The Courtier's Choice: Arthur Schlesinger and the Willing Executioners of Democracy


The late Arthur Schlesinger was long regarded as one of the leading lights of the American Establishment: a great public intellectual, a prize-winning historian of the nation's political heritage, a much sought-after commentator on current affairs, and a liberal lion of the old school – stalwart of the New Deal, anti-communist left; keeper of the Kennedy flame, etc. In short, one of the great and good, the meritocratic elite who keep the flame burning in the "shining city on the hill" that is America.

But there is one aspect of Schlesinger's glittering resume that goes unmentioned in the encomiums that invariably attend evocations of his brilliant career: his role as a willing conspirator to destroy democracy in a small, impoverished nation.

The story is told in a chapter of Mark Curtis' remarkable book, Unpeople: Britain's Secret Human Rights Abuses. As the title would indicate, American depredations in this regard play a secondary – if indispensable – part in the book, which is based largely on partly declassified UK government documents. And the chapter in question here describes perhaps the least destructive of the many Anglo-American interventions over the past 60 years -- interventions which, as Curtis details, have resulted in approximately 10 million deaths. What's more, Schlesinger's role in this particular destruction of a nascent democracy is very small, confined to a few bits of advice passed on to his boss in the White House, John F. Kennedy.

But even so, it is instructive to watch our great and good operate behind the scenes, and to see how they really feel about freedom, democracy and liberation for the poor and oppressed – those rhetorical tropes that have adorned our transatlantic rhetoric for so long, both in the halls of government, and in the weighty pronouncements of our great public intellectuals.

Curtis tells the tale of a ten-year effort by Britain and the United States to prevent the most popular party in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana) from taking power. It began in 1953, when the colony – which had been in Britain's control since 1814, when they seized it from the Dutch – attempted to use the limited self-government it had been "granted" by Her Majesty to place the People's Progressive Party (PPP) in office. Led by Cheddi Jagan, the party's platform was the usual mixture of land reform, social programs and nationalist feeling (which is called "patriotism" when it occurs in America and Britain, but is denigrated as a troublesome aberration when it rears its ugly head amongst the lesser breeds) that arose across the "third world" in the post-war years. These were all treated – without exception, whatever their various ideological, ethnic, or religious character – as dire threats to American and British "interests." That is, the successful implementation of these programs would have slightly reduced the profits of a few vast foreign-owned industrial and corporate combines that held whole nations in their thrall. Each of these movements were denounced as "communist" by Western leaders – even when the leaders knew, and admitted freely among themselves, that the movements and their leaders were not communists, and would not align their nations with the Soviet bloc.

But more than the bloated profit margins of favored corporations were at stake. There was also the West's overriding fear of a successful challenge to Anglo-American domination of subject nations. The fact that the overwhelming majority of these movements sought good relations with the United States and Britain, and were peaceful, law-abiding parties seeking power through the democratic process meant nothing; because they stood for the principle of national independence, non-alignment, and self-determination – i.e., because they would not automatically submit to the dictates of Washington and London – they could not be allowed to succeed. All measures were "justified" to prevent them from taking power – or to overthrow them in the event they were elected by their people. In order to subvert these popular movements, successive, bipartisan governments in the United States and Britain repeatedly armed, funded, trained and supported what they fully recognized were the worst elements in a given society: corrupt political hacks, feudal lords and rapacious corporate bosses, criminal gangs, power-mad military tyrants, religious extremists, warlords, death squads, and so on. The end result was almost always the same: moderate forces were destroyed, their remnants were radicalized, societies were violently polarized, economies were wrecked, and ordinary, innocent people suffered – and sometimes died – by the millions.

The historical record of this process is long and clear: Guatemala, Iran, Iraq (the two CIA-assisted coups that put the Baathists in power, and the present-day policy of arming and supporting both Shiite and Sunni extremists to maintain an obedient client state and prevent the emergence of any genuine independence), Yemen, Indonesia, Nigeria, Kenya, El Salvador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Uganda, Chile (perhaps the epitome of this dark art), and many others.

And so in 1953, the British sent troops and warships to Guyana to overturn the people's election of Cheddi Jagan and the PPP. For the next few years, the colony was ruled directly from London. But in 1961, when elections were again allowed, the PPP won again. By this time, Britain had promised to "grant" Guyana its independence – but the idea that the "independent" country should be allowed to choose its own leaders was not to be borne. After all, it was clear that they would vote the "wrong way" again. What's more, the preceding decade had seen an acceleration in the withering of Britain's imperial pretensions; it was now recognized in official US and UK papers that Guyana "was in the US, not the UK, sphere of interest." Thus London was willing to defer to whatever Washington desired for the newly "independent" nation.

Curtis quotes a number of US and UK intelligence reports and diplomatic papers that make clear that leaders on both sides of the Atlantic knew that the PPP was not a communist party. They also openly acknowledged that Jagan was "the ablest leader in British Guiana," as one State Department report described him. Curtis describes the main outlines of the American view from government papers at the time:

[The U.S. thought] that Jagan was not a 'controlled instrument of Moscow' but 'a radical nationalist who may play both sides of the street but will not lead British Guiana into [Soviet] satellite status.

U.S. intelligence reports quoted by Curtis noted that Jagan would "make a more determined effort to improve economic conditions" in Guyana. The Party drew its strength not only from its main base of "poverty-stricken rural and urban workers" among the Indian community, but also from "a considerable number of small businessmen."

After Jagan won the 1961 pre-independence election with 45 percent of the vote – easily outpointing the main opposition party led by the Anglo-American favorite, Forbes Burnham – the Americans came up with a two-fold plan. First, Washington would make a public show of offering Jagan technical and economic assistance to prepare the country for independence. But behind the scenes, they would launch a covert operation to destroy the PPP, bring down Jagan and put a suitable leader in his place.

And here the liberal lion and champion of democracy Arthur Schlesinger enters the documentary picture. Writing in his capacity as Special Assistant to the President, Schlesinger pointed out to Kennedy that the two prongs of Washington's plan were in blatant conflict: obviously, Washington could not support Jagan and overthrow him at the same time. So what did Schlesinger recommend? That Kennedy eschew the low-down and undemocratic path of covert action, and instead help the people of Guyana – and their freely elected leader – to step into independence with the full support and blessing of "the world's leading democracy?"

Of course not. Taking his courtier's pen (or typewriter) in hand, Schlesinger wrote that the conflict between the benevolent public pronouncements and the plans for dirty pool "means that the covert program must be handled with the utmost discretion."

That's it. That's Schlesinger's analysis, that's the extent of his morality, of his Pulitzer Prize-winning political convictions: "If we're going to strangle Guyana's democracy in its cradle, then for God's sake, let's do it quietly."

And that's how it was done. Again, a tried-and-true path was followed. As Curtis details, the CIA funded and organized strikes and riots to bring economic and political chaos to Guyana. These American-created upheavals were then cited by U.S. and UK officials as "proof" that Jagan was leading the country to ruin. (This technique was perfected years later in Chile, when the US spent millions of dollars to foment unrest under the Allende regime. Curtis quotes U.S. Ambassador Edward Korry's candid assessment of the strategy: "[We must] do all within our power to condemn Chile and the Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty;" i.e., to make them suffer for the crime of exercising their freedom and voting the "wrong way.")

Meanwhile, Britain engineered a "constitutional coup" in setting up the structure of the soon-to-be independent state. The Brits imposed an electoral system on Guyana which their own major parties had always rejected (and still do): proportional representation. They recognized that in any winner-take-all system, Jagan and the PPP would continue to win. But a system of proportional representation – which gives losing parties additional seats as the "second choice" of voters – would allow a coalition of pro-American interests to cobble together a ruling coalition.

And so it proved. In the last pre-independence election in 1964, Jagan and the PPP won 46 percent of the vote – again, by far the largest share. But with proportional representation, minority parties won enough votes to put together a coalition headed by – of course – Forbes Burnham. As Curtis notes, "now that the acceptable leadership had taken office, Guyana could be granted independence, which proceeded in 1966."

Both London and Washington – and Arthur Schlesinger – knew that the people of Guyana had been ill-served by these undemocratic machinations. Curtis quotes UK Colonial Secretary Iain MacLeod writing to Schlesinger in February 1962: "If I had to make a choice between Jagan and Burnham as head of my country, I would choose Jagan any day of the week." But the welfare of the Guyanese people didn't amount to a hill of beans to our great public intellectual – and certainly not to the highly respected statesmen he so assiduously served.

As we said before, the subversion of democracy in Guyana was actually very small beer for a system that killed millions of people to maintain its elites in wealth and privilege. But even the deadliest of these operations have found – and still find – avid assistants and staunch apologists among our great and good. And what would Schlesinger have advised if instead of a plan to "merely" overturn a democratic election and plunge a nation into chaos, upheaval and hardship, he had been presented with a CIA scheme to, say, blow Cheddi Jagan's brains out?

Given the nature of our great public intellectuals, and their characteristic attitude toward those in power, I think it's clear what Schlesinger's answer would have been in such a case. Drawing on the excellent Harvard education that he and his president shared, he would have plucked a passage from the highest reaches of Western culture, and scribbled in the margins of the plan: "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly."

UPDATE: Winter Patriot takes a look at the post above, and adds much pertinent historical detail and political analysis to my more narrowly focused – and hack-harrassed – effort.