One of the most demonstrable examples of the turn that America took toward empire, militarism, and the national-security state has involved Cuba. That small nation 90 miles from American shores encapsulates the effect that such a turn had on the values and principles of the American people.
Consider the economic embargo that the U.S. government has maintained against Cuba for more than half a century. It has brought untold economic suffering to the Cuban people, especially in combination with the complete socialist economic system under which they have suffered during that same time.
What has been the purpose of the embargo? The answer: the preservation of national security through regime change — the ouster of Fidel Castro and his communist regime and its replacement with a regime that would be subservient to the U.S. government.
What role was the embargo expected to play in that process? The aim was to cause massive economic suffering to the Cuban citizenry — privation, poverty, and even starvation. Then, as a result of that suffering, the idea was that Castro would be removed from power either by a citizens’ revolt, a military coup, or abdication by Castro himself.
Obviously, the plan has never succeeded, although undoubtedly U.S. officials, 50 years after the embargo was instituted, are still hoping that it will succeed.
The embargo is also a classic example of how the turn toward empire, militarism, and the national-security state has warped the values and principles of the American people. While there have been those who have objected to the embargo, even from its beginning, by and large the American people have deferred to the authority of their government. If U.S. officials believed that an embargo against Cuba was necessary to protect the “national security” of the United States, that was all that Americans needed to salve their conscience over the harm that their government was inflicting on the Cuban people.
Ironically, a few years after the Cuban embargo was instituted, the U.S. government, under the regime of Lyndon Johnson, declared its “war on poverty,” a domestic war whose purported rationale was a deep concern for the poor in society. But the Cuban people were among the poorest people in the world, and the same government that was supposedly concerned about poverty was doing its best to bring more suffering to the poor in Cuba.
The Cuban embargo demonstrated one of the core principles of the national-security state: that the end, which was the preservation of “national security,” justified whatever means were necessary to achieve it. If national security required the government to inflict great suffering on the Cuban people, then that’s just what would have to be done. Nothing could be permitted to stand in the way of protecting national security, whatever that term meant. What mattered was that the national-security establishment — i.e., the military and the CIA — knew what national security meant and had the ultimate responsibility for protecting it.
For their part, Americans were expected to remain silent. They were expected to defer to the authority of their government. National security was everything.
Conscience, the casualty
What about conscience? What if Americans, whose traditional values encompassed compassion for the poor and empathy for the suffering of others, objected to the embargo? What about the Christian principle of loving thy neighbor as thyself?
Americans were expected to ditch all that, and most did. Conscience was abandoned in favor of national security. No matter how much suffering the Cuban embargo inflicted on the Cuban people, it wasn’t something over which most Americans troubled themselves. Given that U.S. officials had determined that national security necessitated the imposition of the embargo, that was all that mattered.
Conscience wasn’t all that Americans ditched with the Cuban embargo. They also abandoned traditional American values of private property, free enterprise, and limited government.
After all, while the embargo was ostensibly an attack on the economic well-being of the Cuban people, it was, at the same time, an infringement on the economic liberty of the American people. Under the principles of economic liberty, people have a fundamental, God-given right to travel wherever they want and to dispose of their money any way they choose.
But the embargo made it a federal criminal offense to spend money in Cuba without a license from the U.S. government, which, for all practical purposes, operated as a prohibition against traveling to Cuba. If an American was caught violating the embargo — say, by traveling to Cuba as a tourist — the U.S. government would prosecute him criminally or sue him civilly or both.
The irony was that that was precisely the sort of economic control that Castro was wielding in Cuba as part of his embrace of socialism. In the attempt to oust Castro from power, U.S. officials were imposing the same kinds of socialist controls on the American people that Castro was imposing on the Cuban people.
Most Americans remained silent. All that mattered was national security. If U.S. officials determined that it was necessary to adopt socialist methods in order to protect national security, that was sufficient justification to surrender an important part of economic liberty. The end justified the means.
In fact, the American mindset throughout the Cold War was even worse than that. It wasn’t as though Americans viewed their government as adopting evil or immoral means to protect national security. Instead, the viewpoint was that whatever was being done by U.S. officials to protect national security wasn’t evil or immoral at all. Instead, the mindset, both in and out of the U.S. government, was that even if the U.S. government was employing the same methods being employed by the communists, such methods were good when employed by U.S. officials and bad when employed by the communists.
A good example of that mindset involved assassination. Ordinarily, in an objective sense, assassination is something bad. Assassination is murder, an act that is considered a grave sin under Judeo-Christian principles. Assassination is something that our American ancestors recoiled from as something objectively bad. When the Constitution called the federal government into existence, the power to assassinate was not among the enumerated powers delegated to it. Moreover, to eliminate any doubt on the matter, the American people, as a condition for accepting the federal government, demanded the enactment of the Fifth Amendment, which expressly prohibited the government from depriving people of life without due process of law.
All those principles went out the window when it came to Cuba and the Cold War. The national-security establishment engaged in numerous assassination attempts against Cuba’s president, Fidel Castro. The CIA repeatedly tried to murder him, in a variety of ways.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that U.S. officials justified their assassination attempts under the rationale of national security. The end — the preservation of national security — justified the means — assassination.
Meanwhile, Americans were expected to not question or challenge what the CIA or the military was doing in the name of national security. If they did, they themselves would come under close scrutiny by the national-security establishment.
Americans, for their part, understood that the national-security state was doing things that had to be kept secret from them — unsavory things but unfortunately necessary to protect national security.
It was as if a pact had been implicitly entered into between the American people and the officials of the U.S. national-security state. Under the pact, U.S. officials would have the omnipotent power to do whatever they felt was necessary to protect national security, such as assassinate foreign officials. Such things would be kept secret from the American people so that their conscience wouldn’t be troubled over the unsavory things that U.S. officials were doing to protect national security.
Americans, for their part, wouldn’t ask questions and would defer to the authority of their government. What mattered, first and foremost, was the preservation of national security, a concept whose ever-shifting meaning would be subjectively determined by officials of the national-security state.
Equally important, people both within the government and within the private sector convinced themselves that even if U.S. officials were doing unsavory things, such as assassinating people, such things were not evil because they were being done by U.S. officials to protect national security. That is, when the communists assassinated people, that was something bad. But when the CIA assassinated people, that was something good because it was being done by U.S. officials to protect the national security of the United States.
The CIA’s assassination attempts against Fidel Castro involved something even more unsavory — the secret partnership that the CIA entered into with the Mafia as part of its attempts to assassinate Castro.
Under objective standards of morality and just conduct, people would consider the Mafia to be a bad organization, given the bad things that it’s engaged in, such as murder, extortion, and bribery.
But objective standards were cast out the window when it came to the Cold War. If CIA officials determined that it was necessary, on grounds of national security, to partner with the Mafia to assassinate Fidel Castro, then it was considered okay from a moral standpoint. Moreover, while the other things the Mafia was doing were considered bad, once the Mafia united with the CIA to assassinate Castro that action was considered to be good. The end — the preservation of national security — justified the means—the CIA’s partnership with a murderous, law-breaking organization to assassinate Castro.
Let’s take a moment to remind ourselves that the aim of the CIA’s assassination attempts on the life of Fidel Castro was the same as that of the embargo: the preservation of U.S. national security through regime change in Cuba. The hope was that the assassination of Castro would bring into power a ruler who would be subservient to the U.S. government.
The assassination attempts on Castro’s life weren’t the only way that the CIA was trying to effect regime change in Cuba. The efforts at replacing Castro with a pro-U.S. ruler began with the CIA’s invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, an action that took place a few months after John Kennedy assumed office as president.
The Bay of Pigs invasion was a CIA project that had originated under the Eisenhower administration. From the very beginning, the operation was based on a lie, one that the national-security state intended to sell to the American people. Even though the CIA was orchestrating the invasion, the plan called for U.S. officials, including Kennedy, the military, and the CIA, to lie to the American people about the role the CIA played in the operation. U.S. officials intended to falsely tell everyone that the invasion was carried out solely by Cuban exiles who just wanted to free their country from the communist tyranny of Fidel Castro.
Even though the deception was revealed in the aftermath of the invasion, official lying became an established principle under the national-security state. The end justified the means. If U.S. officials had to lie to protect national security, so be it. In such a case, the lying would not be considered bad. Since it was the U.S. government that was doing it for the sake of national security, deception by U.S. officials was considered something necessary and good. It was only deception on the part of others, such as the communists, that was considered bad.
There were also the numerous U.S.-sponsored terrorist attacks in Cuba, in which CIA-supported operatives would bomb or sabotage Cuban businesses, farms, and industries. Again, the end justified the means. National security was all that mattered.
One of the most tragic events during the Cold War period involved the terrorist downing of a Cuban airliner over Venezuelan skies. Dozens of people were killed, including the members of Cuba’s national fencing team. While there isn’t any direct evidence that the CIA was behind the attack, there is no doubt that the people who did commit the attack had the same mindset as the CIA — that the end justified the means.
Moreover, it is somewhat interesting that the U.S. government, to the present date, has steadfastly continued to harbor a man who has been accused of orchestrating the attack, a CIA operative named Luis Posada Carriles. For years, the Venezuelan government, with whom the United States has an extradition treaty, has sought the extradition of Posada to Venezuela to stand trial for the murder of the people on that plane. The U.S. government has continually refused to honor the extradition request. It should also be noted that Posada was convicted in Panama of trying to assassinate Fidel Castro, an act that Panama considered to be a criminal offense. He was later pardoned by Panama’s outgoing president, enabling him to immigrate to the United States, where the U.S. government has provided him with safe harbor, preventing his extradition to Venezuela.
Of course, the CIA wasn’t the only branch of the national-security state that was committed to effecting regime change in Cuba. The U.S. military establishment was also committed to achieving that goal. In fact, one of the most fascinating — and revealing — aspects of the military mindset during the Cold War involved a Pentagon plan known as Operation Northwoods.
The purpose of Operation Northwoods was to provide a justification for U.S. forces to effect regime change in Cuba through a military invasion of the country. The plan, which was unanimously approved by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was presented to Kennedy after the failure of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs invasion and before the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The plan called for U.S. agents to disguise themselves as agents of the Cuban government and “attack” the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay. It also called for fake Cuban agents to commit terrorist attacks within the United States, possibly involving the loss of innocent American lives to make it look good. The plan also called for the hijacking of an American airliner that would fall off the radar screens and be replaced by a pilotless drone that would be crashed into the sea, making it look as though the airliner itself had crashed. The plane would then be secretly flown back to a base in the United States. Ominously, the plan didn’t explain how the passengers would be released back to their families if they were thought dead.
The point of all this deception was to provide an excuse for ordering a military invasion of Cuba. The idea was that the United States would simply be responding to a Cuban attack rather than aggressing against Cuba with an unprovoked invasion of the island.
Under the plan, the Pentagon was obviously calling on the president to deceive the American people and the people of the world, just as the CIA had called on Kennedy to lie to Americans about its role in the Bay of Pigs invasion. The Pentagon expected Kennedy to go on national television, look straight into the cameras, and falsely tell the American people that America had been attacked by Cuban terrorists, thereby necessitating a U.S. invasion of the country.
To Kennedy’s everlasting credit, he rejected Operation Northwoods. He simply considered it wrong, in an objective sense. But it wasn’t wrong to the military establishment, just as the Bay of Pigs invasion, the assassination attempts, the partnership with the Mafia, and numerous terrorist actions against Cuba weren’t considered wrong by the CIA. Keep in mind that under the principles of the national-security state, the end justified the means, and whatever the U.S. government did to protect U.S. national security was automatically considered good.
Needless to say, however, Kennedy’s sense of moral propriety with respect to Operation Northwoods did not extend to the cruel economic embargo against Cuba, which Kennedy himself instigated, but not before he ordered a large quantity of Cuban cigars to be brought into the country and delivered to him at the White House.
So what was it that Fidel Castro did to justify the U.S. government’s invasion of Cuba, the numerous assassination attempts on his life, the terrorist actions against Cuba, and the 50-year-old embargo that has contributed to the deep economic suffering of the Cuban people? That truly is a fascinating question, one that I’d say very few Americans have ever pondered.
Did Castro ever attack the United States? Did he attempt to assassinate Dwight Eisenhower or John Kennedy or any other U.S. official? Did he ever engage in terrorist attacks within the United States?
No, Castro has never done any of those things — the things that the U.S. national security-state has done to Cuba.
So the question remains: Why? Why the long-time efforts at effecting regime change in Cuba? Why the embrace of all those unsavory actions? Why the abandonment of objective moral principles? Why the infringements on economic liberty? Why the abandonment of conscience?
The answer lies in what was the driving force of the entire national-security state after World War II and even before: the fear — the horrible, irrepressible fear — of communism.
This article originally appeared in the May 2012 edition of Future of Freedom. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).