from Korea after enormous pressure from conservative lawmakers and the Pentagon concerned about upsetting the US military posture towards North Korea and East Asia. Moreover, South Korea was a symbol to US policy makers of an ideal ally that supported the US in unpopular wars like Vietnam; unlike in many countries, anti-Americanism was virtually unknown. In this context, the armed uprising by ordinary citizens with an unknown agenda was a frightening prospect.

..As Holbrooke and the rest of Carter’s national security team gathered at the White House that day, they knew much of the details of what had happened in Kwangju. The few foreign media in the city had managed to transmit stories of the savage brutality inflicted by the Special Forces on the city’s population, especially its youth. Secret cables from the US Embassy in Seoul to the State Department that I later obtained under the Freedom of Information Act confirmed that massacres had indeed taken place and were the primary cause of the uprising. The Defense Intelligence Agency, in other documents I obtained, warned that the Special Forces were fully capable of vicious cruelty and that Chun was secretly planning to seize power.

But none of that seemed to matter: what was important to Carter’s White House was the preservation of US national security interests – not the democratic impulses of a Korean population sick from 18 years of dictatorship. As the citizens of Kwangju waited for a sign of hope, Carter’s team made a fateful decision: to support Chun’s plan to put down the rebellion by force.

The participants in the May 22 meeting, according to the declassified minutes I later obtained from the National Security Council, included the Deputy Secretary of State, Warren Christopher; Holbrooke, assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific; Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Adviser; CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner; Donald Gregg, the NSC’s top intelligence official for Asia and a former CIA Station Chief in Seoul; and U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown.

This crack foreign policy team quickly came to a consensus. “The first priority is the restoration of order in Kwangju by the Korean authorities with the minimum use of force necessary without laying the seeds for wide disorders later,” the minutes stated. “Once order is restored, it was agreed we must press the Korean government, and the military in particular, to allow a greater degree of political freedom to evolve.” ...  As for the situation in Kwangju, the group decided that “we have counseled moderation, but have not ruled out the use of force, should the Koreans need to employ it to restore order.” If there was “little loss of life” in the recapture of the city, “we can move quietly to apply pressure for more political evolution,” the officials decided. Once the situation was cleared up, the war cabinet agreed, normal economic ties could move forward – including an important $600 million Export-Import Bank loan to South Korea to buy American nuclear power equipment and engineering services.

Within hours of the meeting, the US commander in Korea gave formal approval to the Korean military to remove a division of Korean troops under the US-Korean Joint Command and deploy them to Kwangju. The city and its surrounding towns had already been cut off from all communications by a tight military cordon. Military helicopters began flying over the city urging the Kwangju urban army – which had taken up positions in the provincial capital building in the middle of the city – to surrender. At one point, a Kwangju citizens’ council asked the US ambassador, William Gleysteen, to intervene seek a negotiated truce; but the request was coldly rejected.

In the early morning of May 27, the Korean troops from the Joint Command shot their way into the provincial capital and quickly put an end to the resistance. The Kwangju Commune was shut down, and hundreds of people who had participated were rounded up and imprisoned. In early June, Carter’s team approved the Eximbank loan, and South Korea went ahead with its plan to buy US nuclear technology – a deal that went right into the pockets of Westinghouse and Bechtel corporations. By September 1980, Chun was president, and in January 1981 he was chosen by incoming President Reagan as the first foreign head of state to visit the White House. US-Korean ties were restored, and a crisis averted. But not for the people of South Korea. Partly because of the decisions made at that White House meeting, they endured eight more years of authoritarian rule.

...I asked Holbrooke once about his role in US diplomacy at the time, particularly the decision to allow the Korean military to use force to end the Kwangju Uprising. In a story that appeared in The Nation, he said this: “Kwangju was an explosively dangerous situation, the outcome was tragic, but the long-term results for Korea are democracy and economic stability". He added: “The idea that we would actively conspire with the Korean generals in a massacre of students is, frankly, bizarre; it’s obscene and counter to every political value we articulated.” When the Carter Administration heard Chun was sending Special Forces to Kwangju, “we made every effort to stop what was happening,” Holbrooke said.

That was a flat-out lie, as my documents attest. In fact, as I wrote in The Nation and the Journal of Commerce, Holbrooke took it upon himself to prevent the democratic Korean opposition from speaking out against military intervention, and then kept his mouth firmly shut when the Kwangju disaster struck. Later, after leaving the Clinton administration, Holbrooke went on to make a small fortune advising large corporations – including South Korea’s Hyundai Group.

Same as it ever was, as the saying goes. With hand on heart, the American elite profess their undying dedication to democracy and self-determination for all peoples; with the other hand, buried deep in their pockets, they jingle the blood-soaked coins they receive for serving the agenda of domination.

UPDATE: Speaking of the American elite's enduring agenda of war profiteering with repressive regimes, Pratap Chatterjee gives us a telling report on the highly profitable alliance between the American and Egyptian military-industrial complexes.

blog comments powered by Disqus